Fax by Satellite Telephone, courtesy of Hongkong Telecom.
We have been on the banks of the Duruq-Suq River since 3 July. Much has occurred since then as we pursue our program of Archaeology and Exploration. Notably, this year, the excavation of a rare and large Pazyryk tomb. This is the third year I have worked together with Vladimir Semyonov, excellent Russian Archaeologist from St. Petersburg. The fact that I am an American and he is Russian has proved to be a special combination. Our team consists mainly of Russian Archaeology students, but we have experts joining us from time to time from all over the world. Golden Griffin has truly become an International team. Valodya's specialty is Tuva, an independent republic of the Russian Federation. We are North of Mongolia, South of Siberia, and East of the Altai Republic. Mongun Taiga, The Valley of the Silver Mountain has been our focus the last two years, and it proves to have been a unique culture here in Scythian times. A bridge, if you will, between the Altai Peoples, and the Tuva-Mongolia Cultures. We call it The Silver Mountain Culture. Golden Griffin are the first to explore this incredible territory and as well as making numerous discoveries, and connections in the scientific sense, just being here is a day to day adventure.
A few days in the life of.....
3 August-This morning saw the departure of some team members who were going on to set up our second camp on the bank of the Yenisei River, about 60 kilometres from Kyzyl. Other team members returning to Hong Kong via Novosibirsk, or to St. Petersburg, or London via St. Pete piled on top of the others and their equipment, and a fully loaded Gaz 66 (Big Russian Army Truck, we'll call them BRATs from now on*) rolled over the river, across the steppe and finally out of sight. Except for Sasha, the driver, they probably all slept all day, despite the rough "road". I have this feeling because those of us left behind mostly slept all day. There wasn't much alternative, due to the copious amounts of tinned Vodka we all consumed during the goodbye party the night before.
The hardcore late-nighters at that party performed some notable blues numbers, in several languages, at various volumes until the wee hours. We even had Vladimir reciting his poetry in the blues cadence, cigarette voices all. Tracey Nelson eat your heart out, Jeremy did his personal version of "Since you've been Gone." Instruments included spoons, milk cans, a resurrected guitar which is the Zombie of All Guitars, and, well, anything else we could lay our hands on. Needless to say further, it was a full-bodied send-off, and a miracle besides that anyone managed to get up at all in the morning and pack tents.
After the exodus, we all moped around, feeling somewhat depleted because we no longer had 25 tents in our camp, but were down to a few less. Uh, oh, what about the Tents-Lit-Up-Like-Japanese-Lanterns-In-The-Dark-Photo? From up on the hill, no less, river lit by moon winding through our camp, yurts, Yaks, and some incredible sunset in the big, big, background. Well, what's a few tents, more or less?
After this droll day of lollygagging and Yolki Palki, just about sunset, we hear, then see a sky blue jeep wending its way across the tundra towards our camp. Who can this be? It's Vicki, longtime friend of ours, and partner of Dr. Bruce, our twisted doc, and pro Photog. She was one of many who threatened to arrive at our camp, but the only one who ignored the warnings and admonitions of hardship on the road. As it turned out, she did run into all the stage by stage difficulties I outlined in a fax from St. Pete, and then some, but albeit a week later than her "travel agent" advised, she did roll in and receive the promised round of applause. The 6th Amri Khan to be in Mongun Taiga. Nothing for Guinness there, but commendable, if for tenacity alone.
August 4-Last year I was called upon, in my capacity as "Holder of the Medicine", and therefore the doc, to cure various ills among the local population. That is to say, that yurt over there, and this guy is from a yurt over there across the mountain at the white lake. Let's say that a few people rode in with running sores, and pieces of their faces hanging loose, etc. and luckily I had the meds to fix these things. This year Dr. Bruce, as "Holder of the Medicine", and by the way, a real doc, had already fixed a few baby fevers, diaper rash, and a epileptic fit from across the River Halash, so this morning it came as no big surprise, and seemed to be no difficulty when a rider appeared saying his baby was ill and would the doc come and have a look. We were about to go on a "sheep hunt", but what the hell, a kid is sick, right? There were a couple of young Tuvinian girls in our camp from our neighbouring yurt who spend summer holidays with their country cousins, but who have learned to speak good Russian, and even a bit of English in their schools in Kyzyl. With their help, and a three-language translation bucket-brigade, we got a little more worried when we discovered that the child had a bottle of sheep dip in his hand an hour before going unconscious. We hurried our pace, doc pulled out whatever he thought might be useful, and after shooing the horse onto the steppe, we all loaded into our other BRAT, and hit the trail. Trail, indeed. Across the steppe, down across a ROCKY marina to the Magen Burien River, across that, up the hill, along the edge of a cliff, back down to the river, and along the ledge, for about 45 minutes, and we arrive at the yurt.
We walk in and Oh, Oh, does this baby ever look sick. He is in a coma, and foaming from the nose. His father is holding him sideways on the bed to drain, and he is wrapped in sheep skins. Bruce touches his forehead, and his eyes get as big as duck eggs, he shouts (his own personal style) "Get everything off this kid, now!" "Where's the thermometre!?" When Bruce goes into doctor mode he is a miracle to see. Emergency is his specialty, and he knows what to do first and next. The baby's temperature is off the scale it is so high, and Bruce orders buckets of cold river water, basins, and fanners, for evaporation. Zhenya, Vicki, the girls, and me when I could squeeze in, all fanning away like mad with old cloth, paper, whatever. The temperature came down to normal after about an hour of intermittent evaporation, but the boy still did not respond. It comes out that if a sheep gets even a little bit of that stuff in its mouth, it dies immediately. He's been poisoned, for Christ's sake, and there isn't going to be anything we can do without a hospital, I.V. drips, and all that stuff. It's already been hours since the poison, so after a quick deliberation, and another three-way translation Bruce breaks down and gives the parents the bad news. If the boy has any chance, it has to be the "children's hospital" in Kyzyl-Khaya, a village about 35 kilometres, and 3-4 hours away by BRAT. Since we are the only BRAT in the valley that day, we decide to take them. But it was so sad. His mother dressed him in his best outfit, she had to stay and look after the younger one. We all climbed into the BRAT and took off, making plans to stop at the camp for petrol, and then to blast off for Kyzyl-Khaya immediately, and, but, 100 metres from the yurt, looking through the back window of the cab from my position standing in the back, I see the father motion Dima to stop the car. Bruce is going into some kind of manoeuvre, the father is shaking his child, Bruce gives mouth to mouth, again, again, calls me. I jump down, MY EARS he yells, I rip the stethoscope out of the bag, Bruce says THIS BABY'S DEAD! Give me the adrenalin and the syringe. Whipped out, Bruce applies these directly to the baby's heart, but it's not working, Bruce can't stop trying, and then it's just necessary to stop, the kid's dead. That's it. Back to the yurt, the mother standing in the doorway, she knows right away what's up, she turns. We drive behind the yurt, and the father carries the boy in. They give us tea, everybody with tears in their eyes, the father asks Bruce to check the little baby girl, and he is happy to pronounce A HEALTHY BABY. Smallest of smiles from mother and father, the boy was always weak, they say. We return to camp, slowly, everybody thoughtful, maybe even repercussions? At camp, we drink a little Vodka.
While we were trying to save the baby, some drunk falls off a horse and barges in. Thrown out by young auntie, he storms out and kicks my son Jonathan in the shoulder. I'm called out. Drunk is staggering to next yurt. Mad as hell, I follow. He's sprawled in the dirt, and I have trouble with the ethics of kicking a guy in the head when he's down so I make do with shouting at him in an International way, hoping he'll stand up. The feeling is this baby is not going to make it, and God forbid! what if I kill this drunk by kicking him? Left him in the dirt. J's shoulder hurt for a couple of days.
August 5-Woke up still feeling a little down, but decided to continue the "sheep hunt" because the kitchen was still out of meat, and the tinned stuff, well, you know. So, as soon as Zhenya, my diligent translator, who could not shirk her kitchen duties, as it was her day, finished washing dishes we set out, Me, Jonathan, Bruce in search of photo opportunities, Vicki, and Zhenya, with Red Dima again at the wheel, most everybody hanging on again for dear life as the Zil BRAT, brute that it is, rocked and rolled its way across steppe and tundra, to the yurt of Alexei, where they wanted to stick us with a goat, but maybe that was just sour grapes, because on my last visit there, he screwed me out of a few Polaroids, sure , but I screwed him out of his beautiful, handmade, Tuvinian knife, with amazing plastic grip, which, of course, he shouldn't have left out in plain sight with someone of my sort around. On the "road", the next yurt down the river didn't have any decision makers at home, but we said Hi to all those we knew. Off to the yurta of Dangok, or Hoelaguel, where we had scored before on one occasion a Yak, and on another, a goat. He being a jolly and friendly sort, as well as, like everybody else it seems in Mongun Taiga, a relative of Sambu, eminent Tuvinian archaeologist, and luckily, a colleague of ours. Just up the hill, there, and gluck, gluck, we're stuck in the bog. Because, while frozen tundra has a catchy ring to it, in the summer it has an unfrozen, unglamorous aspect of becoming balota, in Russian; bog, in plain English terms, and Dima did unfortunately pick the wrong place to cross the river. I should mention that the 4-wheel drive on the ZIL is broken, one of the supply items we wait for Sasha to bring back from Kyzyl, and we aren't supposed to be in the bog. Gives us the chance to try out our winch; under the front to the back and oh, say, about twenty metres, around the ubiquitous, handy, large boulder, let the clutch out and hey! we've pulled out another boulder! About the thirty millionth boulder we've pulled out in the last month. But stuck we are, six wheels and all. Dangok staggers down the hill, says, "Why did you go through the bog when the road's over there?" Good question. His truck is working, and he pulls us out. Otherwise, he says, we would have had to make plans for the winter. Back up at the tent, we lie and say we brought him 15 kgs. of sugar as a present, and he lies and says he will give us a sheep because we are good friends, so then we can drink araka, and eat all manner of little butter, milk, and lord knows what sort of goodies, fresh stove-baked bread with cream, and tea for those who passed on the araka, of whom I was certainly not one. I wasn't driving, but then Dima was, and he was drunker than me. Zhenya asks Dima what about cops on the road. Har Har Har. Weaving our track back, we manage the necessary river crossings and gear changing. We stake the sheep behind the camp, in the tundra. Too drunk to think about it today, and anyway, Volodya has news. Although our centre pit has been robbed, and not once, our Pazyryk continues to surprise us again and again. Today, while excavating one of several stone chambers emanating from the kurgan's centre, they turned up the very first "Deer Stone" to be found in Mongun Taiga. Deer Stones are a phenomena of 8-5 centuries B.C. in Scythian culture. They very often accompany burials and are stones decorated with petroglyphs of leaping reindeer, and circles representing, it is said, earrings, belts, and necklaces, all sacred rings. The reindeer carry the souls of the deceased to, presumably, paradise. There are about 70 deer stones in Tuva, 15 of them of our type, and none so far in this amazing series of valleys they call Mongun Taiga. Ours was actually the cover of a stone coffin, and an integral part of the original kurgan. We eat red soup and sleep.
August 6-We all woke this morning, the same crew as before, the "hunting party", and stealthily assembled, announcing that we were going fishing, although it was well known in the camp that Sasha had taken the fishing poles to Kyzyl with him. We picked up shovels, and were off. Presumably we were fishing for big ones and planned to whack them on the head with the shovels and pull them in by their tails. We weren't fooling anyone. Yesterday, we had made an arrangement with Dangok to go herb hunting, and he made us promise to say we were going fishing. Naturally, we wouldn't tell so absurd a lie on our own account. We were also told to bring a sack, and an umbrella. When the relay-translated question was raised, "Why the umbrella?", the answer came back the same way, "In case it rains, idiot."
This time I drove, with Dima pointing out the track. The ZIL is a big machine and bobs nicely along most trails, and I skilfully avoided the huge ruts Dima made yesterday. Mostly it was by making a wrong choice of tracks which by the way turned out to be the right one. After picking up Dangok and his neighbour, another Alexei, and, incidentally turning the wheel back over to to competent Dima, we set out on the most Goddawful piece of trail you would ever want to be on in a BRAT with no 4-wheel drive. The saving grace was that he made it, and we were all treated to some of the most spectacular views imaginable. >From the heights we can see 180* line of black and snow striped Altai peaks, and if we turn around, the most amazing sight of the Hindiktig Koel, the island lake which is about 100 kilometres away. It seems to be split level and spread across the horizon. We photograph with the Horizon, our Russian panorama camera. Other lakes are dotted here and there, and we can actually see the rivers spilling out of the lakes, and waterfalling down to become those waterways which we daily ford. We continue up, around, stopping sometimes to shoot photos, or examine flora. Finally we arrive at a clear, pristine, cool lake at the foot of a giant massive of black Altai, fish jumping like popcorn on the surface, and primeval looking vegetation all around. There are countless varieties of modest or flamboyant wildflowers, and moss feet thick. Walking on it is like walking on a trampoline. So untouched, so unspoiled. We spent the afternoon there paying our respects, until the mosquitoes, that ferocious Siberian variety, became just too much.
We skulk back to camp, and then Dima does the job on the sheep. We are late again for dinner so we hang out by the fire throwing chunks of mutton on the grill. Happy as clams.
Late at night, 2.30 AM to be exact, I am awakened by the sound of hoof beats circling my tent and someone shouting chu! chu! the Tuvinian equivalent of giddyap. But it is a comical version, the rider crying Ch-ch-chu! I grab my head-cracker and my trousers and slip out the back door. Here is a drunk rider shouting incomprehensible phrases at me and refusing to respond to my meager Russian supply, like, good night, goodbye, and the like. I shout across the camp for Zhenya, the translation lady, and she presently appears. It turns out that this is one of the chaps I cured of boils last year, and he remembers me, presently remounts with a sp-sp-co-co-ne no-no-che, and splashes back across the river and that's that. But he must have been just the scouting party because again at 5.00 AM three riders splash back and start banging, if that's the right word, on my tent. Jeremy! Jeremy! But these guys are mad, and not in any mood to remember past kindnesses. It seems some traders had come through from Koshagach in the Altai, 120 bone crushing klicks north, with a ;consignment of Vodka, considerably stronger than the araka they normally drink in these parts. It doesn't do them any more good than it does anybody else, but they drink it non-stop until it's gone. These guys had not obviously run out, and one was ominously holding a long knife upright in the classic stabbing position. Keeping my eye on the knife hand, I again called out for Zhenya. Jolly, jolly but this lot wasn't having any. "Why are you digging our Kurgan?" they demand. "The weather has become bad since you came." they declare. Utter nonsense because the weather has been normal, that is to say, blistering hot, freezing cold, rain, wind, and back to blistering about every hour since we came. This night it is raining, and cold, as we squat in the required stance, smoking the required cigarettes, refusing the offered bottle, and sort out that he is after Zhenya as much as bent on repeating his odd, seemingly, stock phrases. The one thing he kept saying that really caught my attention was that all he had to do was raise the signal and we would have fifty riders in our camp. Some nightmare out of my beloved 13th century history so I paid careful attention. After an hour, we have them sorted out, and I lie awake until dawn, which times I imagine others will emerge from their tents and deal with invaders while I sleep.
August 7-11.00 sees me out of the tent, Jonathan and I brushing our teeth at the river, in time for lunch. The crew comes down from the kurgan with news that a second deer stone has been found as part of the same stone chamber construction. We all hike up immediately because this is really something. They have some features unknown in other deer stones, and the second is more elegant than the first. Something about the rhythmic shape of our reindeer awakens a notion having to do with carpet design. A brief soliloquy, or perhaps a shorter article begins to take shape in the punching bag of my consciousness. We make beautiful rubbings of the stones, and back to camp for Jonathan and I, because it's time for our hot bath to have reached its boil. Work continues on the large kurgan and a small one to its side which is cleaned, sketched, and photographed in colour and B & W, and is determined to be a pit type.The crew digs into the pit while I deal with a succession of apologists from the night before. Still drunk, but none of them seeming as threatening as the night before, they came, in the order in which they had come, saying things like "Please forgive me." Standard fare. Although the second said he wanted to show me a Tuvinian snuff bottle in a few days, and the third, our neighbour from the yurt across the river had nodding, slurred, tedious, but nevertheless, revelationist gripes and tales to relate. The most informative was probably the belief that if you sit on the ground with your hand on the ground, it means you want to leave the earth. You are therefore asking for it, and bad luck to boot so it is just something to not do. The second interesting story was that The-Man-Who-Knows-Everything-And-Is-Not-A-Shaman-But-You-Can-Call-Him-Shaman had sent the guys with the knife and surely with the stock phrases as well. Normally I am wary of people with extra strong belief systems, or even people who play by systems as they tend not to be flexible, but maybe I should go and meet with this Man who knows everything.
Shish Kebab, pilaf rice, hang out in the big tent. Lose a few more games of Connect Four to J. In a fit of either paranoia, or security consciousness, whichever you prefer, I force J to sleep in Zhenya's tent tonight, just in case we have more night visits. I sleep light, in my clothes, with the back door open ready to do a back roll out at the first sound of hoof beats. August 8-Woke up well rested, but a tad early as it was an incensed Jonathan stuffing his sleeping bag back in the tent that was my wake up call. Nothing happened during the night, which was just as well. There are two ways to be a fool in such situations, and all morning, I was one.
After lunch, the girls who stay at the yurts for summer came round. Did I mention that two of them are daughters of Lydia, the Kyzyl radio lady, who has interviewed Volodya and I on occasion, and is, of course, a relative of Sambu. Another speaks English, and another German. We pumped them for local information because they are friends, and got a lot. It also turned out that the day they came with us to try and save the little boy was the oldest one's (14) birthday. Terrible to have a birthday like that. As they will try to return to Kyzyl about the same time as us, we promised a birthday party. This is also a way to meet with everybody, since everybody is connected, and have all of them who are on our side there at the same time. Invite the others as well, and Presto! it's a Public Relations Party.
While we do the three-way trans with the girls there is the unmistakable sound of my other BRAT, the Gaz 66. A quick peak out the flap of the dining tent confirms, yep, it's Sasha barrelling across the steppe making as much noise as possible as a signal, because our horn doesn't work. Presently he arrives, Sergei Nikitovich Astakhow with him in the cabin. Sergei was busy and could only join us at this time. He has over 30 years experience in Tuva, and is famous himself as a stone age specialist. His duties as second in command at the Institute in St. Pete keep him on the move, but he is a longtime friend of Volodya's, and a good friend to me, and we are all overjoyed that he could make it. The evening passes warmly, despite the chill; we eat kebabs and drink vodka by a small campfire. Only one interruption at 1 AM. Another potted rider comes into camp hanging at an impossible angle from his horse. This one's wife has run off with another man, he kicked her rather hard, she's threatened to kill herself, and he's looking in the river for her body. He tells me he wants to kill himself as well, and since I'm his friend he wants me to bury him. I finally convince him to sleep on it, and in the morning I'll take the BRAT and help him to look for his wife. That was enough to call it a day, and after "a few drops" all around, to bed.
*For notes on the plusses and minuses of BRATs; when I return to London.