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

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

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Uzbekistan | Khorezm | Nukus | Fifty Forts Region


From Khiva I wandered on down the Amu Darya River (also known as the Oxus)  to the city of Nukus. Actually I did not want to go to Nukus. I was much more interesting in the ruins of the old Silk Road cities and fortresses scattered along the north bank of the Amu Darya, but my driver insisted that all tourists who come this way go to Nukus to visit the Karakalpakstan State Museum of Art. Unfortunately he did not point out why all tourists go to the Karakalpakstan State Museum. It turns out, according to A Recent Story In The New York Times, that this “museum in the parched hinterland of Uzbekistan . . . is home to one of the world’s largest collections of Russian avant-garde art.”

I did not know this at the time. I did peek through a few doorways into galleries containing what looked like avant-garde art, but of course I did not go in, since I have not the slightest interest in anything avant-garde and indeed little interest in any art created since the fall of the Ottoman Empire. I did spend an enjoyable couple of hours examining the museum’s fair to middling collection of Zoroastrian Ossuaries, which were especially interesting to me since I had just recently visited a Zoroastrian Tower of Silence, also on the banks of the Amu Darya, where human corpses were stripped of their flesh so their bones could be collected and placed in funeral urns like these. I also drooled over the museum’s small but mouth-wateringly delectable collection of antique Turkmen Carpets.  

But enough of that. From Nukus we proceeded eastward along the northern bank of the Amu Darya through what is known as the Ellik Kala, or Fifty Forts Region. The area is dotted with ruins of cities and forts dating from perhaps the third or fourth century BC to the seventh century AD. At one time many of these settlements would have served as important way-stations on the Silk Road between Bukhara and Samarkand to the east and Kunya Urgench, farther on down the Amu Darya. 
 Kyzyl Kala (Fortress)
 Ruins of Toprak Kala, dating to about 2000 years ago
  Ruins of Toprak Kala
  Ruins of Toprak Kala
  Ruins of Toprak Kala
  Ruins of Toprak Kala
Aerial view of the ruins of the lower fortress of Ayaz Kala. Built sometime in the 4th–7th centuries AD, the fortress may have been destroyed during the Mongol Invasion of Khorezm in the 1220s (see Enlargement). The ruins of the old city can be seen to the left of the fortress. 
Ruins of the lower fortress of Ayaz Kala
Ruins of the lower fortress of Ayaz Kala
 Ruins of the lower fortress of Ayaz Kala
Just north of the Lower Fortress on a higher summit is another larger fortress dating back to the 4th century BCE.

Aerial View of Upper Fortress (see Enlargement)
 Ruins of the upper fortress of Ayaz Kala
 Ruins of the upper fortress of Ayaz Kala
Ruins of the upper fortress of Ayaz Kala