The Road

Erdene Zuu – Mongolia’s oldest buddhist monastery that survived centuries of persecution

The scorching sun woke us up early in the morning near Kharkhorin town along the river of Orkhon. We ran quickly to cool our bodies in the water and enjoyed its coolness. Our camping place was on a wide steppe and only a few trees and the rugged sandstone wall, that silenced sounds of the adjacent highway, gave us a shadow. After a closer look it seemed that the place was kind of an animal burial ground… here and there bodies of birds, a ram’s skull in a preserved state and horse’s  leg chopped off with all its flesh! We didn’t have time to process everything we saw because soon, after walking to the main road, a car filled with people stopped next to us. There was no common language, but after saying the name of the destination and exchanging smiles, as always,we were offered a ride.

On the outskirts of the city of the Kharkhorin, where we arrived, are the ruins of the ancient city of Karakorum and the Erdene Zuu Monastery (which are both part of the Orkhon Valley Cultural Landscape World Heritage Site). Nowadays there’s not much left of the Karakorum, which once was the capital of the world’s largest empire and perhaps one of the most important stopping points on the Silk Road during the 12th and 13th centuries. Thanks to the reporters of ancient travellers, like to the travelling monk William of Rubruck, there are detailed descriptions about the city on its glorious days. Currently only minor ruins and a stone turtle statue is left on a steppe remains of the time when the place used to be busy centrum. 

To build the Erdene Zuu in 1585, stones from the ruins of the ancient town were used in its structure. It’s the oldest Buddhist monastery in Mongolia that miraculously survived centuries of persecution and religious purges. Inside the area mantras chanted by monks silenced us to listen carefully beautiful voices and look closely at the temples that are still standing strong. The monastery was affiliated with the Gelug sect of Tibetan Buddhism, which we could admire in its Chinese-style roofs covered with green tiles. It was hard to believe that such a peaceful place was a scene of horror many times, the most recent in 1939 when tens of thousands of monks were killed and imprisoned, and most of the temples were destroyed in the hands of the communist leader of Mongolia. Either sheer luck or Stalin’s twisted wisdom that saved the site from total devastation, the monastery was later transformed into a museum to serve as a hallmark of “religious tolerance” for international visitors. Only after the fall of communism in Mongolia the religious freedom was restored and it became active again. 

Some may say that the monastery is a shadow of what it once was but for us the emptiness of the area served as a magical getaway to stop and imagine how the skillfully painted buildings used to fill the whole sacred place. Like intertwined in its history the old temples and the external wall of impressive white stupas were whispering the scars of centuries. Surrounded by a group of goats we watched how they pastured near the wall, need for minerals made them lick it intensively, and curiously they stepped inside from the gate trying to eat fresh grass as fast as they could. We felt full of joy and energy to stand there calmly together with them just before we had to continue our road further in mongolian steppe…


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