Tales of Gobi

The adventurer, Sir Roy Andrew Chapman, one of the first foreigners to have explored the Gobi Desert in the 1920s, wrote about a funny incident in his journal.  In order to get permission to do further explorations in Gobi, he made an agreement with the Mongolian government to capture an intriguing creature with a funny name, “allegorhai-horhai”.  According to popular tales, this creature ‘lives in the most desolate parts of the Mongolian desert, is shaped like a sausage about two feet long, has no head or legs and is so poisonous that merely to touch it would mean an instant death’ Scary, but as far as the story goes, Chapman did get to do further exploration and never got to catch nor merely get a glimpse of the allegorhai-horhai.

Khongoryn Els: The singing sand dunes of the Gobi Desert

Eagle's Ridge: Entrance to Shangrila?

Spring bloom: desert flowers inside the ridge

Desert Survival Course: My host demonstrates how to collect an edible desert root

Life Cycle: It will be winter once again before all the ice have melted

On Patrol: Nomadic herders on the way to their herd

Well of Life: A herder gives water to his herd from a well in the middle of the desert

I didn’t encounter the elusive allegorhai-horhai either when I was in Gobi but another creature scared me.  The Altai Mountains (its Mongolian name, Altain nuruu, literally translates to “Mountains of Gold”) which stretches from Russia, has its tail’s end at the Gobi Desert in Mongolia.  The mountain range itself holds a number of myths, among others being one possible location of the paradise, shangri-la (as popularized in the 1933 novel, Lost Horizon by British author James Hilton). The other popular myth claims that the burial ground of Genghis Khan can also be found somewhere in the depths of these mountains guarded by a mysterious tribe sworn to eternal secrecy and allegiance to the Khan.

I was able to visit a part of the Altai Mountains called Eagle’s Ridge on both my trips to Gobi Desert in 2004-2005.  The ridge is actually some sort of a canyon the bottom of which seemed to remain shady throughout the day. The small valley floor we followed had a small stream flowing on it and, as we followed the stream uphill, it turned out that the water was coming from melting ice which gradually got thicker as we went deeper into the gorge until, at some point, the ice measured around 20 feet in thickness.  Our guides told us that during the winter disaster (dzud) in 1974, the thickness of ice in this portion was between 40 to 50 feet — yes, ice in the middle of the desert some 4 stories high.

There were indeed eagles, vultures and kites soaring above us and occasionally perched on the high rocky ledges of the ridge. Chapman, in his journal, described galloping gazelles in the desert in ‘waves of thousands’ but that was in the 1920s and 84 years later I only spotted a family of four and a couple of Altai mountain goats — and yet my Mongolian hosts considered me lucky at that! I regretted the fact that we were in the car when I spotted the animals and they quickly disappeared in the ridge before I got a chance to photograph them.

The Gobi Museum at the entrance to Eagle’s Ridge, however, has managed to maintain a number of preserved specimen of the old Gobi wildlife including some snow leopards, bears, mountain ass, and yes, gazelles.  What struck me unexpectedly was a small collection of fossilized dinosaur skeletons and eggs excavated from the desert (I probably missed that part in my small research).  And so I had my photo taken in front of the museum, posing with one foot on some smooth oblong rocks which I later found out to be fossilized dinosaur eggs! I thought I’d get reprimanded when I noticed a caretaker approach me but he was smiling and then inquired if I wanted to buy a dinosaur egg. The darn 20-30 kilogram rocks were for sale!

I only found out about the scary creature when we were already on our way back to our hotel in Dalanzadgad. There was a sudden excitement at the back of the car as we travelled.  My Mongolian companions suddenly got anxious as they felt their hair and the corners of their jackets. They said they were searching for a bug, but not an ordinary bug. My translator explained that this bug, which looked like an oversized flea, hitched a ride through our hair and clothing when we were at the canyon.  It will later enter the body through the nose, ears or mouth and will make a home in the depths of the brain, the heart, or lungs.  A scary notion and I was skeptical but they were seriously searching and showed me a few which they caught hiding in their jackets. I searched my clothing and initially found nothing so I joked that it’s only out to get Mongolians but my nonchalance did not last when they later found one in my hair and then two more in my jacket.   I was still smiling but didn’t find it amusing to picture the prospect of an alien creature residing in my brain.

Back at the hotel, I thoroughly searched my clothing then hang them outside as I waited for hot water which I requested from the front desk (There were no hot showers in the best hotel in town!).  Tired, having bathed, and assured that I did not take home a notorious bug with me; I immediately fell asleep.  As the desert wind started to whistle I saw myself and my Mongolian friends around a campfire somewhere in the Altai Mountains on our way to shangri-la. The meat being roasted on the fire smelled good. We were barbecuing an allegorhai-horhai.

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