The difference between the Gobi Desert and the northern valleys is about the same as that between Death Valley in the southwestern United States and Yellowstone Park in the northern Rocky Mountains of Wyoming. It is the difference between burning sand and cool, lush alpine meadows fringed by green forests. In a period of about two weeks we had slowly made this transition while passing through all the environmental zones in between. After leaving the ruins of the ancient capitols at Khar Balgas (Black Ruins) and Kharakhorum we drove west and then north, first to the palace site at Doityn Balgas and then Undur Dov. Along the way we stopped at the town of Battsengel to pick up a few supplies.
Years ago the Soviet Union assisted the Mongolians in building wells scattered throughout the country. Unfortunately, today if you are traveling long distances it is essential to bring extra water. Many of the wells have fallen into disrepair. One well we encountered was chained and locked, a decidedly un-Mongolian thing to do. Sukhbatar, Erdenebat, and Tuya look at the lock in disbelief. Hospitality and sharing with travelers is a deeply important tradition in Mongolia. In the days of the Mongol Empire it was actually the law that every herder household must set aside food and drink for any traveler who should happen by. Who would put a lock on a well? We wouldn’t mind having some clean cool well water, but we got by on more questionable sources.
One of the sites we mapped on our way north was Kheremiin Tal (Steppe Walls). This is one of those large sites about which little is known. It consists of three square-walled enclosures with a few mounds inside each. The mounds were probably the foundations for public buildings. This general site arrangement is typical of fortified sites built by several of the different empires—a fortification with lots of open space inside the walls. When the sites were lived in, the open spaces were full of tents. Tents leave little for archaeologists to find, so the space inside just looks vacant.
One of my favorite river crossings of all my visits to Mongolia was on the Tamir River near Kheremiin Tal. Where the road tries to cross the river, there is a tall wooden toll bridge of extremely questionable construction. As you look at the bridge you weigh the odds of making it safely or crashing down to the rocks, sand, and water below. It is plainly obvious that some people choose not to cross the bridge by instead driving down into the river bed when the flow is low. We were brave so we paid the toll and took our chances.
On July 2nd, 2002, we arrived in Hovsgol Province at the palace site of Möngke (Mangu), who was the great Khan from 1251 to 1259. This is a small palace, with a single central mound to support a palace building and a low square wall surrounding it, about 500 meters from the Delger Mörön River. Möngke Khan had a series of outlying palaces in addition to his principal abode at Kharakhorum. Like the other khans, he traveled from palace to palace according to the seasons. His movements mirrored those of the typical herder family. The weather is hot and this is a dusty place. After one day we move on.
After a hard day of rocky travel we reached the site of Baibalik (Uighur empire, ca. 700-800) at about 8:30 pm on the third of July. July Fourth is another hot and dry day. To celebrate American Independence Day, Matt and I sing a breakfast rendition of the National Anthem. Singing is a common social activity in Mongolia and many people are good singers. Our colleagues were not impressed with our singing abilities. As we move out onto the site we prepare a map of the defensive walls, and begin a systematic transect survey of the interior of the largest of the three large square enclosures (Fortress 1). Amazingly, we found absolutely no artifacts on the surface relating to the period of site construction. Surface artifacts, like pottery or roof tiles, are scarce on most of the sites but Baibalik set a new standard for scarcity!
We left the next day and headed further north, this time into the mountains. As the day progressed, dry lands give way to fields prepared for wheat planting, on the remnants of collective farms established in the Soviet era. Our trail rises in elevation and we see stands of larch covering the slopes. We stop at a mountain pass to make an offering at an Obo and we feel the cool breeze almost as if it is coming straight down to us as a welcome gift from Siberia, which it is. A few hours more and we reach the green valley of the Egiin Gol (“Gol” is Mongolian for river).
Erdenebat, and my good friend, Bill Honeychurch, from Yale University spent multiple years in Egiin Gol, covering nearly every square inch of the valley, recording every site. No one had ever done this kind of intensive survey in Mongolia before, mainly because no one believed there was much to find. Erdenebat and Bill made a huge breakthrough as they found site after site. They even found evidence of the ephemeral herder camps up and down the valley! Not only camp sites, but sites with “U” shaped walls, many dating to the period around the time of the Xiongnu Empire (ca. 200 BC to AD 150). At one site, a Chinese bronze mirror was found; at another, a bronze helmet.
We camped on a high ridge above the river. We were told there was a French expedition studying Paleolithic sites camped only a few hundred meters down the river. In the evening we washed our clothes and swam in the swift cold river. No Frenchmen in sight. After dark, the rain and winds came. The tent stood, but it did not make for a restful night’s sleep. The next day we learned that the French team had left the day before.
In the final episode of the 2002 travels in Mongolia, the team motors back in the direction of Ulaanbaatar as the fieldwork draws to a close.