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. 

Mongolia | Bayankhongor Aimag | Nogoon Tsav

Wandered by Nogoon Tsav in Bayankhongor Aimag. Tsav is generally defined as “fissure”, or break in the surrounding strata of rocks. Often a tsav is an outcropping of rock that contains dinosaur fossils. Nogoon (green) Tsav is located sixty miles south of the village of Shinejinst and about thirty miles north of Ekhiin Gol Oasis. The unpaved road from Shinejinst to Ekhiin Gol Oasis, for most of its length nothing more than a jeep track across the desert, runs right by Nogoon Tsav. The tsav is named for its green rock strata. Although dinosaur bones have been found here it is not considered a prime location for fossils.
Jeep track from Shinejinst to Ekhiin Gol Oasis (Click on photos for enlargements
Desert near Nogoon Tsav
Desert near Nogoon Tsav
Nogoon Tsav

Nogoon Tsav

Nogoon Tsav
Camel man at Nogoon Tsav

A mile or two south or Nogoon Tsav are the so-called Marriage Ovoos. Newly weds from all over Bayankhongor Aimag come here and erect an ovoo in hopes of ensuring a good marriage. 

Turkmenistan | Tagtabazar | Yekedeshik Cave Complex | Part 1

Wandered by the Yekedeshik Cave Complex located 290 miles as the crow flies southeast of Ashgabat. To get there from Ashgabat you have to drive 230 miles to Baramaly, the nearest town to the ruins of ancient Merv, and then drive south 120 miles to Tagtabazar, the nearest town to the caves. The actual driving distance is well over 300 miles. From Baramaly the road follows roughly the valley of the Murghab River, which begins on a plateau located between the Band-i Turkestan, Gharjistan, and Paropamisus mountains in what is now Afghanistan. From its source the Murghab flows north approximately 510 miles before disappearing into the sands of the Kara Kum Desert. As we shall have ample opportunities to see, the Murghab Valley vies with Egypt and Mesopotamia as the home of one of the world’s oldest civilizations.

South of Barmamaly a new highway is under construction and the temporary dirt roads are clogged with trucks, tankers, and buses bound for the natural gas processing plants which lie off in the desert to the right. Companies from Russia, India, Turkey, China, Japan, Malaysia, and Saudi Arabia have all built plants here. It is the natural gas processed in these and other plants that have paid for the Expanses of White Marble in Ashgabat. After about fifty miles we past through the industrial zone and traffic thins out considerably. Although the Murghab Valley south of Baramaly is flanked on both sides by desert, the valley bottom itself is quite fertile. This land has been cultivated for at the very least the last 4000 years. In early May extensive fields of winter wheat lining the road are just starting to take on a hint of yellow. Numerous towns and villages lie along the river to the left. 

We pass through one of the ubiquitous police posts where my papers are checked and then just before Tagtabazar are stopped at a border zone checkpoint where my permit to travel in a restricted border area is perused. The Afghan border is, after all, just fourteen miles away. Although the Yekedeshik Caves are not quite on the well-trodden tourism path in Turkmenistan a trickle of visitors from other countries do come here and the border authorities are used to dealing with them. It takes the officials only twenty minutes to determine that my papers are in order. 

There appears to be little of interest in the small town of Tagtabazar itself. We cross the bridge over the Murghab and turn off on the dirt road which climbs the high bluffs to the east of the river. The river bottom is at an elevation of roughly 1120 feet. The entrance to the caves is in the side of the bluffs about 350 vertical feet about the river bottom. 
The Murghab River fourteen miles downstream from the Afghanistan border (click on photos for enlargements)
The entrance to the Yekedeshik Cave Complex, roughly 350 vertical feet above the valley bottom of the Murghab River, can just be seen near the center of this photo. 
The entrance to the Yekedeshik Cave Complex with the valley of the Murghab River stretching off to the south. 
The valley of the Murghab River. Although flanked by desert, the valley bottom itself is heavily cultivated.
Entrance to the Yekedeshik Cave Complex

Turkmenistan | Tagtabazar | Yekedeshik Cave Complex | Part 2

The Yekedeshik Cave Complex is located high above the east bank of Murghab River about fourteen miles north of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan border. “Yekedeshik” is supposedly an archaic Turkish word meaning “single orifice”. The name refers to the single entrance to entire complex. There are five floors to the complex, although only the top two are now open to the public. The entrance opens into the fourth floor. The fourth and fifth floor contain forty-four rooms, so it is probable that the entire complex has well over 100 rooms. The chambers were carved out of soft sandstone with what were apparently pick-like implements. 

The really surprisingly thing about the complex is how little is know about who built it, for what purpose, and when. Almost everything said about the caves is speculation. Legends and tall tales abound of course. One legend maintains that the caves are not of human provenance at all, but were instead created by jinns, which according to Arab and Muslim mythology are spirits of a lower rank than angels who can appear in both human and animal form. Another legend maintains that the caves were built and used as living quarters by the troops of the Greek adventurer Alexander the Great when they passed through this region in the fourth century B.C. According to this variant, the original caves were once thirty miles long and the current caves are just remnants of a much larger complex. Also according to this legend, the caves extended far into what is now Afghanistan and were later used for smuggling. 

Russian scholars who have studied the complex have opined that it was once a monastery, but even they hesitate to say whether it hosted Buddhists or Christians. Both Buddhism and Christianity were practiced in this area prior to the arrivals of Arabic Muslim invaders in the 650s A.D. Remnants of a Buddhist monastery can still be seen amidst of the ruins of ancient Merv 125 miles north of here, and there are many remains of Buddhist culture in Afghanistan just to to the south. Buddhism may have been in decline by the time the Arabs arrived, and what Buddhists did remain were probably stamped out, since they were viewed as idolators. Christians, on the other hand, were, like Muslims, “People of the Book” and thus tolerated by the Arab invaders. Indeed, from 553 A.D. to the eleventh century, some four hundred years after the arrival of Islam, Merv was a headquarters of the Nestorian Christian Church, sometimes called the Church of the East. A Nestorian college or seminary was operating in Merv as late as 1340. 

There is of course the possibility that the complex was first a Buddhist Monastery and later converted into a Christian monastery after Buddhism was stamped out. It is also not outside the realm of possibility that it once housed some heretical Islamic sect. No one has offered an opinion on when it was abandoned. Local people no doubt knew about the caves after they were no longer inhabited, but the complex did not come to the attention of the scholarly world until the early twentieth century when Turkmenistan became part of the Soviet Union.
The single entrance to the five-floor complex; hence the name “Yekedeshik”—One Orifice
Floor plan of the complex open to the public
The main gallery of the complex is about 120 feet long. Rooms are on either side.
A typical room in the complex
The rooms were apparently excavated with pick-like tools. The pick marks can clearly be seen here. 
Another room in the complex. The graffiti is modern.
Room with what could conceivable be an altar at one end
Linked rooms
Another view of linked rooms
Another view of linked rooms
Another view of linked rooms with curious wall concavities in the foreground
Curious wall concavities. It is tempting to think they were meditation chambers, but there is really no evidence for this. 
Vertical holes in the floor. The caretaker maintains they were used to store grain, flour, oil, honey, and other foodstuffs. Conceivably they could have also been used to store water. 
Another view of the vertical holes
Indentations in the floor. It is not clear what purpose they served. 
Portal linking two rooms and a storage hole
Stairway to a second floor room
Second floor room and stairway. This room also has an altar-like construction at one end.
A second floor room

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

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 person. 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