Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Ямар уужуу юм бэ монголын тал нутаг

The last post focused on the archaeology of summer 2014.  That, however, was only a part of the adventure and a sliver of the amazing visuals, scraping the surface on a multi-faceted field experience.  Our project photograph, Ellen Platts (http://ellenplatts.com/) did a fantastic job recording our reconnaissance as well as the landscape across which we moved.  All of the images in this post are hers and all credit goes entirely to her.

The title of this post, "Yamar uujuu youm be, Mongolyn tal nutag", is taken from a Mongolian folk song extolling the parallel virtues of the Mongolian countryside and the Mongolian people.  The line roughly translates to "How spacious is the Mongolian homeland", but could also be translated as "How peaceful is the Mongolian homeland".  Whether considering the wide rolling steppe, the endless sky, or the slow glittering rivers that cut through the countryside, this sentiment rings true.

The following images are in rough chronological order from last summer's time in the field.

Mountains outside of Orkhon, Bulgan

Orkhon soum (analogous to county) of Bulgan province is split by the river of the same name, one of the country's longest and widest rivers.

Khunnui River, Arkhangai
The winding Khunnui River is lined by short willow trees in some places and in others widens and deepens into little pools for bathing and swimming.  Throughout the day and night, herders, local families, and various animals alone or in groups come to the Khunnui as the main water source in the valley.

Herds of sheep, goat, horses, and cattle in the Khunnui Valley, Arkhangai
The portion of the Khunnui River visited in the summer of 2014 runs through Khairkhan soum of Arkhangai Province, where the famous Gol Mod 1 Xiongnu/Khunnu cemetery lies in the sandy wooded slopes east of the river valley.  In fact, the sands around Gol Mod 1 are visible in the photo below.  Our group spent the majority of our time in the valley examining Bronze Age features distributed around and a top a small mountain just west of the river.  Some of Ellen's pictures of these sites can be seen in the previous post.

Khunnui Valley with a view of Gol Mod 1 site (major Xiongnu/Khunnu elite cemetery site).  Can you spot the khirigsuur in this photo?  [Hint: look for geometric shapes in the distribution of rocks]

Stack of rocks in Suujiin Valley, Bulgan
Spanning Dashinchilen and Rashaan soum is Suujiin Valley, which runs basically north-south from the town of Dashinchilen to Khungun Khan/Ikh Khan Uul monastery.  Suujiin Valley is a mixed steppe-desert environment, with stunning rock formations and scrubby vegetation in place of the lush grass of Saikhan soum or the dense grasses and wildflowers of northeast Khentii Province.  Despite feeling like a drier and harsher environment, this part of Bulgan had lovely sunsets:
Sunset north of Khungun Khan/Ikh Khan Uul monastery, Bulgan

At the southern end of Suujiin Valley is the Khungun Tarna Protected Area, where mountain goats (yangir), big-horned sheep (argal'), and numerous raptors dwell amongst the cliffs and scrub vegetation of a towering red-rock mountain range.  Khungun Tarna is notable for ecological and cultural significance, as it is the site of numerous sacred places and archaeological features.

Khungun Tarna ovoo site, Bulgan
The Khungun Tarna ovoo site is draped in khadag of all five colors: white, yellow, green, red, and blue (by far the most predominant color).  Worshipers cast candies, aruul (dried cheese-like products), and money around the site as offerings.

I have been told that, while the offering may be to forces and beings on a spiritual plane, they are also tangible offerings to the animals.  Furthermore, I have heard that when small animals and birds come to consume offerings left at an ovoo, it is considered both good luck and part of the sanctification of the site.
At Khungun Tarna, there were numerous small ground squirrels (zurum) playing their part at the ovoo.

Last but not least, there were a number of horse skulls gathered together at the eastern aspect of the ovoo site.  On a number of occasions I have been told that these are the skulls of prized, beloved, or otherwise highly valued horses.  Their owners or human companions collect the skull after the horse dies - these are not evidence of sacrifice, in my experience - and bring it reverently to an ovoo.

Ruins of original Khungun Khan/Ikh Khan Uul monastery, Bulgan.  These buildings were destroyed by Socialist forces during the 1937 purges.
Khungun Khan (or Ikh Khan Uul, the correct but underused name, according to the monastery's caretaker) monastery was once a major religious community.  According to the caretaker, around 200 monks lived in 10 temples at this community before the 1937 purges.  The bloody and traumatic purges carried out across Mongolia in the late 1930s are rarely discussed by most Mongolians, although many will tell you that every family lost at least one man (father, brother, uncle, or son) to the Socialist forces at the time.  Some families saw even more of their loved ones murdered, or saw them taken, never to be heard from again.

Despite all of my time in Mongolia, I have only heard a few Mongolians closest to me open up even a little bit about their family's experiences during the purges.  My perception is that this dark chapter of 20th century history was successfully suppressed for decades and that those who remember mostly remembered that keeping quiet was the best defense against future purges.

I also sense that many people here are deeply uncomfortable about the subject of the purges.  This could be for a number of reasons, many of which are not mutually-exclusive.  For example, accordingly to what I have heard, certain ethnic groups in Mongolia were hit more severely than others during the purges.  In such accounts, the Buryat people of northeastern Mongolia and people of the southeast (especially in Dariganga) were specifically targeted because of their disproportionate representation amongst the intelligentsia and politically-minded as well as their historical relationships with 'outsiders' (Russia and China, respectively).

I've also been told that since most Mongolian families at the time sent at least one son to become a monk, every family in Mongolia had at least one loved one taken from them when the monks were purged.  Although there is a Memorial Museum of Victims of Political Persecution in Ulaanbaatar, the purges aren't directly shown as part of the 20th-century display in the National Museum of Mongolia and I've personally found it a little-known topic outside of academia when speaking to non-Mongolians.  I can certainly see that it's a very difficult and sensitive topic for the Mongolian people.

Upper temple at Khungun Khan/Ikh Khan Uul monastery, Bulgan.  Several temples have been rebuilt at Khungun Khan since reconstruction began in 1992.
The ruins and wreckage of monastic buildings and communities throughout the Mongolian countryside are a tangible and undeniable reminder of death and destruction.  Some of these places have been rebuilt, such as Khungun Khan/Ikh Khan Uul, and are seeing a return of monks, the faithful, and even tourists.

Sunset at Rashaan Khad site, Khentii
Khentii's greatest claim to fame is its pride as the birthplace of Chinggis Khan.  Recently the provincial capital officially changed its name to Chinggis, although the old name still appears on many maps.  The legendary burial grounds of the Chinggisid royal line at Burkhan Khaldun, deep in the mountains on the western margin of the province, have been the target of archaeological investigations by the National University of Mongolia as well as a site of pilgrimage for the Mongolian people.

Although we visited a few sites associated with Chinggis Khan  during our time in Khentii, we didn't go to any of the more famous sites.  However, we not only saw spectacularly beautiful countryside, we met amazingly friendly people and visited a broad spectrum of archaeological sites in terms of time period and site type.

Ovoo near Khurkh River, Khentii
As soon as we turned off-road into Khentii backcountry, I felt like I'd been magically transported back to Washington state (specifically the northeastern side of the Cascade Range).  The photograph below, taken from the hilltop fortress wall Uglugchiin Kherem, illustrates my point:

Pop quiz: Khentii or Mazama?
Khentii is the most lush, densely forested part of Mongolia that I have visited, full of berries, waving grasses, looping rivers, forested hills, and wildflowers.  Wildflowers on almost every slope, peeping out of ancient burials or bobbing their heads over glacially-cold streams, in myriad shapes and colors.

Wildflowers near Bayan River, Khentii.  Never have I seen as many blue flowers in my entire life as I did Khentii.  These colors are not Photoshopped; those flowers really are that blue!
Khentii is remarkable also for the proliferation of rivers and streams.  While Mongolia is a very arid country over a number of ecological zones, much of Khentii is verdant, making it the literal bread basket of the country.  The only two downsides to Khentii's watery ways: 1) muddy roads and 2) aggressive mosquito swarms.

Sunset along Khurkh River, Khentii
Unfortunately I don't have any pictures of the night our team spent in the actual pine forests along the Eg River outside of the small town of Batshireet.  That's probably because, although the site was a lovely secluded grove with a bed of pine needles overlooking the rushing river, the mosquitoes were ravenous, relentless pests.  We were driven into our tents rather early and I doubt anyone thought a few photos were worth a dozen bites.

Stupa near Umnudelger, Khentii
Uvurkhangai Province marked the furthest westward extent of summer 2014 reconnaissance expeditions.  Our team traveled along the Orkhon River into the national park of the same name and the major waterfall (Ulaan tsutgalan) not far from the river's source.

UAZ/furgong on the road to Khujirt, Uvurkhangai
After some adventures with extremely muddy roads in Khentii, we journeyed along the equally rough roads along the Upper Orkhon River in a furgong.

UAZ/furgong going off-road, Uvurkhangai
The furgong is the ultimate in Mongolian travel.  Whether or not the Soviet aesthetic appeals to you, you can't deny that it's easy to fix, hard to flip over, capable of pulling other vehicles, and up to most tasks that the Mongolian countryside can through at it.

Orkhon River floodplain, Uvurkhangai
Much of our time was spent in the Orkhon River National Park, which encloses a wide alluvial plain broken up by basalt rock deposits, plateaus, and canyons. There are actually khirigsuur hidden amongst these deposits, as well as other archaeological sites distributed all around the river proper.  The plain is lined by forested mountains, which are difficult to traverse via vehicle due to poor roads.

Orkhon waterfall at Ulaan tsutgalan, Uvurkhangai
The Orkhon waterfall, Ulaan tsutgalan, is the destination of choice for most who venture into Orkhon River National Park.  It is truly spectacular and worth the bumpy, muddy driver from the park entrance.

Horns at the Natural Museum, Ulaan tsutgalan, Uvurkhangai

Ovoo at the Orkhon waterfall, Uvurkhangai
Our journey through Uvurkhangai also took us up into the mountains along the southern margin of the Orkhon River floodplain.  At this higher elevation, temperatures dropped and the forests drew densely around the ruined mountain roads.  Mogoit Rashaan ("snake springs") rests high in the mountains outside of Bat-Ulzii, where numerous smaller springs bubble up out of the earth, join together into a river, and flow down into the main valley.  Each smaller spring is reported to treat a specific ailment; for example, there is a spring for "women's issues", "men's issues", eyes, allergies, and so forth.  Our assistant Ariuna diligently gathered water from appropriate spring sources for each team member after the caretaker of the hotspring resort pointed them out.

On the road to Mogoit Rashaan hotsprings, Uvurkhangai
Out on the main floodplain of the Orkhon River in Uvurkhangai, yaks abound.  Yaks thrive in colder weather and higher elevation than other Mongolian livestock.  We spent a night with an extended family of yak herders near Bat-Ulzii and slept in the grandmother's ger pictured below (more on that in a later post).

Vehicles of choice in Bat-Ulzii, Uvurkhangai
Our last night in the field was spent along the willow-lined banks of the placid Orkhon River as it lazily flows through Arkhangai Province, between the rushing headwaters in Bat-Ulzii and the massive canyon that starts in Bulgan Province.

Orkhon River, Arkhangai
In fact, we camped near the old rickety wooden bridge over the Orkhon River that foiled the vehicles from my first ever expedition in Mongolia (2005 to Tamiryn Ulaan Khoshuu).  The bridge is practically falling apart, although some small cars still cross it, but the summer students made better use of it:

Our last night was spent telling unnerving rumors and ghost stories around a campfire.  We got ourselves so spooked that we were convinced that lights amongst the trees meant something similar (they turned out to be the car of a family that camped upstream from us).  You'd never guess that anyone could get scared at such a peaceful spot!

Willows along a tributary of the Orkhon River, Arkhangai

Next time:
Close encounters of the Mongolian kind!  The landscapes represented here are incomplete without the people and animals of the Mongolian countryside, whose activities and lives shape every context we visited.  In 2014 I was fortunate enough to meet a number of amazing people in the khuduu (Mongolian countryside) as our little team traveled around conducting reconnaissance, and we had our fair share of encounters with domesticated and a few wild animals.  I'll try to cram all of those eventful meetings and new friendships - or the highlights - into one post.

Sunset in Suujiin Valley, Bulgan Province

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