Friday, November 17, 2006

Mongolia | Bayankhongor Aimag | Ekhiin Gol Oasis

During the early 1920s Ekhiin Gol was one of the camps of the notorious lama-turned-bandit Dambijantsan, a.k.a. Dambija, Ja Lama, Avenger Lama, etc. When Dambijantsan first came here he found Chinese peasants from Gansu province growing opium. He did not approve of drugs, nor Chinese for that matter, so he proceeded to kill all the Chinese and destroy their opium plants. He then set about robbing caravans on the nearby Shar Zam, or Yellow Road, the main caravan route from Mongolia to Tibet, Beijing, and Anxi in Gansu. There is a woman now living in Ekhiin Gol whose father was a lieutenant in Dambijantsan’s gang of marauders. To this day Ekhiin Gol remains an extremely fertile oasis with a huge crop of melons, tomatoes, and other vegetables. It is the only place I have been in Mongolia where you are routinely served tomato juice instead of milk tea when you enter a ger.

Mongolia | Bayankhongor Aimag | Gobi Desert

Wandered out to Bayankhongor Aimag for a camel trip through the Gobi. Traveled 173 miles by camel in twelve days. Southern Bayankhongor Aimag is truly the Big Empty. During twelve days of travel we did not see another human being.
Amarbuyant Khiid, where we started the camel trip
Heading south from Amarbuyant Khiid
According to legend many frightening apparitions appear out of the dust storms and mirages of the Gobi Desert. At first glance this might appear to be one of them, but actually it is only camel herder, historical consultant, and discoist Zolzaya.
The Big Empty
A Marlboro Moment for camel herder Davakhoo
Camel herder and historical consultant Zolzaya stuffing her pie holeThree brothers I hired camels from: Zevgee, Khaidav, and Davakhoo

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Japan | Aum Cult | Shambhala

Shoko Asahara, once the leader of the leader of the 40,000 member-strong Aum Shinrikyo Cult in Japan, has a Date with a Noose:
TOKYO — Japan's top court rejected an appeal by doomsday cult founder Shoko Asahara, a court official said Friday, reportedly finalizing his death sentence for the 1995 nerve-gas attack on Tokyo's subways. Mr. Asahara was convicted in 2004 of masterminding the attack, in which his followers released sarin nerve gas on crowded commuter trains in Tokyo's government district, killing 12 and injuring thousands.The Supreme Court voted to reject the appeal, said Naoki Katayama, a court spokesman. He refused to say, however, whether the decision would definitely lead to Mr. Asahara's execution. Deputy chief cabinet secretary Jinen Nagase called the decision “appropriate.”
Asahara is one of many down through the ages who have sought to co-opt the Legend for Shambhala for their own purposes, usually nefarious. Excerpt from the book The End of Time by Damian Thompson:
According to his own [Asahara’s] account, the moment of transformation occurred while he was performing the role of a homeless monk and prostrating himself on a Japanese beach. Suddenly the figure of Shiva, the Hindu god of opposites—creation and destruction, life and death— materialized in front of him. Shiva told Asahara that he had been chosen to recreate the Kingdom of Shambhala, a mythical hidden valley in Tibetan tradition whose last king will defeat the Muslim infidels in a final war and establish the reign of Buddhism. Asahara would be this messianic figure, and it was consciousness of this which led him to the Himalayas in 1986 to perfect his ascetic practices.

In 1988 Aum [Asahara’ cult] published a pamphlet which revealed for the first time a plan to develop Japan into Shambhala. ‘This plan, unequaled in scope, will extend Aum’s sacred sphere throughout the nation and foster the development of multitudes of holy people, making Japan the base for saving the entire world,’ it announced.
Apparently the 1995 sarin gas attacks were meant to hasten the transformation of Japan into Shambhala.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Mongolia | Gov-Altai Aimag | Bilegt’s Rock

The road leading away from Eej Khairkhan Uul
We drive north from Eej Khairkhan Uul and begin to climb through desert steppe which ramps up to the east-west trending Tayangiin Mountains. To the northwest rises what Chültem calls the Big Tayangiin, crowned by 10,575' Gyalgaryn Oroi Uul. To the northeast is the Little Tayangiin, topped by several eight and nine thousand foot peaks, which eventually merges with the main backbone of the Mongol Altai near Burkhan Buudai. From the sloping steppe the road winds higher into the buttresses of the Tayangiin. Rounding a hairpin curve we suddenly come upon a roadside monument which I at first take to be an ovoo marking the pass through the mountains. Instead of one high pile of rocks, however, there is a big cubical rock measuring perhaps a yard on each side and draped with prayer scarves. Surrounding it are a couple dozen piles of rocks two feet or so high. This is not the pass, Chültem explains as we climb out of the jeep. The big rock was carried here by the celebrated wrestler Bilegt and the rock piles—small ovoos actually—are memorials to this prodigious feet.

Bilegt was from near Tseel, the next village nineteen miles farther north. He was a huge man and famously strong, but he wanted above all to be renowned as a wrestler. At the time—apparently around the turn of the century, although the chronology is a bit vague—the most important wrestling matches were held in Uliastai, in Zavkhan aimag north of Gov-Altai aimag, and many of the most prominent wrestlers came from Zavkhan. Not sure that he was ready to take on the champions from Zavkhan Bilegt began a concerted training program. Holding large sections of tree trunks in his arms he walked greater and greater distances until he was able to carry them from near Tseel to the pass through these mountains, a distance of some eighteen miles, and later even supposedly carried some from the pass through the main Mongol Altai Mountains to a north, over thirty-five miles away. Still he felt he needed one final test of strength. Spying a huge cube of rock he picked it up and carried it at least 500 feet. The rock remains to this day where he finally dropped it.
Chültem with Bilegt’s Rock
Bilegt went to Uliastai, beat all the competition, and was lauded all over Mongolia. Even when his wrestling days were over he was remembered as the man who had once carried the huge rock now resting near the pass through the Tayangiin Mountains. When he died his body, as was the custom then, was not buried but simply tossed into an isolated ravine where his bones were stripped clean by vultures and wild animals. According to local lore a she-wolf eventually gave birth to a litter of pups in his enormous rib cage. Later some men from Ulaangom in Uvs aimag found this rib cage and took it back to Ulaangom. Bilegt’s great powers were somehow conveyed with his bones, and since then Uvs aimag has supplied Mongolia with its strongest and best wrestlers, or so goes the story.

I suppose someone could calculate roughly how much a cubic yard of solid rock weighs. Chültem says that to this day no one has ever been able to lift it. He and I together can barely rock it back and forth. I add a few fist-sized rocks to the small ovoos and we continue on.

Bilegt’s stone is at an elevation of 7280'. The pass through the Tayangiin Mountains—Nakhis Davaa—is a mile and half farther on at an elevation of 7450' (N45º19.008/E095º57.249'). Here there is the de rigueur ovoo where we make a brief stop and I place a blue prayer scarf to commemorate our leaving the basin of Zakhny Zarmangiin with its lonely mistress, Eej Khairkhan Uul.

Mongolia | Gov-Altai Aimag | Eej Khairkhan Uul

On the road to Eej Khairkhan Uul. The twin peaks of the mountain are just visible in the distance.
Shelter at Eej Khairkhan Uul
Near the shelter at the base of Eej Khairkhan Uul is a small fire ring and someone has left behind a small pile of twisted and gnarled saxual wood. At least we will have the luxury of a campfire. A pot of tea is set to boil and we sprawl out on a conveniently flat outcrop of rock for a picnic lunch. “The mountain likes you,” my jeep driver Chültem tells me, “the weather was good coming across the desert and now it is perfectly calm and clear. It’s a good sign. I believe we will have an enjoyable time here.” He allows that to his mind Eej Khairkhan is the most special place in all of Gov-Altai Aimag.
View of Eej Khairkhan Uul
He goes on to explain that Eej means “mother” and Khairkhan is an honorific or term of endearment meaning roughly “dear” or “dearest”. Thus Eej Khairkhan could be translated as “Mother Dearest”. When I asked Chültem why it was called this he simply indicated the mountain with a broad sweep of his arm. Realizing that I didn’t grasp his point, he cupped his hand under his breasts as if describing the fulsome bosom of a female acquaintance. Obviously the name referred to the prominent twin peaks of the massif. From far out in the desert the resemblance would have been even more striking to lonely herders or caravan men contemplating the otherwise featureless horizon.
Mammary-like peaks of Eej Khairkhan Uul. The lower mound, front-center, may represent the mons veneris.
But while Eej Khairkhan may have been a dear mother she was a less than perfect wife. According to legend, Chültem relates, Eej Khairkhan was once married to Aj Bogd Uul, a massif crowned by a 12, 432' peak about forty-five miles to the west. But Aj Bogd Uul was old, with white hair—the summit is covered with snow year-round—and Eej Khairkhan lusted for a younger mate. Her attention was drawn to 12,311' Burkhan Buudai Uul ninety miles to the northeast who, from a distance at least, appeared younger. One night she creep away from the sleeping Aj Bodg Uul. About halfway to Burkhan Buudai Uul she crouched down, perhaps to relieve herself, with the hem of her deel resting on the ground. Aj Bodg Uul woke up and in his anger at finding his wife gone threw a huge handful of sand in the direction of Eej Khairkhan. The sand landed on the hem of her deel and prevented her from getting up. To this day she sits stranded, surrounded by sand, halfway between the scorned Aj Bogd Uul and the longed-for Burkhan Buudai Uul.

Eej Khairkhan Uul was also famous for the ascetic hermit-lama who lived here about a hundred years ago. This man, whose name Chültem can’t remember, was from Tsogt, the village just south of Burkhan Buudai Uul which we had passed through the evening before. He joined a monastery, since destroyed, in Tsogt and later made a long pilgrimage to Lhasa, in Tibet, where he had studied under various Tibetan teachers. Eventually returning to the monastery at Tsogt, he found that he was never able to fully concentrate on the religious texts which he was studying nor was he able to devote sufficient time to his meditations. He left the monastery and began a long peregrination among the mountains and deserts of southwest Mongolia. Eventually he was attracted to the austure, uninhabited massif of Eej Khairkhan. Near the base of the mountain he found a cave which he turned into a hermitage. At last he was able to concentrate on his studies and mediations, and for several decades he remained sequestered here, ekking out the barest of livings from the harsh surroundings. Eventually though word of this holy recluse at Eej Khairkhan spread and more and more people came to pay their respects. By the time he died Eej Khairkhan had became a well-known pilgrimage site. Even today many Mongolians come to see the cave where the lama spent most of his life.
Cave-Shelter of the Eej Khairkhan Uul Lama
We also viewed the famous Seven Pools where snowmelt and rain cascade down the side of the mountains into a series of seven natural rock cisterns.
The Seven PoolsAnother view of the Seven Pools
The rare zamba gurvel (lizard) is an habitué of Eej Khairkhan Uul

Sunday, August 27, 2006

China | Xinjiang Province | Khotan | Rawak Stupa

On March 6, 1925, the Roerich Expedition led by mystic, painter, occultist,  spy, arch-Aghartian-Shambhalist, and all-around intriguer Nicholas Roerich left Darjeeling, India on what would be a three-year journey through Central Asia and Tibet, with stops in Kashmir in India, Xinjiang Province in China, the Russian Altai Mountains in Siberia, Ulaan Baatar and Amarbuyant Khiid in Mongolia, the Tibetan Plateau, and numerous places in between.
Nicholas Roerich
Nicholas Roerich claimed he was looking for inspiration for his paintings, and his son George, Harvard-educated and world-class Tibetan translator (see Blue Annals), was supposedly engaged in various ethnological and linguistical researches. From the three books churned out by Nicholas Roerich about the expedition it is pretty clear however that they were actually looking for Shambhala.
From Kashmir the expedition crossed the 18,694-foot Karakorum Pass and descended into the Tarim Basin. On October 14, 1925 they reached Khotan, where the Chinese governor would retain them under virtual house arrest for the next four months. Even here in Khotan they heard of Shambhala and far off Mongolia. Roerich Senior says:
The pilgrims are passing on their way bringing new messages. In Urga [Ulaan Baatar] will be set a place for the temple of Shambhala. When the image of Rigden-japo (presumably the 25th Kalkin King of Shambhala] will reach Urga, then will flash the first light of the New Era—Truth. Then will the renaissance of Mongolia arrive. In Kucha [oasis town on the northern rim of the Tarim Basin], in the bazaars, recently two arriving lamas distributed images and a prayer of Shambhala. Here, also, the nuclei of revivified Buddhism have found shelter. The celebrated Suburgan near Khotan must be the place of one of the manifestations of the New Era. Khotan is the path of Buddha. . .
In his book Heart of Asia Roerich Senior adds,
Not far from Khotan are many ruins of old Buddhist temples and stupas. One of these stupas is identified with the legend: That in the time of Shambhala, a mysterious light wll shine from it. It is said this light has already been seen.
George Roerich’s book Trails to Innermost Asia mentions that while in Khotan they visited various ruins, but mentions by name only the Rawak Stupa, then as now the most conspicuous stupa in the area. Therefore I assumed that the “celebrated Suburgan” mentioned by Roerich Sr. was in fact the Rawak Stupa. Naturally I wanted to see it. On my first day at Khotan I had been unable to find the Khotan Regional Museum. I had walked up and down the street where according to my guidebook the museum was supposed to be four or five times and had seen nothing resembling a museum. I had asked numerous passers-by in both Chinese and Uighur where the museum was and got no reply except for blank stares or outright hostile glares. I invariably visit all museums wherever I am at, but especially in China museums are good sources of otherwise hard-to-find information about local history and often a good place to find someone who speaks at least a little English. But here I struck out completely. Not only couldn’t I find the museum, but I had been in Khotan for almost a full day and had not encountered a single English speaker nor heard an English word, unless you count “Bush.” I bought some Uighur flat bread—nan—and retreated to my room for a dinner of bread and tea. In order to lift my spirits I treated myself to some forty-two year old Puerh tea from Yunnan Province in China. This stuff costs 7000 yuan ($845) a kilo, but the woman who owns a tea shop I frequent in Beijing had given me thirty grams as a free sample. I appeared to be the only guest in the cavernous hotel, which my guidebook had touted as Khotan’s best, complete with a restaurant and travel agency. I had seen no sign of either a restaurant or a travel agency. Except for the two lugubrious Uighur women at the reception desk who had automatically discounted my room to less than half the listed price without me even asking—an indication of how hard up for they were for business—I had not seen another soul in the place. Then about eleven o’clock a noisy group of eight or so middle-aged Uighur businessmen with a passel of young women in tow appeared and took over three or four rooms at the end of the hall. A lot of stomping up and down the creaky floorboards of the hall ensued, along with raucous shouting and laughter and blaring pop music, both Chinese and Uighur. By three in the morning things had quieted down, the silence broken only by an occasional female moan or shriek, whether from pleasure, pain, or a combination of both it was hard to tell. The next morning I breakfasted on green tea (Lung Ching from Zhejiang Province: 1200 yuan [$144] a kilo) and the now cardboard-like nan I had bought the evening before. At eight I ventured out of my room. I had no idea what I was going to do, but I knew I had to do something or this trip to Khotan was going to be a total bust. By the entrance to the hotel was a small gift shop which has been closed the day before. Now the door was open and inside was a Chinese girl perhaps sixteen years old. “Hello, please come in.” she said in English. Striking up a rudimentary conservation as she showed me a selection of silk scarves I discovered that she had studied a bit of English in school and liked to listen to English-language pop music. She was big on Britney Spears and Whitney Huston. I tried to find out if it was possible to hire a car at the hotel, as there were some trips I would like to make, but she didn’t seem to understand. “Sorry, my English very poor,” she kept saying. Finally she called someone on her cell phone. “My friend—she speak English. She come now.” Her friend, a Uighur woman in her mid-twenties, arrived in ten minutes. She was the proprietor of another nearby gift shop which sold carpets. As she tried her best to sell me a carpet I grilled her in English. She spoke a little more than the Chinese girl, but not much. She did understood that I needed someone to guide me around Khotan. She called a friend of hers on her cell phone. Her friend, another Uighur woman in her early-twenties, arrived in five minutes. She also spoke only a little bit of English. She explained that she did speak fairly fluent Japanese, which she had learned at a language institute in Urumqi, and that she worked as a guide for Japanese tourist groups who came through Khotan. Japanese were by far the most numerous of the foreign visitors to Khotan, she said. They were big buyers of silk carpets and were not afraid to spend their money. She could not help but wonder what I was doing here by myself. No foreigners ever came to Khotan by themselves, she claimed. She kept apologizing for her poor English, which wasn’t all that bad, but added that she knew a young man who was going to a university in Urumqi but was home for the summer and that he spoke very good English and sometimes worked as a guide. She called him and he arrived ten minutes later. His name was Anwar. He was tall and thin, with shoulder-length black hair, long moustache, and aviator sunglasses. He did indeed speak pretty good English. I explained that I wanted to go to some places in the countryside outside of Khotan, one of them being the Rawak Stupa. “Ah,” he said, “that is a problem. The Rawak Stupa is a Class A historical monument and no one is allowed to there without a guide from the local museum to make sure they don’t damage or steal anything.” And where is the museum I wondered, explaining that I had been unable to find it. The museum, it turns out, had just moved to a brand-new building in a different part of town from the old museum. Anyhow, I wanted to visit Rawak Stupa. Could he arrange it? Anwar called the museum, talked to the curator, who also serves as the guide to restricted sites, and found out that he was free at the moment and would be able to accompany me to Rawak Stupa this morning, for a fee of course. He could also arrange for a four-wheel drive vehicle to drive to the site, which he said was in the Taklamakan Desert about forty kilometers north of Khotan city. He added that we would have to walk the final three or four kilometers to the stupa. The curator was in his mid-thirties. He had studied for several years in Canada and spoke almost perfect English. He even had a valid USA visa but was not able to use it because he had to return to Khotan to look after his ailing father. As we drive northward from Khotan I discovered that he had read in English the accounts of all the great Western explorers of the region, including Aurel Stein and Sven Hedin. He added his museum was very interested in organizing trips to places of historical or cultural interest in the Khotan region, either by jeep, horse, or camel.
Location of Rawak Stupa. See Enlargement of Map
About ten miles north of the city center the Khotan oasis, lush fields of corn, cotton, wheat, rice, and melons divided by rows of poplar trees abruptly ends. After a couple of miles of gravelly flats the sand dunes of the Taklamakan Desert begin. A mile or so into the desert is a checkpoint with a chain across the road to stop unauthorized access to the stupa site. The curator has a key to the lock.
After five or so more miles the sand trail ends and we set off on foot around the sand dunes. After about two miles we come to the stupa. The curator says that it was built circa 150 A.D. It was probably abandoned before the arrival of the Islamic Turks in the late tenth century. The Hungarian-born archeologist Aurel Stein rediscovered the stupa half buried in the drifting sands in 1901, as he describes in his Sand-Buried Ruins of Khotan.
Dunes of the Taklamakan Desert on the way to the stupa
Dunes . . .
The Rawak Stupa
Another view of the Rawak Stupa
Some of the holes in the side of the stupa have been made by treasure-hunters in the last five years or so, despite the efforts of local officials to guard the site.
Ancient streambed near the stupa. This river, which flowed north from the Kun Lun Mountains, no doubt provided the water for the inhabitants of the stupa complex. The curator has no idea when the river went dry.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Mongolia | Ulaan Baatar | Religions Go Toe-to-Toe

Part of crowd of 5000 or so awaiting the appearance of the Dalai Lama in the National Stadium
In this corner, from the Land of Snows, in the burgundy and yellow robes, undefeated in fourteen appearances, the Dalai Lama . . . USA Today has an interesting article on the Current Smack-Down among religions in Mongolia. For more on the Dalai Lama at the National Stadium see V. D. Konchok Norbu.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Mongolia | Ulaan Baatar | Dalai Lama

The Dalai Lama arrived in Ulaan Baatar on August 21. On August 22 he appeared in public at Gandan Monastery.
Crowd awaiting the appearance of the Dalai Lama
Crowd still awaiting the appearance of the Dalai Lama
VIP Konchog Norbu had a backstage pass and has Photos of the Dalai Lama. See More Photos.
The crowd is still waiting . . .
The stage for the Dalai LamaPeople offering prayer flags as the Dalai Lama approached the stage.
See More on the Dalai Lama’s Visit. As usual, the Chinese government Was Not Pleased about the Dalai Lama’s visit to Mongolia.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Mongolia | Ulaan Baatar | Dhanyakataka Stupa

Tashchoimphel Temple at Gandan
While at Gandan you might also want to visit Tashchoimphel Temple to see another Kalachakra-connected thangka. Although Taranatha, Zanabazar’s previous Incarnation (See Incarnations of Javzandamba), wrote extensively about the Kalachakra and translated one of the most famous guidebooks to Shambhala from Sanskrit into Tibetan, Zanabazar Himself, the First Bogd Gegen, apparently showed little if any interest in the teachings. It was the Fourth Bogd Gegeen who first introduced the Duinkhor, or Kalachakra Teachings, into Mongolia in 1801. In 1803 he made a trip to Lhasa and brought back with him a large collection statues and books, including material connected with the Kalachakra. According to ethnologist A. M. Pozdneev, “In 1806 he set up a special datsang for the school of Duinkor [Kalachakra]” and services were performed here in 1807. "In the same year 1807, the Gegen ordered a yum written in gold from Tibet . . . Moreover, being devoted to the task of developing Duinkor, the Gegen decorated the temple of Dachin-kalbain-Sume, gilding its roof, and in its courtyard he established his personal residence.”

He also reportedly commissioned a thangka showing the Dhanyakataka Stupa in southern India where by tradition Shakyamuni Buddha first taught the Kalachakra Tantra to the first King of Shambhala. This thangka can now be seen in the Tashchoimphel Temple.
Thangka of the Dhanyakataka Stupa
Close-up of the thangka showing Buddha emanating as the Kalachakra Deity inside the stupa. It was in this form that he taught the Kalachakra Tantra to Suchandra, the First King of Shambhala.

By tradition the Dhanyakataka Stupa is located at Amaravati, in south India, where the Dalai Lama gave a Kalachakra Initiation in January of 2006.
Ninety-two year-old Lama Gombo (left) was kind enough to point out the Dhanyakataka Thangka to me.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Mongolia | Ulaan Baatar | Kalachakra Thangkas

People going to Gandan Monastery in connection with the Dalai Lama’s Upcoming Visit next week might want to stop in the Kalachakra Temple to take a look at the seven extremely rare Kalachakra thangkas depicting all 722 Kalachakra deities and much else. The 722 deities are also depicted on wall paintings in the Dalai Lama's Namgyal Temple in Dharmasala, but these are the only such thangkas that I am aware of.
Duinkhor, or Kalachakra Temple
See Enlargement
Shambhala Thangka in Temple - See Enlargement
One of the 32 Kings of Shambhala in the Temple
See all the Kings of Shambhala.
For excerpts from the Kalachakra Tantra and commentary see:

For the complete text of the Kalachakra Tantra and commentaries see: