Mongolian Buddhists in high spirits over Dalai Lama's impending visit

ULAN BATOR, Mongolia - As he crossed hundreds of miles (kilometers) of frigid steppe, Amarsaikhan, a Buddhist monk, kept one goal in mind: greeting the Dalai Lama during the spiritual leader's visit to this Asian land of vast grasslands and longtime Buddhist tradition.

"I have been preparing my mind to see him. And when I do, I will pray to him," said Amarsaikhan, who joined scores of Buddhists and monks at Gandantegchillen, Mongolia biggest monastery, on Sunday during preparations for this week's visit by the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader.

Amarsaikhan's anticipation is felt by many in Mongolia, which shares strong cultural and religious ties to Tibet and has been rediscovering its Buddhist heritage in the 12 years since communist rule ended. The Dalai Lama has already visited landlocked Mongolia, sandwiched between Russia and China, five times, most recently in 1995.

The Dalai Lama is expected to arrive either late Monday or Tuesday. Details of his schedule have not been made public.

The visit is likely to draw angry protests from China, which regards the Dalai Lama as a political schemer bent on ending Chinese rule in Tibet. As of Sunday, though, Beijing had issued no public statements on the visit — a possible indication of ongoing diplomatic efforts to prevent it.

The Dalai Lama had planned to travel from India to Mongolia in September, but his trip was canceled when both Russia and South Korea refused to grant him a transit visa, apparently out of fear of damaging relations with China.

Because there are no direct flights from the Dalai Lama's home in India to Mongolia, that made it impossible for him to visit unless some other country allowed him transit. He is believed to be traveling through Japan.

China occupied Tibet in 1951 and claims the Himalayan region has been Chinese territory for centuries. The Dalai Lama fled into exile in India after an aborted uprising against Chinese rule in 1959 and travels frequently to conduct Buddhist ceremonies and seek support for his campaign for Tibetan political and cultural rights.

Both Tibetans and Mongolians follow the tantric school of Buddhism that recognizes the Dalai Lama as a high spiritual authority. A 16th-century Mongolian king is thought to have bestowed the first Dalai Lama title — a designation that means "Ocean of Wisdom." In 1904, the 13th Dalai Lama fled to Mongolia when the British invaded Lhasa, Tibet's capital.

Some 90 percent of Mongolia's 2.4 million people consider themselves Buddhists. Gandantegchillen was an important seat of Buddhist learning until Mongolia was founded as a Communist country in 1924.

Communist rule did not recognize any religions, and banned their practice during Stalin's tenure in Moscow. Under the Communists, Mongolia relied heavily on aid from the former Soviet Union.

Mongolia's traditional Buddhist heritage began a gradual comeback after Communists gave way to multiparty elections and a more liberal constitution in 1990.

On Sunday, there were still no signs of the Dalai Lama's impending visit on Ulan Bator's streets. The weekly UB Post had a front page headline "Dalai Lama to travel to Mongolia, perhaps."

At Gandantegchillen, monks cleaned the monastery in preparation for the spiritual leader's arrival.

"We're saying special prayers for the visit," said Tserenjamts, one of the monks. "I am in very high spirits."

On the main monastery grounds, believers walked about in frigid morning temperatures, turning prayer wheels and going to special prayer rooms.

"The prayers will purify my mind and my thoughts," said one believer, Dashbadrakh. "It is good luck and fortune for Mongolia that the Dalai Lama is coming."

Bayarjargal, 14, saw the Dalai Lama during his last visit and said she was thrilled to get another chance.

"This time," she said, "I am going to pray for my own life to be successful."