Sunday, January 3, 2010

Mongolian Adventures (6): Swans and Horses

August 5th:

We said 'Bayartai' (goodbye) to the children of the nomads. As a parting gift, I left them with some Disney stickers I had bought for the purpose of distributing just so. That seemed to break the ice a bit, so one young boy decided to practice his English with me. I showed him my notebook with its sketches of ruined monasteries, dunes, wastelands, and the sour mare's milk contraption I'd shared the ger with that previous night. Amusingly, the boy told me his tow-headed little sister was really a Russian, and her name was "Jenny". His father was less amused with the jest. As it turns out, many Mongolian children have blond hair which gradually darkens to hickory as they get older. I suppose this is a remnant strain of Caucasian blood from the days when the horde raided Russia and Europe, bringing back concubines for the Khans.

The grasses were again green and thick by this point in our journey. But as the day progressed, the land around us stretched itself, shrugging up mountains from the rolling hillsides. Pine forests hugged the southward faces of the higher slopes. Yaks and yak-cow hybrids grazed the lower meadows.

We stopped for lunch on a steep hillside overlooking a broad valley, and the river winding through it. A couple Kazakh men had arranged a ger at the roadside, with a golden eagle and bows to entice any tourists who happened along. Although later we did try the bows (I didn't do too badly with mine--thank you Camp Au Sable!), for the moment we were more interested in our bowls of stir-fry with pasta. So was a hungry goat who wandered away from his herd and across the asphalt to join us. More welcome to join us in our prandial gorging, an orange butterfly. The goat was discouraged after we shoved him away from our food a few times. The butterfly, meanwhile, alighted on a cup of our heavily-sugared tea. Tea had become something of an indulgence, with our small traveling group devouring box after box of the stuff each day.

That afternoon we journeyed half the length of a broad valley. Ragged upthrusts of volcanic stone bespoke a violent past for serene valley. Our encampment sat on an embankment; the stream below wound through a gorge engraved into the valley floor. A pair of swans swam circles in stately grace within its rocky parenthesis. Periodically, yaks nudged the side of our ger, calling us outside to play. 

August 6th:

Mongolian horses are half-wild, so our Mongolian horsemen tell us just before we jump up into the saddle. They look it--with their shaggy hair, angry eyes, and the way the Mongolian horses will buck their heads rapidly up and down when tethered as if they are headbanging at a rock concert.

Our quest is for the Orkhon Khukhree, a waterfall somewhere in the valley not far from our encampment. The guide then lets me (or more specifically, my horse) guide the way. I don't know the way, and my horse seems more intent on finding himself a nice grassy lunch. My companions, however, are having even more trouble with their half-wild mounts.

Eagles, vultures, falcons and hawks have spotted prey, somewhere ahead of us. The usual description is to say that these raptors "circle", but when these hungry birds form a certain density, what they really become is a cyclone. The waterfall is somewhere beneath them, and we dismount accordingly. Forsaking the waterfall for a moment, however, we search for the fount of these carrion birds and find a cow, its ribs picked clean.

The Orkhon Khukhree waterfall was formed--like the valley itself--by volcanic action. A pit falls in the middle of an otherwise flat valley floor, then trails off downstream in the shape of a comma. The water thunders down over the edge of this hole. Forest grows thick within the rift. We descend via a treacherous crack in the rift's wall, dodging a never ending stream of ascending tourists wearing their florescent tour-caps. When the noon-day tumult of tourists depart, we have the thundering falls, the icy pool beneath it, and the tranquil forest to ourselves. I sketch the mossy forest floor as the sun sketches ruddy fire onto my skin.

After leaving the waterfall, I was ready to nurse my badly sun-burned arms in the cool depths of our ger; our guide had one last surprise in store for us, however. Upstream from the waterfall, a small waterfall (more properly a rapids) sent spray up towards the blue Mongolian skies. What was our purpose in being here? we wondered. The guide pointed to the falls and told us to look more carefully.

Then I saw it. A dark shape darting amid the falling water. And another. And downstream my eyes suddenly perceived differences of depth amongst what had previously seemed nothing but stony shallows. Fish were jumping upstream. Taimen, perhaps?

Later, I found my island of solitude further away from camp. Upstream. I explored an ancient sandbar with rocky margins. A pine tree, scarred from fire or lightning, stood sentinel. Although I wasn't really very far from camp, I could feel the silence and tranquility of nature. But then nature called with its forceful urgency, reminding me that tranquility is just a title we bestow upon it out of nostalgia or misconception. I had a choice. Did I wish to return to the encampment with its smelly outhouse--nothing but a hut placed over a pit of piss and shit, a few boards and a gap between them functioning as the commode? Or should I find a more natural solution? I have to come clean, the main argument in my mind against the latter was the issue of how to come clean. Leaves are never satisfactory. But there is this pristine, crystal clear stream....

* * *

I looked around me and saw none to see; clothes were lain upon the bleached river boulders; I jumped into icy waters that scoured my skin. I've never felt cleaner in my life than when I emerged from that Mongolian creek.

Later, returning to camp, I would tell my companions that the waters were warm enough to swim in. Was that mischief on my part?

Friday, January 1, 2010

Mongolian Adventures (5): Origins of Indiana Jones, Dinosaur Eggs, Lycanthropic Bovines

August 3rd:

We left the Khongoryn Els (the great dune sea) behind us.

Onwards to the site of Roy Chapman Andrews's dinosaur excavations. There, the saxual (not sexual) trees can be be seen growing from the nobbly landscape, hunched and bunched like withered crones gossiping at market. Our guide and driver must have grown weary of us by this point, as Zoola merely pointed vaguely in the general direction of an escarpment of livid sandstone on the horizon. 'There', she said, 'You'll find the dinosaurs. Maybe 1 or 2 kilometers. Dinner and hot showers will be ready when you come back."

Oh, but we three remaining travelers (one of the Danish girls had to fly back from Dalanzagad due to her inner-ear problems and the bumpiness of our journey into the Gobi) swear... we SWEAR that the round trip that day was at least 10 kilometers! Straight into a biting gale of sand! Uphill both ways! Without feet!

Okay, well maybe the last part is an exaggeration on my part. I did have some problems with my shoes, however. My shoes, which I had bought a couple years earlier in Chongqing (China), finally gave up the ghost that day. I had already had the sole's attachment reinforced with stitching, but the stitching gave way. Rocks and sand migrated deep under my feet as I trudged across a rolling, barren expanse of gravel towards the cliffs which never seemed to get much closer. I watched as poofs of sand spurted from the newly-gaping mouths of my shoes, each forward stride producing an arc of sand or gravel. Not good.

We did eventually reach those eroded, blazing cliffs where Roy Chapman Andrews--often cited as the inspiration for the movie character, Indiana Jones--withdrew the bones and eggs of a mighty dinosaur trove. The Protoceratops (a smaller and less viciously-horned version of the famous Triceratops) was one of the main finds of this particular dig. Of particular importance was a Velociraptor and Protoceratops found locked in deadly combat, the the Protoceratops's beak-like mouth locked on the Velociraptor's leg and the raptor digging his claws into the Protoceratops's underbelly. This particular specimen is the one of the great prizes at the contemporary Mongolian Museum of Natural History in UB which I saw later in the trip.

But for now we were in the wasteland realm of dinosaurs, not polished halls of learning. This was the desolate region that Andrews, explorer extraordinaire, fought through pirates, bandits, an angry and wounded whale, typhoons, wild dogs, illness and "mad lama priests" to reach. The aforementioned calamities conspired at his death, but merely managed to kill off ten of his expedition members. Of course his contemporaries claimed that the man was given to tall tales: "The water that was up to our ankles was always up to Roy's neck". Tales of great height or not, the man certainly provided plenty of fodder for the modern-day tale of an adventurer/archaeologist.

August 4th:

We headed north from the burial grounds of the 'terrible lizards' of yore. The lands grew greener by the mile as our van chugged along. Before we had reached the proper steppe, however, we stopped to explore the vast ruins of a once-great monastery city, Ongiin Khiid. A long-since dessicated riverbed separates the two parts of this complex. One side housed the master monks and a series of temples upon the rocky slopes of a ridge, the other, flatter side housed their disciples. Neither is much more than a chest-high labyrinth of foundations and walls--like the remains of the far more ancient Greek city of Mycenae--sprouting from the dusty ground. A couple stupas and one small rebuilt temple are all that remain. The temple is merely two rooms about two stories high, containing the usual assortment of Tibetan Buddhist relics and a few photographs of the Dalai Lama. I believe the holy fellow may have even visited the place, sometime in the 90's. The monastery was razed and the monks slaughtered in Mongolia's communist purge of 1937. Apparently the communists promised the monks they would be allowed life if they brought a herd of cows as a tribute... but of course they weren't spared. Our guide, Zolaa's grandfather was a monk (evidently not the celibate sort, at least during some portion of his life) who perished at that time. Apparently he hid the family treasures before he died, but the family has only be able to retrieve a part of those valuables.

Later, we saw a double rainbow cast over a herd of horses and and yaks upon the steppe.

We made several stops at nomad encampments not able to give us succor (often the city-dwelling cousins of nomad families come back out to visit and enjoy the fresh steppe air and traditional lifestyle). Eventually, towards evening, we found one that could. A gaggle of children played upon the threshold of our ger. More ominously for my ability to sleep well that night, a stench of sour milk permeated the air of our ger. The famous Mongolian fermented mare's milk, or airag, was being fermented in a large leather sack suspended at the foot of my bed. A wooden frame carries the weight of this bag; a wooden paddle is thrust into its depths. Every so often, the nomads came within the ger and thumped the paddle down into the sudsy fermented milk. Apparently it is considered good luck to give the bag a few thumps every time one enters a ger that has an airag bag (called a khokhuur). The tradition is a practical one, as the concoction needs to be thumped at least 1,000 times before it is considered fit to drink. And if it is extremely sour to whiff, the drink is tongue-curdling to taste. I fell to sleep, lulled by the fizzing of the fermented mares milk and (I kid you not) the cows howling at the full moon that rose above our ger. Were-cows?