Thursday, September 14, 2006

Mongolia | Gov-Altai Aimag | Bilegt’s Rock

The road leading away from Eej Khairkhan Uul
We drive north from Eej Khairkhan Uul and begin to climb through desert steppe which ramps up to the east-west trending Tayangiin Mountains. To the northwest rises what Chültem calls the Big Tayangiin, crowned by 10,575' Gyalgaryn Oroi Uul. To the northeast is the Little Tayangiin, topped by several eight and nine thousand foot peaks, which eventually merges with the main backbone of the Mongol Altai near Burkhan Buudai. From the sloping steppe the road winds higher into the buttresses of the Tayangiin. Rounding a hairpin curve we suddenly come upon a roadside monument which I at first take to be an ovoo marking the pass through the mountains. Instead of one high pile of rocks, however, there is a big cubical rock measuring perhaps a yard on each side and draped with prayer scarves. Surrounding it are a couple dozen piles of rocks two feet or so high. This is not the pass, Chültem explains as we climb out of the jeep. The big rock was carried here by the celebrated wrestler Bilegt and the rock piles—small ovoos actually—are memorials to this prodigious feet.

Bilegt was from near Tseel, the next village nineteen miles farther north. He was a huge man and famously strong, but he wanted above all to be renowned as a wrestler. At the time—apparently around the turn of the century, although the chronology is a bit vague—the most important wrestling matches were held in Uliastai, in Zavkhan aimag north of Gov-Altai aimag, and many of the most prominent wrestlers came from Zavkhan. Not sure that he was ready to take on the champions from Zavkhan Bilegt began a concerted training program. Holding large sections of tree trunks in his arms he walked greater and greater distances until he was able to carry them from near Tseel to the pass through these mountains, a distance of some eighteen miles, and later even supposedly carried some from the pass through the main Mongol Altai Mountains to a north, over thirty-five miles away. Still he felt he needed one final test of strength. Spying a huge cube of rock he picked it up and carried it at least 500 feet. The rock remains to this day where he finally dropped it.
Chültem with Bilegt’s Rock
Bilegt went to Uliastai, beat all the competition, and was lauded all over Mongolia. Even when his wrestling days were over he was remembered as the man who had once carried the huge rock now resting near the pass through the Tayangiin Mountains. When he died his body, as was the custom then, was not buried but simply tossed into an isolated ravine where his bones were stripped clean by vultures and wild animals. According to local lore a she-wolf eventually gave birth to a litter of pups in his enormous rib cage. Later some men from Ulaangom in Uvs aimag found this rib cage and took it back to Ulaangom. Bilegt’s great powers were somehow conveyed with his bones, and since then Uvs aimag has supplied Mongolia with its strongest and best wrestlers, or so goes the story.

I suppose someone could calculate roughly how much a cubic yard of solid rock weighs. Chültem says that to this day no one has ever been able to lift it. He and I together can barely rock it back and forth. I add a few fist-sized rocks to the small ovoos and we continue on.

Bilegt’s stone is at an elevation of 7280'. The pass through the Tayangiin Mountains—Nakhis Davaa—is a mile and half farther on at an elevation of 7450' (N45º19.008/E095º57.249'). Here there is the de rigueur ovoo where we make a brief stop and I place a blue prayer scarf to commemorate our leaving the basin of Zakhny Zarmangiin with its lonely mistress, Eej Khairkhan Uul.

Mongolia | Gov-Altai Aimag | Eej Khairkhan Uul

On the road to Eej Khairkhan Uul. The twin peaks of the mountain are just visible in the distance.
Shelter at Eej Khairkhan Uul
Near the shelter at the base of Eej Khairkhan Uul is a small fire ring and someone has left behind a small pile of twisted and gnarled saxual wood. At least we will have the luxury of a campfire. A pot of tea is set to boil and we sprawl out on a conveniently flat outcrop of rock for a picnic lunch. “The mountain likes you,” my jeep driver Chültem tells me, “the weather was good coming across the desert and now it is perfectly calm and clear. It’s a good sign. I believe we will have an enjoyable time here.” He allows that to his mind Eej Khairkhan is the most special place in all of Gov-Altai Aimag.
View of Eej Khairkhan Uul
He goes on to explain that Eej means “mother” and Khairkhan is an honorific or term of endearment meaning roughly “dear” or “dearest”. Thus Eej Khairkhan could be translated as “Mother Dearest”. When I asked Chültem why it was called this he simply indicated the mountain with a broad sweep of his arm. Realizing that I didn’t grasp his point, he cupped his hand under his breasts as if describing the fulsome bosom of a female acquaintance. Obviously the name referred to the prominent twin peaks of the massif. From far out in the desert the resemblance would have been even more striking to lonely herders or caravan men contemplating the otherwise featureless horizon.
Mammary-like peaks of Eej Khairkhan Uul. The lower mound, front-center, may represent the mons veneris.
But while Eej Khairkhan may have been a dear mother she was a less than perfect wife. According to legend, Chültem relates, Eej Khairkhan was once married to Aj Bogd Uul, a massif crowned by a 12, 432' peak about forty-five miles to the west. But Aj Bogd Uul was old, with white hair—the summit is covered with snow year-round—and Eej Khairkhan lusted for a younger mate. Her attention was drawn to 12,311' Burkhan Buudai Uul ninety miles to the northeast who, from a distance at least, appeared younger. One night she creep away from the sleeping Aj Bodg Uul. About halfway to Burkhan Buudai Uul she crouched down, perhaps to relieve herself, with the hem of her deel resting on the ground. Aj Bodg Uul woke up and in his anger at finding his wife gone threw a huge handful of sand in the direction of Eej Khairkhan. The sand landed on the hem of her deel and prevented her from getting up. To this day she sits stranded, surrounded by sand, halfway between the scorned Aj Bogd Uul and the longed-for Burkhan Buudai Uul.

Eej Khairkhan Uul was also famous for the ascetic hermit-lama who lived here about a hundred years ago. This man, whose name Chültem can’t remember, was from Tsogt, the village just south of Burkhan Buudai Uul which we had passed through the evening before. He joined a monastery, since destroyed, in Tsogt and later made a long pilgrimage to Lhasa, in Tibet, where he had studied under various Tibetan teachers. Eventually returning to the monastery at Tsogt, he found that he was never able to fully concentrate on the religious texts which he was studying nor was he able to devote sufficient time to his meditations. He left the monastery and began a long peregrination among the mountains and deserts of southwest Mongolia. Eventually he was attracted to the austure, uninhabited massif of Eej Khairkhan. Near the base of the mountain he found a cave which he turned into a hermitage. At last he was able to concentrate on his studies and mediations, and for several decades he remained sequestered here, ekking out the barest of livings from the harsh surroundings. Eventually though word of this holy recluse at Eej Khairkhan spread and more and more people came to pay their respects. By the time he died Eej Khairkhan had became a well-known pilgrimage site. Even today many Mongolians come to see the cave where the lama spent most of his life.
Cave-Shelter of the Eej Khairkhan Uul Lama
We also viewed the famous Seven Pools where snowmelt and rain cascade down the side of the mountains into a series of seven natural rock cisterns.
The Seven PoolsAnother view of the Seven Pools
The rare zamba gurvel (lizard) is an habitué of Eej Khairkhan Uul