Thursday, September 29, 2005

Mongolia | Khovd Aimag | Bayanzurkh-Bulgan

After tea, fried bread, and yoghurt made from yaks’s milk with our hosts we set out to visit the Bayanzurkh Deer Stone and grave complex about half a mile away. The deer stones date from the late Bronze Age or Early Iron Age. Their exact significance is a matter of some dispute.
Deer Stones
According to a professor of history at Khovd College who I had spoken to on my previous visit to Khovd, the circle at the top of most deer stones may represent the sun, and the line of small circles the planets moving throught the sky. This is just one of several interpretations, however.
Detail of Deer Stone
In addition to the deer stones there are also a dozen or more graves, most probably dating from the Turk Era in the sixth and seventh centuries. The grave mounds are surrounded by either a circle of stones or a rectangle of stones with larger stones at each of the four corners.
Grave Mound
Baga Ulaan Davaa (Little Red Pass), which we had crossed the night before, is the main pass through the Mongol-Altai Range in Khovd Aimag. From Bayanzurkh there are two ways south to the town of Bulgan, near which we are supposed to met our camel men. One is straight south down the valley of the Bodonch River, which begins near Bayanzurkh and flows by the settlement. The other road veers to the west at Bayanzurkh and then crosses Ikh Ulaan Davaa (Big Red Pass) before turning south. Tseveenjav explains that most commercial traffic goes the Bodonch River route, but that the Ikh Ulaan Davaa route is most scenic. Also, he suspects that it will also soon be closed by snow. So he suggests he go to Bulgan via the latter road and come back via the Bodonch River.
Ikh Ulaan Davaa
Ikh Ulaan Davaa, at 9715 feet, is 6.5 mile west of Bayanzurkh. From here can be seen a sweeping view of the crest of the Mongol-Altai Range, the highest point of which is 14,311-foot Monkh Khairkhan Uul, the second highest mountain in Mongolia, after 14,350 Khuiten Uul in Bayan-Olgii Aimag, both of which I visited on previous trips to western Mongolia. (Oddly enough, I encountered famous European mountaineer Reinhold Messner at the base Monkh Khairkhan. He was apparently looking for almas, the Mongolian version of Big Foot.)

Crest of the Mongol-Altai Range

Khuiten Uul in Bayan-Olgii Aimag

Monkh Khairkhan Uul
From cold and windy Ikh Ulaan Davaa the road drops down to the headwaters of the Uyench River, which starts near the crest of the Mongol-Altai Range and eventually disappears into the gravel of the Zungarian Gobi near the area where we are headed by camel. From the headwaters the river descends into a gorge which eventually narrows out into a narrow valley. In contrast to the desiccated hills and mountains on either side the valley is one long oasis of grassy meadows and groves of cottonwood trees and thickets of willow and alders. At a spring called Ulaan Eregiin Rashaan we stop and built a fire for tea and lunch. Tseveenjav relates that the surrounding hills are full of ibexes, and that he often brings foreign hunters to camps here. He comments on how morose the hunters get when they are unable to bag an ibex and how elated they become if and when they finally shoot one, often hugging their Mongolian hunting guides. Why grown men should hug each other after killing an animal is unclear to me, but Tseveenjav allows that hard-core hunters are a strange breed. He also said that he personally has seen snow leopards in this area and that they are not as rare as a lot of people seem to think.

The valley of the Uyench River
Ulaan Eregiin Rashaan
Near the sum center of Uyench the mountains drop away and the valley opens into a wide expanse of desert steppe. A hydroelectric program under the direction of the Chinese is in progress, using the water from the Uyench River. When complete the plant will provide electricity for Uyench, Bulgan, and Altai sums. In the town of Uyench we have to stop at the Khovd Aimag Border Police Headquarters and get our border permits, which I had acquired from the headquarters in Ulaan Baatar, checked and signed by the local commander. We are informed that we will also have to sign in with each the border stations we pass along the way on our camel trip. This takes two hours. Finally we proceed on Bulgan.