During one four-month stay in Ulaan Baatar I almost without fail had taken a daily constitutional to the war memorial located on the top of a small hill on the southern edge of town, a popular viewing point which presents a splendid panorama of Ulaan Baatar, the valley of the Tuul River, and the surrounding mountains. Being to some degree a creature of habit I decide to visit the war memorial again on my first free morning. In the milky-gray predawn I leave my hotel and walk south on Baga Toiruu (Little Circle Road) to the Ulaan Baatar Hotel, then turn right and debouche onto now-deserted Sukhebaatar Square. Located at the cener of the city the eight hundred feet long, six hundred wide square is bounded on the north by the huge gray hulk of the four-story Parliament Buildingl and on the east by west by ponderous Soviet-style buildings of the Stalinist era, including the wedding cake-like Opera Hall. In the middle of the square, on an immense stone plinth, is a statue of Sukhebaatar, one of the founders of the Mongolian communist party and a hero of the Mongolian Revolution. The huge banners draped across the front several of the buildings which he appears to be staring do not proclaim socialism slogans, however, but instead advertise internet and cell-phones services.
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 that leads to the airport. I continue south on Zaisan Street. On the right is the Winter Palace of the eighth and last Bogdo Gegen of Mongolia, the former head of the Buddhist religion in Mongolia who died in 1924. His two-story palace, a wooden structure not much bigger than the house of a prosperous American farmer, and a complex of attendant temples are now a museum.
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 north 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. It was estimated at one time that there are up to a thousand of them, including many children, although now many have reportedly been cleared out by the authorities. They are of course 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 others simply taking in the 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 as 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 socialist harmony which has since disappeared. In the early 1990s, after the collapse of socialism, Russians had became personæ non gratæ in Mongolia, but now geo-political realities have reasserted themselves and Russians are back, 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, or 1000 feet above Ulaan Baatar, at an elevation of 4415. 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 is now known as Bayanzurkh, but in the old days this area was 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 reportedly offerings are once again 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 callled 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' 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 who I remained friends with 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: 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 until the end of the year at the very earliest. 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 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.
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; 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. 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 5'8"-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 glisteningly white teeth and a figure of a twenty-five 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' 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.