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The many deer and ‘animal art’ stele found in the valleys of Arkhangai aimag are evidence of tribal existence here around 1300 BC, but the region really came into its own in the 3rd century BC, when the nomadic Xiongnu set up a power base in the Orkhon valley. Various ‘empires’ rose and fell in the Xiongnu’s wake, including the Ruan-Ruan, the Tujue and the Uighurs, who built their capital at Khar Balgas in 715 AD. These Turkic-speaking peoples held sway over vast portions of Inner Asia and harassed the Chinese (whose attempts to defend the Great Wall were never really successful). They had their own alphabet and left several carved steles that describe their heroes and exploits. The most famous is the Kul-Teginii Monument, located relatively close to Khar Balgas.

Chinggis Khaan and his merry men were only the latest in a string of political and military powers to use the Orkhon valley as a base. Chinggis never spent much time here, using it mainly as a supply centre for his armies, but his son Ögedei built the walls around Karakorum (near present-day Kharkhorin) in 1235, and invited emissaries from around the empire to visit his court.

Centuries after the fall of the Mongol empire it was religion, rather than warriors, that put the spotlight back on central Mongolia. Erdene Zuu Khiid (Buddhist monastery) was built from the remains of Karakorum and, with Manchu and Tibetan influence, Buddhism pushed the native shaman faith to the fringe of society.

The first eight Bogd Gegeens ruled from central Mongolia, and built up the most important religious centres, including Urga (now Ulaanbaatar), which shifted location along the Tuul Gol (river) for more than 250 years, until settling at its present site in the mid-18th century.