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?

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