Modern Mongolia's Strange Birth

 

 

‘Spring was here and with it were coming new horrors of battle, destruction, fire and painful death. The earth was in blossom but we were polishing our rifles and sharpening our knives. Soon we would begin to kill again.' – Dimitri Alioshin1

 

The Mongolian capital Urga sat on the banks of the Tuul river in the bowl of a valley formed by the four mountain peaks of Bogdo Ul, Songino Khairkhan, Chingeltei and Bayanzurh, all part of the Khan Khentui range. The town was founded in 1639 but suitably for the capital of a nomadic nation only settled in its current location in the central east of the country, a pivotal position on the old Tea Road that took overland trade between Peking and St Petersburg, in 1778. Urga was the Russian name for the town. In the Baron's time the Mongolians knew it as Niislel Khuree (1911-1924); previously they called it Orgoo (1639-1706) and Ikh Khuree (1706-1911).

 

In 1921 the population of Urga was estimated at 70,000. Mongolia's capital was a ramshackle sweep of one storey wooden houses and gers (circular felt huts with conical roofs called yurts by the Russians) punctuated by Chinese warehouses, Russian town houses and the elaborate gold leafed towers of Buddhist temples. The wide dirt roads baked solid in summer but were muddy slush through most of winter. Originally a religious town built around monasteries, temples and the palaces of the Living Buddha Urga formed a second identity as a commercial hub for the Chinese when it relocated to the Tuul.

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