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On Thursday (September, 16th) my dad and I piled into an minibus and headed out of Ulaanbaator (UB). Outside of UB there are few paved roads, and most people get around on Land Cruisers, old Russian Jeeps, minibuses, motorcycles, or horses.
After several hours of driving (still on mostly paved roads) we reached Oguun Hid (Old Man Monastery). Present day Oguun Hid is mainly in ruins, a legacy of both the Manchus and the Soviets, although efforts have been made since Mongolian independence in 1990 to build new monasteries and continue the Buddhist traditions of the area.
|Panoramic View From Oguun Hid|
Oguun Hid has a storied history, an is considered to be a very sacred spot in Mongolia. It was founded in the mid 9th century by Lhalung Pelgyi Dorje, a monk/assassin- in those days monks often doubled as assassins, because they thought that in some cases assassinations could be used to prevent the outbreak of war and further death.
Oguun Hid thrived for around 800 years before it was destroyed in the late 1600s in the civil war between the Dzungars and the Manchus. Around one-thousand monks were brutally murdered during the destruction of Oguun Hid.
There are ruins of another monastery/ traditional art school at the base of what used to be Oguun Hid. This monastery was built by Zanabazar (Zanabazar is considered one of the greatest artists of Mongolia and was also ruled Mongolia as the first Bogd Khan or Holy King) in 1689 and stood until its destruction by the Soviets in the 1930s.
After leaving Oguun Hid, we spent the night in a urrta (tepee) camp. My dad and I were walking around taking photos just after dusk when I noticed something slithering in our path. It was a snake! I was too surprised to take any photos, but apparently snakes are very unusual in Mongolia and are considered good luck. At least it wasn’t a Mongolian Death Worm. Although a quick Google search just told me that in fact there are poisonous snakes in Mongolia
The next morning we woke to wild horses outside our urrta.
Friday we drove to the Shankh Monastery. One of Mongolia’s oldest monasteries, it was founded by Zanabazar.
From Shankh, we drove to the ancient city of Karakorum. Karakorum was once the capital of Mongolia, and a major stop along the Silk Road. Now, little remains of old Karakorum.
In Karakorum we visited Erdene Zuu. Erdene Zuu, built in the late 16th century, was built for the third Dalai Lama (who had visited Mongolia) by Zanabazar’s grandfather. The Soviets destroyed some of Erdene Zuu, but ultimately it was viewed as too important a cultural landmark to destroy and it was preserved as a “cultural center.” Today parts remain as a museum and a UNESCO site, and parts are again a functioning monastery.
|Panoramic View of Erdene Zuu|
That night we stayed in a ger (Mongolian tent) camp, before heading off on a long drive to Tuvkhen Monastery. Until now we had managed to stay primarily on paved roads, but the drive to Tuvkhen gave us our first true taste of Mongolian dirt roads. Amazingly our minibus continued plodding along. The thing about roads in Mongolia is that there aren’t any signs. We’ll be driving along one dirt path then, suddenly, the driver will turn onto another dirt path, and then another like he’s following some sort of built in GPS.
As we were driving the landscape around us slowly turned from endless steppe to forest. Several hours of bumpy dirt roads later we pulled off near Tuvkhen Monastery. Tuvkhen is atop a hill, and we rode horses for the final approach. I am happy to say I managed to ride without anyone holding a backup reign this time!
|The horses we rode to Tuvkhen|
After tying up the horses we explored around Tuvkhen. In addition to the main monastery, there are many smaller structures and caves that were used for meditation. Legend also has it that Zanabazar’s footprint is etched in one of the rocks there.
|Panoramic view from Tuvkhen Monastery|
As we started to head back it began to drizzle, which is considered good luck in Mongolia where rain is a rare commodity. Fortunately it didn’t pour, and we reached the minibus still relatively dry. We still had a long drive to the day’s final destination, Bayangovi, a desert area where we would be able to see camels.
After spending the night in another ger camp in Bayangovi we spent the next morning riding camels before heading back to Ulaanbaator. As someone who has never seen a camel up close, let alone ridden one, I was pleasantly surprised. The camels in Mongolia are bactrian (two-humped) and are supposed to be much nicer than the often maligned dromedary (one-humped) camel. I have no idea if there is any truth to the dromedary camel’s ill-nature, but the bactrain camels we rode were very friendly. The bactrian camel is also very soft to ride, since they have a lot of fur that allows them to withstand the harsh temperatures of Mongolia.