As recessions go, Karakorum can claim an unrivaled slide. In the mid-13th century, it was the capital of the Mongol Empire the largest the world has ever seen. Genghis Khan's horsemen ranged from the Korean peninsula to the Caspian Sea and his descendants built a stunning Silk Road city in the Orkhon Valley, where Genghis Khan had arisen from common stock.
For a few decades wine flowed from gilded fountains in Karakorum's palace. In 1260, however, Kubilai Khan, Genghis Khan's grandson, decided to move the capital elsewhere, and the city slowly became a backwater. Chinese raids left it in ruins by the end of the 1300s. The location was able to regain some importance in the late 16th century, when the Tibetan Buddhist monastery Erdene Zuu an enormous walled complex of ancient temples was built upon the site of Karakorum using palace rubble. But while it flourished for 350 years, it too was destroyed or, rather, most of it was during a 1939 purge orchestrated by the Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party. Thousands of monks were killed.
A few structures at Erdene Zuu, including three temples, somehow survived, and after the end of communist rule in Mongolia in 1990 they were once again used for worship. "This isn't what it once was," concedes Bassa, the monastery's head monk. "But it is alive, and growing." Monks have been slowly returning, joined these days by a regular flow of tourists.
The Orkhon Valley itself is more than enough reason to make the bumpy 380-km drive from the capital Ulan Bator. The area is the cradle of Mongol society and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Visitors can see Mongolians living off the land in the timeless nomadic style, and it's a popular area for horse trekking.
Also putting the area back on the map is the Genghis Khan Polo & Riding Club, genghiskhanpolo.com, which operates a string of luxury gers (Mongolian circular felt huts). This summer it was the venue for the Shanghai Tang Polo Cup, with players traveling from all parts of the globe to compete. "The polo was great," enthused Nicholas Wills, a stockbroker from London. "But the real attraction is Mongolia. Where else can you ride for hours and hours and never see a fence?" After a centuries-long hiatus, it's gratifying to know that Karakorum once again rings to the chanting of monks, the sounds of contest and the thunder of hooves.
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