Published December 28th, 2016
I live and write in my favorite spot on planet Earth. It is an eight-kilometer long valley on the eastern side of the Bogd Khan Mountain in Mongolia, located at 47°47’20.0″N 107°06’47.9″E. It has been a sacred site since the Bronze Age three thousand years ago. In 1699 the Buddhist leader of the country, Zanabazar, named it Tur Hurah, the National Assembly, designating it as the place where the nobles would gather each summer away from the prying eyes of the Manchu officials in the city and to enjoy the special airag, fermented mare’s milk produced from horses raised in the sacred valley.
In the summer verdant patches of land on the mountainside blossom with a delicate carpet of edelweiss and explosive bursts of feather grass, asters, lilacs, forget-me-nots, majestic veronica and beautiful fireweed. In the summer, the fields swarmed with bees, black and orange butterflies and spiders frantically spinning silk webs between flowers. Fat flies clustered as soon as the wind subsided, and the crisp, clear call of the cuckoo echoed from the cliffs.
Few foreigners come to the valley, but in the summer, people come from the city to camp, and hikers make the trek up the mountain to its peak. Wrestlers fill the valley in June in order to drink the sacred mountain waters and practice for their national competition, Naadam, that beings each year on July 11. In late summer young people come from the small village at the mouth of the valley and gather wild strawberries, mushrooms and pine nuts.
Every day in every season some 200 cows and horses parade into the valley to graze, and unaccompanied, they return down to the village at dusk. They dare not linger in the valley at night because of the large pack of wolves that roam the hillside. In the summer the wolves cause few problems, but in the winter they prey on the cows and horses, and the herders have to frequently come searching for stray animals in hope of finding them before the wolves. Because the zone is sacred, the wolves are protected from harm and are left free to hunt unmolested by humans.
The valley has been sacred at least since the time of the Huns, two thousand years ago, and every day I walk past their graves. Still today shamans frequently visit the valley with their worshippers for ceremonies that may be as short as a few minutes or last for weeks.
Despite the beauty and popularity of the place in the summer, my favorite season is winter—undeniably incredible and spectacular. As the beauty and bounty of summer and fall quickly gave way to the relentless cold of winter, the visitors cease to come. The stream in front of my home freezes and animals disappear into the earth. The green needles of the larch trees turn yellow and cover the ground with a golden flooring that is soon blanketed with snow. Springs that feed the stream continue to bubble up forming a frozen lake that expands every day for six months, twisting and turning over the landscape.
This time of year I like to get up before 5:00 A. M. At this hour the world is incredibly cold, typically about minus thirty in January. The air is crystal clear without a drop of moisture, and there are no clouds. At this hour, the moon and stars reflect off the ice with such intensity that it seems like day. The stars across the sky drop to the horizon in every direction, and I begin each day staring at them and marking how far they have moved in their constant rotation around the North Star. The bitter wind whips around the edge of the cliffs with such force that it could peel the skin from an exposed face or cause toes to break off. Wolves howl through long nights that were so cold the moonlight itself seemed to have frozen.
Usually, I write until noon, eat some mutton soup with noodles, and by 2:00 in the afternoon I am bundled in several layers of clothes, boots, hats and gloves for my walk, the climax of each day. I rarely see anyone in the two hour walk. Occasionally a herder rides by in the distance on one of the constant tasks that keep them moving. Every few days a vehicle ventures into the valley, more often poachers from the city come to hunt illegally in the park or sometime just to get drunk. If I see anyone, it is usually one of the gleaners who come up from the village to gather wood. Although no cutting or trees is allowed in the national park, by tradition they can glean fallen wood and take dead trees, but only a small hand-cart load per day. In the isolation of the valley I come to know the tracks of most of their carts or their unique boot prints as well as the paths they usually follow. Sometimes one joins me for part of my walk since by this late in the day they usually head home. Sometimes we talk or sit silently and watch the animals, and occasionally I go home with one of them for salty milk tea before returning to the isolation of my home.
My wife and I fell in love with Tur Hurah, its dramatic, yet peaceful, clash of seasons, the animals, and austere beauty. After her death it became my refuge, the only place in the world where I did not feel her absence, where I did not miss her.