Kharkhorin: Ancient Capital City of Mongolia


Kharkhorin (Хархорин), historically known as Karakorum City (Хархорум), is a small ancient town located 373-kilometers Southwest of Ulaanbaatar. Despite being small size and remote, it was one of the most important cities in the history of the Silk Road because of its strategically location on the most important east-west route across Mongolia. Not much remains of the ancient city’s ruins but a beautiful Buddhist monastery called Erdene Zuu was built on the site in the late 16th century.

Getting There

Take a bus from Dragon Bus Terminal. Bus leaves daily at 1100hrs and 1400hrs. The journey takes about 6-hours and cost 17,000MNT (USD7). When boarding the bus, you will be approached by a little girl who asked if you have booked any accommodation in Kharkhorin. I later found out she is the older daughter of Gaya’s Guesthouse owner. 

Where to Stay

Hostelworld has 2 hostels in Kharkhorin: Gaya’s Guesthouse and Family Guesthouse Ger Camp. (There aren’t many places to stay honestly). I stayed at Gaya’s Guesthouse and it was one of the best experience I had.

Bus Station in Kharkhorin
Easy-going and bubbly Gaya!

Gaya waited at the bus station and fetch travelers who were planning to stay at her place. She makes you feel comfortable like home and her staff can speak English! Her youngest daughter helped out in the hostel (’cause it’s summer holiday) and she remembered all the guests’ names! Gaya will let you work out your own itinerary and she will help to make arrangement. I like that she will not ask you to take any tour in the first place, and even encourage you to explore the town yourself as everywhere is walking distance from her guesthouse. 

Shared ger: USD8 per night
Did I forget to mention they provide FREE awesome brekkie?!

If you get a little lazy to walk out to eat, you may order their meals-for-the-day at USD3 (lunch and dinner). 

What to do

Experience Naadam Festival at the Countryside 

The big attraction in Kharkhorin is Erdene Zuu Khiid (Эрдэнэ Зуу хийд), which is the oldest and largest existing Buddhist monastery in Mongolia. The site has some of the few Buddhist temples that survived the Red Russia purges of the 1930′s. Only a small portion of the complex has survived until today but it is still good for a look around.

I was lucky to be in time to catch the mini Naadam festival held at the monastery. Through this event, I got to watch traditional performances, managed to talk to some locals to understand more about Naadam. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see how the traditional game, Shagai (known as knucklebones), been played.  

Day-pass to enter the monastery and “peace tent” for all the performances (10,000MNT / USD4). This is what was known as “visa” in Chinggis Khan era
Time schedules of different performances

I thought I was late for the opening ceremony, but luckily Mongolians aren’t very good for being on-time.

Pop-up stalls selling food and traditional gifts

“The Queen”

Managed to get good view for opening ceremony

Before the rest of the performances happening in the “peace tent”, I explored the monastery in the mean time. 
Didn’t expect the place to be so empty!
A total of 108 stupas surround the monastery
The “Golden” Stupa
One of the few existing temples

You may pay for a guide to explain more about the history

An old man turning the prayer wheels

Time for some Mongolian’s traditional dances!

I’m pretty surprised by their aerobics performances!
Explore a World Heritage Site

Classified in 2004 as World Heritage Site by UNESCO as the cradle of nomadic Mongolia, Orkhon Valley Cultural Landscape (Орхоны хөндийн соёлын дурсгал), covers an extensive area of pastureland that stretches approximately 80km from long and 15 km wide on both banks of the Orkhon river. Getting there from Kharkhorin is a 3.5-hours rough ride (and another 3.5-hours back!) which requires experienced driver and a good 4WD.

Russian Vans are commonly used in Mongolia
Great place doesn’t need grand entrance
When I thought we had reached, but it’s just the beginning of the worst part of the ride
Hardly had the chance to experience this kind of ride! 
Along the way is just sheep and more sheep!
Yay!! Finally arrived somewhere and come to a stop
Had to do some hiking as vehicles are not allowed to enter any further
Cows lazing around under the sun
Hello Mr.Yak!
Nomad kids

The Orkhon Falls are actually the Ulaan Tsutgalan River Falls. The river falls into a spectacular canyon formed after an earthquake and a volcanic eruption more than 20,000 years ago, forming a cascade of 20 meters high and 10 meters wide. About 25-meters downstream from the waterfall you can climb down to the bottom of the gorge; it’s 22-meters deep and dotted with pine trees. 

And here’s the waterfall! Not exactly what I’ve imagined though…
Really not a big waterfall
Getting down to the bottom of the fall
Too cold for a dip
Only one way up and down
Ovoo: sacred stone heaps used as altars or shrines
Anybody lost a bone??

Shared van (round trip): 35,000MNT (USD15)

National park fee: 3,000MNT (USD1)

Stay with a Nomad Family

If you didn’t stay with at least one nomad family, you can’t really say you have been to Mongolia! This nomad family I stayed with is Gaya’s friend. With meals, an overnight stay in their ger and a day of horseback riding into the wild cost about USD40.

The youngest son of the family
Freshly-made dumplings!
Fresh warm milk~~
The only cat I saw in Mongolia!
Warmer cum stove
Airag: fermented mare milk mixed with ferment from the year before in a big cow bag (khökhüür)
Steam dumplings
Awesome nomad hosts!

Learn Horseback Riding

I had a 6-hours horseback riding lesson by my nomad host’s 15-years old son. I guess it was so much fun than learning in a typical stable. Though at the end of the day my butt really hurt, but it was totally worth the pain!

Me and my 15-years old coach
My horse is the youngest so he always the follower
Thirsty from the long trek
Snack time!
Back to “work”
“Shaun” everywhere~~
Nature + Peace

Such a small old town, yet so much more to do and see!

A day dreamer who has a passion in roaming around the world getting lost, experiencing new cultures and meeting the locals. I enjoy staying with a local home (i.e couchsurfing) and work with them (i.e workaway)!

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