At the far corner of the square I follow Chingis Khan Avenue, formerly Lenin Street, south across the Peace and Friendship Bridge which straddles the Dund Gol, a tributary of the Tuul River, and the main line of the Mongolian Railroad. Just past the bridge Chingis Khan Avenue veers west, eventually turning into the road leading to the airport. I continue south on Zaisan Street. On the right is the Winter Palace of the eighth and last Bogd Gegen of Mongolia, the former head of the Buddhist religion in Mongolia who died in 1924. His wooden two-story palace and a complex of attendant temples are now a museum. Several examples of Zanabazar’s artworks and other items connected with his life are found here and I intend to return later.
Not far past the palace is the bridge over the Tuul River. About a hundred feet wide, the river is now completely frozen over. The Tuul, one of Mongolia’s five longest rivers, measuring 508 miles in length, begins in the Khentii Mountains about 95 miles north of Ulaan Baatar as the crow flies. It eventually joins the Orkhon River, which itself flows into the Selenge (Selenga in Russian) River just south of the Russian border. The Selenga continues on another 267 miles through the Autonomous Republic of Buryatia (part of the Russian Republic) before flowing into Lake Baikal, the deepest and most voluminous lake on earth. Baikal drains northward via the Angara and Yenisei rivers into the Kara Sea, bordering on the Arctic Ocean. The Yenisei is the largest, in volume of water, north-flowing river on earth, and the Yenisei-Angara-Selenga river system—3683 miles in length—is the fifth longest.
To the west of the source of the Tuul are the headwaters of the Onon and the Kherlen rivers. Like the Tuul both begin in the Khentii Mountains, but instead of draining westward, into the Selenge, they flow to the east. The Onon eventually flows into the Shilka, which then combines with the Argun River to form the Amur, the immense river which serves as the boundary between Russia and China before flowing into the Pacific Ocean opposite Sakhalin Island, north of Japan. The Onon-Shilka-Amur is 2737 miles long and ranks as the eighth longest river system in the world. The Kherlen River, via Dalai Lake in Manchuria, and the Argun River, also eventually drains into the Amur.
The upper basins of these three rivers—the Tuul, the Onon, and Kherlen—located at the navel of northern Asia, at the headwaters of two of the world’s greatest river systems, are known collectively as the “Three Rivers Region,” an area believed to be the homeland of the Mongol People. In the twelfth century the middle Tuul, here in the vicinity of Ulaan Baatar, was also the headquarters of the Kerait tribe, whose chieftain, Tooril, was the original patron of Chingis Khan.
I stop on the middle of the bridge over the Tuul and stare upstream along its banks as I have done so many times before while walking this way. On the north side of the river is a broad strip of gravelly ground sparsely vegetated with ten-to-twenty foot high willows and other brush. For me it is the landscape of a dream. The very first time I walked across this bridge and viewed this scene I had an uncannily intimation that I, or more properly speaking, someone whose actions I remember, had once, long ago, camped on the banks of this river, at this very spot. I can still picture the campfire of glowing embers surrounded by river cobbles, smell the sheep skin sleeping cloaks, and hear the snorting of camels standing just beyond the light of the fire. Traveling, it occurs to me, is not only a process of moving forward through time, but also moving backwards. Not for the first time do I have the feeling that I am merely retracing a path already traveled.
At the far side of the bridge I am jolted back into the present. From a manhole by the side of the road three men are emerging. Each is dressed in filthy deels (traditional robes worn by both Mongolian men and women) whose original color is now indistinguishable. Their hands and faces are likewise black with grime. Each has a small grubby burlap bag containing his possessions. These are the so-called “tunnel people” who inhabit the labyrinth of utility ducts beneath the entire city. Most are people who have somehow fallen through the cracks of the new society which has evolved after the fall of communism, or are victims of the disastrous zeds, severe winter storms which have killed millions of head of livestock in the countryside over the past several years, leaving many herders destitute. It was estimated at one time that there are up to a thousand of these tunnel people, including many children, although now most have reportedly been flushed out by the authorities. They are most numerous in winter, when it is impossible to lead a homeless life on the surface. Most survive by begging and thievery. I once talked to a translator who had a client whose passport had been stolen. In a runabout way the translator heard that there was a man in the tunnels who acting as a kind of clearing house for stolen passports and credit cards. A street urchin agreed to take the translator to met this man. Visitors to the tunnels had to pay an entrance fee of a bottle of vodka or a carton of cigarettes or face dire consequences. The translator was led to this man’s liar deep in the catacombs beneath the city and finally managed to buy back the passport for one hundred dollars.
The three men, having climbed out of the manhole, turn their attention to me as I walk by. There is nothing threatening in their demeanor. They simply stare at me with the surprisingly calm eyes of those who no longer harbor any hopes or illusions about anything.
Straight ahead is a short valley leading into Bogd Khan Uul, the huge massif which dominates the skyline to the south of the city. Just in front of the mouth of the valley is a three hundred foot-high conical hill surmounted by the War Memorial. The hill itself and the village just behind, in the mouth of the small valley, are both called Zaisan. A road goes from the backside of the hill to a parking lot about halfway up. On the front side a long concrete stairway leads to the parking lot and on to the summit. I take the stairway, now treacherously slick with ice. The parking lot in summertime is a extremely popular place for Ulaan Baatarians. In the evenings there may be several dozen people here, school kids with boom boxes, adults drinking beer and vodka, and oldsters out for exercise and a view. I continue on through the now deserted parking lot.
At the very top of the hill is a sixty foot high concrete statue of a soldier holding a stylized flag—the soldier is perhaps thirty feet high with the flag extending another thirty feet. The monument, which locals say was built and paid for by the Soviet Union (I am unable to confirm this) is to the “Taking of Berlin.” Apparently Mongolian troops, who of course fought with the Soviet Union, did play a part in the taking of Berlin in 1945. Just behind the stone monument itself is a paved circular area perhaps sixty feet in diameter surrounded by a five foot high wall. Elevated on concrete posts on top of the wall is a huge concrete ring. Between the wall and the concrete ring is a six foot space through which the city can be seen. The inside surface of the ring is completely covered with multicolored mosaics featuring soldiers in battle, some of them trampling on Nazi banners and in other heroic poses, along with weeping wives and children. Both Mongolians and blonde-haired Russians are featured side-by-side in a sense of socialist harmony which has since disappeared. In the early 1990s, after the collapse of socialism, Russians had became persona non grata in Mongolia, but now geo-political realities have reasserted themselves and Russians are back (there are several extremely noisy groups of them at my hotel), but now as businessmen and not imperialists. On the middle of the paved circle is a large marble font which once hosted an eternal flame. Like the Soviet Union, it too proved to be not so eternal.
I go back out and sit on one of the benches on front of the huge stone soldier. From here can be seen all of Ulaan Baatar. Over a fourth of Mongolia’s population, about 620,000 people, lives here in the capital. The city is contained in a basin measuring five to eight miles wide and perhaps twenty-five miles long. On the four sides of the basin are the four sacred mountains which surround the city: about ten miles to the east is Bayanzurkh Uul; to the north about eight miles is Chingelt Khairkhan Uul; to the west about fifteen miles is Songino Uul; and to the south, directly behind Zaisan is Bogd Khan Uul.
I have at one time or another climbed all four of these peaks. Bayanzurkh Uul (Rich Heart Mountain) lies just north of the main road leading east from Ulaan Baatar. North of the mountain itself the Tuul River enters the Ulaan Baatar basin through a narrow defile. From the base of the mountain, near the Women’s Penitentiary compound, it’s about an hour’s hike up a steep ridge to the summit. The peak itself is 5430 feet high, or 1000 feet above Ulaan Baatar, at an elevation of 4415 feet. On the summit are two ovoos, conical piles of rocks with which Mongolians honor summits, passes, and other significant places. Both are surmounted with posts draped with hundreds of blue and white khadags—Buddhist prayer scarves. Arranged around the posts are several horse sculls. When a favorite horse dies Mongolians like to place its scull on consecrated spots like this. In pre-communist days each of the four sacred mountains were worshipped by a particular part of town. The easternmost suburb of Ulaan Baatar, now known as Bayanzurkh, was in the old days this area known as the Mai-mai-ch’eng, or Chinese trade quarter. During the third month of summer the residents of Mai-mai-ch’eng would go to the summit of Bayanzurkh, place khadags on the ovoo, and make offerings of dairy products, tea, etc. Ovoo worship was specifically proscribed during the communist era, but now once again offerings are being made on Bayanzurkh Uul.
Chingelt Khairkhan Uul is about eight miles north of here, or about six miles north of Sukhebaatar Square. In the pre-communist era it was worshipped by lamas who lived around the temples located in the center of the city which were later razed to accommodate Sukhebaatar Square. Offerings to the ovoo on its summit were made during the second month of summer. Nowadays if you ask locals to point out Chingelt Khairkhan Uul most will point to a barren point which directly overlooks the city just to the northwest of the Chingelt residential district. Maps of the city and local residents who are sticklers for fact insist that the real Chingelt Khairkhan Uul is a forest-topped dome about a mile and a half northeast and several hundred feet higher (6677' or 2266' above the city) than the foreground peak. I climbed both peaks in one day, a fairly routine if strenuous walk from the bus turnaround in the Chingelt suburb. The lower point, immediately in the foreground when viewed from Sukhebaatar Square, presents the best view of the city. Here and on the barren summit ridge line behind are three ovoos, each about a hundred yards apart. The middle one is the highest, but the first, on the point, is the largest, a conical pile of rocks about eight feet high surmounted by several tree trunks. Hanging from the trunks are innumerable prayer flags. The backside of the ridge connecting the foreground point with the higher Chingelt Khairkhan was once forested with surprisingly large larch and cedar—some close to three feet across the stump—but has now been almost completely logged off in the relentless search for firewood by Ulaan Baatar residents.
Songino Khairkhan Uul, west of here, about five miles past the airport, was the mountain once worshipped by residents of the western suburbs of the city. The peak called Songino Khairkhan is actually the easternmost point of a eight-mile long ridge trending southwest along the Tuul River. It is several hundred feet lower than the highest point of the ridge, 5402-foot Dartsagtyn Gozgor Uul. Songino Khairkhan is the most visible peak from the city, however, and when asked about the holy mountain of Songino most residents point to it. Planes approaching Ulaan Baatar from China and Korea circle right around Songino Khairkhan on their approach, and passengers can see the mountain off the right a few minutes before landing.
I had wanted to climb both Songino Khairkhan Uul and and Dartsagtyn Gozgor Uul but as it turned out I never made it to the later. For this I still blame Dashpurev, a cab driver I had met on my very first visit to Ulaan Baatar and with whom I remained friends until his untimely death from a heart attack. One March day several years ago I called Dashpurev to see if he was free to drive me to the base of Songino Khairkhan Uul the next morning. I explained that I hoped to climb that peak and then follow the ridgeline to the summit of Dartsagtyn Gozgor Uul. He said he could take me the next morning but added that he had something he wanted to talk to me about this evening.
Later he comes to my room with a woman he introduces as his cousin, but is actually his wife’s sister’s daughter. Her name is Purevsuren and she speaks no English. I would have guessed she was in her late twenties, but it turns out she has two children aged sixteen and fourteen, so apparently she is older. After some chitchat Dashpurev gets down to business. His relative along with her two children want to decamp to America. Can I help her get a visa?
Of course I have been asked this dozens of times in Mongolia and in Siberia, where I lived for three years before coming to Mongolia, and I have in fact gotten American visas for numerous people. But the invitations for these visas was always more-or-less on the up-and-up; for example, a translator in Mongolia who had worked for me in the past I invited to the United States on the pretext—feeble, I will admit—of planning with her my next trip to Mongolia. Now Dashpurev says that this woman is prepared to give me $1500 if I can get her an American visa, and he freely admits that if she gets to America she is not coming back. There are many stories going around about how Mongolians have eased into the huge pool of illegal immigrants in the States with scarcely a ripple. This woman thinks she can do it too, if only she can get to the States in the first place. There are several agencies in Ulaan Baatar that claim they can get American visas for $1000 to $1500, but they want the money up front and make no guarantees. If they can’t get the visa they keep up to half the money anyway. Couldn’t I use the $1500, Dashpurev wonders?
I explain to him, a bit disingenuously but wishing to put an end to the matter, that all other considerations aside I cannot invite someone to the United States because I am not myself in the United States and am not returning there any time in the near future.. Dashpurev mulls this over for awhile, then says, prefacing his remarks with a laugh, as if to making a joke, “Well, you are single. Why don’t you marry her. She is quite nice”—here he invites me to appraise her myself with an expansive wave of his arm—“and she will still give you the $1500.”
Curiously, just a couple of days ago I was in an internet cafe where I struck up a conversation with Mongolian woman in her forties who made a similar proposal. It was also made teasingly, as if a joke, but I had no doubt she was serious. She too had several thousand dollars at her disposal. I squirmed out of that proposal the same way I did now with Dashpurev’s relative, explaining that I spent very little time in the States, don’t have a house or apartment or even a job there, and so was hardly in a position to maintain a wife. His relative listens to his translation of all this without a flicker of emotion. Actually, under different circumstances I would have liked to get to know her. Now of course any interest would be misinterpreted.
I woke up the next morning to a blizzard, not the fine, dry snow of the Mongolian winter which is soon blown away, but big, wet flakes which stuck to the ground, piling up a half-inch deep by day-break. I called Dashpurev and cancelled the trip to Songino Uul, which was a good idea because the snow didn’t stop until afternoon, by which time five inches had heaped up.
About a week later Dashpurev, his wife’s sister Purevsuren, and his friend Dashzeveg, a profession translator, came to visit. At first I thought we thought we were going to have another round about visas; but no, it seems they have come just to chat. Surprisingly Dashpurev produces a six-pack of beer. During the several years I have known him I have never seen him drink alcohol before. He relates a convoluted story about a plot to smuggle falcons out of Mongolian which has been recently uncovered. He claims that Arabs, particularly Kuwaitis, will pay up to $50,000 for a falcon, which I find extremely hard to believe, but what do I know about Arabs? I do know there is traffic in falcons because periodically the smugglers get caught and the whole affair makes the news. But according to Dashpurev hundreds more are smuggled out undetected, with police and customs paid to look the other way.
While we are discussing this Dashzeveg picks up a book from my coffee table—David Christian’s A History of Russia, Central Asia, and Mongolia—and flips through it. In his fifties, he is a well-known translator, fluent in Russian (married to a Belorussian), English, and Spanish (he lived for several years in Havana), and with a passing interest in history. Christian’s book, I tell him, is the latest study of the so-called Inner Eurasia region, including Mongolia, up to the time of the Chingisid Empire. It’s an excellent book, I add, and will probably become the standard work on the area, although it does contains some trifling errors about Mongolian history (besides claiming that Anchorage is the capital of Alaska, an assertion sure to upset the residents of Juneau). For example, at one point the book avers that Chingis was a member of the Taichuud clan, when he was, famously, of the Borjigin clan. Dashzeveg turned to Purevsuren for confirmation of this and she says yes, Chingis was a Borjigin and not a Taichuud. During our last meeting Purevsuren had not said a word—she does not speak English—but now it suddenly appears she is a history maven. As it turns out she graduated from Mongolian State University with degrees in history and teaching. For several years she had taught history in schools here in Ulaan Baatar, from the fourth grade on up to the tenth. I ask if Mongolian school kids are interested in history, expecting the stock answer that like most kids they couldn’t care less, but she says, to my surprise, that many Mongolian school children are quite interested in history, especially their own.
I peer at Purevsuren a little more closely. She is tall—probably 5 feet 8 inches—and slim, with thick, lustrous, perfectly straight black hair down to just below her breasts and a finely molded face, her lips glossed with ox blood-colored lipstick. As was the fashion with stylish Mongolian woman she was dressed in all black—black high-heeled boots of soft leather, neatly pressed black slacks, black silk blouse, and thigh-length black leather jacket. She doesn’t look like any high school history teacher I ever had. But she is not longer teaching. I ask through Dashpurev what she is doing now but never got an answer. As I mentioned earlier she has two children, one sixteen and one fourteen, but seems to have no husband at the moment, although even that is not precisely clear. One thing is sure, she wants to get out of Mongolia. She has come along with Dashpurev to visit me again so she could pick up some English, now the global lingua franca, from our conversations. Dashpurev himself never studied English formally, just picked it from talking with foreigners. He thinks Purevsuren can do the same. “She is very smart,” he says. I don’t doubt it for a second. I had a feeling I hadn’t seen the last of her, and I was right.
Ten days later I again called Dashpurev and asked he was free to take me to the base of the Songino Khairkhan Uul the next day, a Sunday. He said he was. An hour later he called back and asked if it was OK if his relative Purevsuren came along with me on my hike. At first I wasn’t sure I heard him correctly. From what I had seen of Purevsuren she didn’t look like the outdoors type—but then again she didn’t look like school teacher type either—and why did she want to come along on an all-day hike into some very rugged mountains? “Fresh air! Exercise!” enthused Dashpurev. “Does she have walking shoes?” I asked dubiously. The last time I had seen her she was wearing stiletto heels. No problem, said Dashpurev.
So they show up and 7:30 the next morning and we head out of town. The weather hasn’t cooperated. Yesterday the sky was faultless blue from horizon to horizon, today is overcast with the threat of snow in the air. Songino Mountain isn’t even visible from Ulaan Baatar, although today this may be due to the pall thrown up the intervening coal-powered electric plants. Just past the police checkpoint on the road to Kharkhorin we turn off on a dirt road that leads to the base of the front rampart of the Songino mountains. I had originally planned to climb the highest peak of the Songinos, 5402' Dartsagtyn Gozgor Uul, but I soon put this plan on hold. Purevsuren’s hiking shoes turned out to have three-inch thick platform soles, and on the ascent to Songino Khairkhan at the eastern end of the range we had to stop a half dozen time while she caught her breath. As mentioned she speaks no English and I only a few words of Mongolian. That didn’t matter, as I intended to do some serious hiking and not engage in pointless babary. It turns out she speaks Russian however, so soon we are engaged in a conversation of sorts.
She’s originally from a small village in the Khentii Mountains. As girl, she assures me, she had done a lot of hiking in the hills around her home but admits to being a bit out of practice. She finally confesses to being thirty-five, although at first glance she appears quite younger, an impression enhanced by a perfect set of blindingly white teeth and a figure of a twenty year old. She has on a full complement of makeup for this hike, but in the unmerciful sunlight here on the mountain her thirty-five years are beginning to show around her eyes. She had her first daughter at the age of nineteen. This was in the 80s when, she explains, there was an official campaign to get woman to have more babies—if you had eight or more you became a Hero Mother of the People’s Republic and received an award and various cash grants—and getting into the spirit of the movement she had another daughter just a little over a year later. I ask several times about her husband, but she is not forthcoming about his current status in her life. She does mention casually that not long ago she and one of her daughters spent a year and a half in Poland. What were they doing in Poland all that time? They were just tourists, she claims, and refuses to elaborate on how or why one would spend a year and a half in Poland as a tourist. As could be expected with a conversation taking place in a language not native to either speaker a lot more questions are raised than answered. Finally she announces that she does not want to speak in Russian—she doesn’t like Russians or their language—and that I should speak in English, as that is the language she is trying to pick up. After a few more breathers we reach the top the 5110-foot Songino Khairkhan, the foreground peak as seen from Ulaan Baatar. On the summit is an six-foot high ovoo surmounted with a section of tree trunk draped with dozens of khadags and Tibetan prayer flags and surrounded by several horse sculls. Three ravens continuously circle the ovoo, banking and wheeling on the stiff wind coming straight out of Siberia.
Directly below, at the base of this peak, the Tuul makes a bend to the southwest. Directly across the valley, here narrowing to about a mile in width, are foothills extending from the western end of the Bogd Khan Uul, the mountain to the south of Ulaan Baatar. These foothills and the eastern end of the Songino mountains form a natural gateway to the large basin occupied by the city of Ulaan Baatar to the east. The right side of the river to the southwest is flanked by the rest of the Songino mountains for perhaps ten miles. Beyond here the Tuul enters another vast basin which drops off beyond the far-distant horizon.
The Songino Mountains were once thought to be the abode of powerful shamans and their attendant spirits. One famous shaman who lived on Songino Mountain was known as the Dark Old Man. According to legend he was also buried here, and he, or perhaps more properly his spirit, was later incorporated into the Buddhist pantheon. Although opposed to shamanism, early Mongolian Buddhists had incorporated many shamanic elements into their rituals as a means of making their religion more compatible to the common people of the country, many of whom retained a deep-seated belief in the power of shamans. Thus the Dark Old man was eventually recognized as one of the Lords of the Four Mountains, the spirits which rule over the four mountains surrounding the city of Ulaan Baatar. A paper maché mask representing the Dark Old Man was worn during the sacred Tsam dances which were held in Urga (Ulaan Baatar) up through the 1920s. The mask, with its ferocious black face and long white fangs conjuring up an archaic belief system which supposedly succumbed to the spiritual authority of Buddhism, can still be seen at the Choigin Lama Temple Museum in downtown Ulaan Baatar.
Other important individuals were also buried on Songino Khairkhan. On the slopes of the mountain archeologists have found a tomb of an chieftain or warrior, 5 feet 8 inches tall and fifty to sixty years old, dating to the 12th or 13th century. In the grave was found a pommel from a saddle; two metal stirrups, traditionally buried with their owners; a sheep shoulder blade which was probably part of a food offering; a knife with wooden handle; a birch bark quiver twenty-five inches long containing three metal-tipped arrows; part of a three-footed cast iron pot; and other oddments.
Most striking however, was a leather belt found on the body. Adorning its length were twenty-seven rosettes of solid gold, each several inches in diameter, and hanging from the belt onto the man’s right hip was a beetle-shaped pendant, also of gold. Given the richness of the burial and the man’s personal adornment he was undoubtedly a member of the steppe aristocracy. Given the time frame he could have been either a Mongol or a Kerait—the tribe which lived here along the Tuul in the 12th century; whichever, Songino Khairkhan was chosen as his final resting place.
From the ovoo we continued hiking along the knife-edge ridge leading the southwest. The wind had abruptly picked up force, now blowing straight out of the north at sixty or seventy miles an hour. Crossing gaps in the ridge where the wind was particularly strong I was almost bowled off my feet several times. Purevsuren gamely picked her way across the crumbly scree, holding on to her stocking cap with one hand and trying to keep her balance with the other arm. Her cheeks were soon burnished bright red by the frigid wind. Reaching one high knob on the ridge we worked our way around the lee-side and suddenly found ourselves in a protected nook, eerily calm without a breath of breeze, even though overhead the wind continued to shriek and moan. The mid-morning sun radiating off the rocks created here a pocket of warm air. It was as if we had stepped into a greenhouse. We unburdened ourselves of parkas and gloves and broke out a picnic lunch. Both of us had brought thermos of hot tea.
Below, in the gateway formed by Songino Khairkhan and spurs of Bogd Khan Uul, can be seen the village of Bio Uildvar. For several miles on either side of Bio Uildvar the banks of the Tuul are lined with scattered stands of deciduous trees. Now shorn of their leaves they appear black from our viewpoint. These trees are what remains of the Black Forest of the Tuul, where Tooril, leader of the Kerait and the original patron of Chingis Khan, made his headquarters during the last part of the twelfth century.
This Black Forest of the Tuul is mentioned several times in the Secret History of the Mongols, the thirteenth-century account of the rise of the Mongols and the life of Chingis Khan. Various sources, notably the French scholar of Central Asia, Rene Grousset, have opined that the Black Forest of the Tuul was actually a name for the thick woods covering Bogd Khan Uul, the mountain just west of here and south of the Tuul Valley. Indeed, anyone approaching Ulaan Baatar today by airplane during the day will be struck by the site of this huge largely tree-covered massif rearing up straight ahead after the featureless, treeless expanses of desert and steppe directly to the south, and like the Black Hills of South Dakota the mountain from a distance does in fact appear to be black, an impression especially pronounced in winter time. Thus it would be easy to assume that is the Black Forest of the Tuul mentioned in the Secret History.
I had, however, discussed this matter with two leading Mongolian scholars of the Chingis era, D. Bazargür’s and D. Enkhbayar, compilers of a book entitled Chinggis Khaan Atlas, and they maintained that according to various written sources and oral legends the Black Forest of the Tuul refers not to the forest on Bogd Khan Uul but to the stands of trees along the Tuul itself in the vicinity of Songino Mountain which were probably much more extensive in the thirteenth century.
This, then, was where Tooril, also known as Ong Khan or Wang Khan, had his camp. The Persian historian Juvaini, writing in the 1250s, noted: “In those days Ong Khan, the ruler of the Kerait . . . surpassed the other tribes in strength and dignity and was stronger than they in gear and equipment and the number of his men. And in those days the Mongol tribes were not united and did not obey one another.”
The Kerait too at times suffered from disunity, however, and Tooril himself became embroiled in a vicious civil war with his uncle Gur-khan for control of the Kerait throne. Tooril turned for help to a man named Yesükhei, then a minor leader of the Kiyat-Borjigin clan of the Mongols. Yesükhei saw a chance to strengthen his own hand by allying himself with Tooril. With the assistance of Yesükhei and his men Tooril defeated the Gur-khan, who along with his followers was forced to flee to the land of the Xi Xia, in what is now the Chinese province of Ningxia. To cement their alliance Tooril and Yesükhei became blood brothers (anda) in what became known as the Oath of the Black Forest, named after Tooril’s camp at the Black Forest of the Tuul, here at the base of Songino Mountain. Tooril proclaimed, “In memory of the service you have rendered me, my gratitude shall be manifested to your children and to your children’s children, may the high heavens and the earth be my witness.” Yesükhei’s son Temüjin, later known to the world as Chingis Khan, would later have due cause to remind Tooril of his oath made here at the Black Forest of the Tuul, and to hold him to it. Still later, after the two had become bitter enemies and he had finally defeated Tooril, his erstwhile ally, Chingis himself come here to live at the Black Forest, and eventually he built himself a palace somewhere in or near the forest, one of the few permanent abodes he ever had.
While rummaging through a collection of documents made by early Russian trade missions in Mongolia I had come across a report filed by a Russian named Porshennikov who in 1675 led a caravan south from the Russian settlement of Seleginsk in what is now Buryatia, nominally part of the Russian Republic. Nine days after leaving Seleginsk they arrived at “the river Tola [Tuul] on which dwells the Khutukhta lama, celebrated as being the head of all the sacrificers, the Metropolitan as we would say; and in that place they have built for their idol a great temple of stone, as it were a town, the masons who built it having been brought from China.” This might well be the first description in a Western language (assuming Russian qualifies as a western language) of the town which eventually became Ulaan Baatar, and also the first mention of Zanabazar—called here the “Khutukhta lama.” Porshennikov goes on to say, “On the same river [the Tuul], a little lower down, is a deserted stone-built city, a very strong one even now, were but the walls repaired a little.”
During one of my interviews with the scholars of the Chingisid Era D. Bazargür’s and D. Enkhbayar I asked them if this was possibly a reference to a settlement built by the Keraits, maybe Tooril’s “camp” on the Tuul, or did it perhaps refer to Chingis’s “palace” on the Tuul where, as the Secret History tells us, Chingis repaired to in 1225, after his seven year campaign against the Moslem empire of Khwarazm. Not much is known about Tooril’s camp, opine my two interlocutors, but there were probably some baishins (small houses of logs or stone), Bazargür says, in additional to a large collection of gers, or felt tents. As for Chingis’ palace, very little is known about it, but it is entirely possible that Chingis had erected here a “stone city,” perhaps on the site of Tooril’s original encampment. This may be what Porshennikov was referring to. Currently, however, no ruins of any palace or town remain in the Songino area, according to Bazargür. This seems a bit odd actually. Mongolia is littered with surprisingly well-preserved ruins much older than this. Perhaps their proximity to Ulaan Baatar was their downfall; the ruins may have been bull-dozed over for some development, or the building materials recycled into new structures.
Tooril, the Ong Khan, who as the ruler of the Kerait had once dwelt here at the base of Songino Khairkhan Uul, met an ignominious death. Unwillingly forced into by battle with Chingis by his own son Senggüm, who was jealous of Chingis’s close relation with his father, Tooril and the Keraits were defeated. Tooril fled with a few retainers across the Gobi Desert and was finally killed by some Naiman sentries he stumbled upon who mistook him for a common thief.
Now Tooril would be almost totally forgotten had not the peripatetic Venetian traveler Marco Polo in his book Description of the World identified him as Prestor John, that legendary figure who many Europeans at the time believed ruled a vast kingdom of Christians somewhere in the East and was prepared to come to the aid of the Crusaders by attacking the forces of Islam from the rear. Marco Polo, who was almost certainly never in what is now Mongolia—although his father and uncle probably were—conflated the stories he had heard about Tooril into the Prestor John legend and thus immortalized the Kerait chief who of course never had the means or the desire to attack the Moslems of the Middle East.
The wind had gotten even stronger and Purevsuren did not want to continue on to Dartsagtyn Gozgor Uul, the highest point on the ridge. After our tea break we decided to retrace our steps back to the road. I never did make it back to climb Dartsagtyn Gozgor Uul. Nor did I ever see Purevsuren again. A couple of weeks later Dashpurev informed me that she and her children had left for Korea. It seems she had met a Korean businessman in a night club who invited them to come and live with him in Seoul. Generous guy, what with the kids and all.
By far the largest, highest, and most hallowed of Ulaan Baatar’s four holy mountains is Bogd Khan Uul. While the other three holy mountains were worshipped chiefly by the inhabitants of separate quarters of the city Bogd Khan Uul was venerated by all. The entire massif, extending some twenty miles east to west and up to ten miles north to south, dominates the southern skyline of the city. Tsetsee Gun Peak, which according to maps and reference materials is the top of the massif, reaches an elevation of 7,377 feet, almost 3000 feet above the city, but oddly enough, as I will elaborate upon below, this is in fact not the highest point of Bogd Khan Uul. Almost the entire massif is heavily mantled with larch and cedar forests which constitute the southern edge of the latitudinal tree line in this part of Mongolia; beyond here steppe-covered ridges eventually grade into the Gobi Desert..
This mountain has an interesting history. It may be the world’s oldest wildlife refuge and national park; it is certainly one of the first. A number of books, pamphlets, and tourist ephemera about Ulaan Baatar claim, without citation, that the great Mongol khans of the thirteen-century first declared the whole mountain a sacred preserve where no hunting was allowed. I have done extensive research on this era and have never been able to find a direct source for this assertion. There is no mention of such a preserve, for example, in the seminal thirteenth-century Secret History of the Mongols nor in any of the thirteenth-century Persian histories of Mongolia.
Although the story of a thirteenth century nature preserve centered around the mountain may be apocryphal, we do know that starting in the 1700s the Bogd Gegens of Mongolia, who eventually settled here at what is now Ulaan Baatar, began to make twice-a-year offerings on the mountain and that by then prohibitions against hunting and tree felling were codified and enforced and enforced on a local level.
Apparently the mountain was first known as Khan Uul. This name was supposedly based on a legend that Chingis Khan had been born at its foot. This is certainly apocryphal, since all thirteenth-century sources agree that Chingis was born in the watershed of the Onon River. It’s true, however that in 1225 Chingis, after his triumphant seven-year campaign against the Moslem empire of Khwarazm, returned to Mongolia and set up his headquarters near the base of the mountain, perhaps, as mentioned earlier, even building a stone palace here. This legend may then be an echo of the fact that Chingis once lived here. In 1778, Buddhist officials nevertheless submitted to the Qing Emperor in Beijing (as mentioned earlier, at that time the Qing Dynasty enjoyed suzerainty over Mongolia) a petition reiterating this legend and noting that for several generations various Bogd Gegens had been making offerings to the mountain. In the petition the Mongolians sought permission to declare a civil holiday in honor of the mountain and asked that the Qing Court itself make offerings to the mountain on this day. The Chinese quite rightly did not believe this legend but they did not want to offend the Mongolians either. The reply to the petition read “The veneration of Khaan uula is a worth thing. Therefore . . . the appropriate ministry is empowered to send incense, candles, and silk stuffs in the ordained amount, in the spring and autumn of each year with instructions to Sanji Dorji [a Mongol representative of the Manchu government in Urga] that he make offerings in the presence of the wangs, kungs, and dzasaks [Mongolian officials and dignitaries]. Apparently the name Bogd (Holy) Khan Uul dates from this time. The exact dates of the twice-yearly offerings were to be determined by Mongolian astrologers. These offerings continued in one form or another until the communist era, when ovoo worship was outlawed, although they might well have continued clandestinely.
Other customs applied to Bogd Khaan Uul. For instance, criminals could not be executed within view of the mountain. Those condemned to death were taken to some other city to meet their fate. This ban may have implemented because the Bogd Gegen lived in the city, at the base of the mountain, and executions were considered unseemly in his presence. The injunction was in effect as late the 1890s, when two Mongols were convicted of slaughtering an entire family of seven Russians. When the Qing government ordered that they be executed in the city lamas made strenuous objections. Finally a compromise was reached. The condemned men were taken to a narrow gorge five miles outside of the city where high cliffs blocked off view of either the city or Bogd Khan Uul, and here they met their fates.
Whatever may have been Bogd Khan Uul's status in the past it is now officially designated Strictly Protected Area, one of several classifications of parks and preserves in Mongolia. Within the protected area, which covers over 103,000 acres, hunting, tree-felling, pasturing animals, and permanent residence is forbidden. The mountain remains a popular destination for day-hikers, both Mongolians and foreigners, although a permit is supposedly required even for day use.
Of course laws in Mongolia, as elsewhere, are not always obeyed. In 1999 a lengthy article in the Mongol Messenger revealed that rangers who patrol the preserve had requested tear gas and electric prods for use in protecting themselves against illegal trespassers. In early July of 1999 a ranger—one of twenty-one patrolling the preserve—was badly beaten when he tried to stop people carrying away trees they had cut down. “Some of these people have a well-maintained retail network [for firewood] and would stop at nothing to acquire merchandise—this forces rangers to take the line of least resistance for fear of being stabbed to death,” said T. Tserendovdon, age thirty-five, whose wife is also a ranger. Subsequent inspections by groups of rangers revealed that at least thirty-five households had moved onto preserve land, grazing livestock, growing vegetables, and even maintaining greenhouses. Unfortunately there was no money available for either tear gas or electric prods. The remedy which no doubt would have first come to mind in the United States—firearms—was apparently not considered.
The first time I considered climbing to the summit of Bogd Khan Uul I was warned off most forcefully by a knowledgeable local resident who claimed that several small bands of escapees from the men’s penitentiary, located at the base of the mountain just above Zaisan village, behind the War Memorial, were hiding out on Bogd Khan Uul and survived by robbing hikers and others. They had not actually hurt anyone so far but I was assured that I did not want to encounter these people.
A year later these desperados had been rounded up, supposedly, and I was told it was once again safe to go on the mountain. There are several routes to the summit, but from the north side the easiest starts near the Khureltogoot Astronomical Observatory, about seven miles east of downtown. Just across the bridge over the Tuul River bridge the observatory complex of several buildings can be seen on the hillside to the right, partially hidden in the forest at the edge of the tree line. (Here the tree line indicates how far down the mountain the forest extends, and not how far up; the valley of the Tuul and the lower slopes of the mountain are covered with steppe.) Just to the right of the observatory a deep valley runs several miles directly south, ending at the steep slopes leading directly to the twin knobs of what I had been told by my friend the taxi cab driver Dashpurev was Tsetsee Gun Peak.
From the observatory I followed the crest of the ridge east of the valley. Soon I was into a forest primeval of large, mature larch and cedar. Clearly no illegal timber-felling was taking place on this part of the mountain. A fox skittered across my path, and I saw several beds used by izubr, a large Asiatic elk. Farther on I carefully plied my way across several large boulder fields before emerging on the main ridge line of the massif. Due west could be seen a high point topped by dramatic granite tors. These were the knobs which had been pointed out to me by my cab driver from the road. Wending my way upward through house-sized granite blocks I soon emerged into a tennis court-sized flat area surrounded on all sides by thirty-to-forty foot-high tors. Scrambled up the side of one for an unobstructed view I could clearly see that I was on the top of the Bogd Khan massif.
Nature could not have conspired better to create a setting more conducive to the worship of a mountain. The flat area at the summit surrounded on all sides by soaring tors gave the immediate impression of a large altar, and standing there I could not help but feel I had entered a sacred precinct. Indeed, in the middle of the flat area was an large ovoo draped with khadags and Tibetan prayer flags and surrounded by moldering bricks of tea which had been left as offerings, as well of dozens of empty vodka and beer bottles left by more profane worshippers. On a flat rock near the ovoo I laid out a line of incense made from konan artz (a kind of dwarf juniper) which I had gotten from the monks at Gandan Monastery and lit it. There was no wind whatsoever and the aromatic smoke hung in a thin layer about the ovoo.
After a suitable period of reflection I took out the map I had brought along. Tsetsee Gun Uul, the alleged summit of the mountain with an elevation of 2256 meter (7,377) was clearly marked by a small triangle. I immediately noticed however, that about a mile to the east there was a point that according to the typographical contour lines was clearly higher. I took a GPS reading and discovered that I was standing almost exactly at longitude E107º, the location of the highest point on the map, and not at the point indicated as Tsetsee Gun Uul. I strolled over to this latter point and discovered a pyramid-shaped metal marker and a bronze plaque giving the elevation as 2256 meters. The ridgeline here is almost perfectly flat, and any point for several hundred yards in any direction probably had the same elevation. Yet looking back east I could clearly see that the point surmounted by the tors was at the very least a hundred feet higher. I have never been able to confirm this, but I have often wondered whether the topographers, not wishing to profane the true summit of the Bogd Khan Uul massif, purposely designated a lower point as Tsetsee Gun Uul. I might point out that there is no ovoo or offerings at this lower point.
I returned to the tors and camped that night on a grassy bench just below the flat altar area. I had originally planned spend the night on the summit, but I had a vague feeling of unease about this: it would have been like sneaking into a church and sleeping on the pews. That night was the summer solstice—I had purposely planned to be on the summit of Bogd Khan Uul on the longest day of the year—and the next morning in the pre-dawn I went up to the altar area to view the sunrise and contemplate further on Bogd Khan Uul.
Did Chingis himself, I could not help but wonder, ever himself stand here at the summit of this mountain? Chingis, we know, revered high mountains, whose summits brought him closer to the Eternal Blue Heaven worshipped by Mongolians. Before the start of his campaign against the Chin Dynasty of China he climbed to the top of Burkhan Khaldun Mountain, near where earlier he had escaped with his life from pursuing Merkit tribesmen, and for three days and three nights prayed for guidance and assistance from the ancient gods of Mongolia. In 1219, before starting his campaign against the Moslem empire of Khwarazm he again “climbed to the top of a hill, bared his head, raised his face . . . and prayed to Heaven for three days. In 1126, a year after arriving at his camp at the edge of the Black Forest, Chingis left with his armies on the campaign against the Xi Xia of northwestern China. Did he climb here to the summit of Bogd Khan Uul and, as was the custom, hang his belt around his neck and bare his head, make offerings of airag (mare’s milk) and then fast for three days while supplicating Heaven for success in his upcoming campaign? It he did there must have been a special poignancy to his entreaties, since by then Chingis was an aging man, in his mid-sixties, and indeed he did not return alive from the Xi Xia campaign, dying in China a year later in 1227.
Whatever role Bogd Khan Uul played in the ancient animist religion of the Chingisids, it was later among the Buddhists that the mountain took on the aura of sanctity which continues on down to the present day. Among the many Buddhist places of worship found in Ulaan Baatar (then known to foreigners, although not to Mongolians, as Urga) during the pre-communist era there was one known as the Shar (Yellow) Temple. It was quite active in 1892, when it was visited and described by the Russian ethnologist and linguist A. M. Pozdneev. Each autumn lamas held ceremonies in the temple honoring Bogd Khan Uul while other lamas presented offerings on the summit of the mountain itself, presumably the summit where I greeted the dawn. The Shar Temple was subsequently destroyed by the communists, and now no one I talked to has a clue as to where it might have been. The Shar Temple was dedicated to Padmasambhava (Sanskrit for “the Lotus-born”), one of the principal founders of Tibetan Buddhism. Born in Kashmir in the eighth century, he studied various Tantric teachings before undertaking a mission to Tibet, then under the sway of shamans and followers of the Bon religion. In Tibet he became famous for his subjugation of demons and indigenous nature spirits who ruled the countryside. In Tibet of these entities were “converted” to Buddhism and incorporated into the Buddhist pantheon. This same process took place in Mongolia. All four of Sacred Mountains I have mentioned were thought to have been ruled originally by spiritual entities whose influence on human beings was often malignant. One of the duties of Buddhism was to destroy or at least suborn these entities. After the reintroduction of Tibetan Buddhism into Mongolia in the sixteenth century by the Tüsheet Khan Avtai (it has enjoyed a brief florescence in the court of the great Mongol khans of the thirteenth century, but had largely disappeared after the dissolution of Mongol Empire), a similar campaign was launched against the chthonic spirits of Mongolia, which hitherto had been the sole concern of shamans. The third Dalai Lama of Tibet was directly involved in this endeavor, apparently with the sanction of the Qing government, which in an attempt to establish a state religion “aimed at easing the differences between Mongolian folk beliefs and those of officially sanctioned Buddhism.” in the words of one study. In order to objectify these spirits they were identified with a specific image from the Buddhist canon which eventually came to serve as a kind of demonifuge. In the case of Bogd Khan Uul Garuda the Devourer was chosen. Originally Garuda was a entity from the Hindu pantheon, half man and half vulture, which feasted on snakes, the archetypical chthonic creatures. Tibetan Buddhist later fastened on this image because of its similarity with the mythical Himalayan bird known as the khyung which was associated with the air, or the heavens above. “With his heavenly associations and his sworn enmity to the evil forces of the earth, Garuda appealed to Mongolian Buddhists, whose own native shamanism honored the sky above all. . . ,” notes one commentator. During the performance of Tsam, the ceremonial dances which once played a key role in the liturgical life of Mongolian Buddhists, especially in Urga, Garuda appeared as a masked figure, one of the Lords of the Four Mountains representing Bogd Khan Uul. An incredibly elaborate nineteenth century tsam mask of Garuda now resides in the Choigin Lama museum in Ulaan Baatar, where I had seen it earlier.
I reluctantly left my mountain-top aerie. Rather than retracing my route I decided to descent via the southern side of the mountain. I returned to the Tsetsee Gun Uul marker then headed due south, clambering down some steep rock faces before emerging into thick woods. There is very little water on Bogd Khan Uul—none on the route by which I had ascended the mountain—and I had brought only two liters along, the last of which I used for tea in the morning. The temperature climbed into the eighties and parched as I was I was overjoyed when I stumbled upon a small wash basin-sized spring with water bubbling up out of a rock crevice. I consider myself a connoisseur of drinking water, and this was excellent—soft, with no mineral taste, and bitingly cold, straight from the bowels of Bogd Uul Khan. Of course I was not the only sentient being to frequent this spot. Izubr (Asiatic elk) had trampled the banks of the tiny rivulet just below the spring, and on a small patch of mud on the edge of the pool was imprinted a perfect four-inch long track of a wolf.
Eventually I emerged at Manzshir Monastery, a thriving establishment in the pre-communist era but later almost completely destroyed. It has been partly rebuilt and one temple now serves as a museum. The scenic environs, well wooded and watered, are very popular with Mongolian day-trippers and party animals and I had no trouble hitching a ride back to town.
As I mentioned Bogd Khan Uul once fell under the purview of the Shar Temple, which was destroyed back in the 30s. Now the lamas at one of the temples at Gandan Monastery have reinstituted rituals honoring the mountain. These usually take place in June, at various easily accessible locations at the base of the mountains, and are of course open to the public. Thus Bogd Khan Uul’s traditional role as the main Holy Mountain of Ulaan Baatar has been restored.