Far in the wilds of Selenge aimag, this monastery is considered to be one of the top three Buddhist institutions in Mongolia (along with Erdene Zuu in Kharkhorin and Gandan in Ulaanbaatar) and the country’s most attractive and intact architectural complex. It is well worth visiting on the way to/from Khövsgöl Nuur, or other areas in northern or western Mongolia. As it’s about six hours away from Ulaanbaatar on mostly decent roads, it can also be done as an overnight trip from the capital, either solo or with the aid of one of several tour companies.
Amarbayasgalant Khiid was built between 1727 and 1737 by the Manchu emperor Yongzheng, and dedicated to the great Mongolian Buddhist and sculptor Zanabazar, whose mummified body was moved here in 1779. It is in the Manchu style, down to the inscriptions, symmetrical layout, imperial colour scheme and roof guardians on every roof corner.
In spite of extensive restoration by UNESCO, there's a sense of genteel decay and gradual takeover by nature, from the faded wooden beams, thickly coated in bird droppings, and riotous greenery blocking some entrances, to the scurrying marmots and cawing jackdaws that seem to rule the place.
The monastery was largely spared during the 1937 purge, possibly because of sympathetic and procrastinating local military commanders. These days about 30 monks live in the monastery, compared with more than 2000 in 1936.
Most of the temples in the monastery are normally closed, so if you want to see any statues or thangkas (scroll paintings), you’ll have to find the monks with the keys in the monks’ quarters, the yellow concrete buildings on the right side (east) of the monastery.
The richly decorated main temple, Tsogchin Dugan, has a disturbingly life-like, life-size statue of Rinpoche Gurdava, a lama from Inner Mongolia who lived in Tibet and Nepal before returning to Mongolia in 1992 and raising much of the money for the temple’s restoration. Photography inside the temple seems to be allowed, but unlike some less-than-respectful local tourists, do not turn your back to the deities.
Ceremonies are usually held at 10am, so arrive early or stay overnight to see them.
A couple of new monuments – a golden Buddhist statue and a stupa – are situated on the hills behind the monastery. You could continue hiking up the mountains for even better views of the valley.