Friday, December 31, 2010

Mongolia | Second of the Nine Nines | Khorz Arkhi Khöldönö

Update: By 8:30 am the temperature has dropped to 36º below O F. This is a drop of 15 degrees since 5:30 am, which hardly seems possible, but I have rechecked the weather reports and this seems to be the case. 36 below 0 F. is certainly cold enough to freeze twice-distilled arkhi, so it seems we are indeed experiencing Khorz Arkhi Khöldönö.


I mentioned earlier that the First of the Nine-Nines—the Nine-Nines being nine periods of nine days each, each period characterized by a certain type of winter weather—started on the day of the Winter Solstice, which occurred here in Mongolia on December 22. The Second of the Nine Nines begins today, December 31. Known as Khorz Arkhi Khöldönö, this is the time when twice-distilled homemade Mongolian arkhi (vodka) freezes. As you will recall, the first of the Nine-Nines was the time when regular, or once distilled, arkhi freezes. As this indicates, the second period should be colder than the first, since twice distilled arkhi obviously has a much higher alcohol content. This morning at 5:00 it was a relatively balmy Minus 21°F / –29°C, however, almost exactly the same temperature on the same day last year. The Third of the Nine Nines begins on January 8th. 


As some of you may know, today is also the last day of the year according to the admittedly outdated and outmoded Gregorian calendar which unfortunately seems to hold much of the world in its thrall. I have been boycotting the Gregorian calendar for several years now (I prefer the Lunar Calendar myself), so as usual I will not be celebrating anything tonight. Don’t expect to find me in any of Ulaan Baatar’s notoriously Louche Coffee Shops. I will spend the evening in my hovel, but since it is Friday Night I may treat myself to some twenty-year old Puerh Tea while perusing the latest addition to the Scriptorium, the biography of Lesley Blanch.
Lesley Blanch

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

USA | Manhattan | E. Gene Smith

E. Gene Smith, world-famous collector of Tibetan texts and founder of the Manhattan-based Tibetan Resource Center, has transmigrated. I had been in contact with Mr. Smith several times over the years, most recently in connection with an Unusual Kalachakra Tantra Text I had stumbled across. He came to Ulaan Baatar occasionally and I was a bit surprised when he said he wanted to meet me, since I am really not that involved with the world of Tibetan Buddhism. He had seen my book about Zanabazar, the First Bogd Gegeen of Mongolia, however, and he was keen to talk about Zanabazar. We finally met for lunch at the Delhi Darbar Restaurant in the Puma Imperial Hotel where he was staying. Although it was just he and I for lunch we ended up talking for four hours. Amazingly, he had actually met the Diluv Khutagt. It is not quite clear who, if anyone, will step into the seven-league boots of Mr. Smith. He might well have been sui generis in the field of Tibetan studies. 

E. Gene Smith (1936–2010)

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Mongolia | Zaisan | Eclipse | Nine Nines—Nermel Arkhi Khöldönö

Wandered up to the summit of Zaisan Tolgoi (Noblemen’s Hill) to watch the Moon rise in eclipse on the evening of the 21st. It was minus 8º F when I reached the top. Not surprisingly I was the only person there. 
 The Summit of Zaisan Tolgoi
The War Memorial at the top of Zaisan Tolgoi
The total phase of the eclipse ended at 4:53 pm, just four minutes before the official moon rise time of 4:57. When the moon finally did clear the mountains to the east at about 5:15 it was of normal color and roughly 50% occluded; in other words it resembled a regular half-moon. By 6:05 the shadow on the moon had disappeared completely and it looked like a regular Full Moon.

As you know, each Full Moon has a name associated with it. See North American Names for the Full Moons. The last Full Moon before the Winter Solstice, is known as the Cold Moon, Frost Moon, or Long Nights Moon in English. This is the Full Moon that occurred yesterday. I don’t know if Mongolians have a name for this moon. Maybe Batbold Pandita can help us. 

The Winter Solstice occurred today at 7:38 a.m. (Ulaan Baatar Time), marking the beginning of Winter. In Mongolia the Winter Solstice also marked the beginning of the so-called Nine-Nines: nine periods of nine days each, each period marked by some description of winter weather. The first of the nine nine-Day periods is Nermel Arkhi Khöldönö, the time when normally distilled homemade Mongolian arkhi (vodka) freezes. It was minus 27º F. at 7:38 a.m., cold enough, I think, to freeze Mongolian moonshine, which is not as strong as the store-bought vodka. The next Nine-Day Period starts on December 31. Stayed tuned for updates.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Mongolia | Zaisan Tolgoi | Winter Solstice

The Winter Solstice occurs here in Ulaan Baatar at 7:38 AM on the morning of December 22 (also see the 2009 Winter Solstice and 2008 Winter Solstice)December 22 will of course be the shortest day of the year: here in Ulaan Baatar the sun will rise at 8:39 am and set at 5:02 pm for a day of 8 hours, 22 minutes, and 53 seconds. That’s two seconds less the day before and four seconds less than the day after, December 23. The Winter Solstice occurs 6:38 PM on the evening of December 21 in the Eastern United States, on the same day as the Total Lunar Eclipse, which is extremely unusual:
This eclipse is notable because it takes place just hours before the December solstice, which marks the beginning of northern winter and southern summer. The last Dec. 21 total lunar eclipse occurred in the year 1638. (Number-crunchers quibbled for a while over whether that one counted as a solstice eclipse, due to shifts between the Julian and Gregorian calendar, but the current consensus is that It Does Indeed Count. The next winter solstice eclipse is due in 2094.
I am not quite sure where I will go for the Solstice. I may retire to the summit of Öndör Gegeenii Uul, right in front of my hovel in Zaisan Tolgoi, for appropriate ceremonies. Feel free to join me. As usual, I am imploring people not to celebrate the Solstice by engaging in any animal or Human Sacrifices
Summit (left) of Öndör Gegeenii Uul

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Mongolia | Zaisan | Full Moon | Lunar Eclipse

Unless you have spent the last couple of months indulging in some totally heedless Bacchanalia in a basement bar in Greenwich Village you no doubt know that there is a Total Lunar Eclipse scheduled for December 21, 2010. In the Western Hemisphere the eclipse will fall on the same day as the Winter Solstice; here in Mongolia it will occur the day before. 
Phases of the Eclipse, with Total in the Middle. For a more detailed view see Lunar Eclipse Phases
Some of the best views of the Lunar Eclipse will be from the east coast of the United States. In Mongolia the situation is complicated to say the least. Here is the schedule (all local Ulaanbaatar times): 

Penumbral begins:  1:29 pm
Partial eclipse begins:  2:33 pm
Total eclipse begins:  3:41 pm
Full Moon at 4:13
Greatest eclipse:  4:17 pm
Total Eclipse ends: 4:53 pm

Moon Rises at 4:57
Sun Sets at 5:01

Partial eclipse ends: 6:01 pm
Penumbral ends: 7:05  pm

As can be seen from this the eclipse begins and the period of total eclipse ends before the moon rises and the sun sets. Thus it will rise during the partial eclipse phase when the sun is still up.  Exactly how the moon will appear when it first rises and then after the sun sets, when it is still in the partial eclipse phase, is unclear. I will be at the summit of Zaisan Tolgoi from 4:00 pm onward on the 21st to find out, however. 

Now there is an additional complication: the forecast for the 21st is snow, with a high temperature of 3º F and a low of minus 27º F. If the skies are clouded over it might not be possible to see the moon at all, regardless of the eclipse phase. 

Eclipses, both solar and lunar, are big events in Mongolia. See the Solar Eclipse of 1997.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Mongolia | Gov-Altai Aimag | Camel Trip | Tsenkher Gov | Solongo

The second day we continued south through the Tsenkher Gov. There was no wind at all and quite warm. Indeed in the afternoon it got downright hot and soon even the flies came out and started bothering our camels. This was not at all what I was expecting. During Previous Camel Trips in the Gobi during the first two weeks of October I had experienced numerous days of frigid temperatures and ferocious winds. Now I began to worry that our goat meat might spoil in the heat. Brother Duit and Sukhee allowed that it had been an unusually warm autumn so far. Whether it had anything to do with Global Warming they did not know. 
Continuing across the Tsenkher Gov
At 6:30 in the evening we camped for the night, having covered 36.2 kilometers (22.5 miles) that day. The sky was clear when I turned in, but at about two in the morning I woke up and noticed that it had clouded over completely and not a single star was visible. Also the temperature was falling and the wind was rising. When I got up at six to start the fire I flung on my winter deel which I had not worn yet on this trip but was using as a blanket over my sleeping bag. By 7:22 when the sun rose it was 20º F and the wind was blowing steadily at about 30 to 40 miles an hour. The sky was pewter gray with ragged black clouds scudding overhead. The weather seemed to affect the mood of the camels, who bawled and snorted and several times jumped up while they were being loaded, scattering our gear in all directions. Finally by nine we were back on the trail, everyone wearing their winter deels except for Sister Dulya, who opted for insulated pants and a stylish ski jacket. Since the pack camels seemed still unruly Sukhee said he would walk his camel for the first couple kilometers and lead the two pack camels by hand. Brother Duit, Sister Dulya, and Solongo followed on their camels and I brought up the rear. 
Solongo, left, on her white camel
As usual in the morning I let my camel slow down until the others were a hundred meters or so ahead and began to recite mantras—in the case the familiar OM MANI PADME HUM—while counting them off on my mala. I always did this for the first hour or so on trail as a way of settling into the day. We were passing through ridges of black, crumbly slate and soon the others were out of sight. The wind had picked up considerably, now blowing maybe sixty miles per hour, and it had gotten even colder. The ragged strips of clouds streaming overhead seemed to mirror the black shale underfoot. Ravens wheeled overhead, gliding with the wind and then tacking into it. My camel seemed nervous and kept tossing its head left and right, every so often turning around to give me a baleful look. Then something startled my camel and it leaped forward five or six paces before I could get it under control again. A bit farther on it stopped in its tracks and refused to move until I beat it repeatedly on its hind flanks with my lead rope. 

Coming around a high outcrop of black shale I noticed Sister Dulya and Brother Duit standing by their camels. At their feet sat Solongo. She was hunched over with her head hanging down. When I reached them Sister Dulya explained that Solongo’s camel, the only white one in the bunch, had thrown her and that she had fallen on her head and shoulder. Dulya tried to talk to her but she just kept mumbling that she could not move her right arm. We wrestled her out of her winter deel and Brother Duit carefully felt her arm and shoulder. Nothing seemed to be broken, but her arm was completely immobile. Also, she had a nasty bump on the back of head, but the skin was not broken. We rigged up a sling from Sister Dulya’s long wool scarf, put Solongo’s arm in it, and then tried to get her to stand up. She said her head was spinning and at first she could not get up, but finally we managed to get her to her feet. 

Sukhee had gone on ahead with the pack animals and was already out of sight when Solongo’s camel threw her. Apparently he was unaware that anything had happened. Brother Duit said we should try to catch up with him as soon as possible, since he had all of our food, water, and camping gear. We might have to camp for the day and allow Solongo to rest. Solongo would ride his camel and he would ride the Solongo’s white camel, which still seemed spooked. He made the white camel kneel and swung himself on. The camel got to its feet normally, but as soon as it was standing it went completely berserk again. Camels are normally such placid creatures that it is always a shock to see how out of control they can get when they finally freak out. The camel began bucking like a bull in a rodeo, all four feet off the ground as it twisted and contorted itself in mid-air. Brother Duit didn’t have a chance. The camel bucked him off and he went flying through the air like a rag doll, finally coming to rest on a heap of sharp shale shards.   When he stood up his face and the front of his deel was covered with blood. It was an eerie reenactment of what had happened to his Brother Tsogoo on My Last Camel Trip. After throwing Brother Duit off the white camel had trotted off at full speed and soon disappeared between the black ridges. WIthout even pausing to wipe the blood off his face Brother Duit leaped on his own camel and went off in pursuit of the white camel. 

That left Sister Duit, Solongo, and myself. We were standing in an completely exposed area in sixty mile an hour winds. And there was not a stick of firewood anywhere in the immediate area. About a half mile away I notice some high cliffs with some saksaul bushes at their base. There I thought we might be able to get out of the wind, get a fire going, and get some hot tea into Solongo. Tea is my solution for just about every problem. Solongo wasn’t talking, but when we asked if she could walk to the cliffs she nodded yes. Sister Dulya and I walked our camels. To have any kind of accident and have another camel run off would be a real disaster at this point. 

Among the boulders at the base the cliff we were out of the worse of the wind. Soon I had brewed up a pot of Puerh tea and we lunched on sausage and fried bread. Solongo still could not move her arm at all, but at least she was soon able to talk. She said she had no idea what had gotten into her camel. Like the rest of the camels it had seemed a bit nervous that morning. Then for no apparent reason it just freaked out completely. She said she had landed first on her shoulder and then her head had bounced off a large chunk of slate. Her head still throbbed. We threw out a camel blanket for her and let her lie down to rest. Soon she appeared to be asleep.

Sister Dulya, never one to waste a moment, get out a needle and heavy black thread and began repairing the various rips and tears that had already appeared in some of our duffle bags. I went off and sat by myself. I could not help but wonder if this problem with the white camel was not somehow my fault. Originally the white camel had been meant for me. When Tsogoo had first told us that he had rounded up seven camels for our trip, I had half-jokingly asked if he had gotten a white camel for me. He replied that no, all seven of them were standard brown camels. Too bad, I said, I usually ride white camels. 
My white camel, right of center, from an earlier camel trip
On one of My First Trip Camel Trips I had been doing research on the notorious bandit and warlord Dambijantsan, who was also known as “The Two White Camel Lama” because of his habit of always riding a white camel and leading one white pack camel. The local camel men, who I had questioned extensively about Dambijantsan, had given me a white camel to ride, explaining that since I was so interesting in Dambijantsan I should ride a white camel also. This become a kind of tradition for me, and on several subsequent camel trips I had also ridden white camels. Camel men had even called me “One White Camel Don.” It was no big deal, however, and when Tsogoo saId he had seven brown camels for us I certainly did not tell him to get me a white camel. When he showed up with the camels at our starting point of Zakhyn Us, however, he had six brown camels and one white camel. He explained that he had gone out and rounded up the white camel just for me. It had not yet been ridden that year and was a bit wild, so I should let his daughter Solongo, who he knew was very experienced with camels, ride it the first day or two. 

By the third day, today, I had forgotten all about the white camel business and Solongo had ridden the white camel as usual. Then it had thrown her off and now she was hurt. The white camel should never have been on the trip in the first place. There is a legend that anything connected with Dambijantsan turns out badly—the so-called “Curse of Dambijantsan,” and sitting there by myself among the rocks at the base of the cliff with a black raven wheeling and cawing overhead—there is another legend that the spirit of Dambijantsan to this day rides on the winds of the Gobi in the corporeal form of a raven—I could not help but wonder if the Curse had struck again. 
Solongo’s white camel 
An hour or so later Brother Duit came back. He had been unable to track down the white camel. And now Sukhee was far out ahead of us somewhere, unaware that anything had happened. First Brother Duit would have to go get him and bring him and our supplies back to where we were now. Brother Duit and Sukhee and the pack camels did not return for another two hours. They then decided they would go again and together try to find the white camel. Three hours later they returned. The white camel was gone and would probably return by itself to Tsogoo’s herd about seventy kilometers to the north. It had however thrown off its saddle and they did find that. Solongo said she was able to ride so we decided to continue on. Sukhee put her saddle over the top of the load on one of the pack camels and she climbed aboard, her arm still in a sling. We had only traveled four kilometers that morning before the accident. Starting again we soon crossed a low pass in the slate hills and came out onto the Nomin Gov, the fourth of the govs we would travel through. We rode until the sun went down and managed to cover another 18.1 kilometers before camping.

Sister Dulya did the cooking that night. Solongo sat on a corner of the carpet with her arm in a sling. Finally she told us a little more about the accident. She said that after landing on her shoulder she sat up, only to discover that she was unable to breath. She had of course had the wind knocked out of her, a common occurrence for those playing the rougher sports, but one which had never happened to her before. Unable to draw a breath she had the sudden premonition that she was about to die. “It was so strange,” she said. “I was thinking, I am so young, I have hardly lived. There are so many things I have never done and have never experienced. And now I never will. How strange life is, and how strangely it ends! I am going to die here in the desert, in this empty place surrounded by black hills. Who could have imagined my life would end like this? Then I started to see everything that would have happened if only I had lived. Everything I could have been, everything I could have done, passed before my eyes. Then I started to black out.” At that point she fell backwards. Lying on her back she suddenly discovered that she could breath again. After a couple shallow breaths she was able to take a deep breath, and she realized that she might not die after all. We asked her about what she had seen, what she could be and what she could do if only she had the chance, but she said she did not want to talk about it. She was silent the rest of the evening. 
Solongo, all smiles before the accident