Three Day Venture
to Kharkhorin or Karakorum et al.
subtitle above 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.
for me 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!
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.
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
prepare guides of varying scope and quality for both meanders abroad and
non-motorcycle meanders. They are all of very different structures and lengths
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.
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 soon enough became water under the bridge, it smoothed the way for many
adjustments 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.
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 somewhat
pokey bathroom, was quite an experience. Fortunately, we all interacted amiably
and basically enjoyed the venture.
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.
accompanied us on our three day tour as both carer and guide.
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 pretty large
and dynamic one when it came to comings and goings of merchants, philosophers,
religious preachers and, of course, armies. It wasn’t until his son, Ogedei,
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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!
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.”
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
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
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.
hardly call this a movie of the tour. It’s no more than a few random snippets but M+15.
It’s only two and a half minutes but you might find it fun.
Here is a
slide show of my photos of the three day Mongolia/Orkhon Valley tour: