Sunday, August 21, 2011

Climb Any Mountain (Just Take A Map)

In palaeontology the thin, iridium-rich, band that marks the K-T boundary is indicative of a cataclysmic event that wiped out the dinosaurs and changed the face of the world entirely. Similarly in archaeology, throughout Eurasia there is often a band of ash that is consistently found towards the beginning of the 13th century and which marks the Mongol conquests; from Novgorod to Nishapur and Kiev to Korea. They did a truly thorough job. Yet despite their prowess at razing cities the nomadic warriors were less adept at building them. Under Genghis's successor, Ögedei, they realised that their sprawling empire needed a capital and so they founded Karakorum. By all accounts it wasn't that impressive and housed mainly foreign subjects - artisans, merchants, clerics and envoys from all over the dominions, whilst the Mongols preferred to continue living in their gers on the outskirts of the city. One astounding aspect of the city, and the Mongol empire in general, was its liberalism and tolerance regarding religion. Buddhism, Nestorian Christianity, Islam, Manichaeanism and Shamanism were all represented and coexisted equally, each with their own places of worship. Something that European civilisation still hasn't really managed to properly do today.

Holding history. A fragment of 13th century, glazed, clay piping from the Karakorum ruins. Bits like these lie scattered around the site whilst most of the ruins remain under the soil.

Today, however, very little is left to show for the centre of the world's largest contiguous empire (only slightly outdone by the British six centuries later): a large-ish field north of Erdene Zuu monastery with a few mounds and the odd piece of 13th century glazed pottery still lying around (although there have been limited excavations carried out they are alway covered over again to protect the remains). The monastery also underwent some serious destruction in the 1930's following Mongolia's own Communist purges where most of the monks were killed or sentenced to prison, but since the peaceful revolution of 1990, when religion was once more allowed, it has once again become one of the main centres of Buddhism in the country. Pilgrims from around Mongolia come to visit and do ritual koras around the hallowed grounds which were recently discovered to have been constructed on top of the khan's palace.

Pilgrims setting off to perform a ritual kora (circumambulation) around the extensive grounds of Erdene Zuu, carrying (what I guess are) stacks of sutras (for added holiness).

From there I headed south to the edge of the Gobi Desert. Not having a vehicle means that I couldn't go and fully explore the fascinating region with its many natural wonders, but I did get to skirt the area nevertheless via a few interesting hitches, a bus ride or two, paying for a local to give me a lift on his motorbike, and once even bloody-mindedly hiking the 30km I had to reach the nearest town. First of all the desert is not empty. I was surprised to find that it houses the world's greatest expanse of wild chives (OK, I'm not sure about that claim, but they were everywhere and were turning the steppe white to violet with their flowers). I, however, had not been informed, and had not brought along a sufficient quantity of cream cheese. The area is also particularly rich in wonderful geological phenomena as I discovered when, whilst hitchhiking, I was picked up by a group of German geologist tourists. They would stop every now and again to admire some obscure mineral features and have impromptu mini-lectures (for example, I learnt that in desert environments algae can sometimes be found growing beneath translucent stones such as quartz).

Via various transport trials and tribulations, including catching a lift with a post van (which would be stopped intermittently by locals in the middle of nowhere and variously given a couple of bottles of fermented milk to take to the next village, or who would pick up a jerry can of petrol and perhaps their regular prescriptions, a true life-line for people living in those remote areas), getting a ride on a truck, hopping on the back of a motorbike with my backpack as it bounced along dirt tracks, or even bloody-mindedly walking 20km to where I needed to be, I made it to Baga Gazriin Chuluu. A cluster of granite that juts out of the flat, surrounding steppe like a sore thumb, the area is a beautiful jigsaw of boulders piled on top and around each other, forming a maze and little oasis of (relative) greenery and life in the harsh surroundings (follow this link to see a satellite image of the site, which shows up as a khaki oval, clearly distinct from the surrounding landscape). I spent a day clambering over the worn crags of the ensemble, just soaking up the sun, silence and serenity and spotting the odd gazelle darting amongst the rocks.

The wonderful granite rock formations of Baga Gazriin Chuluu, that rise up out of the flat, surrounding landscape. Not just beautiful and a haven for local wildlife (I managed to spot some gazelle), but also great fun to clamber around.

Baga Gazriin Chuluu was my last stop before returning to UB to pick up my Chinese visa and continue my travels ... well, almost. The city lies in a valley that stretches east to west with forested mountains to the north and south. Since I was coming from the south I thought it would be more elegant to stop at the small town of Zuunmod, due south of UB on the other side of the valley, and hike across to the capital. In theory a relatively simple task to hike the 18 or so kilometres across Bogdkhan mountain, rising only 600m to the crest before descending on the city below. I hadn't counted on two things though. Firstly the top of the mountain is a wide plateau made up of large boulder fields that are difficult to navigate and can be tricky with a backpack; and secondly the president of Mongolia. He wasn't on the mountain chasing me, but the presidential compound is in one of the valleys that leads down from it to UB. It's protected by barbed wire, soldiers with guns and big warning signs. I know about the latter because I did not go far enough west along the main ridge of the mountain and funnelled myself down the wrong valley, along rivers of granite boulders that had to be painstakingly negotiated, until I reached the aforementioned barbed wire and signs. Luckily I didn't meet any of the soldiers. Exhausted I then had to slog a trail through the dense undergrowth and steep sides over to the next (correct) valley before being spat out, scratched, dirty and sweaty at the edge of UB. It is a useful lesson for people who are travelling in Mongolia that GPS is a handy thing to have here where signs and marked trails (both for hikers and drivers) are few and far between and where it's easy to get lost. And if you can't afford a GPS device then at least take a map!

The signs on the perimeter of the presidential compound (and the accompanying barbed wire) are rather unequivocal.

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