I think I first wanted to go to Mongolia when I was in the fourth grade. I distinctly remember the pictures in the “National Geographic” magazine. Even in black and white photos, I could tell that those gentle rolling hills were green in the summertime. I loved the funny hats and the boots with curved up toes. And I was caught up in the magic of Genghis Khan and his empire. So when I finally made arrangements to go to Mongolia, it was a dream that had been long in the making.
I flew into Beijing and made my way to the Mongolia Air desk. No one was there. Him-m-m, I thought, that’s strange. I had a connection in a few hours. I noticed four young people nearby seated on a pile of hiking gear. They had been there all day for they too had connections. I finally went to the nearby China Air desk. “Oh,” the clerk said, “they often don’t fly. You’ll have to come back tomorrow.”
The young people and I decided, in typical American fashion, to be proactive. We piled into a taxi and went to Mongolia Air headquarters. The receptionist was kind. Perhaps they would fly tomorrow. So the young hikers and I went out to dinner. They were on their way to the western part of Mongolia to join a climbing group. That is they would if they could ever get there.
I decided to take advantage of my forced stay and found a charming old hotel in a nearby village. The next morning, I took a taxi to the airport. Mongolia Air was open and ready for business. There was no explanation for the previous day. It was enough that they would operate today.
I flew into Delangadgad Airport and there met my guide and four women to make up our party.
There’s much to tell, but the Deer Stones were a high point for me as they captured the magic and mystery I had always felt about Mongolia.
The stones are located in a broad, short-grass valley rimmed by the mountains of north-central Mongolia called Ushkin Uver, Lung Mountain, for the peaks resemble a sheep’s lung. There, in the middle of nowhere stand a group of monoliths, the Deer Stones. They’re about eight feet tall, probably 3,000 years old, erected by unknown people, and no one knows what they mean. They’re covered with strange hybrid hoofed mammals with antlers and duck-bill snouts. Each stone also has many circles, probably representing the sun. They’re “fenced” in by a ring of small stones that surround the area. (I saw a lot of these stone “fences” and wondered at the psychological power they seemed to hold, for I never crossed one.)
As far as the eye could see was nothing but sand, rock and sky.
And then two boys came riding up on ponies.
They rode over to Baatar (our guide). “What are you doing with our stones?” they asked. Baatar promised we would not damage anything. The boys waited until we were finished with our picture taking. Only as we got back into our jeep, did they ride away.
Where had they come from? How had they known we were there? Over and over I was presented with this mystery. We often passed a gathering of people. I know some had cell phones, but they’ve been doing this for centuries, gathering at some barren spot to exchange gossip, barter, refresh friendships.
Whenever we stopped, kids rode up on ponies and camels. I asked Baatar what they said. He smiled. It was a Mongolian version of “what’s up?”
I hope no one ever figures out what the Deer Stones are. I love the idea that in the middle of the Gobi desert, are some beautiful stones tying a mysterious past to our today. I’m so grateful that I was able to stand in their midst, in awe and wonder of a people who had lived here long ago and who’d left a calling card for me. We passed this way they seem to say. Welcome and good travels.