Karakorum (also referred to as Kharkhorum, Karakorin or Kharkhorin) is the ancient capital of the Mongol empire. Karakorum, as a part of the nearby Orkhon River Valley, is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. The trip to Karakorum from Ulaanbaatar is a long one as the old capital is about 300 kilometers away from the current capital city.
It’s a long way to Karakorum
The city of Ulaanbaatar, with all its buildings, people and traffic as well as the familiar urban amenities (see Singapore to Ulaanbaatar – a Mongolia travel log 1), is not drastically different from many other cities we have visited. By contrast, Karakorum is a place with few buildings and people and where hints of its former grandeur lie in scattered ruins. The only way to get to Karakorum is by road. The trip can take 5 to 8 hours. The journey from Ulaanbaatar to Karakorum is an adventure in itself.
The mode of transport for our trip to Karakorum was a Russian UAZ van – produced by Ulyanovsk Automobile Plant (UAZ). It is a rugged 4 wheel drive off-road vehicle that seems to be widely used in Mongolia. The UAZ van is known for its reliability and its all-terrain capability, not for comfort.
The long journey to Karakorum on a less than comfortable non air-conditioned van was mitigated by the beautiful scenery of sweeping plains sporadically dotted by gers and interrupted occasionally by a herd of horses or a flock of sheep.
After more than 3 hours on the road with no modern structure in sight, it was a relieve to see that our lunch stop was at a very nice rest station with a spacious cafeteria. There was quite a good selection of food.
The rest station also has a coffee kiosk and supermarket and, more importantly, clean toilets.
Desert Rally Experience
After our lunch stop, we continued our journey on the endless narrow highway to Karakorum. Suddenly, the driver turned off the paved highway onto a dusty track. We thought it was a short detour but we were to spend the next 2 hours or so getting a truly off-road experience. The UAZ van was zipping around at speed in an undulating wilderness, swerving to avoid gullies and rocks as well as animals and the dust kicked up by other vehicles. It was a bumpy and uncomfortable ride; but then some would pay to have such a Dakar rally experience.
We found out later that the reason for our off road detour was that a part of the highway to Karakorum had to be closed for emergency repairs.
Erdene Zuu Monastery
One of the key attractions of Central Mongolia is the Erdene Zuu Monastery, the oldest surviving Buddhist monastery in Mongolia. The first temple of Erdene Zuu (Hundred Treasures) was built in the 1580s. At its peak, the complex had more than 60 temples. Its fortune waxed and waned with wars, political shifts and religious purges. The Erdene Zuu Monastery was closed for a long time but became active again in the 1990s.
Entrance to the monastery ground is free. A ticket must be purchased to get into the main temple.
Karakorum Museum is a small but impressive museum. Exhibits include a scale model of ancient Karakorum and artifacts dating from the 13th and 14th centuries. An interesting fact learnt was that the rulers of the old Turk Empire and the Uighurs chose Karakorum as their central base.
Karakorum Museum is a modern building with all the usual amenities including a cafe and the mandatory gift shop.
Gaya Guest House
Gaya’s Guesthouse was our accommodation for the trip to Karakorum. It has rooms in the main building as well as Mongolian gers in the compound. The owner, Gaya, speaks good English and is very helpful. The guesthouse has dining and laundry facilities, free wifi and free use of bicycles for exploration of the neighbourhood. Prices are about S$30 per room per night.
The rooms are small and basic. Only a few rooms have full shower and toilet facilities but the shared facilities are clean.
There is a cosy dining hall and lounge. The chef is accommodating and would try to prepare the dishes you request. Continental breakfast is complimentary.
Town & Country
The area around Gaya’s Guesthouse is like a different world for the ordinary patrons from uber urban Singapore. When we wanted to get some drinks and ice cream, we were pointed to a small building that looked like an old farm house. When we stepped inside, we found to our surprise a well-stocked supermarket.
A walk around the rustic town would bring us encounters with sheep and cattle as well as horsemen. A leisurely climb up a hill allowed us to have a great view of the town and the surrounding countryside.
Trip to Karakorum – a unique experience
The trip to Karakorum was an interesting and unique experience. We enjoyed our stay in Karakorum but not the long journey there from Ulaanbaatar.
The Ordinary Patrons | Real Dining Experience of Ordinary People
an independent Singapore food blog