A Few More Notes from Bayan Ulgii
Grazing Land Against Mountains
Before leaving Agalai's home we made a side trip to see petroglyphs near the small town of Altan Tsogts, and stopped for views of Tsambagarav, a snow-covered mass that includes Mongolia's fifth and sixth highest peaks (both around 13,600', 4165m) which was nearly but not completely free of clouds on our way back—though invisible the day before as we crawled around its base. We will spend the next two nights in Ulgii, the aimag capital of Bayan Ulgii, which is an hour from Agalai's home. After dropping him off at a relative's home for his dentist's appointment, we drove and then took stairs to an overlook of the city.
Ulgii is divided by the Khovd River which runs from west to east, and is contained by mountains that run in a chaotic maze of ridges to the north and south. The center of the city looks like many other Mongolian towns, with a central square, Soviet-era apartments and public buildings, a Sports Palace, and more recent construction bristling from almost any available land. What sets it apart from every other city in Mongolia is visible from this windy perch. As in other Mongolian cities, homes were tucked in to hashas, walled lots of block or metal. Unlike the view of any other city though, there are practically no gers here. Houses are rectangular, mostly white, but often with metal roofs of bright colors.
We checked in to the Hotel Duman, and later Nurbolat met us for dinner at a local Turkish restaurant. After the past week, we were relieved at having the evening off to recharge, both our bodies and, for me with cameras, our batteries—with a leisurely start planned in the morning. But during the time between check-in and dinner we were reminded of some of some basic differences between Bayan Ulgii and the rest of Mongolia.
This is Kazakh country, so the predominant language here is also Kazakh. Kazakhs who we knew in Khovd thought of themselves as Mongolians, but Mongolians we knew in Khovd thought of Kazakhs as, well, Kazakhs—something apart, different, and sometimes, we heard, people who had evil thoughts. In our stay in Khovd, Kazakhs were also the most outwardly welcoming, inviting us into their homes for celebrations or just for a meal. Even in our short time here though, there are signs that such sharp ethnic divides are softening, though more would be welcome.
We tried to learn some Kazakh language basics, but Nurbolat spoke English and Kuzjo accepted our incompetence with grace. Now, on our own, the small niceties we had learned in Mongolian were useless. Even the memorized but un-practiced basics from Nurbolat, the necessities of visiting any foreign land like thank you
(rakhmed) and I'm sorry
(kashir) disappeared on the spot under the pressure of having a problem to solve. The key card to one of our rooms seemed not to work. In sorting this out with the receptionist we realized how much we had come to rely on the little Mongolian we knew, and how unprepared we were for this visit, where we didn't even have a Kazakh dictionary.
Tsambagarav, Not Free of Clouds Yet
We spent the final day of our western tour in search of Argali sheep, which are similar to our bighorn sheep from the Rocky Mountains. It seemed like they should be easy to spot since there were so few obstacles to hide them, but the obstacle I didn't consider is distance. Out of Ulgii we drove west, then north, east, north and again west. Everywhere, the distances are so great that even with magnification, it is hard to make the wild sheep out even when they are pointed out to you. We got to a place just outside of Siilkhem National Park where we met a man on a motorcycle who we understood to be a ranger, offering us a tip on where we might find some sheep, something like, "you should have been here this morning." We climbed, looked, returned, and when we got back to the car, the ranger and Kuzjo were setting up the rangers's telescope to look at Argali sheep that were now mixed in with yaks on the hillside across from the one we just climbed.
Driving back to Ulgii we stayed near the Khovd River much of the way. Because we had more ground to cover than time to spend, we drove past other-worldly geology with all but a few guilt-ridden (mine) stops. It was still too early for any type of vegetation to be green, so we bumped our way through austere land that would look completely uninhabitable except for the thrifty goats and sheep and cattle picking through the remains of last year's grass.
Sailing, Kugyershin Family Concert (video, 2:34)
In the evening we had dinner at Nurbolat's house, a traditional Kazakh meal prepared by his mother, which was followed by a private concert performed by a father-daughter singer and dombor
duo from their community. They played and sang, and then pulled up to the table to eat with us. Among the samples of their repertoire that they played were Kazakh favorites, but also music from Mongolia, Russia, and especially for us, the United States. Kazakh Muslims who have rarely encountered a body of water too big to ride a horse through, ethnic minorities in their own mostly mono-racial Buddhist country, they played Sailing
, a song whose lyrics describe travel by sea and by air for the insatiable desire of reunion and freedom. Sitting together at the table after a shared meal, they do not know, and I am too ashamed to tell them, what kind of welcome some are planning for them in the United States if they decide to visit.