Amarbayasgalant Monastery consists of 28 stunning temples.
Where is Amarbayasgalant Monastery?
Amarbayasgalant khiid or the “Monastery of Tranquil Felicity” lies 355 kilometers north of Ulaanbaatar (driving distance), in Selenge Province.
The temple rests in a specious Iven River Valley, at the feet of Bürenkhaan Mountain. The area is remote and inhabited by nomads largely independent from modern civilization.
How do you access Amarbayasgalant Monastery?
Amarbayasgalant consists of twenty-eight temples surrounded by a high wall. Most of the buildings are typically closed. To access them, you need to find monks and ask them to unlock the door for you. You may also need to pay a small entrance fee.If you decide to book a night in a tourist camp, you may as well approach the facility with a request to arrange your transfer. They may not be able to pick you up from Ulaanbaatar, but they may be able to arrange a ride for you from Darkhan, or Erdenet, or at least collect you from the main road
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Prayers at Amarbayasgalant Monastery
Prayers are usually held around 10:00. On regular days, particularly in winter, monks gather in a smaller yurt-shaped building located on the left side of the complex. In summer, especially during religious festivals, prayers take place in the main temple called Tsogchin Dugan. It’s a spacious, two-story building decorated with thangkas, prayer flags, and religious sculptures.
Monks at Amarbayasgalant Monastery
There is a dozen of bigger and smaller buildings around the monastery. Some of them belong to the monks; others are owned by regular citizens. On the right side of the complex, Amarbayasgalant monks set up a large, yellow dormitory. It serves as living quarters and a school for young boys who wish to become monks in the future.
Above the monastery, on the slope of Bürenkhaan Mountain, rise two sacral monuments – a massive stupa, and a gold-colored statue of Buddha. Both offer a spectacular panoramic view of Amarbayasgalant and the surrounding valley.
History of Amarbayasgalant Monastery
The construction of Amarbayasgalant Monastery was initiated in 1727 by Emperor Yongzheng of the Qing Dynasty. The complex was to serve as the burial site for Zanabazar, the spiritual leader of Buddhism in North Mongolia (Mongolian – Ar Mongol; in the West often wrongly called Outer Mongolia), who died in Beijing in 1723.
The main section of Amarbayasgalant was completed in 1736, but the monastery continued to grow throughout the next two centuries. At some point, Zanabazar’s embalmed body was moved to the complex from its temporary resting place, but sources don’t agree on the exact date.
A legend has it that Amarbayasgalant Monastery owns its name and location to a pair of young Mongolian boys encountered by an expedition dispatched to find a suitable site to build the monastery. The children were called Amur (peace, blissfulness, tranquility), and Bayasqulangtu (joyful, merry). The members of the expedition took the boys’ names for a good omen and decided to set up the complex at the site where they have been seen playing.
Another story says that the location was chosen after a lama reincarnation was discovered in the area in 1724. It is also possible that the site was selected because that was where Zanabazar’s mobile monastery encamped at the time of his death in Beijing in 1723.
Amarbayasgalant was designed to resemble Yonghegong – the palace of Emperor Yongzheng. The most important temples were arranged hierarchically along the north-south axis. Less important buildings lay on the sides.
During its golden years, the complex consisted of over forty temples, surrounded by a high wall. It was one of the four most prominent monastic centers in the country and home for some three thousand monks.
Unfortunately, in 1937 Mongolian communists ransacked the complex. They also allegedly removed Zanabazar’s remains and burnt them in the nearby hills.
In 1944, the temple was put under state protection, although merely in name. The first restoration works began only in 1988 and were covered by UNESCO funds and private donors. Since 2014, Amarbayasgalant Monastery has been enlisted on the UNESCO Tentative List. Still, many temples remain in rough conditions and require substantial repairs.
Why you should visit Amarbayasgalant Monastery.
Despite being one of the most well-known monastic centers in Mongolia, Amarbayasgalant Monastery doesn’t receive many foreign visitors.
The inconvenient location of the monastery requires a several-hour-long detour. Thus, many travelers prefer to omit the site in favor of more accessible attractions. It’s a real pity since Amarbayasgalant is magical place.
A curious traveler will find there rolling hills covered with lush greenery in summer and pristine snow in winter. Grazing livestock roams across the landscape. From time to time, white domes of yurts (ger), or a distant silhouette of a mounted nomad emerge on a horizon.
The landscape is so monumental that Amarbayasgalant appears at first almost unnoticeable. It’s only once you are at the gate that you realize its actual size.
The monastery has a genteel, almost mystical allure. Remnants of ruined temples magnify the impression of massiveness. Serendipity radiates from faded wooden beams, exuberant grass, and monotonous ritual chants of the praying monks.
The lost-in-time atmosphere is periodically broken by the appearance of playful young novices. Their natural joyfulness and vibrant laugh immediately recall the legend of Amur and Bayasqulangtu, truly delivering the meaning behind the monastery’s name – “tranquil felicity.”
When to visit Amarbayasgalant Monastery.
You can visit Amarbayasgalant the whole year-round. At times, the earth road leading to the temple becomes difficult to pass due to rain or melting snow. However, a good 4WD shouldn’t have any problems with driving through.
The temple is the liveliest in summer, particularly in August, when the annual Bumba (a clay vase containing sacred materials) Ceremony takes place. The event aimed to bring prosperity and exorcise evil involves an impressive ritual masked dance, Tsam. It is one of the most spectacular religious events in Mongolia, attracting hundreds of Buddhism followers.
The dates of the festival change every year and are often given with short notice. Recently, I heard that the celebration is planned to take place twice this year, on 2 – 4th July and 13 – 15th August. But those dates can easily change, so you may want to directly approach the monastery for more information. The temple has an active Facebook account used to provide information to the followers.
An ideal length of a trip to Amarbayasgalant Monastery is three days; two days to travel between Ulaanbaatar and the monastery, and one full day to spend at the complex. Shorter, more intense excursions are also possible, but only if at some point you will have a car at your disposal.
How to get to Amarbayasgalant Monastery.
No public transportation reaches Amarbayasgalant. The easiest way to get to the monastery is to arrange a tour with a travel company or, if you are a confident driver, to rent a car.
Amarbayasgalant is situated in a rather remote area. The nearest village, Sant, is located around forty kilometers away to the south-east. Another settlement, Baruunbüren, lies almost fifty kilometers to the south-west. Both communities are connected with Amarbayasgalant with a poor-quality dirt road.
Several roads lead to the temple, but the main trail lies approximately twenty kilometers east of Baruunbüren. The place in which it splits from the main asphalt road is marked by a sign saying “Amarbayasgalant Monastery 35 km.”
You can get to both locations with a public bus connecting Ulaanbaatar with the city of Erdenet. The bus leaves hourly every day from 9:00 to 17:30, from the Dragon Bus Terminal in Ulaanbaatar. It stops briefly at Baruunbüren village, so you can get out there. You can also ask the driver to drop you at the beginning of the dirt road to Amarbayasgalant.
The cost of the one-way ride to Baruunbüren was $6 in April 2020. The ticket to Erdenet was $7. At the station, you may also find minivans (marshrutka) and private taxis going the same way.
Baruunbüren lies 315 kilometers away from Ulaanbaatar, so expect a long ride. It can easily take seven-eight hours to get there. In the village, you will have to ask around to find someone to drive you to the monastery.
If you decide to get out at the beginning of the Amarbayasgalant dirt road, you will save some time but will have to either hike or wait for someone driving by to give you a lift.
Important! Hardly any travel guide mentions that Erdenet appears on bus schedules under a different name. The city is a part of Bayan-Öndör soum of Orkhon Province, and those are the names used on the plans.
A different option you could explore is catching a bus to Darkhan. It’s another large city, located 219 kilometers from Ulaanbaatar. Buses to Darkhan leave hourly, every day, from 9:00 to 14:00 from the Dragon Bas Terminal.
There are also smaller vehicles that travel between the settlements hourly between 8:00 and 20:00. The ride lasts four-five hours and costs around $4 one way.
You can try to get tickets for both Darkhan and Erdenet buses online. But be aware that the ticket website doesn’t always work, so you may need to go to the bus station anyway.
Both Darkhan and Erdenet can also be reached by train, which usually leaves Ulaanbaatar once a day at 20:35. The train first stops at Darkhan at 02:05. Then some wagons get redirected to Erdenet, where they arrive at 07.45 the following morning.
On the way back, the train leaves Erdenet at 18:35, departs Darkhan at 00:10, and arrives in Ulaanbaatar at 6:00 the next morning.
There is also another train from a border town called Sūkhbaatar that stops in Darkhan at 9:27 and reaches Ulaanbaatar at 16:30. The same train leaves Ulaanbaatar for Darkhan at 10:45 and arrives in the city at 17:31. Another train leaves the capital at 17:45 and reaches Darkhan at 00:20. On the way back it departs Darkhan at 5:20 and reaches Ulaanbaatar at 12:05. In November last year, there was also a fast, modern Railbus started to commute daily (with exception of Thursdays) between Ulaanbaatar and Darkhan. The Railbus was departing the capital at 9:00, arriving at its destination at 1:30 pm, and after thirty-minute-long break heading back to Ulaanbaatar.
Important! There have been some changes introduced to the train schedules due to the COVID-19 quarantine regimes. Some of the connections, including Railbus, have been suspended. The original service will likely be restored in the future, but it’s unclear in what capacity. Please make sure to account for that while planning your journey.
Train tickets can be bought online. Unfortunately, the page isn’t translated to English at the moment, so if you don’t know Cyrillic, you may not be able to use it. The page also tends to malfunction from time to time, so don’t be surprised if something won’t work. It may be easier to simply go to the train station and get the tickets at the site.
Prices of the tickets differ depending on the type of seat you order. The most expensive tickets for closed four-bed compartments cost around $8 to Darkhan and $11 to Erdenet one way. There are cheaper options for beds in open compartments and for seating places, but I don’t recommend those unless you plan to catch a day train. A seat to Darkhan costs around $2, and to Erdenet around $3.
Unfortunately, getting to Darkhan or Erdenet solves only part of the transportation problem. You still will need to figure out how to cover the distance remaining to Amarbayasgalant – 130 kilometers from Darkhan, and 120 kilometers from Erdenet.
You can do that by either catching a bus or a private taxi connecting both cities and getting out at the beginning of the Amarbayasgalant dirt road or find a driver who will take you to the monastery. What might be helpful in that last endeavor is approaching local hotels or tourist camps for assistance.
Where to stay near Amarbayasgalan Monastery
Seasons determine the access to the accommodation at Amarbayasgalant. In summer, three tourist camps, Amarbayasgalant Urguu, Great Selenge, and If Tour, work in the area.
Amarbayasgalant Urguu is a well-established facility, operating since 1995. It lies eight kilometers south of the monastery. Like almost all camps in the country, it’s usually opened from May to mid-October. To confirm dates, availability, and prices, you must get in touch with the camp managers either via Facebook or phone (+976 90097886, +976 96047886, +976 96037886).
Great Selenge is located five kilometers away from Amarbayasgalant Monastery. Currently, the facility doesn’t have any Facebook profile, so to contact them, you will have to rely on phone calls. Try one of the following numbers: +976 99091958, +976 99095991, +976 91011958, +976 91816408, and +976 98115838.
The third camp, If Tour, was established in 2007. It’s located only a couple of hundred meters away from Amarbayasgalant Monastery.
You can contact the camp via Facebook, e-mail, and on the phone (+976 91190808, +976 96672995, and +976 99189981).