Tsenkher Hot Springs, The Mummies Of Enlightened Masters In Tsetserleg, Getting Sick, Terkhiin Tsagaan Lake And A Mongolian Folktale About Why The Earth Has Only One Sun
From Tuvkhun we drove to Tsenkher Hot Springs.
When we arrived in Tsenkher, we drove around its many ger camps to find the Ger camp that was booked for us, which claimed to have the biggest hot springs pool in all of Mongolia.
The area is green and rural, and our ger camp looked to be a luxurious one.
It had a small manmade pool, which did not inspire me to jump into it in the cold night.
We arrived so late that it was time for dinner and settling down in our yurt.
We decided to enjoy the hot springs the next day after breakfast.
It was a cold night and we ran out of wood to feed the stove in our yurt, but I suspected that maybe Jules was coming down with something, since he seemed to be colder than normal and slept very fitfully.
The sanitary conditions in most of the kitchens of the ger camps that we stayed at were very basic.
Water is rarely filtered, and more than once I had to remove a dead fly from my food.
So it was no surprise to me when I returned from the communal toilets to find Jules vomiting under a tree.
He looked green and dizzy, and he said that he was having diarrhea, and also complained of muscle pains.
He also felt hot to my touch, which told me he was having a fever.
Later that same day, after a long day of feeling fine, I would also come down with exactly the same symptoms, and I spent a delirious night in our ger, vomiting with severe diarrhea and chills.
Jules skipped breakfast, but was willing to sit for a little bit in the hot springs.
We were the only people in the small pool, which had only moderately hot water and intermittent hot water in the rustic showers.
Obviously Mongolia had not yet developed the hot springs experience, like they have in Japan and even in China in some places, to be a fabulous and relaxing experience.
The plan for the day was to drive to Terkhiin Tsagaan lake, located in the middle of a rocky, volcanic area.
We were scheduled to stay the night in a ger camp right on the shores of this volcanic lake.
Our route took us through the city of Tsetserleg, the capital of Arkhangai province.
Despite being a provincial capital, it is a small town with a few main streets lined with shops and businesses, a few banks, and a collection of concrete houses, surrounded by a Ger district.
There is a museum worth visiting in Tsetserleg called the Zaya Gegeen Huree museum which used to be an old and beautiful Buddhist monastery complex dating back to the 1600’s.
We arrived in Tsetserleg in time for lunch.
Nasaa, our driver, asked around and was told that there is a new restaurant in town that served vegetarian food and offered WiFi internet to boot.
We welcomed the opportunity to check our emails, check our investments, pay some bills online and find out what was happening in the world.
The place was owned by an Australian man who married a local girl and opened a guest house with a restaurant attached.
The food tasted good and fresh, but Jules could not eat anything.
He still looked sick and was very weak.
We arrived at a local temple which we thought was connected to the museum.
It turned out to be a Buddhist temple very active with the local residents.
The monks were busy reading people’s fortunes and giving consultations to local people.
A woman came to ask the monks about her daughter.
The daughter was of marrying age, and had two suitors asking for her hand.
The mother came to ask the monks which of the men would be the better husband for her daughter.
The monk shook some old coins in both his hands and laid the coins on the wooden bench to try and consult the spirit of the future.
Other people were sitting waiting their turn to have their fortune told by the head monk.
A busy business man came in and asked if he could cut the line, as he had somewhere to go to and needed urgent advice.
The people let him cut the line, and he sat to consult the head monk.
We walked around the small temple and Tuya conversed with the monks sitting outside.
We were told that the museum complex was located next door, but that this little temple had a precious secret…
The monks took us back inside.
The temple had a central altar which was covered with a curtain.
They pulled the curtain aside to reveal two mummies dressed in monks’ robes, sitting cross- legged in meditation.
In this area five enlightened masters called Zaya Gegeen had once lived.
The mummies were the bodies of the very first enlightened master and that of the fourth.
The first Zaya Gegeen was born in this area in 1642.
The temple was built in the year 1697, and it was here that he lived and taught.
The last Zaya Gegeen was born in 1905 and was killed in the 1930’s during the communist purges.
The mummies are only revealed to the general public a few times per year on special occasions, but in honor of us, two foreigners who are so interested in Buddhism, they had pulled back the curtain and even allowed me to take a single photo.
The nearby monastery complex is called “The Wolves Valley Monastery.”
At its heyday, 2000 lamas lived here but now only one is left.
The main temple has been converted into a museum.
Each of the temple halls had a special use.
Some were used for meditation, some for chanting, another for teaching and ceremonies, etc.
One large hall was now a museum, displaying paintings illustrating scenes from Mongolian life.
We learned of the laborious process of making felt from Yak and Camel hair, which is used to create a thick cover for the Mongolian Gers, to offer protection from the cold snowy weather.
Before we left town, we visited the local market.
I wanted to buy some fruit for the journey and some plain cookies for Jules, which seemed to be the only thing his stomach could tolerate at this stage.
The market was very interesting.
It was built like an indoor mall, but with many shops selling exactly the same inventory of goods.
The milk products section had tiny tables with vendors selling milk products produced by the nomads who live in the region.
The drive to Terkhiin Tsagaan Lake took us through a volcanic landscape.
The rocks reflected many shades of grey, and the lake was so blue and serene.
By the time we checked into our ger camp, I was vomiting uncontrollably and having a fever.
I told Tuya not to worry, that no medicine or treatment were necessary.
I would simply let the bacteria run through my system, and so I would be fine and healthy in no time.
Tuya ignored my request and drove to a local doctor who told her that Jules and I displayed symptoms of food poisoning, which could have been caused by anything we had drunk or eaten.
She prescribed anti diarrhea pills, which I refused to take.
It was a tough night and I filled many plastic bags full of vomit and diarrhea.
I simply could not make it out to the toilets in time.
Tuya visited me a few times during the night, to make sure our fire was burning and that our ger was warm, and she tried to encourage me to drink some boiled water.
In the morning, all my symptoms were gone.
I was still weak and so was Jules, and both of us still could not eat anything.
I was not sure that I could climb up to the volcanic crater, but Jules told me that it would do me good.
So we put on our hiking shoes and drove to the base of the mountains which had once erupted and created this large volcanic lake.
At the entrance to the trail, local people had set up small stalls selling food and drinks to the hikers who come every day to see the mouth of the crater.
Two sweet teenagers were selling salty milk tea with dumplings, some cooked fish caught in the lake, a juice made from boiling dry raisins in water, and the much beloved dish of barbecued Marmot meat.
(A Marmot is a field animal similar to a groundhog, which feeds on greens and many types of grasses, berries, lichens, mosses, roots, and flowers.)
Even I felt surprised at our quick recovery.
The previous night’s many bouts of delirious fever, vomiting and constant diarrhea were completely gone.
I still felt dizzy, but truly enjoyed the hike which included a mild ascent and many Rocky steps until we reached the crater.
The top offered wide views of the lake and the rocky landscape around it.
Back at the ger camp, we packed our bags and drove to Jargal Jiguur, a small hot springs ger camp by the river.
We arrived there at lunch time, but the springs-fed pool was closed for maintenance.
The camp also had no electricity as the power was down in the whole region, but we were promised that the electricity would be back after dinner, and that as soon as the power is on, they would pump the hot springs water into the pool, so we could count on a starlight soak after dinner.
Nasaa and Tuya headed for the river, where Nasaa washed our car and Tuya did everyone’s laundry.
I felt uncomfortable giving her our laundry, but most of the ger camps we stayed at asked that you do not wash your laundry in their sinks, and offered astronomical hotel prices for laundry not at all consistent with Mongolian prices.
But I was way too tired, and I welcomed the opportunity to get some sleep.
I spent the whole afternoon sleeping until evening, when we went for a long walk before dinner time, to the center of the village.
Our ger camp was located on the outskirts of Jargal Jiguur village, which translates to “Happiness Village.”
We saw a man riding his motorcycle, asking the neighbors if they had seen his horses.
Tuya told us that neighbors are very valuable in rural places.
They keep an eye on your horses and yaks, and would be able to tell you where a missing animal had roamed to, if you wished to bring it back.
I asked her how can the neighbors tell which herd of yaks belonged to whom, or which distant horses belonged to which neighbors, and Tuya assured me that this is part of their way of life, that they know these things, and most everyone is able to see far away into the distance.
Also some of the people branded their animals, or painted their hair with a certain color, so that if the animals were to mingle with another herd, they would be able to separate them.
I can believe that nomads can see very far.
Tuya had demonstrated an Eagle-eye ability to see far beyond anything we could spot in the distance.
That evening we ate a simple dinner of boiled potatoes with carrots and broccoli, and plain handmade noodles with a little butter.
We soaked in the hot springs pool which was magical and very calming.
The night stars spread across the inky sky, reminding us of the majesty of creation.
Tuya told us a Mongolian Folk Tale about why the earth had only one sun.
Here it is:
‘Once the earth had 7 suns.
A nomad boy who was very smart and also a wonderful archer, said that he could shoot the seven suns with seven arrows and that if he missed even once, he would become a marmot and live underground for the rest of his life.
With his first six arrows, he penetrated six of the suns.
He pulled his bow and arched his strong back as he aimed his last arrow at the sun.
He took a deep breath, and as he released the arrow, a swallow flew right into the path of the arrow, causing it to miss the sun.
The Boy turned into a Marmot and lived underground for the rest of his life.
This is why the swallow still has a slit in its tail,
Why the earth has one sun,
And why, up to the present days, Mongolian people do not eat one particular part of the Marmot, which they have even named a “human part.”‘