It may not look like much upon most visitors’ arrival, but this was once the center of the Mongol world. Now a small provincial town of Soviet-style apartment blocks, light industry and numerous extended ger suburbs, modern Kharkhorin (Karakorum) hides its former glory well. The centerpiece of its current incarnation is the sprawling Erdene Zuu Khiid monastic complex. Itself a shadow of its former self as a result of the 1930s purges (when all but three temples were razed to the ground), the monastery still serves as Mongolia’s most important religious center. Since Communism’s collapse, reconstruction efforts have continued apace to restore many of the destroyed structures. Although it remains a work in progress, there is still plenty to recommend it as a prime cultural stop.

The old capital of Karakorum sat in a vast plain just east of where Erdene Zuu now stands. Completely destroyed by the Manchurians in the late 14th century, it was later incorporated piecemeal into the monastery. Neglect and the passing of time account for its remnants now lying mostly below ground. Some archaeological digs have begun in an attempt to unearth the site, but so far little progress has been made. For now, it takes a bit of imagination (and even knowledge of contemporary accounts of the ancient city) to envision how it was.

Two turtle rocks sit on opposing sides of the monastery, one within easy walking distance and the other a distance off, in the hills above. Carved to mark the boundaries of the monastery, there originally were four, but the other two have been lost. Not far from the second turtle lies a phallic rock, serving the dual purpose of a fertility aid and a cure for kidney ailments. Somewhat infamous among visitors, it is marked by a rather comical road sign that sees more than its fair share of photographs.

In the hills southwest of Kharkhorin stands the Great Imperial Map Monument, a three-walled display of the old imperial Hunnu, Turkic and Mongol periods. While the maps are interesting, the views over the town and a scenic valley on the opposite side are arguably more impressive.