Monday, February 15, 2021

Mongolia | Töv Aimag | Saridagiin Khiid

In 1654 we find Zanabazar, the First Bodg Gegeen of Mongolia, in the Baga Khentii Mountains, part of the Khentii Range in what is now Töv Aimag. Above the valley of a small tributary of the Tuul River in what is now a remote area sixty-three miles north of current-day Ulaanbaatar, Zanabazar established a new Gelug monastery with the official name of Ribo-Gejai-Gandan-Shadublin. It became more commonly known as Saridagiin (Saridag) Khiid, after Saridgiin (Saridag) Uul (mountain) which looms up behind the site, and like Zanabazar’s other residences was also known as Ikh Khüree.

Unfortunately, the monastery was short-lived. When Zanabazar’s long-time nemesis the Zungarian Khan Galdan Bolshigt invaded Khalkh Mongolia in 1688 Zanabazar fled eastward and was believed to have gone to Saridag Khiid. Galdan and his army followed in hot pursuit. He did not find Zanabazar at Saridag Khiid but he did destroy the monastery. It was never rebuilt.

Zanabazar, First Bogd Gegeen of Mongolia

Galdan Bolshigt
Riding up the valley of the Khiidiin (Khiid) Gol

8744-foot Saridag Uul

Saridag Khiid is in the larch forest, in the middle of the photo.
Khiid Gol in the foreground
We camped in a clearing in the woods near the base of Saridag Uul, about a half mile below the site of the monastery ruins. The conspicuously level ground and lack of trees seems to indicate that there might have been some sort of settlement here when the monastery was active. I did a thorough search, however, and was unable to discover any ruins. It could have course been a ger camp with no permanent structures.

I had with me some Imperial Mojiang Golden Bud Yunnan Black Tea I had received from my tea dealer in Yunnan Province, China, just the week before, and that evening I made tea with water from the Khiid Gol, which ran right past the site. My apartment complex in Zaisan Tolgoi, a suburb of Ulaanbaatar, has its own well with excellent water (I consider myself a cognoscente of drinking water) and the tea made with Mojiang Golden Bud Yunnan Black and tap water in my apartment was just fine. As I sipped my first bowl of tea made with water from the Khiid Gol, however, I noticed a distinct difference. It had lively, vibrant taste and numerous flavors danced on my tongue, including licorice, chocolate, and tobacco. It seemed completely different from the tea made from Ulaanbaatar tap water. Most people underestimate the effect of the water used to make tea. Even the slightest trace of minerals or other impurities can radically affect the taste of tea. From the taste of this tea I concluded that the water from the Khiid Gol was exceptionally pure.

I had tasted water like this before in Alaska. It is often found found in streams which originate from moraines, the ridges of unconsolidated rocky debris pushed up in front of advancing glaciers. These sources of exceptionally pure water are well known in Alaska. Native women, both Inupiaq and Athabaskan, sometimes travel twenty or thirty miles by all-terrain vehicle to wash their hair in water from these sources. Most water leave traces of minerals in the hair and these deposits give it a dull, lackluster look. Washing it in this pure water quickly restores its natural luster.

During the last Ice Age ending about 10,000 years ago an estimated 680 square miles of the Khentii Mountain Range were covered with glaciers 150 to 300 feet thick. Evidence of glaciation, including smooth-sided valley walls carved by glaciers, glacial cirques on the sides of mountains, glacial lakes, and moraines can still be easily be seen throughout the Khentiis. Saridag Uul and nearby mountains were almost certainly covered by glaciers, and there might well be a moraine at the source of the Khiid Gol. In any case, the water of the Khiid Gol is exceptionally pure. 

I asked Saka what she thought of the Mojiang Golden Bud Yunnan Black tea made with Khiid Gol water. She allowed that is was very tasty. I also asked Zegvee, chief horseman on the trip, what he thought. Unusual for a Mongolian, Zevgee was lactose intolerant and never drank the milk tea that many Mongolians guzzle by the gallon. He always asked me to bring Lipton tea bags along on horse trips for his use, but he was more than willing to sample the Mojiang Golden Bud Yunnan Black. He too allowed that it was excellent and quickly drained four or five bowls. I explained to Saka about the Khiid Gol water and suggested that she heat some and wash her hair. She was utterly amazed by the results. “It is so shiny,” she exclaimed. “My hair never looks like this in Ulaanbaatar!”

Saka sipping a bowl of Mojiang Golden Bud Yunnan Black. This was before she washed her hair.
Washing hair with Khiid Gol water
Lustrous hair after washing with Khiid Gol water
Ruins of Saridag Khiid
Ruins of Saridag Khiid
Ruins of Saridag Khiid
Ruins of Saridag Khiid

The layers of small stones between larger ones were meant to prevent damage from earthquakes. This technique is often seen in temples in Tibet, where earthquakes are more common than in Mongolia. Tibetan artisans Zanabazar brought back with him on his first trip to Tibet may have introduced this technique here. 

Horseman Zegvee and his better half, Tumen-Olzii

When I first visited Saridag Khiid there was no indication that the site was visited by anyone. Zevgee said that only hunters and collectors of artz (juniper) used for incense ventured into this area and they paid no attention to the ruins. There was no trail to the ruins and even though Zevgee had been there before—years earlier he had stumbled upon them while hunting elk—we wandered around in the woods for two hours before finding them. When I returned a few years later a faint horse trail led to the ruins and pilgrims had left prayer scarves and tsa tsa, small clay figurines, at the site.
Offerings left at the site
Offerings left at the site. As can be seen, Saka’s hair was still lustrous three days after washing it in Khiid Gol water.


  1. What’s your source for the statement that the Khentii Mountains were once covered by 680 square miles of ice from 150 to 300 feet thick?This does not sound believable to me.

  2. See: