A Travellerspoint blog

In the Steppes of Chingghis Khan

A trek to the top of Burkhan Khaldun Uul

sunny -10 °C

It is five o’clock in the morning and the steel blue light of dawn is beginning to filter into the canvas tent at the Tenger Bosgin Davaa (Sky Gate Pass) base camp in central north Mongolia. Eleven people lie side by side like encased sausages and slowly emerge from their sleeping cocoons, each breath instantly turning beards and eyelashes a frosty white. The temperature is -35o C rendering the ceiling of the tent in solid ice. This is the start of our day trek up Burkhan Khaldun Uul, one of the three sacred mountains of Mongolia, and the possible birthplace and burial site of Chinggis Khann.


Chinggis Khan, the emperor of Mongolia, conquered an area as large as Africa back in the early 1200s. The area extended from the coastline of China westward to the Caspian Sea. Although Chinggis ruthlessly rid himself of his rivals and unleashed death on millions, he was also known as a great statesman, a military genius and the man who modernized Mongolia. But, as with all mortals, he died. Theories abound but it is thought that Chinggis was killed in China in 1227 at the age of 72. But where was he buried? This remains an intriguing mystery. According to Amar, our guide, one idea is that Chinggis was brought back to Mongolia from China by his men and entombed on or around Burkhan Khaldun, located in the Khentii mountain range some 280 kilometres to the north east of Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia.


There is not even a remotely warm place in the tent this morning but we wake to the breakfast aroma of fried eggs and toast, which I top with a healthy heap of Nutella, and ready our packs for the trek. Horsemen in their sheep-lined deel (coat) and trekkers in their down jackets clamber atop their allocated horse, some of us with some difficulty because of the layers of clothes in which we are bundled. We are spoilt with Western saddles rather than the exquisitely torturous wooden saddles the Mongolian horsemen traditionally use and we start the 15 kilometre, three hour ride to the base of the mountain.


Mongolian horses are a creature onto themselves. Chinggis Khan was able to create his empire on the back of these horses, his soldiers, famous for their ferocity, having the astonishing skill to shoot arrows and hit a moving target while riding at a full gallop. The horses are integral to the survival and social culture of the present day nomadic Mongolians living on the steppe and shooting arrows is even today considered a manly skill.


Mongolian horses are small, sturdy and strong, and are resolute at the wrong time. Ours decide their own gait which is usually a bum and bladder jarring canter. Although sure footed most of the time, their balance is tested when we cross the opaque ice covering the Kherlen River. We all dismount and shuffle precariously as we lead our nervous horses across the ice. A couple of the horses slip and fall but all that seems to be hurt is their pride.


We leave at daybreak and the rising sun is slowly warming us up as we continue along the track. Soon we get our first look at the flat topped Burkhan Khaldun Uul looming some 2,360 m in front of us through the pine and larch trees. We arrive at the base of the mountain and find that two of the horsemen have taken their horses and forged a track for us through five foot deep, pristine powder snow up the steep, wooded slope nearly to the upper edge of the tree line where they wait for our arrival.

Intrepid horsemen

Intrepid horsemen

The day could not have been more perfect: crystal clear blue sky that typically extends to infinity in Mongolia, sweet, crisp air, and snow glittering under the sun. We stop by a huge ovoo flanked by a giant cauldron. The ovoo, once a temple for the worship of the mountains and sky, is built from poles with offerings of milk products, sweets and other food scattered around its base.


We slowly make our way through the forest, following the horses’ track. As usual, I am last as I am always stopping to take pictures and the boys, being boys, are competing with each other to see who can get to the top first. As a consequence, I am on my own most of the time in the utter silence and have no warnings about the sinister little holes formed by fallen trees. There are times when I end up waist high in the soft snow, literally swimming to get out and find firm footing again.


Once past the tree line, the walking is easy as we follow a broad rocky ridge with little snow towards the beret shaped crown forming the summit. Mongolia is the least populated country in the world and this becomes plainly clear when we gaze, as did Chinggis, at the forested and snow covered Khentii mountains stretching hundreds of miles to Russia with nary a sign of human habitation. Below us in the deep valley marking the base of the mountain lies the frozen Talkhit Lake. In times past women were not allowed to the top of the mountain and so would walk around the lake until the men returned. But in modern times, women have been able to ascend the mountain. Two hours later we reach the final incline which is rock and wind-blown snow, and make our way to the top at 2,362 metres.


I am totally unprepared for what I see when I reach the top.




The entire area is covered by hundreds upon hundreds of rock ovoos of varying sizes, created over eons by pilgrims venerating the mountain and paying homage to Chinggis. I could not walk in a straight line. I zig-zag over the rocky ground to the most notable ovoo on the other side of the plateau. The tall wood poles are completely covered with blue, white, yellow and red khadags (silk scarves) which flap in the wind. A modern day circular spirit banner, or sulde, made of metal and horsehair sits regally on top of the tallest pole. This is the spot where Chinggis is said to come to pray for guidance before the launch of a military campaign.

Chinggis Khan purportedly declared that he didn’t want to be found when he died so ensured that his final resting place was kept secret by killing off anyone who even remotely knew where he was buried. The location of his tomb is an object of much speculation and research even to this day. Traditional archaeological digs and modern technology using satellite imagery looking for bips and bumps on the terrain have not yet provided an answer to this enigma.


So for today, we sit huddled together against the biting wind imagining that this may be the site of the tomb of Chinggis. We eat our bologna sandwiches, imagine hordes of soldiers thundering across the open steppes below us and on the way down from the mountain make snow angels to the spirit of the emperor of Mongolia.




My thanks to the team who made our trek to the top of Burkhan Khaldun a success.

Posted by IvaS 03:17 Archived in Mongolia Comments (0)

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