Robert Barnhill
Mostly About Photography

Mongolia: In the Footsteps of Genghis Khan, Part 2: Gandan Monastery, Kharkhorin, Naadam and Return

This image gallery covers the second part of our July, 2007, trip to Mongolia (for the first part click here). In this part of our tour we visit the Gandan Monastery in Ulaanbaatar, then depart for the Khustain National Park and its Prezewalski horses before going on to Kharkhorin. At Kharkhorin we enjoy a concert featuring traditional instruments, throat singing and acrobatics; view the annual Naadam Festival; inspect Turkic artifacts being preserved while a new museum is constructed; tour the Erdene-Zuu Monastery, and admire the local scenery. On the way back to Ulaanbaatar we have a "Lawrence of Arabia moment".


The Gandan Monastery (Gandantegchinlen Khiid) is a few blocks northwest of the central district of Ulaanbaatar. Built in a Tibetan style from a start in 1838, it is the largest monastery in Mongolia. Barely surviving the Marxist period (as a museum, rather than a place of worship), it was neglected until the 1990s. Now it has been partly refurbished and is served by over 500 monks.


The Migjed Janraisig (Janraisig Temple) houses the recently restored ten-meter tall gilt statue of Avalokitsvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion.
Jeanne, Charlene and Buju look at some items offered by a peddler, while John takes a rest break nearby. Jeanne is our group's official shopper.

Dechengalpa Datsan (a university monastery, left), and a prayer hall.


A monk leaves the library of the monastery, after giving us a tour (it is normally closed to visitors). Inside are a million Buddhist Sutras in Mongolian, Tibetan and Sanskrit scripts, many other illuminated manuscripts, and various religious and cultural objects that survived the communist era.

Leaving Ulaanbaatar, we are on the road again, this time heading west. The truck ahead of us is hauling someone's ger to a new home on the steppe.


Our overnight spot will be the Khustain National Park Ger Camp.


After checking in, we drive southward into Khustain National Park to find the rare wild takhi, or Prezewalski horses, for which this park provides protected habitat.

But first we stop to look at the "Ongot Monument Ensemble", a collection of over 30 statues of men and animals and over 500 standing stones, dating from the sixth and seventh centuries A.D. when these lands were part of the Turkish Empire.

Then we move further into the park and find the wild takhi, or Prezewalski horses. This affectionate pair and nearby colt are part of a group of four that we find grazing along a grassy slope not far from the road. Prezewalski horses are a unique species with 66 chromosomes (all other horses have 64). These were the original wild horses of Mongolia, at one time roaming the grassy steppes in large herds. They were hunted to extinction in Mongolia by 1969. A handful of them survived in European zoos, and a concerted international effort was made to breed them and preserve the species. They were re-introduced to Mongolia in the 1990s, and now there are about 200 in several protected areas including Khustain National Park. In appearance, they are sandy-colored with a dark stripe on the back, a short dark erect mane, and a heavier skull and jaw than the modern domesticated horse.


The next morning we are ready to leave for Kharkhorin, but our vehicles are surrounded by a herd of horses (the domesticated kind).

Later we must wait again as a group of nomads herd their sheep and goats across the road, along with their household effects carried by camels.


The beautiful fertile valley of the Orkhon River and its surrounding mountains have been of paramount importance to the people and history of Mongolia since the time of the Xiongnus (3rd century BC – 5th century AD). The Xiongnus were followed by the Turks, who considered a nearby sacred mountain (Ötüken) to be the divine source of power to rule the Turkic tribes, and capitals of the Gokturk and Uighur Empires were located here (6th -8th centuries). Genghis Khan and his successor Ogedei Khan made a capital here in the early 13th century, and the remains of Ogedei's palace lie near the Erdene-Zuu Monastery, just outside Kharkhorin. The present-day city of Kharkhorin is shown below. We will be here a couple of days to visit some of these sites, to see the Naadam Festival, and to enjoy the scenery.


Description of the ancient capital provided by the Zanabazar Museum in Ulaanbaatar.


At Kharkhorin we stay at the Anar Ger Camp.



After dinner the staff prepare the flaps of our gers for the night, while Charlene makes a few notes in her laptop.

Meanwhile the evening is pleasant for strolling along the floodplain of the Orkhon River, and musicians gather to give us a late evening performance.

Local artists with traditional costumes and instruments perform a concert for us, including throat-singing (left) and acrobatics.


Today it is time for the annual Naadam Festival, held not only in Ulaanbaatar but also in many other places in Mongolia. Since we are at Kharkhorin, we will see the local version here. It will be on a much smaller scale, but without so many thousands of spectators we can be much closer to the events and experience Naadam in a more authentic way. Naadam features cross country horse racing, wrestling and archery. We miss the archery competition, which may have been held at another time or place, but we are here for the finish of the horse race and the wrestling competition. Above, some Mongolian men arrive to watch the horses cross the finish line.


The Kharkhorin Fire Department is here too.


The horse race covers a cross country course of 20km or so. The jockeys are children of 5-13 years old and we see some of them here as they approach the finish line. Some are riding bareback.


The judges confer about something.


Meanwhile the reviewing stands are filling with spectators gathering to see the awards ceremony and the wrestling competition.


Some of the contenders are paraded past the stands, prizes are awarded, and the proudest horses get decorated with ribbons.


Now the wrestlers start "warming up". It is plenty hot enough anyway, we notice.


"I'm the greatest", he proclaims.

And perhaps he is!


Spectators seem satisfied. The younger one holds a new cooking pot, which he may have won in competition.


The judges seem very pleased.


And children race home after the festivities.


We make an excursion to the north from Kharkhorin to find the Orkhon Turkish Monuments (from early 8th century), first discovered in 1889 by Russian scholar N. M. Yadrintsev. Along with the Tonyukuk steles we had seen a few days earlier, these bear inscriptions in the earliest known form of the Turkish language.

With assistance from the modern state of Turkey, a museum building is being built here to house and protect the monuments. At present construction has halted, however, and most of the steles and other artifacts remain stored in a crude shed under tarpaulins (below). John has arranged for us to be able to directly examine the protected objects, some of which are shown below.





The unfinished building awaits resumption of construction.

A caretaker uncovers the most vulnerable stele, which has been broken and repaired. It is the only one to have been moved into the unfinished museum building for protection so far.

A future entrance gate stands forlornly to the side as a thunderstorm passes over.


Part of our excursion from Kharkhorin to the Orkhon Turkish Monuments is along a rarity in Mongolia -- a paved road. Alas, this road is out in places where culverts are being installed, so the authorities have closed it, Mongolian style, by dumping a bunch of rocks across it. Motorists wanting to take advantage of the intact parts solve the problem by re-opening the road, Mongolian style -- they shove the rocks off of the road. We are happy to join them for a break from driving the off-road dirt tracks. Our drivers just have to keep a sharp eye on the road, and leave it when necessary to go around the gaps and torn up spots.


Back at Kharkhorin again, we climb a hillside to the Empire of the Steppes Monument (below), from where we get another view of the beautiful Orkhon River valley. The monument has three faces, each with a mosaic map of one of three periods of Mongolian history: The Hunnu Period (3rd-2nd centuries BC), Turkic Period (6th-8th centuries) and Mongol Period (13th-14th centuries).


The face honoring the Mongol period (left) seems to be the favorite of the resident mountain goats, who enjoy the rocky slopes as well as the food offerings left by visitors.


Looking to the northeast, we see the 108 stupas surrounding the (Tibetan Buddhist) Erdene-Zuu Monastery, the oldest one in Mongolia. It was first built in 1585, using stones from the Kharkhorin palace of the Mongol Empire. The monastery was destroyed in the 17th century, but was rebuilt in the 18th century and by 1872 had 62 temples inside. All but 3 of the temples were destroyed in 1939 by the communist regime, leaving only the wall and stupas. What was left was allowed to operate only as a museum until the communists fell in 1990. Since then it has been a functioning monastery and many temples have been rebuilt or restored. We now go down the hill and tour the monastery. I do not have detailed information sufficient to identify the particular temples and religious objects in the photographs below, so I will simply show the pictures without further comment.


Leaving Kharkhorin, we start back to Ulaanbaatar, getting as far as the Bayan Ells, where we stop at the Bayan Gobi ger camp.


Leaving there the next morning we experience a "Lawrence of Arabia moment" as we climb up golden sand dunes and see these camels trekking by. Although not actually a desert and certainly not the Gobi, this region of Mongolia has the sand dunes and camels to make us feel like we are in the Sahara. These camels are actually kept for tourists to ride, and the wider view (below) makes it clear that we are still in the middle of Mongolia, not the Sahara.

Leaving the Bayan Ells, we complete our Journey back to Ulaanbaatar.


This concludes the second part of our visit to Mongolia. For the third part, click here.


All photographic content herein is Copyright © Robert Barnhill 2009. All rights are reserved.