Monday, June 15, 2020

Mongolia | Khovd Aimag | Baatar Khairkhan Uul

Baatar Khairkhan Uul  is a small mountain standing alone on the steppe 4.7 miles from downtown Khovd, just beyond the airport. It is clearly visible when you arrive in Khovd by airplane. Before 1912 Baatar Khairkhan Uul had two different names: Taliin Khairkhan Uul and Tsogt Khairkhan Uul. After 1912 the mountain was renamed Baatar Khairkhan Uul in honor of Magsarjav, one of the four military commanders during the attack on the Chinese Fortress in Khovd in 1912. After the city had been seized he was awarded the title of Khatan Baatar (warrior); hence Baatar Khairkhan Uul.
Baatar Khairkhan Uul stands alone on the steppe south of Khovd City
Baatar Khairkhan Uul 
Magsarjav, (1877-1927) was born in the banner of the Itgemjit Beis of Sain Noyon Khan Aimag. His father was a minor nobleman, but the family was not considered well-to-do.  Although thought to be a khuvilgaan, or incarnation of a minor Buddhist hierarch in western Mongolia, he apparently never considered a religious vocation. Magsarjav had been the Bogd Khan’s representative in Khovd City when Mongolian independence had been declared and had presented the Amban with the ultimatum to surrender the Khovd fortress and return to China. He had to sneak out of Khovd to avoid arrest after that affair and thus no doubt had own score to settle with the Amban. He appeared to have had little military experience, however, and one source calls him “an untried youth,” although he was thirty-five in 1912. 
On the north side of the mountain, visible from the airport, is a large depiction of the familiar Soyombo, the head symbol of the Soyombo alphabet designed by Zanabazar, the First Bogd Gegeen of Mongolia. This sign also occurs on the Mongolian flag, Mongolian currency, and innumerable other places. 
Soyombo Symbol on Baatar Khairkhan Uul
On the rocks at the base of the hill are what Professor Baasankhüü of Khovd, who accompanied me to the site, says are Bronze Age petroglyphs, including depictions of ibex, sheep, elk, deer, tigers or leopards, wolves, and, interestingly, a turtle. (He dates the Bronze Age to about 2000-5000 BP.) There are also Tibetan inscriptions from the seventeenth century, Sanskrit inscriptions, and  inscriptions in vertical script Mongolian, one of which says, “If you pray under this mountain you will be forgiven for the sins of 1000 years.” (According to the translation of the Professor, who reads vertical script Mongolian perfectly).
During the Siege of Khovd in 1912, Magsarjav camped near the mountain with his contingent of troops. He also maintained an observation post on the summit from which he could watch what was going on in Khovd. According to various accounts he also had monks perform chanting ceremonies on the summit of the hill to ensure the success of the upcoming battle.
It was at the base of Baatar Khairkhan Uul that Magsarjav performed the notorious "Blood Ceremony” in preparation for the attack on the Manchu Fortress in Khovd City. During the ceremony, which was meant to encourage the troops, a Chinese servant who had been captured in the city had his still-beating heart ripped from his chest. The Mongol war banners were then ceremoniously anointed with his blood. A man named Samand Baatar, who was one of Magsarjav’s soldiers, was an eyewitness to the ceremony. In 1970 he described the event in detail to Professor Baasankhüü of Khovd. It is widely believed that Dambijantsan, The Notorious Ja Lama, took part in the Blood Ceremony here at Baatar Khairkhan Uul. Samand Baatar maintained, however, that Dambijantsan was not present at Magsarjav’s ceremony, although he did reportedly perform his own Blood Ceremony at his camp on the Dund Tsenkher Gol near Mankhan.
Not until we had left Baatar Khairkhan Uul and were halfway back to Khovd did I realize I had forgotten to pray at the base of the hill.  
Bronze Age Petroglyphs
Bronze Age Petroglyphs and Vertical Script Mongolian inscriptions
Bronze Age Petroglyphs
Bronze Age Petroglyphs
Bronze Age Petroglyphs and Tibetan script
Bronze Age Petroglyphs

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Mongolia | Gov-Altai Aimag | Camel Trip | Approaching Atas Bogd Uul

After Solongo’s Fall From Her Camel we rode until the sun went down and then camped for the night. The next morning we were up before dawn, since we still had two long days of riding to reach our destination south of Atas Bogd Uul.
 Camp Boss Sister Dulya supervising the loading of a camel
  Camp Boss Sister Dulya signs off on a perfectly loaded camel 
Sister Dulya ready to ride
Riding into black shale hills
 Typical black shale hills of the Gobi
 After passing through the black shale hills we emerged on a huge gravel flat. This is the view looking west. 
 Crossing the gravel flat. You can’t tell it from this photo, but the wind was blowing a relentless  sixty miles an hour. 
 Looking south across the grave flats toward Atas Bogd Uul, just visible in the distance.  
Atas Bogd Uul from the southern edge of the gravel flats. In the foreground is a range of hills topped by 4,705-foot Arslan Khairkhan Uul, so named because the peak is said to resemble a crouching lion (arslan). 
 Approaching the Arslan Khairkhan Hills 
  Although still smarting from the fall from her camel, Solongo was able to build a fire and brew up fresh tea during our tea break, in this case A Superb 2003 Vintage Puerh
Pass through the Arslan Khairkhan Hills
Near the pass through the Arslan Khairkhan Hills
Beyond the Arslan Khairkhan Hills is a wide strip and sand and gravel desert.
  Continuing on  across the sand and gravel desert . . . Solongo is riding on top of a load on one of the pack camels. Her camel had ran off the day before. 
Taking a break 
We camped for the night just east of 8,842-foot Atas Bogd Uul, a sentinel visible for hundreds of miles around. 

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

North Macedonia | Tikves Wine District | Demir Kapiya | Popova Kula Winery | Prokupec


It is my fourth day at the Popova Kula Winery, a Thursday, and I am still the only guest here. I checked on the internet and discovered, however, that this coming Saturday night the place is full-up with no rooms available. Luckily I am checking out Saturday morning. Incorrigible misanthrope that I am, I have been enjoying the solitude. Meanwhile I am continuing my investigations of the local vintages. The winery produces eleven different kinds of wine:
—Stanushina
—Vranec
—Prokupec
—Cabernet Sauvignon
—Merlot
—Sauvignon Blanc
—Temjanika,
—Chardonnay
—Zilavka
— Muscat Ottonel
—Muscat Hamburg
Stanushina, Prokupec, Vranec, Temjanika, and Zilavka are made from grapes indigenous to the Balkan Peninsula; these are the only varieties I am interested in. God forbid that I should come to Macedonia just to drink Cabernet Sauvignon or—horrors!— Merlot! 

According to archeological findings, grapes has been grown and wine produced in the area of Demir Kapiya for at least the last 3600 years. The modern history of viniculture in the Demir Kapiya area began in 1927 when King Alexander Karadjordjevic of Yugoslavia (1888–1934) built a winery here to produce wine for the exclusive use of his royal family. Experts assured the king that of all possible locations in his kingdom, which covered a good part of the Balkan Peninsula, including modern-day Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Slovenia, this area was the most fertile and best suited for growing grapes and producing wine. He named the property the Winery of The Queen Maria in honor of his wife, Maria Karadjordjevic. The king hired the best vintners available and the winery was soon producing wine of extraordinary quality. Unfortunately King Alexander Karadjordjevic was unable to enjoy the fruits of his vineyards for long. On October 9, 1934, during a state visit to Marseille, France, he was assassinated by Bulgarian revolutionary Vlado Chernozemski.
King Alexander Karadjordjevic of Yugoslavia (click on photos for enlargements)
The subsequent history of the winery is a bit hazy, but apparently it continued producing wine in the decades thereafter, except during the world wars and various local upheavals.  After the Second World the Royal Winery, along with other wineries in what was then Yugoslavia, were nationalized. Over 30,000 families who owned small private vineyards continued, however, to supply grapes to these wine making facilities. It was these people who are credited with  maintaining the high quality of local viniculture during the following decades. After the breakup of socialist Yugoslavia in the 1990s and the emergence of the former Yugoslavian republic of Macedonia as an independent country most if not all wineries were privatized. The royal winery in Demir Kapiya was privatized in 1994 and is now known as the Royal Winery Queen Maria. The current winery has an on-site restaurant and rents out rooms, apartments, and for high-rollers the former villa of Queen Maria Karadjordjevic.
King Alexander and Queen Maria
The Popova Kula Winery is built on lands that once belonged to the Royal Winery. Construction of the winery itself started in October of 2004 and was completed in August of 2005. Construction of the winery restaurant and hotel was not completed until 2009. The name of the winery, “Popova Kula”, means “Priest’s Tower”. Apparently during the time of the Roman Empire an important road ran through the grounds of the current winery. A large tower served as a checkpoint on the road, and this eventually became known at the Priest’s Tower. This original tower was eventually torn down, but the winery has erected a new 55-foot high tower its honor. This tower has become the easily recognizable symbol of the winery. 
Popova Kula Winery

The “Priest’s Tower” of Popova Kula
Curious about this Roman road, I went down to the lobby and questioned the receptionist, a charming woman in her thirties. She in turn questioned one the local workmen who happened to be handy, and this guy said the Roman road in question was the famous Via Egnatia dating to the time of the Roman Empire, which ran from Durrës in what is now Albania east 696 miles to Constantinople, right across the heart of the Balkan Peninsula. This was certainly intriguing. I had already visited numerous cities and towns on the old Via Egnatia, including Thessaloniki, Kavala, and Kastoria in Greece and Orhid in Macedonia but I was under the impression that the old Roman road passed through the Balkans a good bit south of Demir Kapiya. The receptionist called the local wine museum and the woman at the museum suggested I stop by for more information. So I hiked a mile into town and found the museum, a modest two-room establishment in downtown Demir Kapiya. The woman in charge informed me that the Roman road through Demir Kapiya was not the Via Egnatia itself but a side branch of the main highway. Nevertheless, I was thrilled to discover that Demir Kapiya was in fact linked to the hallowed Via Egnatia. I harbor the sneaking suspicion I have traveled this road in a previous lifetime. 
The Via Egnatia in red. The northern extension in green may be the one that passed through Demir Kapiya.
Via Egnatia near Kavala. Photo by Philipp Pilhofer
After trekking a mile back from the museum to the winery I retire to my balcony to sample the wine of the day; in this case Prokupec, a wine apparently indigenous to what is now Serbia but also grown in Macedonia. 
Prokupec

From my balcony can be seen the Iron Gate, a gap in the mountains through which the Vardar River flows. The Iron Gate marks the southern boundary of the Tikves Wine Region. It also gives its name to the town just to the north—Demir Kapiya, which in Turkish means “Iron Gate”.
View from my balcony. The Iron Gate is the gap in the mountains in the middle of the photo. The town of Demir Kapiya (Iron Gate) is in the foreground.
A view of the Iron Gate from Popova Kula vineyards
Another view from my balcony

Halfway through my first glass of Prokupec my thoughts drifted, perhaps inevitably, to the Persian Poet Rudaki (858 a.d – 941 a.d.), the favorite poet of the Samanids of Bukhara, in what is now Uzbekistan. The Elton John of his Age, at one point Rudaki owned two hundred slaves who attended to his needs, and a hundred camels were necessary to carry his baggage when he traveled. His verses, it was said, filled a hundred volumes; he reportedly wrote 1,300,000 couplets. Almost all of his work has been lost. Unfortunately, the poet came to a bad end. He may have fell under the sway of the Ismaili Sect, considered heretical in the domains of the Samanids, and he eventually fell out of favor with the court. His lament:

Who had greatness? Who had favour, of all people in the land? 
I it was had favour, greatness, from the Saman scions' hand; 
Khurasan's own Amir, Nasr, forty thousand dirhams gave, 
And a fifth to this was added by Prince of Pure and Brave; 
From his nobles, widely scattered, came a sixty thousand more; 
Those the times when mine was fortune, fortune good in plenteous store. 
Now the times have changed--and I, too, changed and altered must succumb, 
Bring the beggar's staff here to me; time for staff and script has come!

He reportedly died in abject poverty. Perhaps in his final days he repeated one of his couplets:

Were there no wine all hearts would be a desert waste, forlorn and black, 
But were our last life-breath extinct, the sight of wine would bring it back.
Rudaki
A white wine, Zilavka, that I tried earlier. It is also indigenous to the Balkan Peninsula. I am not a big fan of white wine,  but this one was not bad at all.  It was flirtatious but not presumptuous; sassy, without being impertinent. 
Another view of the winery

Monday, June 8, 2020

Mongolia | Khövsgöl Aimag | Darkhad Depression #4

After our late lunch we continue northwest up the valley of the Ikh Cöögt towards 8,550-foot Deed Khets Davaa. The snow-drift lined pass is broad and long, a miniature plateau actually, almost a mile long. Finally we come to an ovoo, seventy feet lower than the highest point of the pass, which overlooks the Buural Gol valley. From here we walk our horses down through a larch forest just over 1300 vertical feet to the banks of the Buural Gol, a major tributary of the Khoogin Gol, whose source is our next desination. The Buural Gol starts about five miles from here, just northwest of Belchir Uul.The Mungaragiin Gol, which we have just come from starts just to the west of Belchir Uul. Another river, the Delger Mörön, starts just south of Belchir Uul and flows southwestward to eventually combine with the Ider to form the Selenge Gol, Lake Baikal’s largest tributary. Thus at the base of Belchir Uul, the nexus of the knot of mountains we are in, begin rivers which flow both into both the Shishigt-Kyzyl-Khem-Yenisei and the Ider-Selenge-Angara-Yenisei branches of the Yenisei River System.
Looking up the Buural Gol Valley from the western end of Deed Khets Davaa (click on photos for enlargements)
Upper Buural Gol Valley
Beginning the descend into the valley of the Buural Gol
Looking toward the source of the Buural Gol. Belchir Uul is hidden between the ridges to the left.
It occurs to me that the area we are in might well qualify as the “Heart of Asia.” Now I admit that the epithet “the Heart of Asia” is much overworked. The seed of this chestnut might well be Sir Francis “Guns to Lhasa” Younghusband’s 1896 The Heart of a Continent.” It may have reached its full flowering in Nicholas Roerich’s 1929 Heart of Asia and continues to bloom in titles like The Lost Heart of Asia and The Silk Road: Two Thousand Years in the Heart of Asia and The Heart of Asia: A History of Russian Turkestan and the Central Asian Khanates from the Earliest Times and Through the Heart of Asia: Over the Pamïr to India. If I had the time and inclination I could compile a list of dozens more books and articles which somehow manage to drag in the phrase “the heart of Asia.” Indeed, years ago I had made a silent vow that when writing about this area I would never, under any circumstances, resort to the phrase “the heart of Asia.” But if any place actually deserves the epithet “the heart of Asia”—or at least that part of Asia north of Himalayas—it is this knot of mountains centered around Belchir Uul. On its slopes begin rivers which feed both major branches of the Yenisei River System, the largest north-flowing river in the world and the main artery of northern Asia.

I am still ruminating on this as we head down the Buural Valley. Soon we come upon a hunter’s shelter made a logs where Batmönkh says we will stop for the night. Hunters from Ulaan Uul come here in winter time to hunt deer, he says. He himself has stayed here in his younger days, when he was an avid hunter, but he says that now he now longer hunts. Immediately claiming the shelter for myself I spread out my carpet and sleeping bag inside, then get a fire going up brew and up a much needed pot of Yunnan Black. Actually is it the time of the day for Formosa Oolong, but after the strenuous descent on foot from Deed Khets Davaa I thought something a bit more robust and reinvigorating was called for.

We all sit and drink tea as Nergui prepares dinner. She points out that I neglected to bring a spatula along with my cooking gear. She had been using the dipper as a spatula but it really was not satisfactory for her culinary endeavors. Not to worry, says Batmönkh, he will make a spatula. First he cuts out a foot-long section of a log with his axe, then splits the section in two. From one of the halves he splits off an inch-thick slab. This he roughly shapes with an axe. Then with one of my Xinjiang Black Steel Knives that he has taken a liking to (I had fortuitously put a razor-sharp edge on it using a Arkansas Whetstone back in UB) he carefully whittles a very serviceable spatula. Nergui is tickled pink with her new implement, which she quickly utilizes to cook up a big patch of tsuvin, or fried noodles with beef and vegetables.
Batmönkh concentrates on carving a new spatula
Batmönkh understandably proud of his new spatula. I now use it in the kitchen of my hovel in Zaisan Tolgoi.
Nergui making gambir—fried flat breads
Batmönkh and Yooton in the hunters’ shelter. I claimed it for the night.
Nergui emerging from her tent after a night of sound sleep
The next morning the peaks at the head of the valley are shrouded in gray clouds and mist and rain seems imminent. Batmönkh says we must hurry as it will probably snow on the pass and it could get real nasty by late afternoon.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Mongolia | Omnogov Aimag | Khermen Tsav

Wandered by Khermen Tsav, located in an extremely remote area forty-five miles northeast of Ekhiin Gol Oasis. Tsav is generally defined as a “fissure”, or break in the surrounding strata of rocks. Often a tsav is an outcropping of rock that contains dinosaur fossils. The red geological formations here are reportedly identical to the more famous Flaming Cliffs in eastern Omnogov where Roy Chapman Andrews made important discoveries of dinosaur fossils back in the 1920s. Khermen Tsav is also famous for its dinosaur fossils.

The red-tinged area of Khermen Tsav, measuring about eight miles long and up to a mile wide, can easily be seen in satellite photos. (click on photos for enlargements)
Khermen Tsav
Khermen Tsav
Khermen Tsav
Khermen Tsav
Khermen Tsav
Khermen Tsav
Khermen Tsav
At places the ground is littered with hundreds of dinosaur fossils. Local herdsmen claim they were left behind by paleontologists who did not want to be bothered with duplicates of fossil samples they already had.