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 seat on one of the beds 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.