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Sorrel begins on camel.
Sorrel begins on camel.
Traditional voices.

Journey to Karakorum

Thursday, April 25, 2002
Continuing our journey through Mongolia, we venture deep into a heartland of temples and tradition.

In 1220 Chinggis Khaan moved his capital from the Onon Valley to Karakorum, just 373kms south-west of the modern day capital, Ulaan Baatar. It served as Mongolia's political, cultural and economic centre for 40 years until Kublai Khaan moved it to what is now Beijing.

This caused Karakorum to collapse and in 1388 vengeful Manchurian soldiers virtually destroyed it. The little that was left was used towards building the glorious Erdene Zuu Khiid monastery in the 16th century, which was to be severely damaged during Stalinist purges.

You can tour the remains of the monastery and its grounds and see excellent examples of Buddhist iconography from the 16th century. There are two remaining carved turtle rocks, which are meant to be lucky.

There is virtually nothing left of the old capital which was at the crossroads of the busy Silk Road. It was protected by walls with four gates, and each section had its own market — grain, goats, oxen and wagons, and horses.

Karakorum Expeditions, an Australian-owned and run company based in Mongolia, run tours from Ulaan Baatar to the old area.

The tour goes through the industrial outskirts of Ulaan Baatar, past the main railway line that links Beijing and Moscow, and heads west through hills and rolling steppes. The scenery changes along the way and you will see Mongolians tending their herds of cattle, sheep, horses, camels, gazelle and yaks.

Uninterrupted by trees, fences or buildings, the steppes seem to go on forever. With a population of 2.38 million and an area of 1.5 million sq kms, Mongolia's population density is one of the world's lowest.

Half of the population lives in a ger, the traditional dwelling of all Mongolians and some other central Asian people. Ger is the Mongolian word for home and you will see them dotted across the countryside.

Gers owned by nomadic Mongolians have a wooden framework covered with large pieces of white felt, which may in turn be covered with decorative cloth. Ropes made from horse hair hold everything in place. They are easily assembled and disassembled, and load onto a couple of camels or yak carts. There are permanent eight-sided wooden gers, but they are mostly in Siberia where inhabitants are not as nomadic.

Mongolians are friendly and welcoming, the women humble and modest, and chances are you will be invited into a ger. They always face south with the eastern side the women's and the western side the men's. In the centre is a fireplace of three rings supported by legs which are the framework for holding pots and roasting spits. Smoke disappears through the roof. The far wall holds a goatskin bag for making a potent alcoholic drink from mares' milk. A shrine of sacred family objects is on the northern side of the ger, and this is considered to be the most honourable part.

There is etiquette to be observed: do not step on the doorstep as it is considered bad luck; when entering, move to the left and wait to be seated; never lean on the Buddhist shrine.

When staying at a tourist ger camp, wandering minstrels may entertain you with khoomi, or throat singing, which when perfected produces an extraordinary range of sounds.

When at the ger camp near Mongol Els you will have the option of camel riding into the desert with a family. By the way, Mongolian camels have two humps and a shaggy coat which is used for making warm clothing.

You will see Turkish monuments and rock inscriptions erected in the 8th and 9th centuries in memory of outstanding fighters for independence.


Karakorum, Mongolia's ancient capital


Karakorum Expeditions run three day tours from Ulaan Baatar which cost $860 per person including twin share accommodation and meals. They operate from May to October.
Qantas flies to Beijing on a code-share service with China Eastern Airlines. Prices per person start at $1838 from the east coast, $2158 from Adelaide and $2342 from Perth.
Mongolian Airlines fly from Beijing to Ulaan Baatar.
Please note prices are valid at time of transmission and to the best of our knowledge are inclusive of GST.

More information

Karakorum Expeditions
Ph/Fax: 0011 976 1131 5655
Qantas: Ph: 13 13 13

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