Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Mongolia | Fifth of the Nine-Nines | Tavisan Budaa Khöldökhgui

The Fifth of the Nine-Nines—nine periods of nine days each, each period marked by some description of winter weather—began on January 27. This is Tavisan Budaa Khöldökhgui, the time when “Cooked Rice Cannot Be Frozen.” I must admit I really don’t understand the definition of this period. It seems to me that cooked rice would be frozen at any temperature below freezing, and we can certainly expect colder temperatures than that during the last week of January and beginning of February. Anyhow, the Fourth of the Nine-Nines was supposed to be coldest of the Nine-Nines, but this year the Fifth might well turn out to be colder. I have blogged in the past about the Magical Moment when 40 below zero are the same on the Fahreinheit and Celsius scales. The last few days we have been having a Magic Moment every morning.

This morning it dropped down to a frosty 45 below 0º F.

Some old Gray Beards I spoke with at the Bogd Khaan Winter Palace Museum yesterday assured me that this would be the coldest week of the year and that we might expect it to warm up just a bit before Tsagaan Sar, the Mongolian New Year, on February 22. In any case, it is good weather for people who are freezing their Buuz on the balcony in preparation for the Festive Day

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Mongolia | Fourth of the Nine Nines | Dönön Ükhiin Ever Khöldöne

Update: 40º below 0 F. at 8:00 am on Thursday the 19th and calling for 47º below 0º F. tonight. So the Fourth of the Nine-Nines is living up to its reputation as the coldest of the nine nine-day periods of winter weather.

The Fourth of the Nine-Nines, known as Dönön Ükhiin Ever Khöldöne—Time When Four Year-Old Cows’ Horns Freeze—begins today, January 18. This is supposed to be the coldest of the Nine-Nines, nine periods of nine days each, each period marked by some description of winter weather. It was 20 below F. (–29º C. for you unrepentant Celsius freaks) at 10:00 am, not especially cold for This Time Of The Year. But the forecast for this week is for much, much colder weather, maybe even record-setting. Stay tuned . . . 

Friday, January 13, 2012

Chingis Khan Rides West | Flight of the Khorezmshah | Nishapur | Ray | Hamadan

As we have seen, the Khorezmshah spent almost a month Carousing with the Songstresses and Damels of Nishapur. These bacchanalias ended when word arrived that the Mongol pursuit party which had been sent to bring the Khorezmshah to heel was on the way. The Mongol commanders Jebe and Sübetei and their 30,000 men arrived at the walls of Nishapur in early June, after the Khorezmshah had already fled. They immediately sent an envoy into the city to met with local officials and demand food and other supplies. Three local envoys then came out to met Jebe and proffer gifts and provisions. They made an outward show of submission, but Jebe was not satisfied.  He harangued them about the futility of any further resistance and to reenforce his point he presented to the town fathers a copy of a decree in Uighur script from Chingis Khan, apparently stamped with his own seal,  which stated:
Whosover . . . shall submit, mercy will be shown to them and unto his wives and children and household; but whosoever shall not submit, shall perish together with all his wives and children and kinsmen.
The import of this decree seemed to be that although Jebe and Sübetei might ride on, the city must immediately submit to any other Mongol armies that arrived in the future. Chingis had probably already decided to invade Khorasan at this point, and was depending on Jebe and Sübetei—in addition to hounding down the Sultan—to soften up the region’s cities in advance. Indeed, according to one Chinese source, Jebe and Sübetei had been given specific order by Chingis not to actually invest any cities until he himself arrived in Khorasan. When sufficiently provoked, as at Zava, the two Mongol generals would overlook this order, but otherwise they were to keep their attention focused on the Khorezmshah.

By the time they reached Nishapur, however, it was clear that Jebe and Sübetei had lost the scent of their quarry. The Khorezmshah, in his desperation, was traveling fast and light, with only a small retinue and a few bodyguards and was covering his tracks well. Even the historians Al-Athir and Juzjani are unable to account for his movements at this point.

Jebe and Sübetei now decided to spilt up and head in different directions in hopes of coming across the Khorezmshah’ spoor. Jebe heading westward to the district of Juvain (home of our scribe, Juvaini) and the current-day city of Jagastai. Sübetei backtracked in case the Khorezm had somehow slipped around behind his pursuers. First he headed southeast to Jam (current-day Torbat Jam in Iran) and finding no sign of the Khorezmshah there then looped around northward towards Tus, near modern-day Meshed.

Realizing that the scent here had long gone cold, he hurried on to Quchan and then to Isfarayin, on the great east-west Trunk Road through Khorasan. According to Juvaini the Sultan had indeed passed through Isfarayin, and here Sübetei may have stumbled upon the traces of his trail. By now Sübetei’s patience was apparently wearing thin, however, and he no longer felt bound by his orders to stay in hot pursuit of the Sultan and not attack cities. He offered Quchan and Isfarayin the same terms he and Jebe had offered Nishapur, but they refused to submit and were subjected to savage assaults and massacres, according to Juvaini. He then moved on to Damghan, where he discovered that many of the town’s most prominent citizens had fled the city and taken refuge in the Ismaili stronghold of Gerdkuh.

The fortress of Gerdkuh, built on a precipitous massif some ten miles west of Damghan, was considered so impregnable that the Ismaili Hassan Sabbah, founder of the Assassin sect, sent his own family here for safe-keeping when his own stronghold of Alamut—itself legendary as an impenetrable redoubt—was under attack. Overlooking the Khorasan Trunk Road—the main artery of the Silk Road through Khorasan—the occupants of the castle had grown rich extorting fees from passing caravans. The living quarters of the fortress were extensive and a large number of people could live here for months, or years, if necessary. Later, in the 1250s, when Chingis Khan’ grandson Khülegü attacked the Ismaili strongholds what is now Iran, Gerdkuh held out the longest, withstanding a seventeen-year siege from 1253 to 1270.

Here the eminences of Damghan took refuge from Sübetei. Obviously he did not have time to invest and subdue such a formidable bastion as this. Instead he attacked the “ruffians”—Juvaini’s term—who had had remained behind in the city. These were soon routed by the Mongols. At this point Sübetei may have received intelligence that the Khorezmshah was in Ray, since he now headed straight for the city on the Great Trunk Road. 

Meanwhile Jebe, after rampaging through the Juvain district, had crossed the Elburz Mountains to the province of Mazandaran on the southern edge of the Caspian Sea and laid waste to Amol and other nearby cities and towns. He too learning of the Khorezmshah’s whereabouts, Jebe immediately abandoned his raid on Mazandaran and headed south to Ray. 

According to Nasavi, while on his way to Ray the Khorezmshah had stopped briefly in the city of Bistam (Bastam, in current-day Iran), located almost exactly halfway between Nishapur and Ray, on the southern edge of the Elburz Mountains and famous as the birthplace of Bayazid Bastami (804-874?), one of the first of the so-called Intoxicated Sufis. Here he met with the local governor Taj al-din Omar Bistami and handed over to him two chests filled with precious jewels with instructions that the treasure should be taken for safe-keeping to the fortress of Ardahn, described by Nasavi as “one of the strongest fortresses in the world.” The Ardahn Fortress was located in about a three-days’ journey (perhaps sixty miles) from Ray, in the mountains between Damavand and Mazandaran.

Apparently the Khorezmshah hoped the jewels would be held there in safe-keeping in case he lost all his other financial resources in his precipitous flight from the Mongols. If so, he was sorely disappointed; the fortress itself eventually fell to the Mongols and the seized treasure was sent to Chingis Khan as war booty. Juvaini, it must be noted, does not mention the stop in Bistami nor this incident with the jewels. As we shall see, he does claim that after the Khorezmshah’s death his remains were eventually interred at Ardahn. Thus while his earthly treasure stashed at Ardahn was lost, the Khorezmshah’s earthly coil will presumably remain here until the Final Resurrection.

Both Juvaini and Nasavi agree that the Khorezmshah did not remain long in Ray. According to Juvaini, patrols loyal to the Khorezmshah soon turned up in the city with the alarming news that the Mongols were close at hand. The Khorezmshah now fled toward the castle of Farrazin, located near modern-day Arak about 150 miles southwest of Ray on the Hamadan-Isfahan Highway. Here he linked up with his son Rukn al-Din, who had about 30,000 Khorasan troops under his command. Up until now, Rukn al-Din had stayed out of the fray, apparently hoping to save troops loyal to him for a final stand in Khorasan.

WIth Rukh al-Din was the Khorezmshah’s mother Terken Khatun, members of his harem who were traveling with her, and another son Ghiyath-ad-Din. Earlier, right after he crossed the Amu Darya in flight from Mawarannahr, the Khorezmshah had sent word to his mother, who was then living in Urgench, the original capital of Khorezm on the lower Amu Darya, that she should seek refuge from the Mongols in the Mazandaran area south of the Caspian Sea.

Taking with her the vizier Nasir-ad-Din, the Khorezmshah’s own harem, her own younger sons and grandsons, assorted hangers-on, and a large cache of treasure, presumably gold, jewels, etc., she fled the city, leaving its defense to the local emirs. As we shall see, it was they who would have to deal with the Mongols under the command of Chagatai and Ögödei who eventually invested the city. Traveling by way of Dilistan, in what is now southwestern Turkmenistan, Terken Khatun and her party reached Mazandaran. There they apparently heard that the Khorezmshah was now somewhere between Hamadan and Isfahan. Proceeding south they finally linked up with him at the castle of Farrazin. The Sultan now sent her and her party for safekeeping to what Juvaini at one point calls the “castle of Qarun.” The location of this castle is unclear, but it may have been in the mountains south of Hamadan. In any case, with his family and women out of the way, the Khorezmshah finally appeared ready to take some concrete action against the Mongols hounding his trail. First he summoned Nusrat-ad-Din, who ruled over the ancient kingdom of Luristan, centered around the Zagros Mountains on the western edge of the Iranian Plateau. 

While waiting for Nusrat-ad-Din to arrive in he consulted with the local emirs on how best to deal with the Mongol incursion which was now threatening them all. They advised that the best course of action would be to take refuge in the depths of Ushturan-Kuh (“Mountains of the Camel“)‚ a chain of mountains in the High Zagros Range extending southward from the city of Borüjerd in the modern-day day province of Lorestan (the current-day Iranian Nature Preserve of Oshtran Kuh, perhaps a modern-day spelling of Ushturan-Kuh, is located in this mountain range). The Khorezmshah himself went off to inspect the proposed redoubt and was not impressed: “This is no place for us to take refuge in nor can we withstand the Mongol army in such a fastness.” The emirs, Juvaini notes, “were much disheartened” by the Khorezmshah’s refusal to head their advice.

By the time the he had returned from his reconnaissance of the mountains the ruler of Luristan, Nusrat-ad-Din had arrived at the Khorezmshah’s camp. Luristan was still nominally a part of the Khorezm Empire, and at his first audience Nusrat-ad-Din honored the Sultan by kissing the ground in front of him seven times. The Khorezmshah reciprocated the honor was allowing Nusrat-ad-Din to be seated in his presence. But apparently nothing of import was discussed at this first audience. Later the Khorezmshah sent two of his advisors to Nusrat-ad-Din’s tent sound him out on how best to deal with the Mongol threat. Nusrat-ad-Din advised that the Khorezmshah should pack up immediately and retreat to a mountain range between Fars and Luristan known as Tang-i-Balu. Within this mountain range was a rich and fertile valley which according to local lore was one of the Four Earthly Paradises. “Let us go there and make our asylum,” urged Nusrat-ad-Din, adding:
We shall muster a hundred thousand foot [soldiers] out of Luristan, Shuristan, and Fars and set men at all the approaches to the mountain. When the Mongol army arrives, we shall advance against them with a stout heart and fight a good fight. As for the Sultan’s army, which has suddenly [been] overcome with fear and terror, if on that occasion we gain a victory, they will realize their own strength and might and the weakness and impotence of their enemies; they will take heart.
The territory where Nusrat-ad-Din advised taking refuge, however, was apparently in the domains of the atabeg of Fars, which whom the Luristan ruler had a quarrel. The ever suspicious Khorezmshah surmised that Nusrat-ad-Din intended to somehow use him and his troops to settle accounts with the Fars atabeg. Nusrat-ad-Din’s counsel was rejected, and instead the now-chronically indecisive Khorezmshah decided to remain where he was and await the turn of events.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Mongolia | Third of the Nine Nines | Gurvan Ükhrii Ever Khöldönö

The Third of The Nine-Nines began on January 9, which was also a monumental Full Moon Day. Gurvan Ükhrii Ever Khöldönö is the nine-day period of Winter when the horns of three year-old cows freeze. This period is supposed to be colder than the First of the Nine Nines and the Second of the Nine Nines.  At 7:30 this morning it was 26 below 0º F, about normal for this time of the year. 

Tsagaan Sar, the Mongolian Lunar New Year, is coming up with the New Moon on February 22. The coming year is, of course, the Year of the Male Water Dragon, which is the 26th year of the 17th Rabjung, or 60-Year Cycle, according to the Tibeto-Mongolian Calendar. 

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Mongolia | Second of the Nine Nines | Khorz Arkhi Khöldönö | Sogdians

I mentioned earlier that the First of the Nine-Nines—the Nine-Nines being nine periods of nine days each, each period characterized by a certain type of winter weather—started on the day of the Winter Solstice, which occurred here in Mongolia on December 22. The Second of the Nine Nines began yesterday, December 31. Known as Khorz Arkhi Khöldönö, this is the time when twice-distilled homemade Mongolian arkhi (vodka) freezes. As you will recall, the first of the Nine-Nines was the time when regular, or once distilled, arkhi freezes. As this indicates, the second period should be colder than the first, since twice distilled arkhi obviously has a much higher alcohol content. This morning at 6:30, however, it was a balmy 1º above 0 F. (-17º C.) Expect colder weather by the end of the week. 

As some of you may know, today is also the first day of the year according to the admittedly outdated and outmoded Gregorian calendar which unfortunately seems to hold much of the world in its thrall. I have been boycotting the Gregorian calendar for several years now (I prefer the Lunar Calendar myself), so as usual I did not do any celebrating last night. If you expected to find me carousing in any of  Ulaanbaatar’s notoriously Louche Coffee Shops you would have been sorely disappointed.  Instead, I spent the evening in my hovel reading Sogdian Traders: A History.

Sogdian Merchants from Penjikent in current-day western Tajikistan
A Willow-Limbed Sogdian Beauty from Penjikent in current-day western Tajikistan

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Mongolia | Winter Solstice | Ist Nine-Nine | Nermel Arkhi Khöldönö

Well, it is that time of the year again! Get that Elk Antler Headdress out of the attic and shake the corn starch off your tambourines! The Winter Solstice occurs today at 1:30 p.m. (Ulaanbaatar Time), marking the beginning of Winter. See Winter Solstice 2010 at Stonehenge, the granddaddy of all Solstice celebration sites.

Here in Zaisan Tolgoi the sun rises at 8:39 and sets at 5:02 for a day of 8 hours, 22 minutes, and 54 seconds, the shortest day of the year of course. Tomorrow the day will be two seconds longer, which means we have turned the corner and are on the way to the Spring Equinox on March 20, 2012. My house plants have been slumping, and I can only hope that they will sense the turn of the seasons and perk up, since moping house plants are a little more than I can deal with right now.

In Mongolia the Winter Solstice also marks the beginning of the so-called Nine-Nines: nine periods of nine days each, each period marked by some description of winter weather. The first of the nine nine-Day periods is Nermel Arkhi Khöldönö, the time when normally distilled homemade Mongolian arkhi (vodka) freezes. It was minus 22º F. at 6:30 this morning, ten degrees or so warmer than three or four previous mornings, but still cold enough, I think, to freeze first-water Mongolian moonshine, which is not as strong as store-bought vodka. The next Nine-Day Period starts on December 31. Stayed tuned for updates.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Mongolia | Töv Aimag | Aryaval Khiid

Wandered by the crib of Bayantsagaan, head of Lam Rim Khiid near Gandan. He had called and asked me to stop and discuss a book he was writing. He does not speak much English and of course my Mongolian is limited, but we usually manage to get by without a translator. Indeed, we had no problem discussing the publishing project he had in mind. But then he started talking about Aryaval Khiid, another temple in Terelj National Park north of Ulaanbaatar which he himself had founded. He could not seem to get his point across, so he got out his mobile phone, a new smart phone the brand of which I did not notice (I am not a mobile phone freak) and made a video-call to his daughter in the United States. Holding the phone in front of us, we had her translate while we watched her on the screen. So, I thought, this is the world we live in; we are sitting in Mongolia and making a video call to the United States to have someone translate for us. His daughter, Erdenetsetseg, is currently in Las Vegas. What is the daughter of a lama who is also a noted author, artist, sculptor, and founder of temples doing in Las Vegas? Let’s just say the apple did not fall close to the tree. 
 Erdenetsetseg (her name means “Glorious Flower”)
What Bayantsagaan wanted to tell me was that he had made various additions to Aryaval Khiid over the past summer.  I have made innumerable visits to Aryaval Khiid over the years (also see Here and Here, and also the  Aryaval Temple Brochure I made) and even have photos of the temple in various phases of its construction. So he was wondering if I would go out and document the latest features. These included a paved walkway from the parking lot to the temple which is lined with placards and four new rock carvings on the cliffs above with temple which Bayantsagaan himself had done. 

It was a chilly 35º degrees below 0 F (–37º C.) at 8:30 a.m. on the morning we went to the temple. Although the place is usually jammed with tourists, pilgrims, and local day-trippers in the summertime we were not surprisingly the only people there on this frigid day. 
New walkway from the parking lot to the temple
Sarantuya, who kindly agreed to drive me to Aryaval Khiid, by one of the signs
Rock Carving of the White Grandfather Buddhist Teacher, a common motif in Mongolian Buddhism
Detail of the White Grandfather 
Another change since I was at Aryaval last is that several of the already existing rock carvings have been painted.
Newly-painted Buddha Rock Carving 
Buddha Rock Carving in summertime before it was painted. (Don’t tell anyone, but I think it looked better unpainted.)
Detail of Buddha Rock Carving
Sarantuya offering a khadag at the Buddha rock carving in more salubrious weather
Sign on the path to the temple: “It is hardly likely that one could easily follow the highest path of the Buddha when it is so difficult to follow just an ordinary path in this degenerate age.” 
Another sign on the path to the temple
Bridge leading to the Aryaval Temple
Bridge leading to Aryaval Temple. The sign says, “The Bridge to Deliver You Beyond Wisdom.”
Aryaval Khiid
The new rock carvings by Bayantsagaan on the cliffs above the temple turned out to be mostly covred with snow, so I could not get good photos.
The four new stone carvings by Bayantsagaan can barely be made out in this photo
Three of the stone carvings can be seen here
A slightly better view of one of the stone carvings
These carvings—the Power of Ten Symbol and the Om Mani Padme Hum mantra have been here for awhile, but have recently been painted.
As soon as the snow is gone—either blown off or melted—I will return to Aryaval and get better photos of the new carvings. But don’t hold your breath.