Our mode of transportation, a UAZ mini-bus. Photo by J. Daniel Rogers.
In the last post about Mongolia our team had just reached the first of the ancient settlements on our travels. June 20, 2002--We spent two days at Khar Bukhiin Balgas before continuing on to our next stop. I was looking forward to seeing the next site, but as we continued along, I became aware that the actual experience of travel itself was just as important—the feel of the landscape and the sense of distance.
I had the opportunity to admire the wildlife, including every size of rodent, from the smallest mice to hamsters to marmots and the inevitable raptor sitting on a convenient rock, surveying the bounty. As we drove along, we also noticed many mounds of stone. These are the burial mounds of the Late Bronze Age (roughly 1500-500 BC). Our objectives were centered on the constructions of the later empires, but periodically we stopped to make a quick map. My colleagues, Bruno Frohlich, and Bill Fitzhugh at the Smithsonian have studied these mounds and the related Deer Stones ( See Field Reports from the Arctic Studies Center, also Wikipedia). Bruno is interested in the overall distribution of these burial monuments, so we always tried to collect a little information on his behalf.
As we jolted along, we stopped now and then to find a path across a gully or through a rocky patch, or to quickly map a Bronze Age mound. Our driver, Sukhbaatar, maneuvered the four wheel drive Russian mini-van through all obstacles at top speeds. I expected to tip over or crash down into an unseen gully, but this never happened. As a kid, I remember being car sick on several occasions as my Dad drove the family through the mountains and canyons of northern Arizona. Those old feelings were coming back to me. Not good. Aside from mound and gully stops, my saving grace was the even more frequent stops at herder tents (gers) to ask directions; at least I thought we were asking directions. After about the fourth stop, I learned that we were actually looking for a fresh batch of fermented horse milk. On this mission, I learned a Mongolian phrase that soon became my favorite, no hohor!, “hold the dogs!”
Our first major stop on this second leg of the trip was the village of Erdenesant. Here we found gasoline, water, and a market. We stocked up on supplies, including half a goat. With the goat meat tucked neatly under the back seat and the spare gas cans full, we roared off towards the south—to the Gobi Desert. As we drove through valley after valley, the steppe grasses began to give way to larger patches of bare ground, herders and their flocks became less numerous, and the temperature went up. Our route to the south was guided by compass, although we luckily also encountered a telephone line strung from rickety poles—a sure sign of a village somewhere in the distance. This helped calibrate our direction and place our position on the map.
After 326 km of driving we arrived at the site of Shaazan Khot (Porcelain City) at about 8:30 pm. Here there was a small stream (Ongi River) and the camps of several families. Our arrival was an unusual event and the kids all came out to greet us, bringing chunks of dried milk (aaruul) and milk tea sent by their mothers. We set up camp and Tuya boiled some goat.
As we sat in the dark after dinner, I heard something that sounded like a train—impossible. Within five minutes we were engulfed in an intense sand storm that flattened and broke our tents and scattered our supplies. We jumped in the van and waited out the storm. Fortunately, it was over as quickly as it came.
The site of Shaazan Khot occupies as area of about 750 x 350 meters. Here there is no outer defensive wall, instead the site consists of several platform mounds and the remains of buildings arranged along streets. At Khar Bukhiin Balgas we found very few artifacts on the surface, but at Shaazan Khot, fragments of Chinese porcelain, other pottery, roof tiles, iron wagon parts, and Chinese coins were everywhere.
We made a small collection for the Mongolian Institute of Archaeology. At one time, it was thought that Shaazan Khot was a Mongol Empire trade center, but it was probably also a palace site, based on recent research by Moriyasu and Ochir (1999). After two days of mapping we headed for our next destination, the Orkhon River Valley and the fabled capitol of the Mongol Empire—Kharkhorum.
Stay tuned for the next installment.
Moriyasu, Takeo and Ayudai Ochir
1999 Provisional Report of Researches on Historical Sites and Inscriptions in Mongolia from 1996 to 1998. Society of Central Eurasian Studies (ISBN 4-89281-069-X C3022).