Shambhalla, Gobi Desert and Khogno Khan, Mongolia

Colour: pearlescent aqua

Mnemonic: GREE-AH

Original information and clues: Shambhalla, Gobi Desert, Mongolia

It was a map of central Asia, highlighting several geographical possibilities for the location of the mythical Shambhalla that initially caught my eye and imagination (Hitching, 1978). 

Hitching’s Map of Shambhala Locations

Legends of Shambhalla’s location: (Hitching, 1978)

  1. Gobi Desert – location favoured by Theosophists, notably Helena Blatvatsky. The Indian text, the Kurma Purana, maintained there was an island in the northern sea called Sweta-dvipa, the home of the great yogis. This sea was thought to be a mass of water over the Gobi Desert (geologically, central Mongolia and the Gobi were covered by sea many millions of years ago)
  2. Syr Daria – the Hungarian philologist, Csoma de Körös gave Shambhalla’s geographical location as Latitude 45°- 50° North, beyond the river Syr Daria.
  3. Belovodye – otherwise known as the Russian ‘White Waters’, an Eastern paradise. In 1923 an expedition to find Belovdye went ‘over the Kokushi Mountains, through Bogogorshi and over Ergor to a snowy lake’. The expedition never returned.
  4. Kun Lun – a valley of the immortals located in ice-covered mountains where, according to Chinese mythology, Nu and Kua (Adam and Eve) were born (Hatcher-Childress, 1998)
  5. Tebu Land – in Taoist mythology, the most beautiful country in the world, hidden between Szechwan and Tibet.
  6. River Tarim – an Italian Tibetologist, Giuseppe Tucci ‘located’ Shambhalla near the river Tarim, which flows from the Altyn Tagh Ridge
  7. Tashi Lhumpo Monastery – founded near Shigatse in AD 1447 and the headquarters of the Kalachakra wisdom
  8. Altai Mountains – according to Geoffrey Ashe, various clues from Middle Eastern and Greek sources suggest Shambhalla is located in the Altai mountains – if that’s the case, then Meru in Belukha could be a good candidate
  9. Mongolia – in the ‘Red Path to Shambhala ‘, a Tibetan monk describes the route to Shambhalla using cryptic directions and locates the entrance in central Mongolia
  10. The Sign of Shambhalla – whilst camping in the Kuknor district near the Humboldt Mountains in China, Nicolas Roerich recorded the group seeing a mysterious flying object and concluded it was a sign they were near Shambhalla. ‘We all saw, in a direction from north to south, something big and shiny reflecting the sun, like a huge oval moving at great speed’.

Enter the keyword ‘Shambhalla’ (there are several spellings) on any search engine and you will be rewarded with hundreds of entries, each providing huge amounts of background reading; and quoting supporting information from various sources. For those familiar with the cultures of the East, Shambhalla is said to be a mystical land, populated by highly spiritual people and creatures; the centre of the world and a life-giving source to all on Earth. For some, it is a spiritual goal that can only be reached from the heart and with pure thoughts and deeds; a state of being, with each person having Shambhalla in their hearts. Whilst others believe it is a physical place still waiting to be found, with great tests along the way. It is said that no one can simply go there, even with some sort of map or guide; instead a would-be pilgrim has first to be called; and if someone tries, without being prepared spiritually, then they will perish. 

The first mention of Shambhalla occurs in the Kalachakra Tantra (from the 10th century); a Buddhist text and source of esoteric wisdom. It tells of how Suchandra, the King of Shambhalla, received the Kalachakra teachings from Buddha Shakyamuni. According to another legend, Shambhalla was a kingdom in Central Asia and the King of Shambhalla acquired his knowledge in South India; but after the Muslim invasion of Central Asia in the 9th century, the kingdom became invisible to the human eye; and now only the pure of heart can find it. Many legends suggest Shambhalla has been in the Gobi Desert since before either the Tibetan Buddhist or Hindu religions appeared; and for devotees who embraced and understood it, there was a doorway in the Gobi, for those that could, to find it and enter.                                                                                               

For me, Shambhalla was a clue to an approximate location within Mongolia, where I would find the ‘energy pumping station’ I was searching for. According to Francis Hitching’s map there were two possibilities; in the Gobi Desert itself, or in the central western part of the country. Another clue, from a different source, talked of the Gobi Desert being the location of a ‘City of Serpents’, with a shimmering, golden palace and a magical fortress surrounded and protected by a ring of etheric dragons (Pinkham, 1997). My plan was to explore several locations; but whether my final destination would also be the location of Shambhalla, or linked to it in some way, there was no way of knowing; until I was actually ‘on the ground’ and experiencing the energy flows. Even then, there was no guarantee. As always, it was a matter of trusting I would always be in the right place, at the right time, for whatever was meant to happen. 

Later research and insights:

The thirteenth century court of Khubilai Khaan, a grandson of Chinggis Khaan, contained representatives of all the philosophies of his empire; Islam, Taoism, Christianity, Confucianism and Buddhism. Out of these, it was Tibetan Buddhism, a religion originally of the aristocracy, that the great Khaan chose to adopt for his people. Prior to his reign, his subjects had always followed Shamanistic ways and, following the later downfall of the Tibetan Buddhist Empire, Shamanism became predominant once again until the mid-sixteenth century; when in 1578, the then leader Altan Khaan was converted to Yellow Hat sect Buddhism by the Tibetan leader Sonam Gyatso. Although history suggests this was for political and social reasons, rather than spiritual salvation. The most significant Tibetan lama to have reincarnated in Mongolia was Jebtzun Damba; and his first reincarnation was the sculptor and diplomat Zanabazar, who was proclaimed leader of Mongolia in 1641. 

By the beginning of the 20th century, the vast landscape known as Mongolia was at the heart of both Russian and Chinese imperialism. The borders between the three countries were finally agreed in 1920; with the area known as Inner Mongolia, north of the Great Wall and up into the southern Gobi Desert, being part of China; and the remaining area up to the Russian border becoming known as Outer Mongolia. When a communist government came to power in Outer Mongolia in 1921, they determined to crush both the influence of the monasteries and the ideology of the Buddhist religion. Monks were considered to be lazy, because they didn’t work or reproduce; and, with many thousands of Lamas and monks in 700 monasteries, that was a lot of wealth and manpower. The spiritual leader, Bogd Khaan finally died in 1924 and the communist government then declared the Mongolian Peoples’ Republic to be part of the much larger USSR. The purges started in 1929 with the confiscation and redistribution of property and herds belonging to the monasteries; whilst arrests and executions in 1932 led to rebellions when young Lamas were conscripted into the army. Finally, in 1937 ‘the bloody purge’ saw the secret police arrest over 17,000 Lamas and virtually none of them were ever seen again. Only four monasteries survived, in a much depleted state, to be preserved as museums of the so called ‘feudal period’; and all religious worship and ceremonies were outlawed until 1990, when the country now known as Mongolia came into being, after the breakup of the USSR. With the arrival of democracy, freedom of religion was restored. In the early 21st century there has been an extraordinary revival of Buddhism and one of the most appreciated gifts, for any family, is a picture of the current Dalai Lama. In land area, Mongolia is about the same size as Western Europe, but with only 2.5M inhabitants and 25M animals there is plenty of open space. It is known as ‘The Land of Blue Skies’ and often referred to as Asia’s last undiscovered wilderness. With vast expanses of rolling steppe, high glacial mountains, impenetrable forests and deep, crystal lakes in the north; and the Gobi Desert in the south, stretching to the horizon and seemingly empty save for deep canyons and sweeping dunes. For the most part it has a breathtaking natural beauty, still unblemished by the hand of ‘modern man’; although sadly, in some places that is now changing.

I planned to make this journey, in 2008, as a 60th birthday present to myself. First step was a detailed search of guide books such as ‘Bradt Mongolia’ (Blunden, 2004), for places of possible interest. Next was to use this list to dowse a map of Mongolia, to see if any places ‘jumped out’ at me. Many did, including locations not found in my first trawl of the guide books. The book entitled ‘Return of the Serpents of Wisdom’ (Pinkham, 1997) had highlighted how many sacred places around the world were often referred to as places of ‘serpent energy’; and could be identified by the appearance of ‘Ka’ or ‘Ko’ in their place names. So, it was not surprising that many of the locations attracting my attention had names beginning with ‘K’. For example: Kharakorum, Chinggis Khaan’s ancient capital; Khongeryn, the river of fertility that flows through the southern Gobi; Khogno Khan, a hidden sacred valley that was an ancient seat of learning; and Khovsgol, a stunning freshwater lake in the north. Internet searches also provided further hints and clues. I would have a local driver and guide and, we would stay mostly in Ger Camps, as these are often the only form of accommodation available. After a few iterations and tweaks to accommodate daily driving distances and, the availability of Ger camps in some locations, the itinerary was finalized and everything was set. I would be away for the month of June. This early in the season meant popular locations should not be busy; whilst June was late enough for the cold tentacles of the Mongolian Winter to have thawed.

In the back of my mind was the memory of a recurring dream; where I come out from a pass, through a wide gap with rocks either side; to look down on a lush green valley that stretches far into the distance as it widens out onto a vast plain. A river snakes through the valley and many animals graze on the verdant hillsides and valley floor. There are no buildings, just a feeling of calm and peace that emanates from the landscape in front of me. This dream occurs regularly as the departure date draws near; as if trying to assure me that when I find this valley, I will know I am in the right area and my destination is not that far away.

Following the clues on the ground: June 2008

The following is a summary of the main locations, in the sequence visited, as I followed the clues on the ground searching for the ‘energy pumping station’. The full story is available in the book ‘Dances with Dragons in Mongolia’.

Guides, drivers, transport and roads:  

My guide for the first part of the trip was Goyo, and my driver for the first three weeks Nyamaa (pronounced Neema); a small, dark-skinned, cheerful man who was always smiling, singing and entertaining us. Nyamaa drives an old, grey Russian equivalent of a VW bus, called a Forgon that seems to be a popular means of tourist transport. His ‘car’ as he calls it, is his pride and passion; and each morning he gives it a hug, a kiss; and a thorough clean. Built to take the hard wear of constant bumping along dirt tracks; it has four-wheel drive and can easily be fixed if it breaks down, which it did a couple of times. Apart from a few hundred kilometres of metallic topped roads, in and around the capital and between some towns in the north near to major mining locations, there are no such things as roads in most of Mongolia. Although major road building programs are underway, with the help of the Chinese. Mostly it’s just big tracks, small tracks and very small ‘ghost’ tracks. If there was no visible track Nyamaa would drive to the nearest elevated point to look for a recognizable feature in the distant landscape, that he would use to find his bearings; before heading off in the general direction of where we wanted to go. 

Map of Mongolia showing key locations visited (courtesy of Panoramic Journeys)

Shamanism and Ovoos:

Shamanism, a form of mysticism, was the dominant belief system long before the time of Chinggis Khaan. It has deep connections with the earth; and the digging of soil and cutting of grass are seen as profane; hence agriculture has traditionally been looked down upon by the Mongolians. Shamans act as intermediaries between the spirit world and the human world; living alone in isolation, but always available to protect their clan and their herds from disease and evil spirits. Sometimes Shamanic powers are inherited; and other times powers become apparent after a sudden period of sickness. Today, shamanism is still practiced by the Tsaatan, Darkhad, Uriankhai and Buryat peoples, who live in northern Mongolia. The most obvious manifestations of shamanism, which can be found throughout Mongolia in many different forms, are the Ovoos. On the crest of hills and passes and important sacred places, ubiquitous piles of stones and sometimes wooden ‘wigwam-shaped’ structures occur. The building of these structures is an ancient custom and the stone cairns are believed to have originally been tombstones related to Neolithic funeral cults. Later they became shamanistic altars, closely related to the cult of ancestral spirits. Each clan has its own particular Ovoo, which marks the symbolic limits of the clan’s territory. Rituals, the offering of food and sacrifices to the souls of the dead; and the spirits of nature, earth and water; are carried out to guarantee the protection of the spirits over that land. The Communists tried to rid the countryside of Ovoos; condemning them as suspicious and backward; but regardless of past political and religious changes, the Ovoo has maintained its importance in Mongolian culture. Mongolians circle an Ovoo three times in a clockwise direction; following the movement of the stars and sun across the heavens. Not so cosmic are the items left as offerings. Today Ovoos have all manner of items scattered upon them; including car parts, empty bottles, matchboxes and even broken crutches; offerings that are not seen as junk but as meaningful gifts. (Journeys, 2008)

Kharakorum and Erdene Zuu

As we travelled northwards away from the Gobi Desert, Ger camps were within sight of each other and there were increasingly large herds of grazing animals. The relatively barren southern landscape changed to mountain steppe, with trees and beautiful glacial valleys; all running north-south. On the western sides of the eastern slopes, were signs of ancient burial sites and sacred places; and after a while, I realised these were exactly the type of valleys I had seen in my recurring dream. In the original itinerary we were supposed to stay at Orkhon for two days and visit its famous water falls; sadly, there was little water in them and the nearby Ger camp was still closed because everything was frozen. So, the plan changed to stay at a place called Khogno Khan; which had been on my original list of places to visit, but had somehow been removed with the suggestion Orkhon was a more worthwhile place to see. Clearly someone or something had other ideas and, working on the basis that everything happens for a reason, I was very happy to wait and see what presented itself.

In 1220, Kharakorum was the capital of Chinggis Khaan’s empire. Several earlier, successful civilizations had made their capitals in this fertile Orkhon valley, and Chinggis Khaan used it as a supply point for his armies; a place where weapons were cast; food was grown; and artisans would come to from across the empire. Famed for their religious tolerance, the Khaans split their time equally between the different faiths; and twelve religions co-existed within the town, with foreign and Mongol coins all legal tender. After Khubilai Khaan, Chinggis Khaan’s grandson, moved his capital to Khanbalik and the subsequent fall of the Mongol Empire, Kharakorum was abandoned and later destroyed by vengeful Manchurian soldiers in 1388. 

The city lay in ruins; until its stones were used to help build Erdene Zuu (meaning One Hundred Treasures) in the 16th century. Guide books describe Erdene Zuu as the first Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Mongolia. More accurately, it was the first monastery to be built after Altan Khaan converted to Tibetan Buddhism in 1538. Many treasures from Erdene Zuu are on display at the temple museum and in the Tibetan style Lavrin temple with its ornate buildings. At its height, several thousand Lamas were in residence; and whilst their numbers are now much diminished, Lamas are still called to service each morning by conch blowers. In front of the main temple was an ancient burial site, demarked with a small cairn surrounded by selected stones. All the hallmarks of a Bronze Age burial Cist, a clear sign the location was considered sacred long before the arrival of Buddhism and the building of temples. 

Terkhiyn Tsagaan Nuur, or Great White Lake. 

The landscape of Khörgo-Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur National Park was very different from anything else seen so far. A gravel road of dark, crushed, basalt wound its way between large boulders to the Horgo Ger camp, nestled in a green valley with volcanic mountains all around. The local people were mainly yak herders who lived a traditional, nomadic lifestyle, moving to higher pastures in the winter; and returning to the fertile valley around the lake in summer. 

First stop was a climb up the now extinct Khörgo volcano on the east side of the lake. The area was littered with the remains of basalt lava flows and rocks containing lots of small holes or vesicles, caused by the escape of hot gases during eruption. The view from the top was breathtaking and the westward route of the lava flow very visible in the landscape below. The volcano last erupted 8-9,000 years ago and the whole area is littered with collapsed lava tubes and the remains of lava beds. At the time of the eruption, huge rocks were ejected north-westwards; where they blocked the exit of two large rivers from the valley, causing the lake to form. In the east, lava flowed around what is now called the ‘Godfather Rock’, until it was eventually covered, as water levels in the newly formed lake rose. The ground between the volcano and the lake edge is very uneven, but sparsely covered in small larch trees, grass, alpine flowers and plants so must contain many nutrients. 

Local legend also has it that many Buddhist statues and other precious items lie at the bottom of the lake, having been thrown there during the Communist purges of 1937. It is said the local Lamas rose up against the Communists, but most were slaughtered. The lake is still very much revered and respected by local communities and it’s very common for coins to be thrown in it for good luck. This astonishingly beautiful, crystal-clear lake is renowned for its fish and birdlife; and local nomads supplement their diet with freshly cooked fish. 

TTN – sacred basalt cairns along the eastern shoreline

Along the eastern shoreline were pinnacles of stacked, black basalt rocks, threaded through with blue prayer flags; and said by locals, to be people gazing out across the sacred lake. As I walked through the cairns, heading in a northerly direction, I became aware of an energy flow through my back and tried to determine where it was coming from. The answer was immediate, from behind me i.e. from the south. The flow was quite strong at first then softened to reveal a definite feminine feel that became more pervasive in the landscape. Despite a strong cold wind, the energy flow was very clear. As I stood there, with the cairns all in front of me, facing the shoreline, I asked if there was anything I could do and was invited to fill the area with rose-gold colours. Request completed, I said ‘thank you’ and ‘goodbye’ and made my way back to the Forgon, where my guide and driver were waiting for me, eager to know what I had been doing and my impressions of the area.

TTN – Lama in sacred Ovoo

On the northern shore of the lake we came across a communal Ovoo, with a wooden teepee, over a pile of sacred stones. Our visit had coincided with the local Nadaam festival and as we passed by, an elderly Lama was sitting inside the wooden teepee, dressed in golden robes, chanting prayers to bless the community and the coming gathering.

I had come across various stories and pictures of Terkhiyn Tsagaan Nuur during my research for an ‘energy pumping station’ in Mongolia; and had originally thought it might be the location I was looking for. It turned out not to be so, but the location is both stunning and beautiful with wonderful energy flows and I would recommend it to any traveller.

Lake Khovsgol 

Khovsgol Aimag (province) in northern Mongolia is named after its most distinguishing feature, the pristine Lake Khovsgol. The local Tsataan peoples have strong shamanic roots, preferring to live in deer-hide tepees rather than ger tents; and it is their totemic ‘Deer stones’ that adorn many of the wide, glaciated valleys in both the Delgemoron and Khovsgol provinces. 

Lake Khovsgol, known as the ‘Blue Pearl’ of Mongolia, is surrounded by mountains covered with pine forests and lush meadows; and, in summer, lakeside banks are dotted with wildflowers. The crystal-clear alpine lake contains between 1% and 2% of the world’s fresh water and is the second largest in Central Asia, after Siberia’s Lake Baikal. At 136 kilometres long and 36 kilometres wide Lake Khovsgol is a vast expanse of water full of fish, including sturgeon; whilst the Khoridol Saridag Mountains, which run the length of the western shore, are said to be home to many species of mammal including musk deer, brown bear, lynx, beaver, elk, reindeer, moose and wolf; providing excellent hunting grounds for Russian, Mongolian and foreign hunters alike. The location is stunning and it’s easy to understand why it’s a favourite place to visit. 

13 Sacred Ovoos at Hahn

On its northern shore, the town of Hahn lies only 35 miles from the Russian border. A town more Russian in feel than Mongolian, with a well-built road leading across the border and regular supplies of food, fuel and medicines coming into this remote outpost via this route. From the south there are no roads, just tortuous tracks with many boggy areas and small rivers to traverse. Journeys by car or lorry are often very slow; made even slower when it rains. At first, I wasn’t sure why it had been important for me to come to this place, but on seeing the thirteen ovoos facing out across the lake it was obvious. Local legend tells of how, in the 17th century, there was a major drought in the area. Thirteen local Shaman came together to end the drought, with each of them first building an Ovoo; then initiating a major combined ceremony to invoke rain. It worked. Sadly, the Ovoos were destroyed in the 1930’s. The ones seen today were rebuilt in their current position in the 1990’s; with the remains of the originals clearly visible as small piles of stones in front, slightly closer to the shoreline. The stones are white granite and quartzite, with highly rounded edges; all gathered from the Ih Horoo Gol (river), which flows into the north-western corner of the lake. Walking past each Ovoo, one by one, permission was granted to dowse the energy flows both in and around them. The flows appear to alternate in direction, sometimes soft, sometimes very strong; whilst the central Ovoo had three energy lines flowing in from the lake and three flowing out towards the mountains in the north and north-west. It was a stunning location, but not the one I was looking for.

The east and the Baldan Bereeven Monastery

On the final stage of our journey, we headed east out of Ulaan Bataar on a new road; built by the Chinese, to access the vast open-cast Mongolian coal fields that lie beneath the grass covered steppes. On past the shiny, new ‘Chinggis Khaan’ statue and its soon to be opened ‘roadhouse’, to Black Heart Blue Lake, an area of outstanding natural beauty in the Khan Khentii Mountains. Our destination, the Baldan Bereeven Monastery, is the most easterly in Mongolia and the last of the potential locations I’d identified as a possible ‘energy pumping station’. The monastery was first constructed in 1700 and at its peak was one of the largest monastery complexes in Mongolia, housing 5,000 lamas. It was destroyed by the Communists in the 1930’s and again by fire in the 1970’s. The monastery has lain in ruins for years but restoration works have recently been completed on the imposing main building; and the ‘meditation walk’ is now clearly visible and accessible along the base of the hills to the right as you look up into the valley.  

Balden Bereeven Monastery

A small wooden shack sits perched on the hillside, overlooking the entrance to this once sacred valley. It houses two stones, painted and carved with Buddhist effigies; and is the first place for pilgrims and visitors, to make an offering before entering the valley. On the plain in front of the wide entrance is a lake, the ‘caretaker’s’ hut, a Ger for the resident monk and a long wooden building, which provides accommodation for visiting dignitaries. To the rear of the valley and the amphitheatre of hills which protect it, lies the sacred ‘Earth Mother’ rock, which had recently been re-consecrated and now sat festooned in holy blue flags. The caretaker and a monk live here permanently, all year round; and the two men were clearly pleased to see us, as it seems there aren’t many visitors to this remote spot. To one side of the partially restored large, main temple building is a colourful, decorated Buddhist temple, said to be built over the source of the male energy of the area. A Lama visits regularly, on special occasions, to hold various ceremonies and a visit is expected soon; the first of the season. Hence the two men were very busy tidying up the site after the winter and preparing for the anticipated influx of people. Women were allowed into the main area of the temple, which the caretaker showed me around; and in return, I offered a gift of the last cowrie shell left in my bag. The sacred male area was off limits, but that was OK, because there was no prompting to connect in with this place at all. The general location of the whole monastery complex was impressive, lying as it did in a protective, horse-shoe shaped valley, surrounded by ancient, highly eroded hills. It was not the ‘energy pumping station’ I’d been looking for, but still a very special site and well worth the extra days travel it took to reach it.

‘Energy Pumping Station’ location and description:

Khogno Khan & Uvgun Khiid
Heading north-east from Kharakorum towards Ulaan Bataar we drove along a rare stretch of tarmacked road. First stop was a very large Ovoo, with three Stupas on a nearby hill. We walked around the Ovoo 3 times out of respect and asked permission to venture on. Permission was given. In the near distance lay a rocky mountain range known as Khogno Khan, which rose some 6,000 feet from the surrounding steppe. Khogno Khan is part of a 46,500 hectare natural reserve and marked on some maps as Högnö Han Uul. As we travelled closer, the mountains appeared to be extremely weathered volcanic rocks, possibly the remnants of an ancient volcanic island arc; with the almost barren steppe, being the remains of the sea bed that surrounded it. Immediately before us lay the sand dunes of Mongol Els, which we crossed through a gap, to find ourselves once more driving on dirt tracks. Even at this distance, the rocks resembled the outline of a sleeping dragon’s head, a good sign that this place was somewhere special. In Chinese mythology there are many ancient legends of underground caves and tunnels or passageways guarded by elemental beings that assume the shape of rocks, or other natural features in the landscape. Khogno Khan is one such place, with several rocky outlines in the shape of sleeping dragons guarding the entrance to a valley inside the volcanic caldera, where the ancient Uvgun Khiid or monastery had once lain hidden. 

Rock guardian opposite entrance

As we approached, Nyamaa stopped the van to allow me to climb out and take pictures of the rocks and entrance way; when an eagle flew down, screeched loudly and landed nearby. As we started off again, two eagles rose into the air, one clutching a snake in its talons. The snake wriggled violently and the eagle dropped it; then settled on a rock with its mate waiting for us to get out of the way. We took this to be a wonderful portent of things to come. On the plain in front of us, was an isolated rock, a guardian that looked directly towards the hidden gap in the mountains. Once inside the high, eroded rock-sides of the caldera, many other beautiful rock beings started to present themselves. Running along the inside southern edge, which formed the spine of the rocks guarding the entrance, was a huge ramp of sand. A perfect, high vantage viewing platform that wouldn’t be out of place at a Grand Prix racing event. Our two Gers, were off to the right; and a stream ran through the middle of the valley, with some very old Mongolian willow trees marking its route. The trees looked as if they might be part of some energy flow, but later explorations found nothing to confirm this. It was more a case of the whole valley having a peacefulness and quiet energy about it, which was both relaxing and subtly reviving to the spirits. In the protective head of the valley, directly opposite the ramp of sand, lay several temple buildings, one of which was relatively new and very colourful. 

Valley floor with temples

The next day started grey and cloudy, to the sound of birds screeching to each other across the valley floor, presumably staking their territories and hoping to attract a mate. The weather had suddenly turned much colder and rain showers threatened. After a typical Mongolian breakfast of fried bread with eggs and plenty of tea; always lots of tea; Esee, my new guide and I headed off up into the valley to find the ruins of the old Uvgun Khiid or monastery. 

View into main valley from above

Much of the valley floor, on the same side as our Gers, was littered with the remains of stone foundations, suggesting the old monastery buildings must have been extensive. We walked slowly up into the further recesses of the valley, following a winding path with prominent rock beings that granted permission to pass. The air was filled with the promise of something special, just around the corner; and I found myself constantly saying ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ to various boulders and bushes as we walked by. We came to a smaller, higher valley, with ancient, well-built stone walls that were well hidden and protected by the surrounding, inner crater. Over to one side were the blue-flagged remains of what must have once been the ancient gold topped Stupa, which had provided a shining light to guide both pilgrims and students to this sacred, hidden valley. Behind the stone walls and hidden in the rock face, were the entrances to caves, one of which we sheltered in as it started to rain. The caves were natural, perhaps the remains of lava tubes, but it was not appropriate for us to explore them. Permission refused.  

According to local stories, in the 13th century a Tibetan Lama retreated to this valley after killing his king. He set up a place of worship and learning for Lamas, here, inside Khogno Khan. His monastery, later known as Uvgun Khiid, grew in stature and reputation; and was widely respected for its teachings and excellence. The Tibetan Lama had chosen this location, because it was both a sacred place and well hidden. Uvgun Khiid went on to flourish for four hundred years until the 17th century, when two kings were rivals for control of Mongolia. One of the rivals was Zanabazar, a direct descendant of Chinggis Khaan and supporter of the Manchu Dynasty and Buddhism. Zanabazar was founder of the Tovkhon monastery near Kharakorum; and it was he who went on to become the first Bogd Javzundamba, or religious leader of Mongolia. The other rival, called Zungar Galdan Boshigtu was not a supporter of Buddhism. Instead, he sent his armies to destroy all monasteries and kill their occupants; and these acts of devastation and carnage continued for many years until he was finally defeated by Zanabazar. The Lamas at Uvgun Khiid, warned that an invading army was on its way, covered the golden-topped Stupa with felt mats, so it would meld in with the surrounding mountains. The ravaging army rode straight past the hidden entrance and, believing they were safe, the Lamas removed the protective mats. Unfortunately, the soldiers had stopped at a nearby lake to water their horses; and when they saw the golden top glinting in the sunlight they came back to investigate. Having found the secret entrance, they destroyed the whole complex, stole its treasures and killed many of its inhabitants. Much of the monastery was later rebuilt, only to be destroyed again in 1937 by the Communists. The new temple seen today was opened in 1992 and there are a number of much older, but smaller, decorated temples in the tranquil setting of this hidden valley.

The Soothsayer, who ran the temple and received modern-day pilgrims to this site, was a 70 year old grandmother and it was her daughter and grand-daughters that ran the Ger camp and the tree planting scheme; so, she had many people to help her. From the outside, the new temple looked to be an unprepossessing white building, with a gold-painted wooden roof. The inside though was adorned with brand new, gold, silk brocade wall-hangings that glowed in the sunlight coming through a high window, giving the place a lovely, warm welcoming feeling. When the Soothsayer was ready for us; Nyaama, my driver, moved forward first, with his offering of a blue silk scarf and some money. She said a chant and gave him blessings before taking his offerings to the altar; then ‘knocked’ on his head three times with a red, cloth-bound prayer book. Next was my turn to move forward. She gently took my cowrie shell gift, placed it on the altar and draped a blue silk scarf around my neck. She offered a blessing for a good trip and health, before I too had my head touched three times. Having been granted permission to show her the Scottish Stone Circle pictures I had brought with me; we spent ten minutes talking about them with my guide translating. The Soothsayer then told a story of how a snake had come into the temple that morning; and she and her granddaughter had taken it as an omen that someone from afar was coming to visit, bringing a gift for the temple. This produced laughter and smiles all round. During my explanations about the stone circles, her left hand had been on my back and I soon became very aware of warmth and energy flowing into my body. We said a special goodbye as she held my head in her hands and kissed both my cheeks. We smiled; then said ‘thank you’ and ‘goodbye’. It was a simple, but very heart-warming and memorable experience.

The following day, after a breakfast of tea with hot pancakes and jam, Esee and I walked across the valley floor to the south, then up the sandy ramp that looked across the hidden valley, to the prominent ridge above. From this viewpoint, it was possible to see the outlines of at least eight dragons’ heads in the rocks, guarding the site and its hidden secrets. As I sat there contemplating the view, a number of other rock beings also made their presence felt. Just behind me, a small tree was rooted firmly in the rocks, with a blue prayer flag tied around its trunk; and when I looked away from the valley, it was possible to see vast steppes stretching off into the distance; leaving no doubt this would provide an excellent lookout post in times of danger, should any marauding armies be in the vicinity. My attention returned to the valley and I observed how the small number of buildings dotted around, including the Soothsayer’s new temple, with its shining gold roof, seemed to meld into the rocky landscape. As I sat there, observing it all, there was no great flow of energy; but rather an awareness of clarity, a slowly spiraling vortex of high frequency finesse, which pervaded the space. Clearly the Soothsayer was doing an excellent job of holding the energy for the whole area; and there was nothing for me to do but enjoy and, with each breath, to subtly return the flow of love that was freely given. It would be inappropriate to do anything else. This really was a beautiful spot, so it was not at all difficult to do. 

Two thoughts flitted across my mind, reminders of long forgotten ideas and previous readings. The first concerned the ancient eastern kingdom of the Uigher Empire, whose capital city, named Karakota is thought to be buried 50ft down, under the desert sands of the Gobi (Pinkham, 1997). If the legend was to be believed, this long-forgotten city contained an undiscovered tomb of ancient relics estimated at 18,000 years old. The Gobi is a vast desert, but perhaps the city of Kharakorum was built upon this ancient site; after all, its history as a trading place stretches back long before the Mongols (1200AD – 1400AD) and the earlier Hahn (300BC – 200AD) Dynasty? The second thought concerned Khogno Khan itself, with its sacred, hidden valley and ancient seat of learning. The Gobi Desert was said to be the location of a ‘City of Serpents’, with a shimmering golden palace; and a magical fortress surrounded and protected by a ring of etheric serpents (Pinkham, 1997). Could this legend refer to Khogno Khan? Certainly, its ancient, gold-topped Stupa would have shone out into the desert as a beacon to guide all pilgrims and travellers. Perhaps the stone rocks I have described as dragon-headed guardians, which encircled and hid the entrance way to this sacred valley from prying eyes; was also the ring of etheric serpents of legend, surrounding and protecting the magical fortress which is Khogno Khan? After sitting in this beautiful space for some time, a very clear heart connection made itself felt; and there was no doubt in my mind these are one and the same. Somehow it felt just right. Neither was there any doubt I had found the ‘energy pumping station’ I was looking for.

Local geology: 

Much of the input for this section was gleaned from geology exhibits at the Mongolian Natural History Museum in Ulaan Bataar. These helped me to put personal observations of the vast landscapes and landforms crossed, into a wider perspective. As with many locations, the geology is complex and not easy to unravel; hence it feels more appropriate to simply highlight here, the main events which could have contributed to the landforms, which can be observed today. 

Geologists know that many millions of years ago, most of southern Mongolia went through intermittent periods of being underwater. Evidence is clearly visible in the landscape of the Eastern and Southern Gobi; particularly in the flaming cliffs of Bayanzag, which was once the site of a vast inland sea, fed by various delta systems. When sea levels were low, sand would build up in the deltas; whilst when they were high, limestone layers were laid on top of the sandstone, with successive sequences laid down over long periods of time. In addition, the land has been uplifted many times by powerful forces deep in the Earth’s crust. It is very possible that some of the highly eroded mountains found in Mongolia today, were formed during early continental collision/mountain building events, possibly 800 – 900Ma (million years ago); but the age and complexity of many rock formations make this hard to determine. When the continent of India collided with Eurasia around 55Ma the uplift of the Himalaya Mountains began and continues to this day. This collision also caused a major mountain building/uplift period between 50-55Ma across much of Eurasia, including the land now known as Mongolia. The formation of the Alps in the west, around 23Ma, also reworked and re-lifted many areas, which might explain the reworked granites and basalt dykes, seen in many locations.

The mountain range of Khogno Khan itself appears to be part of an ancient volcanic island arc that developed as oceanic crust on one tectonic plate, was subducted beneath the oceanic crust of another. The action of the subducting tectonic plate, along with the presence of water, caused the plate above to melt. The result, on the Earth’s surface, was a chain of volcanic islands, approximately 80-100km away from the subduction zone. The impact of such major tectonic plate collisions can be observed in the ‘Ring of Fire’ in the Western Pacific today, which has produced many volcanic islands and island chains that are amongst the most active on the planet at this time.

Local legends:

The Legend of Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur:

There was once an elderly man who married a much younger woman, who bore him a daughter. The family lived near a well in a great valley. One day, when the daughter was grown up, a man came to the valley and wanted to marry her. But the old man didn’t like him and didn’t think him a suitable husband. The daughter escaped with the man, but before she left, she took water from the well. Unfortunately, she forgot to close the well, and in their haste to follow after her, the older parents didn’t realise this. Later, when they looked back to where their home had been, they saw many rivers flowing through the valley, which eventually joined up to form the lake.    

Subsequent insights:

On returning home, I made a habit of regularly tuning in to Khogno Khan, to re-inforce the energetic connection between us. On each occasion I asked permission of the Soothsayer first; and if a ‘No’ answer was forthcoming, immediately withdrew. On the occasions when I was allowed to connect back in, it became clear the energy fluctuated. It felt very different at times of a full moon; and sometimes the spiral or vortex, which filled the large volcanic caldera, dominated everything with strong, vibrant rainbow colours. On other occasions the energy was ethereal and of very high frequencies that were almost impossible to sense unless I was very still, allowing myself to become completely attuned to their vague translucent ‘whispers’. At times it spiralled slowly, almost seeming to stand still; whilst at others the colours blurred into each other making it impossible to even guess at the rotation speed. Each time, the Soothsayer was a clear presence; each time she was clearly holding the flow; and each time I was simply an observer. 

A few years later and things had changed considerably. The old Soothsayer had died and her place had been taken by her grand-daughter. The young woman had clearly been taught well by her grandmother and she was well respected by the many ‘pilgrims’ who continued to visit this sacred, volcanic valley and its beautiful, golden temple. At times, in meditation, I found myself sitting on the rocks that overlooked the sacred area, just simply checking that everything was OK. It was on one of these occasions that I found myself next to a black wolf that was also keeping a watchful, but protective eye on everything below. A story started to present itself. It seemed the young herder who lived just outside the entrance to the valley, was causing problems. The old man, his father, had died and the young man had inherited the herds and status that came with them. For some unexplained reason, it seemed he had expected the Soothsayer’s granddaughter to become his bride and neither understood her ‘calling’ as the new Soothsayer; or the fact she wasn’t interested in the role he was offering. And thus, there were several skirmishes. Inside the valley had always been off limits, being considered sacred; and his father and ancestors had always recognized and respected this. They revered both the place and the caretakers and guardians who resided there. Sadly, the young herder did not have the same belief in the old ways and, on one occasion, I became aware of his attempts to drive animals inside the valley. To my surprise, it was wolves that came to the rescue; when a pack of them drove his sheep and goats out of the sacred valley and then proceeded to mêlée noisily in the entrance way, so they wouldn’t come back in. Each time he tried to drive animals into the sacred space; a pack of wolves appeared and headed them off. Until he finally got the message and left her alone; turning his attentions elsewhere to another young beauty, who subsequently became his bride. Later, it became clear the man and the young Soothsayer had made peace; indeed, he had finally accepted her powers and was now giving her the respect deserved of her calling. More recently, in meditation, I often see the black wolf sitting on that solitary rock, sometimes joined by his white mate; a benign presence overseeing the entrance to this sacred place. 

Further insights about Shambhalla:

In 2017, whilst searching the internet for additional material for this story, I came across a website that claimed to know the location of Shambhalla in the Gobi Desert of Mongolia. It gave the following background and directions for finding it: 

‘In the 19th century there lived a monk in Mongolia, a follower of the Red Cap Sect called Danzanravjaa. The boy was born into a poor family, his mother died early and his father became a beggar to survive. In 1809 Danzanravjaa was sent to a monastery at a very early age. The boy was very gifted and after a few years was recognized as a reincarnation of the Lama Jebtzun Damba. Thus, began the life of a great saint and a prominent Mongolian social and religious figure. There are many legends about Danzanravjaa as a miracle worker and a prophet. He went to Tibet to collect medicinal herbs, which let him dissolve in space and materialize elsewhere. He predicted many events, in particular, the date of his own death in 1856; when he was poisoned by his wife, the head of the Yellow Cap Buddhist sect. According to legend, he knew that he was going to be poisoned, but he still took the fateful drink in order to fulfil his destiny. 

Among the wonderful predictions of Danzanravjaa, there were instructions on where to find Shambhalla. The Mongolian saint gave the exact coordinates of the entrance to the mystical land and erected a monastery in the vicinity of the place in 1812. The monastery was destroyed in 1930 and then restored. This monastery, called Khamryn Khiid, is located near the town of Sainshand in Dorno-Gobi-Aimag in the Eastern Gobi. Khamryn Khiid is the beginning of the road to Shambhala; a road that goes through the desert for 3 kilometres and is decorated with Buddhist stupas. In the vicinity there are several wonderful places, including a cave monastery, where 10 Mongolian monks lived and meditated. 

At the end of the road, travellers arrive at two temples – the Gelugpa, or Yellow Cap, wisdom temple on the right; and the Nyingma, or Red Cap, compassion temple on the left. The central gate to Shambhalla has two doorways called the Golden Doorstep and the Silver Doorstep. Travellers are supposed to enter through the Golden doorstep and leave via the Silver Doorstep. Upon entering, visitors are told to leave all harmful thoughts behind; as they must think only pure thoughts whilst in Shambhalla. After entering, there is a ring of rock, known as the ‘Twelve Year Circle’. In front of the circle there are three Ovoos representing the Future, Present and Past. According to tradition, if you put a white stone on the Ovoo of the Future whilst saying your last name and then your first name, you will be reincarnated very quickly after you die. A series of circles on the ground, called the Maidar’s circles, are said to make a line which points to Khairkhan Uul, the mountain where the spirit of Danzanravjaa is said to reside. The centre of Shambhalla is the Brain Ovoo – the central point of energy; and the monks claim that when there are dust storms, the only place that is always calm is the Brain Ovoo.’ (http://tripfreakz.com/offthebeatenpath/the-shambala-of-mongolia)

Works Cited

Blunden, J. (2004). Mongolia: The Bradt Travel Guide. Bradt Travel Guides Ltd.
Hatcher-Childress, D. (1998). Lost Cities of China, Central Asia & India. Kempton, IL: Adventures Unlimited.
Hitching, F. (1978). The World Atlas of Mysteries. London: Pan Books.
http://tripfreakz.com/offthebeatenpath/the-shambala-of-mongolia. (n.d.). Retrieved February 2017
Journeys, P. (2008). An Overview of Mongolia.
Miller, H., & Broadhurst, P. (1989). The Sun and The Serpent. Launceston, Cornwall: Pendragon Press.
Pinkham, M. (1997). The Return of the Serpents of Wisdom. Illinois, USA: Adventures Unlimited Press.
Purev, O., & Gurbadaryn, P. (2008). Mongolian Shamanism: English Edition. Ulaanbaatar.

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