Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Tuesday 8th October - Mongolia - Karakoram

Karakoram was purpose built by Genghis's third son and successor Ogodei Khan in 1235 as the capital of the Mongol empire. It was perhaps the most important city in the world for thirty short years before the capital was relocated to a Shangdu (Xanadu) by Ogodei's nephew Kublai Khan, the well-fed consolidator of his grandfather's Mongol empire. The city was eventually sacked by the Manchurians in 1380.

Now what little remains of the city is just one of the hundreds of cultural and archeological sites in the Orkhon Valley, declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2004. The sites range from Stone Age and bronze age discoveries all the way through to the modern temples.

We awoke to a beautiful morning in our ger at Gaya's Guesthouse in a small town overlooking the old site of Karakoram and the buddhist temple complex of Erdene Zuu, built from the stones of the destroyed city. Breakfast was fried eggs, frankfurters and coffee.

First stop of the day was the fantastic new museum built with Japanese investment in 2010 (which might explain the provision of clean modern indoor toilet facilities). This excellent museum with signage in English went a long way to putting Mongolian history before during and after the time of the Great Khaans into context for us with maps, models, videos, photos, well displayed artefacts and recreated discoveries.

Visible from the back window of the museum was the Buddhist temple complex of Erdene Zuu, established in 1585, tudor times back home, and added to over the centuries before being mostly destroyed by the communists in the 1930s. What do Henry viii, the Taliban, and Stalin's communists have in common? Blowing up beautiful religious sites and killing those who tried to interfere.

The complex is surrounded by huge stone walls, salvaged from the ruins of the old capital nearby, interspersed with some 80 stupas.

Inside there are still several temples of varying heritage and architectural style, some of which are still in use.

A short drive back up and over the hill past where we camped last night led to a surprising sight. I had been wondering why Genghis had decreed a city should be built here, the valley was huge, but I had seen no obvious sign of fresh water. On the other side of this hill lay the answer: A huge beautiful river winding through a flood plain, today with herds of horses, cattle and sheep grazing on its banks. An incredible view barely captured by these photos. There was even a large boat on the bank, something I really hadn't expected to see in land-locked Mongolia.

And then it was time to hit the road again, driving for a couple of hours back towards UB. 7km off the road was our destination tonight, Elsen Tasarkhai, a group of five gers sited by a rare cluster of trees and near a large sand dune. Our hosts took us out for a short ride on their ponies to the dunes and back again. Much fun, exchanging renditions of trafitional Mongolian songs for horse themed western pop numbers.

Then back to the homestead for some dinner, before tucking in for an early night. Cosy with a dram of whisky and the warmth of the wood-fired stove, to the sound of the family dog barking incessantly, finally replaced by the gentle patter of rain on the felt roof of the ger. 

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