Erdene Zuu monastery is a rarity in Mongolia, and that’s because it is an active monastery. That’s actually kind of rare and I’ll explain why.
The monastery is historical but not a stunning spot for photography. I got some good shots because there were a lot of locals visiting at the time we did but that might not always be true.
So be aware that it might not be as interesting to those who aren’t intrigued by the history. For us, it was an important part of our tour to understand some of the history of Mongolia.
History of Monasteries in Mongolia
Working Mongolian monasteries are hard to find because most were totally destroyed during the Communist purges.
I don’t know all the details but basically a man named Choibalsan, who was the head of internal affairs of Mongolia was very devoted and loyal to Stalin.
Advised by the Soviets, as part of the Great Terror, he planned and carried out the execution of 17,000 monks in Mongolia. Around 800 monasteries were pillaged and destroyed. Very few have survived. Even fewer are actually used as places of worship.
Erdene Zuu Khiid (monastery) is one of the few that, although partially destroyed, did survive. Allegedly, Stalin preserved it to show world leaders that his regime did allow freedom of religion.
It was converted to museum for several decades, and eventually in 1990, it became an active Buddhist monastery again. But, while it used to contain 62 temples, now it contains only 13.
Erdene Zuu Monastery
We arrived near Erdene Zuu in the early evening and spent the night at a nomad camp. It was actually so close by we could see it just near the camp. The next morning we headed to the monastery which is surrounded by a white wall with 108 stupas.
As we walked toward the big gates, I was excited to see that a few men in brightly colored deels were heading in. I’m not sure if they were monks or just people visiting to pray – I assumed monks at first but later figured many were simply devotees in traditional deels.
Temples of Erdene Zuu
Inside the grounds are a number of temples. A young woman walked us through them and told us some of the history behind the statues of the Buddha.
You can’t take photos inside which is too bad, but you can take shots of the outsides of the temples. The outsides have interesting tiling and carving on the roofs of each temple.
Be sure to look for small details too. I really liked the beautiful door knobs and other carvings on the door.
It was a very bright day so it was hard to capture much unique light or atmosphere in the grounds. I found these beautiful prayer wheels and got a few shots of them.
At the far end of the grounds, there was an event happening at one of the temples. It was interesting to watch the hustle and bustle at this one temple, and as you might figure, tough to catch a quiet moment.
I saw this woman praying quietly in front of the temple, and got a few shots. There were a lot of people in the background but I carefully stacked a couple of shots to remove people and bring focus to the woman praying.
With enough patience though, you can just wait for moments to present themselves. And just zoom in to capture it. This woman had a beautiful pink deel which was quite stunning.
Right as we were leaving, I looked back and caught this shot of a few monks going in.
In a place like this, it can be really useful to have a smaller travel camera so that you don’t intimidate with a giant camera. Even if you have a larger camera, just be aware of your surroundings and be considerate of those who are there to pray.
Erdene Zuu monastery is interesting because of the history of Buddhism in Mongolia. But, to be honest, the temples and grounds are not the most exciting photographically.
The temple event helped as I got some shots of locals in their unique traditional outfits but that was pure luck.
If you’re not too interested in history, and mostly looking for a photogenic spot, you might want to skip this place. Or visit at dawn or dusk when the lighting might give you more opportunities for interesting shots.
For more ideas on where to go on an itinerary in Mongolia, check out this article.