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Day 10, Aug 3 (Tuesday)

scribeMarion Shaw
Trilobite locality
Trilobites were here

Click image
to enlarge.

Left camp on the Eg River at 8:50 for a geology stop nearby. Lower and middle Cambrian limestone which had been collected and described by Russians in the 70's and 80's. They assembled a good trilobite and archeocyathid collection. This is a shallow shelf deposit which dips steeply east. We found archeocyathids and algal balls in some quantity, no trilobites.

Returned to campsite and packed our tents which had dried nicely in the interim. Tea break with yoghurt while we watched a herd of yaks crossing the river.

Lake Khovsgol entrance
Lake Khovsgol

Drove back through Alag Erdene on our way north to Khovsgol National Park. Entered outskirts of Khatgal with large ovoo on pass. Had photos taken with large group of Mongolian tourists (12) who spilled out of one Russian white van.

Lunch just below the ovoo, feasted on Joe's lennok plus several others bought from local kids at camp last night.

Entered Khovsgol National Park at 2 p.m., brief stop in Khatgal, just inside the park, to buy Italian wine and various other goodies.

Khirvest ger camp
Khirvest ger camp

Took another three hours to drive over very bumpy dirt road on west side of lake to get to Khirvest ger camp. Ger camp had a wood sauna, which was quite a treat after a two-hour warm-up. We enjoyed our first hot water shower since leaving Ulaanbataar and were able to do some laundry as well.

Khirvest bar
Khirvest bar

Dinner which was provided by the ger camp, was soup...and...? We managed to get a second helping after some discussion, but were left wishing for our own fine kitchen crew. Beer and vodka were plentiful at the bar and soothed complaints.

Day 11, Aug 6 (Wednesday)

scribeCamp: Bill Abbey
Reindeer at Lake Khovsgol
Khovsgol reindeer

I thought it was going to be a lazy day when I woke up that morning in our little ger camp, nestled amongst the Siberian larch on the shores of Lake Khovsgol. Boy was I wrong....

After a hearty breakfast of pastries and choco-pies, half of our group set off up some mountain or another, but I set about planning a lazy day of lying around listening to my book-on-tape -- for exercise, I planned to throw logs on the fire to help dry out the laundry that Joe and I had used to decorate our ger. The herd of reindeer (frickin' reindeer for crying out loud) passing through camp first thing in the morning should have been an omen that things wouldn't go according to plan.

Blues brothers
Blues brothers

I managed to lie around successfully doing nothing for several hours...but then came Bozi, a local boy who apparently studies the Mongolian equivalent of hotel management. He stopped by with a smattering of English, a phrasebook and a desire to learn. Using visual aids (i.e. my CD of Shakira -- the Latin Britney Spears) I managed to teach him the terms "hottie" and "nice butt". In turn I learned a handful of pronouns and the precarious fact that if you mispronounce the verb "to be" in Mongolian it can sound just like the verb "to poop". After several hours of this, both our heads were starting to hurt. He managed to look up the phrase "break time" and I agreed -- after all, it was time to go shopping....

After a brief lunch and a turn at the outdoor market (where I bought a spiffy new blue jacket), I thought that things would settle down again and that I could get back to doing nothing...but that was not to be. As it happened, an offer to play cards with our staff was too good an opportunity to pass up. So, I whiled away the afternoon playing cards with Baika, Khulan, Zambaga and the badass driver/mechanic/Mr. Fix-it guy whose name I never remember. We started out playing some version of rummy as near as I can gather, but I had no idea what I was doing. Fortunately, I had Zambaga to coach me and tell me what to do, but I had very little luck figuring out the rules. Eventually they showed me mercy and switched games to something that was easier to understand....

"Touch Your Nose". It'd be a great drinking game -- you pass around cards until you get four of a kind and then you do something, like touch your nose (it can be anything really, like slapping your hand on the table, running around the ger, whatever). The last person to follow your lead has to do something stupid of the winner's choosing. Penalties range from acting like a chicken to getting an Indian burn to running to the lake to fetch a pail of water. Zambaga made me do a bunch of pull-ups. I learned that it doesn't take much to embarrass a Mongolian -- things that American frat boys would do sober without blinking an eye, made these guys turn red as beets and beg for mercy -- so it was pretty easy to think of humiliating things to have them do for my entertainment. In any case, a good time was had by all and it was the most fun I've had in a long time!!

Mongolian barbeque
Mongolian barbeque

But the day wasn't over yet...there was still the Mongolian BBQ with a special appearance by Dolly, the sheep. In our honor, our hosts cut up a sheep, and a few token veggies, and threw the bits into a MacGyver style pressure cooker complete with hot rocks, water and an old sack to plug the hole. It didn't look like the Mongolian BBQ in the mall, and the distance that Tumenbayar and Maidar were standing away from the contraption didn't inspire confidence. But the cooking was completed without any casualties (it's all fun and games until your dinner explodes...). Unfortunately, I wouldn't recommend the resulting meal to anybody unless they like chewing the fat -- although it was very Atkins friendly.

Khirvest bonfire
Khirvest bonfire

The day ended on a high note with a massive bonfire down by the lake. Our psychotic and very inebriated host (?) who may be going by the alias Jim Gant, or might be just an escapee that wandered in out of the woods, kept the party going by dancing through the flames in some sort of pagan-esque ritual and making passes at some in the group. I don't know if a good time was had by all, but it was certainly had by him!

scribeHiking: Jeanie Barnett
Ik Uii hikers
Hiking Ik Uii

While half of the group opted to loll around camp all day, six of us decided to do some hiking. After all, the main reason we endured the long drive up the shore of the lake was because Greg wanted to climb “a real Mongolian mountain.” Ik Uii, at 2961 m, qualified. The name meant, surprisingly, “Big Mountain.”

Tumenbayar gave us a detailed route description: "Walk up the valley and veer left." We repeated the instructions carefully and nodded somberly, relieved that he didn't add, "and you can't possibly get lost", as that would have spelled certain disaster. I suspect this is considered a pretty safe mountain to send tourists without escort. It was a roundtrip of about 11 kilometers with 1260 m elevation gain, but the goal wasn’t so much to reach the summit as it was to get back in time for dinner. “Dolly” would explode before she would wait.

With that in mind, we broke our resolution to not ride in any vans today, and let Tumenbayar shuttle us through the first few kilometers of boring flat road to the “trailhead.” We followed a rocky stream through the larch forest and soon broke out into an expansive mountain meadow in an amphitheatre of barren hills. Now that we were up the valley, there ensued some debate as to how far to the left we should veer. But we decided that the highest bump on the ridge, just slightly to the left, must be Ik Uii, in spite of the fact that the only obvious trail veered to the right and up over a pass.

Ik Uii rainbow
Ik Uii rainbow

The trail wound up to a hitching post, where it looked like people had camped. This was apparently Base Camp, from which to launch the final assault on the summit. Brush in the meadow was knee-high, wet, and spongy, requiring a careful step. Greg, as usual, led the group on the direct route up the steepest part of the slope, while I opted to angle over towards the pass and avoid the worst of the brush.

The sky hung heavy with clouds, which spattered now and then but never worked up to a real rain. Temperatures were cool enough to keep us moving. As I topped the ridge, a rainbow arced into the next valley. Apparently Ik Uii approved.

Ik Uii summit
Ik Uii summit

Marion popped over the ridge first, followed by the others, and we scrambled up the talus towards the summit. Bright red stonecrop splattered the granite rocks, and I spied what looked like a chukar bobbing among the boulders.

The wind swirled around as we alighted the summit ovoo, which was attended by a half dozen mini-ovoos. The “real” summit was maybe 50 m higher and one gully away, but it didn’t have any ovoos and the view was just as good from here, so we weren’t going there. Obviously we aren't purists.

The view required twelve images in panoramic mode. Lake Khovsgol glimmered to the east, banded carbonate strata dipped off to the northeast, and bald ridges with skirts of larch rippled off to the west and south. Maybe we could peer into Russia, I imagined, but was dismayed to later look at a map and see that we were only about a third of the way up the shore of the lake. It would have been a long hike to the border.

Ik Uii pinnacles
Ik Uii pinnacles

We huddled in the meager protection of the ovoo and ate our sack lunches, but soon got chilled and needed to move again. We scampered down the talus, a couple of us again choosing the ridge route while Greg headed straight down the mountain. From the pass, which had a well-marked trail, we could peer into a narrow valley guarded by spectacular pinnacles of white carbonates, which we dubbed the “Grand Canyon.”

We regrouped at the edge of the larch forest and retraced our steps along the stream, this time covering the part we missed in the van ride. The timing was good – there was just enough time for a quick shower before we joined the ceremonial steaming of Dolly over open flame. We had certainly worked up an appetite.

Day 12, Aug 7 (Thursday)

scribeChris Metzler

On August 5 we awoke for our last morning at the Khirvest ger camp. We returned down the very rocky road back to Khatgal (abouncy, bouncy, bounce!). Once at Khatgal, we headed down the road south toward Moron.

At lunch time the leaf springs on the big truck needed to be replaced, so while the mechanics worked on that, the rest of us played Frisbee with a group of young Mongolians. Lunch included some hot dog or sausage-like meat wrapped in dough.

"Oh, boy, pigs in blankets!", someone commented.

"No, yaks in sacks!" said Greg.

Deer stones
Deer stones

After the long lunch and repair of the truck, we headed south. Near a large lake, we headed west looking for the deer stone. It turned out to be several tall carved rocks with reindeer and sun symbols. The deer stones date to the Bronze age. I was surprised that they were still standing. There were a number of large rock piles which were tombs from the Turkish era. If I understood the discussion correctly, they date to around 700-900 A.D., and similar tombs occur along the steppe all the way to the Black Sea. Many of these tombs have rocks placed around them in a square outline. One of them which some of us climbed even had a small opening near the top with a musty or fetid odor coming out of it! We speculated that at one time these rock piles may have had an open chamber, but were now collapsed, and that they had possibly been looted at some time.

Delgermoron River campsite
Delgermoron River

Finally, we headed south, past Mongolians harvesting grass with scythes. We camped along the Moron River, west of the town of Moron, in rather warm and windy conditions. While some of us swam (I thought this was one of the best swimming spots on the trip!), others enjoyed beer or vodka while the mechanics worked on the rear suspension of Maidar's Mitsubishi.

Day 13, Aug 8 (Friday)

scribeJeanie Barnett

The cranes, geese, ducks, and swallows were up before we were, chortling, quacking, honking, and swooping around our campsite on the Delgermoron River. Across the river, the town of Moron was exhaling pinkish orange clouds of smoke from the household wood and dung fires. The temperature at dawn was the warmest so far, 54 degrees F, and for once we didn't have to worry about drying out the tents.

After a breakfast of bread, jam, honey, cheese, salami, mini-croissants and cream spread, we loaded up the trucks and prepared to head east towards Bulgan, beginning the return leg of our tour.

Minjin gave us a preview of the geology. We are in an east-west trending belt of Permian volcanic rocks overlain by Triassic through Jurassic sandstones, siltstones, and conglomerates. Devonian and Permian granites, syenites and diorites are exposed along the belt.

After having skirted Moron twice, we finally got to see the town center because Sandra needed to buy a hat. However, it was early and most of the shops would not open until 10:00 a.m. While the shoppers cruised around town, the crew took advantage of the stop to get water from the town well.

Horsemen at Golden Ovoo
Golden Ovoo

The road from Moron was paved, but the pavement soon ended and the track splayed into the typical Mongolia eight-lane dirt highway. We crossed a low pass with a deer stone and stopped at East Lake, a small pretty lake in an enclosed basin. The intensely blue water contrasted with the brown and green hills, and the shoreline was mucky and foamy like a bathtub ring. Swans and cygnets swam on the lake.

We stopped for lunch on a pass just west of the small town of Tsengel, where there was an ovoo and a monument. This was the "Golden Ovoo" place, set up by the local people to commemorate the beautiful country. There was also a monument to horses. And there were horses. Three horsemen rode up, as if on cue, looking for their other horses that got away during the night. Tumenbayar talked to them but said we were of no help, being "city people" and tourists. But the horsemen stood around and watched us and enjoyed having their pictures taken.

Sandra models new hat
Sandra's hat

We followed the valley of the Delgermoron River east on the main road between Moron and Ulaanbaatar. Four trucks with tanks of fuel caravanned by - the Mongolian gasoline pipeline.

In the small town of Ikh Uul (another "Big Mountain"), we stopped for Sandra to get her hat. The one that fit the best was bright red with a Playboy logo.

East of town, Enkhbayar's van got a flat on a piece of metal in the grass - what are the odds of hitting just that chunk of debris in the enormous steppe? This required a tire change, as the rubber was demolished.

Jim examines dikes
Sheeted dikes

Tire fixed, we regrouped and found a camping spot by the river, now the Selenge, the trunk stream that collects water from northern Mongolia and feeds into Lake Baikal. The river cut into a formidable cliff. We crossed a muddy oxbow to examine the cliff and found it to be a complex of fine-grained intermediate intrusive rocks, which Jim, our igneous rock expert, described as classic sheeted dikes.

Minjin studies conglomerates
Minjin studies

We walked up the hill to outcrops of the Ikh Uul Formation, middle-upper Triassic conglomerates that are part of a 1000 m-thick sequence of Mesozoic continental redbeds. The conglomerate is reddish, poorly sorted, and has angular, granule to cobble-sized clasts.

The rocks up the hill looked pretty much like the ones below, so people started turning back. But Minjin, Greg and I decided it was a good day for a hike and continued on up the dip slope to the saddle on the ridge, where we got a good view of the next valley. To get to the valley floor, we had to negotiate the redbed cliffs by scrambling down steep gulches choked with brush -- a bit more than we bargained for.

On the way back to camp, we looked for the basal contact of the conglomerates, but could only nail it down to within several meters due to poor exposure. The grassy slope had lots of sand - possibly swept up from the river during an older dryer period. We crossed the oxbow again, now enhanced with rockwork courtesy Peter, and made it back to camp just in time for dinner. Dinner was potato-mutton soup, pickles, carrot-garlic salad, and bread, with yellow and orange gummies for dessert.

Day 14, Aug 7 (Saturday)

scribeJeanie Barnett
Plowing fields
Rare agriculture

The morning dawned calm, chilly, and damp. When the sun finally hit the tents, so did the grasshoppers. They clung to the netting, crawled up our pant legs, and stuck to people's shirts like designer logos. They whirled, ratcheted, pinged, and spittled, but did not bite, so were more amusement than nuisance.

We drove east on the main road from Moron to Ulaanbaatar, counting off the posts that show kilometers to Moron on one side, kilometers to UB on the other. Rocking along dozing and dreaming in the vans, we kept forgetting which was which. But it was more than you usually get. Tumenbayar explained to us about distances in Mongolia. If you ask how far is it to such-and-such a place, around here the answer would always be, "not far". In the Gobi it would be "very close." But there are visual clues -- a bent index finger means about 50 km, a straight ones means more like 100 km.

Most of the hills were barren and dwellings were few, but we did see some of the rare agriculture of the tour – a tractor plowing furrows for winter wheat.

Good-bye to Minjin
Good-bye to Minjin

We’re now heading into gold country. In the van, Maidar told us about the problems with mercury poisoning that his father Tumenbayar has studied. In areas of abandoned mines, people are doing subsistence mining of the tailings, collecting mercury from streambeds for home-brew mercury retorts…with tragic consequences. The hands and arms of the children are red from mercury poisoning, and crops in nearby fields are high in mercury many years later.

At our tea stop, we said good-by to Minjin, who was heading off to Ulaanbaatar to lead another field conference. We have greatly appreciated his expert guidance through the diverse geology of Mongolia and were sad to see him go.

It won't budge!
It won't budge!

We skirted a town called “Tall Knife” and passed a conical volcanic hill in the distance. Then the transport truck got stuck in a steep-walled gully on one of our meanders off the main road. Finally, here was something we geologists could help with -- we could carry rocks! An impromptu rock brigade delivered cobbles and boulders to the rear wheels until the truck was able to gain enough traction to rumble out of the ditch.

We crossed the Selenge River on a refreshingly solid concrete bridge and passed some villages where fires were smoldering around the dwellings. “To keep the flies away”, Maidar explained.

Meadow campsite
Meadow campsite

Minjin’s parting shot on his express journey to UB was to select our camping place for the night – in the meander bend of a stream along the main road. We pitched our tents in a lush mountain meadow with knee-high wildflowers – geranium, vetch, dandelions, wild parsley, purple clover, gentian, cinquefoil, and mint. It was abuzz and acrawl with a variety of colorful bugs, mostly innocuous. Our tents looked like fat yaks in pasture.

The stream gurgled contentedly and so did our stomachs as we dined on mutton-noodle soup, pickle-carrot-red pepper salad, and fresh watermelon for dessert – a real treat! Several of us took an after-dinner hike into the larch-lined hills and found a lingering late-season tiger lily. On the return we watched the sun set blood red over the basalt-capped the hills.