Monday, October 12, 2015

5 Days of July: Day 5 - Returning through ruins and rock art

On the morning of our fifth and final day adventuring through Central Mongolia, we woke at dawn and quickly got on the road east towards Ulaanbaatar.  But we were in for a surprise - a surprise camel attack, that is!

A huge herd of camels swarms the Millennium Road on our way from the Orkhon River to Khar Bukhyn Balgas

This was the largest camel herd I'd ever seen, made all the more surprising because we weren't in 'classic' camel territory.  Two of the herd still had saddles and packs on their backs, which means there were probably two camel herders somewhere to the south about to get their own unhappy surprise upon realizing they'd be in for a long walk to get their rides back.

Short summer coats make the Bactrian camel look like practically a different species compared to winter time
Many of the camels were sporting 'floppy' humps, which indicate that they have burnt down their reserves of fat and are in need of food, rest, and water.  While it is a popular misconception that camels store water in their humps, the hump only stores fat; the camel's endurance is not just about managing thirst but doing without food and adequate rest (thanks primarily to the fatty hump or humps, in the case of Bactrian camels).  The excess water that camels store in their bodies is primarily circulated in the bloodstream, allowing these animals to go relatively long periods without drinking.  In this way, the camel's hump is a barometer of its health status and a handy visual cue for herders and veterinarians.

The camels are supremely unconcerned by Nandia's frustrated gesticulations

Our last major site would be Khar Bukhyn Balgas, the Khitan/Liao-period ruins along the Bukhyn River.

The ruins at Khar Bukhyn Balgas
The central buildings and stupa at Khar Bukhyn Balgas are constructed of stacked rock, differentiating them from Ordu Balik/Khar Balgas, although the perimeter walls seem to be earthwork.  The relatively late construction date and construction material together may explain why this fortress is relatively better preserved.

Inside the main structure, scrambling on the crumbling stacked rock walls
The small museum adjacent to the main fortress buildings contains finds from previous archaeological excavations at Khar Bukhyn Balgas.  While the museum is little more than a tiny room, it houses a variety of artifacts that shed some light on the site itself: granite column bases, pottery sherds, facsimiles of Khitan/Liao script written on birch bark, and other material culture that helped archaeologists assign the site to the Khitan/Liao period.

A visit from the museum and site caretaker's puppy

But we would make one more stop during the 5 Days of July - the small enclave of Sumyn Am.  Sumyn Am holds a special place in my heart, as I've conducted archaeological survey here three times.  Numerous burials (mostly from the Bronze Age) line the north slopes, but this summer we took a closer look at the ruins of a small Buddhist monastery and an outcrop dotted with rock art panels.

Examining the rubble from a Buddhist monastery destroyed during the Communist purges
Just west of the monastery ruins stands a bluff dotted with rock outcrops.  On the south faces of these outcrops ancient peoples have been incising and carving images since at least the Bronze Age.

View of the southern section of Sumyn Am and one of the rock art outcrops
Today several herding families have their summer encampments near the mouth of the Sumyn Am valley, and a dirt road runs along the bluff's base and west over the hills.  As most of the rock art panels face south and are protected from the harsh north wind, herd animals use them for shelter during winter and inclement weather (judging by the build-up of dung at the panels' bases).

How many rock art images can you spot in this panel?
Like most rock art panels in Mongolia that I've seen, the Sumyn Am outcrop is a multi-period site.  Certain images clearly fit in established Mongolian rock art chronologies: Bronze Age deer with spectacular antlers (not seen in the panel above though), or the stylized ibex of the Turk period.  For others, I am less confident about their time period.  However, the Sumyn Am outcrop was clearly used over several millennia by local populations as a nexus for creative expression with as-yet-determined ideological or social motivations.  I wonder whether young novices in the early 20th century living at the nearby monastery ever explored these outcrops, wondering who had made the images and perhaps carving a few of their own?

Climbing around to find more panels of rock art
After clambering up and down the outcrops and rock scrabble in search of rock art, we were in dire need of some shade and refreshment.  A small stand of trees in the nearby Suujiin Valley obliged, and we spread out our gear for one last picnic.

Escaping the midday sun underneath trees in Suujiin Valley
And that was the end of 5 Days in July, the most action-packed five days of camel rides, glorious sunsets, yaks, tsam dancing, pageantry, ruins, and rock art that a girl could ask for.  The 5 Days of July were a personal highlight of summer 2015, even considering the collapsed bridge that thwarted my plans.  Whether or not I reached Tamiryn Ulaan Khoshuu to honor ten years of Mongolia in my life, I can't think of a better way to celebrate a 10-year anniversary.

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