Monday, December 10, 2007

Mongolia | Gov-Altai Aimag | Shar Khuls Oasis

The next morning we round the easternmost spurs of Zaraa Khairkhanii Nuruu and by ten o’clock we could make out to the southeast the Shar Khulsnii Nuruu. Shar Khuls oasis is somewhere on the northern side of these mountains. I had been to Shar Khuls before, but I had approached the oasis from Amarbuyant Khiid directly from the north. Tsogoo and Sükhee had also been there before, but not by this direct camel route, and now they were not sure where the oasis was. Carelessly I had not bothered to bring the GPS coordinates for Shar Khuls since I did not anticipate any problems finding it. Now we sit on a high ridge and study the Shar Khulnii Nuruu for an hour before making out an opening in the mountains about ten miles away which Tsogoo concludes must be Shar Khuls Oasis. We ride on and an hour later can just make out through binoculars dark patches of vegetation which must be trees. These would be the first trees we have seen since leaving Bayan Toroi 115 miles to the north.

Thus our experience was very similar to that of the Roerich Expedition which arrived at Shar Khuls on May 5, 1927. George Roerich noted in his Trails to Inmost Asia:
“Towards four o’clock in the afternoon . . . we noticed several dark spots at the foot of the mountains and at the entrance into a narrow gorge hidden behind a long spur. Someone in the caravan column cried out ‘Trees!’ We could not believe our eyes, for most of us were firmly convinced that at best, we would see only miserable juniper shrubs. But there in the distance were actual trees, desert poplars (Populus euphratica) that grew along the banks of the river. How refreshing it felt to enter the coolness of the forested gorge, and camp on the green meadows.”
The Roerichs—painter, mystic and hard-core Aghartian-Shambhalist Nicholas Roerich; his wife Elena, who had translated The Secret Doctrine of Madame Blavatsky into Russian; his Harvard educated son and Tibetan translator George; and various factotums—had left India in March of 1925 for what would be a three-year sojourn through Inner Asia. As I noted in an earlier post, “Nicholas Roerich claimed he was looking for inspiration for his paintings, and his son George was supposedly engaged in various ethnological and linguistic researches. From the three books churned out by Nicholas Roerich about the expedition it is pretty clear however that they were actually looking for the kingdom of Shambhala.” It was Madame Blavatsky who in The Secret Doctrine had posited the idea that Shambhala might be found somewhere in the Gobi Desert. (Apparently the Roerichs were not aware of Khamariin Khiid in Dornogov Aimag, now considered by many to be a Portal to Shambhala.) From India they had traveled north into the Tarim Basin in what is now Xinjiang Province, China, visiting the Rawak Stupa near Khotan, and then traveled north to Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang. After a brief detour to Moscow where they had attempted to entangle the Soviet Secret Police in a plot to establish an actual state modeled on the Kingdom of Shambhala in Central Asia they proceeded first to the Russian Altai Mountains and then to Mongolia, arriving in Ulaan Baatar in September of 1926. Here Nicholas Roerich presented one of his paintings entitled “The Ruler to Shambhala”—this may or may not be painting now known as the Red Warrior in the Zanabazar Fine Arts Museum in Ulaan Baatar—to the Mongolian government. They left Ulaan Baatar by motorized vehicle on April 13, 1927 and arrived at Amarbuyant Monastery in Bayankhongor Aimag a week or so later. Here they hired camels and continued south on their sojourn through Mongolia, China, and Tibet, eventually ending up in Sikkim, India.

A few years earlier I had followed their route from Amarbuyant Khiid to Shar Khuls by Camel, a distance of 105 miles which took six days to cover by camel. This was also the route taken by the 13th Dalai Lama in 1904, when he fled to Mongolia to escape the Younghusband Expedition which had earlier invaded Tibet. The 13th Dalai had himself camped at Shar Khuls Oasis and stayed at Amarbuyant Khiid for ten days.
The northern end of Shar Khuls Oasis
Shar Khuls Oasis
We reach Shar Khuls at three in the afternoon, set up camp on the gravel bars at the northern end of the oasis, and are soon tucking into a big meal of boiled mutton and homemade noodles. The wind has died completely and in the afternoon sun it is quite warm. Compared to the last three days the conditions are downright luxurious. Nearby a spring issues forth a six-inch wide stream of water which flows for maybe one hundred feet before disappearing beneath the sands. This is the main water source for Shar Khuls. Tsogoo, Sükhee, and the girls all decide to wash their hair and get cleaned up.
Sükhee helping Tsogoo with his ablutions
Tsogoo has a nasty bruise on the side of his chest and is still convinced he broke something, probably a rib or two. I had kept him dosed down with prescription painkillers and when these ran out gave him Advil. Oddly, he claims the Advil offers more relief that the supposedly more powerful painkillers. He has Mojik prepare a huge poultice from tea (Yunnan Gold black tea, which I am only too happy to sacrifice to this cause) which he places on the bruise, holding it in place with a wool scarf wrapped around his chest. He says he still has some pain but he will be fine. He even decides he needs a haircut.
Uyanga shearing Tsogoo
Shar Khuls was once the crossroads of two important caravan routes. One ran north-south from Amarbuyant Khiid and across the Black Gobi and Maajin Shan to Anxi in current day Gansu Province. This route passed by Dambijantsan’s Fortress at Gongpochuan. The other route ran east-west from Hohhot in what is now Inner Mongolia, China, to Gucheng (now known as Qitai) on the northern side of the Tian Shan in Xinjiang, China. (I had visited Qitai back in May but could not find a trace of the caravanserai for which the town had once been famous.) Because of its important as a caravan crossroads it had not escaped the attentions of Dambijantsan. George Roerich:
“Situated not far from the Mongol border, the gorge was always a favorite haunt of robbers. Ja Lama maintained outposts here to look after the caravans coming from China, Tibet, and Mongolia. Even after Ja Lama’s death, the gorge was still visited by robber bands. Only a month before our passing a big camel caravan en route for Ku-ch’eng [Qitai] was plundered in the gorge and one of its drivers killed. Our Mongol guides advised us to be very careful and to keep watch in the night.”
Dambijantsan’s hideout while plundering the caravans using these routes might well have been at Ülzii Bilegt, our next destination.
The tooroi trees of Shar Khuls Oasis
At one time Chinese renegades and outlaws from Gansu Province in China had settled here to grew opium. George Roerich says they found the former dwellings of these opium growers at Shar Khuls, but that these Chinese had left some twenty years ago. Yet one of my informants, an eighty-two year old man named Tsedev who now lives near Shinejinst in Bayankhongor Aimag, claims that the opium growers were still there in Dambijantsan’s time. As a young man he had traveled the Amarbuyant Khiid–Anxi caravan route many times and had once lived for awhile at Gongpochuan. He claimed that Dambijantsan, who was opposed to all use of drugs and alcohol, killed the Chinese opium growers at Shar Khuls and destroyed their plants. He said that when he was a young man he saw the skeletons of Chinese killed by Dambijantsan at Shar Khuls.
82 year-old Tsedev of Shinejinst
The 13th Dalai Lama was met here at Shar Khuls by a delegation of the famous chanting monks from Amarbuyant Khiid. They accompanied him by camel for the six day trip to Amarbuyant, chanting all the way.

Later Mojik and I go to check out the Dalai Lama’s Spring, a tiny outflow in a grotto beneath a cliff of basalt. According to local lore the 13th Dalai Lama blessed this spring and prophesied that one day the water from here would serve as a great cure for local people. On my last trip local people had told me that people had in fact started coming here to drink the water in hopes of a cure for a peculiar throat ailment which seems to afflict residents of the south Gobi. Just above the spring is the 13th Dalai Lama’s Ovoo, reputedly built by the 13th Dalai Lama himself.

Mojik getting water from the spring which had been blessed by the 13th Dalai Lama
Ovoo which locals claim was built by the 13th Dalai Lama during his stay at Shar Khuls Oasis
Tsogoo taking the camels to water

Mojik contemplating a bowl of Iron Goddess of Mercy oolong tea.

The Roerichs would later say that Shar Khuls Oasis was the best camping spot they encountered on their entire trip from Ulaan Baatar through Mongolia, China, Tibet and on to Sikkim in the Himalayas. We certainly had a nice stay, but I was eager to move on to Ülzii Bilegt, Dambijantsan’s hideout in the mountains to the south.
Shar Khuls Oasis