Our last full day before heading to Ulaan Baatar was bumpy and rough, and the rain stalked us without respite. We stopped a couple of times to try to cook lunch but the rain would soon catch up. Lunch ended up being cooked inside the van at Aijuna’s feet. Outside her hearing we all agreed we were looking forward to never having to eat bland boiled vegetable soup ever again, but it was so cold that we were content with just about anything hot!
We arrived at a tourist ger camp in the outskirts of Kharkorin, where we had to insert our own chimney and it took nine and a half hours for us to be given some wood for a fire. Not for lack of asking, or lack of trying. We sat around shivering in our sleeping bags. It did settle down and the sun even cam out for a few hours. We took that as a sign that it was time to go and visit the main attraction of the area – Erdene Zuu Monastery.
Erdene Zuu Khiid, possibly the oldest surviving Buddhist monastery in Mongolia, lies just outside the city of Kharkhorin – once an ancient city built by the successor of Chinggis Khan, now just a town with little of the ancient settlement remaining. Construction of the monastery was ordered in the mid-sixteenth century, shortly after Tibetan Buddhism had been declared the official state religion of Mongolia. Since then it has been dismantled and rebuilt and reconstructed on numerous occasions through the centuries. During the Communist era most of the temples and a large part of the wall was destroyed, and what survived did so only to show the Western world that the communist regime allowed freedom of religion [despite that it killed more than ten thousand Buddhist monks] and was, in any case, turned into a museum.
Today, Erdene Zuu is once again an active monastery complex set inside walls lined with 108 stupas. The temples and buildings inside take up barely any of the space, much of which remains bare and covered in long brown grass. Entry to the complex is free however to visit the most interesting temples and shrines a ticket is required. Photography requires a further fee, and for me it was well worth it.’
Three temples are set on a platform, with Chinese-style architecture and beautiful tiled, sloped roofs. A set of stairs leads up to them, and on either side smaller chapels line the way. Each chapel and temple is colourfully painted, although the paint has faded. Inside, though, is simply spectacular. Every surface is covered, be it frescoes on the wall or geometric paintings on the ceiling, hanging flags and pennants of different coloured silks, embroidered cloths covering the altar and benches and intricately decorated and almost frightening masks and sculptures watch your every move. And while the colours are muted by a layer of dust, the deep gold of the Buddha and the midnight blue of the statues still shine vividly.
And, in every corner, security cameras keep watch.
The smaller chapels continue to be museums, housing collections of Mongolian Buddhist paintings, ornaments and incredible embroideries. I was desperately hoping to find a similar style painting to take home, as they were unbelievably beautiful – unfortunately I was never able to find any. The intricate detail in the paintings, and their themes showing different avatars or personalities of the Buddha made for some fascinating art. Even John, who dislikes religious art, thought they were beautiful.
Outside the paid temple complex sits a partly-gold-painted stupa, and further down is the Lavrin Sum Temple – the only active temple in the monastery complex today. Outside the walls lies the only remnants of the ancient Kharkorin – a giant stone turtle that I didn’t visit. Instead I enjoyed the respite from the rain that had plagued us most of the day and watched domestic tourists explore the temple from a sunny bench.
Just outside the walls waited a man and woman in oilskin jackets hawking photos with eagles for a couple of dollars. It was a bit kitschy but looked cool, so we all had a go. I was surprised at how heavy they were, and while it wasn’t difficult to hold it up on my hand and wave it around a bit, so it would spread its wings, I hadn’t quite anticipated the weight!
We then went for a short walk to find a fenced statue of a penis, which apparently was sitting on a stone vagina. The guide told us that people visited it to pray for fertility, but other sources suggest it was somehow supposed to restrain the sexual impulses of monks. Whatever its purpose, the fence around it has a few blue ribbons so it appears it’s sacred to someone!
It was a freezing cold last night in the ger, as it was almost 10pm when we finally got some wood for the fire. And did we get it going quick! Soon enough the ger was toasty warm and smelled of woodsmoke – far more appealing than the sour milk smell it had earlier.
It was a very long drive back to Ulaan Baatar the next day, and we were all exhausted. Some hiccups with changing vehicles only extended the journey, but eventually we were back in UB and all eagerly awaiting a hot shower and clean clothes.