Sunday, March 14, 2021

Mongolia | Gov-Altai Aimag | Bilegt the Wrestler’s Rock

As we wander past the northern side of the Eej Khairkan Uul my driver Chültem points out an immense sugar loaf-shaped smooth-sided pinnacle at the northwestern corner of the massif. Several years ago, he says, a group of Russian rock climbers came here and attempted to tried to scale this pinnacle. One of the climbers fell to his death. Chültem says the climber got what he deserved for violating the sanctity of this sacred mountain. Mongolians, he says, never attempt to ascend any part of the Eej Khairkhan massif. 
Eej Khairkan Uul
West of Eej Khairkhan we cross an immense, perfectly flat area that extends the whole way to the horizon far to the west. This expanse is completely covered with flat nickel-sized black stones. I cannot fathom what geological forces so uniformly graded these stones and deposited them on a surface as flat as a billiards table.
 
Eventually we turned north begin to climb through desert steppe which ramps up to the east-west trending Tayangiin Mountains. To the northwest rises what Chültem calls the Big Tayangiin, crowned by 10,575' Gyalgariin Oroi Uul. To the northeast is the Little Tayangiin, topped by several eight and nine thousand foot peaks. From the sloping steppe the road winds higher into the buttresses of the Tayangiyn. Rounding a hairpin curve we suddenly come upon a roadside monument which I at first take to be an ovoo marking the pass through the mountains. Instead of one high pile of rocks, however, there is a big cubical rock measuring perhaps a yard on each side and draped with prayer scarves. Surrounding it are a couple dozen piles of rocks two feet or so high. This is not the pass, Chültem explains as we climb out of the jeep. The big rock was carried here by the celebrated wrestler Bilegt and the rock piles—small ovoos actually—are memorials to this prodigious feet. 

Bilegt was from near Tseel, the village nineteen miles farther north. He was a huge man and famously strong, but he wanted above all to be renowned as a wrestler. At the time—apparently around the turn of the century, although the chronology is a bit vague—the most important wrestling matches were held in Uliastai, in Zavkhan aimag north of Gov-Altai aimag, and many of the most prominent wrestlers came from Zavkhan. Not sure that he was ready to take on the champions from Zavkhan Bilegt began a concerted training program. Holding a large section of a tree trunk in his arms he walked greater and greater distances until he was able to carry them from near Tseel to the pass through these mountains, a distance of some eighteen miles. Still he felt he needed one final test of strength. Spying a huge cube of rock near the pass he picked it up and carried it at least 500 feet. The rock remains to this day where he finally dropped it. 
Chültem with Bilegt’s rock
Bilegt went to Uliastai, beat all the competition, and was lauded all over Mongolia. Even when his wrestling days were over he was remembered as the man who had once carried the huge rock now resting near the pass through the Tayangiin Mountains. When he died his body, as was the custom then, was not buried but simply tossed into an isolated ravine where his bones were stripped clean by vultures and wild animals. According to local lore a she-wolf eventually gave birth to a litter of pups in his enormous rib cage. Later some men from Ulaangom in Uvs aimag found this rib cage and took it back to Ulaangom. Bilegt’s great powers were somehow conveyed with his bones, and since then Uvs aimag has supplied Mongolia with its strongest and best wrestlers, or so goes the story.
 
I suppose someone could calculate roughly how much a cubic yard of solid rock weighs. Chültem says that to this day no one has ever been able to lift it. He and I together cannot even rock it back and forth. I add a few fist-sized rocks to the small ovoos and we continue on. Bilegt’s stone is at an elevation of 7280'. The pass through the Tayangiin Mountains—Nakhis Davaa—is a mile and half farther on at an elevation of 7450'. Here there is the de rigueur ovoo where we make a brief stop and I place a blue prayer scarf to commemorate our leaving the basin of Zakhny Zarmangiin Gov with its lonely mistress, Eej Khairkhan Uul.

On the other side of the pass are steep cliffs that Chültem says are famous for garnets. We get out to look and sure enough within ten minutes we find several red garnets embedded in rocks. I take one as a souvenir. Finally we reached the tiny town of Tseel. Like Tsogt, Tseel is supposedly famous for its beautiful women. According to Chültem, Dambijantsan, the Ja Lama, also came to Tseel and carried off one of these beauties and added her to his harem. 

We had planned to camp outside of Tseel. By then the wind was blowing an unrelenting forty or fifty miles miles a hour. No one wanted to make the first move to erect the tents, and the idea of preparing a meal on our primitive Russian primus stoves was daunting,  so we just sat silently in the jeep brooding on what looked like a long, cold, uncomfortable night. 
“I guess we could go stay at the hotel in Tseel,” Ochoo finally allowed.
“What!” I sputtered, “There’s a hotel in Tseel!?”
“Yes, Chültem told me about it, but he didn’t think you would want to stay there.”
It turned out that Dr. Terbish back in Ulaanbaatar, who had arranged the jeep trip, had told Chültem that I was a penny-pinching nature lover who invariably avoided towns and hotels and preferred to stay always in my own tent under the stars. 
“To the hotel!” I ordered. 
“It’s probably very dirty, and it might be expensive,” Ochoo offered
“I don’t care if I have to share a stall with cattle as long as it’s out of the wind, and how expensive can a hotel in Tseel be? To the hotel!

The “hotel” was in a courtyard surrounded by a high wooden fence. The  gate was locked, but a woman holding an immense, decidedly unfriendly looking black mastiff by the collar finally answered our shouts and let us in. Next to her small abode house is a barn-like structure containing four or five rooms for rent.  All but one are “under repair” at the moment. There’s no running water, no meals, and the price for the available room is 1500 tögrögs a head. 
“That’s very expensive,” mumbles Ochoo. 
“Four thousand five hundred tögrögs for the three of us ( $5.50 at the time). I can afford it. We’re staying,” say I.

The room features a couple of broken-down chairs, three beds with springs but no mattresses, a wood stove, and a large table. True, the place may not have felt a broom in the last decade or so, but other than that it is quite cozy. Our hostess comes in with a quart of brackish water for us to wash up with; sweet water, it appears, is at a premium in Tseel. She soon has a saxual wood fire going in the small stove in the corner of the room. We make tea with our own drinking water from the artisian well near Bayan Toogoi. Our hostess takes a chair and settles in for a long chat.

First she explains that the outhouse is in the far corner of the courtyard, and I immediately imagine a late night encounter with the immense mastiff. As if reading my mind she adds that she will tie the dog. She says that Tseel is a relatively new town, founded probably in 1917 or thereabouts as a hiding place from bandits and renegades whom Xinjiang Province in China who were at the time terrorized southern Gov-Altai Aimag. The town is a pleasant place, she says, cool in summer, unlike the Gobi Desert to the south, and surrounded by good grass for livestock. The only drawback is the lack of pure, sweet water, although residents by now have accustomed themselves to the slightest brackish water in the wells. 

Then the lights go out. It’s eight o’clock, when the electricity for the town is turned off. Electricity the entire night is a luxury in which the citizens of Tseel do not indulge. Candles are produced and we are soon huddled around a candle-light dinner of hot tea, bread we had bought in Bayan Tolgoi, sausage, thick white slabs of pork fat, and cheese. Upon arriving at the hotel our hostess had said no meals were available, but after a scornful glance at our meager repast she retired to her house and fifteen minutes later returned with three heaping plates of tsuivan (fried mutton and homemade noodles). I offered to pay her for the tsuivan, but she just shrugged this off. After the big meal I retired to my bed and slept the sleep of the just. 

Breakfast is the same as dinner the night, minus the tsuivan from our hostess, except there’s no bread. I had carelessly failed to seal the bread bag properly and during the night mice had devoured it all. Our host offered up some  boortsog (fried bread) made just that morning and still warm. Before leaving we gifted her our last twenty liters of delicious sweet water from the artisanal well in Bayan Tooroi. Again Chültem said not to worry; there’s water on the way back to Altai.

Monday, March 8, 2021

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 | Khovd Aimag | Dambijantsan | Shashin Badrakh

When Dambijantsan returned to Mongolia in late 1911 he was still the Khoër Temeed Badarchin, the “Wandering Monk with Two Camels”, and he still had only one disciple, Jigme, who he beat unmercifully for the slightest hint of disobedience or misconduct. Eight months or so later he had been awarded high-ranking titles by the Bogd Gegeen and put in command of his own small army. By the end of the summer of 1912 he was arguably the most powerful man in the former Khovd Frontier Region. It was an astonishing change of fortune. It soon became apparent that Dambijantsan had even bigger ambitions.

After the fall of Khovd, Magsarjav and Dambinsüren left the Khovd region and led troops into Inner Mongolia in an attempt to “capture cities in the old Mongol territory north of the Great Wall and to unite all Mongolia,” in the words of the Diluv Khutagt. The Jalkhanz Khutagt, the Bogd Khan’s appointee as the overall leader of the Khovd show, soon retired to his home monastery. That left Navaan, the newly appointed Said of Khovd City, and Dambijantsan, Warden of the Western Marches (Baruun Hyazgaarin Olon Monggolin Aimguudig Ilben Tohinuulah Said), in charge of the western frontier region. Most of the 5000 troops assembled for the siege of Khovd either left with Magsarjav and Dambinsüren or returned to their families and herds. That left Dambijantsan with a force of about 300 men.

Although Khovd had fallen to the Mongols Chinese authorities in Xinjiang still harbored ambitions of reasserting control over the Khovd region. In late 1912 word reached Khovd that a Chinese relief column was on the march towards Khovd. Dambijantsan and a detachment of troops left Khovd and confronted the Chinese column at a placed called Tsagaan Tünkh near the Xinjiang border. “When Ja Lama got there with his troops the Chinese retired without much of a fight,” according to the the Diluv Khutagt, who added, however, that ”it was made out that by this he had won great glory. . .” A small detachment of soldiers was left at Tsagaan Tünkh to guard the border, but according to one account Dambijantsan and the rest of his troop retired to a fortified camp on the north side of Ulaan Davaa, one of the main passes through the Altai Mountains. The current road from Khovd to southern Khovd Aimag crosses 9715-foot Ulaan Davaa and it is tempting to think that Dambijantsan’s camped was at Bayanzurkh, a small settlement 6.5 mile to the north of Ulaan Davaa now known for its extensive complex of monolithic deer stones.) The Diluv Khutagt, however, maintains that after the battle at Tsagaan Tünkh Dambijantsan and most of his men went into winter camp at Dund Tsenkher Gol, his headquarters before the siege of Khovd.

Ovoo at 9715-foot Ulaan Davaa, one of the main passes through the Mongol-Altai Mountains (click on photos for enlargements)
By late spring or early summer Dambijantsan and his men were at their camp on Dund Tsenkher Gol, fifty-five miles southeast of Khovd, either having the spent the winter there or just arriving back. Our sources do not indicate why he did not return in Khovd, the city he had just been instrumental in seizing. We may surmise, however, that he did not want to share power with Navaan, the newly appointed Said of Khovd City. At Dund Tsenkher Gol he was the undisputed ruler of his own encampment and could exercise without hindrance his power as the Warden of the Western Marches, the top military commander in the western frontier region.

Dambijantsan’s camp at Dund Tsenkher Gol. When his men were not otherwise occupied, Dambijantsan, a stickler for neatness, had them gather up loose rocks and put them in piles. The piles can still be seen there today. 

Not only was he famous for his exploits against the Chinese at Khovd and Tsagaan Tünkh, he was now the Dogshin Noyon Khutagt Nomin Khan, the Terrible Prince Khutagt, Lord of Scriptures, the first incarnation of what some believed would be a long line of incarnations."Thus the hitherto solitary Badarchin lama Dambiijantsan became a great Hutagt of the lamaist faith,” wrote Burdukov who apparently visited him at Dund Tsenkher Gol. Soon tribute and gifts from all over western Mongolia were pouring into Dambijantsan’s coffers, including ceremonial trumpets and other religious paraphernalia made from pure silver. "All of this [the ceremonial items] was made clumsily and crudely and lacked artistic merit, the only value residing in the amount of silver used,” noted Burdukov. He estimated that the total amount of pure silver used exceeded sixteen kilograms (over thirty-five pounds), however, which made Dambijantsan a very rich man by the standards of the day, so rich in fact that he was even able to loan money to Burdukov.

In keeping with his new role as Noyon Khutagt Dambijantsan also held religious ceremonies at Dund Tsenkher Gol, the chief of which was the Tsam Dance. Originating in Tibet in the thirteen century, the Tsam Dance was first performed in Mongolia at Erdene Zuu Monastery in the late eighteenth century and soon became one of the most popular religious ceremonies in Mongolia, often attended by thousands of people. The ritual began with an early morning invocation of the diety Yamataka, after which a series of performers wearing paper papiermaché masks representing various Buddhist deities did elaborate dances while brandishing swords and other paraphernalia. At the end dough figures known as baling were burned to exorcize any evil demons which may be present. Presided over by the Gachin Lama, a famous Tibetan monk who was visiting Dambijantsan’s camp, the Tsam dance attracted all the local nobility and  devotees from all over western Mongolia. Many no doubt gave offerings and gifts to Dambijantsan himself, adding to his already burgeoning coffers.

While at Dund Tsenkher Gol Dambijantsan also engaged in hunting, one of his favorite pastimes. Burdukov:

One time he organized a hunt . . . in which he had several hundred people took part. For two or three days they hunted, combing a wide area and stirring up game. The people were afraid that hunters inexperienced in these old-style battue hunts would shoot each other, but the hunt was a great success.
Dambijantsan’s shooting proclivities were not limited to wild game. According to an informant one of his devotees presented him with a gun as a gift. Wishing to test the gun Dambijantsan took a shot at a man riding a camel along the top of a nearby ridge. The man tumbled from his saddle. “Ah, now that's a good gun,” said Dambijantsan. Money, silver, guns, and other valuables were just the beginning of the gifts his devotees offered Dambijantsan. According to Maisky, “. . . his admirers among the Kobdo princes presented him with about 1,000 yurts [families] and a fairly large piece of land along the Kobdo River, 80 versts from the city of Kobdo. Ja-Lama thus became a land-owning ecclesiastical prince.” Here on the Khovd River, at a place known as Shashin Badrakh, Dambijantsan hoped to establish his own city.

Shashin Badrakh is located in the valley of the Khovd River sixty miles north of Khovd City and 100 miles southeast of Ulaangom, the capital of current-day Uvs Aimag. As the Diluv Khutagt mentioned, the area was known as Shashin Badrakh (Flourishing of the Faith) even before Dambijantsan set eyes on it. Positioned as it was between Khovd City and Ulaangom, it was considered a strategic location for controlling all of western Mongolia. The valley bottom of Khovd River is relatively wide and well-watered, making it ideal for settlement.

Khovd River at Shashin Badrakh
It was also considered an auspicious area, blessed by the spirits of the Mongol-Altai Mountains. Shashin Badrakh was commemorated by the huge Monjigiin Ovoo complex located on a bluff above the river. Unlike most ovoos, which are simply heaps of rocks piled up at random by devotees, the Monjigiin ovoos were constructed. No one knows how old this ovoo complex is, but according to Professor Baasankhüü it pre-dates the arrival of Dambijantsan. The main ovoo of the complex is surrounded by thirteen smaller ovoos which represent the thirteen main peaks of the Mongol-Altai Mountains. Unlike many cultures the people of the Khovd region venerate the number thirteen and consider it propitious. Thus the presence of thirteen ovoos at Shashin Badrakh made the site all that more auspicious.
Monjigiin Ovoo
Dominating the skyline to the southwest is glacier-capped 13,757-foot Tsambagarav Uul, one of the thirteen main peaks of the Mongol Altai Mountains. Tsambagarav is the fourth highest peak in the Mongol-Altai, after Khüiten Peak (14,350 ft), Mönkh Khairkhan Uul (13,793 ft), and Sutai Uul (13,850 ft), all in Khovd Aimag. Tsambagarav is considered a sacred mountain in part because of its connection with Galdan Bolshigt, the Oirat hero who as we have seen had fought to free Mongolia from the Qing Dynasty. After Galdan committed suicide on April, 4, 1697 rather than submit to the Qing his body was cremated, at least according to the official story. The Qing then made Galdan’s relatives bring the ashes to Beijing where they were unceremoniously scattered on a military parade ground.
Tsambagarav from Shashin Badrakh

This version of events, although recorded in various histories, is not widely believed in Khovd Aimag. Some believe his body was buried under an ovoo in what is now northern Khovd Aimag. Indeed, a photo of this ovoo, labeled as Galdan’s burial place, can now be seen in the Khovd Aimag Museum in Khovd City. 
Photo in Khovd Museum showing the burial place of Galdan Bolshigt
There is yet another legend about Galdan’s final resting place that persists up to the present day. This legend maintains that he was buried at a place called Kharz Tuvshin on the side of Tsambagarav Uul. Even this legend has two variants. One says that Galdan left explicit instructions that he should be buried here. The other says that his followers brought his body to the side of this sacred mountain of their own volition. In any case, the spirit of Galdan was believed to dwell on Tsambagarav, awaiting the day to return in bodily form and restore the former glory of the Zungarian Khanate. Dambijantsan may well have been aware of this legend; in any case he soon let it be known that he was emulating Galdan Bolshigt, who had attempted to create an independent Oirat state.
Tsambagarav Uul from the town of Erdenebüren, twenty miles south of Shashin Badrakh
Ovoo dedicated to Galdan Boshigt in the town of Erdenebüren
Statue of Galdan Bolshigt in Khovd City

Inscription on Galdan Bolshigt’s statue: “Even if the Buddha Himself asks for our Land, do not give it to Him.”

Monday, March 1, 2021

Mongolia | Gov-Altai Aimag

(Click on photos for enlargements)