Monasteries, Mongolian calligraphy, and tales of the world’s greatest Khan, these are the 10 best things to do in Kharkhorin.
When I first started coming to Mongolia back in 2018, Kharkhorin was always on my radar.
However, it wouldn’t be until 2021 when I would really give Mongolia’s ancient capital city the attention it deserved. Finally making it a point to visit and explore the sites the city is known for, I was blown away by what I found. Kharkhorin really is one of the best places to visit in Mongolia.
Whether you’re a history buff, archeology nerd, or it’s the tales from the days of the world’s greatest Khan and his vast empire that grab your attention, Kharkhorin is your place.
Here are my 10 favorite things to do in Kharkhorin, Mongolia’s ancient capital city. But first, a little background on the city.
Mongolia’s first capital city, Kharkhorin dates back to the days of Genghis Khan.
Founded by the Great Khan in 1220, the capital wasn’t developed until the 1230s when Genghis’s son Ögedei became the leader of the Mongol Empire.
Ögedei would soon become famous for two things – the development of Kharkhorin and defeating the long-time enemy of the Mongols, the Jin state of northern China.
Today, there isn’t much from the city’s glory days to explore. As the Mongol Empire’s capital city moved to Beijing in the early 1270s thanks to Kublai Khan, the city was soon abandoned altogether.
However, it still remains part of Central Asia and the Silk Road’s most important cities thanks to recent archeological finds and discoveries.
While many people only visit Kharkhorin for a day, Mongolia’s ancient capital city deserves at least two days on any Central Mongolia itinerary.
Here are 10 of the best things to do in Kharkhorin during any visit to Mongolia.
Erdene Zuu Monastery is Mongolia’s oldest monastery, dating back to 1585.
With direct orders from Stalin to keep the monastery as a symbol of the USSR’s freedom of religion, the museum was almost completely destroyed in 1937. Thankfully, the monastery was converted into a museum and many of the complex’s buildings were spared.
Built using the ruins of Kharkhorin, the buildings on these grounds are filled with more than just good energy – you can feel the history in the complex’s veins.
At its peak, the monastery was said to have 100 temples and was home to 1,000 monks living in 300 yurts.
Today, as a working monastery, visitors to Erdene Zuu can visit the Laviran Temple and listen to chants and ask monks for a sacred reading. The rest of the buildings at Erdene Zuu have been converted into a museum.
Look for the calligraphists and artists who hang around the monastery during the summer, their paintings make a great souvenir to remember your visit by.
Inside the museum’s doors, you’ll see a small-scale replication of the capital city in its prime, read a letter from the then Pope to then Khaan of 1245, discover tiles and other remains from structures of the time, and more.
After walking through the museum, be sure to stop into the yurt just outside the museum’s front doors to the right. It’s here where you can find traditional Mongolian games and learn how to shoot ankle bones. There may also be a student of the ancient Mongolian script who is more than happy to write your name for a small donation.
Erdenesiin Khuree, also known as the Mongolian Calligraphy and Art Center, is the first of its kind in Mongolia.
The center focuses on preserving and revitalizing the ancient Mongolian script, Mongol uran bichig, which dates back to the days of Genghis Khan. It was during the creation of the Mongol Empire and the development of Kharkhorin when the script was conceived. This is also why the center is based here, in the valley in which it was originally founded.
Sadly, not many Mongolians have kept the tradition of writing the Mongol uran bichig script alive, threatening its existence. With the help of the center, calligraphist Tamir Samandbadraa Purev is teaching students as well as selling works of art featuring the calligraphy to gain awareness of the script.
This year, the center will expand to include cultural lessons and exhibitions from other traditions deep-rooted in Mongolian culture. This includes concerts with traditional Mongolian music, masterclasses of khoomii (throat singing), a ceramics workshop, and more.
Driving up to the Monument for Mongol States is a great way to take in the best view overlooking Kharkhorin and the capital that once was.
This Soviet monument consists of a shamanic ovoo (the pile of stones in the middle of the structure) surrounded by three walls forming a circle. Each of the walls depicts one of the three empires that settled on the banks of the Orkhon River. The three empires were the Xiongnu, the Turkic Khaganate, and the Mongol Empire.
Bring some cash with you when you head here, sellers have small tables filled with crafts and Soviet memorabilia.
They say the best things in life are free and camping next to the Orkhon River, with semi-wild horses as your campsite neighbors, proves it.
Wild camping in Mongolia is legal and allowed in every province. Remember to be a good campsite guest and pack out everything you pack in – don’t be those people who leave trash behind.
My favorite spot for camping in Kharkhorin is behind the Monument for Mongol States. Drive down the other side of the hill, separating yourself from the noise and light pollution of Kharkhorin and disappear into pure countryside bliss.
Once you find a dirt road leading towards the Orkhon River that feels right, follow it until you find the perfect camping spot. Something flat and close to the water.
Be sure to pack bug spray, warm sleeping bags, a headlamp, and enough food for dinner and breakfast.
Once you set up camp here, you won’t want to return to civilization until you absolutely have to.
Silver Tree Guesthouse is an eco-friendly, family-run guesthouse in the heart of Kharkhorin and the first building in Mongolia to utilize a biogas heating system.
The guesthouse is run by Agata and her husband Tamir, who also happens to be one of the most famous Mongolian calligraphists out there, and the family behind the Erdensiin Khuree Mongolian Calligraphy Center.
While I prefer camping next to the Orkhon River watching the horses cross the river at sunset, stopping in for lunch is a great way to see what the guesthouse is all about. They’re able to cook both vegetarian and meat-filled Mongolian dishes.
While you’re in Kharkhorin, do yourself a favor and make the road trip to Shankh Monastery. The monastery is 25 kilometers south of Kharkhorin and is one of Mongolia’s oldest and most historically significant monasteries.
Dating back to 1647, the main temple is famous for its seven Kalachakra Mandalas which portray all 722 Kalachakra deities. It’s the only piece of its kind in Mongolia.
One of the weirdest hotels you’ll ever experience in Mongolia, Asa Land Resort is one of Kharkhorin’s priciest stays.
Having stayed in one of the – as I’m calling them – space yurts myself, there’s nothing authentic about a stay here. But that’s also what makes it so unique.
The yurts are permanent buildings, so they’re great if the weather isn’t so agreeable and if you’re in need of a hot shower and some boujeeness.
There’s a mini bar in each room, air conditioner, skylight windows, and Gobi cashmere blankets. The rooms are funky and unlike any other yurt you’ll stay in in Mongolia. And that’s a promise.
A joint project with the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency, the museum is home to the Bilge Qaghan and Kul Tigin monuments. These monuments date back to 732 AD and were found right here in the Orkhon Valley.
The Kul Tigin Monument is famous for the inscriptions written in the Old Turkic alphabet in the early 8th century. Most notably, it’s thought to be the first of its kind and the oldest form of a Turkic language to be preserved.
Ordu Baliq is most famous for being the first capital of the Uyghur Khaganate, a Turkic empire that existed for about a century between the mid-8th and 9th centuries. (Remember from the Monument of Mongol States above?)
At the time, this fully fortified commandry and commercial entrepot was an important point on the Silk Road.
When reading descriptions of the then city, the coolest tale comes in the form of a gold yurt built by the king that could hold 100 men. The golden yurt, and Ordu Baliq, were considered the heart of the Uyghur power, especially since gold was the symbol of imperial rule.
When visiting the ancient site today, you’ll have to use your imagination to envision the yurt, which must have been an incredible site to see in 821 AD.
There are only two ways to get to Kharkhorin from Ulaanbaatar, by car or bus.
Kharkhorin is about 360 kilometers from Ulaanbaatar and takes a little over 5 hours to reach by car. The roads are mostly okay, but that’s by Mongolian standards.
The drive can be broken up by stopping in Lun for lunch, and to use the (mostly clean) public restrooms. Be sure to bring toilet paper into the restrooms with you. There’s also a coffee stand with great brew and a small grocery store inside the same building.
Type Урьхан Лүн хүнсний дэлгүүр into Google Maps for the exact location.
If you miss this stop in Lun, there’s also a Khaan Buuz, the Mongolian fast food chain, near Elsen Tasarkhai. This is another great place to stop for lunch, or for a restroom break, along your drive from Ulaanbaatar to Kharkhorin.
To go to Kharkhorin by bus, you’ll need to go to the Dragon Bus Terminal at the far west end of Peace Avenue to buy a ticket. You can take the #1 bus from the city center to the bus station for ₮ 500 Mongolian tugrik.
Be warned that this process can be overwhelming and isn’t always straightforward.
The best approach for purchasing a bus ticket is to show the cashier the name Kharkhorin written in Cyrillic: Хархорин. There is usually an 11:00 am bus that leaves from the terminal.
The trip by bus from Ulaanbaatar to Kharkhorin will take about 7 hours and will cost roughly $7 USD. This is the cheapest way to get to Kharkhorin, but not necessarily the most pleasant.
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