The Orkhon Valley encompasses 121.967 hectares, and can be found in Central-Mongolia. It also includes Kharkhorum, the 13th and 14th century capital of Chinggis (Genghis) Khan's vast Empire. The inclusion of this site is a tribute to Mongolia's nomadic culture, that even now persists.
Further, it illustrates several significant stages in human history. First and foremost it was the centre of the Mongolian Empire; secondly it reflects a particular Mongolian variation of Turkish power; thirdly, the Tuvkhun hermitage monastery was the setting for the development of a Mongolian form of Buddhism; and fourthly, Khar Balgas, reflects the Uighur urban culture in the capital of the Uighur Empire.
Map of Orkhon ValleyLoad map
Visit in March 2022
This was the first Site that I visited during my hastily-arranged trip to Mongolia, just after the country had reopened after being closed for the previous two years. Though it is not ideal, it is possible to make a rewarding visit to this Site during the final, at least according to the calendar, week of winter. However, that particular time of the year did significantly affect the type of visit that I was able to make. While I normally would have preferred to travel to the Site and back by bicycling—there is now a reasonable-quality paved road for the entire distance from Ulaanbaatar to Kharkorin—the limited amount of time I had available and, more importantly, the still-cold weather ruled out that option. I also considered traveling on my own to Kharkorin by bus and then finding someone locally to take me around to the interesting locations. However, while I think that would be possible in the summertime, and more so in a “normal” year, I was not confident that I would be able to make those arrangements under the circumstances, especially given that some tourism facilities and services had not completely restarted at the time. Therefore, I needed to book a package tour from a guiding company based in Ulaanbaatar. The trip would require four days, one to travel most of the way to the Site, two for visiting various points of interest, and one to return to UB, with three nights accommodation in traditional Gers included.
I found all of the guides in Mongolia to be very willing to adjust their standard itineraries to suit the interests of their clients, though I cannot say if that amenability was enhanced by a desire to attract customers after the two-year hiatus. In any case, the first place we visited was a lengthy section of the Orkhon River Valley within the Core Zone, specifically, the portion that extends for a fairly long distance to the southwest from Kharkorin, and which is not really where you would think you should go if you searched for “Orkhon Valley” on Google Maps. In the past there were cultural relics to be seen in that area, such as burial mounds and Deerstones, but there was some disagreement among area guides as to whether they were still present, or had all been taken away to museums, so that day was primarily for natural experiences. Travel up the valley was along dirt roads, of variable quality, and I was most impressed that, like almost all of Mongolia, the Valley was completely free of fences. That allowed large herds of herbivores to roam around freely, as it should always be, and these included the standard varieties, sheep, cows, Cashmere goats, but also Yaks, and, of course, large numbers of Mongolian Horses, while outside the core zone small herds of semi-domestic Bactrian Camels and wild Mongolian Gazelle were also seen. That section of the visit concluded with a stop at the 20-meter-tall Orkhon Waterfall, which actually belongs to a smaller tributary of the Orkhon, and which was still completely frozen solid in late March.
The one place I specifically requested to visit was Khar Balgas. Like many people, I have always primarily associated the Orkhon Valley Site with Karakorum, the capital city of the Mongols, initiated by Chinggis Kahn and completed by his sons. However, when briefly researching this visit, I was interested to learn that the Valley was also very important for other societies that predated the Mongols. One of those was the Uighur Khanate, which resided in the Valley five hundred years before the founding of Karakorum, and had as its capital, Khar Balgas. The city ruins are seldom visited today, in fact, my guide had not been there for fourteen years, and our driver not for three. Nevertheless, while the site is not exactly well-advertised, it is not particularly difficult to reach, and could be done so independently by those not adverse to that sort of thing. To do that, one first leaves Kharkorin on the main road that heads to the northwest, traveling for about twenty kilometers before turning right, northward, onto an unmarked dirt road at 47.326583,102.6719175, and then continuing generally north for another fifteen kilometers across a broad, flat section of steppe. Like all dirt roads in Mongolia, this one exists only where local people have been driving vehicles over the grasslands recently, however, with a GPS and a decent satellite map, it would not be very difficult to stay on track. Especially since over the last few kilometers the Khar Balgas ruins are the only feature that can be seen looming ahead.
In particular, the only remains that are easily visible today are the rectangular walls of the old Palace complex, formerly as much as twelve meters high, a large Stupa contained within, the smaller remains of the adjacent Palace, and several smaller Stupas outside the walls, along the north and south sides, all of which have been heavily eroded. Pictured here is the view from atop the remains of the large Stupa, looking towards the northwest corner of the outer walls. These ruins are located at 47.431314,102.658962, and, while it does require a considerable amount of imagination to perceive rest of the city in person, as only low outlines of former building foundations remain today, by viewing the Satellite View at maximum magnification the entire city plan is clearly visible, which in its heyday extended over an area of thirty-two square kilometers, to the west of the Palace. Though there also is not much remaining of the main complex, some interesting features can still be seen. One of those is the construction method used to build the walls and Stupas, which I think is fairly unique, whereby tall structures were built up by successively laying down 15-cm thick layers of an aggregate of mud and small river stones (presumably from the Orkhon River.) This gives the appearance (and I really hate making this comparison,) that all the structures were created using a giant 3-D printer. Inside the walls, around where the Palace formerly was, numerous fragments of what appear to have been curved roofing tiles can be found, each having one face displaying an embossed pattern from some type of woven fabric that was presumably used in their production. Apart from two information display panels outside the walls, there are no other facilities at the ruins site, no entrance fee, and visitors can wander around as long as they like.
The Erdene Zuu Monastery, adjacent to the Karakorum city archeological site, and possibly built on top of the ruins of the Khan's palace, is still the primary place of interest when visiting this Site, however. I was a bit taken aback by the half-empty feeling of the area within the Monastery walls, which results from the fact that most of its buildings were destroyed in the 1930s by the Communist government of the time. Today the three main temples, similar in appearance to those in China or Korea, are maintained as exhibits, while the smaller Tibetan-style temple is still in active use.
Before returning back to UB on our final day, there was enough time to visit the Karakorum Museum. Having been established in 2011, the museum, while not especially large, now contains a very nice collection of artifacts from the Orkhon Valley tracing back to Karakorum and its predecessors, including a few pieces of decorative architectural stonework from Khar Balgas. However, it is a fairly small set of items that were uncovered from the Karakorum town site by a Mongolian-German archeological dig in 2008 which really provides a meaningful insight into that period of time, since there is very little of Karakorum that can be seen out in the environment today.
Also at the museum was an excellent special exhibit on the Shoroon Bumbagar Tomb. Located about 120 km northeast of Kharkorin, this tomb was only discovered in 2011 by Mongolian and Kazak archeologists, and is notable for never having been looted and for the exceptional murals that adorned its underground walls. The tomb, dated to the 7th century CE, was built for a nomadic nobleman from the Turkic society, and the Museum displays several artifacts, of the type that would have been valued by a nomad, such as small personal items, jewelry, and several Byzantine coins. Also displayed are sixty, from a total of ninety, miniature human figurines found in an annex of the tomb, each with a distinct face, which are slightly reminiscent of the terra-cotta warriors of Qin’s Mausoleum in Xi’an. There is a short, though fascinating, video which describes the murals. UNESCO is already working with the Mongolian authorities to find ways to preserve the murals, so it seems likely that this tomb will eventually find its way onto Mongolia’s Tentative List, either as a new Site, or, as I think would be best, as an extension to the Orkhon Valley.
If that tomb does get added, it will probably always be rather difficult to visit. However, that would fit in with the nature of the Orkhon Valley Site, in general, which is a very worthwhile Site, but one which does require a little extra effort to appreciate fully.
Read more from Michael Ayers here.
As an inveterate “listophile” I maintain a large number of travel-related lists. “Ancient Capital Cities of the World” is one – so the chance to “pick up” that of Ghengis Khan at Kharkhorin (“Karakorum”) in Mongolia was not to be missed! In fact, if you visit Mongolia, you are not likely to miss it. Mongolia has many merits as a destination (particularly its wonderful open spaces and the chance to see/experience a nomadic lifestyle) but historical remains are not a major feature. The nature of the country and its people’s lifestyle meant that Buddhist monasteries were the main permanent buildings and the Stalinist purges of the 1930s destroyed many of these. So, almost any tour of the country is likely to take in the main restored monasteries in Ulaan Baatar and Erdene Zuu.
Mongolia has chosen to badge this WHS inscription as “Orkhon Valley Cultural Landscape” rather than specifically as “Karakorum” or the main monastery of the area at Erdene Zuu. A good choice I think. By including all the old sites AND the pastureland, still spotted by gers (yurts) and the herds of horses, yak and camels of nomad families, it ties together past and present very nicely and emphasises the continuity of lifestyle involved. The landscape of the valley and the nearby holy mountains with their shamanistic heritage provides a microcosm of Mongolian culture and is well worth spending a couple of days to see. We were a “group” of just 2 persons with a Mongolian guide/interpreter and the chance to visit/stay with families in their yurts and exchange experiences and questions on a near 1 to 1 basis was one of the highlights of the trip. Ger life is an interesting mixture of old and new – some families now have their own little wind powered generators for their TV batteries!
There is in fact very little of Karakorum left – mainly 2 of the 4 “Turtle Rocks” which marked the boundary of the ancient city. Locals have decked them with rather fetching collars of Buddhist silk! Far more impressive is the monastery, inside an enormous wall of over 100 linked stupas. The monasteries have been at least partially restored and function again as a centre of “Yellow Hat” Lamaism. There are likely to be ceremonies in progress both inside and outside the monasteries when you visit (photo)
Karakorum nowadays is a small town in the center of Mongolia. There's even a road there from Ulan Bator, one of the few in Mongolia. The town hosts the country's major tourist attraction: Erdene Zuu monastery. So we weren't the only visitors here. The monastery buildings are encircled by a wall of 108 white stupas: just great!
The next day, after staying the night in a comfortable ger camp, we drove on to Tövkin Khid. This is a smaller monastery in the mountains, a few hours from Karakorum. The drive to get there is completely off-road, crossing a river and driving along the paths in the grasslands. This day was undoubtedly the best day of my stay in Mongolia: I wished it would never end. The landscape around here is greener and hillier than in the rest of Central Mongolia, and so pure. We also visited a nomadic family on the move, dismantling their ger with help from their neighbours.
In the Orkhon area you can see quite a number of gers from nomadic families, maybe because of the proximity of a 'big city'. This traditional way of living is still quite common in rural areas, though I wonder for how long. The grasslands are getting drier and drier by the year.
Erdene Zuu is a remarkable place. I was lucky enough to be there almost on my own, and I found the atmosphere of remoteness and history almost tangible. Apart form the slightly tacky, but almost inevitable gift shop and trinket sellers it is possible to get a feeling for the amazing ancient society that was based around here. The town nearby is nothign to write home about, but was once home to Chinggis Khan and his warroir hordes. That they survived in such a remote place is one thing; that they ruled such a huge part of the world from such a place is something else entirely.
Needs proposal for a wider cultural landscape
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