June 15, Khotan Nur (“nur” means “lake”)
Wednesday June 15
I’m trying to imitate Jello in the back of the Land Cruiser. There is a rough track, but the jostling is fierce and total relaxation is easier than holding on. Mongolia rolls by the windows, brown and dry thanks to little snow over the winter and too little rain this spring. Herds of goats nibble at grass no taller than moss. For the cows and yaks, only scattered tufts of green. I am reminded of the tundra – vast spaces, a great blue dome of sky, no trees, deceptive distances, where what seems near is far away. But on the tundra I found only eskers; here there are mountains, low at first, then rising to craggy summits, ever higher as we go along.
We rattle into the village of Tsengel. With a little change of architecture, this could be a frontier town of the Old West; Wyatt Earp on horseback would not be out of place on the dusty streets. The buildings are incredibly ugly, with blank doors rather than storefronts; you enter, not knowing what lies within. In one we find a hardware store, in another a grocery.
Outside again, I turn and see the mosque, its blue and white towers and dome rising on another street. I wander over, then head to the river and some welcome vegetation. This is the Khot Gol (“gol” means “river”), the same river that flows through Ulgii. I’m pretty sure it comes from Khotan Nur.
Before we leave the village a group of students on lunch break join us. They are studying English with a young American Peace Corps volunteer and are eager to try out their skills. We all pose for photos, then continue on our separate ways.
Beyond Tsengel the Khot Gol carves a deep valley, creating a rich riverine environment. Our path takes us along the river to a wide sward of green grass and larches, where we stop for lunch. Several gers are here, perhaps brought by people arriving early for Nadaam (the annual festival). A herder on horseback drives a large flock of black cashmere goats down a steep hillside to the water and the lush grass.
More rough road. At last we leave the valley and cross the Khot, but we are not at our destination. On and on, hour after hour, our drivers race full speed then brake sharply for rocks and ditches. We are all tired, peering ahead hopefully for the blue of a lake. At last! But it is only the lower lake – we must go on to the upper one, stopping briefly at a 5th century Turkic burial mound.
No sight could have been more welcome than the gold of the Tusker tents. We meet Eddie Frank, settle in to our tents, eat a late dinner and are soon asleep.