INTO THE GOBI DESERT DURING DEEP WINTER

Wong How Man
Deng Kou, Inner Mongolia - 24 January 2010


On one end of the wire hang Horror mural inside templetwo wolf skins. On the other end are three pelts, of a leopard and two tigers. Next to the tigers, however, is the most horrifying scene, two skinned humans with their heads hanging low. Thankfully, these are only paintings on murals inside a temple. Sadly, it reflects how brutal penal codes were during the rein of the Mongols, when humans were treated like the animals they preyed upon.

Somehow these images brought back memories of the marauding Mongols who terrorised people from Asia to Europe in the Middle Ages. Perhaps one indicator of the Mongol rule could still be seen in the name of the two places we were now situated at. To our left is Alasan Right Banner, to our right is Alasan Left Banner - defying anyone with the most basic knowledge in geography. But if we were to put ourselves in the shoes of a Mongol ruler looking south from his Steppe heartland, then the place names suddenly make perfect sense. What is to the left becomes right, and vice versa.

Ah Gui is a very small Lamaist temple in between two expansive deserts, the Badain Jaran and Tenggeli, both in the western Gobi of Inner Mongolia. We were skirting these deserts in an effort to reach the upper loop of the Yellow River. It is so remote that even the single monk, a young fellow, had left his temple. On the rare occasion when there is a religious function here, lamas from a distant monastery come and preside over it. Today only two families live adjacent to the temple, becoming the keepers of this distant outpost of Buddhism.

Mongol Lama of the Gobi“What is your last name?” one of us asked the old man who walked in to check on these unlikely visitors in the deep of winter. “I have no last name,” answered the bearded man. We were all taken aback by his answer, until he added, “We are Mongols and do not use last names!” “So what is your name then?” we asked. “Ottoba,” came the answer. The 80-year-old had a ready grin, with several missing teeth. For years, he has been the temple’s caretaker by default.

With a tiny courtyard and a few steps, the temple was perhaps less than a hundred square meters. Two prayer wheels on the front and a yellow metal roof gave the outward resemblance of any Tibetan-style temple. Inside, however, it was quite ornamental with full color scrolls in silk hanging from the ceiling. Two old rugs were used as the back and bottom of a seat. We negotiated in vain to purchase them, but Ottoba simply refused to sell. There was even a golden yellow canopy over the altar seat, reserved for some dignified Living Buddha, if one should happen to drop by this out-of-the-way place, in the worst possible location.

Its best feature, however, was also its location - against the south side of a beautiful red and white sandstone mountain which shielded it from the Gobi’s bitter Siberian wind. Facing south provided maximum heat from a minimal sun when it cast its rays in a shortened winter day. I had noticed that this winter sun had not risen higher than 45 degrees above our heads throughout the day as I drove across the desert. Standing out, there was always a sizable shadow following me to my north, unlike further south when the shade would get smaller during the midday hours. A more personal note was my junk-food bag. Even inside the car, my snacks were frozen into Popsicle-like hard candies. Those ‘candies’ of dried mango or plum were fine, but not those with the exotic flavors of squid and baby scallops.

As we usually live further south, we are used to hearing weather reports about a Siberian cold front approaching that would bring about a a drop in temperature of a few degrees or more. But here we were part of the cold front, with outside temperatures always lingering below minus 20. Any slight chill factor would take the temperature down another two-digit level. Ottoba seemed to have weathered the years well, dressed relatively lightly. He and his wife together received over 2,000 Yuan from the government monthly and felt quite happy, their needs adequately meet.

I looked around the dry terrain and wondered how they got their water. Ottoba told me he has a well and the water is only three to four meters below. I asked whether there was any noticeable dry bout or change in water level, given the global emphasis on climate change. But he said the water level has always been the same.

Tourist yurt, felt tent of MongoliaThat reply came as a surprise as just days before we were told in Dunhuang that the local water level was descending at extremely alarming rate. What used to be a few centimeters of change per year had become a 20-meter drop annually within recent years. That would render the desert oasis waterless within a decade or more, if some new measures were not put in place. For now, they were attempting to divert and drain water from the Khartan River north of the Qilian Mountains. That, however, may also have major environmental implications for the marshes and wetlands of the Tibetan plateau.

Here inside the Gobi Desert, little had changed climate-wise. What else could change when it was already so marginal throughout the millennium? Nomads eked out the most basic subsistent existence since time immemorial, raising camel and sheep. The only noticeable difference was that the yurts, the Mongolian felt tents, were nowhere to be seen. Only at a few tourist sites one could see the now colorfully painted replicas of the original basic and simple felt tents. The Mongols had long ago moved into mud and brick houses which made them sedentary, rather than nomads on the move. Such lifestyle changes had also reduced a once proud people to becoming rather homogenized into the “Big Family” of a nation. Mongols are no longer gallant riders on horsebacks. I saw a few herding their flock on motorcycles!

Further into the desert, we stopped and visited a site called Mandela which featured ancient rock art in an area with exceptional geological features. The rocks had been eroded by wind for millions of years, into wonderfully smooth and rounded indents, whereas the human art were dated back to 4,000 to 6,000 years ago. The effigies were mainly of people and animals, but some had people riding what appeared to be either camels, horses or even reindeer. Such primitive art somehow seemed very elementary and complementary to a place where nature ruled supreme. In a land of huge sky with the Gobi’s long horizon, man always played a subservient role. It is a place where I, too, feel small and humbled, as nature reduces us to tiny specks like the Gobi dust.

A comparison may help understand why I feel so shrunken in space and time: Inner Mongolia is huge in size, larger than Texas and California combined. Arcing around northern China, it covers a width of 29 degrees in longitude. If it were superimposed over North America or Europe, it would cover a stretch from Washington, DC to the Rocky Mountains, or from Barcelona in Spain to Kiev in the Ukraine, a distance of 2,400 kilometers.

For me, this huge expanse of land is only beginning to unveil its many secrets, just like Ah Gui Temple which lay hidden among the hills of the windswept Gobi. Almost a hundred years ago, paleontologist A young MongolRoy Chapman Andrews, whom the movie Indiana Jones tried to impersonate, dug up the first dinosaur eggs in the depth of the Gobi Desert. Since then, there have been many discoveries of fossilized treasures which continue to baffle paleontologists and archaeologists.

As we stopped for lunch at a roadside restaurant, a little Mongol girl, not dressed in traditional costume, greeted me with a disarming smile. My own foray into the desert may be short. But future generations who live around the desert will have many more years of exciting treasure hunting in this vast and physically prohibitive land.