Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Mongolia | Khovd Aimag | Khovd-Bayanzurkh

Having already made three trips to the central Gobi Desert—two camel trips in Bayankhongor Province (one on the Route of the 13th Dalai Lama) and a jeep trip through western Omnigov Province—I decided to do a camel trip in the so-called Zungarian Gobi in the western province of Khovd. I contacted Dr Terbish, a professor of biology at the National University of Mongolia who in addition to being an contributor to the Mongolian Red Book (a compendium of rare and endangered species), the author of several of his own books, and a panjandrum with Great Genghis Expeditions, is arguably the world’s leading authority on the zamba guvel, a rare lizard found only at select locations in the Gobi Desert, and he agreed to organize the trip through local contacts he had made while doing research in the Zungarian Gobi.

Thus on September 28, with a translator named Mash-Erdene (“Very Glorious”) in tow I boarded a AeroMongolia Fokker 50 for the 708 mile flight to Khovd City, capital of Khovd Aimag. This was the first time I had flown with AeroMongolia, a relatively new-comer in the airline business, and I found the new 50 seat prop plane a welcome change from the old chicken-crates-on-wings Russian planes previously used by MIAT Mongolian Airlines. Also, the weather was perfect; not so much as a bump in the entire two and a half hour flight. On the plane were ten or twelve people from other countries most of whom seemed to be on their way to Bayan-Olgii province further out west, where they were planning on visiting an exhibition of hunting eagles held by the local Kazakh people. As one man from Spain explained to me, all available flights to Olgii, the capital of Bayan-Olgii, were packed full, so he and his friends were flying to Khovd and hoped to continue on to Olgii by chartered jeep.

We were met at the airport by our jeep driver, a extremely well preserved 73 year-old man named Tseveenjav.

We barreled into Khovd City in his sixteen year old Russian jeep and made a quick stop at the big city market for some last minute shopping.

Main Street of Khovd
Khovd is famous for its vegetables and melons, and we were able to get carrots, cabbage, and potatoes for the ridiculously low price of 100 togrogs (about 8 cents) a kilo. At the market we met a woman in her forties who worked as a cook at a hunting camp in the Mongol-Altai Mountains and she asked if she could hitch a ride with us to Bayanzurkh, a small settlement in the mountains on the way to the town of Bulgan, our final destination. We had originally planned to camp out somewhere near Bayanzurkh so we agreed to take her along.

Another view of Khovd
We drove west from Khovd, then south, eventually crossing the crest of the Mongol-Altai Range at 9416 foot Baga Ulaan Davaa (Small Red Pass).

Ovoo at Baga Ulaan Davaa
Here our driver stopped and we circumambulated the ovoo at the pass while Tseveenjav made an offering of artz, incense made from the leaves of a kind of juniper plant common to Mongolia.

View of the Mongol-Altai Range from Baga Ulaan Davaa
By the time we arrived at Bayanzurkh, a tiny settlement of two or three buildings and half a dozen or so gers it was pitch dark; it was almost a new moon and even the sliver of moon was not to rise until after midnight. The woman we had given a ride to wanted to be left off at a ger here. Stepping out of the jeep we were confronted by gelid temperatures of 15 degrees F. and a relentless twenty-mile an hour wind. The thought of sending up tents and attempting to cook a meal under such conditions was daunting at best. We ducked into the ger for tea and the woman soon arranged with her friends for us to stay in their ger for the night and she herself agreed to cook us a meal on their stove. So we threw out our sleeping bags on the floor of the warm ger and settled in for the night.