By LUCY THOMPSON
The UB Post’s second travel feature takes you on a trip to Khamriin Monastery. Those looking for their next holiday, whether it be a day trip or longer stay, can find practical information on places, prices, and times combined with real inspiration in these experiences.
In the depths of the Gobi lies Khamriin Khiid. This monastery, rebuilt in the early 1990s, is famed in Mongolia as having the strongest spiritual energy convergence in the world, and travelers visit from across the country to be rejuvenated and gain health, wealth, and fertility.
Khamriin Khiid and its surrounding religious sites are almost 500 km from Ulaanbaatar, amounting to nine hours of travel time. Besides the monastery itself, popular locations to visit are Breast Ovoo, a cave complex used for meditation, and Bayanzurkh Uul. Ger camps are nearby for those who wish to make a multi-day trip, however, we chose to drive down overnight and return the next day.
With six passengers contributing to fuel costs, this trip cost only 25 USD each, a very good price given that vehicle hire in Ulaanbaatar starts at around 60 USD not including fuel costs.
After our night drive we reached this site just as dawn was breaking. An ovoo is a sacred cairn, and by adding a rock to the pile, people believe positive energy will return to them. Here women come to make offerings of milk and millet in the hope of fertility, health, and blessings for mothers. In theory, this ritual is just for women – a female counterpart to the male-only practice of making a wish at the top of Bayanzurkh Uul – nonetheless, we saw a few men taking part.
It was fascinating to be able to observe this process. Most visitors circled the two “breasts” clockwise, tossing offerings onto them, while some chose to face the sun as they offered spoonfuls of milk to the north, south, east, and west. I got the sense of how deeply connected with nature and the spirit this was, and a religious aspect was evident from the blue prayer silks tied to the monument.
Shambala Energy Center
Visiting Shambala was the focus of our trip. Having risen from the ashes of Khamriin Monastery in 1990, this energy center has become a place of pilgrimage for people wanting to reap the benefits of such a spiritual place and pay homage to the “Terrible Noble Saint of the Gobi”.
Dulduityn Danzanravjaa, the saint in question, established Khamriin Khiid in 1820. A fierce critic of the society he lived in, Danzanravjaa’s aim was to create a model of a more enlightened lifestyle. His monastery included a library, theatre, museum, and school – notable when public education was not supported at the time. His attitudes both toward women and education were revolutionary.
At its peak, more than 500 monks worshipped at 80 temples, however, with the Communist purges of the 1930s Khamriin Khiid was destroyed. Given its resurrection just 25 years ago it felt very significant to see this site as busy as it must have been more than a century before. While only two temples now stand and only ten lamas live in the monastery itself, visitors flock to Shambala in great numbers.
Shambala itself is surrounded by 108 stupas and within are various monuments. On entering we were confronted with a large pair of eyes staring out from the side of the Gelugpa Temple of Wisdom, which follow you as you walk around. Our first action was to make an offering, scattering millet in circles marked on the ground, before visiting the Gelugpa Temple and Nyingma Temple of Compassion, and then going to Shambala’s red rocks to absorb energy.
Tradition dictates that these rocks are more strongly imbued with energy, and feel warmer as a result. To make the most of this, we took off our shoes and lay on the ground. It may simply have been the opportunity this gave for individual reflection, or it may have been that the rocks did give us energy, but I believe I felt a difference – even if the skeptical say that you feel the change because you expect it.
Besides this, there was the chance to make a special wish. Supposedly, there is a spirit living at the bottom of one of Shambala’s caverns that is said to grant the wishes of those who lean over the edge and call on him. As a result, the rim of the cavern was jammed with people, so we made our wishes from a slight distance. This aspect of Shambala did strike me as being not as strongly spiritual as the rest, arising more from superstition than religion, yet it was being treated with the same sincerity of approach as, for example, the practice of singing from the ovoo. Pointedly, however, people were not simply asking for favors; everywhere they were making offerings of rice, sweets, and vodka.
Listening to the singing of visitors was my favorite part of the trip. A song was written by Danzanravjaa about the women he loved, and is seen as a great celebration of femininity and womankind in general. To sing it right through brings blessings and goodness onto women. While I could not sing along, I appreciated the deep significance of it as I stood among the singers.
Shambala Cave Complex
Shortly beyond the monastery is a network of caves where some of the monks of Khamriin Khiid lived and meditated for 108 days to fortify their body and mind. Climbing up the bank to reach the caves afforded a beautiful view over the desert dunes, but the real focus was the shrines set up in the caves that the monks had used. More offerings were to be found here; people went in one by one to take a few moments of reflection and leave sweets or biscuits as a way of protecting themselves against hunger in the future.
The caves were small, dark, and stifled with incense, but they also all had an atmosphere of utter stillness, which I was not expecting. I was surprised at how profoundly this heavy silence lay on me and the somber mood it created.
The final stage of pilgrimage at Shambala leads around a hillside to be reborn. By squeezing through a narrow entrance into another cave and emerging out the other side, you can experience rebirth and renewal of your spiritual energy. Although this was an interesting activity, it lacked the gravity of the shrines, perhaps due to the long queue to enter and the focus on struggling in and out rather than refreshing your mind and preparing yourself to start again. Here, as at the monastery, it seemed that rituals have sprung up in certain places which are only loosely tied to the original religious nature of the place.
“Black Mountain”, 23 km northwest of the monastery, is considered to be the home of the third Noyon Khutagt’s spirit, and men may go to the top of this mountain to make three wishes. This was our final stop before returning to Ulaanbaatar, and so despite not being allowed to the summit, I climbed as far as possible for a final look at the amazing view.
Halfway up the mountain – the cutoff point for women – stands an ovoo at which they can wish, while the men whisper their wishes in the ear of a Buddha statue and circle the peak. Traditionally, this is done by the head of the family to ensure prosperity, health, and a good life. However, in actuality, any male may go and do this; we saw young boys accompanying their fathers to the mountaintop.
Regardless of whether the view from the highest point is better than that further down, the beauty of the uninterrupted landscape was certainly enough to make the visit worth it. There is a waiting area with benches and a shelter for wives and daughters while the men go on to the summit, and further down are several buildings where you can rest or prepare offerings.
Would I recommend this trip?
Although it was a long way, driving down as part of a group made it very cheap – not to mention enjoyable – and I really valued the chance to see and experience places of such spiritual significance to Mongolians. As such, I would recommend this trip with the caveat that you combine it with a visit to Sainshand, where you can find the Museum of Danzanravjaa and learn more about the founder of Kamriin Khiid.
Tours to the Gobi can cost anywhere upwards of 550 USD for a three-day trip, so a far more economic option for those travelling alone is the Ulaanbaatar-Sainshand train and then a taxi to the monastery. But however you get there, it’s worth the journey. I don’t believe I’ve ever been somewhere where people are so united by their common spirituality.