Mongolia – The Gobi Desert – Part 8
This day would be our last in the Gobi Desert, as our goal was the ancient capital of Kharkhorin (Karakorum). First established in the 13th century by Chinggis Khaan, it become the capital of the Mongol Empire under Chinggis’ son, Ögedei. Alas, it only lasted for 40 years, until Kublai Khan moved his capital to Khanbalik , now referred to as Beijing. Our last views of the Gobi included a race with a Russian van for several kilometers through the myriad dirt tracks. We stopped for a break at a small lake, then continued onwards to the Ugly, Russian-built, industrial town of Kharkhorin.
Even after we passed over into Central Mongolia, the landscape was still spectacular. We paused for a while to watch a flock of Eagles circling on thermals.
We arrived at the town in the early evening and found a cozy Ger Camp near the edge of town. Still the same 10,000 Tugriks – $5.00 – per person for the night.
The next morning were drove to the small museum next to the ruins of the Erdene Zuu Khiid (Hundred Treasures) Monastery. These ruins were one of the high points of the journey. The Lonely Planet Guide has this to say:
Founded in 1586 by Altai Khaan, Erdene Zuu (Hundred Treasures) was the first Buddhist monastery in Mongolia. It had between 60 and 100 temples, about 300 gers inside the walls and, at its peak, up to 1000 monks in residence.
The monastery went through periods of neglect and prosperity until finally the Stalinist purges of 1937 put it completely out of business. All but three of the temples in Erdene Zuu were destroyed and an unknown number of monks were either killed or sent to Siberian gulags.
However, a surprising number of statues, tsam masks and thangkas were saved – possibly with the help of a few sympathetic military officers. The items were buried in nearby mountains, or stored in local homes (at great risk to the residents).
The monastery remained closed until 1965, when it was permitted to reopen as a museum, but not as a place of worship. It was only with the collapse of communism in 1990 that religious freedom was restored and the monastery became active again. Today Erdene Zuu Khiid is considered by many to be the most important monastery in the country, though no doubt it’s a shadow of what it once was.