Khongoryn Els To Bulgan
We wake at dawn to start the journey back eastwards, past the summit of the Western Beauty, to the Bayanzag Flaming Cliffs area. At the Tsogt Ovoo pass, we stop to make token offerings of rock to the suburgan (i.e. chorten; from the Sanskrit su-garbha or chamber of good relics), its blue silk tied around argali-sheep-horn fluttering in the desert wind.
Byambe, our guide, has decided that the South Gobi is too ardous; she used to work in a mining supply-chain role, tour-guiding had seemed both a change from drudgery of 3-weeks-on-2-weeks-off in small towns, and a chance to practice languages; but after sandstorms and a few nights back in the middle of nowhere, she decided yesterday that this was not the change she was looking for. As we drive back, she muses about going to Beijing to visit a friend - she used to be a student at Harbin, and misses the bright lights of the Chinese cities.
What do the Chinese think about Mongolia?
"They don't consider us to be an indepedent country. They think we are part of China. That is very hard for us to hear." A little later she adds "I think it is terrible what the Chinese are doing to Tibet."
Mid-morning, we reach one of the soum centers - flyspeck administrative posts that provide basic services in this nation of desert and steppe. From Dateline Mongolia - An American Journalist In Nomad's Land (by Michael Kohn, who also co-authored the Lonely Planet guide to Mongolia)
Soums are basically counties, invented by the Soviets when they attempted to collectivize rural areas. During this bureaucratic process, every soum was given a soum center, a small administrative town designed to house the elements that Russians deemed necessary for settled life: a school, a government house, a theater, a post office, a hospital, a bank, a dry goods store and a market. Soum streets were never paved and no paved roads led to them. Most were ghost towns - nomad families preferred to live out on the steppes where there was better grass for their animals, and only came into town for the occasional shopping spree. Dashbalbar was surrounded by poor ger suburbs, each property surrounded by a wood fence. Its center contained five or six concrete buildings, each in a similar state of neglect ... Gana and I moseyed to a tiny whitewashed theater where a variety show was in progress, complete with Buriat song-and-dance routines and slapstick comedy skits. The closing performance was a stunning play about the years of Stalinist repression, which described - in graphic detail - how men, women and children were taken from their homes in midnight raids, the women raped and their husbands sent to their deaths. The audience wept.
We drive through the soum center of Bulgan. The Mongolian word is сум, arrow.