4. Blackjack

For a Northern barbarian, 10,000 li is not much of a detour.
Chinese proverb

I looked at the map and realized that we were only a few miles from a major Ulan Bator-Arvaiher highway. I hiked to the junction and turned east, waiting for a ride. Soon a car showed up, but the driver asked that I give him my binoculars. I had Zeiss binoculars, brought by my grandfather from Germany in the 1940-s. They looked very old and ragged, but somehow locals instantly recognized a good thing. I refused, telling him that the binoculars weren't mine, and he left. Half an hour later he was back, offering me to trade the binoculars for his pocket knife, then for his own binoculars, and then for a headlight of his car. Then he disappeared, but after another hour he came back - probably expecting me to give up. No way: right at that moment I was picked up by a small old "jeep" with six people and a goat.

They told me that some roads were already closed because of cholera. It was the first outbreak in many decades: traditionally, the only epidemic disease in Mongolia is plague. Local plague epidemics are unusual in that pulmonary, not bubonic, form is often predominant since the first days of an outbreak. Mongolian marmot hunters usually hang the shot marmots up before skinning them, so during skinning drops of blood from an animal fly into the hunter's face and get inhaled.

We didn't break down a single time along the 200-km drive to the city, only changed a tire and a spark plug. We encountered some large gray spots in the steppe, always surrounded by hundreds of birds. These spots were flocks of small locusts. That summer there was a lot of locust outbreaks all over Mongolia. To my surprise, saker falcons were among the most regular visitors at locust spots.

In Ulan Bator I went to the bus station to look for a ride westward. I was planning to cross most of the country and get back to Russia in western Altai Mountains. There were practically no buses along this route, only high-clearance army trucks, which took up to 20 people with luggage in their trunks. Because of cholera, getting on a truck was difficult, but finally I managed to squeeze into one of them. Almost immediately (no more than three hours later), we left the city. The covered trunk was filled with bags, so all 17 passengers had to share a little gap between the bags and the cover. What was worse, I couldn't see much through tiny windows. At one of airag stops, I asked the driver if we could visit a Przhevalski's horse reintroduction center close by. "No", he answered, "we have no time". But I was sure he did have time, because we were making airag stops every hour or two. So I said:

"Let's play blackjack. If you win, I'll give you my American running shoes. If I win, we'll visit the tah'"

Tah' is the Mongolian name for wild horses. Domestic ones are called mor'.

The driver got the cards out of his pocket, without even looking at the shoes. The shoes were four years old, they were lacking shoestrings, back sides, and parts of soles. Besides, they were too large for anybody in Mongolia. The local version of the game, called ochko in Mongolia and Russia, was to score as close to 21 as possible, but not over 21. I got 16 only, but the driver asked for an extra card and lost with 23. I was awarded with a chance to see wild horses grazing across a large grassland area together with a flock of greater bustards.

The first major breakdown occurred at a bridge across Hariuh, a large river. As soon as the problem was fixed I asked the driver:

"It's only 40 km from here to Harhorin (Karakorum). Can we visit it?"

The driver said nothing, and gave me the cards. I got 18, he got 20. You can imagine his face when I gave him the shoes, or what was left of them. Well, I didn't really mind. It was actually 70 km one way to the ancient city site, and there's not much to see: the city had been completely destroyed a long time ago.

The country's only long paved road soon ended. We spent the night in the foothills of Hangai, a large plateau in North-Central Mongolia. Its name means "forested highlands", but its southern part is mostly steppe, except for willow groves along rivers. It was almost impossible to sleep in the trunk, so all men got out and went to sleep under a large piece of burlap, paying no attention to wind and freezing rain.

Less than half an hour later we heard a strange sound. Those not asleep were lucky: everybody else got soaked by a flood of ice-cold mud, which rushed at us out of nowhere. We had to squeeze back into the trunk, where it soon became very cold and wet because of everybody's dump clothes. Besides, the cover was leaking. In the morning we discovered that everybody caught a cold. It was mostly a problem for me, because everybody else was going home, while I had two more weeks of travel to survive.

We had to make a long detour to avoid driving through the city of Bayanhongor, which had an ancient cholera warning sign posted: huge brown flags on rooftops. (As far as I remember, black flags would mean plague, yellow ones would be used for typhus, and gray ones for smallpox). The road followed the Valley of Lakes and was very boring, with no wildlife except for a few ground jays. Mountains of Gobi Altai to the south looked like huge boulders with flat tops. These high plateaus are homes to a few Mongol families that almost never descend to the plains below. Parallel to the road, we could see a long, straight line of cliffs - the faultline of the Great Gobi Altai Earthquake, the strongest one on record. It shook the Central Asia in the early 20th century, but nobody got killed, because the entire local population lived in gers.

Just after midnight we arrived to the town of Altai, the capital of Gobi Altai aimag. Our reward for the hardships of the journey was a special meal called baahan prepared by local restaurant: a kid fried in its skin by putting hot stones inside.

Mongols use an unusual method of slaughtering their cattle. A shepherd puts a sheep or a goat on its back, cuts the skin just below the ribs, and tears out the heart. It is said that in old days war prisoners were executed in the same manner.

Not far from the city, in Hasaaht Hairhan mountains, there was a small Nature reserve. I spent a day in its foothills part, but these low ridges, covered with mole voles' burrows, didn't have much wildlife: Dahurian pikas, red-cheeked ground squirrels, and snowfinches. There were also lots of Sarmatian stone statues. Later I saw some Scythian statues from the Black Sea area - they looked so similar as if they'd been made by the same person.

The next part of the road was not used much but I got a lift after only a two hour's wait. A family of Mongolian Russians was moving in a truck from Halhin Gol river in the extreme east of the country to Bulgan Gol river in the far west. A few decades ago there were lots of Russians in forested parts of Mongolia, but now all but very few have left. These people had typical Mongolian looks, and only the oldest man could speak some Russian. I decided to join them for the entire remaining part of the trip: Bulgan Gol area in Jungar Gobi is very remote and very interesting. Among other things, it has the only desert colony of beavers in Asia.

We were driving across a long chain of dry intermontane depressions separating Mongol Altai from Hangai. The driest of them, Shargyn (Yellow) Gobi, is much more dry than the Great Gobi itself. Further west many depressions are interconnected, and this labyrinth is known as the Valley of Big Lakes. It stretches very far: Uvs Nuur, the last and largest lake, is on the border with Tuva Republic in Russia. This part of Mongolia is populated not by Halha, the main Mongolian tribe, but by so-called Oirat Mongols - a loose group of peoples, which also includes some Turk-speaking tribes of Altai and the Halmg (or Kalmyks) of the Caspian Sea area. There are also many other Mongol groups scattered in Transbaikalia, China and Northern Tibet.

Mountains of Mongol Altai are high enough to have glaciers even in dry climate of the desert. It was late summer, all the snow had melted, and the glaciers looked like gray bikini cups on mountaintops. Once I saw a herd of strange animals crossing the road ahead. They moved with their heads down, like agile yellow beetles. They were Mongolian saigas, a miniature subspecies of saiga antelope. While large saigas of Kazakhstan and Kalmykia are migratory, moving for hundreds of miles in great herds, Mongolian saigas are sedentary and very rare: less than a hundred is left.

The truck broke down at sunset. We cooked our dinner, put a burlap on the ground, and were set for the night: it looked like the rains were over for a while. Next morning we found that the alternator wasn't working. We also discovered that we had lost our way and were 20 kilometers from the road. We made it to the nearest ger, and the family decided to stay there, waiting for spare parts. I couldn't wait, so I said good-bye to them and to the idea of visiting Bulgan Gol, and walked toward the road through dry grass.

Hiking was nice. The day was hot, and the sun rapidly healed me from the cold I'd caught in the previous truck. Endless streams of migrating swallows was passing overhead, while Eremias lizards hurried to run away from my shadow. But then I had to cross a wet alkaline sink, and was attacked by pale-yellow desert mosquitoes. To my frustration, the swallows paid no attention to a golden halo which mosquitoes formed over my head, and kept passing by.

The most interesting animal of this area is called lakeside vole (Microtus limnophilus). They are so tame that sometimes you have to watch your step to avoid stepping on them.

I could already see the road paralleled by an old mound. As all ancient mounds in Mongolia, it's called Genkhis Khan's Wall. A large flock of demoiselle cranes circled above a grassy meadow near the road. More and more birds were taking off the meadow and joining the flock. By the time I got close there were many thousands of them, flying in tornado-like formation. The giant "kettle", as such flocks are sometimes called, eventually took off and slowly drifted east. The northern limit of their range was not far from there, so the birds must have been locals from the Valley of Great Lakes. It looked like the entire Valley population was in this super-flock: I didn't see any more demoiselle cranes until many days later, in Russian Altai.

After a few hours of hiking along the road I was picked up by a coal truck. The cabin was full so I had to ride on a pile of coal. Desert mosquitoes were so well adapted to the fierce winds of the Valley that they managed to follow the truck and bite me at full speed. Later it took me many days to wash off the coal dust.

The first patches of forests appeared on mountain slopes: birches on alluvial fans, and pines higher up. Reeds around small lakes were full of birds: gulls, geese, shelducks, herons, spoonbills, even pelicans. Once I saw a family of common cranes walking their half-grown chick. The truck almost never stopped because there were no side windows in the cabin, and the driver tried to get to the next city before nightfall. Nights are cold in the high desert. At dusk the migrating swallows were replaced by hundreds of Eptesicus bats, also flying southeast. Just as I started freezing, a pool of lights appeared ahead: Hovd, the largest city of Western Mongolia.

I spent the night in a driver's ger. Next morning I climbed a mountain pass just above the city, and waited for a car to go further west. After a while, long-tailed hamsters started stealing pieces of bread from me. Choughs and ravens circled overhead, showing genuine interest in my health condition. When my next ride arrived, it happened to be a small truck with three Kazakhs. If you enter Kazakhstan from Europe, you'll think that Kazakhs are Oriental, but after a few weeks in Mongolia, they look very Caucasian. Kazakhs once made up the majority of the population of the westernmost part of the country, Bayan Ulgii aimag. Recently most of them migrated to Kazakhstan. The family that gave me the ride was living in Kazakhstan, but made a living by trade trips between Kazakhstan, China, Mongolia and Russia, just like merchants of Marco Polo's time.

This was the most scenic part of the road: high passes, snow fields, big and small mountain lakes. Dozens of snowcocks and gray marmots were grazing on Alpine meadows. The sunset over Mongolia's most beautiful lake, Tolbo Nuur, was so stunning that the driver stopped, and we watched the colors for half an hour. Just at that moment I finally ran out of film in my camera.

We spent the night in a yurta (Kazakh version of ger) near a town called Ulgii. Yurtas look exactly like gers on the outside, but their internal structure and interior design are totally different.

As everybody went to sleep, the owner's wife closed the hole in the center of the yurta's roof, and it became absolutely dark inside. A few minutes later I heard a strange sound, something like a tiny electric engine or a rattlesnake. The source of the sound was slowly moving across the surface of my blanket. I tried to recall a local animal capable of producing such a sound, but couldn't. I touched it carefully: it was cold and wet. Suddenly it poked my finger with something sharp, and jumped on the floor. Next moment, a piercing scream of a woman made everybody jump to their feet.

Somebody lit a candle. Scared and miserable, a tiny wet kitten was sitting in the middle of the yurta. It had a cold, so its purring sounded strange. Cats are very rarely kept in Mongolia - that's why I didn't think about such a possibility in the first place. In some areas, a wild Pallas' cat is more easy to see than a domestic one. The kitten was dried, comforted and put in a warm basket, everybody laughed for a while, and the peace was restored.

In the morning I hiked down to the city and got a ride on a fuel truck, one in a small caravan of three. Every few miles they stopped to drink first vodka, then airag. Soon my driver started dozing off. I offered to drive. The gears were the same as in most passenger cars, but keeping the heavy truck on the road was not easy. Just as I was getting used to it, the road began climbing towards a mountain pass. A few times I almost drove the truck off one of the switchbacks. When I stopped at the summit I saw that the driver was awake and very angry.

"Is it the first time you drive a truck?" he asked.

"Yes", I said, expecting him to give me a lecture about driving safety.

Instead he got behind the wheel, hit the accelerator, and drove the poor truck directly downhill, cutting across all switchbacks. I had to slide down from the seat to avoid hitting the cabin roof with my head. In less than half an hour, never touching the brakes and apparently still only half awake, he drove into quiet streets of Tsagannur, the last Mongolian town before the Russian border, brought the truck to a sudden stop in front of a fuel terminal, and said:

"From here, only Russian trucks. You drive good, but too slow. Good luck!"

I counted on large KAMAZ rigs that deliver fuel to Western Mongolia from Barnaul, a Russian city west from Altai Mountains. But locals told me no trucks were expected within the next few days. A marmot hunter gave me a ride to Mongolian border post. From there it was only twenty kilometers to the Russian post, but it was forbidden to walk across the neutral zone, and there were no cars. I was supposed to stay in a "hotel", made from an old wagon cover, with dirt floor, broken windows and a rotten mattress for bed. It cost $20 - more than I'd spent in two weeks in Mongolia. I only had about $1 left in Mongolian currency, so I gave all tougrics I had to the post commander, and he allowed me to sleep in the armory, dinner and TV included.

Next day he told me that there won't be any cars for another week, and gave a permission to hike to Russia. It was the last week of August; grass was turning brown, and higher mountains were covered with fresh snow. At first, distant shooting could be heard: Mongols were hunting marmots, which were so fat in these last days before hibernation that they looked like large gray pillows. Closer to the border it was quiet, only Altai pikas whistled when they saw me, and silver voles were running noisily in stone screes. I crossed the neutral zone, climbed the pass, and was greeted by Russian guards.

"Are you going down? Great! You'll take our mail with you. The commander will come soon, he can give you a ride to the guard station".

They gave me some tea, and went back to sleep. I noticed a large dark spot on a slope above the post: locusts, killed by night freeze. This "humanitarian aid" from Mongolia attracted hundreds of birds: wheatears, wagtails, finches and chats. Among them, I spotted a lone white-throated bushcat, one of Asia's rarest songbirds.

It was a pity I had no film left in my camera. The wooden border sign was worth photographing. It was leaning to one side, with pale tracks of "USSR" letters still visible where they'd been removed by a crowbar. Above them, someone wrote "Russian Federation" with a piece of chalk. Below, there was pencil-written "Metallika" with Russian k. The sign was half-buried in a pile of empty vodka bottles.

I found some old mystery book at the post, and just started reading it when a machine-gun round bursted outside. The guards jumped to their feet, just as their laughing commander ran into the cabin:

"Sleeping, you parasites? You should be all sent to Chechnya! OK, to hell with you, get back to sleep now."

He took me to Tashanta, a military post further north. From there I had to walk 45 kilometers to Kosh Agach, the first Russian town. The road crossed Chuya Steppe, a high plateau in the very center of Russian Altai. But there were no gazelles, eagles or even marmots in this last grassland.

A more pleasant surprise was a magical black substance, used in Russia to cover roads. It is called "pavement", and it cuts your travel time to one third of what it would be in Mongolia. Mongolian drivers, who have never seen it (or highway police) before, often get into accidents even before reaching Kosh Agach.

Chuysky Tract, the road from Kosh Agach to Biisk just outside the Altai Mountains, is one of Siberia's most beautiful highways. It crosses all vegetation belts, and some deep gorges. The Alpine tundras were already covered with snow, birches at timberline were all yellow, and larches of taiga forests were starting to turn gold. Eight hours later I was in pine-covered foothills, where it was still warm and green, and light rain was the only sign of coming autumn. One night on a bus, and I'm back on Transsiberian Railroad, on my way home.

Autumn doesn't like green:
Its colors are gold and bronze,
With silver dust on the mountains,
Gift of Winter, its friend.

Autumn doesn't like merry days:
The sky is low and weeping,
Mornings are pale and anemic,
Rivers are frigid.

Autumn doesn't like bird songs:
Forests are quiet and empty.
Autumn doesn't like happy faces:
It is always wet and sad.

Autumn doesn't like travelers:
Chilling winds are her crew,
And rains keep looking for those

With no roofs over heads.