Monday, May 23, 2005

China | Inner Mongolia | Dolonnuur

The next morning we drove sixty miles north into the province of Inner Mongolia and on to the town of Dolonnuur. The country got drier and more desert-like as we proceeded northward. On the outskirts of Dolonnuur several forestation projects have been started in an attempt to halt the encroaching desert. The town itself is set among low sand dune covered hills. At one time there was seven lakes spread out in the depression here, giving the place its name (in Mongolian dolon = “seven”; nuur = “lake”).

It was here that the Qing Emperor Kangxi met with Zanabazar, the first Bogd Gegen of Mongolia, in 1691, after the invasion of Khalkh Mongolia by Galdan Bolshigt, and where Zanabazar acceded to the suzerainty of China over Mongolia which lasted until the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911. In honor of this event Kangxi built the so-called Shar Khiid, or Yellow Temple, which eventually become the center of one of the most important monasteries in the region. I had, however, checked numerous books and resources on the internet and was unable to discover whether this monastery still existed, nor could the estimable Mr. Li discover anything from his innumerable tourism contacts in Beijing. Also, Dolonuur during the nineteenth century was a major center for the production of Buddhist art, producing statues sold not only in China but also in Mongolia and Tibet. There is a “Dolonnuur-Style” of Buddhist art often mentioned in Buddhist art history books. I seriously doubted if any Buddhist art was still produced here, but again no one could say anything for sure. In short, no one seemed to know anything about Dolonnuur. It appeared to be a town that time forgot.

The ethnographer A. M. Podzneev visited Dolonuur in 1892 or 1893. He was by that time a very seasoned traveler in Mongolia and China but even he was shocked by conditions in Dolonuur: “It would be hard to imagine anything dirtier and in greater disarray than Doloon Nuur’s street and alleys. The streets in all Chinese cities are normally narrow and dirty, but here they are even narrower and dirtier mainly because all the street in the city for vehicular travel are worn so far down in the loess that they look like channels of streams, with the buildings and sidewalks sometimes [up to forty-two inches] above the street level. In the rainy season these ditches used as thoroughfares are so full of water and mud that some of the streets become iiterally impassable.”

Now the broad sun-drenched thoroughfares running through the center of town are the equivalent of eight or ten lanes wide.

This is a side street in Dolonnuur, for God's sake!

We are directed to what is reportedly the best hostelry in town only to discover that all the rooms on all four floors, the restaurant, and the reception hall have been booked by a wedding party. “Must be the richest people in the county to book a whole hotel,” groused Mr. Li. The second and only other hostelry was not that bad at all and the comfortably appointed rooms were only 150 yuan a night, cheap compared to the resort we had stayed in the night before. For lunch we retired to a private room with a small covey of young serving ladies in attendance. By now I realized there was no holding back Mr. Li. He always ordered at least five or six dishes regardless of how hungry anyone was.

After lunch we made some inquires and discovered that restoration work was going on at a temple on the outskirts of town but no one could say for sure if this was the temple built by Kangxi. We arrived to find an ambitious restoration project in progress. A brand-new engraved stone outside one complex of temples announced that this was the Hui Zong Si, which as Pozdneev noted was the Chinese name for the Yellow Temple built by Kangxi for Zanabazar.

New stone in front of the Janja Khutagt’s Residence, announcing that it is now the Hui Zong Si, or Yellow Temple

Mr. Li was finally able to track down the manager of the restoration project and get more details. It turned out that the complex with the sign in front was not in fact the Yellow Temple but the residence of Janja Khutagt, which had stood right beside the Yellow Temple. The Yellow Temple had been almost completely destroyed, according to this informant, by the Soviet Red Army in 1945. I had no idea the Russian Soviet Red Army had been in this area, but according to Mr. Li, between the surrender of Nazi Germany and the surrender of Japan the Soviets had make a quick thrust into this area in an apparent attempt at a land grab or at least to improve their bargaining position after the final cessation of hostilities. In the process of they destroyed most but not all the Buddhist temples in the area. The Janja Khutagt temple complex was heavily damaged but not leveled.

Main Temple in the Janja Khutagt’s Residence

Side Temples in the Janja Khutagt’s Residence

Restoration work in progress in the interior of the Main Temple

The Yellow Temple was leveled, except for two gateway building in front and one small temple located behind where the main temple once stood. But the Yellow Temple built by Kangxi is the most famous temple in the area so now they are simply going to call the Janja Khutugt’s residence the Yellow Temple. It was after all right next door, and few people keep track of these details.

Two gateway temples in front, and in the back a temple that apparently stood behind the main Yellow Temple. The main Yellow Temple, between the second and third buildings, was completely leveled and there are no plans to rebuilt it.

Since the Shar and Khokh temples are gone we have to rely on Podzneev’s description:
The facades and architecture of these temples struck me as strongly reminiscent of the tsokchin in the Khalka Amur-bayasqulangtu (see Amarbayasgalant), except that the latter is made of wood, while the Doloon Nuur temples are of masonry and are ornamented in an incomparably more delicate, elegant, and lavish style than the Amar-bayasqulantu one. The designs of their cornices, the abundance of the most fantastic sculture, marvelous reliefs, and the graceful tapering, polished, and gilded columns—all this is really strikingly lovely and cannot fail to cause no small wonder in any beholder.
For more photos see Shar Khiid.