Showing posts with label Mongolia. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Mongolia. Show all posts

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

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Mongolia | Aral Sea | Turkey | Istanbul

Threw my Airbook, Kindle, and a camera into a bag and wandered off to Istanbul. I figured I could buy toiletries and whatever extra clothes I needed when I arrived in the city. The Turkish Airlines Boeing 737-900 ER lifted off from Chingis Khan Airport in Ulaanbaatar at exactly 12:49 p.m. The flight was completely sold out. I always enjoy the flight from Ulaanbaatar to Istanbul via Bishkek. The flight path follows much the same route as the old Silk Road and passes over numerous Silk Road cities that I have had the privilege of visiting. On clear days the flier is presented with a fascinating  panorama of the deserts and mountains of Inner Asia. 

Unfortunately I would not be seeing much today. We encountered cloud cover just outside of Ulaanbaatar that stayed with us until the approaches to Bishkek.  I was disappointed that I could not see the Tian Shan, to my mind the most noble of all the world’s mountain ranges. Oh, I know that some people rave on about the Himalayas, the Karakorams, and the Pamirs, and even the Alps in Europe, the Andes in South America, and the lowly Rockies in North America have their partisans, but for me the Tian Shan represent the ideal of mountains. They are the mountains of my dreams. I mean this quite literally. I first time I ever saw them looming about the deserts of the Zungarian Basin I realized that I had in fact seen them many times before in my dreams dating back to when I was a small boy .

We touched down in Bishkek, capital of Kyrgyzstan, at 4:49 p.m. UB time, exactly four hours after leaving Ulaanbaatar. Passengers are required to get off the plane and take all their carry-on luggage with them while the plane is refueled. The transit lounge is a long hallway lined with duty free shops, with heavy emphasis on hooch and perfume. Perhaps of most interesting thing for sale is what purports to be Kyrgyzstan honey. Now we are the only flight in transit. On the return leg of the Istanbul–Ulaanbaatar flight, when the plane stops at Bishkek at around three in the morning, the transit lounge is a beehive of activity with passengers from all over Inner Asia waiting for their forward flights. 

The plane lifts off from Bishkek at 6:03 p.m UB time, for a layover of one hour and fourteen minutes.  It’s another 2337 miles to Istanbul, with an estimated flight time five hours and fifteen minutes. Although there had been clear skies on the approaches to Bishkek we soon encountered cloud cover again. After two hours or so the clouds suddenly disappeared, and down below, just off to the south could be seen the remnants of the Aral Sea. 
 Our flight path over the Aral Sea shown in red. The southern shore what is now the Northern Aral Sea could be seen directly below as we flew over. When this photo was taken when the eastern lobe of the Southern Aral Sea (in light green-blue) still appears to have some water in it.

Fed by the Syr Darya and Amu Darya, two the greatest rivers of Inner Asia, the Aral Sea was once the fourth largest inland sea, or lake, in the world ((26,300 square miles), after the Caspian Sea (saline), Lake Superior (fresh water), and Lake Victoria (fresh water).  Starting in the 1950s huge amount of water from the Amu Darya and Syr Darya were siphoned off for irrigation projects in what was then the Soviet Union. The lake began shrinking and by the first decade of the twentieth century it had been reduced to about one-tenth of its original size. Some have termed this the biggest ecological disaster in recorded history, although because it occurred in a part of the world that relatively few people knew or cared about it has not received a lot of publicity. 
Map of the Aral Sea dating to 1853
After water levels dropped the Aral Sea split into four separate lakes: the north Aral Sea; two separate basins of what was once the southern part of the Aral Sea, and a small lake between the north and south portions.  In August 2014 it was recorded that for the first time in modern history the eastern basin of the southern part of the sea had completely dried up, leaving only three lakes. This now dry eastern basin is now called the Aralkum Desert. See Aral Sea's Eastern Basin Is Dry for First Time in 600 Years.
Before and after satellite photos of the Aral Sea. The photo on the right, taken recently, appears to show the eastern lobe of the Southern Aral Sea completely dried up. 
 We fly right over the southern shore of the northern lake. Off to the south can clearly be seen the elongated western lobe and the now dry eastern lobe of what was once was once the Southern Aral Sea. Several Mongolians pulled out smart phones and iPads and began taking pictures of what remains of this once great sea. It is indeed a sobering sight. The drainage system of the Aral Sea—the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya—ranks with the valley of the Nile and Mesopotamia as the birthplaces of civilization. Egypt and Iraq remain in the headlines, but the drainage of the Aral Sea, the core of Inner Asia, has in large part been forgotten. It remains the linchpin between China and Europe, however, and could play an ever-increasing role in world affairs as the twenty-first century progresses. The Wild Card is Global Warming, and what effect it might have on the already fragile water resources of the region. See Central Asia Must Unite to Revive the Aral Sea.

Usually this flight goes right over the middle of the Caspian Sea, the largest land-locked sea or lake in the world, but for some reason we now fly directly over its northern shore. I try in vain to spot Astrakhan, certainly one of the most charming cities in Russia, located on the Volga River near where it flows into the Caspian Sea. 

Soon we encountered cloud cover again and it did not clear until we were over the Black Sea about an hour out of Istanbul. The plane soon veered south over the eastern end of Anatolia and out over the Sea of Marmara, where the Prince Islands could be seen directly below. We touched down in Istanbul at 11:20 p.m. UB time (5:20 p.m. Istanbul time), for a total flight time of ten hours and thirty-one minutes. The distance was 5728 miles. There was no one in line at the Express Immigration Lane (I was flying Business, which allowed me to use the Express Lane), and I had to wait only thirty seconds for the train to the Zeytinburnu metro station where I caught the M1 Metro to the downtown area.  Soon the Theodosian Walls loomed up on ahead. As the incomparable John Julius Norwich points out in Volume 1 of his magisterial three-volume history of the Byzantine Empire, Byzantium: The Early Centuries:
It is one of the clichés of Constantinople [Istanbul] that it should, ideally, be approached by the sea. Only then, we are told, can the uniqueness of its geographical position be properly appreciated, to say nothing of that famous skyline of dome and minaret which has symbolized, for as long as any of us can remember, the Mysterious East. With this opinion we cannot easily disagree; but, for those of us on whom Byzantium will always cast a more powerful spell than Islam, there is another approach every bit as satisfying and very nearly as spectacular. No one, surely, whose first arrival has been by road from Edirne, can ever forget that first astonishing sight of the Land Walls, looming up from the surrounding plain . . . 
Theodosian Land Walls near Topkapi Gate
Being a land man myself I tend to agree with Viscount Norwich. The three mile-long Theodosian Land Walls, built in the fifth century, are one of the world’s great historical monuments, and I always experience a certain frisson of excitement when seeing them again after an absence of several months. Anyhow, my hotel is just inside the land walls. I got ready to get off at the Pazartekke metro stop, the closest to my hotel, but inexplicably the train just went by the stop without stopping. What fresh hell was this? I wondered. Surely the train driver could not have just forgotten to stop. I got off at the next stop and took the metro back the same way. Again we whizzed by the Pazartekke stop, but this time I noticed yellow tape blocking the entrances. Apparently it was closed for some reason. So I get off at the first metro station outside the walls and start hoofing it back. A four-lane freeway runs parallel to the land walls, but fortunately there is a pedestrian overpass leading directly to the Topkapi Gate. So I am able to enter Istanbul on foot via the historic Topkapi Gate instead of via the more mundane metro line. Attila the Hun (r. 434–453) once tried to enter Constantinople (Istanbul) via this gate, but was repulsed and finally had to give up altogether his investment of the city.
The historic Topkapi Gate
I receive a friendlier welcome. Just inside the gate the proprietor of a tea shop waves at me. I often have tea here in the morning when I stay in this neighborhood. Further down the street two shopkeepers greet me. A man on the street stops and stays in English, “Welcome back!” The waiter at the corner restaurant, where I often eat, is outside having a smoke and he gives me a polite nod. I feel like Jason returning from the Wars. 

The receptionist at my hotel doesn’t speak English (it’s one reason I stay at this place); he just smiles and hands me the key to my room, which is the same room I have had the last ten or more times I stayed here. I pay in cash and he doesn’t bother asking for ID. So I am back in Istanbul.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Mongolia | Ulaanbaatar | Camel Statues

The other day my pal Saka and I went shopping. As we were sitting in a line of traffic backed behind the traffic light at the intersection of Chingis Khan Avenue and the Zaisan Tolgoi road I noticed looming above the tops of cars in front of us a statue of a camel that had recently been installed in a traffic island in middle of the avenue. From our angle only the head of what I thought was one of two camels was visible.

“Did you see the statues of the two camels?” I asked Saka. “That’s a great idea. I wonder who is responsible for them?” 
“There is only one camel, replied Saka.
“No,” I replied, “there are two camels. You just can’t see the other one from here. I hope they install a whole string of them.” 
“I just drove by there on my way to your apartment, and there is only one camel there,” she insisted.
“There are two,” said I, “do you want to bet on it? 
“I don’t bet, but you are wrong; there is only one.” 
“No sorry, you are wrong.”

The light changed and we drove by the traffic island. There was only one camel. Saka almost peed her pants laughing (she’s easily amused). “And you wanted to bet! Hahahaha (or khikhikhikhi, as Mongolians write it). I should have bet you a hundred dollars! I could buy a new handbag!”

I was completely flummoxed. The bus I take to town goes right by this traffic island and I had noticed when they had installed the first camel. I said to myself, “wouldn’t it be a great idea to install a whole string of camels.” Then about a week ago I took a bus to town and we got struck in line of cars right in front of the traffic island. I could not help but notice that another statue had been installed. Now there were two of them. We sat there for at least five minutes in the traffic jam and I stared at the two camels the whole time. The image of two camels was indelibly imprinted in my mind.  I also thought, “Since there are now two camels maybe they are going to install a whole string of them. I certainly hope so.” Now, inexplicably, there was only one camel. Had I hallucinated the second camel? It seemed unlikely.

Five days later I took the bus to town again. Now there was indeed a string of camel statues on the traffic island; in fact, five of them. Instead of going straight into town I got out at the nearest bus stop and took photos of all five camel statues before any of them could disappear.
Three of the string of five camel statues (click on photos for enlargements)
One of the camel statues
I don’t know who is responsible for the camel statues, but they should be heaped knee deep in laurels to this wonderful tribute to the Most Noble Of All Four-Legged Animals. The statues serve to remind not only residents of the city but visitors who will drive right by them when arriving from the airport that Ulaanbaatar was once the nexus of numerous caravan routes running south to Beijing and Lhasa and other cities in China; west to Urumqi in Xinjiang Province, China; from hence to Samarkand, Bukhara, Tabriz, and other great cites of the Silk Road; and north to Irkutsk in Siberia, which was once the northern terminus of the Tea Road between China and Russia. Camels were the main mode of transportation on all of these routes.
As I stood by the camel statues I could not help but think of the great Buryat lama Agvan Dorzhiev, who made the fastest recorded trip from Ulaanbaatar (then called Ikh Khüree [Их Хүрээ] = “Great Settlement”, or Örgöö [Өргөө] = “Palace”) to Lhasa by camel. Leaving the city on December 5, 1900 on an urgent diplomatic mission to the 13th Dalai Lama, Dorzhiev and his party had traveled day and night and arrived in Lhasa seventy-two days later. Normal caravans took four or five months. What I wouldn’t give to have been on that trip!
Agvan Dorzhiev (1854–1938)
I was also reminded of a ensemble of camel statues I had seen on Lyab-i-Haus square in Bukhara, Uzbekistan. The Bukhara Ensemble also honors the caravan men who accompanied the camels. Shouldn’t the caravan men be likewise honored in Ulaanbaatar?
Camel Ensemble in Bukhara
 Camel in Bukhara
Camel Man in Bukhara
Anyhow, I stick by my claim that there were at one time two camels standing alone on the traffic island in Ulaanbaatar. I think one was installed, then the second one, but for some reason this second one was temporarily removed—maybe it had been damaged. Then it and three more statues were installed for a total of five. Either that, or while I was sitting in the bus that day in a traffic jam in front of the statues I entered a time warp into a future where there were two camels, but then returned to the mundane time-space continuum where my friend Saka and I later saw only camel. Those are the only two possible explanations.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Mongolia | Mongol Empire Era Carpet

Christies, the big international art auction house, is selling what is “thought to be the sole surviving example of a Mongol Empire carpet.” See ‘An Extraordinary Survivor’: A Rare Carpet From The Mongol Empire. I would love to have this grace the floor of my hovel in Zaisan Tolgoi, but it is slightly out of my price range (($747,000–$1,045,800 estimate). It may well be within the range of a certain well-heeled carpet collector in Richmond, Virginia, however. She might want to snap it up while it is still available. 
Mongol era carpet; perhaps more properly called a kilim, since it is flat-woven (click on photos for enlargements)
Detail of Mongol era carpet

Friday, August 7, 2015

Mongolia | Khövsgöl Aimag | Darkhad Depression #5

We head down the left bank of the Buural Gol through thick taiga to its confluence with the Ulaan Ongo Gol. The source of the Ulaan Ongo, seven or eight miles upstream from here, is only about a mile and a half from the source of the Khoogiin Gol, where we are headed, but Batmönkh says the head of the Ulaan Ongo Gol dead ends in impassable cliffs, making it impossible to reach the Khoogiin Gol from there. Instead we will head farther down the Buural and follow a small tributary of the Buural to a pass leading to the Khoogiin. The trail meanders through thick stands of willows and larch. At places the Buural Gol flows under ten-foot thick-football field-sized slabs of ice which Batmönkh says never melt during the summer.

Soon we come to the small unnamed tributary tumbling down a deep ravine to the left. We turn off and follow a vague trail up the right side of the ravine up through a thick larch forest. The misting rain slowly builds into a steady shower. Up ahead, through the mists and clouds, we can make out the snow already falling on the pass.

The trail gets steeper and steeper and we have to make many detours around fallen timber. On one particularly steep section Batmönkh, who is riding right behind me, shouts, “your girth strap has come loose.” He no sooner says this than my horse lunges upward over the steep trail. I feel the saddle sliding beneath me and I topple off the right side of the horse. The horse, with the saddle dangling underneath its belly by the front strap, goes berserk, bucking like a rodeo bronco. Hanging onto the lead rope I am dragging a couple of yards before the horse makes a final lunge and jerks the rope out of my hand. The horse promptly starts trotting back down the trail the way we come. Bayarkhüü rides off in hot pursuit. This is not good. After running off like this horses are notoriously hard to catch again, and especially by one person, like Bayarkhüü, on the thickly-forested side of a ravine. Batmönkh finds the saddle and inspecting it discovers that the girth strap had broken off where it attaches to the saddle. It is not clear, however, if this happened before or after the saddle came off.

After a half an hour Bayarkhüü appears with my horse in tow. My opinion of his horse-handling skills, already high, soars. Batmönkh jerry-rigs the strap back onto the saddle with a scrap of rope—some essential part, I can’t make out what, is missing—and soon we are back on the trail. Another half hour later we emerge from the taiga onto the tundra leading to the pass.
On the tundra below the pass (click on photos for enlargements)
Looking back the way we came
As we approach 8356-foot Khushit Khem Pass it starts snowing in earnest, big wet flakes which quickly soak through the deels of the horsemen, who have no rain gear. They hurry on across the pass. I linger behind with Nergui, who has no raingear either, but seems oblivious to the snow.
Nergui at 8356-foot Khushit Khem Pass. This is in the middle of June.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Mongolia | Khövsgöl Aimag | Darkhad Depression #1

Aftesr visiting the Deer Stones we continued on to the Darkhad Depression. We stopped for lunch at a guanz (restaurant in a ger) where the road crosses the Beltes River. There were two other customers in the guanz, each nursing a bowl of milk tea: a woman in her fifties and a man perhaps in his mid-thirties. After some chit-chat the woman got up and left. Our driver whispered, “She is a very famous shaman from the Darkhad Depression. She now lives in Mörön.” I knew that the Darkhad Depression was famous for its shamans. On a previous trip the Darkhad Depression back on 1999 I had noticed that very few Darkhads, the ethic group that inhabits the Depression, had any kind of Buddhist regalia in their gers. Most still believe to one degree or another in traditional Inner Asian-Siberian shamanism. The woman soon reappeared in the guanz. I told her we were going to the Belchir Uul area on the western edge of the Darkhad Depression and asked if she had ever been there. “Many times,” she said. Is there much snow there at this time of the year? I asked. “It can snow there any time, but it should be no big problem this time of year. The problem now is flies.” She held up her thumb of her right hand and circled it with the thumb and forefinger of her left land just below the first joint. “Flies this big, she said, indicating her protruding thumb. “They have a big green head and they bite both people and horses. You swell up wherever they bite you. It is not really a good time to go to that area.”

Actually I had been concerned about flies and mosquitoes. I had once hiked in the Lake Baikal area in Siberia in late June when the flies and mosquitoes were simply hellish. The area where we were going was really the southern edge of the Siberian taiga, or forest, and I was afraid of encountering the same conditions. Professor Terbish, a biologist at Mongolia State University who had put me in contact with the local horsemen we were meeting, had opined however that it was a bit early for an insect infestation. We were more likely, he opined, to encounter snow. Personally I preferred snow, but I had brought along a head net for the insects just in case.

North of the Beltes River we entered higher country, finally climbing to 6,923-foot Eliin Davaa, the pass that marks the entrance to the Darkhad Depression. Here there are thirteen ovoos; one big ovoo and twelve smaller ovoos each representing one of the animals of the Mongolian calendar: mouse, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig. According to tradition, people entering the Darkhad Depression circumambulate the big ovoo and then pray to the ovoo representing the year they were born. Yooton was born in the Year of Dog, it turns out. I was born the Year of the Ox. Near the ovoos are several stone monuments, once dedicated to the shamans of the area.
Main ovoo at Eliin Davaa
Main ovoo and six of the twelve smaller ovoos
Monument to local shamans
We soon arrive in the tidy little village of Ulaan Uul. There had been some question about how we were going to meet our horsemen, as we had been told they had moved their ger several times already that spring and no one in Ulaanbaatar or our driver knew exactly where they were located at present. We had planned to ask local herdsmen in Ulaan Uul about their current location. Then a motorcycle pulled up alongside us. Behind the young driver was an older man who waved at us to stop. This turned out to Batmönkh, the man from who we were going to rent horses and who was going to act as our guide to Belchir Uul. Jumping into our van, he explained that the current site of his ger was hard to find and that he had come himself to Ulaan Uul to lead us there. Our horses were waiting for us at his ger, he assured us, and he and his son were ready for an eight-day horse trip into the mountains. The weather all spring had been very dry, but on June 2 some lamas from the monastery in Möron came and performed a rain making ceremony at the Noyon Ovoo in the Khogiin Gol Valley, where we would be going, and immediately afterwards there had been several rain and snow showers. It was still raining a bit every day. And the flies were out. "Flies as big as your thumb,” said Batmönkh, echoing the words of the shaman. “They love to bite foreigners,” he said, guffawing loudly. He seemed to be in the best of moods.

North of Ulaan Uul we cross the Bakhmakh River. This stream is formed by two smaller rivers, the Guna Gol, which starts just below Eliin Davaa and is now almost dry, and the Mungaragiin Gol, which begins at the base of Belchir Uul. The source of the Mungaragiin Gol is our eventual destination.
Bakhmakh River
We drive across flat steppe with a thick larch forest on our left until Batmönkh shouts "Turn left here!” We take a vague jeep trail several kilometers through the thick forest before emerging into a long meadow dotted with three small lakes. These are Urd (southern) Tarkhai Nuur, Dund (middle) Tarkhai Nuur, and Ar (behind) Tarkhai Nuur. The meadow itself is also known as Tarkhai. Batmönkh says “tarkhai” means the sole of a shoe, but he is unable to explain why the name is used here. Near the last lake is a single ger where Batmönkh and his family live.
Batmönkh’s ger
We pop into the ger and while we are refreshing ourselves with milk tea, fried bread and homemade unsalted cheese Batmönkh introduces us to his wife and family. He is sixty-five years old, he says, and his wife is fifty-nine. They have eleven children, six boys and five girls. Present are the youngest daughter, sixteen, a twenty-six year old unmarried daughter, and one of the older sons, Bayarkhüü. Bayarkhüü, we are informed, will be going with us on our horse trip. Also present is a twenty-seven year old woman named Nergui, who is a friend of the family. Batmönkh has recruited her to go along on the horse trip as a cook. I had planned to buy a sheep, but now Batmönkh informs us that he was just recently prepared some boortz, or dried meat, made from beef. Long thin strips of this boortz are hanging from the latticework of his ger. He now suggests that we take this boortz inside of killing a sheep. I agree. Then we ask if ask if Nergui can make us some bortsog, or fried bread, for the trip. She inspects the flour I had bought in Möron and for some reason finds it unsatisfactory. Instead she will use flour from one of several huge burlap bags of flour Batmönkh has in his ger.

We go out and set up our tents. Soon Bayarkhüu emerges from the ger with a rifle slung over his shoulder. The night before, he tells us, wolves had raided their horse herd and killed two young foals. Tonight he will stand watch over the herd. “I hope the wolves come back,” he says, patting his rifle. “I will be ready for them.”
Our horses

Friday, July 31, 2015

Mongolia | Khövsgöl Aimag | Deer Stones | Graves

Wandered out to Mörön, capital of Khövsgöl Aimag, 575 miles west of Ulaanbaatar ASCF. The plane was supposed to leave at 10:30 am, but due to some unexplained technical problems the flight did not get off until 6:30 pm. The original plan had been to arrive in Mörön at noon, stock up on groceries, and then head north by chartered Russian van into the Darkhat Depression, where we had a horse trip planned. With the late departure we did not arrive until 8:00 pm, after all the stores were closed and it was too late to head out for the day. With the election only two weeks away and all the politicians in town hotel rooms on Mörön were scarcer than in Bethlehem on the first Christmas Eve. The driver of our van allowed us to spend the night in a spare room in his house. The room had no furniture, but nice carpets, so we threw out out sleeping bags and settled in for the night.

The next morning we visited various markets and bought potatoes, carrots, cabbage, onions, rice, flour, salt, sugar, soy sauce, yeast, and for Yooton, who was along as guide and historical consultant, blueberry jam and two kilo of candies (she has a sweet tooth). I had brought tea along from Ulaanbaatar—five-year old Puerh for breakfast, Imperial Gold Needle Yunnan Black Tea for lunch, Taiwan Oolong for dinner, and Tie Kwan Yin (Iron Goddess of Mercy) Oolong for evenings around the campfire—and we intended to buy a sheep to complete our larder when we arrived in the Darkhat Depression. By 11:00 a.m. we were barreling north out of town.

Although we were a bit behind schedule to met our horsemen we made a short detour to visit the Erkhel Ulaan Tolgoi Deer Stone and Grave Complex, twenty-six miles ATCF north of Mörön. One of the more famous Deer Stone sites in Mongolia, it boasts of what is reported to be the tallest deer stone in Mongolia, if not the world. This and several of the other deer stones are quite well preserved, with the carving on them still very distinct. Our driver tells us that a team of American researchers from the Smithsonian Institute has visited this site several times and that they are expected to arrive again in three or four days. In fact, he himself is going to bring them here.

Deer Stones date from the Bronze Age, c. 2500-3000 years ago. They are so called because most of them have depictions of deer, often appearing to be flying through the air. There is much speculation but not much agreement on what the deer and other common motifs on the stones are supposed to mean. They may be what twentieth century magus G. I. Gurdjieff calls “legominisms,” i.e. means by which "ancient wisdom is transmitted beneath a form ostensibly intended for a quite different purpose.” According to Gurdieff the information contained in Legominisms could be interpreted only by initiates of certain ancient wisdom schools. “This information,” says Gurdjieff, “is necessary for subsequent generations to enable them to meet the difficulties that arise in the rise and fall of cultures, difficulties that people believe will never occur again because ‘the world is now different.’” Thus what may appear simply as primitive art to most observers may be encoded messages intended for initiates perhaps thousands of years after their creation.

Certainly down through the ages people have considered this site of some importance. Near the deer stones are several Türk grave mounds dating from probably the seventh century. The largest Türk grave mound is surrounded by a square made of small rocks and measuring about 100 feet on each side. At each corner is a small mound of rocks. The exact significance of these structures is also unknown. Near the Türk tomb are also several Chingis-era tombs dating to the thirteen century. Perhaps the Türks and Chingis-era Mongols understood the true significance of the deer stones and choose this site for the tombs. To my knowledge the code of the deer stones has not yet been cracked by modern observers.
The Deer Stone Complex
5 foot-4 inch Yooton with 12 foot-6 inch deer stone, said to be the tallest in Mongolia
Detail at top of tallest Deer Stones
Well preserved Deer Stone with the equally well preserved Yooton
Detail at the top of Deer Stone. Some commentators believe the circle represents the sun.
Detail at bottom of Deer Stone
Deer Stone with two flying deer at the bottom
Chingis-era grave mound surrounded by a circle of small rocks
Türk grave mound from the seventh or eighth century. This tomb appears to have been looted.
One of the smaller mounds at the four corner of the stone square around the Türk tomb

Monday, June 15, 2015

Buryatia | Mongolia | Agvan Dorzhiev

Look behind the curtains of late nineteenth-early twentieth century Russo-Tibeto-Mongolian affairs and you are more than likely to find there, directing the hesitant actors, prompting the tongue-tied, and ready to stride on stage himself whenever necessary, the enigmatic figure of the always-present but paradoxically ever-elusive Agvan Dorzhiev, or Ngawang Losang, as he was known in Tibetan. Dorzhiev was born in the valley of the Uda River, which flows into the Selenga River at the city of Ulaan Ude (in Dorzhiev’s time, Verkhneudinsk) in the current autonomous republic of Buryatia in the Wood Tiger Year of the 14th sixty-year cycle of the Kalachakra calendar (1854 according to the Gregorian calendar). A precocious student with obvious linguistic talents he soon excelled in Russian—his native language was Buryat—and, oddly enough for the time and place, French. He showed an early interest in Buddhism and quickly added Tibetan, the language of most religious texts, to his resumé. At the age of thirteen he received an Amitayus Long-Life Empowerment from a local lama, who also advised him to go to Tibet for further studies.
Agvan Dorzhiev
Tibet, however, was far off; and Dorzhiev’s means were limited. Örgöö [Ulaanbaatar], in Mongolia, was much closer, and it was there that Dorzhiev went a year later, in 1868. He took the precepts of an upsaka, or religious layman, restraining himself from killing, stealing, lying, irresponsible sexual activity, and the use of intoxicants. Apparently at this point he was not totally convinced of his religious vocation and not yet ready to become a fully ordained monk. Instead he soon married a woman named Kholintsog and may have fathered a child—coitus in the married state not being considered irresponsible sexual activity. He quickly discovered that “the household life, both in this and future births, is like sinking into a swamp of misery.” After consulting with his teacher, the revered Mongolian lama Penchen Chomphel, he decided to advance a further step on the path of his religious vocation by taking the vows of a celibate layman, or ubashi. At this point wife and purported child disappear from his curriculum vitae, never to be heard from again.

For the really serious student of Buddhism there was only one ultimate destination—Lhasa, the lodestar of Inner Asian Buddhists. Dorzhiev was nothing if not ambitious and he soon trained his sights on the Tibetan capital, where he hoped to eventually acquire the degree of geshé, the Buddhist equivalent of a doctorate. But here we get the first whiff of intrigue that was to hover like a miasma around Dorzhiev for the rest of his life. Historian of Russian and Tibetan relations Alexandre Andreyev has speculated that even at this early date Dorzhiev may have working for Russian intelligences services. Documents in the archives of the Imperial Russian Geographical Society propose “sending one or more Buryat Buddhists to Lhasa . . . with a Mongolian mission which was to bring back to Urga a new incarnation of the recently deceased Khutukhtu.” The Buryats were to concern themselves with “intelligence gathering.”

According to one source Dorzhiev and Penchen Chomphel left Mongolia for Lhasa in the winter of 1873. They may well have been accompanying the caravan sent to bring back the little Tibetan boy, a relative of the Dalai Lama, who had determined to be the Eighth Bogd Gegeen. As mentioned, all Europeans and citizens of the Russia empire were still strictly barred from entering Tibet at this time, and Dorzhiev, although a Buryat and a Buddhist, was still a citizen of Russia. Thus he went along on the caravan disguised as a Khalkh Mongol attendant to Penchen Chomphel. This was quite a dangerous undertaking for the Buryat. If exposed he would have been subjected to severe punishments, perhaps even ending up in a Tibetan dungeon. Any Tibetan who aided him risked having his property confiscated, or might have even be sewed up in a leather bag and thrown into the Tsangpo River to drown, the fate of Lama Senchen, the Shigatse monk who in the early 1880s had befriended the Indian pundit Chandra Das, who was in the pay of the British.

In Lhasa Dorzhiev found temporary refuge at Gomang College in Drepung Monastery. Here he could blend in with Mongolian monks who would be unlikely to expose him even if they know his true status. We cannot say for sure if Dambijantsan was there at the time. If our chronology is correct he entered the monastery at Dolonnuur around 1867 but we do not know how long he studied there before moving on to Drepung in Tibet. If they were both at Drepung at they had one thing in common; as Russian citizens they were both in Tibet illegally. Dambijantsan, perhaps already at this time a master of assumed identities, did not seem to have a problem, but word seems to have leaked about Dorzhiev’s true origins. His position precarious and running low on funds, he decided to forgo for the moment his dream of pursuing Buddhist studies in Lhasa and instead return to Örgöö. Here the record is clearer; he and Penchen Chomphel did accompany the caravan bringing the little four-year-old 8th Bogd Gegeen to Mongolia.

The Tibetan monk Luvsanchoijinimadanzinbanchug (1870–1924) was the twenty-third incarnation of Javsandamba and eighth in the line of Bogd Gegeens of Mongolia established by Zanabazar. He would witness the fall of the Qing Dynasty and oversee the rise of an independent state of Mongolia; in additional to his role as head of Buddhism in Mongolia he would eventually be crowned king of Mongolia; and he would live to see his power usurped by the Bolshevik communists who had seized control of the country in 1922. As his life was inextricably intertwined with that of Dambijantsan’s we will have more to say about him later.

By the time Dorzhiev returned to Örgöö he had decided on his religious vocation. At the age of twenty-one he was given full ordination as a monk by Penchen Chomphel and began studies with a number of other venerable monks who initiated him into various tantric practices, including the sadhana of Vajrabhairava, which would become his life-long practice. He also studied at monasteries at Wutai Shan in Shanxi Province, China, a mountain (actually a cluster of five peaks) dedicated to Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom. He had not given up his dreams of continuing his studies in Lhasa, however. Informed by knowledgeable lamas at Wutai Shan that the obstacles he had previously faced could be overcome by generous offerings to monasteries and officials in Lhasa, he returned to Buryatia and managed to solicit a considerable amount of alms from his fellow countrymen, duly impressed as they were by the energetic and charismatic monk who already seemed destined for greater things. Part of this booty was given to Dzasak Rinpoche, a high-ranking lama at Wutai Shan. This worthy, who apparently had good connections in Tibet, smooth the way for Dorzhiev’s trip back to Lhasa and even determined an auspicious time for him to leave on his journey.

The twenty-six year old Dorzhiev arrived back in the Tibetan capital in 1880. Upon his arrival he made generous offerings to the Big Three monasteries of Sera, and Gandan, and Drepung, with an extra and especially munificent donation to Gomang College at Drepung. “By this means,” relates his biographer, “which may not exactly have been bribery, but something very much like it, the earnest and energetic young Buryat was able ‘to create favourable conditions for my studies’”. The matter of his Russian citizenship was for the time being forgotten.

Dorzhiev’s subsequent career at Lhasa was nothing short of meteoric. He studied with some of the most distinguished lamas in Tibet and in 1888, just eight years after his arrival in Lhasa, he was awarded the Buddhist equivalent of a doctorate, passing the exams with the highest honors. Normally it took fifteen or twenty year to earn such a degee. “It is . . . a little puzzling how he managed to complete the course so quickly,” observes his biographer, “for there is usually a waiting list and ample funds are necessary to pass the final hurdles. Everything points to Dorzhiev having an influential patron and sponsor. Perhaps money was reaching him from Russia—and perhaps from high places in Russia. Naturally he is reticent about anything of this kind.” He immediately began instructing Mongolian and Buryat students in Buddhistic logic and metaphysic and soon became “a recognized member of the monastic elite.”

All this would pale in comparison to his next assignment. That same year, 1888, he was appointed as tutor of the-then twelve-year old Thirteenth Dalai Lama. For the next ten years he was the Dalai Lama’ ‘inseparable attendant,” himself instructing the Dalai Lama on a near-daily basis and present when other lamas gave him initiations into the highest teachings of Vajrayana Buddhism. He would also eventually rank as the Dalai Lama’s closest political advisor. The fact that he was a Russian citizen had been forgiven but not forgotten. Some in the Dalai Lama’s entourage were appalled that a foreigner should have became the religious leader’s right hand man, and they intrigued to have him dismissed and thrown out of Tibet. But he had the support of the Dalai Lama himself and all their objections were in vain. The Buryat monk who had first slunk into Lhasa in disguise had become one of the most powerful men in the country.

Indeed, to this day Dorzhiev has not been forgotten at Drepung Monastery. When questioning monks there in 2001 about Zanabazar, the First Bogd Gegeen of Mongolia, I described him as “a famous Mongolian lama who had once studied at Drepung.” The monk I was talking to at first thought I was referring to “Ngawang Losang, the Mongolian monk from Russia.” This was of course Dorzhiev. (It turned out he also knew about Zanabazar, and was even aware that the Ninth Bogd Gegeen is now living in India.)

Much of Dorzhiev’s subsequent career lies outside the scope of our narrative. Suffice it to add here that he became the leader of the pro-Russian faction in the Tibetan court, and the British would use his Great Game intrigues with Russia, intended as they were to bring Tibet into the Russian sphere of influence, to justify their 1904 invasion of Tibet by the Younghusband Expedition. The Dalai Lama, accompanied by Dorzhiev, would flee Tibet in advance of the British invasion and eventually turn up in Örgöö, now Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia . . . 

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Mongolia | Bactrian Camels

Camels: You can’t help but love them (click on photo for enlargement)