Ulaanbaatar and Sainshand, Mongolia
I threw vodka into the air above the offering circles as I read aloud the wish I’d written on a slip of paper. Then I took off my shoes and lay on the ground, concentrating on absorbing the area’s energy. And finally I circled the ovoo (a sacred cairn) three times. I decided not to leave a white pebble at the gate while announcing my family name, which reportedly would have ensured my rebirth in Shambhala as part of Danzan Ravjaa’s entourage. That seemed like too big a commitment… What if the reborn Danzan smacks his food or makes that sinus-clearing snot-sucking sound?
A week earlier, right after Marie flew back home, I’d been stumped about how to spend the rest of my time in Mongolia. Terelj and the Gobi had been incredible, but they’d set the bar so high that the country’s other attractions seemed comparatively uninspiring. Plus I was beat, truly drained, running on empty, my stomach still spinning from whatever bug I’d picked up on our horse trek.
So I just holed up in Ulaanbaatar. I worked on photos, helped Daka with some marketing for Happy Mongolia, walked around, and tried to get healthy. As my energy returned I started putting more thought into my next move, and the idea I liked best was to find a reason to ride the Trans-Mongolian Railway.
“You could take the train to Sainshand,” Daka suggested.
“What’s in Sainshand?”
“Nothing, but it’s close to Shambhala.”
Daka had first mentioned Shambhala during our drive to Terelj. She described it as a Hindu and Buddhist legend that means different things to different people. Some think of Shambhala as a spiritual plane of perfect peace and clarity that can only be reached by religious masters after long meditation. Some think it’s a magical kingdom hidden somewhere on or inside the Earth. And others believe it’s a land of purity and enlightenment that exists in a parallel dimension but overlaps our physical world in one or more locations. Shambhala may have inspired the myth of Shangri-La.
Mongolia’s connection to Shambhala traces back to a multi-talented, controversial, heavy-drinking Buddhist monk named Danzan Ravjaa who, in 1821, built a monastery called Khamaryn Khiid in the eastern Gobi, right next to a patch of land – the “energy center” – that he believed to be one of the few places on Earth were our reality intersects with Shambhala. Destroyed by Stalinist purges in the 1930s, Khamaryn Khiid has been rebuilt, and some of the Danzan’s original artifacts, hidden in the desert during communist rule, have been recovered.
Daka helped me make the arrangements, and a couple of days later I boarded a Trans-Mongolian Railway car for the 10-hour trip to Sainshand, a relatively small town in the eastern Gobi. I shared a four-person sleeping compartment with a couple of Mongolian guys who immediately took off their shoes and filled the air with a stink so foul it made my eyes water. The scenery never really changed – mile after mile of flat, featureless scrub grass, interrupted only by occasional stops at tiny train stations flanked by a few dilapidated buildings and weather-worn gers.
At about 8pm we pulled into the Sainshand station, where a driver – arranged by Daka – was waiting with a torn cardboard sign that said “Mr. Rob.” Otgo, the driver, spoke no English and never smiled. We hopped into his Toyota Estima and shot off, barely missing a couple of pedestrians as we tore out of the parking lot. On bumpy unpaved roads Otgo raced ahead at breakneck speeds, but, oddly enough, on paved roads he never exceeded 60 km/h. It made no sense.
The ger camp I stayed at that night had all the familiar quirks: a rock-hard mattress, a pillow stuffed with buckwheat husks, and a lonely basketball hoop surrounded by empty steppe. At dinner I met the only other guests at the camp (also the only foreigners I saw in all my time around Sainshand): a British couple who’d visited Shambhala that day and said it was amazing. Later that night I left my ger to go to the bathroom and found myself transfixed by the arc of the Milky Way, its glow almost magical in the total absence of competing light.
Otgo picked me up after breakfast and drove us straight to Shambhala. The weather was ideal, sunny with streaks of white clouds, a little hot but comfortable in the shade. We stopped first at the energy center, where 108 white stupas form a bright square around the sacred site.
It was exciting to walk into the energy center and perform the rituals. I honestly wondered if I’d be able to feel the energy that led Danzan to believe that this spot is directly connected to Shambhala, that it’s a conduit for special powers. Laying there on the ground, staring up at the clouds, I released all my preconceptions, opened my mind, and… nothing. I’m disappointed to admit it, but I sensed absolutely nothing different at the energy center that I had anywhere else in the Gobi.
If anything I felt slightly worse at the energy center. My head hurt a little, and my left knee – which occasionally aches when I climb stairs – flared up right after I left. If the energy at Shambhala heals the pure of heart, what message was it sending me?
From the energy center we made a short drive to a series of small caves used by Danzan and his fellow monks for meditation, sometimes for months at a time. Each of the caves had been scattered with small offerings – rice, little bits of food and candy, paper money – and when I approached a dark cloud of flies rose into the air.
Next we stopped at the bell tower visitors are supposed to strike three times to announce their arrival at the energy center, and near the tower Otgo led us on a short walk to see a partial dinosaur skeleton laying exposed on a hillside. It’s one of the joys of visiting Mongolia that amazing treasures are just out in the open like that, unmarked and unprotected. I couldn’t believe some jackass hadn’t made off with the bones yet.
Finally we drove over to Khamaryn Khiid, a surprisingly large and busy monastery complex with several large buildings and a crowded parking lot. Inside the main temple a monk throat-chanted prayers for two women as many other people waited patiently for their turn.
On the way back to Sainshand we stopped at Bayanzurkh Uul, a religious site said to be the mountain home of the spirit of the third Noyon Khutagt. I climbed to the ovoo at the very top and was rewarded with amazing views in every direction. On the ground next to the ovoo sat a sad-eyed Mongolian man staring blankly at the horizon. Every few minutes he threw a shot of vodka into the air – an offering for the gods – and then drank another shot himself.
We arrived back in Sainshand in the early afternoon. Otgo handed me a brochure for the Museum of Danzan Ravjaa and pointed to a building across the street. “No thanks,” I said.
So Otgo’s first words to me were also his last. Apparently we were done. I gave him my leftover vodka along with his tip and said goodbye, thankful that my guidebook included a basic map of downtown Sainshand. I picked up some food at a market, ate lunch on a park bench, and then made the long walk to the train station, where I had to kill seven hours before my train arrived. Again I shared a four-bed compartment with some Mongolian men, one of whom snored so fiercely that to sleep I had to put on my headphones and blast the music loud enough to drown out all other sounds.
I had a few more days to wander around Ulaanbaatar before my flight back to the United States. I overcame my anti-museum bias and visited the “not to be missed” National Museum of Mongolia, which I would have been fine missing. One afternoon I walked by Sukhbaatar Square and noticed a group of colorfully-dressed Mongolians posing in front of the Chinggis Khaan statue, which was more interesting to see than the museum. As the days went by I could hardly believe it was almost time to go back home.
I loved Mongolia, but I can’t recommend it to everyone. There’s no home-run tourist draw – no Angkor Wat, no Great Wall, no Taj Mahal. If the cliffs of Bayanzag, one of the Gobi’s “Big Three” attractions, were in southern Utah, nobody would give them a second look on their way to Zion and Bryce. And Mongolia’s tourist infrastructure is still pretty raw. You wouldn’t want to venture beyond Ulaanbaatar unless you’re OK roughing it every now and then.
But there’s nowhere else in the world quite like it. Nomadic herding culture in Mongolia is purer and better preserved than in any other country. If – like me and Marie – you’re drawn to vast, empty landscapes, the Gobi is spectacular. And few countries have a history as dramatic and compelling as Mongolia’s. Seeing the steppe in person gives you a heightened appreciation of how truly incredible it is that such a harsh, barren place produced an army that dominated the known world.