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

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Uzbekistan | Bukhara | Kosh Madrassas

The Kosh Madrassas (kosh = twin, pair, double, etc.) are not identical, but they do face each other across a square.
Ubdullah Khan Madrassa, left center, and Modari Madrassa, right center (click on photos for enlargements)
Both were built by Abdullah Khan II, the last Shaybanid Dynasty Khan of Bukhara (r. 1583–1598)
Abdullah Khan II 
The Modari  (mother,  in Persian) Madrassa was built in 1566 in honor of Abdullah Khan’s mother.
 Another view of the Modari Madrassa
Interior of the Modari Madrassa
The  Abdullah Khan Madrassa, facing the Modari Madrassa, was built by Abdullah Khan in the years 1588-90.
 Abdullah Khan Madrassa
 Courtyard of  Abdullah Khan Madrassa
 Ceiling of Abdullah Khan Madrassa

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.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Mongolia | Zavkhan Aimag | Khoid Dayan Ovoo (Dayan Uul)

Wandered around Otgontenger Uul on a five-day circling of the mountain by horse. On the last day the sky was a perfect dome of cobalt blue from horizon to horizon—the first morning without rain we had experienced on the trip. After a leisurely breakfast we finally packed up and headed over the ridge to the west of Khökh Nuur. Climbing through a larch forest—the first trees we had encountered around Otgon Tenger—we finally arrived at Khoid Dayan Ovoo, or Dayan Uul, as some call it. From here there are spectacular views of the whole Otgontenger massif. Batbayar says this is one of the most sacred spots in Zavkhan Aimag and that many people come here to make offerings. He claims it was used by shamans even before the advent of Buddhism.
 Khoid Dayan Ovoo (click on photos for enlargements)
Khoid Dayan Ovoo
 Batbayar and Yooton prostrating at the Khoid Dayan Ovoo
  Otgontenger from the Khoid Dayan Ovoo
  Otgontenger from the Khoid Dayan Ovoo
Otgontenger from the Khoid Dayan Ovoo

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Mongolia | Khövsgöl Aimag | Source of the Yenisei River

I rose just as the last stars were fading from the sky. Only Jupiter still glowed brightly over the southwest horizon. I kindled the fire, brewed up a pot of Puerh Tea (eight year-old "Autumn Di Jie" brand puerh tea from Yunnan Province, China, with earthy hints of tobacco and chocolate), and sat on my carpet drinking tea as the sky shaded from pearly gray to azure, with not a cloud from horizon to horizon. Two hours later everyone was finally up and we discussed our plans for the day. Batmönkh said the source of the Mungaragiin Gol was just over a low pass to the southwest, where Jupiter had been shining in the morning. The route to our next destination, the source of the Khoogiin, however, was over the pass at the head of the valley we were in, to the northwest. He now suggested that Bayarkhüü and I ride to the source of the Mungaragiin ourselves while he and the others stayed in camp. When we returned we would break camp and cross the pass to the northwest. This way we would not have to backtrack with the pack horses. I agree to this. Yooton announces that she does not want to miss out on anything and will come along with Bayarkhüü and me. That’s fine with me.
Valley of the Mungaragiin, with Belchir Uul in the distance (click on photos for enlargements)
The low pass is only about a mile and a half away. To the left, down the valley of the Mungaragiin Gol, can be seen Mungaragiin Nuur (lake). At the valley, at its head, we get our first glimpse of 10,994-foot Belchir Uul, the highest peak of the mountains to the west of the Darkhad Depression. The source of the Mungaragiin Gol is right at the base of this mountain. Heading upstream, we ride by a small lake dotted with sea gulls. Had they come from the ocean? The Arctic Ocean is over 2000 miles away to the north. Further on is another small lake, this one still almost completely ice covered.
First Lake
We ride on another half mile to yet another small lake. According to my map, there are several small ponds still further on in the cirque directly below Belchir Uul, but there is no water flowing down the rocky ravine above the third lake we are on. The ponds apparently drain underground into this lake. Thus the outlet of the lake is, at least at this time of the year, the source of Mungaragiin Gol.
Horses at Second Lake 
Source of the Mungaragiin Gol, and one of three sources of the Yenisei
10,994-foot Belchir Uul
The Mungaragiin Gol, I have determined, is one of sources of the Yenisei River System. The Mungaragiin flows west of here and combines with the Guna Gol to form the Bakhmakh Gol, which we had crossed on the way to Batmönkh’s Ger. According to most sources, including Batmönkh, the Bakhmakh combines with the Altgana Gol, flowing in from the mountains to the east of the Depression, to form the Shishigt Gol, which then flows into Tsagaan Nuur. Some say the river known as the Shishigt Gol begins not at confluence of the Bakhmakh and Altgana but at the outlet of the Tsagaan Nuur. In either case, the Shishigt Gol flows out of Tsagaan Nuur and continues west to the Russian border, where it combines with the Busiin Gol and the Bilin Gol to form the Kyzyl Khem. The Kyzyl Khem then continues west to the city of Kyzyl, capital of the autonomous repubic of Tuva, where it combines with the Biy Khem to form the Yenisei proper. The National Geographic Atlas of the World lists both the Biy Khem and the Kyzyl Khem-Shishigt as the two sources of the main branch of the Yenisei (zoom in on the Lake Khövsgöl area of the map).

In 1993 I had hiked some sixty miles to the source of the Biy Khem in the extremely remote East Sayan Mountains in the Autonomous Republic of Tuva. A geographer at the Russian Academy Sciences in Irkutsk, in Siberia, where I was living at the time, had opined to me that this was the real source of the main branch of river known as the Yenisei, since the Biy Khem is bigger than the Kyzyl Khem in terms of volume of water where the two come together. But he allowed that the actual drainage area of the Kyzyl Khem system was larger than that of the Biy Khem so it too had a claim to be the source of the Yenisei. It should be pointed out that there is no scientific definition of the source of a river system, and almost any finding is open to interpretation; hence the long running dispute over the source of the Nile, for example, which ended up with One Of The Disputants getting so frustrated he allegedly committed suicide.
Source of the Yenisei-Biy Khem in the East Sayan Mountains, in the Autonomous Republic of Tuva
In any case, it would appear that the outlet of the lake where we are now standing is at least one of the sources of the Yenisei. The location is N50º51.382' / E098.41.223' and the altitude is 7,802 feet. One atlas (no two agree) states the Yenisei branch of the Yenisei River System is 2537 miles long, although it neglects to mention which source it is using as the beginning of the river.

But the hydrology of the Yenisei River System is extremely complicated. Where the westward flowing Angara River, the big, fast-flowing river that runs out of Lake Baikal in Siberia, and the northward flowing Yenisei branch of the river system combine, the Angara is almost twice as big in terms of water volume. Thus by some definitions the ultimate source of the Yenisei River System would be at the beginning of the Angara branch of the system. The largest river flowing into Baikal is the Selenga (Selenge, in Mongolia). The Selenge, in turn, starts at the confluence of the Delger Mörön and Ider rivers in Mongolia. Since the Ider is bigger in terms of water volume its source would be the beginning the Yenisei-Angara-Selenge branch of the Yenisei River System. The Times [of London] World Atlas considers the Yenisei-Angara-Selenge the main branch of the river system and gives its length as 3448 miles, considerably longer than the Yenisei-Biy Khem branch. And it is not clear if the 281 mile-long Ider is included in this measurement. If not then this branch would measure 3729 miles long. This would be in line with the figure of 3742 miles given to me by the geographer in Irkutsk for the Yenisei-Angara-Selenge-Ider. In either case, it would rank as either the fifth or sixth longest river in the world, depending on which atlas we consult. In terms of water volume it is the Largest North-Flowing River in the world. In 1997 I visited Zavkhan Aimag and rode three days by horse to the source of the Ider, which I located near 11,873-foot Öndör Ölziit Uul, at an elevation of 9,880 feet, as described in my book Wanders in Northern Mongolia.
Source of the Yenisei-Angara-Selenge-Ider Gol in Khangai Mountains, Zavkhan Aimag
Another view of the source of the Yenisei-Angara-Selenge-Ider Gol
As we sit by the outlet of the lake, the source of the Mungaragiin Gol, I explain all this to Yooton, who sweet girl that she is listens patiently and nods knowingly every so often to indicate that she is paying attention. I suspect she does not have the slightest interest in what I am talking about. Not everyone shares my fascination with the sources of rivers. Finally it is time to leave. Two hours later we are back in camp where Nergui has a kettle of Yunnan Gold and dinner ready for us. Now I have now been to all three sources of the Yenisei River.
Three sources of the Yenisei River (base map courtesy of The Encyclopedia of Earth)

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