Mongolia Part 2: To the Altai and Back

Complete pictures here:

Very Best of Mongolia 2012

On the summer solstice, we pressed on to the west, reaching Naran Daats Bulag, a spring in the western part of the Nemegt Basin. We camped on the small patch of green grass below the spring and next to a beautiful monument to Tengri, the sky god.

Interesting character we met at Naran Bulag

The next day, we sampled the stratigraphic sections making up the cliffs around a large dry wash, and the day after traveled west to Tsagan Khushu before hitting the road towards the Altai.

Atop our final section at Naran Bulag

About an hour into the most rugged and remote driving in the trip, Tsele hit a shrub and got a flat. Changing the flat, in this case, involved also changing the inner tube, which required running over the tire with the Russian van to unseat it from the rim. We all took turns hand pumping the tire up to a million psi (don’t ask) in a massive sandstorm. Soon thereafter, Jobe started feeling bad from the heat and a stomach bug.

Changing a flat, Gobi desert

Our Land Cruiser began deteriorating in a pretty serious way as we drove towards Shinejinst, the first town in several hundred miles. We could hardly make it up even the most trivial of inclines. By the time we reached Bayan-Ombor, things were very grim. The drivers had tried their best at repairing the vehicle in the field, and by repair, I mean busting a hole in the exhaust with our rock hammers, then welding it back together. Derek, who knows a ton about cars, correctly diagnosed the problem as being a clogged fuel filter almost as early as UB, but apparently banging on the muffler was the Mongolian tactic.

Storm brews over Bayan-Ombor

Nomad visits camp for dinner near Bayan-Ombor

Children visit our camp near Bayan-Ombor

The next day, it was decided that Tsele and the Land Cruiser would get towed several days back to Ulaanbaatar, while the rest of us piled in the Russian van and pressed on to the west. All seven of us along with our field gear bounced for a day to Biger.

Five packed in the back seats of the Russian party van. L to R: Me, Ogii, Jobe, Jeremy and Derek

The next morning, to our elation, Nyamsakhin, our new driver, met us after rushing out from Bayanhongor in a day. With his deep voice, commanding yet laid back presence and general competence, we all joked that he was some type of mob boss in Bayanhongor. It turns out that he’s a bus driver, photography enthusiast and all-around awesome guy. Over the next few days, he would lead us on wild offroad chases of pohoon and tseg, antelope-like creatures who could outrun us at over 60 mph!

Nyamsakhin, Khaan of Mongols

The stratigraphy in Biger was amazing. Hundreds of meters of sands, clays and gravels were perfectly laid out up a mountainside. By the time we finished at Biger, we knew the trip was going to be quite successful from a scientific standpoint. Jeremy certainly has enough samples for a PhD.

Boy herds camels at sunset, Eev, central Mongolia

In Altay, we took our only rest day of the trip. While we’d essentially already planned on taking the day off, the Russian van needed a new rear differential. We took cold showers and played some basketball, which is quite popular in Monoglia. Often, you’ll see handmade wooden hoops outside gers.

Sunset near Eev, central Mongolia

A few days later and we were at our westernmost section at Dzereg. Once again, the sections were fantastic, but the only previous research into the western basins was horrendous. We had some running jokes and choice commentary for the previous authors, who among other things, had assigned an Oligocene (23-33 million year) age to sediments in Dariv purely based on their red color. After five minutes of walking around, Derek, who had done his master’s work in the basin, found a huge dinosaur fossil, confirming that the sediments were in fact Jurassic. Fieldwork is definitely complicated and making mistakes is understandable, but it’s best not to be off by over 100 million years. In Dzereg, an outcrop was described as an angular unconformity, or a gap in time, but the composition and orientation of the beds didn’t change at all. Yikes! I’d imagine some more tactful and professional responses will eventually make it into publication over the next few years.

Horse race during Nadaam, Khovd Dariv, western Mongolia

On our last day in Dzereg, we drove into town to see their Nadaam, the most important festival of the year which incorporates horse racing, archery and wrestling. Unfortunately, we just missed the race in town, but the next day as we drove home, we were lucky enough to see a race outside of Dariv. The races last from 15 to 30 km and are ridden by children 6 to 12 years old, often bareback. Unfortunately, when we got back on the main road and pressed on, we couldn’t reconnect with the Russian van. Lacking cell signal or any way to communicate, we searched with binoculars from a hill and waited for an hour for a passing car to say if they’d seen the Russian van. Both this year and last, I’ve had the sense that navigating on the open steppe must be akin to life on the high seas. I’ve never really been too far out to sea, but with the rolling hills in all directions, the lack of easy features to navigate with, and the isolation, it feels close.

Nyamsakhin’s nephew in his ger, central Mongolia

Anyhow, we soon reconnected and moved slowly east. After two more days, we started coming into Bayanhongor. A few hours outside of town, we stopped by the ger of Nyamsakhin’s brother and were treated to some food and tea. His nephew had a toy gun, and I opened up a play guerilla war wherein we were shot dozens of times. So much for his innocent look and peace sign…

Morning camp scene near Bayanhongor

In Byanhongor, we had a nice dinner and celebrated Naraa’s birthday and said goodbye to Nyamsakhin. The last two days we piled into the Russian van as earlier and pressed on. Back in UB, we cleaned up, feasted and packed our samples for the complicated process of getting them shipped back to the US.

Samples and impressive Chaco tan, Ulaanbaatar

We were able to hang out a bit more with Ogii and we had a nice dinner with the drivers as well. We even had dinner with Ganaa, our student translator from last year, who just came back from a field mapping course. We also squeezed in some souvenir hunting and I revisited the beautiful Gandantegchinlen Monastery. The largest Buddhist monastery in the country, it is also one of the lucky to survive the communist purges.

26.5 meter high statue of Avalokitesvara, Gandan Monastery, Ulaanbaatar

Mongolia by the numbers

Hours driven: Approximately 120

Hours driven on pavement: 5?

Samples collected: Approximately 400 rock and 50 water samples

Amount of time these samples span: 75 million years

Hot showers: One

Liters of fermented camels’ milk consumed by the group: Five

Books read: Five…The Value of Nothing by Raj Patel, about the shortcomings of the free market and how to restructure democracy. Mixed Emotions by Greg Child. Writings of one of the most prolific mountaineers of the modern era. Early Days in the Range of Light by Dan Arnold, a former Stanford Alpine Club member. A collection of writings on the pioneering alpinists of the Sierra Nevada from John Muir to Norman Clyde. The World As It Is by Chris Hedges. Quickly becoming one of my favorite authors, Hedges reports on the Middle East, American politics and the decay of the American empire. Kiss or Kill by Mark Twight. Writings of one of the most radical climbers of the modern era. His tales of Khan Tengri and the peaks I’m heading to this summer are particularly thrilling.

New favorite albums: One…Mumford and Sons’ Sigh No More has been the soundtrack to the trip so far