Ulaanbataar (S5.05)

Audio: Ulaanbataar

In this episode of 80 Days: An Exploration Podcast, we’ll be talking about Ulaanbaatar, the capital city of Mongolia.  Its modern name means ‘Red Hero’ and it is a city that has had many names including Urga, Örgöö, and Ikh Khuree. Ulaanbaatar was originally founded in 1639 as a nomadic Bhuddist monastery, essentially a moveable city,  and was not permanently settled at its current location in 1778, where it became a crucial trading hub between Russia and China. The city is located in present-day north central Mongolia, around 1000km or 700 miles northwest of Beijing and about 500km or 300 miles south of Irkutsk, Russia. Its current population is around 1.5 million, meaning it contains around 50% of Mongolia’s residents, and is comparable in population to San Diego or Munich. 

At the end of the 17th century, present-day Mongolia became part of the area ruled by the Manchu-led Qing dynasty. During the 20th century, Mongolia struggled against strong influences from the Soviet Union and China, until the Mongolian Revolution of 1990 led to the establishment of a multi-party democratic system. In terms of climate, it can be extremely chilly here. The city experiences an annual average temperature of −1.3°C (around −30 Fahrenheit) and temperatures in January are as low as −36 to −40 °C, making it the world’s coldest capital city.


Your hosts, as always, are Luke Kelly @thelukejkelly in Dublin, Ireland, Mark Boyle @markboyle86 in the UK, and Joe Byrne @anbeirneach in Galway, Ireland. Our theme music and other stings come from Thomas O’Boyle @thatthomasfella. 

We’ve also just launched a merch store in associated with TeePublic. You can find our store by clicking here, with exclusive discounts at the time of publishing. 


Some useful resources for further reading include:

  • Wikipedia has a whole article on the beautiful Mongolian script we discussed
  • If you couldn’t quite catch the name of the significant religious leader of the Mongols, more information on his various names on Wikipedia: Jebtsundamba Khutuktu
  • The New Books Network podcast had a very interesting interview with Uranchimeg Tsultemin the author of “A Monastery on the Move”, which talks about Zanabazaar and his artistic legacy
  • Another key source for Mark’s second section was The Bloody White Baron by James Parker.
  • Travels Through Mongolia to China (Vol. 1) by Egor Fedorovich Timkowski is on archive.org (1827)
  • Also on archive.org is Mongolia, the Tangut country, and the solitudes of northern Tibet, being a narrative of three years’ travel in eastern high Asia by Nikolai Mikhailovich Przhevalskii (1876)
  • More on brick tea in The Russian Road to China by Lindon Wallace Bates, on archive.org here. (1910)
  • InfoMongolia.com
  • For a more modern perspective, we referenced The Changing World Of Mongolia’s Nomads by Melvyn C. Goldstein
  • More on the assassination of Mr Sanjaasuregiin Zorig, which Joe discussed, can be found here.
  • The Guardian also has a great piece on “Mongolia’s New Wealth.”
  • See here for a news article about the 9th Bogd Khan receiving Mongolian citizenship
  • Check out the Bogd Khan’s Winter Palace, and the Gandan Monastery
  • More about the Nadaam festival, and local cuisine
  • Music from this episode can be found on YouTube, with traditional Mongolian music, as well as some amazing Mongolian throat singing towards the end.

Thanks to all our patrons who support the show. We really appreciate your continued backing of us. If you want to join them, more information is available at www.patreon.com/80dayspodcast

Birobidzhan, the Jewish Autonomous Oblast (S2.10)

Birobidzhan Audio Link

In this episode of 80 Days: An Exploration Podcast, we’ll be discussing the Jewish Autonomous Oblast (JAO), a somewhat independent region in the Russian Far East wedged between Siberia and Northern China. Its capital is the city of Birobidzhan, and with 75,000 inhabitants it is by far the most populated part of the region. For that reason, the name Birobidzhan is often used to refer to the whole area.

Officially founded in 1934 as an attempt to create a Jewish state within Russian borders, the territory was the world’s first attempt at a Jewish national homeland in modern times, and today is Russia’s only autonomous oblast. Aside from Israel, it is the world’s only officially Jewish territory. As of the 2010 Census, JAO’s population was 176,558 people, or 0.1% of the total population of Russia. Judaism is practiced by only 0.2% of the population of the JAO.


This special episode was commissioned by one our very generous Kickstarter backers, Ian Prince from New York (who does terrible things with food on Instagram). Your hosts are Luke Kelly @thelukejkelly in Hong Kong, Mark Boyle @markboyle86 in the UK, and Joe Byrne @anbeirneach in Switzerland. (Theme music by Thomas O’Boyle)


The somewhat familiar-looking flag of Birobidzhan


Some sources and further reading for this episode;

  • Masha Gessen’s Where The Jews Aren’t was the basis for this commissioned episode, you can find it on Amazon here, or listen to the author talk about it on NPR’s Fresh Air here
  • We also relied heavily on this excellent multimedia gallery from Swarthmore College, entitled Stalin’s Forgotten Zion.
  • An interview from People’s World with Masha Gessen provides some solid background on the region.
  • We mentioned the RT profile of Birobidzhan in this episode, you can find that here on YouTube.
  • The New York Times profiled Birobidzhan back in 2012. It’s worth a read.
  • The book Jews and Jewish Life in Russia and the Soviet Union by Yaacov Ro’i has some interesting info on the JAO and wider context surrounding Jewish communities in Russia.
  • If you’re interesting in learning more about Stalin in particular, you can check out our episode from earlier this season on Georgia, birthplace of “Joe Steel”.
  • Michigan State University has a good article on the history of the region, as well as some visual essays here.

Thanks to Louise Ireson, John Killeen, Simon Greene for your support on Kickstarter. Thanks too to Rabbi Eliyahu Riss in Birobidzhan for interviewing with us.

We also need to thank our sponsor for the season Hairy Baby, who in addition to making the funniest Irish-themed t-shirts, have also produced the official 80 Days shirt for our supporters. Find it by clicking here. You can get 10% off anything on www.hairybaby.com by using our promo code “80DAYS”.

This will be the final episode for this season, but never fear, we’ll be back with more obscure goodness soon. We’re extremely grateful to everyone who’s supported us over the past year and a bit of podcasting, and if you want to hear more stay subscribed to the feed and keep an eye on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

We’ll see you soon!

Georgia or “Sakartvelo” (S2.07)

S02E07 Georgia Audio

In this episode of 80 Days: an exploration podcast we’ll be talking about Georgia. Not the US state, but the country in the south caucasus, known to its inhabitants as “Sakartvelo”. This former Soviet Republic is nestled between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, and is home to around 3.7 Million people with a history dating back thousands of years. Throughout its history, Georgia has been subject to numerous larger powers, including the Mongols, the Ottoman Empire, and dynasties of Persia (Iran) and the Soviet Union. As the Iron Curtain fell, Georgia declared its independence and has operated as a modern Republic ever since. It’s neighbour to the North, Russia, however, has ensured that Georgia’s hold over independence has never been as secure as most Georgians would like. Ethnic conflicts and economic turmoil beset the country throughout the 1990s, culminating in the brief Russo-Georgian war of 2008, from which tensions still remain to this day.  

Your hosts are Luke Kelly @thelukejkelly in Hong Kong, Mark Boyle @markboyle86 in the UK, and Joe Byrne @anbeirneach in Switzerland . (Theme music by Thomas O’Boyle)

Map of Georgia, indicating disputed areas

Here are a few things you may want to read/watch more about:

The stunning mountain fortress of Vardzia today (Wikimedia Commons)

Most of the music in this episode were examples of Georgian polyphonic singing, a very important style of music, being the oldest polyphonic music in the world (singled out by UNESCO as a vital aspect of cultural heritage).Some examples are:

  • “Chakrulo”, which was one of 27 musical compositions included on the Voyager Golden Records that were sent into space on Voyager 2 on 20 August 1977.
  • Here’s another example in the “Georgia and the Great Caucasus” documentary

Georgian folk dancing is also a wonderful tradition, here are a few videos of that:

Finally, we promised to include the video of the insane baptism rituals available in the Georgian Orthodox Church, so from EuroNews, here it is:

A massive thanks to the inimitable Gary O’Daly and Jeffrey Dokar, two of the backers of our recent Kickstarter Campaign – thank you for making Season 2 possible. Big thanks also to Mariam Kalandarshvili for talking to us and helping us understand (and pronounce) some elements of Georgian history; we now know that the capital is T’bee-lee-see! Thanks too to our sponsor Hairy Baby, who in addition to making the funniest Irish-themed t-shirts, have also produced the official 80 Days shirt for our supporters. Find it by clicking here. You can get 10% off anything on www.hairybaby.com by using our promo code “80DAYS”.