Saturday, August 1, 2015

Mongolia | Khövsgöl Aimag | Darkhad Depression #1

Aftesr visiting the Deer Stones we continued on to the Darkhad Depression. We stopped for lunch at a guanz (restaurant in a ger) where the road crosses the Beltes River. There were two other customers in the guanz, each nursing a bowl of milk tea: a woman in her fifties and a man perhaps in his mid-thirties. After some chit-chat the woman got up and left. Our driver whispered, “She is a very famous shaman from the Darkhad Depression. She now lives in Mörön.” I knew that the Darkhad Depression was famous for its shamans. On a previous trip the Darkhad Depression back on 1999 I had noticed that very few Darkhads, the ethic group that inhabits the Depression, had any kind of Buddhist regalia in their gers. Most still believe to one degree or another in traditional Inner Asian-Siberian shamanism. The woman soon reappeared in the guanz. I told her we were going to the Belchir Uul area on the western edge of the Darkhad Depression and asked if she had ever been there. “Many times,” she said. Is there much snow there at this time of the year? I asked. “It can snow there any time, but it should be no big problem this time of year. The problem now is flies.” She held up her thumb of her right hand and circled it with the thumb and forefinger of her left land just below the first joint. “Flies this big, she said, indicating her protruding thumb. “They have a big green head and they bite both people and horses. You swell up wherever they bite you. It is not really a good time to go to that area.”

Actually I had been concerned about flies and mosquitoes. I had once hiked in the Lake Baikal area in Siberia in late June when the flies and mosquitoes were simply hellish. The area where we were going was really the southern edge of the Siberian taiga, or forest, and I was afraid of encountering the same conditions. Professor Terbish, a biologist at Mongolia State University who had put me in contact with the local horsemen we were meeting, had opined however that it was a bit early for an insect infestation. We were more likely, he opined, to encounter snow. Personally I preferred snow, but I had brought along a head net for the insects just in case.

North of the Beltes River we entered higher country, finally climbing to 6,923-foot Eliin Davaa, the pass that marks the entrance to the Darkhad Depression. Here there are thirteen ovoos; one big ovoo and twelve smaller ovoos each representing one of the animals of the Mongolian calendar: mouse, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig. According to tradition, people entering the Darkhad Depression circumambulate the big ovoo and then pray to the ovoo representing the year they were born. Yooton was born in the Year of Dog, it turns out. I was born the Year of the Ox. Near the ovoos are several stone monuments, once dedicated to the shamans of the area.
Main ovoo at Eliin Davaa
Main ovoo and six of the twelve smaller ovoos
Monument to local shamans
We soon arrive in the tidy little village of Ulaan Uul. There had been some question about how we were going to meet our horsemen, as we had been told they had moved their ger several times already that spring and no one in Ulaanbaatar or our driver knew exactly where they were located at present. We had planned to ask local herdsmen in Ulaan Uul about their current location. Then a motorcycle pulled up alongside us. Behind the young driver was an older man who waved at us to stop. This turned out to Batmönkh, the man from who we were going to rent horses and who was going to act as our guide to Belchir Uul. Jumping into our van, he explained that the current site of his ger was hard to find and that he had come himself to Ulaan Uul to lead us there. Our horses were waiting for us at his ger, he assured us, and he and his son were ready for an eight-day horse trip into the mountains. The weather all spring had been very dry, but on June 2 some lamas from the monastery in Möron came and performed a rain making ceremony at the Noyon Ovoo in the Khogiin Gol Valley, where we would be going, and immediately afterwards there had been several rain and snow showers. It was still raining a bit every day. And the flies were out. "Flies as big as your thumb,” said Batmönkh, echoing the words of the shaman. “They love to bite foreigners,” he said, guffawing loudly. He seemed to be in the best of moods.

North of Ulaan Uul we cross the Bakhmakh River. This stream is formed by two smaller rivers, the Guna Gol, which starts just below Eliin Davaa and is now almost dry, and the Mungaragiin Gol, which begins at the base of Belchir Uul. The source of the Mungaragiin Gol is our eventual destination.
Bakhmakh River
We drive across flat steppe with a thick larch forest on our left until Batmönkh shouts "Turn left here!” We take a vague jeep trail several kilometers through the thick forest before emerging into a long meadow dotted with three small lakes. These are Urd (southern) Tarkhai Nuur, Dund (middle) Tarkhai Nuur, and Ar (behind) Tarkhai Nuur. The meadow itself is also known as Tarkhai. Batmönkh says “tarkhai” means the sole of a shoe, but he is unable to explain why the name is used here. Near the last lake is a single ger where Batmönkh and his family live.
Batmönkh’s ger
We pop into the ger and while we are refreshing ourselves with milk tea, fried bread and homemade unsalted cheese Batmönkh introduces us to his wife and family. He is sixty-five years old, he says, and his wife is fifty-nine. They have eleven children, six boys and five girls. Present are the youngest daughter, sixteen, a twenty-six year old unmarried daughter, and one of the older sons, Bayarkhüü. Bayarkhüü, we are informed, will be going with us on our horse trip. Also present is a twenty-seven year old woman named Nergui, who is a friend of the family. Batmönkh has recruited her to go along on the horse trip as a cook. I had planned to buy a sheep, but now Batmönkh informs us that he was just recently prepared some boortz, or dried meat, made from beef. Long thin strips of this boortz are hanging from the latticework of his ger. He now suggests that we take this boortz inside of killing a sheep. I agree. Then we ask if ask if Nergui can make us some bortsog, or fried bread, for the trip. She inspects the flour I had bought in Möron and for some reason finds it unsatisfactory. Instead she will use flour from one of several huge burlap bags of flour Batmönkh has in his ger.

We go out and set up our tents. Soon Bayarkhüu emerges from the ger with a rifle slung over his shoulder. The night before, he tells us, wolves had raided their horse herd and killed two young foals. Tonight he will stand watch over the herd. “I hope the wolves come back,” he says, patting his rifle. “I will be ready for them.”
Our horses