A road trip to Mongolia’s ancient capital

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  • May 18,2016
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By LUCY THOMPSON  The UB Post's new travel feature opens with a review of a tour to Kharkhorin. Those looking for their next holiday, whether it be a day trip or longer stay, can find practical information on locations, prices, and times combined with real inspiration in these experiences. Mongolia's original capital city Kharkhorin is the site of Mongolia’s ancient capital Karakorum. Located roughly 360 km from the city center (a seven hour drive), it is close to Khangai Nuruu National Park and home to nearly 9,000 people. Its main attraction is Erdene Zuu Monastery, however other things to do include a visit to the Karakorum Museum and do some hiking or take a horse trek. Further afield are Tovkhon Khiid and the beautiful lakes of Naiman Nuur. My tour was organized by UB Guesthouse. It cost 200 USD, and the itinerary for three days and two nights included Erdene Zuu Khiid, Karakorum Museum, the Mini Gobi, horse and camel riding, and a stay with a nomadic family. Everything I did, I loved. This trip was an exciting, interesting, and unique experience. In an attempt to convince you that you too should take such a holiday, let me break it down. Erdene Zuu Monastery This was our first stop. Built in 1586 from the ruins of Karakorum then razed by the Soviets in 1937, today the "Hundred Treasures" monastery has one active temple and three which have been transformed into museums. The glimpse that Erdene Zuu offered into Mongolia's religious history was fascinating, from the Khokh Temple (which is reportedly 200 years older than the monastery itself) to the three remaining temples dedicated to Buddha as a child, adolescent, and adult. The presence of these temples was all the more poignant for the empty spaces left from the Communist purges, but the statues and masks which survive are fantastically well-preserved. Our guide was very knowledgeable, offering information on every exhibit and building in a way which brought incredibly rich context to the lavish displays before us. Besides this, we were fortunate enough to see part of a ceremony in the Lavrin temple; we saw with new eyes the religion about which we had just learned. Outside the monastery walls were souvenir haggling opportunities aplenty. While the majority was tat, the wide variety of pins, knick-knacks, and jewellery offered a nice choice for take-home gifts. Karakorum Museum This state-of-the-art museum has an absolute wealth of artifacts and displays on ancient Karakorum. Stretching from prehistory to the excavations of Chinggis Khan's city in the 20th century, the small size of the museum did not inhibit just how much information it offers and the detail with which it does so. One example is a scale model of Karakorum, which included not just palaces and markets, but even buildings of worship for each of the 12 religions which were practiced there. However, the highlight was definitely an amazingly high quality virtual exploration of one excavated Turkish tomb, as well as a guide who was very eager to explain everything to us. Such a thorough tour left us needing to re-energize. The attached coffee shop was disappointingly lackluster, but it wasn't as though we visited Karakorum Museum for the caffeine. Around Kharkhorin For a late afternoon stretch of the legs after arriving in Kharkhorin, we hiked up a nearby hill in search of the stone turtles which guard the borders of the city. The views were truly beautiful -  unsurprising given this is a UNESCO World Heritage Site - and I enjoyed thinking of the turtles, symbols of eternity, being set down in the 13th century to protect Karakorum and still remaining here today. We located a monument tied in blue silk prayer scarves, with animal skulls lined up in front. Had we brought a guide with us we could have learned about why it was there, how old it was, and more, but nonetheless, it was lovely just to explore by ourselves. The only downside was that our journey to Kharkhorin took so long that we didn't have any more time to hike. Otherwise, it would have been amazing to visit Naiman Nuur, the beautiful lakes of the nature reserve of the same name. For those looking for a longer trip, it is possible to hire horses for a journey between Naiman Nuur and Orkhon Khurkhree, a famous waterfall about 35 km away from the lakes. There are limited things to do in the town itself. A lovely evening stroll through Kharkhorin took us to a quiet corner store, but everything our tour group could have required was provided by our hostess at the guesthouse-cum-ger camp. We stayed at Gaya’s Guesthouse, a certain recommendation for anyone planning to stay in Kharkhorin. Amenities included WiFi, showers, restrooms which were luxurious by countryside standards, and excellent food. Blankets were provided against the cold, and as before mentioned, we made the most of the fantastic location close to the hills. Mini Gobi Also known as Elsen-Tasarkhai, part of Khogno Khan National Park, we visited this semi-desert on the second day of our journey. The sand dunes stretch for 70 km and are a popular substitute for tourists who can’t visit the considerably greater expanse of the real Gobi. Here, if you are so inclined, you can have a camel ride or just take a walk among the dunes. On our trip we chose the latter option and revelled in the incredibly hot weather, having left Ulaanbaatar in snow the day before. The views were very striking, particularly the stark rock formations rising from the sand and grass, and made for great photo opportunities. My sole regret is that in aid of further "fun photos" I decided to roll down a sand dune. Needless to say,  this left me gritty for the rest of the trip, although it was funny. As with our hike around Kharkhorin, the experience would have been improved by having a guide who could explain the Mini Gobi’s history and formation and point out the nearby monastic ruins. Horse and camel riding IMG_20160506_190113While we may not have ridden camels at the Mongol Els, we did get the opportunity later on with our nomadic host family on the steppes. This was an hour and a half of mixed horse and camel trekking: prices for this at Elsen-Tasarkhai or Terelj National Park can range from 5,000 to 10,000 MNT per hour, but as ours was included in the cost of the tour I can’t offer an estimate for an unscheduled activity. However, I would go so far as to say that the experience of wandering over the steppe on camelback was priceless. This was possibly my favorite part of the weekend; the sight of the grasslands rolling away to distant mountains was impressive in a way I will not soon forget, and it was relaxing to simply take everything pace by pace. The guide kept firm hold of our mounts and paid close attention to us.  Without naming any names, a certain person was very nervous, but those who wished to were allowed to ride faster. I can’t claim it was particularly comfortable trotting along on a scrawny horse, but for someone who had never ridden before it was a memorable first experience. Staying with a nomadic family The final leg of our journey involved driving 50 km into the middle of nowhere on dirt tracks. If you’re looking for an "authentic" experience, this is definitely it. We spent a night in a wild, isolated setting with no other camps in sight and, to the shock of some, no modern facilities. Like our night at the guesthouse, we were well looked after with good food and lots of blankets. This stopover was actually a lot more business-like than expected. We were anticipating eating our meal with the family and other tourist group all together, but our party was served separately at an outside table. Being looked after to this degree was a lovely surprise (as we were also checked on through the night), but I would also have enjoyed spending time with the family and other guests. Perhaps the best part about staying in such an isolated place was the chance it gave us to experience the steppe at all hours of the day. We saw late afternoon as we crossed the plains on camelback, ate outside in early evening, took a twilight stroll to the hillside, then stargazed at midnight before waking up to the rising sun. Would I recommend this trip? That is a resounding yes. It was unbelievable value for the money and time, in part due to the relatively large group size (which brought costs down), and the itinerary was varied, exciting, and most importantly full. If you are going with a big group, I think it would be worthwhile hiring a guide to get more detail about the places you see and ensure you make the most of your trip, but with or without one this tour is still a must-do for anyone who wants a brief but intense taste of history and life in Mongolia. Particularly on the steppe, I experienced something I don’t think I will again: a great feeling of freedom, and a sensation of being so far away from everything I knew that I was in another world.