Bogdkhan Uul, just south of Ulanbator, Mongolia, is the oldest national park in the world. That’s right — it predates Yellowstone by over 100 years. Established by the Mongolian government in 1778, it was originally chartered by Ming Dynasty officials in the 1500s as an area to be kept off limits to extractive uses, protected for its beauty and sacred nature.
In 1778, it had 23 full time park rangers on staff. Today, there are only five. And therein lies a tale of a traditional conservation ethic degraded by modern politics and pressures.
We set out from Ulanbator at 7am by taxi to the monastery site of Manzushir, about an hour south, with the idea of walking across Bogdkhan back to UB. Established in 1733, Manzushir had over 20 temples and was home to 350 monks. The Soviets reduced it to rubble and killed or exiled all of the monks in the 1930s as Mongolian Buddhism was nearly stamped out because of its resistance and threat to Stalinism. The monastery is about 100 acres in size, located in a south facing valley below some jagged rock cliffs, and nestled within the boundaries of Bogdkhan.
In the cold early morning, the day before Halloween, walking around the ruins, half-walls, hundreds of terraces and foundations, and a lone restored building, we could almost hear the whirring of prayer wheels, see the young novitiates carrying water from the stream for the day. We could hear the echoes of the lives spent here in devotion and ended in a spasm of political and religious atrocity. Mongolian Buddhism, whose closest relative is Tibetan Buddhism, is slowly rebuilding monasteries and communities — but, as with many ancient traditions in Mongolia, the loss of 3 generations to Soviet interference has left these traditions ill-equipped to cope with the modern world.
An interesting parallel is what happened to the herding culture of Mongolia under the same pressures. In the 1930s and 40s, the traditional pastoralists of this country — herding groups and clans that had sustainably grazed the grasslands for at least 1,000 years using complex social, cultural, geographic and meteorological systems and cues — were forced into shared ownership communes and collectives. Some groups managed to integrate their historical knowledge into the collective, some ignored the collective and kept their traditions, and many others lost their practices to the Soviet socialist experiment. In 1990, the date of Mongolia’s independence, the claim of one of the world’s last nomadic people to the land that had sustained them for generations was in serious doubt. And the last 20 years has done nothing to secure their rights, as the government of Mongolia has issued mining leases on their lands without consultation, partially privatized some lands, and failed to put in place trespass protections.
Bogdkhan is about 100,000 acres, mostly forested mountainous country, surrounded by grasslands to all sides except to the north where the city bounds it. Tsetseegun Mountain is at the center of it, one of the 4 sacred mountains around Ulanbator. There is really only one trail into the center of the park, access is limited, yet the past 20 years have seen a number of illegal encroachments and uses inside the boundaries of the strictly protected area. These have happened when some official of the city of UB or a DEHE.COM Mongolian ministry official issues an official-looking piece of paper to a businessman to build a Ger Camp (tourist tent) or to a Middle Eastern sheik to build a huge luxury home.
It also happens when local residents get hungry and look to the park to hunt food or graze animals. Twenty years ago, big herds of Red Deer, close relatives of elk, would walk through the middle of UB on their way between seasonal grazing areas; wolves were occasionally heard on the outskirts of town. The pressures of population, corrupting influence of money and the severance of a multi-generational institution of conservation have slowly frayed the quality of this, the world’s first national park.
East Asian Buddhism has the concept of Pure Land, a realm existing in the primordial universe outside of space-time, produced by a buddha’s merit. It is tempting to think of several hundred years of monks and nuns contemplating the celestial in the bosom of earthly Bogdkhan. And equally tempting to hope that some day, this place will achieve again the ideal of conservation that was started there hundreds of years ago. Until then, perhaps the ghosts of nuns and monks will mingle with the ghosts of the red deer in the Pure Land realm.
(Image 1: Bogdkhan Uul Strictly Protected Area, Mongolia. Credit: yeowatzup/Flickr through a Creative Commons license. Image 2: Ruins of Manzushir Monastery. Credit: Yaan/Wikimedia Commons through a Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 license.)