Kharakhorim was once the center of the world’s largest empire and the greatest crossroad of Asia in about 1300 when Chinggis Khan (incorrectly romanized in our history books as Genghis Khan) held control. As the territory ruled by the succeeding mongol leaders expanded into China and when Beijing became the new capital, the fortunes of this large city diminished. Today it is a collection of one story ramshackle wooden buildings, many surrounded by fences in varying stages of decay, with a small ger in the backyard for additional space. But what it does have is history and the first and oldest surviving Buddhist monastery in Mongolia, the Erdene Zuu.
The Erdene Zuu Monastery once held up to 1000 monks and 60-100 temples surrounded by a rectangular wall interspersed with 108 stupas. Most of the buildings were destroyed during the Soviet period but 3 of the older temples and some outbuildings remain as museums and one structure is an active Buddhist temple. The paintings and statutory were hidden at great risk by the religious people in the town and nearby mountains and returned once the temple was reopened after 1990.
The three main historic temples, representing the youth, middle age, and old age of Sakyamuni Buddha, have beautiful images and decorations but they are aging and have not been maintained in the last 20 years. Two nearby buildings with 3 rooms each also hold exquisite paintings. There are some scattered historic markers dedicated to the great leaders scattered around the rest of the large empty compound with grass and earth occupying what was once a vibrant community.
There is a new modern museum nearby which provides good visual information, the best i have seen, about the changing borders over the many centuries of Mongol conquest as well as preserving some of the older artifacts that have been found.
The town itself is a large village. As we visit a local bank, I notice the dress of the local people. The men, mainly older men, wear traditional robes with sleeves covering their hands and large sashes below their bellies and fedora type hats. It is very close to traditional Tibetan dress and the temples and rituals I have learned about are also close to their fellow Buddhists now enclosed within China. They are followers here of the Gelugpa, or Yellow Hat sect, of Mahayana Buddhism the head of which is the Dalai Lama — and we are told the world “Dalai” comes from the Mongolian lexicon. Most of the temples and shrines we have seen here have photos of the Dalai Lama at various ages in his life and I was told he did make one visit to Mongolia in the 1990’s but the Chinese put intense political pressure to keep him from returning. The Mongolian head of this Sect is part of the Ganden Monastery in UB which we visited. But Mongolia and Tibet are separated by vey large expanses of land and large populations so it is amazing to me that there is so much overlapping religion and culture between the Tibetans and Mongolians.
Because rain is forecast for the next day, we decide to do our visit to Ogli Lake in the afternoon. With Jack feeling unwell, the 3 of us, Pat, Sara and myself, head North. The paved road reached another small museum displaying Turkic memorial stones from an earlier time. Beyond the museum the paved road disintegrates into a dirt path but the truth is the the dirt has less jolts then the so-called paved road. We already noticed that the main road is very rough because the wear of large trucks and many cars have created significant potholes but when we turned off to Kharakhorim which has less vehicle traffic the surface was much smoother. I am writing this now on a main road that is so bumpy we have to hold tight onto our belongings as we lurch through bone crunching holes. Even on the main road, at fairly high speeds, the drivers have to constantly be on the lookout for crossing goats, sheep, cows and horses who seem unconcerned about the noisy machines in their territory.
We reach Ogli lake and it is a large body of water with occasional Ger camps on the outskirts for local recreation and some remaining nomad buildings with herds of horses and sheep. We had hoped to see some of the migrating birds that pass this way but today is sunny but very windy. Pat and I walk along the lake and sit for a while and see a number of Terns, swooping down into the water for fish, sea gulls, landing on the lake and a falcon soaring overhead. We also saw some sort of raptors sitting on fence posts and on the ground and maybe a big hawk (Pat says “yet to be identified”) and a red fox going after some sheep.
Another day brings us to the Shankh monastery founded in the 1500’s and reopened in the 1990s with some exquisite and really old religious artifacts returned by locals. In addition to the old temple with grass covering its ancient tiles and the newer temple where the sutras are chanted, there is a new looking dormitory for the monks, all 16 of them, mostly younger men and at least 2 -3 young boys about 10 years old. Everything in the temple is old and worn with little attempt to maintain the protective glass coverings or integrity of the fabric hangings.
Sara asks the head monk to recite some sutras tomorrow for her son who died recently. She talks to the young boys outside to find out where they are from, which is not far away so their families can visit them. The religion and certainly this monastery relies on bringing up young boys who wish to make Buddhist practice their profession.
Kharakhorim is located in the great Orkhon Valley with water supplied by the nearby hills and great sweeping steppes of land for herd grazing. I can see it as the route for thundering mounted horses returning from battle or long lines of camels bringing silk and tea to the West.
We are staying at Asa Land which looks like some aliens landed their flying saucers in the middle of the Mongolian plains and tried to disguise them to look like the local Gers. Strange and beautiful individual individual pods, lined in traditional brocade satin with large skylights up above, eccentric wallpaper in the luxurious bathrooms (mine had palm trees with monkeys and Jack’s had birds with keys and locks). We eat at the large dining room in the mother ship and appear to be the only guests for the 3 days we are there. They cooked good vegan food for me and hearty meat based dishes for the others.
We have now arrived safely back at our hotel in UB. It took about 5 hours of driving with 3 rest stops, including one for lunch and another for a toilet break (Sara got us into a well equipped police station for the last!) but then it took about an hour to get the last few miles in the horrendous UB traffic.
We survived passing large trucks loaded with wool, cows and horses crossing suddenly in front of us, and innumerable large pot holes along the way. We had an incredible last meal together of Mongolian hot pot — and said goodbye to Sara and our drivers. I am having breakfast with 3 Mongolian women lawyers and then we head for the airport.
Until my next adventure.