Our ‘On The Road Updates’ are short little memories from some of the previous tours we have run. To set the scene for this one, we were driving through the homeland of Chinggis Khan, Khentii Aimag in Mongolia’s north-east, on our Landscapes of the East experience. We had just left the community of Binder, which along with Batshireet and Dadal occupy the territories of the culturally rich and traditional Buriat communities, a minority ethnic group of Mongolia. We stopped for a picnic lunch alongside the banks of the Onon River (during which I wrote this memory) and were roughly 80km from Dadal where we would be spending a few nights camping, making the most of the public shower house and feasting on home-made (but shop bought!) Buriat bread and ‘khaliartai khuushuur’ – both specialties of the Buriat community.
The previous evening we had camped alongside Öglögchiin Kherem (Almsgiver’s Wall). This 3.2km wall is said to date from between the 8th to 10th centuries. Close by, on what is known as the Almsgiver’s Castle, over 60 graves have been discovered – thought to be a royal graveyard. The effort of the labour required to construct the wall suggests that it was a very important site and radiocarbon dating indicates its continued use by the Mongol tribes in the 12th and 13th centuries. There is a (so far unproven) theory that this may include the final resting place of Chinggis Khan although this remains hotly debated.
As we sat around our small campfire, we were discussing those who had been before us – such as the Khitad and the Mongols – and who had built the wall and used this area and the potential reasons as to why. The (almost) September full moon lit up our camp and as the hot water came to the boil and we went to prepare our last mug of tea of the day, we heard the sound of howling wolves echoing across from the opposite forested hillside.
Wolves use howling as a form of communication and maybe they were howling prior to hunting or as a pack to defend their territory. We don’t know, but sitting there under the moonlight by a 1000-year-old wall we felt privileged to be there.
(Of all the wolves’ different calls, howling is the only one that works over great distances. Its low pitch and long duration are well suited for transmission in forest and across the steppe or tundra, and unique features of each individual’s howl allow wolves to identify each other.)