Sunday, August 2, 2015

Mongolia | Khövsgöl Aimag | Darkhad Depression #2

The wolves did not reappear last night. Bayarkhüü had come back from the horse herd at sunrise, about 4:30 a.m, grabbed a quick cat nap and was back up at seven. We meet with Batmönkh and him in the ger to discuss our itinerary. I tell him I want to visit two places; the source of the Mungaragiin Gol and the source of the Khoogin Gol but that I really don't care how we get there. I told Batmönkh to pick the route. He allows that he has been to both places several times and he did not anticipate any problems. I had figured that the most direct route to both places and back would cover about seventy miles. Spread out over eight days this would be only 8.8 miles a day, which did not sound too onerous. I told Batmönkh we would take our time and enjoy the country.

Loading the two pack horses was facilitated by the three large Kazakh saddle bags of heavy handwoven cloth that I had bought on my last trip to Xinjiang. At eleven o’clock we bid farewell to the rest of the people at the ger and rode west through a thick larch forest. Just as we were leaving, Yooton finally admitted that this was the first horse trip she had ever been on. She had been born in Zavkhan Aimag but her family moved to Ulaanbaatar when she was a little girl and she was now nominally a city girl. But as they say in the States, you can take the boy out of the country, but you cannot take the country out of the boy. The same thing seems to apply to Mongolian girls. Yooton seemed perfectly at home on a horse and indeed looked charming on her all-white mount, which perfectly matched her stylish white ski jacket. A few amber-colored horse flies chivied our horses but so far there was no sight of the dreaded green-eyed monsters.
Yooton looking stylish in her white ski coat (click on photos for enlargements)
We cross 5,757-foot Ovoolgo Pass and drop down into the valley of a small creek, which we follow upstream for two hours. At four o’clock we arrive at some log corrals near the headwaters of the stream. This is the winter camp of Nergui’s younger sister, who is married, Batmönkh tells us. We will spend the night here. I am a bit surprised at stopping so early—some horsemen I have been with refused to stop until the sun had gone down—but like I said we were in no real hurry. Batmönkh assures us we will have no trouble reaching our goals in eight days. We quickly brew up a pot of Taiwan Oolong which we drink while Nergui prepares dinner.
Nergui preparing our first dinner on the trail
As she cooks she tells you about her name. She was her parent’s first child. Her mother had already had several miscarriages and she was very sickly when she born. Indeed her parents did not expect her to live and did not even bother to give her a name. Although very weak and sickly she survived a month, and finally her parents had to take her to the local authorities to register her birth. “What is the child's name? ” asked the official. Her parents admitted that they had not yet given her a name. On the form the official wrote “Nergui” (ner = name + gui = not). So she became “No-Name.” As soon as she was named, however, her health immediately improved. She has been fit as a fiddle as since.

We retire as soon as the sun went down. Yooton and Nergui share a tent and the last thing I remember hearing before falling asleep in my own tent is both of them laughing uproariously about something. About three in the morning I awoke to what I thought was rain pounding on my tent. I looked outside and was surprised to see an inch of snow on the ground. It was June 11. As soon as the sky turned gray I got up, started a fire, and brewed up a pot of Puerh Tea. I threw out my carpet on the snow and sat down to savor the dark brew as big wet snow flakes drifted down through the pewter colored sky. How many times have I contemplated suicide, only to be drawn back from the brink by the thought: “But what if I am reborn in a place with no Puerh Tea?”

Batmönkh soon emerges from his tent and we hold a desultory conversation in my limited Mongolian. He sips the Puerh tentatively at first but then gulps down the bowl and accept another. Although Puerh could hardly be more different from the the traditional Mongolian brick tea I have never met a herdsman who did not like it—this despite the fact that as a rule countryside people are not particularly keen on innovations in food or drink. On one camel trip in the Gobi the camel guys often insisted on a rest stop for no other reason than to brew up a pot of khar tsai, or black tea, as they called Puerh (real black tea, like the Yunnan I have with me, they call “red tea”).
Batmönkh brewing up another pot of Puerh tea
Soon Yooton and Nergui emerge. I tell Nergui not to cook: we will have just tea, bortsog, and beslag for breakfast. Yooton, it turns out, had borrowed a purple deel from Batmönkh’s wife, which she now dons, along with winter hat, scarve, and gloves. The snow is falling even harder as we load the horses and begin the climb to 6,788-foot Temeegiin Davaa (Camel Pass). Batmönkh does not how the pass got this name. Camels are not all that common in these forested mountains. He allows, however, that he has a few camels. Like many herdsmen he likes to have all five kinds of Mongolian livestock: horses, cattle (including yaks), sheep, goats, and camels, even if the camels are mostly for show. He doesn’t ride them, but sometimes he does use them to tote loads when moving his ger.
Yooton bundled up for the trip over Temeegiin Davaa
Nergui in her utilitarian but nevertheless stylish deel
Climbing toward Temeegiin Davaa
It is downright wintry on the pass, with a stiff wind blowing the snow horizontally. Although the trail on the other side of the pass is not really very steep, Batmönkh insists we all get off our horses and walk them down to the next valley. As I would discover, Batmönkh never rides his horses downhill for any appreciable distance. It is hard on the horse’s legs, especially when it is carrying a one hundred kilo-plus load like myself. Reaching the valley we follow a small creek downstream. At the head of the valley, just visible through the snow and mist, is 9,468 foot Marchlaga Uul. Off to our left soon appears 9,193 feet Baidalag Uul. According to Batmönkh baidalag is a Tsaatan word for a kind of plant which flourishes on this mountain. The Tsaatan, or Reindeer People, who inhabit the mountains west of the Darkhad Depression, use this plant to make tea, he says. In recent years, the Tsaatan, with their unusual nomadic lifestyle centered around their reindeer herds, have become the biggest tourist attraction in the area. Most people who come to the Darkhad Depression probably come to visit the Tsaatan. There are now no Tsaatan in the area we are going however.
Walking the horses down from Temeegiin Davaa
Soon we turned left out of the valley and started climbing toward Adar Pass. The snow ceased and patches of cobalt blue sky broke through overhead. By noon the latest snow was pretty much melted on the southern side of the mountain we were on. A surprising number of wildflowers were in bloom. I greeted several old friends from Alaska, including northern anemones, Arctic poppies, and forget-me-nots, and stopped to chat with several of them. They said that they were glad to see me too. Northern anemones, which have the charming name of “tsasnii tsagaan” in Mongolian (tsasnii = snow + tsagaan = white, ie, Snow Whites), are always one of the first flowers to appear, often when there is still snow on the ground; likewise Arctic poppies, known as jamyan myadag. Also in bloom was a bush about two feet high with purple flowers and intensely aromatic leaves known as tsakhildag—I don't know the English name. Batmönkh claims that just breathing the aromatic scent from the crushed leaves of this plant strengthens the lungs. Then Batmönkh points out a small plant with purple flowers he calls suman sogoo. He says an infusion made from from the dried stalks and flowers of this plant is good for strengthening women’s wombs. Batmönkh, who seems to know a lot about plants, opines that the Darkhad Depression and surrounding mountains are the best places in Mongolia for medicinal herbs. This is just one of the many things which make the Darkhad Depression special, he says.
Rider of the Purple Tsakhildag
Suman Sogoo
Nergui amidst anemones and poppies
Yooton and Arctic poppies
Ascending the Ikh Cöögt Gol
Yooton all smiles while ascending the Ikh Cöögt Gol
There is still snow and a sharp wind on 8,094-foot Adar Pass. The other side ramps down very gradually to the Baga Cöögt Gol and we walk our hours down only the steepest parts. We lunch along the Baga Cöögt Gol and then climb to Khush Zurkht Davaa (Nut’s Heart Pass) and descend back down to the Ikh Cöögt Gol, which we follow upstream. At about six in the evening Batmönkh calls a halt and we camp in the mostly treeless tundra on the upper Cöögt Gol. The source of Mungaragiin is just over a pass near the head of this creek.
Nergui and Yooton, both of whom had just washed their ebony locks, enjoying the warm evening sun on the Ikh Cöögt Gol
Nergui in culinary mode

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