After a brief stay in South Korea, Pac Rim 2011-2012 arrived in Mongolia for the first of our extended stays. Most of our visit was spent in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, studying Buddhism with Professor Benard at Lamrim Monastery (a place previous Pac Rimmers will surely remember well). While in Ulaanbaatar many of us took advantage of the opportunity to visit popular tourist destinations like Sukhbaatar Square (the site of many important events during the Soviet Era and the current site of Mongolia’s House of Parliament), the Natural History Museum, and to visit the Black Market to shop for camel-hair clothing to keep us warm during those cold Gobi nights. As a group we also had the opportunity to see a performance which included traditional dancing, throat singing and other types of music, and of course contortion.
On weekends we took some amazing field trips to Kharkhorin (Chinggis Khaan’s ancient capital), Terelj National Park, and the Gobi Desert. During these field trips Pac Rimmers had the opportunity to drink airag (fermented mare’s milk) and enjoy local delicacies such as sheep intestine, watch a traditional Mongolian rodeo, and dance all night during a disco party.
As part of our field trips, we supplemented our study of Buddhism with trips to Erdene Zuu Monastery in Kharkhorin (Mongolia’s oldest, first built in the 8th century) and Kharym Khiid and Shamballa in the Gobi (both built by Mongolia’s most famous lama, Danzen Ravjaa).
Throughout all of this and more, our time in Mongolia was a series of ups and downs. Crossing the street was always chaotic and sometimes bordered on hazardous. Ordering food in a restaurant was somewhat like playing Russian roulette with the menu since none of us could read Cyrillic and no one in the restaurants seemed to speak English. During our first week in Ulaanbaatar, one Pac Rimmer caught a cold (marked by a runny nose and an extremely persistent cough) that spent the next month making its way through our ranks, infecting each and every one of us and prompting mandated daily doses of Vitamin C.
We also met some amazing people, from notable figures like the Panchen Otrul Rinpoche (one of the most important religious figures in Mongolia and an old college friend of Nima’s), the abbot of Lamrim Monastery and Glenn Mullin (the West’s leading scholar on Tibetan Buddhism) to the families we met during our visits to the countryside. We visited stone turtles that have stood in place as the protectors of Kharkhorin since Chinngis Khaan’s time, turtles he himself may also have seen and touched. We rode camels in the Gobi and held golden eagles.
Most importantly, we began to come together as a group in a way that only traveling together and also at all times living , socializing, and taking classes together can allow. As our journey continues and our identity as a group develops in new ways, there may be places we enjoy far more than we have Ulaanbaatar, Kharkhorin, and the rest, but Mongolia will always be special as the place we got our start.