Kharkhorin: A visit to Mongolia’s former capital and its oldest monastery

Modern Karkhorin, with the Erdene Zuu monastery to the right

I’m continuing from my last post about Elsen Tasarkhai and our ride on Bactrian camels. On Sunday, February 3, after lunch, we headed for Kharkhorin, for the next part of our trip around central Mongolia. On our way, we stopped off to clamber on some more sand dunes across the road from where we had stayed, near another, more elaborate ger camp that was closed for the season. The kids had fun climbing up and down the dunes while I took photos. Boogii explained that the mountain range behind the dunes to the north, the Khogno Khan mountain, is considered to be protected by powerful spirits, so people don’t disturb the land or cut trees there. So much of the landscape here is living to the people, and they see it so differently from the way modern westerners see the land.

We continued to Kharkhorin, but after an hour or so we saw a cluster of trucks, trailers, and horses by the side of the road. We decided to stop to see what was happening. Some local trainers had decided that even though winter horse racing had been banned by the government, they wanted to continue training, so they had decided to meet and “practice” racing their horses against each other. We were just in time to see the four final horses head out for a three-kilometer race back towards us on a dirt track between the fields. While we watched the horses walk out to their starting point, the horses that had been racing already, damp with sweat, were being cooled off all around us, being ridden or walked by boys Emma’s age or younger.

Off in the distance, the race had started. The horses had been accompanied by two motorcycles. One motorcycle came back ahead, while the other accompanied the racing horses. It was clear that one of the horses was way ahead for nearly the whole race, while the other three ran together in a clump, vying for second place. Soon one of them had pulled ahead as well, and as it often goes with races, the third and forth place horses came in without much fanfare. While the horses continued cantering, then trotting and eventually walking around the trailers, Boogii explained that people often tried to get some of the sweat from the winning horse in the hopes that the strength of the horse would be passed on to them.

The remaining horses were being loaded onto the trailers, which started driving away. We got back in the van to continue our trip. At this point, Emma’s feet were freezing. She had taken off her outer pair of socks, and I had inadvertently packed them while we were getting ready to go, so she only had one pair of socks on in her boots, a thin pair of woolen layering socks. When we got to Kharkhorin, we had planned to see two monuments before going to the hotel where we’d be staying. As we arrived at the first of the two monuments, Emma dug another pair of socks out of her suitcase to layer over the pair she had on, but her feet were already numb.

We got out of the van and went to see the statue of a stone turtle that had once marked a corner of Karakorum, the former capital of the Mongol Empire. There had been four of these turtles, each with an engraved stone stele on its back, but now only two remain. This one was surrounded by an iron fence to protect it. Just along the hillside from it was a large ovoo, a sacred pile of stones shrouded in colored (mostly blue) khadag, or scarves. This ovoo had a line of horse skulls along one side. Boogii explained that people save the heads of the fastest horses and put them there to add more power to the ovoo.

We also had a spectacular view of the area from the hilltop.  Kharkhorin sits on the edge of the Orkhon Valley Natural and Historical Reserve, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Orkhon River winds past the modern town and along the edge of Khangai Nuruu National Park. The broad river valley is lined with pastureland and then forested mountains, which now were covered with snow. It has been inhabited by nomadic peoples for the last 60,000 years, at least, according to the oldest archaeological finds so far. The city of Kharkhorin now has about 10,000 inhabitants (it’s around the size of my hometown in New Jersey), and there is little sign of its former glory as capital city of the Mongolian Empire for half a century, before Kublai Khan moved the capital to Khanbalik (Beijing) in 1264. However, it’s in a gorgeous setting, and the view from the ovoo was stunning, including the rectangular wall of the Erdene Zuu monastery, where we’d be going the next morning.

We drove on to the next monument, called the King’s Monument, commemorating the three nomadic empires that were ruled from ancient Karakorum since the 3rd century BCE: The Hunnu, the Turkic, and the Mongol. Tiled mosaics on the three walls of the round monument show the extent of each empire in the Asian continent in green tile, compared to the modern borders of Mongolia. A large, unusually even ovoo sits at the monument’s center. Looking at the final map showing the Mongol Empire, we got a good appreciation for its geographic extent, from the Pacific shores to eastern Europe. From the hilltop, we had a view up the Orkhon River, and of the entire valley stretching off to the horizon. At this point, though, the sun was starting to get low in the sky, and poor Emma’s feet were in pain, so we walked back down the steps to the van and headed for our hotel, the lime green Hotel Bayanburd.

We had a nice, simple room with an en suite bathroom (very exciting after last night’s 30-below adventures in the outhouse), a small lounge area with a sofa, and a view of the walls of Erdene Zuu. It was good to thaw out, have some hot tea, and relax a bit before dinner. We went to the restaurant at the new (2016) Ikh Khorum Hotel, a few minutes’ drive from our hotel. The restaurant was glorious, with white table cloths and chair covers. The menu had a variety of foods, including Mongolian, European, and vegetarian options of both. Emma wanted a cheese pizza, so I ordered a salad and planned to share the pizza with her, a smart move because the pizza was quite large. We hadn’t had pizza in a while, and this one was very good. Emma ate way more than I’d seen her eat in a while, but I still got a couple of slices.

After we got back to the Bayanburd Hotel, some staff brought a portable heater into our room. We had it on, but it made a strange whirring sound that we decided would be annoying after a while, so when we were going to sleep, I turned it off. The room did get cold; the old radiator under the window wasn’t quite up to the job, but we still had a good night’s sleep. I turned the heater on again when I got up in the morning, but I decided it was too cold for a shower, even if I could figure out how the hot water worked. (There was a little box in the shower with controls in Chinese, but I didn’t experiment too much.)

Our plan for the morning was to go first to the Erdene Zuu monastery, and then to the Kharkhorum Museum, a new museum showing the history of the area. I was excited to see the monastery. I was reading The Green-Eyed Lama, by Oyungerel Tsedevdamba, a historical novel about the Stalinist purges of Mongolia’s Buddhist monks in the 1930s, and Erdene Zuu was mentioned as one of the monasteries (partly) surviving destruction. It was used in a visit by US Vice President Henry Wallace to show him that there was “religious freedom” in Mongolia, despite the fact that hundreds of Buddhist temples had been destroyed and tens of thousands of monks and shamanists had been imprisoned and put to death

Erdene Zuu (“100 treasures”) is also the oldest surviving Buddhist monastery in Mongolia, dating back to 1586. After meeting with the third Dalai Lama, Abtai Sain Khan declared Tibetan Buddhism the official state religion and ordered the construction of the monastery. (Abtai Sain Khan was grandfather of Zanabazar, the first Bogd Gegeen, or spiritual head of the Gelugpa line of Tibetan Buddhism in Mongolia, whose museum we saw in Ulaanbaatar in January.) The monastery was built from the ruins of Karakorum, the former capital of the Mongolian Empire (1235-1260), which is why you can’t see much of those ruins today. It was the site of conflict several times during its history and was destroyed in 1688 in a conflict between Dzungars (a confederation of Mongolian tribes) and Khalkha Mongols (historically ruled by the Khans), and then rebuilt in the 18th century. From what I had read, a lot of Erdene Zuu, over 100 structures, was destroyed again in 1939 by the Stalinist Mongolian administration, even though they saved part of it for show, so I wasn’t expecting much. I was amazed by what was there; it was far more than I had expected. It also made me realize what this monastery must once have been like before the devastation of the Stalinist purges. The monastery is currently run as a museum, but it is also still has active temples.

Three main parts of the complex remain. When you enter the impressive entrance gate, the museum administration building is to the left, and a brick walkway stretches forward, bisecting the enclosure. The walls, supporting 108 evenly spaced white stupas, are intact, and the size of the enclosure dwarfs the impressive structures that remain. We went to the main set of temples first, dedicated to the young, adult, and aged Buddha. The temples are preserved as a museum, rather than as working temples, and contain many pieces related to the history of the monastery, as well as some of the work of Zanabazar. Each temple is bursting with color and brilliance, containing sumptuous statues of Buddha, as well as Niam (the sun), Dabaa (the moon), and other Buddhist deities, masks from Tsam dancing, and lush tapestries and paintings. One case even has preserved cakes made in 1965 to celebrate the official opening of the museum. In one of the three temples, you can still walk the inner path around the temple, the floor worn by praying Buddhists over hundreds of years. As I looked at the statues and paintings in each temple, I couldn’t help but feel that life would be so much more interesting if you grew up with these as your universe, rather than the somewhat boring Christian images and symbols of my childhood.

Walking further into the monastery complex, you pass a sign explaining a large barren field; it once contained the Tsogchen Dugan, the Great Assembly Hall, built in 1779, where lamas from each of the six schools housed at Erdene Zuu would gather for communal chanting. The sign has photos of the hall and explains that it was “destroyed by the Communists in the 1930s.” There are many reminders of the stunning losses experienced at Erdene Zuu during that dark time, but this one got me.

We walked towards a ger from which we could hear chanting emanating, set up near the gleaming white and gold Prayer Stupa, built in 1799. We entered the ger, and saw a cluster of seated monks chanting along one side of the ger. (One of them was on his phone, too.) An altar on the far side of the ger had incense and candles, along with small prayer wheels. There was also a table to the right of the entrance where people could buy beads, scarves, and other devotional items. A man sitting to the immediate right of the entrance controlled people coming and going, though we were there so early in the day there were hardly any other people. After a few moments of warming up and listening to the chanting, we went back outside and continued on our way.

Towards the far left-hand corner of the compound from the main entrance, there is another cluster of white buildings. The largest of these is the Lavrin Temple, the main active temple in the monastery, a two-story white structure with red and gold trim. Rows of silver and gold prayer wheels lined the outside of the temple. It was restored as an active temple in 1990. Inside, we were able to hear more monks chanting, and the morning services seemed to be well underway. The monks sit on benches running parallel to the sides of the temple, books open before them, with one monk sitting on an elevated platform at one end, leading the chanting. There was a bit more activity here, a few other early birds walking around the perimeter of the temple like us, though we seemed to be the only foreign tourists. Outside, there were a couple of other, smaller buildings, one of which had people coming and going. But at this point Emma was freezing, so we headed back towards the entrance and the warm van. More people were arriving, and there was a steady line of people headed towards the Lavrin Temple. We walked past a small white temple with a blue roof and a locked wooden door, which is thought to be even older than the monastery. I noticed grass growing on its roof.

Our next destination was the Kharkhorum Museum, a new museum that houses artifacts from the ancient inhabitants of the Orkhin Valley up to recent times. Our first stop was the small theater, where we saw a video about a tomb recently excavated by archaeologists, containing many finds which we could also see in the adjacent exhibit. Some intricately carved golden ornaments from the tomb especially stood out, as well as preserved fabric and wooden artifacts.

The Kharkhorum Museum

In the central hall of the museum is a scale model of the Imperial capital of Karakorum, created from the work of Mongolian and German archaeologists. The city contained not only a palace and Buddhist temples, but an Islamic mosque and a Christian church, in an area of the city where foreign dignitaries resided. There was an area for ger, and several other districts of permanent houses, as well as walled compounds. The city had four gates in the four cardinal directions, and each one had its own market. Karakorum had been one of the most important stops along the Silk Road connecting East and West.

The museum galleries encircle the model, starting on the left and continuing around in chronological order. There are stone artifacts from the earliest known human settlements of the Orkhon valley, as early as 60,000 years ago, up to Neolithic times. A Bronze Age gallery contains a deer stone, carved with a group of reindeer flying up towards the sky, believed to bring the spirit of the dead along with them. (Perhaps an early version of Santa Claus?) The museum contains some amazing finds and examples of the area’s culture, history, and art. Unfortunately, there was a hefty extra charge for photography (this seems to be a trend in Mongolia), so I wasn’t able to take pictures, but Emma and I both marveled at the beautiful displays.

The next stop, after collecting our luggage from the Bayanburd Hotel, was lunch, back to the Ikh Khorum. Emma wanted the pizza again, but I was in the mood to try the vegetarian khooshoor this time. I talked her into trying the fried veggie noodles so that I could have my own food. She ate some, but she would have been much happier with the pizza. This is one of the aspects of traveling with Emma that I find quite challenging. She still has a very limited palate, and while she has discovered some foods that she loves here in Mongolia, she is still reluctant to try many new dishes or drinks. One of the things I find interesting about her is that, for example, she loves steamed broccoli, but if there is broccoli in another dish (like the veggie noodles, or a Thai dish she always gets back in California), she won’t eat it, saying she doesn’t like “that kind of broccoli.” We also discovered early on that she doesn’t like Mongolian milk or dairy products. This excursion around central Mongolia was particularly challenging for her, because even though our hosts did their best to make food she would like, she often would say she was full to avoid eating. It’s just the way she is, and it’s getting better, but it makes traveling to areas with interesting food a bit less enjoyable, because we always end up looking for things like pizza, pasta, plain rice, and other boring things. I, on the other hand, will eat anything vegetarian, and I loved the food on our trip. We should have just gotten the pizza again, though. Next time…

After lunch, we drove to the river for a bit of fun before heading out of town. The river was frozen, and the kids slid around on the ice, while I did my best not to fall. There were a couple of guys taking ice from the river; they loaded it into a large bag and put it in the trunk of a car, which was sitting out on the ice. At least I knew we didn’t have to worry about falling through! Further down the river, there were other vehicles out on the ice as well, but Jagaa had parked his van on solid ground next to the river. As we walked back to it, I nearly slipped, but managed to stay upright. We got back in the van and headed on to the next part of our adventure, experiencing Tsagaan Sar the Mongolian way.

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