GUCHIN US TO KHARKHORIN
Continuing north now, into the historical heartland of the great Mongolian empire of Chinggis Khaan, we follow the dirt tracks for a few hours into Ovurkhangai where we refuel. The landscape has changed again as we leave the Gobi behind to reach the rolling hills of the Orkhon river valley where we actually have to make some river crossings. The rest of the way to Kharkhorin is on pavement, and we reach our ger camp outside the city by late afternoon.
Kharkhorin is the major tourist destination in this part of Mongolia, and we will pause for a day here to experience it and learn a few things about the history and culture from a more academic perspective.
In the mid-13th century, Karakorum became the center of the Mongolian universe after Chinggis Khaan established a supply base here. His son Ugudei constructed a capital that attracted traders, dignitaries and skilled workers from across Asia and even Europe. The city remained preeminent for forty years, until Kublai Khaan moved the capital to Khanbalik (later called Beijing). Following the subsequent collapse of the Mongol empire, Karakorum was abandoned and then destroyed by vengeful Manchurian soldiers in 1388.
The remains of Karakorum were used to construct the first Buddhist monastery in Mongolia, Erdene Zuu, which was established in the 16th century on the ruins of the old city. Abtai Sain Khan, ruler of the Khalkha Mongols, ordered construction of the Erdene Zuu monastery in 1585 after his meeting with the 3rd Dalai Lama and the declaration of Tibetan Buddhism as the state religion of Mongolia. It was surrounded by a fortress wall with 108 stupas and once housed 62 individual temples. Apparently Mongolian lords vied with each other to have their own named temple inside the monastery wall as a sort of status symbol. The monastery’s temple walls were painted, and the Chinese-style roof covered with green tiles.
The monastery, in its turn, was a victim to the Stalinist purges during the soviet era. The modern town of Kharkhorin was built in the soviet style several kilometers from the original site. The temples were converted into a museum and any religious usage was prohibited.
With the fall of communism in 1990, the monastery was returned to the lamas and Erdene Zuu again became a place of worship. Today Erdene Zuu contains three main temples, several smaller temples, two tombs (dedicated to Avtai sain Khan and his son Tusheet khan Gombodorj) and the biggest stupa in Mongolia known as the “Golden stupa”.
[Photos courtesy Mongolian Bankhar Dog Project/OEX]