Copyright © 2004 Jeanie Barnett and individual authors. All rights reserved.
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Day 15, Aug 8 (Sunday)

scribeMorning: Chris Metzler
Bulgan campsite
Bulgan campsite

Click image
to enlarge.

On August 8 we broke camp at the pretty, wildflower-rich, but damp and buggy meadow west of Bulgan. Once in the vehicles, we headed off toward Erdenet and the porphyry copper mine. Along the way, Joe requested that Enkhbayar play his Osmond's disk. We were rocking!

Once gassed up in Bulgan, we headed north. There was a lot of heavy grading equipment along the way, though the road didn't seem much better than many others we'd been on. Tea break included Choco-pies, yummy!

By the time we got to a hill overlooking the city of Erdenet, the clouds appeared to be building. While the cooks prepared lunch, Tumenbayar described the volcanic belt which runs east-west in this area, with northwest-southeast oriented faults which control the mineralization.

scribeAfternoon: Jeanie Barnett

We met the chief geologist in town and he escorted us to the mine. Erdenet, the mine, is the biggest in Mongolia, and Erdenet, the town, was the biggest city we had seen on the trip so far. It made no attempt to hide its heritage of Soviet-era development -- tall grey concrete buildings loomed up on the horizon and bigger-than-life portraits of Marx and Lenin brooded over the town squares. Gray cloudy skies and light rain only added to the somber atmosphere.

Erdenet copper mine
copper mine

The mine geologist first led us to the central control office to give us an overview of the mine – quite literally. A picture window gave a panoramic view of the open pit, and computer monitors showed operations in different parts of the mine. The objective, he explained, was to blend ore from different zones to achieve a desired final grade of about 0.6% copper.

With Tumenbayar translating, the mine geologist gave us an introduction to the geology of the area. Erdenet occurs in a belt of Permian volcanic and plutonic rocks that stretches east-west across central Mongolia. The ore deposit is a stockwork in a two-phase porphyritic granodiorite and consists of a primary zone and a secondary enrichment zone, which is now mined out. The age of the host rock is Permian, but the age of supergene enrichment is late Neogene. The ore body occurs in an uplifted fault block and dips to the northwest. Faults may have controlled the original intrusion, but there as been uplift since then.

Copper, molybdenum, and silver are the principal products, with some gold, selenium, and rhenium, as well. Mineralization in the primary zone is chalcopyrite and in the secondary zone is covellite and chalcocite. The concentrate goes to China, Japan, and Russia for smelting.

Erdenet may go down in history as the longest lived mine in Mongolia. It was known in ancient times, the mine geologist explained, and about 150 years ago the natives mined native copper in the gossan. There’s an anomaly of surface leaching over the ore body. Also, the presence of sericite, in addition to quartz, is an indicator of ore. In the 1940’s – 60’s, Russian and other geologists mapped the area and thought it might be a small zone. In 1960 the Czechs did some work and thought it might be a big deposit. In 1963 exploration began and later was taken over completely by the Russians, who did detailed delineation work. The only other deposits are in the immediate area of the mine, but Erdenet has enough reserves to be in business for awhile yet. At a 0.35% cutoff, there are reserves of 770 million tons, good for 35 years of mining; at 0.25% there are 50 years of mining left.

Erdenet production history
Erdenet production

Outside the office was a diagram of the ore body, showing development of the different mining levels. Alongside was a table of copper, molybdenum, and silver production from 1980 through 2003. It showed a significant drop in production in 1990, when the Soviets left, but a steady rise in production since then.

Erdenet supergene zone
Supergene zone

We drove into the pit and examined the secondary zone first. Chalcocite was disseminated in the grayish porphyritic host rock, which was cut by quartz-pyrite veins. Then we drove down to the primary zone, which had hard-to-find chalcopyrite with some molybdenite-quartz-pyrite veins in quartz-sericite alteration.

It had rained lightly throughout the mine tour, though our enthusiasm for glittery rocks wasn't dampened. However, after the tour was over, it was the perfect weather for…shopping! Our enthusiasm quickly changed course, as we were curious to see what a big city in the middle of Mongolia had to offer.

We deposited our wet and gritty ore samples on the floors of the vans, where they would roll around for the next week, and drove to the central shopping “mall”, which consisted of a town square bordered by every shop imaginable – groceries, clothing, sporting goods, electronics. The ordering was random. Tents, lures, buck knives, and camouflage vests were displayed next to cashmere, lacy underwear, and puffy pink bras. (At least I think it was random….)

Erdenet fruit stand
Erdenet shopping

In the grocery store, the clerks peeked out from behind pyramids of canned goods, boxed juices, and bottled water. Bins of colorful apples, oranges, cucumbers, watermelon, grapes, and tomatoes vied for attention. This was by far the best selection of produce we'd seen anywhere on the tour.  Apparently much of the perishables are imported from China. We stocked up on fresh fruit, imported liquor, Disko's, and prunes.

Thirty minutes was all the time we were allowed, but it was enough to get big city shopping out of our systems. Bidding good-bye to civilization, we headed back out to the steppe and found a campsite on a terrace by the Orkhon River. It was still raining and windy, but we managed to get the tents up without them getting sopped inside. We were a bit more practiced now than we were two weeks ago. Dinner benefited from the Erdenet shopping trip, where our cooks had done some real work while the rest of us loitered. We had ramen noodles in a box, coleslaw, fresh brown bread from the bakery, biscuits, shortbread, and tea, supplemented with fresh supplies of wine and vodka. Everyone jockeyed for position under the canopy, which dripped and drizzled around the edges.

The rain eventually let up a bit and promising slivers of clear sky appeared to the north and south. Moisture-enhanced aromas of sage and mint spiced the air as we wandered off to our tents. Maybe the clouds would clear out by tomorrow.

Day 16, Aug 9 (Monday)

scribeBill Abbey
Tuul River dinner
Tuul River dinner

We woke up that morning on the banks of the Orkhon River. Everything was drizzly and wet and cold and breezy. I think we were supposed to have a slow start to give us a chance to dry out, but a rut is hard to get out of -- we were ready to go by 9:00 as usual.

It was a pretty slow day, not much happened. We got back on the road and made a quick stop at a half abandoned town for gas and water. Greg practiced his new post-retirement career as a squeegee kid on the Enkh's van and then we proceeded to the mining district.

We had a great overview of the area from a nearby hilltop. The Tuul River was being attacked by a large Russian mining operation with big dredges moving the river out of the way to look for gold. According to Tumenbayar, the source was the Zamaar Mountains in the background -- the precious metal formed in veins in middle Paleozoic granodiorite which intruded Precambrian schist. In recent times it washed down to the river to form placer deposits.

Tuul River bucket dredge
Tuul River
bucket dredge

Camp was made on the river in time for lunch. The sun was out, so we finally had a chance to dry out. And then everybody went off to see the dredges...everybody except me of course -- I missed the bus, literally. But I was told that it was pretty darn cool with giant machines and junk straight out of Mad Max. Oh well, I guess I'll just have to go back....

Day 17, Aug 10 (Tuesday)

scribeJoe Clark
Tuul River
Tuul River

This Tuesday proved to be one of the most interesting of this GeoVenture. After listening to the clanking of the Russian dredge, we arose beside the misty Tuul River, and Jim noted that the lennok (trout) were rising. After our crew fed scraps to the ever-present lone hungry dog, we departed at 8:55 a.m. and drove southeast to a new placer gold operation near the Tuul River.

Zamaar mine geologist
Zamaar mine

The mine geologist explained that exploration at this site had begun in 1955 with drilling on 10 m spacing. Two to three meters of overburden were being stripped off above Quaternary gold-bearing gravels that were then trucked to a sluicing operation. At the first washing screen, Mary demonstrated her form at the water cannon, which fortunately was not operating. At the second site, gravel was washed, passed through a rotary shaker, sluiced, and then panned under the watchful eyes of the camouflaged security guard. The mine geologist estimated that approximately 1000 hectares were potentially mineable during the next five years.

We then observed illegal gold mining at a ger village along the Tuul River, where men hand dug shafts to a depth of 20 m to reach the gold-bearing gravel. Women were panning along the river and recovering flecks of gold, barely providing a subsidence living. Tumenbayar apologized for ending our GeoTrip at this scene, but this was reality and most worthwhile and certainly not on the "standard" Mongolian tour.

Going away party
Enkhbayar gets

After driving east along a broad valley with no stock, few gers, and abundant dust, we made a brief stop for a Bactrian camel riding demonstration. Our "caravan" finally reached a paved road just in time for the white van to sputter to a stop, and after a futile attempt at repair by our ace mechanic, was towed to a roadside "rest."

Over a pass, then fording several streams, we reached a fine campsite along the Tuul River at 8:22 p.m. for an enjoyable "good-bye" party and bonfire.

Day 18, Aug 11 (Wednesday)

scribeSid Covington
Gers west of Ulaanbaatar
Ger village

After a light breakfast of cereal, we leave our campsite on the Tuul River at about 9:30 a.m. This area is much dryer than further to the west, almost barren in places. As we approach Ulaanbaatar there are more signs of habitation (fewer gers, more buildings). We pass through the village of Atlanbulag. Soon we hit pavement. The drive through UB with the heavy traffic was a bit of a jolt after spending so much time in the countryside.

Hotel in Ulaanbaatar

We arrive at the Zuluuchuud Hotel at about 12 noon. The hotel is quite a surprise in that it is clean, plush, and far more elegant than expected. The rooms are of reasonable size with two twin beds and a hot shower. We have lunch in the hotel consisting of a carrot-cucumber salad, nomad soup and a main course of meat with an egg on top, potatoes, rice, and vegetables.

After lunch we visit the Museum of Mongolian History, which is quite extensive and very well done. It begins on the first floor with the pre-history of Mongolia and progresses through Mongolian history on succeeding floor until the modern (post-Soviet area) on the top floor. And there was a framed photograph of our very own Enkhbayar singing at a political rally in 1990! We head to the Gobi cashmere store and spend money too easily, since they eagerly accept credit cards.


After a brief visit to an overlook on the west side of UB we return to the hotel until dinner. Tumenbayar took us all to Shen Yang, a fine Chinese restaurant. We were served several courses including soup, tomatoes with cucumbers, and apples with cherry tomatoes.

I departed from the hotel to the airport at 10 p.m. with Tumenbayar and Maidar.

Day 19, Aug 12 (Thursday)

scribeJeanie Barnett

We had a pre-ordered breakfast at the hotel and then checked out at 9:00 a.m. to start the busy day in UB that Tumenbayar had planned for us.

Gandan Tegchilen monastery
Gandan Tegchilen

First we drove across town to visit the Gandan Tegchilen monastery, which has several temples with giant buddhas. One was a gold-colored statue over 25 m tall that was created during the Buddhist revival of the 1990’s. We listened to the monks chanting in one of the temples, spun the prayer wheels reflectively, and tossed grain to the pigeons. The grain was conveniently offered for sale by vendors who persistently worked the tourists.

Then we were off on a major shopping expedition to The State Department Store. This was extreme shopping in Mongolia…and anywhere else, for that matter. The building was four stories high and filled with booths of every imaginable item -- electronics, clothing, music, cashmere, books, and traditional Mongolian goods.

Bill and I were eager to pick up some CD’s of the Mongolian music that Tumenbayar and Enkhbayar had been playing in the vans -- when they were allowed to play something other than the Osmonds. Baika and Zambaga helped us sort through the categories, from traditional to pop. We found the Arunyaa song that everyone had nearly memorized, a good selection of Jantsannorov symphonies, and Bill’s favorite Mongolian rock band, Hurd.

We were hoping to find a recording of Enkhbayar's rock band, Hong ("The Bell", as in "wake up"), which was popular in Mongolia during the democratic movement of the early 1990's and enjoyed success on tour in Germany and Japan, as well. Enkhbayar wrote a song that struck a chord with the sentiment of the time and became the national anthem for the "peaceful revolution". Unfortunately, recording equipment was hard to come by at that time, and few recordings of his band were made. Enkhbayar is planning to make a video about his song.

After shopping, we had lunch at a restaurant near the hotel – the Nomad. It started with a heaping fresh cucumber-carrot-tomato salad, which would have been enough for most of us. But then came the main entrée – buuz (baked and fried), vegetables, meatballs, and ribs. We politely picked at each of the selections -- all were delicious – and felt terrible for leaving so much on our plates.

A waiter came around and had us play the game of rolling the ankle bones, but none of us tourists knew what the objective was. Zambaga did and hit the jackpot, winning a can of diet coke. Then Baika explained that the goal is to get one of each animal – sheep, goat, cow, horse – identified by which side the bone lands on. We kept trying, as the game is surprisingly engaging. About the time we were getting restless and ready to leave, out came the dessert! We looked at each other with the “now we’re really in trouble” look. But the vanilla strawberry sundaes seemed to disappear anyway. Then we really had to leave, while we could still waddle out of there.

Tumenbayar whisked us off to the Museum of Natural History. The dinosaur exhibit was the best, with some skeletons of velociraptor and well-preserved nests of dinosaur eggs. There were lots of stuffed animals and cabinets of dried plants and insects. The grasshoppers, beetles, butterflies, and bees that had energized our camping sites were silently pinned in neat little rows. Seeing the grasshoppers skewered like that, one could almost feel sorry for them.

Ulaanbaatar market
Ulaanbaatar market

We had some free time in the afternoon, and everyone took off to walk the streets of Ulaanbaatar and do some last-minute souvenir shopping.

For the evening entertainment, Tumenbayar arranged for us to attend the Traditional Music and Dance Performance at the Performing Arts Center. This was an event that we had been eagerly anticipating. The staff rounded us up and got us there in time for front row seats.

Traditional song and dance
Traditional song
and dance

Dancers in elaborate regional costumes stepped, whirled, and galloped to music ranging from slow and ceremonial to fast and rhythmic, like horseback riding. The music was played on the morin khuur (2-string cello-sized instrument), a small three-string banjo, a coffee can-shaped fiddle, a curved clarinet, an oboe with flared horn, hammered dulcimer, drums, flute, bass, and harp. A man and a woman demonstrated the unusual traditional throat singing of the nomads, which reverberated through the hall, sounding much better live than it does on recordings.

After the performance, we went across the street to the beer garden to kill time before our flight – at 1:30 a.m. When it got dark, we went back to the hotel to load luggage. We got in the vans one more time and headed for the airport, leaving the lights of Ulaanbaatar behind. We said good-byes to our Mongolian friends and began the long flight home.

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