Mongolia – Kharkhorin

The desolate village of Kharkhorin is the sight of the ancient capital of the Great Mongolian Empire, Karakorum. Chinggis Khan himself established the city here in the windswept valley, but it was his son, Odegai, who ordered the construction of the capital.DSC00074

By the mid-13th century, it was a magnificent walled city open for trade with Eurasia where people were free to practice any religion. In fact up to 12 different religions coexisted, including Buddhist temples, mosques and Nestorian Christian churches.

Good luck stone piles beside the road

For safe travels: Walk around clockwise three times while throwing more stones into the pile

But after 40 prosperous years, Kublai Khan relocated the capital to Beijing during the Yuan Dynasty, and Karakorum became deserted and later destroyed by the Chinese during the second half of the 14th century. Remnants of the city were later used to build the Erdene Zuu Monastery in the 16th century, becoming the first Buddhist monastery in Mongolia. At its height, the monastery had 62 temples, 500 other buildings and gers, up to 1000 lamas in residence, all surrounded by a 400x400m stone wall with 108 stupas.

Erdene Zuu Monastery

Erdene Zuu Monastery

Devastatingly, the Russian Communist purges of 1937 by Stalin brought it all to a tragic end. All but three of the temples were destroyed and an unknown number of monks and lamas were either killed or shipped off to Siberia and never heard from again.Frame 1

Today, Erdene Zuu is an empty walled open air museum. The three remaining buildings, some statues, masks and other religious artefacts on display are all that remain to be seen.DSC00093

During our visit, a light drizzle kept the mood somber as we wandered the grass covered ruins that litter the ground.Frame 2

The surrounding 108 (lucky Buddhist number) stupas stretch off into the distance while the impressive gates still mark the entrances of the ancient pilgrimage road.Frame 3

Outside the monastery walls, four stone turtles guard the four cardinal directions. One was a short walk away. The others are spread further out.


After visiting the interesting museum, the scale of the original Karakorum city comes to light. The site of the ancient capital is fenced off from the current city and remains as empty field, waiting for archeological excavations to uncover more. Some site investigations have uncovered previously unknown history with artifacts found now on display. Other ruins of rooms, walls and stone artwork were then subsequently buried over again until one day it can be preserved in a better way for display for the world to see.Frame 4

Up on a nearby hill, with one of the other stone turtles, is a most peculiar stone phallis. Supposedly it was placed here facing a rather feminine looking hill to keep the monks and lamas from thinking astray!Frame 5

There is more to Karakorum that is yet to reveal itself and history may still have some secrets left to be found beneath the empty fields.DSC00130

Visited 8th August 2014.


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