Mission to Mongolia
Tourists help rebuild a 17th-century Buddhist site.
For generations, Mongolia's northern Hentiy province, best known as the birthplace of Genghis Khan, was also home to one of the world's major Buddhist sites—until the 1930's, when Communist fervor spreading from the Soviet Union reduced Baldan Baraivan to rubble and destroyed all but a handful of the country's 700 monasteries. Seven decades later, pilgrims are back, this time pounding nails, scraping stucco, and paying $1,000 a week for the privilege.
Baldan Baraivan, some 200 miles east of Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, dates to the17th century and housed thousands of monks at its peak, in dozens of temples. Renovation is a brick-by-brick process that started five years ago as the first undertaking of the Cultural Restoration Tourism Project, a Bay Area nonprofit that helps communities promote sustainable tourism. Work has been slow, hindered by the isolation and rugged terrain, and only a few small temples have reopened so far (the target date for completion is 2006). Yet the languid pace fits the vision of CRTP founder Mark Hintzke, whose interest in Buddhism was renewed after he lost his construction job in the eighties. Volunteers stay in gers (Mongolian huts); some strip paint or tend the organic garden, others do the heavy lifting. "Bringing people here, letting them see the place and interact with locals," Hintzke says, "is the focus of the project."
To that end, CRTP is adding programs to enhance appreciation of Mongolian life, such as this month's seminar on ger-building. And the group is set to launch its second restoration project in December, at Nepal's Chhairo Gompa monastery. 415/563-7221; www.crtp.net; trips from $1,080 for six days, departures through September 10.