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Mongolia: Erdene Zuu Khiid

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Erdene Zuu Khiid | Mongolia | Asia

[Visited: September 2016]

The road from Tariat, on the eastern side of Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur, towards the east turns out to be a newly asphalted, smooth miracle, and before we know it, we arrive in Ikh Tamir, a small town where our driver wants to overnight, but we manage to convince him to continue as it is still early. We prefer to continue straight to Orkhon valley, but he is not sure he can make it as the road seems very bad, so we go to Kharkhorin instead. We pass the attractive town of Tsetserleg on the way, stop briefly at a deep canyon, see a rainbow over the empty landscape, and when we enter Kharkhorin, better known as Karakorum, we see a bad accident involving a motorbike; the rider is hauled away in an old Russian ambulance van. The driver takes us straight to Erdene Zuu Khiid, one of the famous monasteries of Mongolia. The clouds in the sky are still dark, and when we enter the enormous gate of the rectangular compound, we see the sun is trying to squeeze through and cast light on this 16th century complex. It is the oldest Buddhist monastery in the country, and indeed, also one of the biggest.

Picture of Erdene Zuu Khiid (Mongolia): 108 white stupas crown the wall surrounding the Erdene Zuu monastery complex

The history of Erdene Zuu is turbulent, and starts with the fact that it was built with materials from the ruins of Karakorum, the ancient capital of Mongolia and the enormous Mongolian Empire for a brief period in the 13th century. Even before the purges of the 1930s, Erdene Zuu was destroyed several times by invaders, and in the end, always rebuilt. This has left its marks here, too: much of the grounds are now empty where once there were 300 gers, up to 100 temples, and more than 1000 monks. In fact, its very name Erdene Zuu means hundred treasures. Many of its treasures were hidden during the Stalinist times, at private homes and in the surrounding mountains, and have come back to the monastery when it was reopened in 1965 as a museum. It was only re-established as an active monastery after the fall of communism in 1990.

Picture of Erdene Zuu Khiid (Mongolia): Buddhist monks entering Erdene Zuu monastery in the morning

Now, it is an active monastery again, place of worship for many, and residence for monks. At the same time, an intriguing place for visitors to explore. The massive walls surrounding the complex have 108 white stupas on stop, with already ensures that the complex impresses before you step inside. Once in, the remaining temples and buildings are almost all on your left hand side, while on the right, there is a large open space. Walking the grass or the stone paths, you can walk anywhere. There are buildings with large prayer wheels that take a good push to get them into motion. There are temples, richly decorated on the outside, with religious figures inside. There are rooms with important items saved from destruction. There is the Golden Prayer Stupa, which is mostly white, and stands close to the centre of Erdene Zuu. Then there is the white-washed Tibetan temple of Lavrin Süm, surrounded on all sides by a double row of prayer wheels. Apart from these noteworthy buildings, there is a large stone circle, where once stood an enormous ger which could house hundreds. There are stele with inscriptions in Mongol, Tibetan, Arabic and Chinese, for instance gravestones of the Khan family, among them the father of Zanabazar. After our late afternoon visit under cloudy skies with ever changing light, the sky is crisp and clear when we come back the next morning, when we hear monks clad in orange robes chanting at a ceremony in the Tibetan temple.

Picture of Erdene Zuu Khiid (Mongolia): Three main temples of Erdene Zuu monastery in the late afternoon
Picture of Erdene Zuu Khiid (Mongolia): Incense burner with colourful ribbons, close to where the big ger once stood
Picture of Erdene Zuu Khiid (Mongolia): Wooden door with vajra painted on the outside: symbol of force and indestructibility
Picture of Erdene Zuu Khiid (Mongolia): Golden Prayer Stupa basking in the late afternoon sunlight
Picture of Erdene Zuu Khiid (Mongolia): Double row of prayer wheels surrounding the Tibetan temple, Lavrin Süm
Picture of Erdene Zuu Khiid (Mongolia): The three main temples of Erdene Zuu monastery: Baruun Zuu, Zuu of Buddha, and Zuun Zuu
Picture of Erdene Zuu Khiid (Mongolia): Closed temple, two buildings with large prayer wheels, and stele with inscriptions in front of the main temples at Erdene Zuu monastery
Picture of Erdene Zuu Khiid (Mongolia): Looking up Lavrin Süm, the Tibetan-style temple at Erdene Zuu monastery
Picture of Erdene Zuu Khiid (Mongolia): The main temples can be reached by a stone pathway
Picture of Erdene Zuu Khiid (Mongolia): The Golden Prayer Stupa actually is mostly white
Picture of Erdene Zuu Khiid (Mongolia): Richly decorated frontal side of the Zuu of Buddha temple
Picture of Erdene Zuu Khiid (Mongolia): Elephant painted on a wooden panel on the outside of one of the temples
Picture of Erdene Zuu Khiid (Mongolia): The vast inner area of the monastery complex

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