Saturday, July 29, 2017

Mongolia 2017 - Day 6. Tsetserleg to Tosontsengel

We started the day with a brisk walk up one of the canyons to the north of the town, to enjoy the feeling of being surrounded by trees and admiring the steep granite cliffs around us. On the way we also saw a spring, where some of the locals had come to fill up their jugs of water, and a herd of yaks! I thought yaks were confined to Tibet, but have now learned that they are ubiquitous in Central Asia. They are a square looking animal, with a very angular rump, a straight back, and an even curtain of hair. One in every herd seems to be white (just like the famous black sheep among lambs), and the males sport viciously sharp horns (fortunately they also seem to be a peaceful animal that doesn’t mind people).

After our lovely walk we visited the provincial museum, which has a very fine collection of musical instruments and children games. Among the latter is the ancient game of knuckle bones. As the name implies, it is played with the knuckle bones of goats, dyed green and red. You take four bones and roll them on the table; depending on the way each bone lands you have either a horse, a camel, a sheep, or a goat. From there on it is a lot of poker, where the intent is to make pairs, threes, or fours. Each of the animals has a different value, with horse being the highest.

We are beginning to feel a craving for fresh vegetables, so we spent quite a bit of time looking for a vegetables store that Zoe remembered seeing the day before. No success. Instead she bought a bag of dry milk curds that are a very popular snack in Mongolia. They are very good, with a slight fermented taste.

Today promised to be a hard driving day. According to our maps only half of the way was paved, and we were going over a major mountain pass, so we were braced to slow progress and bad trails. It proved to be nothing of the above. At least 80% of the way was recently paved, and the rest was newly graded decomposed granite that was as close to pavement as we could have wished for.

The landscape is monumental and beautiful. We have left below us the endless, barren steppe, and are now weaving our way to canyons where some sort of pine trees drape the slopes with bold strokes of evergreen. There is also lots of running water tumbling down the valley floors. And there are flowers. Endless expanses of deep gold flowers, which on closer inspection have a gossamer of pistils surrounded by a crown of delicate petals.

The trip is now taking shape. Our initial idea was to take the northern route across the mountains, where we figured there was enough to entertain ourselves even if we didn’t make it very far. Now it looks like following the 48º N parallel we might be able to make the Altai Mountains in a couple of days, which will give us two days of hiking in this famed mountain region (and three days of hard driving along what is reportedly a boring but reasonable route through Hovd, Altai, and Bayankhongor).

There also seems to be definite pattern to the geology of the countryside. We are seeing a lot of granite, with now and then a screen of high grade metamorphic rocks. Also, about 100 km from Tsesterleg we came across the gorge of the Chuluut river, which has been formed by the river as it cuts down through a thick sequence of basalt flows. Basalts? Really? As far as all three of us can remember we are nowhere near a convergent margin, so they must be related to a spot of intraplate volcanism. Or are we close to the suture between the Asian plate and the China subplate?

We followed the lava flows for about 30 km to a small cinder cone located along the north shore of the Great White Lake. It looks pretty recent!

So the route we followed was from Tsetserleg to Tariat, Ikh-Uul, and arrived in Tosontsengel by 5 pm. It is a handsome town (all Mongolian towns have the distinction of having very colorful roofs) even though a bit dusty, but it is clearly off the beaten path, and the accommodations at the Skyline Hotel are rather spartan and run down. Right by the hotel, in the rather dusty central park, several men were having archery practice in preparation for the Naran Festival in mid July (which all across Mongolia includes horse races, archery, and wrestling matches). Our presence was immediately noticed, and welcomed, and everyone laughed when we joined in the traditional form of admiration for a good shot (a raising and dropping of the arms in exultation). The only thing that was a little unnerving, is that there was a cluster of men and children right around the target, to judge the quality of the attempt, and to retrieve the arrows. The arrows have blunt points, but I could just see one of the kids getting hit by a stray arrow (I can imagine the horror of an American mother witnessing such an event!)

We finished the day with a hike to one of the local hills, which overlooks the town and the beautiful meandering Ider river (actually the confluence of three major rivers). 

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