Kharkhorin: history, art and music

We spent Wednesday, August 17 in Kharkhorin, Chinggis Khaan’s ancient capital.  We had two work-related visits here, but you can find out about them in my other blog (the official CCA one) at  Check it out — there are blog posts not only from me, but from the various credit union coaches I am working with here.  And there are a lot of photos and descriptions of parts of the country I didn’t have an opportunity to visit.

What I want to write about is history, art and music, because although there is little left of the 13th-century capital, there are a number of interesting historical sites.  After our official meetings, we went to visit the Erdene Zuu monastery, the first Buddhist monastery in Mongolia.  It was founded in 1586 and originally had between 60 and 100 separate temples. Most of them were destroyed during the Communist era, but the ones that survived provide a fascinating look at Mongolian spirituality and art.  The temples are filled with magnificent tapestries, masks and artifacts, reflecting Mongolian, Tibetan and Chinese Buddhist traditions.  The script on many of them is Tibetan, and I was surprised to find out that four Dalai Lamas were actually Mongolian.  A young guide with passable English took us on a tour of the temples, explaining the religious significance of the artworks within.  One of the things I  found fascinating is that many of the works depict five skulls, representing the “five bad things” that are the equivalent of Christianity’s “Seven deadly sins”.  I was very pleased to find out that lust was not one of them!  You can learn more about the monastery from its wikipedia entry and related links.

Outside the monastery, a group of young men were showing off their prowess at the Mongolian version of falconry, using eagles rather than falcons. for 2,000 tugriks (less than $2), I got to try it for myself — the bird was heavy, but obviously accustomed to tourists.  And it made for a great photo,

The Erdene Zuu monastery

A closer look at one of the temples

I try my hand at "eaglery"

After stopping at our ger camp (another one) to reserve our gers for the night, we went up hill  to where we could see the whole city of Kharkhorin – and a monument that was built in 2004 to honour the achievements of the Mongol Empire at various times in history.  On each side of the monument is a map showing the extent of the Mongol empire during the Hunnu period (300-200 BC), the Turkic period (600-800 AD) and of course the 13th-century empire of Chinggis Khaan.

View of Kharkhorin from above

The Great Imperial Map Monument

We also went to see two other historical artworks — a stone turtle, one of four marking the boundaries of the ancient capital.  And a stone…well…penis, referred to as the Phallic Rock.  The story goes that the rock was placed there by Buddhist monks as a warning to some of the more libidinous of their number from fraternizing with the local women. Today, married Mongolian women pray for a son at the Phallic Rock…and single women pray for a “fine husband”.  Not surprisingly, you can make the gods listen even harder if you put money in the receptacle provided.

One of the stone turtles

Who would have thought that monks had such a sense of humour!

We returned to the ger camp for a delicious dinner of booz (pronounced “boots”) – steamed mutton-filled dumplings similar to Chinese pot-stickers. After several rounds of vodka (which I didn’t drink, except for a few sips to be hospitable) and beer (which I did), an elderly man resplendant in a traditional Mongolian costume came in carrying a morin khuur (horse fiddle), a Mongolian harp and a wooden flute.  He began to play for the group gathered in the dining hall, which consisted of Canadians, Mongolians (mostly our friends from the local credit union), German tourists and American backpackers.  He told me his name was Baska, and his music was magnificent.  He played all three instruments, and then gave us an exhibition of Mongolian throat-singing, and a percussion solo performed with a piece of wood on various parts of his head.

Baska with his morin khuur

You can tell a lot about a culture from the subject of their folksongs.  Some cultures sing songs about love, others about war…but Mongolian folksongs are mainly about…horses!  The morin khuur sounds a bit like a cello, but in several of the songs, Baska made it sound like trotting,…and neighing…horses. It was amazing!

After Baska’s concert was over, a young Mongolian man with an excellent command of English led the group in a singing of…wait for it…Hey Jude!  It was a remarkable finish to a wonderful day, and a reminder that music is indeed a universal language.


Posted on August 19, 2011, in On my journey. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I wish I could have heard Baska. I have a recording or two from Hun-Hur-Tuu, who do the Mongolian throat singing, and whom I saw perform once at the NAC. (Making me think this really is a small world.)

    What do people pray for at the turtle shrine? Little turtles?

  2. Fabulous!! The Eagle is beautiful. Would love to be in your shoes.
    xxoo as always….Lindy

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