About halfway through three weeks in the Mongolian countryside, we spluttered into the little city of Karakorum in the late afternoon as the light was beginning to soften. It had been a typically beautiful Mongolian day and we’d spent most of it bouncing around in the back of a Russian van.
Once the ancient capital of Mongolia, Karakorum today is a tiny city by Western standards – it’s home to less than 10,000 people. But by Mongolian standards, that’s actually pretty substantial. And like all Mongolian towns, it appears suddenly and out of nowhere, incongruous with, and dwarfed by, the surrounding landscape.
The main reason for our visit to Karakorum was to visit the monastery at Erdene Zuu. Our driver dropped us off not long before closing, and he and our translator went off to buy petrol and supplies for our upcoming days in the Gobi, promising to be back in an hour.
There are actually two cities in Karakorum – the modern town pictured above and the ruins of the ancient one, which lie beside the monastery. In the 13th century, Chinggis Khan’s succesor, a guy called Ögedei, built a wall around the city and it became an important centre for world politics until Kublai Khan decided to move the capital elsewhere some years later. The city was eventually destroyed by the Chinese.
Erdene Zuu wasn’t built until the late 16th century, after the introduction of Tibetan buddhism into Mongolia. The enclosing walls were made up of stones from the ruins of Karakorum and feature 100 stupas.
The monastery was destroyed in the late 1930s, along with plenty of other monasteries and monks all over Mongolia. A small section of the complex remained, and this is what tourists can visit today.
After the fall of communism in Mongolia in 1990, the site was once again allowed to become a functioning monastery and today it remains a place of worship and monks can once again care for the grounds.
The monastery has an imposing presence, and the landscape is hauntingly beautiful. Apart from a small group of Mongolian tourists, we were the only people there. I broke away from our group to wander the grounds and listen to a bell atop one of the stupas tinkling in the wind.
The monastery was a precursor of what I was to see and experience in Tibet. Tibetan Buddhist monasteries are powerfully moving, and although I’m not particularly spiritual they always feel extremely special, and make me wonder about the divine.
As we explored, the wind began to pick up. The sky on the other side of the monastery walls began to thicken and darken – it looked like rain, coming in from the steppe.
As the storm drew closer the colours in the air changed and it quickly became apparent it wasn’t going to rain – because the air was full of dust, being swept in from the steppe. The afternoon darkened and it seemed that night was coming early to Karakorum.
We took refuge from the dust in a small ger that had been set up in the monastery grounds. Inside was a group of monks, chanting and blessing scrolls that could be purchased from a small gift stand. We sat and listened to the chanting and a helpful Mongolian tourist explained to us in near perfect and accent-less English the process of blessing the scrolls.
While the monks chanted, the storm outside grew ferocious, tearing open the door of the ger. It took two people to get it closed again.
When the wind died down somewhat, we ventured back outside to our waiting van. On the way, we passed two eagles chained to posts outside the monastery. Their keepers had abandoned them briefly to shelter from the storm. The huge birds flapped uselessly about in the wind like balloons tied to a string. But they were going nowhere.
Back in the van, our translator explained that dust storms like this could last for days. If that was to be the case, our upcoming time in the Gobi was going to be quite uncomfortable.
We drove the few hundred metres to our ger camp, and unpacked the van. The wind eventually died down and rain and cold air washed away the dust.
While we were preparing our nests of sleeping bags and blankets for the night, a man in a traditional del cloak and carrying a horse fiddle entered our ger. He offered to perform traditional throat singing for us. Of course we said yes.