Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Mongolia | Gov-Altai Aimag | Shar Khuls to Ülzii Bilegt

Since we only had 14 mlies to go to Ülziii Bilegt we did not leave our camp at Shar Khuls until ten o’clock. As we rode through the oasis I wondered about the whereabouts of the Gobi bear that is supposed to live at the oasis. Gobi bears are extremely rare. Sükhee says there are perhaps only twenty-five or thirty in the entire south Gobi of Mongolia. One of his jobs as nature preserve ranger is to monitor the Gobi bear population. The Gobi A Nature Preserve also had a program to feed the bears and Sükhee takes part in this, so he knows quite a bit about Gobi bears. The last time I was at Shar Khuls there was a bear here. We encountered its tracks everywhere and saw numerous piles of still steaming dung. The camels were completely spooked and refused to stay in the oasis itself. We had to camp a hundred yards out in the desert. But now there was no sign of the bear. Sükhee says they are extremely elusive and are very seldom seen under normal conditions.
South of Shar Khuls Oasis
We emerged from the southern end of the oasis and continued south through a wide valley. This was the route of famous Amarbuyant Khiid–Anxi caravan route that went past Dambijantsan’s Fortress at Gongpochuan, described to me by Shukee in Shinejinst. At one point we encounter a group of five ovoos. Now ovoos are hardly unusual in Mongolia, but these are the first we have encountered on our trip here in the south Gobi. And they are of strange design. They are no just heaps of rocks like most ovoos but barrel-shaped constructions of fitted rock. The insides of the barrel-like ovoos are filled with sand and gravel. Tsogoo says that local people have never been quite sure who made these ovoos or why, but there has been speculation that they were built by Dambijantsan. Why here at this place remains a mystery.
Ovoos on Amarbuyant Khiid–Anxi caravan route
Trail south
We ride on through a place where the valley narrows. As usual the camel men and the girls and our one pack camel are riding in a bunch out front and I am trailing about one hundred feet behind, fingering my mala as I repeat mantras. As the group passes by a spur of sandstone that protrudes into the valley I notice that everyone suddenly stops. Tsogoo shouts something and jumps off his camel. Mojik shouts at me, “Don, get off your camel!” Mojik, Uyanga, and Sükhee turn their camels to the right and start frantically beating them with their taishirs. Sükhee shouts “Mazaalai,” and then to my utter astonishment I see a huge Gobi bear come loping full speed around the corner of the spur of rock. Tsogoo has his camel by the lead rope and is running off on foot off to the right. My camel has apparently not seen the bear and I jerk its head around to the right and whip it with my taisher. I have to get out the path of the bear. When the bear is no more than seventy or eighty feet from Tsogoo it suddenly stops in its tracks, does a 180º degree turn and runs off over a ridge to the right. I get a good look as it runs away. Gobi bears, known as mazaalai, are not supposed to be big, but this one appeared to be about the same size as a large black bear, lean and rangy, but over four feet high at the shoulders and weighting upward to 300 pounds.
Mazaalai tracks
We regroup near the spur of rock. Tsogoo is so shaken he is hyperventilating. In all their years in the Gobi neither he nor Sükhee had ever had such a close encounter with a bear. “Bad, very bad,“ he keeps muttering. “We could have been killed.” Finally he has to sit down to catch his breath. Mojik keeps saying, “I don't believe this, I don't believe this.” Uyanga has a different take on the encounter: “This is a story to tell my grandchildren.”

Why did Tsogoo jump off his camel, and then tell the others to jump off? I wondered. Mojik explains that he was afraid the camels would see the bear, go completely berserk and throw their riders, maybe right in the path of the bear. He thought we would have a better chance on foot. I for one was going to take my chances on my camel. Oddly, the camels in the group in front never seemed to have seen the bear. I know mine did not. Even more oddly, the wind was blowing straight into our faces. Why had our camels not scented the bear? We spend a half an hour catching our breath, retelling the episode over and over again, and then finally move on.
We regroup after our bear scare
Soon the valley widens into a vast expanse of desert extending off to the southeast. Off to the left is a range of light colored ridges with stark black mountains looming behind. Soon we come to the mouth of a narrow canyon leading into the mountains. Scattered among the gravel outwash from the canyon are trunks and huge roots of tooroi trees, carried here by the torrential flash floods which sometimes occur here in the Gobi. Somewhere up the canyon there has be a stand of tooroi trees. This is the entrance to Dambijantsan’s secret hideout of Ülzii Bilegt. We turn out camels and head into the canyon opening.
Entrance to the canyon leading to Ülzii Bilegt