Kharkhorin (Хархорин), historically known as Karakorum City (Хархорум), is a small ancient town centrally located in Mongolia. 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. Today, being a small town of less than 10,000 residents, the city of Kharkhorin acts as a base for anyone wanting to visit the region of Central Mongolia.
Bus from Dragon Bus Terminal in Ulaanbaatar leaves daily at 11 am and 2 pm. The journey takes about 7-hours and cost 17,000 MNT (US$6). As you got on the bus, you might be approached by some young locals to ask if you need accommodation in Kharkhorin.
Gaya drives to the bus station at designated time to fetch travellers who are interested in staying at her place. Gaya and her staff can speak good English to help travellers in need. She let you work out your own itinerary and helps to make arrangement through her contacts. I liked that she did not promote any tour unless needed, and even encourage backpackers to explore the area on ourselves.
Things to do in Kharkhorin
Experience a countryside’s Naadam Celebration
I was lucky to be in Kharkhorin at the right time to catch a Naadam celebration held at the monastery. Through this event, I got to watch traditional dances and games up-close, and interact with the locals. A small entry fee of 10,000 MNT (US$3.50) entitled you to own a “visa” to roam around freely catching all performances.
Visit Erdene Zuu Monastery
Erdene Zuu Khiid (Эрдэнэ Зуу хийд) is the oldest and largest surviving Buddhist monastery in Mongolia. The site has some of the few Buddhist temples that survived the Red Russia purges of the 1930′s. Not much remains of the ancient city’s ruins but it is still beautiful for a look around.
Explore Orkhon Valley Natural and Historical Reserve
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 along banks of the Orkhon river. Getting there from Kharkhorin is a 3.5-hours (per way) bumpy rough ride which requires experienced driver. I took a shared van with other travellers that cost 33,000 MNT (US$12/person).
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. You can climb down to the bottom of the gorge and take a cold dip under the waterfall!
Stay with a Nomad family
You can’t really say you have been to Mongolia if you did not experience a nomadic lifestyle! Mongolians are known to be very welcoming and extremely nice. Having dinners together and going through some old photos of their family with them was definitely the best memory this trip has left me with. With 4 meals, an overnight stay in their Ger and a day of horseback riding into the wild cost about US$40.
Things to note while staying / visiting Mongolian nomads:
- Enter or leave a Ger by the left side
- Accept food and drinks offered by your host
- Always finish your bowl of food and leave clean
- Hold a bowl/cup by the bottom, not by the top at the rim
- Use both hands or with your right hand but with the support at your elbow by your left hand when passing or receiving things
- Great people when entering the Ger
- Ask before taking pictures and introduce yourself
- Don’t lean on beams inside the Ger
- Don’t point the spout of a tea pot at someone, or the door
- Don’t put anything in a family’s stove without asking
- Don’t touch anyone’s head or hat, not even kids
- Don’t Ask for the names of large mountains, while the mountain is still in sight, locals believe it will upset the Mountain Gods
- Don’t step over food or objects on the ground
Learn Horseback Riding
I had a 7-hours horseback riding lesson with my nomadic 15-years old host. I guess it was so much fun than learning in a typical stable. Though at the end of the day my bum really hurt, but it was totally worth the pain!
Lastly, if you want to keep a track of all my photos and travels, remember to follow @wanderrsaurus on Instagram!