These sentiments from Swedish explorer, and undoubtedly controversial figure, Sven Hedin encapsulate the air of mystery that still enshrouds our image of lost cities to this day. And while so many of these have since been found, studied, and made into tourist attractions, there still exist Lost Cities hidden away in the jungles, in the deserts and in the mountains to this day, waiting for those few willing to lay eyes upon them.
Here are 3 Lost Cities you’ve (probably) never heard of.
A place with no roads? Without a soul to be found? Hedin’s words would ring perfectly through the desolate steppes of Mongolia, a place which he once passed through ever so briefly, but never happened upon its traces of ancient civilizations.
Mongolia is a place where the sparse roads that do exist are suggestions at best and locals are more apt to take their Toyota Prius off into the unleveled and rocky horizon in any direction they so choose.
Khar Balgas is a trace of one of these ancient civilizations, and one of the oldest to be found hidden amidst the Mongolian steppes. Located in the central regions of Mongolia, the ruins of this once-thriving capital were grand enough to be mistaken for the Mongolian capital of Kharakorum.
And it indeed proved to be the capital of one of their predecessors, the Uyghur Khaganate founded in 744 CE. The city retains a number of notable constructions from it golden age, most notably its 10-meter high city walls and various Buddhist stupas, the largest of which stood 14 meters. To this day, it is still adorned with prayer flags tied to a lone pole standing solitary over the ruins.
The ruins of Angkor Wat in northern Cambodia have become the stuff of legend. Massive stone temples reclaimed by the jungle, these remnants memorialize the power of the Khmer Empire’s god-kings. And while the temples at Angkor are the crown jewel of Khmer construction, they are by no means its only remaining show of influence.
On the far western border of Thailand, which also happened to be the western frontiers of the Khmer Empire, still stands one of their walled cities in ruins.
Called Muang Sing, or “Lion City” in Thai, this far-flung Khmer outpost is unusual in that it is a fully-functioning walled city nearly 10x the size of the previously mentioned Khar Balgas.
The city is centered around a Mahayana Buddhist temple dedicated to Avalokiteshavara, the forthcoming bodhisattva said to guide all souls to nirvana. Such concepts and construction are uncommon for such a remote outpost. It is also curious that carvings of Avalokiteshavara found at Muang Sing seem to have the same face as the Khmer emperor at the time.
What comes to mind when you picture the jungles of northern Sumatra? This dense and tangled wilderness hides away a number of unexpected treasures. Endangered orangutans, a super-volcano lake inhabited by a remote island of Christians, and megaliths carved by tribal cannibal-kings all call this place home. Also enshrouded in Sumatra’s dense and foggy forests are a number of lost cities
Cleared from this shrubbery was Candi Bahal, a collection of Buddhist temples built far away from any other known ancient settlement. Totaling 26 temples in all and made of a red stone brick, only three in the main temple group, call Padang Lawas after the largest nearby town, remain intact today.
The Bahal temples are 900 years old and thought to belong to an abstract sect of Buddhism known as Vajrayana. This esoteric order was found in the elusive Pannai Kingdom of the Malay Archipelago. Factions of its practitioners are said in some texts to have been warrior-monks who safeguarded the Malacca Strait and its trade routes.
One major concern about the 26 Candi Bahal temples is their lack of official conservation. Unlike similar structures on the island of Java, and even those further south on Sumatra, these temples have been largely left to their surroundings. And while the main three, as well as a few nearby temples are well-studied, excavated, and their artifacts safely kept away in the National Museum in Medan, many others are left unprotected and openly accessible to local looters, who have been seen at remote sites digging up their own past in order to trade it in for a profit.
So where is your first stop for these Lost Cities — the open mountain valleys of western Thailand, the thick Sumatran jungle or the barren Mongolian steppes? Have you visited any of these ancient cities before or would you like to see a full history and travel profile on one?