MONGOLIA’S ALTAI MOUNTAINS:

By on September 1, 2011 in Adventure, Asia, Culture, Mongolia, Photography, Travel

Hidden from the World

For centuries concealed by nature and distance, a slice of the Altai Mountains can be found in the far northwest corner of Mongolia. Rising in Siberia, Mongolia’s neighbor to the north, the massive range traverses Mongolia’s pristine Altai Sayan EcoRegion, considered by many to be the last true wilderness on Earth, touching the edges of Kazakhstan and China, and finally leveling off and disappearing to the southeast, in Mongolia’s vast Gobi Desert. Craggy and crested by eternal snow and glaciers, the high Altai mark the exact point where Russia, China and Mongolia all meet.

Incredibly, the Mongolian Altai were hardly known to the outside world until the late 19th Century; and it was only in 1905 that they were first charted in depth – when V.V. Sapozhnikov, one of Russia’s most accomplished explorers, embarked on his historic journey there. With help from Sapozhnikov’s pioneering mapping efforts,the high Mongolian Altai were finally accurately mapped in the West in 1942, by the National Geographic Society.

Stone Men

In 2006, a mere 64 years later, while scouting their Mongolian Solar Eclipse expedition, Tusker Trail owners, Eddie & Amy Frank, decided to finally explore the Mongolian Altai for themselves.   Aided by local Kazhak guides, what they found astonished them: glaciated peaks of breathtaking purity; shimmering blue lakes; rivers running white as milk; enormous stoney valleys, grassy basins, and high plateaus laced with the remains of ancient glaciers and massive inland seas – the product of tectonic forces shaping Central Asia to this day.

As much as the craggy beauty of the Altai’s pristine peaks, what impressed Eddie & Amy were the archaeological treasures from Mongolia’s long history of nomadic cultures and empires — treasures, they soon learned, about which few people would know: enormous and elaborate burial mounds, both round and square (khirigsuur); stone altars in rows from north to south; Turkic funerary enclosures; massive stone altars; beautifully carved image stones honoring long-perished men; and exquisite rock-pecked imagery (petroglyphs) providing a stunning pictorial record of prehistory.

These were artifacts from an age spanning more than 12,000 years, beginning in the Palaeolithic Period, with its cold dry steppe and megafauna; continuing across the Bronze Age, when semi-nomadic hunters and herders raised giant stone columns and massive mounds; through the Late Bronze and Early Iron Ages, sometimes called the Scythian Period, with the beginning of horse riding and the migrations of peoples across the steppe; and ending, most recently, with the period of the Türks (about 1,300 years ago) who mastered iron working, spread empire across Eurasia, and created solemn image stones in the likeness of warriors—memorials perhaps, marking their valleys with their authority for generations to come.

A Future Glimpsed Through the Past

The significance of the ancient objects Eddie & Amy had seen didn’t quite register until, by chance, on a long flight home, they met Esther Jacobson-Tepfer, and her husband Gary Tepfer. Professor Emeritus at the University of Oregon and an art historian by training, Dr. Jacobson-Tepfer would turn out to be a leading expert on the ancient art and archaeology of the Mongolian Altai. With Gary, a world-class photographer specializing in people, art and landscape, and a team of Russian and Mongolian scholars, Esther had worked in the Altai Mountains for the past 20 years.

A glimpse of Eddie & Amy’s future – through the distant past – had been revealed to them. Here were two experts on the very Mongolian Altai rock art and monuments they had witnessed; and UNESCO was soon to inscribe three of Esther & Gary’s petroglyphic complexes – some of the largest and finest rock art concentrations in all of North Asia – into its list of World Heritage Sites.

It was just a matter of time before they would team up to create a once-in-a-lifetime journey.

New Tusker Trip: The Newest World Heritage Site

That time is here. Tusker Trail’s newest offering, The Mongolian Altai: Ancient Culture, Landscape and Photography Workshop, is a two-week adventure designed to explore this rarely-seen landscape and the ancient nomads’ profound relationship to it – as revealed by their extensive rock art and countless stone monuments. It’s a journey through a cultural and geographic prehistory, the map etched for eons in stone.

Using four different base camps in the Altai Sayan EcoRegion, Eddie & Amy will outfit and lead the expedition on land, a combination of hiking and overlanding. And Esther Jacobson-Tepfer—one of the world’s leading experts on ancient Mongolian nomadic cultures and their archaeology—will lead the expedition “back through time”, sharing her vast knowledge, not in a museum or a library or online, but at the very sites of these creations. There could be no more authentic way to re-animate the hidden world of Mongolian Altai prehistory.

On board as the expedition’s photography expert and instructor, Esther’s husband, Gary, a professional photographer since 1976, will be imparting his extensive knowledge of multiple format landscape, people, and art photography. His guidance will ensure that this stunning and profound record, inscribed in petroglyphs and monuments for all time, will be immortalized by participants’ cameras as well.

The Ancient World Comes to Life

In their exquisitely detailed new atlas, Archaeology and Landscape in the Mongolian Altai, developed with geographer Jim Meacham, Esther comments on the paradox of a land that seems initially so barren, but in truth yields so many hidden archaeological treasures. “The empty landscape”, she writes, seemingly passed over or abandoned, “begins to reflect life and movement”.

To gaze at the petroglyphs is to see history drawn in the hand of the ancients, a story of populations whose societies, rooted in the landscape, shifted over time. Early Bronze Age people, origins unknown, were hunting large animals like elk, bear and wild yak. As the environment became dryer and cooler, and lake levels fell and forests retreated, giving way to dry steppe, local populations started herding cattle, horses and sheep, forging a nomadic way of life that endures in Mongolia to this day.

Centuries later, in the Iron Age, with the ever expanding dry steppe land, the nomads became fully horse-dependent herders, hunters and warriors. Like their Bronze Age forebears, their origins and eventual fate would be lost to history, but as almost any Mongolian can demonstrate, the tradition of the horse in the life of the nomads survived the centuries.

Amazingly, all these societal transformations were captured in the rock art, some of it stylized with a keen sense of grace, delight and whimsy.   Yet, mysteriously, after the Turkic period (about 1,000 years ago), the decoration of rock surfaces comes to a halt. In an exit as dramatic as any of these images, the artists and the cultures they depicted recede forever from view.

Gazing at the petroglyphs in the same valleys and steppes where these ancient people roamed offers up a tantalizing glimpse of real, if anonymous individuals from a deep past.   The rock art gives us a vivid sense of how they looked, survived, and lived: there’s the rider on a fast horse; a family caravan moving from one pasture to another; a man on skis; the hunter with an animal head hood and a quiver of arrows drawing a recurved bow; and warriors with elaborate head-dresses and weapons, indomitable and fierce – all as clear as if rendered by a 9-megapixel camera of their day.

Monuments Within Space

Early in her research, Ms. Jacobson-Tepfer started to sense a relationship between the scattered stone monuments she was seeing, and the landscape itself. With assistance from Jim Meacham, a geography and mapping expert at the University of Oregon, an extraordinary pattern would emerge, enabling her to grasp the deeper connection: the ancients had placed these surface objects in a manner that was far from random.

In fact, each monument would turn out to be inseparable from, and only meaningful in, the vast natural space in which it appeared. None could be regarded as separate from the landscape, like the historic statues, long-removed from temples and villas, standing lifeless and inert, in a museum. On the contrary, these prehistoric stone monuments were designed to be part of the landscape, to accentuate and comment on it – at once hidden, and with the proper orientation, easy to see.

While the petroglyphs can be taken as snapshots frozen in time, telling a story of ancient events, animals and people, the monuments, wedded to the landscape, remain fixed in both past and present. The nomads who erected them, like their modern-day counterparts, lived at the mercy of Mongolia’s extreme seasonal hot and cold, and so were continually on the move.   And perhaps because of this constant movement, they felt compelled to leave behind a part of themselves in the landscape, permanent markers by which seasonally they would not only orient themselves, but to which they could also return. These stone mounds, burials, and standing stones—mute remnants of prehistory, are there to this day, beckoning, and ever so still — markers of time past and bereft of meaning.

A Viewer’s Gaze

Imposing, impressive, yet dwarfed by the vast, empty space around, there are hundreds if not thousands of these Bronze and Iron Age monuments in the Mongolian Altai. Some point in directions of sacred mountains or rivers, others from a later time, to the cardinal directions, most importantly to the east.   As the monuments would direct an ancient viewer’s gaze from the near to the infinite, from the hidden to the seen, so they direct our attention today. Of the nomadic people who created them, much intrigue remains, yet so little is known.   We can only imagine the monuments’ purpose and speculate on who their prehistoric sculptors may have been.

The petroglyphs help with that speculation. Expressing the desire of ancient Altai nomads to represent their world in images, they evoke long-ago millennia with impressive realism. And yet, in continually reminding us that they are rooted in a past that cannot be known, depending on the time of year and the sun’s angle, the images may stand out clearly, or disappear before our very eyes. There for all of time, but cloaked, forever, in mystery.

It is for us to complete the story.

Tusker Trail’s Mongolian Altai: Ancient Culture, Landscape & Photography Workshop, the first of its kind, will explore the newest World Heritage Site, and departs in July 2012. 

Explore the Final Frontier with Tusker Trail

This is the first in a 3-part series on the Mongolian Altai.

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