The site where Karakorum, Mongolia's ancient capital, once stood lies an eight hour drive southwest of Ulaanbaatar. The city was founded in 1220 in the Orkhon valley at a busy point on the route of the Silk Road, in the first large break in the chain of mountains stretching north out of the Gobi. Karakorum served as the political, cultural and economic capital of the Empire for only 40 years before Khubilai the founder of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty in China, moved it to Khanbalik, in what is now Beijing. The Mongol khans were famed for their religious tolerance and split their time equally between all the religions; hence twelve different religions co-existed within the city. At the time it was a busy, splendid, big city with high culture.
Karakorum was largely inhabited by foreigners including officers and secretaries of the court in the service of the empire, merchants, diplomats and artists who were brought from all over Asia and Europe to embellish Karakorum. So cosmopolitan was the city that both Mongol and foreign coins were legal tender. Turtles carved from the stone marked the boundaries of the complex.
After the fall of the Yuan Dynasty, in 1360, Karakorum was razed to the ground and burnt by the vengeful Ming armies. Attempts were made to revive it but it never regained its former glory. Whatever was left of Karakorum was used to help build the first Buddhist monastery in Mongolia - Erdene Zuu Monastery - in 16th century without using a single nail. The Erdene Zuu Monastery was a big complex of ornate gardens and over 60 temples at its peak in the late 18th century serving home to about 1,000 lamas.
The complex was first destroyed by the invading Manchus and it was partially reconstructed by the famous architect Manzshir in the early 19th century. Only a few remain standing today, but this is more due to Communist purges of the 1930s than poor workmanship. The 1,600-meter long magnificent walls, studded with 108 stupas, are a poignant reminder of the former wealth and importance of the area.
Many artifacts and religious objects survived in secret stashes. A handful of carved stones, one inscribed in Arabic, stand inside the wall surrounding the monastery complex. Today, Erdene Zuu is an active monastery once more and justifiably attracts visitors still retaining much of its former glory. Quite a surprise for the scientists was the discovery of a burial of a Mongolian woman which dates to approximately the 14th century where also two Egyptian masks, a wooden comb and a bronze mirror in a silk case were found.
Khorgo-Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur National Park
A magnificent region of extinct volcanoes in Arkhangai aimag features the craterous volcano Khorgo (2965m) and an about 20 km-long fresh-water lake Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur (Great White Lake) formed when volcanic lava dammed the Suman River, cutting a large gorge through the basalt from a volcanic eruption many millennia ago. A splendid panorama over the whole region and the lake can be seen from the summit of the volcano.
This beautiful lake is excellent for bird-watching and swimming in the summer afternoon. Colonies of wild gees, ducks and swans live here and along Suman River. The river is full of fish including Siberian salmon, pike, perch and gudgeon.
Choidogiin Borgio is another very pleasant spot for walking and fishing, located east of Khorgo, where the Suman River and Chuluut Rivers meet. There are many rock engravings , most of which date from the Bronze Age.
Hustai National Park
About 100 km southwest of Ulaanbaatar, just off the black top road, there is a small island of sand dunes in the middle of a steppe. The dunes themselves are remarkable only for their unexpected existence but behind them, concealed from the road, is a park that contains an animal whose existence is even more remarkable.
Established in 1993, Hustai National Park covers an area of around 50,000 hectares and is one of the two refuges in Mongolia for the once widespread wild horse, or takhi also known as Przewalski horses after the Russian explorer who first penned about the horse. Following years of habitat loss and hunting, wild horses were extinct Mongolia and the last one was spotted in the western Gobi in 1969. However small populations of the takhi were sustained in zoos and wildlife parks around the world.
Over a decade ago, with the support of the Dutch Government and experts, the Mongolian Association for the Conservation of Nature and the Environment brought a small group of horses back to Mongolia. Under the special breeding program more takhis were brought from Australia, Germany and Switzerland. From that modest groups there are now over 150 horses in the park, split into small groups or "harems" each dominated by a single stallion.
The takhis are beautiful and at ease in their natural habitat. They have red brown bodies and white bellies and muzzles, longer heads than other horses and a stocky build. The DNA of the takhi is uniquely different from that of other horses.
Hiking through the hills and mountains of the park is exciting, you will see its inhabitants including takhis, deers, marmots and even wolves. From the top of the hills, the view is superb. For miles and miles in every direction, the blue mountains decorate the horizon in a splendid, unbroken chain.
Situated 80 km away from Ulaanbaatar, Terelj is a part of the Gorkhi-Terelj National Park and a favorite weekend-getaway place for the UB-residents and travelers. At the elevation of 1600 meters, the alpine scenery is magnificent comparable with a museum of natural wealth. The mountain mass Gorkhi with high steeple-like peaks is covered with forest on the northern slopes. This area is rich in the terms of wild life. Visitors can take leisurely strolls on green meadows carpeted with edelweiss and a dazzling variety of other wild flowers, view fascinating rock formations against a backdrop of pine covered mountains and wander along the wooded banks of a mountain stream. Also nearby is Tortoise Rock, a reptile-shaped rock formation created by an ancient glacier - you can climb right inside. There are great opportunities for horse riding, swimming and rafting.