Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Mongolia | Khentii Aimag | Baldan Bereeven Khiid

The monastery of Baldan Bereeven is surrounded by four mountains each said to resemble an animal: a lion on the east; a dragon on the south; a tiger on the west; and a Garuda on the north. Each cardinal point is also guarded by a Protector Deity. We stop first at the small temple to the west of the monastery housing Red Jamsran. The originally temple was demolished during the persecutions of the late 1930s and the Red Jamsram painting damaged or destroyed. The Jamsran rock painting in the temple now is thought by some to be the original but no one is quite sure.

Jamsran Temple

Red Jamsran

At the monastery itself we are met by a watchman who also serves as a guide. According to him the monastery was founded sometime in the last half of the eighteenth century by a lama named Tsevendorj. Most written ephemera says the monastery was founded in 1777 or 1784. The watchman goes on to say, however, that Tsevendorj had studied with Zanabazar, the First Bogd Gegeen of Mongolia, in Tibet. Since Zanabazar made his First Trip to Tibet in 1649 and his Second Trip to Tibet in the mid-1650s, this seems highly unlikely. Anyhow, Tsevendorj was apparently looking for a place to build a monastery and stopped here. Near the base of the Garuda Mountain, just behind the current site of the monastery, lived an old man named Baldan and his wife Tsevelma with their seven goats. When Tsevendorj arrived Tsevelma was making some bereeven (rice boiled in milk). Tsevendorj decided to stay here a few days and in the course of his visit ascertained that this was an auspicious location. He then decided to build a monastery here, naming it Baldan Bereeven, in honor of the herdsman Baldan and his wife’s rice dish. It eventually became one of the three or four biggest and most important monasteries in Mongolia with at one time up to 6000 monks in residence (this according to the guide; other sources say considerably less, maybe 1500).

The main temple of Baldan Bereeven with Garuda Mountain behind

Main Temple

Main Temple with the Lion Mountain behind

The Main Temple. Only the shell remains.

Ruins of another temple

Wish Granting Tree, right, reportedly planted by Lama Naidansüren in the late eighteenth century. People making wishes have left the khadags (blue prayer flags).
Soon three black land cruisers roared up and disgorged fifteen or twenty pilgrims from eastern Khentii Aimag. With them we made the khora around the monastery, the watchman acting as our guide. One of the first stops was a stone statue of White Tara. Next was a large granite tor with the obligatory “Mother’s Womb,” a short tunnel which people crawl through to be symbolically cleansed of their sins. On the top of the tor was a throne-shaped seat which every one was advised to sit in.

White Tara

Pilgrim trying out the throne

The sides of the tor also has numerous indentations shaped like various parts of the body—back, elbow, head, etc. According to legend inserting your own body part into these indentations and massaging yourself against the stone has a beneficial effect on your health.

Enkha massaging her back on the Healing Stone. Enkha: “Wow, am I loving this!’

At the base of the Garuda Mountain are two small temples devoted to Baldan and Tsevelma, who were living here before the monastery was founded.

Temple dedicated to Baldan

On the rock above a complex of small temples, now in ruins, is a Soyombo, the head symbol of the Soyombo Alphabet invented by Zanabazar. This Soyombo was reportedly painted by Lama Dampilranjamba in the late eighteenth century. According to legend Dampilranjamba said, "This Soyombo will remain here long after the rest of the monastery is destroyed and fallen into ruins.” Indeed most of the monastery was destroyed in the late 1930s but the Soyombo painting was not defaced. The small temple below the Soyombo once housed stone statues of Maidar (Maitreya), the Future Buddha; Green Tara, and others. Some of the partially defaced statues have now been put back in the ruins of the temples.

Soyombo Painting

One of the ruined temples

A Green Tara in the one of the ruined temples

After finishing the Khora we stopped in the watchman’s quarters for some tea. A monk there related some more history about the monastery. He claimed that both of the consorts of the Eighth Bogd Gegeen were born here at Baldan Bereveen. The Bogd’s long-time consort Dondogdulam’s ger, claimed this man, was near where we were now camping. Dondogdulam died in 1923.


The Bogd Gegeen, then the figure-head king of Mongolia, felt obligated to take another wife-consort who would serve as queen. In the summer of 1923 the Bogd Gegeen’s representatives combed all of Khalkh Mongolia looking for a suitable replacement for the much revered Dondogdulam. The contestants were winnowed down to a group of fifteen young woman aged eighteen to twenty. Two gers were set up along the Khurkh River east of here and an examination of the finalists was held. Finally a nineteen year old girl named Genenpil, the daughter of a herdsmen who lived here at Baldan Bereeven, was chosen to be the Bogd’s new wife. She was taken to Örgöö (Ulaan Baatar) and installed in the Bogd’s palace as his wife. She soon found herself very uncomfortable in her unaccustomedly luxurious surroundings and may not have been too attracted to the Bogd Gegeen, who by then was fifty-three years old, almost totally blind, and legendary for his hard drinking.

A few month after the marriage, in accordance with Mongolian tradition, she made a formal appeal to her husband to end the marriage and be allowed to return home to her parents. The Bogd Gegeen granted this appeal—he really had no choice according to Mongolian custom—and she returned to her father’s ger, but members of the government, concerned about the legitimacy of the Bogd Gegeen’s reign as king and the need for a queen, soon forced her to return. She lived with the Bogd Gegeen until he died in 1924. Genenpil then went back to her family and lived quietly in the countryside. It is not known if she remarried. In 1937 she was arrested during the anti-Buddhist campaign. She had taken no part in the political events since her marriage to the Bogd Gegeen ended with his death in 1924, but her association with him, the chief representative and symbol of the old feudal state, even though it was against her will, was enough to seal her fate. She was executed in 1938.

Mongolia | Khentii Aimag | Khökh Nuur to Baldan Bereeven Khiid

Sometime during the night the incessant winds that had been dogging us since our arrival in Khökh Nuur died down and the sky cleared off completely. By four o'clock in the morning Orion was dominating the sky overhead. Daybreak saw a faultless dome of azure overhead and by the time we had finished breakfast temperatures were up in the 60s F. This was the kind of balmy end-of-summer weather I had been anticipating when I planned this trip. In high spirits we scarpered eastward toward our next destination, Baldan Bereeven Khiid.

This is Chingis Khan Country. From our starting point on the Terelj River, near where Temüjin, the young Chingis Khan, was living when the Merkits kidnapped his wife Börte, to the current day town of Binder, near where Temujin was born (according to one school of thought), farther on out to the east, stretches the territory where many of the events in the early life of the future World Conqueror took place. At a place called Tavan Tolgoi we stop to inspect some slabs of rock which local lore maintains were used by Chingis as pot supports at his fireplace when his ger was located here.

Purported pot supports at a “Chingis Slept Here” site

The stone slabs look surprising like the tomb coverings at the Monument to Kontuyuk, the advisor to the eighth century Khökh Turk Chieftain Kultegin. If they were Turk tomb coverings that of course does not mean Chingis could not have used them later as pot supports. Still later we pass by a place where Temüjin and his bosum buddy and later Arch-Nemesis Jamukha had their final falling out.

By lunch time we had arrived at Övör Elegiin Gol where Zevgee assured us there would be water. Much to Zevgee’s chagrin, however, the river was dry where the trail crossed it. We followed the riverbed downstream perhaps a thousand yards and soon came to a pool of water where the underground stream emerged. The water was fresh, clear, and icy cold. By the pool was a grassy glade surrounded by cottonwood trees and nearby dead brush offered plentiful firewood. The three essentials for a successful lunch—us, tülsh, and süüder (water, firewood, and shade)—thus provided for we unloaded our pack horses and threw out carpets on the grass beneath the largest cottonwood tree. We lounged on our carpets as Zevgee’s son-in-law Badmaa and grandson Bondogo fetched water and built a fire and in no time at all we were sipping delightfully fragrant Oolong tea (Shan Ling Xi from Taiwan, highly recommended). Tumen-Ölzii rolled out dough for fresh noodles and soon we were tucking into bowls of Guriltai Shöl—mutton soup with noodles. I hardly wanted to leave this idyllic spot, but finally we had a last bowl of tea and then packed up our horses and moved on.

By early evening we had reached Baruun Bayan Gol. Here, according to legend, was born Boorch, one of Chingis Khan’s boon companions. (See Paragraphs 90–93, 95, 99, 103, 120, 124–25, 156, 163, 172, 177, 202, 205, 209, 210, 220, 240, 242, 259–60, and 266 of the Secret History of the Mongols [also Kindle Version] for more on Boorch.) Camped on the sward by the river, with plentiful firewood nearby. Yunnan Gold tea followed by boiled sheep ribs and potato and cabbage soup heavily larded with stick-to-the-ribs mutton fat.
Yunnan Gold—the Perfect Complement to boiled sheep ribs and mutton fat

Just after dark breathtakingly luminous Jupiter appeared in the southern sky, just above the Sagittarius Teapot and just below the dimmer Sagittarius Teaspoon. The clear, cloudless sky soon revealed a full panoply of stars overhead: the constellations of Cygnus, Cepheus, and my personal favorite Cassiopeia to the northeast; the ever-glorious Scorpius off to the south; and of course the Seven Gods (Big Dipper) to the west. And then in the early hours toward morning magnificent Orion appeared. All and all a mindbogglingly gorgeous night. The next morning we moved out quickly, hoping to reach Baldan Bereeven Khiid by lunch time.

On the Road to Baldan Bereeven Khiid

We soon passed Khangalyn Nuur, where there is a monument to “Nature.” A sign on the monument implores people to protect the environment.

Monument at Khangalyn Nuur

Then we moved into the wooded foothills and began the climb to 4,698-foot Khangalyn Davaa.

Khangalyn Davaa

View eastward from Khangalyn Davaa. Baldan Bereeven Khiid is at the base of the mountain on the right edge of the photo.
We arrived at Baldan Bereeven just after noon. We were of course anxious to visit the monastery but first we set up camp, built a fire, and had a pot of Tie Kwan Yin Oolong tea. Tie Kwan Yin, the Iron Goddess of Mercy, is, as you probably know, the Chinese version of Avalokitesvara (Tibetan: Chenresig; Mongolian: Janraisag), the Bodhisatta of Companion, and thus a fitting drink in the environs of a monastery. In honor of our arrival Tumen-Ölzii also whipped up a big batch of Tsuivan, a much hallowed mutton and noodle dish which holds a special place of honor in the firmament of Mongolian cuisine.

Zevgee oversees the teapot at our Baldan Beereveen campsite