Thursday, June 8, 2023

Mongolia | Roerich Expedition

In 1998 I did a 100-mile horse trip from the upper Kherlen River valley to Yestiin Hot Springs in the Khentii Mountains, one of several hot springs complexes frequented by Zanabazar (1635–1723), the First Bogd Gegeen of Mongolia. I had rented horses from a sixty-year old man named Zevgee, who had been to Yestiin Hot Springs before and who also acted as my guide on this trip. I had met Zevgee the year before when he had served as horseman and guide on a Horse Trip To The Headwaters of the Onon River and to Burkhan Khaldun, the mountain which according to tradition had been worshipped by Chingis Khan.

Yestiin Hot Springs (click on photos for enlargements)

On the final day of the horse trip to Yestiin Hot Springs we were slowly riding down the valley of a tributary of Kherlen River. We were in no hurry and expected to reach Zevgee’s ger well before suppertime. Where else would I like to visit in Mongolia? Zevgee wondered as we rode along side by side. Well, I said, I would really like to do a camel trip into the Gobi Desert, but I do not know how to arrange it. “No problem,” said Zevgee, “I was born in Bayankhongor Aimag and three of my brothers and my sister still live there. Two of my brothers and my sister’s husband have herds of camels and are very experienced camel men. We can do a camel trip with them.” This was news to me. I had always had the impression Zevgee was from Töv Aimag, where he now lived. It turned out his wife was from Töv. He had moved here only after he had gotten married. He added that since I had already visited the sacred mountain of Burkhan Khaldun I should also visit Segs Tsagaan Bogd Uul, which he claimed was the most sacred mountain in Bayankhongor Aimag. By the time we reached Zevgee’s ger we made plans for a camel trip to the mountain.

We did do the camel trip that autumn, traveling by jeep to the village of Shinejinst in Bayankhongor Aimag 420 southwest of Ulaanbaatar as the crows flies. From here we traveled by jeep south another twenty-six miles ATCF to the ger of Zevgee’s brother younger brother Davaakhüü. From there we rode camels fifty-five miles south ATCF to Ekhiin Gol, an oasis deep in the Gobi Desert. Ekhiin Gol is linked to Shinejinst by a tenuous dirt road through the desert, but we had swerved far to the east across trackless desert, in part so we could visit the Zevgee’s sister and her husband, who were living with their goat and camel herds about thirty miles from any other people. From Ekhiin Gol we continued on by camel south thirty miles ATCF to 7787-foot Segs Tsagaan Bogd Uul, located just sixteen miles north of the Chinese border. This trip whet my appetite for travel in the Gobi Desert and upon parting with the local camels guys I asked them if they would be willing go do more camels trips. They said they were. 

Gobi Desert north of Ekhiin Gol Oasis

Ekhiin Gol Oasis

Segs Tsagaan Bogd Uul from near Ekhiin Gol

7787-foot summit of Segs Tsagaan Bogd Uul

That winter I traveled to Nepal with the intention of trekking to Gorak Shep, the last village before the Everest Base Camp used by climbers. While preparing for the trek in Thamel, Katmandu’s tourist district, I happened to wander into the famous Pilgrims Book Store, which contains a treasure trove of books about the Himalayas, Asia in general, Buddhism, and much else. Perusing the stacks I saw a copy of a book called Trails to Inmost Asia by George Roerich. I remembered reading this book, along with half a dozen other books by his more famous father, the artist Nicholas Roerich, when I was in college back in the early 1970s, although I could not now remember the details.
The book described a three-year-long expedition the Roerichs had made through Inner Asia in the 1920s. Beginning in Srinagar, India, in 1925, they made a vast clockwise circuit through East Turkestan, Russia, Mongolia (passing through Ulaanbaatar), China, and Tibet, and finally ended up in Darjeeling, India. Having just come from Ulaanbaatar, I was particularly interested in what Roerich had to say about the city. Of even more interest was a foldout map appended to the back of the book. From Ulaanbaatar the expedition had traveled southwest towards the China border.

Roerich Expedition Map with modifications

Detail of Roerich Expedition Map

The map was not terribly detailed, but it did have the Roerichs passing by Orog Lake, just north of the huge massif of 12,982-foot Ikh Bogd Uul. They then veered south towards the Chinese border. Orog Lake, Ikh Bogd Uul, and all the territory to the south are in what is now Bayankhongor Aimag. A closer perusal of the map showed that their route passed by “Yum Beise Khura”, a monastery, and continued on to a place called Shara Khulusun. Going back to the text I discovered that George Roerich gave a lengthy description of Yum Beise Monastery and even included a photograph of one of its temples. Shara Khulusun, it turned out, was an oasis six camel stages south of Yum Beise, Roerich also left a detailed account of this place. In addition he mentioned a place he called Dzogo-usu where the expedition camped for one night while on the way to Shara Khulusun:
The place of the camp bore the significant name of Dzogo-usu, which means “the tasted water.” Dzogo is a polite Mongol expression meaning to “partake.” The formal term is used because the Dalai Lama had camped here during his memorable flight from Lhasa in 1904. His Holiness followed the same route but in the opposite direction. The local Mongols remember this important event and have given the former camps of the Dalai Lama fanciful names to distinguish them.
I was aware that the Thirteen Dalai Lama had fled from Lhasa to Mongolia after the British invasion of Tibet by the so-called Younghusband Expedition in 1904 but I did not know the details of his sojourn in Mongolia. Now it appeared that the Thirteenth Dalai Lama and the Roerich Expedition had used the same caravan track through Bayankhongor Aimag. I immediately decided that I would try to retrace their route. The exigencies of life, intervened, however, and I was not able to put my plan in motion for several years.
In the summer of 2003 I made a jeep trip to Bayankhongor Aimag. I had several goals in mind. I had heard it was possible to ride horses to near the summit of 12,982-foot Ikh Bogd Uul and climb the rest of the way on foot. I was able to hire horses and ascend the mountain. When we reached what I was told was the summit, however, I was a bit disconcerted to look across an immense chasm and see what appeared to be an even higher summit. According to my GPS the summit we were on was at least five hundred feet lower than the summit shown on typographical maps. Why had we come to this summit? I asked my horsemen. The summit we were on was the one people came to when they wanted to pay their respects to the mountain, they explained. No one ever goes to the higher summit, but they could not say why.
Ascending Ikh Bogd Uul

My main goal, however, was to track down the location the Yum Beise Monastery mentioned by George Roerich. We stopped in several tiny villages and also at numerous gers of herdsmen and asked if they knew about Yum Beise. No one had ever heard of it. I first assumed that it had been totally destroyed by the communists in the late 1930s. But it still seemed odd that no one recognized the name. In my experience local people were usually very much aware of monasteries that had been destroyed in the 1930s even when very little if any physical trace of them remained. Then in the town of Bayangov, sixty miles northeast of Shinejinst, I happened to bump into a very knowledgeable man who traveled all over Bayankhongor as a cashmere buyer—he claimed to have met every herder in the entire aimag—and he explained that Yum was the name of a man and beise was a title—“Prince of the Fourth Rank”—given by the Qing Dynasty of China to Mongolian noblemen. Yum Beise was a local nobleman and the monastery was located on his territory, known as Yum Beise sum; thus non-Mongolians, perhaps due to faulty translations, began incorrectly calling it Yum Beise Monastery. He claimed that this name was seldom if ever used by Mongolians. Its correct name was Amarbuyant Monastery. 

I soon discovered that everyone in Bayankhongor Aimag and, as I later learned, many people in Ulaanbaatar knew about Amarbuyant, which was once again an active monastery after being shut down in the late 1930s. I then asked him if he knew about Shara Khulusun. At first he did not seem to recognize the name. I explained that it was an oasis about six days by camel south of Amarbuyant. “You mean Shar Khuls!” he said. Shara Khulusun was apparently Roerich’s garbled version of the name. He added that everyone in Bayankhongor Aimag knew about Shar Khuls (Yellow Reeds), although few had actually been there. It is extremely remote and difficult to access. The nearest village was Ekhiin Gol Oasis sixty-miles to the east, and the entire area south of Amarbuyant was too dry to support goats or sheep and thus there were no herders in the area. Shar Khuls had recently become better known, at least in scientific circles, as the one of the habitats of the extremely rare Gobi Bear ((Ursus arctos gobiensis; Mongolian = mazaalai). At the time it was said there was only thirty of these bears in existence, and some of them were found at Shar Khuls. Would it be possible to ride camels from Amarbuyant to Shar Khuls, a distance of about one hundred miles, I wondered? It should be possible he said, but it would be difficult because there was little if any water the way. Make sure you hire reliable camel men, he added, the Gobi Desert south of Amarbuyant is no place for inexperienced people. It just so happens I know some reliable camel men, I told him. 
As soon as I got back to Ulaanbaatar I hired a jeep to take me to Zevgee’s ger on the upper Kherlen River. It was a four hour trip one way but back in those days there was no other way to get in touch with him. He knew about Amarbuyant Monastery. In fact, he said, he had been born not far away. He had never been to Shar Khuls, but he knew where it was and he was pretty sure his two brothers had been there. He suggested we ride to Shar Khuls and then instead of retracing our route back to Amarbuyant we ride east to Ekhiin Gol, the oasis we had visited on our first camel trip. We could arrange to have a jeep met us there for the ride back to Ulaanbaatar. Zevgee figured six days from Amarbuyant to Shar Khuls—the same time it had taken the Roerichs—three days’ rest at Shar Khuls, and then a four day camel ride to Estiin Gol—thirteen days total by camel. I could tell Zevgee was already getting excited about the trip. 

Then his wife Tümen Ölzii piped up and said she wanted to come along. She would do the cooking. This sounded like a great idea to me. I had intended to hire a female cook anyhow, as I did not trust the cooking of men, at least not camel herders. Now not only would we be guaranteed good vittles on the trip, but Tümen Ölzii could also if necessary rein in Zevgee, who could get obstreperous, especially when he had been drinking. In a week or two Zevgee would go the town of Baganuur, thirty-eight miles to the south, which back then had the phones nearest to his ger. He would call his brother in Shinejinst—actually he was the mayor of Shinejinst—and this brother would contact the two brothers with the camels. The final plan was for all of us, camels included, to rendezvous at Amarbuyant Monastery on October 1.