ANU Students in Mongolia: Post No. 3 ‘Kharkhorin or Karakorum’

Kharhorin or Karakorum

By Abhijeet Swami

Since the 1990’s there has been discussion to shift the capital of Mongolia to Kharkhorin from the current over-polluted capital of Ulaanbaatar. Historically, Kharkhorin was the centre of empires that had a significant impact across Eurasia.

The plain on which Kharkhorin (earlier Karakorum) is situated extends 30 kilometers or more between two east-west running ridges. No landform obstructs the sun as it travels along its length. The Orkhon river follows the base of mountains to the north. It is summer and the grass is plentiful. Availability of grass, water and space made the Orkhon valley an appropriate site for the encampment of an army, or for the establishment of a large city. It is not surprising that this valley is a place of ceremonial significance and that Mongols and nomadic leaders desired capital cities and empires to be built there.

Southern bank of the Orkhon and floodplain. Photo: Abhijeet Swami.

Turkic people first established a tradition of rule from this valley in the early 8th Century. Mortuary monuments to the Turkic leader Bilge Khaghan and his younger brother and commander Kül Tegin were found about a ‘day’s ride on horseback’ north of the ruins of Karakorum’.[i] Uighurs established the next empire (744-840) in the region and their capital, Khar Balgas, was also less than a day’s ride on horseback from Kharkhorin.

Kharkhorin became an imperial city in the second half of the 13th Century.[ii] Permanent buildings were established around 1235 and did not cease being built until the 1250’s. For longer than a decade, 1500 workers were building the city walls, until they were dismissed by Mongke Khan in 1251, who then ‘resettled’ 500 craftsmen families to build a palace.[iii] When Friar William arrived from France in 1254, although he was not impressed by the dimensions of the city or the palace, he saw twelve temples devoted to the faiths of different peoples, two mosques, and a church; as well as grain, sheep and goats, cattle and wagons, and horses being sold at the four gates of the city.[iv] The city became a centre of art production, where ceramic, metal, glass, wood, bone and birchbark objects were produced by artisans from around the empire for use and exchange.

But it was not easy to maintain the city in a place of savage winters and vast distances: freezing and thawing of the ground damaged infrastructure; raw material had to be imported from the far reaches of the empire; and the climate was not suitable for growing sufficient food. Indeed, Ogedei Khan issued a Yasa, which commanded that 500 wagonloads of food and drink should arrive at Kharkhorin every day.[v] This Yasa was a source of grief to generations of oxen, who pulled these big wagons from northern China.

Kharkhorin was destroyed by Ming troops in either 1380 or 1388 after lasting through violent sieges during the intervening years.[vi] Since then floods and rains have moved the earth so that the remnant city is now entirely under ground. When I visit, it is the time when the rains fall but I can see it is still possible to wade across the river. Widespread debris on the south bank and the high-water mark on the north bank indicate that the river can rapidly become deep and fast flowing. Four granite stone turtles, as foundation stones, used to face towards the cardinal directions. One of these turtles survives, as it was moved onto the mountain above Kharkhorin. An information board next to this turtle advises that the turtles were placed there to ensure a long and peaceful life for the city, to seek protection from floods and protection against invading enemies.

Turtle at Kharkhorin. Photo: Einalem (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Moving the capital from Ulaanabaatar to Kharkhorin would be an expression of Mongolian nationalism, while it would also relieve congestion and pollution in the current capital of Ulaanbaatar. Judging by the many permanent structures built on the floodplain, flooding may have become less of a problem today, perhaps due to climate change.[vii] From experience with the worsening conditions in Ulaanbaatar’s ger districts, the Mongolian government could plan to better accommodate future migrants in the city from the surrounding countryside. National debt and a small economy, however, may not allow construction of a socially-inclusive city. Development of Kharkhorin into the capital city at a future date is a possibility, given that it is a suitable place for settlement and connected to Ulaanbaatar by a sealed road. Yet Kharkhorin’s historic legacy alone may not be sufficient to draw migrants, or employment as infrastructure and maintenance will require significant government investment.

 

[i] Skaff, J.K. and Honeychurch, W. 2009. ‘Empire building before the Mongols: legacies of the Turks and Uyghurs’, In W.W. Fitzhugh, M. Rossabi & W. Honeychurch (eds.) Genghis Khan and the Mongol empire, The Mongolian Preservation Foundation and Smithsonian Institution, Seattle, pp. 84-89.

[ii] Erdenebat, U. and Pohl, E. 2009. ‘The crossroads in Khara Khorum: excavations at the center of the Mongol empire’, In W.W. Fitzhugh, M. Rossabi & W. Honeychurch (eds.) Genghis Khan and the Mongol empire, The Mongolian Preservation Foundation and Smithsonian Institution, Seattle, pp. 136-145.

[iii] Pohl, E. 2010. ‘The excavations in the craftsmen-quarter of Karakorum (KAR-2) between 2000 and 2005- stratigraphy and architecture’, In J. Bemmann, U. Erdenebat & E. Pohl (eds.), Mongolian-German Karakorum expedition, Reichert Verlag, Wiesbaden, pp. 63-136.

[iv] Rubruck, W. 1990. [13th Century], The mission of Friar William of Rubruck: his journey to the court of the Great Khan Mongke 1253- 1255, trans. P. Jackson, The Hakluyt Society, London, p. 221.

[v] Al-Din, R 1971, The successors of Genghis Khan, trans. J A Boyle, Columbia University Press, New York, pp. 62-63.

[vi] Pohl 2010, pp. 132-134.

[vii] Already Mongolia has warmed by 2.14 degrees Celcius, water bodies have become smaller or have disappeared and there were 57 days of dust storms in 2007, compared to 18 such days in 1960 (Ministry of Environment, nd, Climate change in Mongolia: outputs from GCM, Government of Japan, viewed 6 September 2018, https://www.env.go.jp/earth/ondanka/pamph_gcm/gcm_mongolia_en.pdf).

Changes in the Mongolian Countryside

 

This year I spent some valuable time filming in the countryside during the Mongolian spring, from March until May. Changes in the Mongolian countryside are not as immediately evident as the rapid development of infrastructure and the polluted and clogged roads of the capital, Ulaanbaatar. When we drove into the river valley I had come to know so well, there were still ger (yurts) dotted in the same sheltered locations, while herds still grazed near the icy riverbanks.

When I was conducting fieldwork in the Khangai Mountains of Mongolia during 2005 and again in the spring of 2007, it was complicated to get into and out of remote herding encampments. The occasional herder had access to Russian motorbikes but they relied primarily on horses to visit neighbouring encampments, to ride to local Naadam festivals during the summer, and to herd the sheep, goats, cattle (including yaks) and horses. I relied on one of the herders with a coveted Russian jeep to get in and out. Often as many as twelve people would pack into the jeep with me, alongside dairy products and animal hides. Upon my return, the driver of the jeep joked about how many people would come along with me for the ride. Now almost every encampment has some form of motorised transport, making them less reliant on their horses.

I felt a stab of nostalgia when I found that the hand-made wooden carts that were used for moving peoples’ belongings during seasonal migrations were now only used as drying racks for dairy products, or left discarded and broken. I was told that Ulaanaa was the last ox used by one of the families I lived with. Ulaanaa, a large red ox, was remarkably complacent (nomkhon) and I would often lead him, with the wooden cart and water barrel, to collect water from the river. Ancestors of the family would have worked with oxen, just like Ulaanaa, for such tasks for centuries, possibly even thousands of years.

With such marked changes within ten years, I realised it was important to record herders riding about on horseback. The communication of a person on horseback is remarkable, as the horse intuitively knows to respond to a herder’s body language but not to the lasso-pole (uurga) held in front of its head, or to vocalisations directed at the herd. For Mongolians that still predominantly herd on horseback, much of the day is spent with an individual horse, following the tracks, signs and occasional vocalisations of the roaming herds across the mountainous landscape.

Spring snowstorms can be lethal for newborn animals. It is important for herders to check the herds and to make sure none are snowbound, or too far away from shelter. The video segment above (see: https://vimeo.com/228131918) was filmed using a GoPro camera fixed onto a young herder’s hat. Monkho must have forgotten his uurga, so uses an improvised stick from a nearby tree to signal to the herd. The calls and whistles differ depending upon whether he is communicating with the yak or horse herd, whether he is vocalising to the herd as a whole, or an individual animal. He says ‘chu, chu’ softly to a young foal when trying to redirect it back to the rest of the herd.

Just as has occurred throughout much of the world, people turn to the ease of motorised transport in favour of working with horses. If Mongolian herders increasingly rely on motorbikes to herd in future, some of the unique modes of communication with their herd animals will inevitably change, and the depth of knowledge relating to such close daily contact with horses may be lost.

Dr Natasha Fijn

Fejos Fellow in Ethnographic Film, Wenner-Gren Foundation (2017)

Mongolia Institute, The Australian National University

International workshop ‘One Health: health and wellbeing on the grassland steppes of Mongolia’

Group photo outside The Museum of Mongolian Traditional Medicine, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.
Group photo outside The Museum of Mongolian Traditional Medicine, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.
Prof. Li Narangoa opening the proceedings during the One Health workshop. Photo: Itgel Chuluunbaatar.
Prof. Li Narangoa opening the proceedings during the One Health workshop. Photo: Itgel Chuluunbaatar.
Workshop presenters and participants, including Dr Natasha Fijn filming in the foreground with the national Mongolian television network in the background. Photo: Itgel Chuluunbaatar.
Workshop presenters and participants, including Dr Natasha Fijn filming in the foreground with the national Mongolian television network in the background. Photo: Itgel Chuluunbaatar.
Medical practitioner from Inner Mongolia, Chigekhitu, speaking on Mongolian Traditional Medicine. Photo: Itgel Chuluunbaatar.
Medical practitioner from Inner Mongolia, Chigekhitu, speaking on Mongolian Traditional Medicine. Photo: Itgel Chuluunbaatar.
Workshop participant responding to Dr Fijn's presentation.
Workshop participant responding to Dr Fijn’s presentation. Photo: Itgel Chuluunbaatar
Prof. Tserentsodnom with venerable monk from Ganden Monastery, Mongolia. Photo: Itgel Chunuunbaatar.
Prof. Tserentsodnom with venerable monk from Ganden Monastery, Mongolia. Photo: Itgel Chunuunbaatar.
Group photo with Director of the Museum of Mongolian Traditional Medicine, Prof. Tserentsodnom.
Group photo with Director of the Museum of Mongolian Traditional Medicine, Prof. Tserentsodnom. Photo: Itgel Chuluunbaatar.
A banquet after the International Mongolian Traditional Medicine Conference and One Health Workshop.
A banquet after the International Mongolian Traditional Medicine Conference and One Health Workshop.

ANU Mongolia Update in Ulaanbaatar, 2016

Audience at Mongolia Update 2016
Audience at Mongolia Update 2016. Photo: Itgel Chuluunbaatar.
Prof. Li Narangoa introducing former Mongolian Ambassador to Australia, Batbold.
Prof. Li Narangoa introducing former Ambassador to the UN, Enkhsaikhan Jargalsaikhan. Photo: Itgel Chuluunbaatar.
One of the speakers, MP of Environment and Green Development, Oyun Sanjaasuren.
One of the speakers, MP of Environment and Green Development, Oyun Sanjaasuren. Photo: Itgel Chuluunbaatar.
Christian Sorace asking a question from the audience
Dr Christian Sorace asking a question from the audience. Photo: Itgel Chuluunbaatar.
ANU Mongolia Update
Mr Amargargal Rinchinnyam, MP and former Prime Minister of Mongolia.
Current and former members of the ANU's Mongolia Institute
Current and former members of the ANU’s Mongolia Institute
Former postgraduate students who studied at the ANU
Former postgraduate students who studied at the ANU

Mongolian president’s gift illustrates country’s close connection with The Australian National University

By: Spencer Haines

Recently, staff and students on the way to their classes at The Australian National University (ANU) were surprised to see that a large white yurt had been mysteriously erected just across from the Chancellery Building. This intricately carved yurt, which would appear more at home on the grassy steppes of Eurasia than on a university campus in the heart of Canberra, was an official gift given to the ANU on behalf of the President of Mongolia, His Excellency Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj. It is also a tangible symbol of the strong relationship that began over a decade ago between the Embassy of Mongolia to Australia and the ANU Mongolia Institute headed by Professor Li Narangoa.

A ‘ger’ (the more accurate Mongolian name for a yurt) is the traditional dwelling used by the pastoral nomads of Eurasia since antiquity. It is a type of tent comprised of an expanding wooden circular frame surrounded by a felt cover, which makes it easy to assemble and transport. The ger is also part of Mongolians’ larger sense of national identity and the traditional craftsmanship of the Mongol Ger and its associated customs has been inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The State Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Mongolia, Damba Gankhuyag, presented ANU’s ceremonial ger on 24 March 2016 in recognition of the university’s support for the teaching of Mongolian culture and language. It is the first of its kind for a university in Australia.

Australia’s interest in the “Land of the Blue Sky” has increased steadily over the past decade based on Mongolia’s rapidly expanding economy and its solid democratic credentials. As Australia’s leading centre for research on Asia, the ANU actively sought to build links with the Embassy of Mongolia to provide a focus for this growing interest. Beginning in 2010, the ANU was the first Australian university to offer a Mongolian language course. The following year, the Prime Minister of Mongolia Sukhbaataryn Batbold’s visit heralded the official founding of the Mongolian Studies Centre (the precursor to the ANU Mongolia Institute). Since its founding, Professor Li Narangoa has instigated many new initiatives with the active support of a network of interested scholars at the ANU and the Mongolian Ambassadors Ravdan Bold and Batlai Chuluunhuu. This has allowed the scope of the ANU Mongolia Institute to expand dramatically. To date the Institute has hosted three Mongolian Studies open conferences, two Mongolia Updates, as well as popular cultural events including a recent performance by a grand finalist of ‘Asia’s Got Talent,’ the ‘Khusugtun’ ethnic ballad band of Mongolia.

The connection between the Embassy of Mongolia and the ANU continues to be mutually beneficial. The Embassy of Mongolia to Australia has used its “soft diplomacy” to promote Mongolia abroad and strengthen its people-to-people ties, while the ANU Mongolia Institute has in turn become a centre of national pre-eminence. The ANU has also produced a crop of international country experts and helped undergraduates expand their knowledge about this fascinating and important country. The future of this relationship looks bright with multiple upcoming events planned for Ulaanbaatar later this year.

More information is available from the following sites.

  1. The ANU Mongolia Institute
  2. The Embassy of Mongolia to the Commonwealth of Australia

Spencer Haines is a former diplomat and a current PhD candidate in the School of Culture, History and Language at the Australian National University. He is focusing his research on International Relations and Inner Asian History.

Erecting the ger, ANU
Erecting the ger, ANU
DSC_0015[1]
Mongolian ger, ANU