Mongolian children on their horses at the start line of a Naadam Festival horse race
Mongolia’s Naadam Festival
November 6, 2020
Mongolia's Orkhon River Valley

Mongolia’s Orkhon River Valley

Mongolia is an ancient land and has a rich and varied history. However, the country only offers a hint at the flow of people and the cultures that have preceded modern Mongolia. One place to touch base with history is in Mongolia’s Orkhon River Valley which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. ⠀

The Orkhon River Valley is one of Mongolia’s four UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It is listed as a cultural site and represents the evolution of nomadic pastoral traditions in Mongolia and provides a rare slice of tangible Mongolian history. This area is rich in history relating to the Hunnu, the Turks and the Mongol Empire as well as the founding of Buddhism in Mongolia, leading to the region being called the cradle of Mongolian civilisation.

The site encompasses an area of extensive pasture (approximately 121,967 hectares) on both banks of the Orkhon River. The region, with its broad, shallow river valley, has provided water and shelter for not only nomadic, pastoral societies but also larger settled administrative and commercial centres. The Orkhon Valley was also at the centre of trade traffic across the Asian steppes.

It is also a perfect location for slow travel. Although we’ve highlighted locations within Mongolia’s Orkhon River Valley, don’t try to tick off a list of must-see sights. Instead, slow right down and focus on the micro rather than the macro. As the song goes … ‘slow down, you move too fast.’ Rather than tick-list travel, slow travel focuses on making connections with people, places and the culture and slow travel in Mongolia’s Orkhon River Valley works well.

Experience Kharkhorin

The town of Kharkhorin in central Mongolia with snow on the hilltops

Located in Mongolia’s Orkhon River Valley, Kharkhorin, on first glance, may not inspire. However, often towns in rural Mongolia look bleak and unproductive but communities, both stationary and nomadic, have existed here for centuries.  Kharkhorin is a prime example – once the capital of the Mongol Empire and during the Soviet Era, a State Farm of the Order of the Golden Star. It is home to Erdene Zuu – Mongolia’s oldest monastery. In Kharkhorin you can head to the King’s Monument (also known the Imperial Map Monument ) for a panoramic view out over the valley.

Experience Waterfalls & Lakes

Popular locations within the Orkhon River Valley include the Orkhon Khürkhree (waterfall) also known as Ulaan Tsutgalan and Khuisiin Naiman Nuur (Eight Lakes). Both form part of the Khangai Nuruu National Park which preserves the best representative area of the Khangai mountain range and its biodiversity.

The areas surrounding Ulaan Tsutgalan and Naiman Nuur were created by a series of volcanic eruptions. There are often different types of igneous rock lying on the surface – such as basalt and pumice stone which solidified from molten magma after reaching the surface. Any driving route into the region will be bumpy because of these volcanic rocks – there is no other option.
Both regions support a variety of habitat types, ranging from steppe through to alpine meadows with forest of mostly larch and pine.

The 20 metres high Orkhon waterfall is formed by a series of small streams and rivers including the Ulaan Gol. If the waterfall is not flowing, you can still explore the 22-metre deep gorge and plunge pool.

Experience Buddhist Heritage

Within the Orkhon River Valley are three monasteries connected with the life and times of the religious leader Zanabazar (the first Jebtsundamba Khutuktu, the spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism for Mongolia) – Erdene Zuu in Kharkhorin(created by his great-grandfather ), Tövkhön Khiid and Shank Khiid. At about the same time that Zanabazar was founding Shank Khiid it is believed he discovered a rock looking similar to an armchair or throne at Shireet Ulaan Uul on the border of Övörkhangai and Arkhangai Provinces.

Tovkhon Khiid Monastery

The rock and location were deemed auspicious and the first building of Tövkhön Khiid constructed in 1651 – a small meditation hut. Further buildings were constructed turning the site into a hermitage for personal use by Zanabazar.

Experience Mongolia’s Turkish Khaganates

Centuries prior to Chinggis and Ogodei Khan making Kharkhorin the capital of the Mongol Empire and known to the wider world, the Orkhon River Valley was the capital of two distinct Turkish khaganates – the Turkish and the Uyghur Khaganates. Remains from the Turkish Khaganate include the monuments of Bilge Khagan and Kul-Tegin – both leaders (and brothers) of the Turkic Khaganate.  And then,  Khar Balgas is the name given to the remains of Ordu-Baliq – the capital of the Uyghur Khaganate that ruled from 745 AD until 840 AD. All are located within the Orkhon River Valley – close to Kharkhorin.

Experience Nomadic Culture

This is Tumee - an expert horseman and head of one of the herding families we work with in Mongolia's central Orkhon River Valley

This is Tumee – an expert horseman and head of one of the herding families we work with in Mongolia’s Orkhon River Valley

Mongolia’s Orkhon River Valley represents the evolution of nomadic pastoral traditions in Mongolia and therefore a great place to touch base with Mongolia’s nomadic culture. As the herding families we work with say, Mongolia is firmly in the 21st century and although families have motorbikes and also android phones this does not mean their traditional rural way of life is dying out. It just means it is adapting and progressing – as rural life in Mongolia always has done. Even though nomadic, families in the area are based in the region all their lives and their knowledge of the area is vast and spending time with them gives you a real introduction to not only the nomadic culture but life in the river valley itself.

For more ideas on how to experience Mongolia’s Orkhon River Valley, take a look at the Mongolia experiences we offer.

Jess @ Eternal Landscapes

Jessica Brooks
Jessica Brooks
I’m Jess Brooks. I am the founder of Eternal Landscapes Mongolia - a registered Mongolian business and social travel enterprise that focuses on providing travellers with a real 21st Century insight into Mongolia. I have been based in Mongolia since 2006 and together with my beloved Mongolian team, we focus on tourism that makes a positive difference. I'm also a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society - awarded for my work in Mongolia and a published guidebook author - having worked together with World Adventure Guides to produce a digital interactive guide to Mongolia. http://www.jessbrooks.co.uk/
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