Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Mongolia | Gov-Altai Aimag | Biger to Bayan Tooroi

The town of Biger, near the bottom of the Biger Depression at an elevation of 4404 feet, or some 5095 feet lower than Dütiin Pass, is famous for a number of things, including vodka made from yak milk and vegetables which thrive in the nearby oases.
Yak milk vodka made at local distillery. Eat your heart out, Smirnoff!
Careening into the small town square we were surprised to find a small fair in progress. People from the various bags in the area—an administrative area very roughly equivalent to an American township—were in town to show off and hopeful sell their various products.
Local produce for sale
Nice display of aaruul—dried curds—from Bag #3
We were immediately struck by the huge potatoes for sale. Local boosters claim the Biger Depression is home to the largest potatoes in Mongolia. We had already bought potatoes in Altai but could not resist adding five more kilos of these gargantuan tubers to our supplies.
Uyanga and typical Biger spud

There were also saddles for sale. Forgot to ask the price of this one.
Interesting as the vegetables and whatnot were I was eager to track down Namsum, the local retired school teacher with whom several years earlier I had ascended Burkhan Buudai Uul, and question him some more about Dambijantsan. When we asked for directions to his house, however, we received the disconcerting news that he had transmigrated two years ago.
Namsum on the way to Burkhan Buudai Uul, several years earlier
Namsum with a snow leopard skull we found on Burkhan Buudai Uul
With no reason to linger any longer in Biger we headed south, climbing through the Gov-Altai Mountains to another pass oddly enough also known as Dütiin Davaa, the same as the pass on the northern side of the Depression. Although it had been quite balmy in Biger at 4400 feet on the 9428-foot pass there was fresh snow.
Valley leading through the Gov-Altai Mountains to Dütiin Davaa
Fresh snow near Dütiin Davaa
From the pass we dropped down to the small town of Tsogt, which as mentioned earlier was the beginning of the Tsogt–Gongpochuan caravan route mentioned by Shukee in Shinejinst. Beyond Tsogt we climbed to Üreltiin Davaa and then began the long descent down through the Üreltiin Canyon to the Gobi Desert. In the distance, from the floor of the desert, soared Eej Khairkhan Mountain, the most famous landmark in the area. The mountain is named Eej Khairkhan (Mother Dearest) supposedly because its twin peaks resemble two breasts. By early evening we arrived at the oases of Bayan Tooroi. Here we would spent the night before meeting our camel guys the next day.
The magnificent mammaries of
Eej Khairkhan thrusting into the azure sky

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Mongolia | Gov-Altai Aimag | Altai to Biger

Back in Ulaan Baatar I stopped by Great Genghis Expeditions and asked their in-house guru Professor Terbish if he had ever heard of Dambijantsan’s hideout in the Gobi. Terbish is one of the world’s leading experts on Gobi flora and fauna and has traveled extensively through Mongolia’a deserts. He said he seemed to recall that one of his colleagues in the biology department of the Mongolia State University had once stumbled upon the ruins while researching Gobi bears in the south Gobi. The man was out of town as the moment but he would contact him as soon as possible and get more details. A week later I stopped by Terbish’s office again and discovered that his colleague had indeed found the ruins and that he even had the GPS coordinates for them. They were located at a place called Ülzii Bilegt in southern Bayankhongor Aimag, about twelve miles ATCF southeast of Shar Khuls, not far from the border with Gob-Altai Aimag. This was an extremely remote area, noted Terbish. There are no herdsmen living within a hundred miles of the place.

As mentioned earlier, I had already been to Shar Khuls By Camel Via The Old Caravan Route That Started At Amarbuyant Monastery. This was one of the two routes to Dambijantsan’s fortress at Gongpochuan in Gansu Province, China, mentioned by Shukhee in Shinejinst. The other started in the town of Tsogt in Gov-Altai Aimag. I had been in Tsogt before and knew there was a road from here to the oasis of Bayan Tooroi, the southernmost town in Gov-Altai Aimag. The ruins at Ülzii Bilegt, I determined, were 134 mile south of Bayan Tooroi.

Of course I had to visit Ülzii Bilegt. I decided I would fly to Altai, the capital of Gov-Altai Aimag, proceed to Bayan Tooroi by vehicle, and there hire camels for the journey 134 miles south to the ruins at Ülzii Bilegt. From Bayan Tooroi I would also attempt to trace the Bayan Tooroi-Shar Khuls section of the old Tsogt-Gongpochuan caravan route mentioned by Shukhee. I reckoned that the trip from Bayan Tooroi to Ülzii Bilegt via Shar Khuls and back would take about 14 days by camel.

I quickly hired on as historical consultant and translator my friend Mojik, who had helped me with my Guide to Locales Connected to the Life of Zanabazar, First Bogd Gegeen of Mongolia. She was just back from a stint in Heidelburg, where she added German to her already formidable array of languages. Fortunately she had not gotten involved in any duels in Heidelburg and was raring to go on a camel trip.

Mojik: Note the lack of dueling scars.
I also enlisted as camp boss and cook a twenty-five year-old woman named Uyanga who appeared fully capable of dealing with obstreperous camel men.

Uyanga: “Bring’em on!”

The three of us flew to the town of Altai, capital of Gov-Altai aimag, a two and half hour flight on one of MIAT’s ancient prop planes. Altai, at 7234 feet is the highest aimag capital in Mongolia. The hills to the south of the city were streaked with snow on the day we arrived. We proceeded to the market and bought ten kilos of potatoes, two kilos of onions, three kilos of carrots, three large heads of cabbage, two kilos of turnips, three kilos of sugar, ten kilos of flour, two liters of cooking oil, a kilo of salt, two kilos of hard candies, and a box of Choco-Pies. The latter two items were for Mojik, who like all translators has a sweet tooth. (Note to researchers: an interesting monograph could be written about why translators crave sweets.) Meat I would buy in Bayan Tooroi in the form of a sheep and a goat.

Of course, a large part of provisioning any camel trip is the choice of teas. I had brought these along from Ulaan Baatar, having stocked up during my Last Tea-Buying Trip to China. For this trip I choose a disk of five-year old Puerh, a half kilo of Yunnan Gold black tea, a half-kilo of Lapsang Souchang black tea, and a quarter kilo of of Tie Guan Yin oolong tea, the latter for the more delicate palates of the ladies. (I like it myself, of course, but not generally outdoors, in the desert, where more robust brews are generally called for.) Lapsang Souchang, also known as Caravan Tea, was especially appropriate for a camel trip. A specialty of Fujian Province of China, the leaves are dried over fires of pine wood, which give the tea its distinctive smoky taste. In the old days smoke curing was intended to preserve the tea as it traveled on the backs of camels across the Gobi from China to Russia. Even today it makes for an ideal brew on the desert, the smoky taste mingling nicely with the smoke from saxual-wood campfires.

The next day we started out by van for Bayan Tooroi, 102 mile to the south. Sixteen miles southwest of Altai we crossed 9099-foot Dütiin Davaa (Pass). The ovoo here at Dütiin was reportedly erected by a very famous lama named Buural Lamkhai (c.1860-c.1910). As late as the nineteenth century Gov-Altai and especially the region around Dütiin Davaa was well-known for its shamans. They were notorious for causing mischief of one kind or another and were especially skilled at inflicting curses on people. The local herdsmen were afraid of them and they were in constant conflict with the local Buddhist lamas. Once Buural Lamkhai and some of his disciples set out on a trip to Khovsgol Aimag in northwest Mongolia. They had no sooner started out than two shamans, followers of the chief shaman in the area, stole their horses. Buural Lamkhai went into mediation and then began chanting. This went on for several days. Soon the chief shaman fell ill; his arms and legs became numb and he was unable to move. Suspecting that Buural Lamkhai was the cause of his ailments he ordered his two followers to return the stolen horses and then begged the lama to come and heal him. This Buural Lamkhai did. The chief shaman recovered his health but his shamanic power was broken. To commemorate his victory over the shamans Buural Lamkhai built this ovoo here at Dütiin Davaa and established a temple nearby named Bureg Nomyn Khaan Khiiid. The temple has since been destroyed, but all travelers on the road still stop at the pass and make offerings to Buural Lamkhai’s ovoo.

Ovoo built by Buural Lamkhai at 9099 -foot Dütiin Davaa

The Biger Depression and the Gov-Altai Range to the south

Another view of the Biger Depression and mountains to the south

From the far side of Dütiin Davaa we begin our gradual descent into the Biger Depression. This huge natural sump, with no outlet to the sea, drains an area very roughly fifty miles from east to west and twenty miles from north to south. At its bottom is a salt lake, Biger Nuur, measuring several miles long, its size varying considerably on the time of year and the amount of recent rainfall. The lake itself, again depending on its current level, is at about an altitude of 4200 feet. On the south the depression ramps up to a range of mountains with several peaks of over 11,000, and the north to a range known as Shar Shorootiyn Nuruu, with peaks of over 10,300 feet.

A prominent peak of the range to the south, 11,092 Burkhan Buudai Uul, is one of the sacred mountains of Gov-Altai Aimag. A few years earlier I had ascended Burkhan Buudai Uul by horse with a man named Namsum, a retired history teacher from the town of Biger at the bottom of the Biger Depression. Namsum had told me an intriguing story about how his grandfather had once met Dambijantsan. Apparently this took place after Dambijantsan’s return from Russia c.1917. Having heard that the famous Ja Lama—then known as Ja Bagsh (teacher) was in the area the grandfather went to pay him a visit. Since he knew Ja Bagsh favored white camels he took along nine white camels which he intended to give him as a gift. Upon entering the ger where Ja Bagsh was staying the man was first struck by his appearance. He did not look like a Mongolian, he claimed, but more like a Khazakh or even a Russian. Also, he claimed that Ja Bagsh spoke the Khalkh dialact of Mongolian very poorly and that he could barely understand him. All in all, he formed a very bad impression of the famous Dambijanstan and finally went away without giving him the camels.

This bit about the Khalkh dialect intrigues. There are big discrepancies in the accounts of what languages Dambijantsan spoke and how well he spoke them. Others who knew him claimed he spoke the Khalkh dialect almost perfectly. I will discuss this subject in more detail later.

In any case, according to Namsum’s grandfather, Dambijantsan later returned and stole the gold-plated ganchirs, the ornaments found on the eaves of temple roofs, from Biger Nomin Khanii Khiid, the big monastery near the town of Biger. This was hardly in keeping with Dambijantsan’s reputation as a teacher of the Dharma.

Ruins of Biger Nomin Khanii Khiid
This monastery was founded in 1830 by a Tibetan monk named Luvsangeleg who had come to Mongolia at the invitation of Zasagt Khan Gelegyampil. Eventually up to 300 monks lived here and it was considered one of the richest monasteries in Mongolia. It was destroyed in 1937 or 1938. One hundred and thirty camel loads of paintings, scrolls, books, statues, and various other religious implementia were hauled a few miles away and burned. Before this, however, monks had managed to spirit away a number of statues containing in all 137 kilos of gold, according to Namsum (this figure sounds a bit suspicious to me: at current prices this amount of gold be would be worth $3,730,715), and bury them in the desert nearby. In the 1960s a Soviet Russian Geological Expedition, using metal detectors, reportedly found the statues and carted them off. Namsum said that a sheep belonging to one of his relatives had fallen into the hole left by the excavators, which is what first tipped off the locals as to what had happened.

Ruins of Biger Nomin Khanii Khiid

Mongolia | Bayankhongor Aimag | Ja Lama's Hideouts

During my talks with Zekhuu in Ekhiin Gol he mentioned that Dambijantsan (a.k.a. Ja Lama) maintained a hideout in the mountains twenty or thirty miles south of Shar Khuls Oasis, in western Bayankhongor. I had visited Shar Khuls Oasis (Yellow Reeds Oasis) a few years earlier on a 12-day camel trip from Amurbuyant Monastery to Ekhiin Gol. Shar Khuls was the crossroads of several old caravan routes and one of the camp sites of the 13th Dalai Lama when he fled from Tibet to Mongolia in 1904 following the invasion of Tibet by Arch-Imperialist and later Proto-New-Ager Francis Younghusband. It is perhaps now best known as one of the prime habitats of the rare Gobi Bear, or masaalai.

Zekhuu said that the ruins of a small stone house that Dambijantsan lived in as well as some watchtowers and fortifications could still be seen at the hideout. He added said the hideout was quite difficult to find and that he was unable to give verbal directions to the place. He was busy with his vegetable crop at the moment but if I ever returned to Ekhiin Gol in the off-season he would be glad to take me there. Just before we left, he added as an afterthought that we should talk to a man in Shinejinst named Shukhee. This man might have more information about Dambijantsan.

It was 96º F. when we left Ekhiin Gol. The desert floor slopes up almost imperceptibly from here at 3224 feet to a pass through the Gov-Altai Mountains known as Tsagaan Khaalga (White Gate) at 7407 feet. The only real indication that we have gained 4183 feet in altitude is the rapidly dropping temperatures.
Tsagaan Khaalga (White Gate)
By the time we reached Shinejinst, a couple of hundred feet lower than the pass, a drizzling rain and gusting winds made the 58º temperature seem downright chilly. Half a dozen enquiries later we finally found Shukhee’s ger in a wooden-walled compound in one of the ger neighborhoods. We entered to find a large elderly shaven-headed man sitting cross-legged on his bed. The first thing I noticed about him were his enormous ears, the kind often seen on old monks in Mongolia. They are supposed to be a sign of spiritual propensities. Zanabazar, the First Bogd Gegeen of Mongolia, is always portrayed with huge ears. Also, his eyes had that milky, inwardly-turned look often seen on old monks, as if they had spent the greater part of the lives examining interior realities. If he was a monk, however, he was dressed rather incongruously in red silk Chinese pants and a rather stylish red and blue striped shirt.
“What do you want?” he abruptly enquired, without any introduction. We told him that we were seeking information about Damijantsan and we had heard that he might know something about him. The old man simply sat there for at least three minutes not saying a thing. For a moment I thought we going to be shown the door. Then he just shrugged and said, “What can I tell you?” Hoping to break the ice I asked if he was born here in Shinejinst. “No,” he said, “I was born in the Himalayas.” The Himalayas? This interview was suddenly taking an unexpected turn. Where in the Himalayas? I asked. “In the mountains between Hami and Barkol.” Hami and Barkol are towns in Xinjiang, China, and the mountains between them are the Tian Shan, the majestic range that separates the Zungarian Depression and the Tarim Basin, and not the Himalayas. “You mean the Tian Shan?” I asked. “Oh yes, in Chinese the Tian Shan.” I have no idea why he said the Himalayas, unless for him “Himalayas” was just a generic term for high, snowy mountains. He said that at that time there were many Mongolians living in this area. Anyhow, at the age of sixteen or so his family moved to Gongpochuan, in Ganzu Province, China, site of Dambijantsan’s last stronghold, and where he was finally assassinated. He was 87 years old—born in 1920—so this would have been around 1936.
They lived at Gongpochuan for two years and he had often visited the ruins of Dambijantsan’s fortress. He said that on the hillside above the fortress were thirteen springs. On the top of the hill was a small baishin, or cabin. Dambijantsan apparently lived in this baishin in the summertime. Between Dambijantsan’s own winter lodging in the fortress and the baishin there was a sizable tunnel capable of holding perhaps a hundred people. He could not say if it was natural or man-made, but he did say that the walls of the cave were covered with paintings of Buddhist deities, portraits of famous lamas, and more mundane subjects like camels and horses. This would imply that the walls were smooth enough to serve as a surface for paintings and thus would appear to be man-made. This tunnel served as both an underground storage place and a possible escape route in case the fortress was attacked.

Around the fortress there were palisades that once housed at least 40 families. They had been driven from the palisades after Dambijantsan had been killed. At the time Shukhee was there many had already moved to the Edrin Nuruu ( Edrin Mountain Range) in Gov-Altai Aimag, but some still lived in the surrounding area. He said that there were also many other Gov-Altai people in Gansu province at this time, not Dambijantsan’s followers, but refugees from the new communist government in Mongolia. The last of Dambijantsan’s followers returned to Mongolia in 1944-45 and also settled around Edrin Nuruu, where they became know as the New People.

What was his profession, I wondered. He shrugged, “I was just a herder.” He really did not look like a simple herder to me, but I did not pursue this further.

He also mentioned there were two caravan routes from Mongolia to Suzhou (now Jiayuan) in Gansu; one from Tsogt in Gov-Altai and one from Amarbuyant in Bayankhongor. Both passed through Gongpochuan. He had taken both these routes many times by camel. I had already done the Amarbuyant to Shar Khuls section of the latter route, as mentioned above.

I asked him about his own opinion of Dambijantsan. He said,
“I have no opinion about Dambijantsan. Whether he was a good man or a bad man I cannot say, because I did not know him. I cannot judge him. I can say that my parents, who were alive when Dambijantsan was alive, believed that that he was a sly, crafty, and cruel man who had great power over people and could easily manipulate them. In the end they believed he was a bad man.”
Finally I asked if he any more he would like to say anything more about Dambijantsan or Gongpochuan. He said, “I have nothing more to say about anything. Now I am just sitting here waiting to die.” One that somber note we made our departure.

We proceeded to a gas station to refuel our jeep. A man who was there also getting fuel said, “Oh, I saw that were visiting Lama Shukhee.” Lama Shukhee? “I thought he was a goat herder,” said I. He laughed. “Oh, no, no, he is a quite famous lama in Bayankhongor.” I had a sidebar with Shandas, my translator, and it turns out that she asked him what his profession was when he was living at Gongpochuan, when he was in his teens. Apparently at that time he was still looking after his family’s herds. Only later did he take up a religious vocation. I thought about going back and questioning him again about his life as a lama, but then remembered his last words and decided against it.