Copyright © 2004 Jeanie Barnett and individual authors. All rights reserved.
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Writing the Journal

This journal is a collaborative effort of the participants in the GSA Mongolia Geotrip. At the suggestion of Chris Metzler and Mary Dowse, who brought the idea over from their last Geotrip, we each selected several days to serve as scribe. Mary organized the effort, reminded us of our duties, and pulled the contributions together after the trip. We present our notes here in spontaneous style, with the idea that the voices of different writers are as much interest as the stories themselves.

Day 1, July 25 (Sunday)

scribeJeanie Barnett

The lights of Ulaanbaatar are the first we see of Mongolia, and that was only from the air. We would dive right into the remote expanse of the steppe and wouldn’t see the big city until our return in three weeks.

Our plane landed at around 11:15 p.m. and our hosts in Mongolia, a tour company organized by Tumenbayar, met us at the airport. As we teetered jet-lagged and bleary-eyed out to the parking lot, the industrious crew schlepped the luggage into the vans and stuffed us in around it. We headed down a narrow paved road to a guard station at what looked like a military airport, then suddenly veered off onto an unmarked dirt track and headed towards the hills. The “airport hotel” was apparently a good drive out of town.

After bouncing along for a half hour or so with hardly a sign of habitation, we saw lights against a cluster of hills, and the vans were soon debouching their contents under the eery lamplights of the Chingiss Khaan ger hotel. The evening was balmy and decorative banners snapped in the breeze. We followed our luggage and the helpful staff on stone pathways winding through the cluster of gers and pushed open brightly painted wooden doors.

inside ger
Inside ger

Click image
to enlarge.

The gers were surprisingly roomy inside: a stove occupied center stage near the door, and a bright red wooden table sat behind it. Two bunks atop ornate wooden boxes rested against the walls. Tapestries depicting beasts of the fields lined the lattice and rugs brightened the wood plank floor. We would have thrown our bags into a corner...but there weren't any. The annular walls inspire good use of space.

The grounds of the hotel were lush and well watered, and we fell asleep to the sounds of cows contentedly mowing the grass. The irrigation system was on automatic -- an early-morning thunderstorm sizzled and crackled and sprinkled the lawn. Like magic, the flaps on the ger vent holes flipped shut and we drifted back to sleep.

Day 2, July 26 (Monday)

scribeMorning: Chris Metzler
ger hotel
Ger hotel

Our first morning in Mongolia began with a breakfast of sausage, eggs, rice, bread, butter and jam (with hot mare's milk?) at the Chingiss Khaan Ger Hotel outside Ulaanbaatar. Following that, we met Professor Minjin. He gave us an overview of the geography of Mongolia (southern desert, central grassland, northern forests) and a brief geologic summary of the area we'd be seeing, which involves Devonian-Carboniferous clastic sediments intruded by late Paleozoic to Mesozoic granites, covered by Cenozoic basalt. Minjin and Tumenbayar chuckled at the joke that Mongolia is landlocked, not only geographically (having no ocean shoreline), but also geologically (between the Siberian Plateau to the north and the India-Eurasia collision zone to the south) and politically (between its larger neighbors Russia and China).

Then we were off driving, past the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar, and heading west. We saw goats, cattle, pigs, sheep and camels! Even the paved road seemed pretty rough, though we did have a nice lunch stop on a terrace just above the Tuul River. This lunch included cucumber and tomato salad (one of my favorites!) and also the tasty dumplings called buuz.

scribeAfternoon: Jeanie Barnett

We continued on the main road west from Ulaanbaatar and saw lots of trucks loaded with horses rumbling towards the city. The horses were packed shoulder-to-shoulder and looked rather dejected. At first we feared that they were being shipped to the not-so-proverbial glue factory in U.B., but Enkhbayar assured us that they were returning from a festival in the country, one of the many smaller Naadam celebrations that are held throughout Mongolia at this time of the year.

In the "music van", Enkhbayar cranked out tunes from his vast supply of mini-discs. "Hotel California" seemed oddly out of place. "How about some Mongolian music?", we suggested. "Later", he promised.

The main road was being rebuilt, so we paralleled it on a rough dirt track that was very much a "roll yer own" affair. The lanes branched and rejoined like a braided stream and vehicles bounced by to the left and right in either direction. Like little kids impatient to reach their destination, we asked how far it was to the good road. "Soon", was the reply. An hour later, the answer was the same. This was our introduction to Mongolian time.

Khogno Khaan
Khogno Khaan

We suddenly veered off the main road and headed up a box canyon to a locality known as Mount Khogno Khaan, a sacred site and protected area with monasteries from several eras in various states of repair. After kilometers of treeless steppe, where even the hawks are forced to sit unceremoniously in the fields, we finally saw trees – gnarly Siberian elms that lined the river course, which was now dry.

A gusty wind with smattering of rain whipped itself up for our first tent-pitching ceremony, making it a challenge for those of us somewhat out of practice and sporting only two arms. Free time and afternoon hiking were on the schedule, but we arrived late and weary enough that the big hike was postponed until the next day. We made a cursory check of the colorful pagodas on the hillside, but our view port was limited to a crack through the locked door illuminated by a dim flashlight. There was a dollar bill on the floor – or was it a tögrög?

Khogno Khaan campfire
Khogno Khaan camp

Dinner included fresh cucumber-tomato salad, boiled potatoes with herbs, and rice. The vegetables were a pleasant surprise given what we had heard of the traditional milk and mutton diet. Our excellent cooks did well in catoring to Western tastes

After dinner we warmed ourselves around a bonfire and let it smoke us clean, since there was nowhere to bathe. But we were tired enough that it didn’t matter, and we welcomed a full night’s sleep.

Day 3, July 27 (Tuesday)

scribeMorning: Fred Shaw

Clear and cool (50's), a good morning to shake off vestiges of jet lag. Fine views of the valley out from the base of Khaan Mountain. Our first field breakfast introduces us to 'bobs' (sp?)- tough little guys which will sustain us at breakfast and tea many times to come. Pretty good, actually.

The mountain behind us is basically Mesozoic granite -- post-orogenic, post-Hercynian. This was followed by extensional tectonics with continental sediments and volcanics. Later in the morning, on the way out of the area, we noted a contact between probable pre-Hercynian metamorphics and the granite.

Khogno Khaan ruins
Khogno Khaan

Morning exercise was a walk up to a pass on the shoulder of the mountain to monastery ruins of mixed origin. Nice country, although some mysterious problem is killing off the handsome birches. On the other hand, nice red-topped plants used for stomach ailments abounded, so at least we were safe even if the birches weren't.

The ruins in the pass were extensive, probably the first destruction event was in the east-west Mongolia wars in the 1600's. The older stonework is spectacular, with later patch-ups of mud and gravel. The ridge above bears the happy epithet of Tied Neck Mountain. Apparently the monks were strung together and pushed off the top by the conquerors. Jeanie and Marion charged up to the top to look into the next valley -- they were not tied together by the neck, however, the conquerors having left several centuries earlier.

Khogno Khaan
Khogno Khaan

Down to the bottom -- we were given a tour of the current temples by the granddaughter of the builder. Everything was razed in 1937, but she promised her grandfather it would be rebuilt and it has. Both temples had nice bright paint and are visited by monks on a quite regular basis for ceremonies. We looked with apprehension at small bowls of liquid, fearing we might have to drink them to be polite -- but were spared. Off to tea -- and the afternoon.

scribeAfternoon: Bill Abbey
Elsen Tasarkhai
Elsen Tasarkhai

We had lunch that day amongst the mighty sand dunes of the Gobi Desert. That's my story and that's what I'm telling all my friends here at home -- I ain't telling them that I went all the way to Mongolia and didn't see the one thing they've actually heard of. As far as I'm concerned Elsen Tasarkhai means "northernmost point of the Gobi" and so it is written...unfortunately, I didn't take any pictures.

Anyway, after a brief stop at the biggest ovoo I've ever seen, it was on to the highlight of the day. And of course, the weather wasn't with us. . .


The gray skies seemed appropriate though.... Kharakorum has seen better days. The capital of the greatest empire of all time and the seat of power for the Chinggis Khaan is now almost non-existent. Just a memory lost to the ravages of time and decay (with a little help from the Chinese). What little was left of the old capital was used to build Erdene Zuu (c. 1586), the first Buddhist monastery in Mongolia, but even that was almost wiped clean by the commie hoards.

Luckily for us though, the Mongolian people are resilient and don't let little things like persistent rain, flat tires or decades of Soviet oppression keep them down. If they did, there probably wouldn't be anything to see at Kharakorum at all (and we'd probably still be on the "highway" waiting for AAA). Like the Mongolian people, the walls of Erdene Zuu outlasted the Russians and somehow managed to guard a smattering of the country's heritage, treasures and traditions from plunder. Those walls are every bit as impressive now as they must have been back in the day, but the real show was inside....

Erdene Zuu
Erdene Zuu

The spacious grounds included a very eclectic gift shop, a restroom that I'm glad I personally didn't experience and an array of temples that inspire one to "wax on and wax off". Inside the temples were more Buddha's than I knew how to cogitate -- these guys have a Buddha for everything (I'm sure there's a Buddha for quality footwear hiding somewhere). I asked the locals to explain them to me, but even they seemed bewildered. The coolest one by far though, looked like it belonged in the Temple of Doom. I always thought that Buddha was supposed to be all lovey-dovey, but this must have been the "old testament" Buddha. It had a crown of skulls, a human skin for a horse blanket and was eating a tiny person like it was a Scooby snack. I was told this was Gombayar, God of Peace. . . probably as in "I'm going to have a piece of your ass, if you all don't play nice".

Another highlight of the temples was seeing that the lamas were making a comeback. I gather that in its heyday, the monastery had hundreds of monks flitting around praying, snatching pebbles from palms and doing that bizarro chanting. Now several dozen make Erdene Zuu their home and we got to see them busy away at transcribing ancient texts (or so they say, I personally think it was the latest Tom Clancy novel). I was bummed out though that the chanting was piped in via tape recorder.

Kharakorum turtle
Kharakorum turtle

Then it was on to see the great capital itself. Out the back gate of the old temple we went, passing many locals hawking their tawdry wares (some things don't change no matter where you are). We resisted temptation (except for Sid) and sought out the last remnant of the once mighty capital -- a big rock shaped like a turtle! !

More exclamation points won't make it any more exciting than that, but it was kind of cool and I got a nice picture. But, why a turtle. . .?

Day 4, July 28 (Wednesday)

scribeSue Zobel

Left Orkhon River site at 9 a.m. Shortly after had our first yak sighting. Used for milk as it is high in fat content and makes good cheese. Yaks don't like to be hot so they graze at higher altitudes in the summer.

We discussed terrain compression vs. uplift theories currently tossed about. As crust is thin, compression is not well supported as a cause of mountain formation in this area. At a roadside stop Sandra found a beautiful grey schist with quartz. Shows evidence of compression between accretionary events.

At tea break the snow-capped peaks of Khangai Mountains were visible. The Khangai are flat topped, fault lifted, made of same material as basin. Fossil and basalt dating put age of uplift at late Miocene continuing to today. The Khangai are Mongolia's continental divide. Water sheds north and south from this range. Catastrophic earthquake in this area in 1957.


Stopped for lunch at intrusive dike. Devonian sandstones intruded by Upper Carboniferous. Stopped at Tsetserleg. First post office experience. Split up to wander. Museum was quite nice. Monastery buildings housing artifacts which depicted nomadic life. Great series showing how the felt for gers is made. (Wool, water, salt combined, soaked, laid out and overlapped, eventually large sheets rolled up on wood pole and dragged behind horse to "felt".) Went over Tsagaan - Davaa ("White Pass"). Edelweiss ("Tsagaan - udval") growing as weed.

Cheese sellers
Cheese sellers

Continued on and stopped at "Sacred Rock". Camped by stream and ended day as begun with yaks. Sue and Mary got to ride when two boys wandered over to "sell" rides to the tourists. Later two young girls stopped by to sell cheese. We bought but no one tried it.

Car conversations: Drivers license is very tough test. Road test is done in winter conditions. If you are caught driving drunk you lose license for year.

Nomads send children when 7/8 to nearby town to school (board there). Sometimes families join together to send an elderly woman and ger for her to stay in, to be with children and oversee. They now must pay for education, room and board.

Marriages used to be arranged. Now frequently by choice. Families will send info about individual and family chart about eligibility.

Gers, basic model, costs about $3,000 US. Poorer nomads just purchase frames and make felt.

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