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The ancient city – Karakorum

Fri 21 Jun ’13 – day 41   It was a good night’s sleep until I was awoken by the yak herd scratching against the wooden fence that surrounded the camp.  It was 05:25 hours so off to the loo, wash, clean my teeth and then back to the ger for a snooze.

A slightly different type of pancake was served at breakfast and there was eggs and sausage if you wanted, I didn’t bother.

After loading the van we set off to walk the 5 km down to the river, passing the yak pens on the way, but after 50 minutes and 3½ km as the skies had opened and it was pouring down – no reason to get soaked, so all aboard the bus.

It was back the way we had come yesterday until we reached the main road; over 2½ hours to cover 24 km, but that did include the walk.

Wednesday turned right and we were now heading east for the first time on the trip on our way to our next overnight stop which was located outside Karakorum in the Orkhon river valley; the whole of this area is an UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The road on which we were travelling was one of main highways from UB to the west and north and was well travelled, but nothing like the M1 in rush hour.  The road surface varied from very good to absolutely diabolical; this was where the winter frost and ice had got under the tarmac and literally blown the road upwards, so there were huge potholes in places.  This meant that we had to make many excursions off the road and on to the gravel hard shoulder in order to make our way passed.

Where there was only one lane due to the state of road surface it was a game of chicken with the oncoming traffic to see who would give way first.

There were quite a few motorbikes on the road as people went from their ger to the local village, all ridden by men with their wife or son in the pillion; no crash helmets or leathers.

We went through one town – probably to 500 or so people, but had a school and small police station and lots of tiny shops and businesses stretched out along the road.

We rounded a corner and there was Karakorum in front of us – a provincial capital, so a large place with nearly 3000 inhabitants; this is where Ankhaa was born and brought up.

As soon as we crossed the bridge over the Orkhon River we immediately turned right off the road and down the track towards the ger camp.  Our bags were taken to our respective gers by the camp staff, all young ladies, then after a wash and brush up it was time for lunch.

When we arrive in the restaurant Ankhaa was eating a bowl of offal, a Mongolian delicacy; we eat similar things, but not all at once.

Lunch was a simple but filling meal and we then had some free time, so I retired to my ger as all this fresh air is making me sleep well.

We met again at 16:00 hours and set off to the local museum, it had only recently been opened having been built using Japanese money and now displays artefacts found during excavations around the ancient city.

The local male guide gave a commentary which Ankhaa translated; I am not generally a fan of museums, but this was very good and well laid out and with an amazing huge model of the whole ancient city.  Gave a donation and bought two postcards.

Then it was back into the mini-bus and up to the Great Imperial Map Monument which shows the extent of the Hun, Turkish and Mongol empires which were established at different times.  In the centre of the Monument was yet another Buddhist shrine in the shape of a tepee.


The Monument was situated on a hill about the town with tremendous views in the other direction up the Orkhon river valley; our ger camp could be seen on the flat plain to the south of the town.

Given such lush vegetation and an abundant source of water, it was easy to see why Chinggis Khan’s successor, his third son Ögedei, established the capital of the Mongol empire at this location.

Back at the ger camp it was time for dinner, so there was no time to shower and change; dumplings again lovely.

The restaurant was fairly full with a couple of tour parties beside us and the evening became a bit if a drinking session as everyone toasted each other saying “Toktoy”, the Mongolian word for cheers.  What the group of Mongolians at an adjacent table thought heaven only knows.  I stayed on the beer rather than transfer to vodka.  The drinking and toasting went on some time, so it was a good job that the camp had electric lights otherwise we would have been sitting in candlelight.  Eventually it was time for bed and this was the latest that we have turned in.

A good fun evening.


 Sat 22 Jun ’13 – day 42  I had yet another good night’s sleep and when I woke it was a hot shower and shave followed by breakfast.

We set off at 09:30 hours to walk the 3½ km to Erdene Zuu Khüd which is probably the earliest surviving Buddhist monastery in the country and was built on the site of and using the rubble from the ancient Mongolian capital Kharkhorin.

Just outside the camp entrance an eagle was sat on a wall watching for movement on the flat grass land so that it could go hunting.

The walk took us through the modern town of Karakorum, passed the police station and the lions guarding the bridge, then a rather ornate and expensive entrance to the grounds of a house (wood costs a lot) and the bus station.  Buses are either coaches for long distance travel, or Japanese mini-buses for distances up to about 100 miles; these are nearly always owner / driver and they tend to cram people and luggage inside, so are not a particularly comfortable way to travel.  They are however fairly cheap by western standards.





The bank had an ATM so we all used our ‘plastic’ to replenish our funds.

As the roads were very dry and dusty, we popped into a bakery to buy some water as our throats were parched.

The market comprised of ISO containers around a central building and these contained everything that anyone would need, from a complete ger, or replacement parts, to a new motor bike.  One container had a huge amount of boxes containing screws and nails, just like the hardware shops that used to exist in the UK where you bought just the amount you needed, rather than the pre-packed stocks sold in DIY shops today.  There were pots and pans of all shapes and sizes and even what we would consider an old-fashioned tin bath.

In the central building there were fruit and vegetable stalls, as well as others selling cosmetics, stationary or mobile phones; you can get a signal virtually anywhere in the country.  The one thing that wasn’t on sale was meal as families but and slaughter any animals they need.

Outside one of the small café’s the owner had set up some pool tables and I was rather surprised to see that the baize was in pretty good condition.

At the bottom end of the market were stalls selling dried curd, cheese and airag, fermented mares milk.  I tried some and it was an experience that I will not forget, or want to have again!!

As we went around the market Ankhaa met plenty of people she knew, relatives and friends, so she was always stopping to have a chat.  At one point she met a cousin with her husband and their young boy whom she had never seen.

Outside the market were men with their motorbike’s and these were the local taxis.

We carried on walking towards the monastery and passed crumbling Soviet era buildings when this was the centre of a wheat growing and processing area; the combined harvester had certainly seen better days.  Ankhaa said that the intensive cultivation had ruined the countryside and had left the land barren, but nowadays and thanks to lots of hard work by the local population they have managed to restore fields back to their original condition and grow crops in rotation.  Just enough wheat is planted every year to produce flour for the local area with another 10% shipped to UB.  The farmers had also planted trees along the water courses to provide a barrier against the wind thus cutting down the likelihood of erosion.  A local solution to a local problem.


We passed the outer walls which have stupes (towers) at regular intervals and arrived at the main entrance.  The enclosed area is huge as the high walls are over 2 km long.  The plan had been to build 108 stupes as this a number sacred in the Buddhist faith, but for whatever reason this was not achieved.

In 1939 the Communist leader Khorloogiin Choibalsan ordered the monastery to be destroyed, as part of a purge that obliterated hundreds of monasteries in Mongolia and resulted in over ten thousand monks being killed.  Three small temples and the external wall with the stupes survived the initial onslaught and in 1944 Stalin pressured Choibalsan to maintain the monastery, along with Gandan Monastery in Ulaanbaatar, as a showpiece for international visitors, such as US Vice President Henry Wallace, to prove that the communist regime allowed freedom of religion.  In 1947 the temples were converted into museums and for the four decades that followed Gandan Monastery became Mongolia’s only functioning monastery.

After the fall of Communism in Mongolia in 1990, the monastery was turned over to the lamas and Erdene Zuu again became a place of worship.  Today Erdene Zuu remains an active Buddhist monastery as well as a museum that is open to tourists.

We were told that the local population had managed to removed a large number of relics before the monastery was destroyed and then hid them in the surrounding countryside.  When worship recommenced their descendants recovered the relics and returned to the monastery.

The monastery was laid out in a very symmetrical pattern and there are plans to recreate the whole area as it was before the destruction.  I am getting a bit overdosed on temples, but made a donation to assist with the reconstruction of the largest temple which no longer exists.







We met a German couple who had shipped their motorbike and home-made sidecar all the way to UB by rail as they only had 4 weeks holiday and then they had flown in.

Outside the main entrance a number of locals had captured steppe eagles and were trying to get visitors to have their photo taken while holding the bird; for a small fee of course.  The eagles should be released back into the wild, but it would be almost impossible to persuade the handlers to do this.  It was a sad sight.

I bought a small model ger at one of the shops outside the monastery and this will sit with the rest of the souvenirs that I have collected on my travels around the world.

Having got back into the mini-bus we made a stop to buy more bottled water before heading to a felt factory which had been set up by a lady as a community project to give work to widows, single mums and disabled people – no welfare state here.

It was fascinating to see the process of taking raw wool, washing it and then putting it through the procedure of spinning, layering, washing and soaping, then finally sewing.  Both Chris and Nes had a go and combing raw wool and had some success (after a fashion).  The ladies husband was using a large needle (sail makers size) and thread to embroider a rug.  I bought a coaster and let the change as a donation as small amounts of money (by western standards) go a long way in this country.



Back at the ger camp we dropped off our bags and then had lunch; the meals here are not of the same standard as our previous stops, but are still not bad.

We had a free afternoon so I sat of the patio outside the restaurant and updated the blog while watching the thunderstorm move across the countryside on the far side of the town.

A bus pulled up containing a tour party, 6 Americans, 2 Australians and a Ukrainian, who were not expected.  The lady owner got everything sorted as the girls rushed around making up the beds and preparing a lunch.

The owner’s son was mentally disabled and hung around the vehicle park and liked to sit in the passenger’s seat and pretend that he was the driver.

As the storm had headed this way and the wind got up, I retired to my ger and pulled the top flap closed before having a snooze.

We should have had an archery competition at 18:00 hours but has the rain had set in we would try again later.

Had a hot shower and put on clean clothes ready for dinner; this was the first time that I had switched on an electric light since UB, but as there was low cloud and quite a strong wind blowing from the west it had got pretty dark.

Most of the tables in the restaurant were full and Ankhaa told us that the Mongolians at the adjacent table last night had included the local MP and they had been discussing the forthcoming Presidential elections.

After dinner Wednesday put on the uniform of a Mongol warrior from the time of Genghis Khan and he certainly looked the part.  As the rain had stopped we went into the field adjacent to the ger camp and watched him fire arrows from an authentic period bow.






The ger camp further up the valley was lit up like something that you would see in Las Vegas.

I bought a round of drinks to finish off another great evening and back in my ger one of the camp staff asked whether I wanted the stove lit as the temperature had dropped quite a lot.  No thanks as I would just overheat.

End of week six, only 58 days to go before I get home.