The Dalai Lama on Saturday began a four-day visit to Mongolia despite protests by China. The Tibetan spiritual leader preached at the Gandantegchenlin monastery to thousands of Buddhists and is scheduled to hold a special ceremony at a large sports facility built with Chinese aid on Sunday, AP reported.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang demanded that the visit be cancelled and called the Dalai Lama a “political exile” who was attempting to alienate Tibet from China. Geng asked Mongolia to maintain “the general picture of a sound and steady development of bilateral ties [and] earnestly stick to its commitment on Tibet-related issues”.

However, the Mongolian government said the Buddhist leader’s visit to the country was only religious in nature and would not include meetings with government officials. The visit comes at a time when Ulaanbaatar is seeking a loan worth $4.2 billion (approximately Rs 28,627 crore) from Beijing to help revive the country’s economy, which is going through a recession.

China has protested the Dalai Lama’s previous visits to Mongolia by briefly closing its border in 2002 and cancelling flights from Beijing in 2006. The Chinese government has also protested against visits by the spiritual leader to Taiwan and Arunachal Pradesh in India.