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After spending a few days attending the Naadam Festival and going on a tour into the silence of the Gobi Desert, my next adventure in Mongolia took me to the last truly wild horses in the world, to Karakorum, the ancient capital of the Mongol Empire and the incredible Orkhon Valley.
Hustai National Park
Hustai National Park, which gets its name from the birch trees in the surrounding forests, was once the hunting ground for Mongolia’s last ruler, Bogd Khaan, and later politicians came to the area for the same purpose. But since the park has never been used for farming, nor has it ever been settled, it was the perfect place for the creation of a national park in 1998. While all across Asia these landscapes are being destroyed for agriculture and housing, the Mongolians have always put a lot of effort into environmental protection and therefore, visitors can find a truly undisturbed steppe ecosystem only 100 kilometers outside of Ulaanbaatar in Hustai National Park.
It is also the place, where the almost extinct Takhi have been reintroduced to their native habitat. The Takhi are also known as Przewalski Horses and were named after the Russian colonel and explorer, who first described them after an expedition to Mongolia during the 1800s. Contrary to some other horses living in the wild, for example the American Mustangs, the Przewalski Horses aren’t the descendants of domesticated and then escaped animals, but remain the only truly wild horses in the world.
Over 300 Takhi now roam the Hustai National Park and the Mongolian scientists have high hopes of expanding their population into other parts of Central Asia. It was amazing to see these stocky horses with the short tails and manes and the trip to this park was actually one of the highlights of my several weeks in Mongolia.
Karakorum and Erdene Zuu
During the rule of Genghis Khan and his successor Ögedei Khan in the 13th century, Karakorum was the capital of the Mongol Empire, the largest land empire in history. Once nothing more than an a small ger camp in the Orkhon Valley, the city soon started serving as a base for invasions and subsequently became one of the most important sites in the world. Apparently, a gigantic tree made of silver rose from the middle of the courtyard and expanded its branches into all directions and on the very top sat a trumpet, with which the Khan would call for more drinks. Today, almost nothing is left of the once glorious city. The decline was fast to come and Karakorum was soon after its rise to glory destroyed by the Ming Dynasty’s troops.
After its decay, it was debated for quite a while, where the long lost capital was actually supposed to be located and after excavations started in the 1930s, a lot of what was once part of the city had disappeared long ago. Stones from the ancient capital were used in the construction of the Erdene Zuu Monastery, the oldest surviving Buddhist monastery in Mongolia, which is located right next to the excavation site and has come to represent the ancient glory of Mongolia. Apart from several impressive buildings, the monastery is also surrounded by a wall of over a hundred stupas. Inside the monastery’s courtyard, you can find big stone turtles, that are believed to have been ancient Karakorum’s most famous emblems. There is also a museum detailing the Mongol Empire’s conquests and the history of Karakorum right next door – not only can you learn a lot, but the museum also has great WIFI (an absolute rarity in Mongolia’s countryside)
And the Rest of the Orkhon Valley
The Orkhon Valley wasn’t only the seat of power in the Mongolian steppes and a center of trade and religion, but apart from housing Khans and capitals, has always had great significance for Mongolians as a lifeline in an otherwise dry area. The grasslands along the Orkhon River offer great conditions for settlement and the nomads here hold on to their traditional lifestyle to this day, grazing and watering their livestock in the valley. One of the most impressive natural wonders to see in Orkhon Valley is Ulaan Tsutgala – the Orkhon Waterfall. Created long ago by a volcanic eruption, the water of the Orkhon River now thunders down the 20 meter high waterfall into an almost perfectly circular basin and the adjoining gorge. The waterfall is by far the most impressive thing I have seen in all of Mongolia – truly beautiful.