Three Day Venture to Kharkhorin or Karakorum et al.
As the subtitle indicates, this was a three-day exploration of a few areas of cultural and historic significance not too far west of Ulaanbaatar. It was undertaken as a prelude to the Mongolia motorcycle tour.
Its genesis was to make a re-visit to the old Mongol capital of Karakorum, which I recalled visiting forty years previously. Yes, that’s right…in 1975!
It soon morphed into something a lot more. Bits of research as background to the motorcycle tour quickly revealed a wealth of history in the Orkhon Valley, of which Karakorum is a part, that I considered directly relevant to any visit to western Mongolia. So a carefully planned agenda for a full-on three day round trip took shape.
Seven of the ten of us undertaking the motorcycle tour had connections with one another from previous motorcycle tours, so it was almost automatic that all seven of us were in for this trip.
Guide to the Tour
I usually prepare guides of varying scope and quality for both meanders abroad and non-motorcycle meanders. They are all very different in structure and length reflecting the idiosyncrasies of each tour. This one focuses initially on Western Mongolia, where we would be motorcycling; and then includes a bit of history to provide a feel for and insight into the evolution of the Mongolian Steppes (the “steppes” being the vast grassland plains stretching from Europe to Asia, for the most part below the forests and above the deserts and mountains). In fact, much of it is perhaps more pertinent to this three-day tour undertaken prior to the motorbike segment.
I’m not sure precisely how I got introduced to Meg. Some initial attempts to find out who was supporting the motorbike segment from the Mongolian side met with curious obfuscation. However, Meg’s name eventually emerged from the mist. And what a find she was! Almost half Australian, as it turned out. At least she has an Aussie partner; and was actually in Australia as our negotiations started to take shape. She made the connection and phoned me out of the blue.
That’s all water under the bridge, of course. However, it all seemed to smooth the way to do a fair bit of adjusting to plans to ensure we saw all the places of interest I had identified. The package came to include pick-up at airport and accommodation at “Meg’s Guesthouse” in downtown Ulaanbaatar.
Meg’s Guesthouse was an experience. We spent three nights in all in what would have been a small one-bedroom, Soviet-built apartment in its previous incarnation. Accommodating seven of us in three double bunk beds in what would have been the living/dining area; and a bed in a tiny bedroom, managing with one bathroom, was quite an experience. Fortunately, we all interacted amiably and basically enjoyed the experience.
It helped that we had, in effect, Meg’s undivided attention. She took us for a great breakfast, introduced us to the close-by large department store and, as planned, met us all on our various flights into Ulaanbaatar.
She also accompanied us on our three-day tour.
Karakorum was the key objective. It’s often described as the capital of Genghis Khan’s Mongol empire. It sort of was. It was certainly the place where and from where so much of the Genghis Khan story took place. In Genghis Khan’s day, however, it was basically a tent city, albeit, from what one can gather, a large and dynamic one when it came to comings and goings of merchants and, of course, armies. It wasn’t until his son, Ogedeii, became the Khan that Karakorum was built as a permanent city; and became the empire’s capital until Genghis Khan’s grandson, Kubilai Khan, conquered China and moved the capital to what is today Beijing.
Further along the Orkhon Valley were two other sites of historic significance. One was the former Uyghur capital at Khar Balgas, once a sprawling metropolis from where the Uyghur kingdom ruled the steppes before the Mongols became dominant; and before they (the Uyghurs) were eventually driven into today’s Xinjiang Province of China.
The other was the site of Turkic stone monuments commemorating early Turkic victories and which provide the earliest examples of the Turkic language. This is at Khöshöö Tsaidam.
We also planned on the way back to Ulaanbaatar to stop at a set of ruins of a fortress not far from the main road which date to the Kitan Dynasty from 917 to 1120. It’s called Khar Bukhiin Balgas.
With seven of us plus Meg, we had two of her regularly hired vehicles driven by their owners. We were able to leave most of our luggage at the guesthouse and just bring a few things to see us through three days. Undoubtedly, we all still over packed. Staying in gers (yurts), as we would be, suggested that changes of clothes might be minimal. For my part, as it turned out, the only items I took off during the three days were over-jacket and shoes (for sleeping). I suspect others survived similarly.
We headed west at a very early hour, having been brought hot breakfast rolls and coffee that Meg picked up on the way to collect us. It was bright but very chilly sunshine as we got our first experience of the vastness of the Mongolian Steppe. The weather augured well for our three days across the steppes.
Hustain National Park
Our first stop was a diversion into Hustain National Park noted for its wildlife, but particularly the reintroduction of Przewalski's horses (also known as takhi) – a wild horse native to the Asian Steppe but which had last been seen in the wild in Mongolia in 1966. Although it had become extinct in Mongolia, it had survived in zoos and parts of the European Steppe to where it had migrated centuries ago.
Then it was further west to the Khogno Khan Natural Reserve containing the spectacular Khogno Mountain Range and the much vaunted sand dunes called Elsen Tasarhai. In addition, there are the ruins of the 17th century Ovgun Khiid (Ovgun Monastery) destroyed in feuding religious battles of the time.
It was quite late by the time we had made our way off the road and across open country to the foothills of the mountains where we are to stay in a family ger (a sort of spare room for them). There were three gers together surrounded by the nomads’ sheep and goats, with a few cows, horses and Bactrian camels. The family stayed in one; and the other two were made available for travellers such as us.
The weather was starting to look bleak with low cloud swirling round the mountain outcrops. The walk to the monastery ruins would have to wait until morning.
As with Meg’s guesthouse, seven of us squeezed into the round ger. Six beds could fit round the inside perimeter while the seventh sat in the middle next to the livestock-dung fire.
What an unexpected surprise to poke one’s head out of the ger next morning to see nothing but white – on the ground, swirling in the air, camouflaging the camels and obliterating the distant dunny, with its two planks (now snow-covered) precariously placed over an open pit.
No walking into the mountain range or visiting the monastery ruins. Not even seeing the sand dunes of Elsen Tasarhai: “that’s the sand dunes over there!” Oh!
The big challenge was to get back to the main road. Our vehicles looked like 4x4s but they weren’t. Fortunately, one had reasonable traction and was able to assist the other; otherwise we might have spent a few days stuck miles off the main road with absolutely no semblance of track in any direction.
From all reports, Karakorum was an impressive city, but there’s nothing much to show for it today. There’s a Soviet-era town nearby that’s called Kharkhorin; and a large monastery – Erdene Zuu (Erdene Monastery) – said to be constructed largely from the ruins of Karakorum. Erdene Zuu is said to be the oldest surviving Buddhist monastery in Mongolia.
The museum at Karakorum was quite good in highlighting significant parts of its history and the excavations and discoveries that have taken place. About the only objects visibly surviving are one of the four stone turtles that stood guard at the four gates of the ancient city; and the phallus rock with its own curious historical significance.
Of special significance for me was the fact that I had visited Karakorum and Erdene Zuu exactly forty years previously. I was a junior diplomat stationed in Moscow but accredited to the Government of the Mongolian People’s Republic in addition to the Government of the USSR.
We were able to manage a trip to Khar Balgas by squeezing into the one vehicle that had a reasonable chance of coping with a roadless journey across the snow-bound steppe.
As Lonely Planet observes: “There’s not much to see except the outer walls (with gates in the north and south), a Buddhist stupa and the ruler’s kagan (castle), in the southwest corner. From the walls you can see the rows of stupas on either side and the remains of irrigated fields in the surrounding countryside. The city had an elaborate plumbing system, which brought water into the city from the nearby river.”
With the whole landscape a foggy white, it wasn’t easy to identify all the remaining features, but the walls and stupa were distinguishable as was the vast surrounds with their vestiges of past glory.
Best Laid Plans
The originally planned route back to Ulaanbaatar was to take us north past Khöshöö Tsaidam; onto Lake Ugii; then through Khar Bukhiin Balgas and back to Ulaanbaatar.
Unfortunately, that was prevented by weather; and the third day, after a visit to Erdene Zuu, was straight back to Ulaanbaatar.
By then a mutual friend of a few of us had flown into Ulaanbaatar on business, so a catch-up at the Great Khan Irish Pub was a pleasant curtain for our introduction to Mongolia.
I can hardly call this a movie of the tour. It’s no more than a few random snippets. It’s only two and a half minutes but you might find it fun.