Day 45: Ulaanbaatar , The National Museum

A black and white photo of a Mongolian family seated on the floor with cooking utensils behind them.
Family photo.

I sit down at my little work desk to start the day.

It’s a frustrating start. The first several hours is spent trying to get Apache virtual hosts running for the documentation engine. Eventually I decide to use localhost for this job.

Sunshine and smogless skies beckon outside the window. When afternoon arrives, I can resist them no longer.

I head out to the black market, to see what I can buy for the journey ahead.

The streets are full of interesting things.

On the way, I book a Mongolian language class for Monday. It feels like progress.

So much for the black market, I’ve made it to the National Museum instead.

The entranceway is marked by a powerful sculpture, considered to be the first work of Modern Art to be constructed in Ulaanbaatar since the democratic revolution of 1990. It depicts a human figure being physically oppressed by the powers that be. The accompanying plaque explains that it is a memorial to the Victims of Political Purges.

The Communist Crimes’ article on Communist Dictatorship in Mongolia (1921-1990) (opens new window) describes in plain terms the political environment in which these political purges occurred and the large number of people that were affected.

Once inside the museum, I’ve impressed at the range and quality of artefacts on display.

For a start, there’s the awesome Altai yatga. Staring at me like a smiling antelope, it was discovered in 2008 by gold prospectors in the Altai mountains. The cave burial included a full set of weapons and an ancient bow harp*.* Based on an arched hunters’ bow, it was relatively well preserved by the low humidity in the region and able to be fully restored, despite being over 1400 years old! There’s a comprehensive Mongol documentary about the Altai yatga on YouTube, with a brief English summary (opens new window).

There are interesting sculptures in stone, wood and gold or brass. Some figures are serene, others almost comical and others serious. A carved animal face bears more than a passing resemblance to the Māori taniwha.

Some pieces reference Mongolia’s turbulent past. A man being taken from his ger by a uniformed soldier while his wife reaches out in despair. Chaotic scenes at a village that seems to be under attack.

Then there’s daily life in Mongolia. A chess set comprised of farm animals and their herders, and a Mongolian family seated on the floor.

And detailed felt work, delicate and beautiful.

Ancient traditions are explained in different ways.

Photos with captions provide a walkthrough of the ongoing tradition of processing wool from livestock. Sheep wool is beat to make felt for mattresses, bags and items for loading horses and camels. Sheep and camel wool, horse and cow hair is processed into ties and ropes for transporting gers.

A captioned map shows the different types of ger used throughout Mongolia. Apparently even a wooden house can be called a ger!

And a poster about travelling mendicants describes the life of monks who were dependent on begging to survive. My pack list almost appears to be a one-for-one with theirs, except where the actual donations are concerned. Where they relied on a cup to capture coins, the help that I receive seems to be of a non-permanent nature: friendly encouragement, a direction given, a hot dinner or a warm bed for the night. You can’t bank that kind of help, it just appears when you need it.

In the 3rd hall, Many colourful costumes are on display.

More than 20 ethnic groups are represented in modern Mongolia. Each group has their own traditional clothing, which reflects their norms and customs, material and spiritual culture.

The table below describes some of these groups: their name, ethnicity, geographical region, aimags (administrative subdivisions), % of the total population in 2010, and their traditional clothing.

Some ethnic groups of Mongolia
Name Ethnicity Region Aimags % Clothing
Barga Mongol North, Northeast, South Tuv, Dornod, China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region (formerly Barga) 0.11 Black coat with green shoulders and red sleeves, green beret with striped fans
Buryad Mongol North, Northeast Khentii, Selenge, Tuv, Khuvsgul, Dornod 1.71 Blue coat, red hat with yellow brim
Dariganga Avga, Sonod, Khalkh, Oirat Southeast Sukhbaatar 1.04 Red coat with green and orange sleeves, Nemes (head cloth with flap)
Durvud Mongol West, Northwest, Southwest Bayan-Ulgii, Uvs, Khovd 2.75 Black coat with gold trim, red hat)
Kazak Turkish (over the Altai mountains) West, Southwest Bayan-Ulgii, Khovd 3.86 Green coat, trousers & hat (with a red flourish)
Myangad Mongol & Turkish Southwest Khovd 0.25 Green coat with black shoulders and red sleeves, leather vest
Torguud Oirad Union Southwest Khovd (on the border of China's Xinjiang region) 0.54 Light brown coat with green trim, green hat

Further on, gorgeous portraits depict the various Khaans (emperors) of the Mongol empire.

They share a common style of moustache and goatee, and look exceptionally relaxed!

The museum is rich in history and endlessly interesting, but after an hour I grow tired and slightly queasy.

My spirits are buoyed when I meet a friendly man named Dorbeit (sic). Dressed in army fatigues, he is a student of the Law Enforcement University of Mongolia. Standing to attention as we shake hands, he quickly relaxes and demonstrates that he’s keen to practice his English on me. He tells me about himself and his hobbies, which include being the Asian Chess champion! I grab his Facebook details and look forward to keeping in touch with him.

When I leave the museum the temperature is dropping fast. I stop for noodles to elevate my energy levels and stave off the queasiness. The plate of noodles at the Noodle House is huge and I can only finish half of it.

After a cold walk home, I jump straight into bed, but the noodles seem to have done the trick and a second wind arrives a few hours later. Arising for Pepsi and chocolate, I manage to stomach a Facebook update over slow Wi-Fi, before drifting back to sleep.