Gers, monasteries and sand dunes

Tuesday, September 18, 2018
Erdene Zuu Monastery, Övörkhangai, Mongolia
Peering out of the yurt at daybreak, we found the women were up and busy already, this time milking the cows. The calves were corralled in a small enclosure overnight (thus ensuring that the cows would not stray too far and also prevent the calves from depleting the milk intended for human consumption). We watched the entire milking operation with great interest. One by one the calves were let out of the corral. The freed calves stand still for a moment as if unsure of what to do with this new found liberty. Then the hunger pangs hit them and they run in a panic towards the group of mostly seated cows. The lucky calves get a welcoming moo from their mothers. Most have to jump to and fro before locating their mother who sits indifferently. The calves have to push hard to get the mother to stand up so they can feed.. The suckling calf would be given barely a couple of minutes to sate its hunger before it was literally kicked aside and tied to a static line. It was fascinating to watch their reaction to this daily ritual – indignation, resistance and eventually uncomprehending resignation. The bucket and small sitting stool went into place and busy hands filled the bucket with frothing white liquid.  There were over 30 calves to get through and it was a time consuming operation. As the calves jostle with each other to escape the corral so they can get at their mothers, the master opened the gate a notch to let one or two out. Sometimes he went to the deep end to drag one all the way to the front and let it out. We watched for a fair while before retiring back to our yurt for an instant breakfast prepared from our stash.
The first destination today was the secluded and atmospheric Shankh monastery. It was founded in 1648 and is said to have once housed Chinggis Khan’s black military banner. At one time the monastery was home to more than 1500 monks. Along with Erdene Zuu (more about it later) it is the only monastery in the region to have survived the 1937 purge.
It was closed in 1937, temples were burnt and many monks were shipped off to Siberia. Some of those who survived helped to reopen the place in early 1990s. Today around 25 monks are in residence.
About 25kms north of Shankh is the town of Kharkhorin, current name for Mongolia’s famed 13th century capital Karakorum. Having been somewhat disappointed arriving in modern day Samarkhand, we knew better than to expect the glories of the Middle Ages at Kharkhorin, a small nondescript Soviet built town. 
But in the mid-13th century, Karakorum, as it was then called, was a happening place. Chinggis Khan established a supply base here, and his son Ogedei ordered the construction of a proper capital, a decree that attracted traders, dignitaries and skilled workers from across Asia and Europe. The prosperous times lasted 40 years until Kublai moved the capital to Khanbalik (near Beijing), a decision that still incites some resentment among some Mongolians. Following the move to Beijing and the subsequent collapse of the Mongol empire, Karakorum was abandoned and then destroyed by vengeful Manchurian soldiers in 1388. Whatever was left of Karakorum was used to build the enormous monastery Erdene Zuu Khidd (Hundred Treasures monastery), which itself was badly damaged during the Stalinist purges.
The remains of this 16th century monastery is currently the main draw and offers some evocative insights into the region’s golden era. Set in a scenic valley, it was founded in 1586 by Altai Khaan and was the first Buddhist monastery in Mongolia. It went through periods of prosperity and neglect until 1937 when the Stalinist purges put it completely out of business. With the collapse of communism in 1990, religious freedom was restored and the monastery became active again. Today it is considered the most important monastery in the country though it is a shadow of what it once was. There are three temples in the compound which were not destroyed in the 1930s and are dedicated to the three stages of Buddha’s life: childhood, adolescence and adulthood. 
Outside the monastery is a large stone turtle. Four of these once marked the boundaries of ancient Karakorum, acting as protectors of the city. Turtles are considered symbols of eternity. Each turtle originally had an inscribed stone stela mounted vertically on its back.
Next door is the small but beautifully designed and well displayed Karakorum Museum. The exhibits include artifacts dating from the 13th and 14th centuries that were recovered from the immediate area. 
It was past midday and time for a picnic lunch outside the walls of Erdene Zuu. Out came a folding table, tiny stools to sit on, and the camping stove to boil (sorry, cook!) water. Done with lunch, we asked Bor to take us to King’s monument that was mentioned in the guidebook as a place with 360-degree views overlooking Kharkhorin and its encompassing valley. Bor could not figure out where we wanted to go. “King’s Monument?”, he kept repeating in bewilderment. What drives these deluded powder eating foreigners? We tried to explain what “king” meant. All we could do was keep repeating “khan” and making regal gestures. It took a phone call to someone in his family to help translate where we were asking to go. He knew the place, of course, just not the phrase we were referring to. Perched atop a hill overlooking the city, it was a series of artistic depictions of Mongolian geography and its place in the center of the world. It was also a refuge for goats trying to escape the harsh mid-day heat. On the other side of the monument was a beautiful vista of the Orkhon river flowing across a green basin. We learned that it flowed all the way to Lake Baykal and we happily informed Bor that we would there in a few days.
For several hours after, he kept repeating “King’s monument” as if to memorize it for the benefit of future clients. Our last stop in Kharkorin was what Bor coyly called the ‘magic stone’, a historic stone phallic sculpture used as a reminder for young monks to remain celibate after the elders felt that such discipline was sorely lacking.
We retraced the road east and the strong afternoon sun beat down hard when we reached Khogno Khan Uul Nature Reserve. The approx 450 reserve centers on a large, boulder-strewn rocky mountain that rises up surreally from its semi-desert surroundings. One surprising element that livens up the otherwise arid terrain is the sand dunes of Elsen-Tasarkai also known as Mongol Els. These large dunes stretch for some 70 kms and is a more convenient substitute to visiting the much more spectacular Khongoryn Els in the Gobi Desert.
Bor let us off the car to explore the dunes by ourselves while he caught a quick nap. Climbing sand dunes in the full glare of the afternoon sun was not a very attractive proposition and we made our way up a first smallish but respectable looking one in order to be able to say we have been here and done that.
Groups of camel herders hang around and sell camel rides here, but the memories of the camel ride in the Sahara caused RV to decline firmly though its common belief are the two-humped Bactrians here are a more comfortable ride than their one-humped relatives.
A few kms after the turn-off going north into the park, Bor got off the road again, this time heading directly to the Khogno Khan range.  After a 20 or 30 minute ride negotiating a deeply rutted track, we reached the top of a small hillock that housed a small tourist ger (yurt) camp.  We learned that this was where we were going to be spending the night and given the incredible location and the very neat and tidy appearance of the gers, we could not have been happier. We felt that we had gotten a good education the previous night on life in the Mongolian country and upscale appointments would not be too self indulgent.
Having a ger assigned, we headed further north to get close to the boulder strewn foot of the mountain. Again Bor let us off to do as we pleased when he stretched out his seat to get some rest. We explored briefly on foot and found a quiet, shady spot to relax and admire the surroundings. 
Back in the tourist ger, the camp hosts, an elderly couple, greeted us and Bor with cups of watery milk tea. Dusk and dawn next morning were primarily spent photographing the the goats, horses and Bactrian camels set against the dramatic backdrop of Khogno Khan.
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