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Mongolia's Orkhon River Valley

Mongolia’s Orkhon River Valley

Mongolia, an ancient land with a rich and varied history, offers glimpses into the flow of people and cultures that preceded modern times. A key place to connect with this history is the Orkhon River Valley, now recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This valley provides a fascinating window into Mongolia’s past, showcasing its historical significance and cultural heritage.

 

The Orkhon River Valley, one of Mongolia’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites, is celebrated as a cultural site that embodies the evolution of nomadic pastoral traditions in the region. This area offers a rare glimpse into tangible Mongolian history, rich with the legacies of the Hunnu, the Turks, and the Mongol Empire, as well as the origins of Buddhism in Mongolia. Often referred to as the cradle of Mongolian civilization, the Orkhon River Valley stands as a testament to the region’s profound historical and cultural heritage.

There are currently six UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Mongolia (July 2024). Four are cultural and two are natural.

  • Sacred Burkhan Khaldun Mountain and its surrounding sacred landscape in Khentii Province
  • Orkhon Valley Cultural Landscape in Ovorkhangai Aimag
  • The Petroglyphic Complexes of the Mongolian Altai in Bayan Ulgii Aimag
  • The landscapes of Dauria in eastern Mongolia
  • Uvs Nuur Basin in Uvs Aimag
  • Deer Stone monuments and related Bronze Age sites

 

The Orkhon River Valley, encompassing approximately 121,967 hectares of extensive pasture on both banks of the Orkhon River, offers a broad, shallow river valley that has historically provided water and shelter for nomadic pastoral societies, as well as larger settled administrative and commercial centers. This region was a pivotal hub of trade traffic across the Asian steppes.

The Orkhon River Valley is also an ideal destination for slow travel. Instead of rushing through a list of must-see sights, visitors are encouraged to slow down and focus on the micro rather than the macro. Embrace the essence of slow travel by connecting with the people, places, and culture of the valley. This approach to travel aligns perfectly with the tranquil and historically rich environment of Mongolia’s Orkhon River Valley. As the song goes, “slow down, you move too fast,” and there’s no better place to embrace this philosophy than in this remarkable region.

Experience Kharkhorin

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

Located in Mongolia’s Orkhon River Valley, Kharkhorin may not seem impressive at first glance. However, towns in rural Mongolia often appear bleak and unproductive, yet communities, both stationary and nomadic, have thrived here for centuries. Kharkhorin is a prime example of this resilience. Once the capital of the Mongol Empire and later a State Farm during the Soviet Era, Kharkhorin is home to Erdene Zuu, Mongolia’s oldest monastery. While in Kharkhorin, visitors can head to the King’s Monument (also known as the Imperial Map Monument) for a panoramic view over the valley, offering a deeper appreciation of the region’s historical and cultural significance.

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 are 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, resulting in various types of igneous rock, such as basalt and pumice stone, lying on the surface. These rocks, having solidified from molten magma, make any driving route into the region bumpy, but the journey is worthwhile for the stunning natural beauty that awaits.

Both regions support a variety of habitats, ranging from steppe to alpine meadows, with forests predominantly composed of larch and pine. The Orkhon waterfall, standing 20 meters high, is formed by a series of small streams and rivers, including the Ulaan Gol. Even if the waterfall is not flowing, visitors can explore the impressive 22-meter deep gorge and plunge pool.

Experience Buddhist Heritage

Within the Orkhon River Valley, three monasteries are closely connected to the life and times of Zanabazar, the first Jebtsundamba Khutuktu and the spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism in Mongolia. These monasteries are Erdene Zuu in Kharkhorin, founded by his great-grandfather; Tövkhön Khiid; and Shank Khiid. Around the same time that Zanabazar was founding Shank Khiid, it is believed he discovered a rock resembling an armchair or throne at Shireet Ulaan Uul, located 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 before Chinggis and Ogodei Khan made Kharkhorin the capital of the Mongol Empire, the Orkhon River Valley was the center 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. Additionally, Khar Balgas is the name given to the remains of Ordu-Baliq, the capital of the Uyghur Khaganate, which ruled from 745 AD until 840 AD. All of these significant historical sites 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 showcases the evolution of nomadic pastoral traditions, making it an ideal place to connect with Mongolia’s nomadic culture. As the herding families we work with say, Mongolia is firmly in the 21st century. While families may have motorbikes and Android phones, this does not mean their traditional rural way of life is dying out. It is simply adapting and progressing, as rural life in Mongolia always has. Despite their nomadic lifestyle, families in the area have lived there all their lives, possessing vast knowledge of the region. Spending time with them offers a genuine introduction to not only the nomadic culture but also 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, the founder of Eternal Landscapes Mongolia and the voice behind EL's blog posts. For more than a decade, since 2006, I've been based in Mongolia, working closely with my beloved Mongolian team to advocate for a tourism approach that brings about positive change.. What sets our blog apart is our deep understanding of Mongolia—our home. Unlike content from influencers or creators, our posts prioritise authenticity and firsthand knowledge as guiding principles.
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