We are driving up to the Zuun Saikhanii Nuruu (the Eastern Beauty) of the Gurvan Saikhan, all the way up to the river canyons that thread their way across the range. We climb from about 4000 ft to about 8000 ft; the dry steppe turns to green meadow up high. Our destination is Yolyn Am (Mongolian: Ёлын Ам, or Lammergeier Valley.) The Yol, or Lammergeier, is an old-world vulture, resident of high crags in mountains from the Caucasus, to India, Tibet and Mongolia; hence Yolyn Am is often translated to Valley of the Vulture.
We drive in a landscape without fences or roads. Across these limitless fields you can drive on one of a braid of tracks, or not. At the top of a hillock here and there stands a yurt. There is no one about as you drive up. In the far distance there are some sheep or camel, the family is out in the pasture halfway to the horizon, the door of their empty yurt flaps in the steppe wind. If you look carefully, shading your eyes against the sun, on that ridge faraway is a member of the family, silhouetted against the sky on his or her horse, raising their hand high and waving in greeting. They are too far away to hear you, perhaps even see you wave back, though they have doubtless seen the SUV climb up their hills from miles away.
Mr. M has mastered the prayer offering to the chortens that dot Yolyn Am canyon. He goes around thrice each one. One Two Three - Neg Hoyr Gurav in Mongolian. A little stone picked from the ground tossed to the mound, added to the stones of all the other travelers passing through. Occasionally, the superstitious have tucked in some money under the rocks. Mr. M extracts a few small togrog bills from 'Zaya, one goes under the rock and the rest disappear into his pocket.
This area of the Gobi is dry, yet Yolyn Am has a deep ice field from accumulated winter snow for most months of the year. The ice field is several kilometers long, but by the height of summer it is nearly gone, rushing out of the canyon as a meltwater creek that appears suddenly and then vanishes underground.
The vultures sweeping high in the sky seem to be fed on a staple of pikas. The pika is a small Altaic marmot-like creature with short limbs, rounded ears, and no external tail - a member of the family Ochotonidae, within the order of lagomorphs which also includes the Leporidae (rabbits and hares). The name 'pika' is derived from the Tungus. Unfortunately, these otherwise cute animals are supposed to carry the plague, with up to 20% of the burrows of Ochotona mongolica infected in some places, so Mr. M gingerly picks his way through their colonies.
It is about 5 kilometers across the canyon. The steep walls of thick rock are in places a few arm-spans apart, at the bottom of this well it is cold in the shade, even in this late-summer. The 'strictly protected area' at the Vulture's mouth was originally established to protect birdlife - as we walk down the sunless gully, high above us fledgelings are launching themselves from their eyries and learning to fly over the vast nothingness all around this sliver of green.
On the walk back, shy local children who have been trailing us all day approach to bob and smile. Hello! Hello! What's your name? Bayarsaikhan - Joyful Beauty. What is yours?
We go around the last chorten. Neg. Hoyr. Gurav.