Aguiin Sarlagood: the French-Swedish not-soo-many-caves expedition to Mongolia 2008
1800 km to the nearest coast; the Gobi desert stretches itself out at an altitude of 1200 meters. The two rounded summits of the Holy Mother Eej Khairkhan Uul stand out against the horizon, but still a few hours away. We started from Ulaanbaatar four days ago, and we are still not at our destination. The russian UAZ busses are not known for their comfort, but for their ability to cross even the most difficult terrains. The only time we were forced to turn was when we tried to cross the mountain passes from the tableland north of the Gobi desert, on roads since long deserted and by heavy rains transformed to mere dry boulder rivers. Back on the tableland we found two chaps on a motorbike that our two drivers, Bayraa and Selenge, did their best to follow through the mountains on the barely visible path. We get through long after sunset, with a pitch-black nightsky dotted with an infinity of stars above us. Every night was a welcome break from the travel; apart from our drivers we also had an interpreter, Tungaa, and a cook, Gerlee, with us, so all we Europeans had to do was to rise our tents while waiting for the food. The other of us had been tempted to join the expedition by Xavier Noguès. He had visited Mongolia two years earlier, as solo-traveller and tourist, but now he wanted to do a more proper caving expedition. Françoise Lorrin, Claire Tirefort, Catherine Noiriel and David Peyrat are from the same caving club as Xavier, the French club G3S, and then it is me who met Xavier and his plans last year at the Tjorve-exploration week in northernmost Norway. So we are all together a small but not bad expedition, six european cavers and four mongols, right now on our way to the mountain that following the guide books and Dr. Avirmed's map should harbour at least one cave.
After another many hours of driving through the dry desert step, we are finally at the nature reserve's small campingsite where we can put up our tents. We are alone here, but find an information board showing us the direction to The Nine Pots, the Velum and something we belive is Lamin Agui, the cave where a buddhist monk is thought to have spent a few decades about a hundred years ago. Tungaa has never been here before, but The Nine Pots are well known all over Mongolia, and something she has wanted to see for a long time now, so we leave the campingsite as soon as we can for a walk trying to find them. It is not difficult, they are just a few easily walked hundred meters away, and consists of a number (more than nine) beautiful potholes lined up each after each other in a small canyon. We continue. The desert sand and the wind have polished the rock, and we pass some surreal sculptured rock surfaces. After some searching, we find the Lamin Agui just when the sun set. In the entrance a brick wall is erected. Inside the cave is a small altar, with blue and orange cloths, and along the outer wall is a bed, just large enough for a lonely hermit. It is getting dark, and we return to the camp. We are already late for dinner. Soon the vodka bottles are brought up, and we exchange songs with each other. A pity I can't sing, though.
I wake up a quarter to six the day after. The sun is just rising over the horizon, but it is cloudy. We return to the hermit's cave after the breakfast. Mapping and photographing. It is clear that the cave is still in high esteem by the visitors who offer money, incenses, chinese tea, school books, vodka, and airag, the fermented mare milk that doesn't tast that bad. We find a small side passage behind the altar. Also here is a blue cloth hanging, this time from a fissure in the roof that go to an upper floor that we can reach from the outside. The cloth is a khadag, in Tibetan called khata, and is of the same kind as those hanging on the many sacred cairns, ovoo, that can be found all over Mongolia. The origin is shamanistic, but the use of khadag is now adopted by the lamaist Buddhism. Previously they were made of silk, but today you can buy cheap synthetic khadag everywhere.
In the afternoon we searched through the part of Eej Khairkhan Uul that is closest to the camp. We find a few small caves; on the floor are numerous small clay pyramids, but we do not know what they symbolise. We continue higher up. Here we find a large isolated boulder that attracts our interest. Along the rock foot are some flat stone slabs erected, and there is a small entrence. It is obvious that there is a cavern beneath the rock. We can not resist to crawl carefully under the rock and there we find a small chamber, with incense and a wooden frame with khadag. We map the cavern and try to leave as few traces as possible. The view from the cave over the northern parts of the Gobi desert, just beneath the mongolian part of the Altai mountain range, is fantastic. The horizon is far away. But we do not find any more caves in the Holy Mothers Mountain.
Further. We are heading to Tsagaanchuluut where Xavier, maybe, have friends from his previous trip through Mongolia two years ago. Four days of travel; we now leave the Gobi desert and go north. We try to find the pass through the mountains up to the tablelands, but the road we has in though has disappeared in some rain. No worries, in this roadless land with roads everywhere, this kind of problems are easily solved. That we are closing up on more inhabited land is best seen in the petrol stations: they are no longer hand pumped. A nadaam is celebrated in Tseel when we pass by, so we stay a half day there. The nadaam remains me about a country fair, with friends and relatives arriving from all the nearby villages, with the difference that here they are not from the villages, but from where they have raised their ger this time. And of course also that a nadaam is very much about the celebration of the three manly sports archery, wrestling, and most importantly, hores-riding. Horses everywhere, some market stalls selling cheap clothes and other things a nomad can have use for in her everyday life, as well as four ger selling food. But this is no caves! We continue our expedition north, passing Altai, these days with both internet café and cash machine. Finally we reach Tsagaanchuluut where we find a nice campingsite just outside the small settler community; the only thing missing is the saloon, but I guess people here drink their vodka at home. Everyone knows everyone, and it does not take many hours until the whole village knows we are here. We will stay here a few days, and already the first evening one of our neighbours visit us, on horse of course. Mongolia is not only a truly hugh country, but also a very small world, something that became clear for us the following morning, when we were visited by an elderly man curious about the newcomers. Ravdanjamts, 76 year old, sit down and question us and tells us about his children and grandchildren, all living in the neighbourhood. When Xavier shows him photos from his previous tour the old man brighten up! It is his own grandchildren in the photos! It was with Ravdanjamts' own son Monhdalai and his family that Xavier stayed with a few days two years ago. Now we learn that they stay a few kilometers outside Tsagaanchuluut, and we decide to try to visit them later. Right now we are slightly decimated, with Tungaa at hospital in Tsagaanchuluut since yesterday evening...
A little later we go in to Tsagaanchuluut to visit Ravdanjamts in his ger. His wife and two of their grandchildren are also there. Even if it is only ten in the morning the vodka is brought out and served in small but many servings in a beautiful silver cup. Two drops are offered to the gods with a flick of the forefinger and the middle finger. The everywhere present salty, dry goat chees is put forward, as is the tea cooked on more milk than water. Tungaa is still in the hospital, she has not managed to keep any food since yesterday evening, but otherwise seems fine. But this force us to try to communicate the best we can. There are a few small caves close by, and Ravdanjamts' wife has a childhood friend who can show us the caves, already today!
We find only minor caves in the first hill, one of them suspiciously similar to a mine although only a few meters deep. There are some thin boards on the floor, and the short tunnel have standing heigth until it suddenly ends. Our guide have not heard anything about mining here, but he tells us that there were some chinese people here many years ago. He do not know what they were doing in the mountain, but they constructed the well at the hill foot. He also tells us about another cave, in a different hill but not far away. Buddhist monks used this cave for meditation. Off we go, to the meditation cave. The entrance is visible from a long distance, and we can see some more entrances in the same bedding plane. It is not entirely obvious how the caves are formed, they seem to be formed in a rather thin conglomerate layer, perhaps from some dissolution process. None of the caves are particularly deep, often just a few meters. It is only possible to reach the seven meter wide and nine meter deep Meditaion Cave by climbing over a small shelf. The view from the cave over the plain and the hills on the opposite side of the flat valley makes up for all that the cave lacks in size! While I am mapping this cave, David finds the longest cave so far on this expedition. The entrance is an impressive eleven meters wide and four meters high, but after a few meters the passage is only four meters wide and seems to end in a small chamber only fifteen meters from the entrance. But not yet! The steep wall ends in the darkness more than fourteen meters up. It is possible to climb on the right side, and on the top is yet another small chamber. But here the cave ends. But still, a cave with a true dark zone!
In the evening we go to the Monhdalais for a short visit. Monhdalai himself have taken the horse to a nearby nadaam and will not return for a few days, but two of his daughters, Zaga and Tuul, are there, and Tsermaa, his wife, join us after a while. What we missed Tungaa! To speak Mongolian is not the easiest thing to do, especially if you can not. The little Mongolian Xavier knows is reduced to some kind of gruntling, we other does not even try, while our hosts go on talking, albeit a little louder and, perhaps, with simpler sentences but to what use? Selengee tries his best to translate, but his English vocabulary is only marginally larger than our Mongolian. But somehow everything works out, and we decide to return within a few days, when Monhdalai is back, and then stay overnight before leaving Tsagaanchuluut. Until then we have quite easy days. Tungaa is still in hospital, so we go somewhat at random and hope that we can find something of interest. Which we of course do not. Only a small cave full of goat droppings; some limestone at an altitude of more than 2100 m but only micro karst. I am not surprised, the limestone is too high to be part of a significant drainage basin, besides that there is nearly no precipitation here to drain. The only possible caves would be old fossil caves, but we can not find any. It is likely that the climate has been dry for a very long time. At the entrance to a desolated valley we find a lot of petroglyphs that seem to have been carved during a long period of time. Were they carved to give a good hunt? A sand storm blow up a few kilometers away, and for a while it looked like it would blow our way, but we were saved. A wulf passed by.
The next morning we waked up to steady rain. I am glad that I did not trusted Xavier when he told about how warm and sunny it is in Mongolia in early August... The sun did not came back until next day, after a night in Monhdalai's ger. It was fresh snow on the highest mountains. But it was for caves we were here, and yet we had not found any caves of any significance. Xavier is stressed, for him the expedition starts to turn to a failure, and he do not really know what to write in the expedition report. The other of us have difficulties to see things that dark, but the atmosphere is somewhat tense at times. All things considered, this trip is a reconnaissance trip trying to cover a quite large area, and to find large caves under such a trip needs more luck than we are granted.
But we go on, back to Ulaanbaatar. We still have a long way. The landscape is changing, we are crossing rivers, and on the hills more and more forests spread out the further away from the dry steppes north of the Gobi desert we go. We are arriving to the Taiga, part of the same coniferous forest we find in Scandinavia. After a night close to Uliastai with two dogs fighting over a bitch among our tents, we pass a small community that we can not find on the map; on the other hand we could not find the community on the map along the road. On an early morning walk we find another limestone area with micro karst, but no caves. It is still too dry and too small drainage basins. We continue, now eastward on the main road. More traffic, and more small villages along the road. Chinese and russian trucks and once in a while a minibus with tourists. Tungaa say that there are some 400 different travel agencies in Mongolia, and the number is increasing .
The last stop for caving is in Khorgo-Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur National Park, an over exploited week-end trip destination for the city people in Ulaanbaatar. But it is its geology that attracts us; the lake Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur was created when a lava flow dammed a river, Khoid Terkhiin Gol, that flows throught the valley. There are several lava caves there, known but to the best of our knowledge not mapped or explored by speleologists. But it is much easier searching for new caves if they already are on the map at the Tourist Information!
The first cave is Gants Khunii Agui, "One Person Cave". It is not large, but not as small as the name suggest. A beautiful lava tunnel with small lava stalactites, and with a total length of about 40 meters. When mapping we got company with an extended family who all, from mothers (and grand mothers?) to small children, entered the cave and explored it with lamps they borrowed from us. The two most impressive caves are two collapsed lava tunnels, now hardly anything more than two large craters. One of them, Shar Nokhoin Tam, "The Yellow Dog's Hell", is only possible to saftely enter by rope. It is not difficult to imagine how the yellow dog experienced the cave, or rather the hole -- or the grave? -- after falling into it. Most of the rest of the day was spent walking across sparsely vegetated lava fields in company with Munkh-Erdene, 12 years old and our guide for the day. He took us to the chuluun ger, "the lava ger". We found that they are not caves, despite being on Dr. Avirmed's map, but rather some kind of strangely shaped hollow lava fontains. The largest one just barely hold one person.
And this was the end of our small caving expedition. We still have a few days left before we reach Ulaanbaatar, and we take some time for sightseeing in Karakorum, founded in the year 1235 by Ögedei Khaan, son and successor of Djingis Khaan. Today all that remain is the four stone turtles that marked the corners of Karakorum, and where the city once were is now a large temple complex that has seen its better days. We now have only one night left together. Then back to Ulaanbaatar for a few days on our own hands, before we leave for the long trip back to Europe and the stationary civilisation again.
 E. Avirmed 2008. Mongol Orni Aguin Zorag. Gazrin Zorag, Ulaanbaatar. Map with caves and tips of caves in Mongolia.
 We can wholeheartedly recommend E-Mongol (http://www.e-mongol.com/mongolia.htm), as a flexible travel agency well worth its price and with understandings of all the strange wishes you can have for a caving expedition!
A Swedish version of this travelouge has earlier been published in Grottan 44(2): 16-23 (2009) and on-line on
See also: Les Yacks des cavernes.