In Search of Water in the Mongolian Desert

Day Two was our main day of travel from the US to China -a 14 hour lay-over in Tokyo, and 3.5 hours to Beijing. We landed in Beijing.  We stayed at the Jiuanto Garden Hotel.  We were exhausted.  We checked in without incident.  While standing in the dark, we quickly learned that we needed to leave our door card in an electrical pocket at the door to operate the lights.  This seemed peculiar, but when in Rome…

Day three.  We moved to a second hotel.  This was a Huotong.  We traveled on foot as none of the taxis wanted to take our large duffle bags for such a short distance.  I didn’t mind.  I was glad to walk.  Eric was less enthusiastic as his dolly was not built for it.  The total trip was about 15 blocks.  We got to see a little of the city and some of the “old city”

The weathered and shopworn Huotong was ranked the second or third best hotel in the entire city of Beijing.  It was half again as expensive as the Hyatt that had a grand entranceway, with a breakfast dining area and another complete restaurant area.  The room was so-so.

On the other hand, the Huotong was already being revered as a relic in a city that was remaking itself by cannibalizing its culture.

Gleaming steel and glass were growing at the rate of Chia pets on every block.  Huotongs were old style hotels with terra cotta roofs, fostered a pagoda style roof and internal court yards offering solace and acting as a sanctuary from the din of the Chinese work day beyond its walls.  And yet, somehow the mystic fell short of its billing.  The rooms were Spartan and the magic never came or perhaps, it had left with its ancestral occupants.

Today is a national holiday.  We decided to get our fair share of abuse and join the hordes (should I describe as undulating throngs) and headed to the Forbidden City. Thousands of locals were literally pressed buttocks to bellybutton to buttocks and wave-pressed us forward in what for Eric and I was completely foreign and a bit unnerving.

This incredible city hosted only the royal emperors, their families, and their servants.  There were 24 emperors of the Ming and Qing Dynasties.  Here we got audio headsets that worked only periodically or belatedly at best.  But the series of large palace type buildings were most impressive with burnt orange terra cotta roofs and defended by eleven gargoyles at the point of each roof where they joined.

There were huge iron jugs about one meter across and in height.  They were balanced on two large stones which were set apart at a distance of about two feet allowing access at the base.  The jugs held water that was used to fight fires.  I presume this was the core piece in a bucket brigade. The jugs numbered in the hundreds, and were each gilded with several layers of gold.  During the Boxer Rebellion, the raiders scraped every speck of gold off of the surfaces.

There was a moat surrounding the Forbidden City where the outer walls rose 30 feet into the glimmering Chinese sky and which displayed gun turrets every ten feet.  From here, we continued as part of the wall-to-wall horde of robotically linked humanity (100,000+) to our next destination, Tiananmen Square.  Here we took pictures of two revolutionary statutes of hardened agrarian and industrial workers wielding hammers and cycles with Moa Te Tung’s image most prominent.  His mausoleum itself was closed.  It was rumored that there was fear that the “masses” of humanity might carry him away on their shoulders on this national holiday.  We vowed to return another day.

Fourth Day– Great Wall of China.  This day began at 5:00 a.m.  We got picked up at 6:00 a.m. and rode buses until 11:00 a.m.  You can access the Wall from a cable car in just 14 minutes or take a two hour hike, then return to the cable and drop off point, then hike two more hours to Simitar, which is what we did.

The Wall was in various states of repair and disrepair.  In some places it was in such disrepair that it was almost dangerous.  While the wall only rose 30 feet, it was built of individual, mostly hand carried stones, placed upon the ridge of mountains with severe drops in some places. The Great wall is actually a compilation of scores of separate walls that weave across the face of China with some connecting in a line and other spurs that strike out on their own.

There were “Watch Towers” every few hundred yards.  Some were intact and some were gone.  While the Wall was entirely in China, there had been encroachment and fierce attacks for centuries by the Mongolians on the one side.  The Chinese held the wall and the land on the other side.  This let the “greeters” climb onto the wall,  point to one side and declare, “China” and then point to the other side and declare, ”Mongolia.”  The greeters were local people who cheerfully approached each person, asked everyone, where are they were from and then attempted to sell us either cold beer, water, or sodas.  They went on to promote calendars and picture albums.

The sun was hot.  While there were only 39 of us in our group, two other groups had combined with us.  This meant that every time you reached a Watch Tower and a patch of shade, you were greeted with cigarette smoke, and someone hocking something and little to no shade.

At the end of the excursion there was an opportunity to cross a 60 foot cable bridge if you could pay 5 yuans.  I was so relieved to find exactly 5 yuans in the deep corner of my left front pocket.  The alternative was a 5 mile hike in the opposite direction.

Finally there was an opportunity to cinch up to a harness and then connect to a cable that sailed you down across a narrow river 400 yards to a boat dock where one landed, disconnected and took a short boat ride to another landing where we could be picked up and taken to a cafeteria style lunch.  We chose to walk instead.  The food tasted just as good.

The next day we visited the Temple of Heaven.  We found the architectural flavor to be similar in many ways to that of the Forbidden City with great multicolored pagoda style palaces, and again with animals on the tips of their winged roofs.

We made a second trip to Tiananmen Square in hopes of seeing Chairman Mao.  No luck, that night Eric treated us to Peking/Beijing Duck- Liqua Roast Duck restaurant No. 11 Beixiang Feng, Zhengyi. We stood for half an hour in a dimly lit, claustrophobically narrow hallway covered on both sides with “celebrity photos” of past patrons who were mostly military officers striking both jocular and stern poses. The hallway telescoped sounds of laughter, intermittent shouts clanking plates, glasses and silver, The hall way opened two tiered standing room only eating area with a raucous group of very lively patrons. We were treated to unpainted, rickety wooden chairs with so little room that as more chairs and two-patron tables were added constantly, we ended up eating in continuous seating with a dozen new found friends.  What a treat!  Oh yes and the duck was not at all greasy and very succulent.

Following a 1/2 day of rain we headed to the airport for Yinchon.  I was repeatedly passed through the metal detector three times, each time needing to repack my bag.  First, I was relieved of my needle nose pliers, then my mustache scissors, and on the third go they spotted two Ninja death weapons on the fluoroscope.  I had to again empty the contents of my bag.  We all had a good group laugh when I finally extracted the “weapons” and they realized that they were actually Chinese paint brushes, gifts for my daughter Colleen.

The Yinchan Airport was not much bigger than the one in East McKeesport, PA.  As we gathered our belongings and exited the building, we were immediately seemingly surrounded by a group of smiling, laughing, jovial faces.  It was Dr./Professor Gu and his staff, Zen and Sheng.  The Professor kept calling my name “Reechard,” while reaching for my bags and patting me on the back the entire time.  I never felt so welcomed in my entire life.

Eric and I were hustled to a 14 seat, bright pink bus.

We were taken to our hotel where over the next few hours we would get to meet and know our fellow trackers.

First was Roger and Mary.  Roger was a retired, widowed Brit, six inches taller than Eric and of constant good cheer.  Mary, from NY, was short, round and distinctively Japanese looking.  Mary was the most prepared, most researched person on the trip.  Roger was always ready to carry on be it another beer or another beer.

Next, we met Ellen and George.  Ellen was of Chinese descent, perhaps 5 feet tall, spoke three languages, and had lived in Brazil her entire life.  She led an Earth Watch Expedition there and studied snakes.  George was also a widower.  He was slight of build and perhaps 5’10”.  George was very funny, quick with a quip and, oh, yes, 80 years old!  His age and seeming frailty concerned us all …including younger who doted on him.  His wife had died two-three years before, and he has more or less been traveling from Earth Watch Expedition to expedition ever since.

Tarik- from Yokahoma, Japan, seasoned traveler, 6′, great laugh, throws his head and torso back when he laughs with open mouth, closed eyes, and full abandonment.

Sam- A strapping big girl from Liverpool, great accent, 6′ joined last, plane problems, black patch of discolored skin over right temple of right eye, birth mark of some kind.  Also a good laugher, ready to party on.

We started off in a God forsaken city in Mongolia.  We had a huge noonday meal of dumplings at a round table that seated us all with a huge “Lazy Susan” in the center.  After I had eaten 15+ lamb and vegetable dumplings and consumed seven to eight small glasses of the local beer (no joke – we all did), Dr. Gu cleared the table and began to speak.  He spoke magically for over 3 hours.  We heard tales of water and sand sea (Badain Jaran Shama).

 Saturday 11/1/07

This is the major question before us.  What is the source of the water beneath the sand sea?  Bodain Jurin Desert, BJD (the Gobi desert). Dr. Gu believes that dams in arid and dry desert areas are bad because by damming the water one does not let the water recharge the lower basin area. Refer to Paper:  Groundwater recharge rates to the Badain Jarin Desert; BJD:  Preliminary Results from Environmental Tracer Studies.

The BJD lies near the center of the Alxa plateau in western Inner Mongolia 39°20N to 41°30N and 100°E to 104°E.  It spans the region bounded by the Longshou mountains (elevation 1963 m above sea level) to the south, the Yabulai mountains (elevation 1957 m above sea level, asl) to the southeast and the lowlands area of the Gurinai grassland and the Guezi Hu wetlands (about 1000 m asl) to the west and north.  Area:  4900 Km2.  It is the 2nd largest desert in China.  Dunes: over 400 meters in height.  What?!?  Really !?

* Conclusion

Stable isotope ratios indicate that the lakes are fed by shallow groundwater, which is not related to local precipitation and most likely is palaeowater in origin, and therefore non-renewable on human timescales. Major ion chemistry of the ground waters is consistent with this hypothesis though high spatial variability complicates interpretation.

The geographical sources of the palaeo-water cannot be identified yet but possibilities include:  1) direct recharge under more humid conditions, 2) run off from the Yabulai Mountains, and 3) waters from the Qilan Mountains/Tibetan Plateaus by inter-basin flow through fault systems.  Research activities currently in progress (us!) including radioisotopes and ground water modeling will help to refine this conceptual model. A clear understanding of the regions hydrological systems will be valuable information for water resources planning and environmental protection goals.  (i.e. should we use dams in dry and arid areas where we can’t recharge the area on human time scales?)

Sunday 11/1/07

Last night we had another group dinner.  This time it was called a “hotpot.” We sat shoulder-to- shoulder around a large table approximately 15′ square with a heating/cooking element in the center,. This is Mongolian style where you have a large center cooking pot with a divider down the middle of the pot separating base spices on the left from hot spices on the right.  This is a traditional Mongolian group dinner. Everyone adds strips of lamb, vegetables and spices while others remain poised with a bowl in one hand and chop sticks in the other anxious to refill their bowl as the ingredients simmer and steam away. Great fun!  This is a really zesty interactive meal where we are constantly cooking, eating, elbowing, laughing and cajoling one another about the day’s activities.

Spring 1: Tatallah

For three hours we were hurled though the desert by jeep at breakneck speed.  Three jeeps zigzagged over and between dunes that would leave us momentarily teetering on the top of a dune over and over again only to dive 20′ down at a 60° to 70° angle in bone rattling drops.

At one point, we took flight across a dune only to plant the jeep nose down into the sand.  It took a pretty good effort by all of us (eight volunteers, Dr. Gu and three drivers) to dig out.  We had a few minor dig outs, but finally arrived, jeep weary, with head lumps galore.  I cracked my head three separate times on the rear window during this trip.

At last, our first spring.  I scoured the area of interest very excitedly and located three “sources” and reported my findings to Dr. Gu.

I had three people stand with their arms outstretched, at the spring heads.

We took water samples where the three spring heads came together.  We conducted Carbon 14 testing and conducted tests on O2 levels of Ph, Eh and Elevation using GPS, etc.

We did not stay long and headed to a Mongolian home.  It had a watering well and we repeated the gathering and testing of water.  We were then invited into the Mongolian’s communal yurt.  Their family consisted of the husband, wife and small boy, age six.  Plats of camel hair blankets 1/2” thick cream in color 5′ by 8′ in size, layered a round building that was 15′ in diameter and 8′ in height.  It had a conical roof of similar material.

We were given tea and round, lightly fried breads that reminded both Eric and I of Bannock from Canada. We were ravenous and wanted to linger longer, but we were concerned about being caught in the desert after dark.  The terrain sustained the jeeps’ weight because the water content was high which allowed us to speed across it quickly.  There was also small scrub vegetation that helped to sustain the surface tension.

Racing against darkness, we stopped when it became clear that the third jeep become separated from us.  After 1/2 an hour, the two drivers loaded into a single jeep and headed back in search of Dr. Gu and the third jeep.

Fifteen minutes after the search jeep set out, Dr. Gu returned saying that he has been to another well and needs photos.  Sam (Samantha) and I hop into the jeep and she with her camera, and I with my headlamp, set out to photograph the well.  It is pitch black by then and the lamp is required.  It is a deep well about 10′ and 3′ in diameter. Within the well, there is an ingress and egress pipe about 10” in diameter each.  The water is fresh and the flow is strong.

When we returned to the group, the second jeep has also returned and we all head back to the Lamacery.

*While writing this entry, Dr. Gu has just come up to me, put both hands on my shoulders and said, “Hopefully, you can come every year, and we can climb high into the mountains.”  This has pleased me greatly because regardless of his level of sincerity, he has paid me a great compliment.

That night Dr. Gu tells me he wants me to put together a “team” to climb a mountain the next day and take measurements of a spring.  Six people express interest in going.  I decide that we should draw straws for the four Jeep seats.  All agreed.  We drew straws.  Tahka is not there so Dr. Gu draws for him.  He draws a long straw.  By tradition, the last straw is mine…the short straw.  Minor pandemonium breaks out as everyone starts talking at once.  Eric insists that I go in his place, and someone else calls for a “do-over.”  I refused.  I told Eric that he has to abide by the rules.  He is generous to a fault. He says he doesn’t care, he isn’t going.  I take final word.  “The deal is done, the draw stands,” I reply.  We go to sleep unsettled.

In the morning, I catch Eric outside, so we can just talk about the situation.  He states his position.  He wants me to go because he knows how much it means to me and feels that I am a definite asset to the project.  “You should go,” he asserts.

After he has his say I tell him that “In my world one don’t change the rules in midstream.”  I told him, “If there is one thing I’ve learned in life, if you want someone to follow you then you must have trust.”  “If we were to open the draw, we would betray the trust,” I tell him.  I ask him to please go along with me and honor the process.  Grudgingly he agrees.  I ask him to respect the “luck of the draw,” if queried.  He again agrees.  It is settled Eric is to go, and I’m to stay.

As we are being briefed by Dr. Gu, (he does not realize the situation) he continues to tell me what he wants done, so I begin to delegate tasks.  Then he starts to describe the climb up to the spring.  To say the least, it is not a gentle walk up a pathway.  It’s now being described as something much more severe , lasting three hours and going up the side of these very intimidating mountains loaded with dangerous scree. The scree that I refer to is small pieces of loose, fractured rock where moisture has found its way into the base rock and through repeated freeze thaw, freeze thaw action has left a very dangerous layer of slippery rock chips. This creates a very disconcerting condition which intensifies as the angle of the climb increases.  Eric starts to express doubts.  He mentions another climb he was on and how it turned into an extreme ordeal.  The more the climb is described, the more Eric expresses first concern, and then trepidation.  I hear a true anxiety growing in his voice.  Quietly, I ask him if he’d rather “sit this one out?”  He says, “Yes, I’m not anxious to go on that kind of climb.”  As he is saying this, I am reaching out and gently retrieving the data recording sheet from him.  Sam quietly asks, “Richard, will you be going then?  I answer in the affirmative and tell her “I’ll just get my gear and we’ll be off.”

With a wave and a “so-bah” (we go!) we’re off.

We take the one jeep, two drivers, the two Mongolians, Roger, Tahka, Sam, and I all squeeze in.  We arrive at the base of the mountain, square our gear, look up, then up, and up, swallow hard and head out. Within minutes, we are climbing with two hands.  (It was my recollection that Dr. Gu said we would not do that for the entire “walk.”)  I’m thinking Eric had a much better sense of this than any of the rest of us.

The mountain is some kind of slate with copious amounts of scree.  This is because the core rock is so friable.  Roger, former veterinarian, who is taller and weighs more than Eric, is leaving crushed rock with every other step.  At the same time, we are climbing with three goats who had posed as the two Mongolians and our driver, Zhen.

We stopped at various times to rest and catch our collective breaths.  We said the air was thin and that was the reason for the deep breathing, but I suspect otherwise.  In any event, none of it affected our “goats” who took every opportunity to smoke cigarettes along the way.  Each time we stopped we rested on a slant of considerable intensity perhaps 50° angles  (These were the “flats”).  The panoramic view was 180 degrees looking down 1,000 meters to the desert floor that spilled out into a sea.  (Dr. Gu said that it had a high salinity content but less than that of the Atlantic or Pacific.)   This view was spectacular, if not a little intimidating.

We escaped falling rock of our own making and crested a ridge 3/4 of the way up the mountain.  Here the terrain changed and we started climbing over small boulders for a short period of time until we reached a tree and our destination. This was spring #4.  There in front of us was a cluster of grass.  Really it was little more than a “clump” of grass about 2 meters (200 cm) in length and perhaps 40 cm in width.  Filling most of the center of the grass patch was a clear, fresh pool of sparkling water.  After breathing in the moment of triumph and soaking in one of the most spectacular views I’ve ever seen, we set out to fulfill our task.  The air was cool and we needed to record the general air temperature quickly for we were in a small rock enclave.  Our body temperatures would affect it as would the small worship fire that was set in the crack of a rock by one of the Mongolians.

We took water samples and tasted and smelled it for its purity.  It was dry, but fresh and clean.  Pictures all around, first the site and then of all of us.  Then so-bah “we go”, and we were off again.

The way down was a bit slippery with all the scree.  Roger lost footing and gave his ankle a bit of a turn that may actually have slightly torn his Achilles tendon.  Zhen stayed close to Roger and brought him down off the mountain.

The climb had been quite steep and most unnerving.  Not only did I not blame Mary and Eric for their feelings of trepidation, I shared those feelings while in the middle of the climb.  I easily imagined slipping then sliding then bouncing to one’s death.  I felt we were lucky to escape with our samples and our findings.  When I had reached the spring however, I must say I felt a real sense of accomplishment- something that I had not felt in many years to that same degree.

When we assembled at the base it was lunch time and we were very glad (and hungry) to be headed back. However, Zhen had other ideas!  He took us to a second spring that appeared from a distance to be about a 100 meters of walking.  However, this seemed like a lot as we were very hungry, tired and emotionally drained from fear of sliding off the last mountain.

We picked our way forward and up into a commanding canyon.  Its sides went straight up and the width ranged from 20 meters to 30 meters.  The walls were pocked and I call commenting that it would be an awesome night scene (something out of Close Encounters) to see large candles placed in each of the pock like openings.

Unlike the fourth spring, or the morning climb, this was not so much up as it was over small boulders and around repeated hard turns.  We constantly crossed a creek that also wound its way up the canyon.  The water was very cool and joyously fresh.  However, there were a few pools that had formed and become isolated from the main body of water.  Some of these had formed bright green algae.  Potential dinner no doubt.

At one point, feeling near exhaustion, I asked Zhen “how far?”  His response was “two kilometers!”  My heart sank!  We pressed on but even before this, Roger had taken himself out of the trek and headed back.  No one blamed him.

We turned a corner and Zhen called out “source!”  The water had dived under the west wall and run along its base.  You could hear the water babbling beneath it.  What a relief!  But just to be 100 percent sure, I climbed over some additional rocks and traversed the area behind the “source.”  To my dismay, and the chagrin of Zhen, it was not the source…only a pretty effect.  I called out, “Not the source” in the direction of Zhen who was busily mixing the sweet air with the smoke from a newly lit cigarette.  I pressed on.

Finally, the rocks had become small boulders were now full blown boulders many meters in every direction.  Then I saw it and I instantly knew it was the “source.”  Twin blue green pools of clear, gently vibrating water.  Upon closer examination, it became clear that the pool on the right was feeding the pool on the left.  Sam and Taka caught up and concurred with my assertions…the pool on the right was the “source” of the spring.  We took measurements and samples.  I then climbed well behind it to ensure that it was the actual “source.”  We convinced ourselves of its authenticity.  NAs far as we knew, no scientific team had ever before been there and recorded its existence so Zhen offered “Big Stone Brook” as a name and we all agreed.  The feelings of accomplishment that goes with this experience is tremendous and hard to describe.  At that moment, I felt like a member of an Earth Watch Team that was taking an active role in making specific steps to save the planet.

We headed back to camp and reported our findings.  We shared a communal meal around 3:30 p.m. at what seemed to be a table of great ceremony in the center of the monastery court yard.  In fact, it was just a rickety old wooden table that allowed us to share food, each other, and our reflections of the morning.  We proudly passed the instruments to the other team.  They then headed toward a well that I had noticed previously and reported to Dr Gu.  I had told Dr Gu that I had observed an increased temperature emanating from the of the water and suggested the possibility of thermal activity.

After eating the most delicious lunch, (“No sauce like hunger” my grandmother Ethel McHattan used to say), we joined our friends.

Dr. Gu confirmed an increase of temperature with the instruments, but said that additional tests and instruments would be necessary if we were to be able to confirm thermal activity.  This will happen on the next trip (if there is one).

That afternoon, we explored two more springs. One I had located which was but a trickle but did end in a clear pool of water and one that Eric had located that had a very significant flow of water.  Both would have to be thoroughly investigated and the source found and then tested next trip.  Eric’s water was dubbed the Fischer River by the group.  That night we ate dinner and drank a considerable amount of Chinese liquor at the Lamasery.  The drinking began when we were all sitting around the table in our hooch. Zhen came to the living area and summoned me to follow him.  Clueless but obligingly, I followed.  He took me through the courtyard where the moon glowed wonderfully and into a room full of raucous monks all singing traditional songs and glowing a bit themselves. I was welcomed with a loud long, “Reechard” from Dr Gu.

The monks each take turns toasting the group and presenting a thimble full of Chinese liquor that each of us would receive by standing up and first saluting the room, its occupants, God, and our host for the moment.  This continued for at least two hours where we drank endless shots of liquor in rapid succession interspersed only briefly with a traditional song.  The Brits sang British songs.  I sang, “I want a girl just like the girl that married dear old Dad.”  Collectively we sang, “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” in rounds and generally had a raucous good time, which included a bout of “Onward Christian Soldiers.”  Clearly, we were too intoxicated to ponder the implications of its meaning and rather sang for its strength of tone.  Again, the Mongolian’s sang endless traditional songs many of which sounded like American Indian Chants.

We woke in the morning having emptied half a dozen bottles of liquor or more and miraculously there was not a hangover among us.  We packed our gear and took group photos with the monks and exchanged gifts all around.

A wave goodbye and we left the Lamasery forever as we set out to find new jeep drivers to carry us further into the desert.  We met up with the new drivers and joined them for lunch, then transferred all of our gear from the bus to the three jeeps.  We then entered the desert again and for the first time, headed out into the “mega” dunes.  These drivers were practiced on reading the dunes and anticipating potentially jaw-shattering drops. However, this tended to make them a bit reckless.  At one point while reaching back to try and stop an avalanche of gear from crashing forward, the jeep lunged 80 degrees straight down.  I slammed forward and heard and felt something give in my left knee.

It is now two days later and I am still dramatically limited in my activities.  Luckily for me, we are basically doing down time in an oasis of the desert.  The name of the place is Nuertu.  There are several huts, buildings, a kitchen, a screened in eating area, and a communal/activity/eating/bar room.  There is a beautiful garden here full of flowers attracting butterflies and sparrows that race from one length of the garden to the other and back again and again and again in delirious flights of ecstasy.  There are goats and sheep in pens, and there are sheep skins hanging from overhead hooks in the process of being tanned.  There is a rooster and some chickens.  The lake at the center of all this activity sits behind us and stretches 3/4 of a kilometer parallel to our encampment.  It is 1/3 again as wide as its length.  There are ducks and geese that inhabit the lake.  It is surrounded by reeds and thin trees.

The dunes on the northwest side of the lake are reflected in the water along with the image of the few hundred trees that skirt the lake.  The result is one that would please Monet.

Last night, 10/11/07, Dr. Gu gave us another incredible three hour lecture on the Gobi Desert, Chinese evolution of Dynasties and Desertification of the Black City.

Apparently the Black River has been dammed to the South.  It flows to the north a good distance.  However, a channel in the shape of a U has been created along its entire length as a way of providing irrigation water along the way.  Dr. Gu feels the water is poorly managed and that the channel is an environmental nightmare as it allows for gross surface evaporation.  He feels that the mountains to the north feed that basin. Together this, and the Black River, feed an area called “Lady’s Fan”. He asserts that the water needs to be left alone in order for it to recharge the area.  Dr. Gu feels that the source of the (Badain Jaran Desert) Gobi (rock) desert to the east could be as far away as Tibet.   Dr. Gu contends that local rainfall appears to fail to account for the existing water levels of the lakes.  China in an effort to irrigate unutilized land is making many dams from Tibet to Beijing.  But, in so doing, water is then taken out without recharging the feeding source.  Note. 1/3 of China is fed by inland lakes.  These are finite lakes that are fed from within.  They are found in arid and semiarid areas.  There are no water outflows. This is significant.

Mega dunes (Qomo Langma Desert Mounts) in the Gobi Desert may be as high as 300-500 meters.  How is it possible?  What holds them up?  There is strong evidence that these are not shifting sands but rather these dunes have been in existence as they stand for a considerable period of time.  In fact, there are bushes that have been found in the mega dunes.  These bushes are now petrified.  They have been carbon dated and found to be 7,000 years old and standing in the upright position.  This would seem to indicate that the dunes themselves may also be 7,000 years old.

Other evidence that indicates longevity of some degree is that there is vegetation growing on the outside of the dunes.  Obviously, the dunes must remain stationary over a period of time in order for desert bushes to grow and flourish.

The surface bushes also indicate that there is a measurable amount of water in the dunes.


Dr. Gu believes that the reason that these mega dunes (the highest known sand dunes on earth) are so high is because water may hold them up through capillary action.  Water can be found in the dunes at levels of two meters and even less.  Again Dr. Gu says that it may be possible that this water may be deep-source, deep-circulation water that comes as far away as Tibet!  This would be a very important discovery.  He believes that there may be many sources (many fathers) of the water.  There are 144 pearl-like lakes “scattered among the dunes.


Yesterday, the team (minus myself- my knee and I were resting as much as possible for the upcoming camel ride and dune climb) had a 2 1/2 hour “walk about” around the lake.  Their job was to “observe.”  They found no springs but did note the water was indeed salty and contained salt water shrimp.

Today, 10/13/07, we inflated two rafts one of which we left behind due to leakage and split into two teams to observe the lake from the boat.

Our team, George, Eric, and I found only calcified reeds, and gelatinous material attached to the bottom of the lake with a bright 1/8” purple stripe 3/4 of the way up its 4” height running in a parallel fashion to the lake floor.  I found the water to be so salty that when my hand dried, it left it white with brine.

Roger, Sam Mary and Taka went to the island at the far end of the lake.  There they found the “Calcified Island.”

Out of the island flowed spring water!

A film crew from CCCTV arrived to film Earth Watch “in action.”

Apparently this did not go well a year ago when “30” cameras startled the Earth Watch team and two Germans in particular.  The Earth Watch team apparently felt “invaded” and started “screaming” at the camera people to “stop filming.”  This did not help Dr. Gu or Earth Watch so he has asked for our cooperation.  We have assured him that we will be receptive to the camera crew.

The camera crew occupied a separate boat so they could film Roger, Ellen, and Sam as they returned to the small Lake Island and took water samples.  I’m off to have a look.  There was nothing to see just hours of filmmaking that made for boring and hard work.

That night there was a “Banquet.”  There is an ecological group that is promoting Desert herbs as the cure-all for anything and everything.  The promoters saw this as a way of gaining general conservation interest in the desert, while making a buck.  The compound where we are staying seems to be owned and run by these people.  Their group (company) is called Ba Dan Ji Bin.  It was founded in 2005.  The CEO is here and meeting with Dr. Gu who is working to negotiate our daily rental rate at somewhere between $5.00-$10.00 per day.

The banquet started with many dishes of various foods, but no rice was served as this is considered “filler” food of the poor.

Once we were completely full and had been served wine, out came a fish dish that was native to the first fresh water lake that we visited.  It tasted like snapper fish.  However, it was almost more trouble than it was worth because of the copious amount of bones.

A platter of duck came out but went to another table.  To our table came a huge plate of almost inedible lamb…not because of the flavor (which was good), but because it was so gristly.  Throughout the evening came many cups of tea. Traditional garb adorned a female who accompanied our host.  He sang traditional Mongolian songs.  She swayed to the music while displaying a beautifully designed cloth draped across her hands, which held a deep, silver coated saucer. The host repeatedly filled this with a higher quality Chinese liqueur than in the past.  Together, they would stop in front of each of us and offered a service.  Everyone sipped.  Feeling quite festive, I made a big show and drank the whole thing, saluted God and then our host.  The crowd loved it.

This was followed by what I can only describe as impromptu, unaccompanied, Karaoke.  As usual, Taka stole the show with his Japanese ballads.  He was spectacular and the team swelled with pride.

Dr. Gu, however, felt our group needed to put on a better show in the overall performance.  We sensed that we were letting him down, but unlike the Mongolians, we had not spent a lifetime boozing together and singing Mongolian drinking songs collectedly.  Just as the banquet was about to break up and Mongolians were heading toward the door, I rallied the troupes into a two round rendition of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” that I orchestrated in my now inebriated state.  The Mongolians loved it…as did Dr. Gu.  We had saved face!

10/13/07 – This morning we set the alarm at 6:00 a.m so the filming debacle could continue.  I was up at 5:00 a.m., and got some laundry done and Eric, George, Ellen, and I had breakfast while the others pretended once again to collect water samples for the cameras.  Not much fun but important work in terms of getting the word out about Earth Watch.

10/13/07 – Dr. Gu gave a lecture pertaining to the upcoming camel trek.  Google or EarthLink to these coordinates:  Longitude 102º 20’E  and  Latitude 102º 40’E

We intend to visit six lakes of which two are fresh water and one of which is killing camels that drink from it.

We will stay in two separate 3 pole tepees.  It should be a six day trek.

This morning, following the lecture, we got our saddle bags.  They are modern.  Eric’s is traditional but in perfect condition.  Mine is traditional but was actually used (a lot).  We ate another incredible lunch and then packed our saddle bags, sorted our gear leaving whatever is not absolutely necessary and prepared for a camel trip generally.

Camel Instruction Class

10/14/07 – Monday was a major staging production

day of loading gear, sorting supplies, people, and camels – 14 camels.  There were three leaders to guide us.  There were eight of us to be guided and three pack camels for gear.  These camels are two hump dromedaries.  Unlike common folk lore, the humps do not inflate and deflate with the intake of water.  In reality, they sort of fold over with age.  Once over, they never rise again.  At the top of each hump is a tuft of hair rising 5”- 6” above it.

The camels were cinched and saddled with beautifully colored tapestries.  Stirrups were set to individual lengths.  The camels were divvied into three groups, one each for the three leaders.

As we mounted (from the left) a leader would encourage the camel to stand.  There would be a major semi-violent rocking to an erect position first by standing with the two front legs then by raising its rump by using its two rear legs until rider and camel have risen to over 9′ collectively.

Each of the four camels in a team are tied one to the next by a two foot tether.  So Bah!- (We go!)  It was a unique and marvelous feeling that we were riding camels, in a caravan in the Gobi Desert, in Inner Mongolia in China.  This thought repeated through my mind more than once.  Spectacular views, ever changing, and a constant up and down motion responding to the curves of the dunes did not stop.  It felt good.  We felt alive…so very much in the moment.

Three hours later, we crested a dune to see a brine laced lake of considerable size.  Surrounding its perimeter was a green necklace of willow and poplar trees.

Half an hour later, we reached the lake and a Mongolian home of adobe structure.

Here we found a welcoming 4’10” Mongolian host who generously shared two rooms for visitor sleeping, while he slept in a smaller room which he referred to as Bilt.  This was also the name of the compound that we were in.  The camel leaders slept in tents with their camels (of course).  At night, we were treated to the most spectacular celestial night sky that I’ve ever seen.  The Milky Way reached across the sky forming one horizon in the south to east where it spread in a fashion like a “lady’s fan.”

I have seen skies in east Africa and Southern California and yet the beauty of this Chinese sky was by far the most magnificent I shall hope to ever see.


We took a camel trek to Lake Indeertu.  We rode camels for three hours (one and one-half hours to the lake and a one and one-half hour return punctuating the trek with a foot climb of the sheerest dune yet.) Ellen, Chen, Lou Yeah, Sam and I were the only ones to summit.  However, Roger and Taka did eventually climb to the first peak through sheer determination.  The view was indescribably majestic.  It opened to a vista of Lake Indeertu (tu means lake).

We finally climbed down the dunes to the lake.  We followed Lou Yeah (seemingly aimlessly) to the first spring.  This fed the lake and poured water into it from just two feet away.  Lou Yeah commandeered my walking stick and instantly started poking at the point of the source of the spring thus contaminating it.  He understood nothing of what we were doing.  No matter.  We waited for the water to clear and took water samples.  We took no calculations as there was not enough time. ( We decided that we could make some readings at base camp using the samples.)

We headed west past an abandoned nomadic settlement. Sam and I wondered aloud about the outcomes of all of the people who had struggled to live there, raised children there, and had now taken money from the government to be relocated to some prefab structures on the outskirts of the desert.  We were saddened by our ponderings.  We pressed on.

We crossed a boggy area that was fed by two streams and served to irrigate a penned in area.  We headed west and found the carcass of a seemingly young camel.  We wondered why it had died at such a young age.  Its nose tether was in place as was its red 2”- 3” triangular identification tag that hung from its neck.  It was in serious decay with many bones exposed.  We did not disturb its repose.  A gentle prayer passed from my mind into the cool desert air.

At the end of the lake, we turned north coming within 75′ of a relatively new wooden structure that had a W and a C on its outside.

Rounding the corner we turned east and walked out onto an area of brine that cut into the lake leaving us surrounded by water on both our right and our left.  At about 300 meters we saw a very small (three meters in diameter) and very round island.  This was supposedly the source of the “Main Spring.”  Lou Yeah had not been there in ten years, but remembered when there had been a “spout” of fresh water shooting from its center… no more.  Now there were possible trickles sliding over a green slime covering the rocks on its side.  We briefly debated wading and then swimming out to the small island…but only briefly.  We are not convinced it is the “main” spring and we had no idea what exotic diseases there may be residing in the lake.

We begin our re-assent of the mega dune.  Somehow it seems not as hard as the original climb but this may be in part due to the fact that we are following Lou Yeah who seemed somewhat slowed and taking very small steps.  He may have been taking advantage of surface tension, so we mimicked his gait, which did seem to help.

My knee is very tired and I am the last to finally descend on the other side.  Tahka greets me with tea.  It’s hot!  I taste its life renewing powers.  As I all but collapse in a heap, Sam gives me two squares of chocolate saying, “it’s the last.”  I share with Tahka and Roger.  We all feel very good.  We ride camels back to base camp.  We are exhausted and exhilarated. The day had been a solidly good effort.

At night, the quarter moon rises and descends in about half an hour.  In its wake it leaves the growing intensity of the night sky.  It is so glorious.  George takes a picture of Roger and me back-to-back looking deep into opposite horizons.  The Big Dipper – I’ve finally seen it as seafarers must have seen it.  It fills the vision.  “Hank yo jissay” (seven stars in the north) is the name of the Big Dipper in Japanese according to my friend Tahka.

In the morning, we separated into two teams.  In the first team, Sam and Chewen comprise the all women’s Mega Dune Climbers.  They will challenge the world’s tallest mega dune.  The second team was again a camel team.  As we headed out, we were able to spy in the distance the climbing team at base level, then 1/3 up then 2/3 up where they stopped to rest.  They thought they had another hour of assent, so they rested long, but because of the surface tension, they reached the summit in only another 20 minutes.  This is believed to be the highest mega dune from sea level in all of China!

From the summit, they saw six surrounding lakes from an elevation of 1,608 meters.  They took water content levels at the top (five percent) and lower at the vegetation line 1,595 meters which read at seven percent.  Victory!  Bilio Peak conquered!

Before we left for the camel trek we located a spring on the NE side.  Height: 420 meters above the desert floor.  We needed to pull a tree stump and several branches out of its mouth before we could expose its narrow opening of only two feet.  However it’s depth was interminable.  I bucketed several buckets of sand and water out at the source.  When it finally cleared, there was a clear level of 4” of fresh water.  Beneath this there was turbulent action where lots of bark and short pieces of dead grasses were tossed about by an undulating action.

The group had a copious amount of discussing and speculation about this spring, its action and the best way to take water samples.  Roger suggested that even if we re-bucketed, the situation would remain exactly the same.  He was absolutely correct.  I re-bucketed and got the identical result of grass and bark filled, muddied and sand laden water.

It seemed to me that beneath the surface and suspended in the sand and in the water beneath it, that there was a gathering of fresh water that built into a growing plume as it rose to the surface.  As the plume of fresh water hit the submerged layer of debris, it would dissipate throughout the upper layer of fresh water.  It never broke the surface in a noticeable or clean fashion.

Roger thought that if he lowered a coke bottle deep into the hole and released his thumb from the top that it would allow fresh water (unpolluted) to fill the bottle.  He would then return his thumb (acting as a cap), and come out with the bottle and fresh water.  Instead he returned to the surface with a bottle of sand 5/8 full and some fresh water.

While it did not work, I still support the idea.  Perhaps the problem was only that Rogers arm was too short.

Dr. Gu, Ellen and Roger returned the following morning to video the lava lamp like action. It was quite fascinating to observe.

So the camel team headed out to Large Bilito Aokchin and Smaller Bilito Aokchin.  Aokchin means “dry depression.”  There has not been water in these depressions for centuries, but it is rumored that now there is water in the larger of the two.  We rode to the farther depression first, but found nothing but a dry salt encrusted depression.  We then rode to the closer Bilito Aokchin.

We found a very small amount of water that looked most unappetizing.  It looked brackish, but Dr. Gu later said it was a mix of fresh water combined with old brine.

We found no spring so in the boggy area, I dug a hole.  We waited 15 minutes and slowly water filled a 10” hole by 5” hole 2 1/2” deep.  We took samples and readings.  We were not sure how Dr. Gu would receive our made up procedure.

We then located a much smaller 75′ by 60′ lake (dry) which was covered in large brine crystals. (cross shaped drawing)  Both Mary and Roger were sure that there had been some relatively recent water activity there evidenced by crystals over camel dung.

I dug away at some of the brine crystals and made a test hole 10” by 10” and 5” deep.  In 20 minutes it filled just enough for us to take 100 ml of water.  It tasted salty, but that was my opinion – Roger agreed that it was somewhat salty, but he also suggested, and I agreed, that it did not rule out that this was indeed freshwater that tasted salty because the ground had been brine saturated.

We collected our samples and mounted our camels (repacked saddle bags and equipment, etc.) and headed home.  It was a beautiful ride in the cooling of the later afternoon.

We experienced another spectacular night under the stars where after dinner, we put out all of our torches and enjoyed the night show.  It took a little longer for the moon to ascend and descend, but it did, and again, I felt blessed and sent up a loving thought to Sylvia and Colleen, my wife and daughter.  I miss them so.

10/17/07 – We have again split into two teams.  Two people went with the jeep driver and Dr. Gu.

The rest of us loaded our gear, packed the camels, and prepared to say goodbye to Lou Yeah.  I presented him with a pin with the image of a Chinese panda on it that the Chinese people had given the United States.  At the bottom of the pin it read Washington D.C.  I pinned it on his lapel.  Big hugs.  Lots of pictures.

So bah!


Along the way to our next stop (Hutaga Faduck Jilint), we stopped to gather a water sample from Lake Henijilin.  Dr. Gu had suggested that the “energetic ones” (he looked straight at me as he said this) should rush down to the lake while the others remain with the camels.  As usual, this was once again “Dr. Gu time” as we grew to know his underestimations of time and level of difficulty.  He said that it would be too hard for the camels and it would take them two hours.  I was convinced that at best, we would only be able to shave 15 minutes off of that time.  I was exactly right …15 minutes exactly.

Chewn, Sam and I made the trek.  I carried only one full size water bottle 800ml and one 50 ml bottle.  We came up to the lake from the south side rotating around the lake clockwise to the west.  We dug small holes along the west side as we went.  The first was filling very slowly.  The second filled not at all as the water would have to come through peat moss.  The third hole was basically sand.  This hole was filling up fairly quickly.  This was a very good sign.  We knew that if we finished walking around the lake and did not find an actual spring, then at least the sand hole would have sampleable water.

We found lots of wet bogs on the west, north, and east side of the lake.  The heaviest grass area was in the north.  We scoured the highest grasses that were our height, and found small pools of surface water.  It may have percolated to the surface as fresh spring water.  These pools were about 18” by 25” and about 2” deep.  We found no source here and no bubbling up of fresh water.

We continued to the northeast corner where there was concentrated animal activity (hoof impressions).  Here we found three possible sources.  The most westerly of the three showed water movement.  Here we dug a 10” by 10” hole using an old shovel that Chwen had found.  The hole quickly filled with what tasted to be fresh water.  There were two pin point streams with a strong flow.  We placed the 50 ml bottle directly in the stream.  The water came out clean.  We had to create a pool of water in order to fill the 500 ml bottle.  As a result, there was a light (small) amount of silt that gathered in the bottle and looked cloudy.  However the water was pure, cool, and fresh.

As we left, we walked along the west bank of the lake toward eight or so donkeys and a Nomad’s tent.  We were searching for a possible well.  We found none.  We returned to the south side of the lake and quickly ascended the dunes in time to see two camels frolicking away from the grazing herd in the opposite direction.  What fun to watch.

We loaded up the troops and headed toward our new camp.  Along the way our camel leader (camels are led in groups of four) chose a short cut that was extremely steep as the camels more or less galloped down the incline. I suddenly felt my saddle shift on the side facing the mega dune.  Everything went into slow motion as my entire saddle, blankets, cinch and all came sliding off the camel.  As deftly as I could, I withdrew each foot ( in what seemed like agonizingly slow motion) from my stirrups.  As my bottom hit the sand, I quickly retracted my bad left leg just before the saddle, et. al. came crashing down.  I cleared it.  The camel staggered away and did not land on me.  What a relief.

The camel leader and I recovered the saddle, blankets, etc., and she hoisted them all back on the camel.  This time, I watched her re-cinch the saddle very carefully.

We rode three more hours to the new base camp Hutaga Jilian.  Here one of our camel leaders, who was a member of this community tribe, let herself in when we found no one home.  Apparently this is perfectly OK because she is a member of this particular tribe.

We had spacious living quarters.  Eric, Tahka and Roger slept on a two foot high elevated brick platform reassuring 10′ by 12′.  This can apparently he heated with a fire from underneath and outside in the winter.  I chose a spot on the brick floor and was most comfortable.  That night 3:00 a.m.  I arose to watch the starts.  I easily found the North Star.  It was brilliant!!  It was fantastic to think of ancient travelers using it to find their way.


We are again splitting into teams.  Roger and Tahka are off to the two “poison lakes” where it’s been reported that for some unknown reason, camels have been dying. The lakes are a full day’s jeep trip away.  Unbelievably, one of the Mongolians is going to ride in the bed of the pick-up.

They returned reporting no mass amounts of dead carcasses.  They did see three dead camels (years dead), but little else.  Roger now is leaning toward my theory that there needs to be a substantial quantity of water consumed in order for it to be fatal.  His principle theory is Hypocalcaemia.

All of the elements are present for Roger’s theory to have traction.  We are all rooting for him. Our team headed out on camels.  We left at 10:30 a.m., and by 12:02 p.m., we arrived at Lake Baren Aokchin.  This is another “depression” that has not seen water in 100+ years.  *Dr. Gu says that I should report my findings to ESGU about H20 coming to the depression.

We found no spring, but we did see a small pool of shallow water in a much larger area of brine.

Tracing the water to the “shore” and the dunes, I dug a 3”- 4” deep hole just to the east of a pool of water adjacent to the shallow pool.  I made sure that the hole was just out of the bog so no back seepage would occur.  The water was “fresh,” even if a little murky.







Next, we rode camels to “Earth Watch Lake” named by Dr. Gu (perhaps because others had felt it too small to name.)  It was 300 yards long and 200 yards wide.

Again, not finding a spring, I dug a hole and took fairly clear, fresh water samples.

We rode camels toward home and the third lake, Wulan Jilin.  Here we split into two teams.  Ellen and George circumvented the lake rotating from the south along the east toward the north.  Halfway up the lake at a compass heading of due east, Ellen and George located  two trickle springs.  They captured 50 ml of water only.  But it was an important success!

Eric, Sam and I traveled along the west side.  At two trees on a due heading west, we dug a hole above the bog.  It was in the peat moss vegetation and we used a small hand shovel.  Even Eric took a turn on the “shovel.”  However, this resulted in a stream of disparaging remarks about the collapsing “shovel”, and specifically doubts about the “need” for this particular hole, its location and its depth.  Sam was obviously impressed with the depths that the banter between Eric and I had reached.  In spite of the discussion, we managed to dig a hole.  The dimension was 4” by 5”.  The hole was 11” to the surface.  The seeping water filled the hole to a depth of 4 1/2” in only ten minutes.  The water tested “fresh.”

The two teams reunited, loaded up and headed back to base camp.  At night we had another fantastic feast and regaled each other with the day’s adventures.

1/19/07 – In the morning we gathered to give presents to our host.  I gave a compass to the host who seemed pleased but had no idea about what it was or what it was used for.  I did my best to communicate the concept. I’m sure the stars were all he needed.

We loaded up all gear and prepared for our last camel ride in our return to Nortu.  We said goodbye, “di cheea.”  We floated in silence through the dunes in a mystical journey through time.  We realized with amazement that we were again riding camels, in China, in Inner Mongolia in the Gobi Desert.

The trip was punctuated with the brief sighting of a Hoosa, a fox like creature or a wolf as was Roger’s and my observation.

Speaking of Roger, he survived a near catastrophe when his camel stumbled on the final trek home.  He was on the edge of a dune when his camel went down on his front left knee and straddled the dune with his right foreleg.  Wisely, we rested and settled the camels before proceeding.  No harm, no foul.  We all cheered Roger for maintaining his cool and balance.

We ambled back to base camp, dismounted and sadly said goodbye to Thunder – George’s camel, Dog– Ellen’s camel, Yellow camel– renamed Yellow Lighting by myself (beautifully ridden by Eric) and Wallace tagged by Sam and Roger.  We all recognized the significance of the moment.

That night we celebrated with wine and 14 different food dishes.  Dinner consisted of every kind of weed, shrub, and fruit imaginable and not unbelievably, it was all good!  As usual, we topped off the evening with several demitasses (each) of Chinese liquor, which might better be described as white lighting or paint thinner.  If one wakes in the middle of the night, a pounding headache is ensured, but if one can survive until dawn, you can escape all aspects of liquor retribution.


Eric, Mary, Roger, George, Tahka and I set out on foot in our last exploration.  We headed due north by my compass to the Aokchin north of Nortu, officially referred to as North of Nortu Aokchin, N. of N.O.

We took our time and supported one another.  Having a sense of where we were going, I led the troop.  We brought apples, peanuts, some kind of “meat” in tubes and flavored crackers.  I may be wrong, but I don’t remember seeing anyone bring beef or yak jerky.  (This turned out to be less than favorites with the group.) We all brought water.  I brought the map, testing equipment, water sample bottles and my magnesium fire starter stick.  Of course, we all had our whistles should we become separated or lost.

It was a very pleasant morning picking our way across the low dunes.  As we approached each one, we collectively decided which path to pursue.  If I didn’t agree, I sometimes choose what I felt would be the easiest, least strenuous path for the group and proceeded onward.  Mary walks five miles a day, but readily inserted that it’s on a flat surface and that she could stand to lose a pound or two.  And George (as spry and as game as he is) is celebrating his 81st year.

At 11:30 a.m. we crested the dunes and viewed a spectacular vista.

There spread out before us were three significant lakes.  When I say lakes, I really mean Aokchin (dried depression beds).  According to professor Gu, the local Mongolians have not seen fresh water in these areas for many generations.  The time period is unclear because Mongolians do not think in terms of years, only generations (my father, my father’s father, his father’s father’s father, etc.)




What appeared to us as two dry lake beds from afar, proved to be otherwise.  The depression called north of Nortu Aokchin, had what appeared to be large area of grasses in the south west corner.  Surprisingly, this turned out to be a good sized pool of water disguised as the reflection of green grasses from the east side and front of the mega dunes.  The water seemed to be both salty and fresh.  The reason I say this is because running along the east and south side of the Aokchin for what we (Roger and I) estimated to be 100 to 120 meters, was a band of red shrimp.  Each shrimp was about 1/4 of an inch in length.  Their color was distinctly red.  These are similar to the shrimp that when consumed tend to give pink flamingoes their color.  The band was located about a foot from shore and presented to be about 2′ in width.  The depth varied from about 4” at the shore line to over 1′ where a shelf above which the shrimp swam, dropped off sharply and reached a depth of what exceeded a meter (to what distance remains unclear).

Roger and I came up with two thoughts as to why the band configured as it did.  First, it could have to do with temperature.  The water was probably much warmer the closer the shrimp were to the shore (due to shallow depth) and much cooler the closer they got to the drop off shelf, which is where they stopped due to increased water depth.  Secondly, we believe those to be salt water creatures.  They may have kept the one foot distance from the shore because that seemed to be where fresh water first seeped from the mega dune into the depression.  This would explain why they remained in a band keeping a distance from shore to avoid the fresh water, but resisting fanning out further because of the cool temperatures of the drop off.

A previous Earth Watch team had indicated “FW” on a map, and we assumed this meant Fresh Water.  As a result, I dug a test hole in that vicinity above the bog line.  While I did this, the team split into two factions, and proceeded up both the west and east sides looking for a spring.

When I finished the test hole and was sure that water was beginning to slowly fill it, I headed NE to the other Aokchin, which I would eventually name Most Northern Oachin, M.N.O. (for simple identification purposes.)

Along the way, I met Roger and we gravitated toward the east side.  There at about the middle of the depression I dug another test hole.

It was at this time that Roger found a frog in the bog next to me.  It was definitely a frog and not a toad.  It had sleek skin, long webbed frog feet and a pointed frog head.  Its body was light tan with light brown spots.

The frog had an unusually fat belly for a frog and I speculated that it might be pregnant.

The interesting thing about the frog is that when the others arrived and began taking pictures, it escaped to the shore not toward the water.  In fact when Roger picked up the frog and released him later, it again headed toward land – not water.  We wondered if it was due to the high salinity of the water.  Perhaps he was only in the bog to eat some of the millions of black flies.

And maybe, just maybe, his natural habitat was a fresh water environment, which would be toward the shore where the mega dunes are bringing in freshwater and not toward the water, which is brine soaked.

As we walked across the brine, the salt crystals that make it up act as shards on our footwear.  It is very eerie because as you walk out into the center of the brine area, (long term accumulation of mineral deposits left by the repeated constant evaporation of water) you feel like astronauts must feel walking on a moonscape.  Some of the crystal configurations grow as high as two feet.  It crunches beneath your feet.

We return to the first lake, North of Nortu Aokchin, ate our lunch at the site of my first test hole, and listened to everyone’s report.

No one had found a spring, so after lunch, Tahka and I ran all the tests and filled a 50 ml sample water bottle.  The water was cloudy with TDS (total dissolved solids) of 1300 mg/l.  The altitude was 1185 m and the directional reading was E 102 degrees 28.125 minutes. North 39 degrees and 47.76 minutes.  Having finished with the first hole, Tahka and I returned to the Most Northern Aokchin (M.N.O.).  Tahka’s test hole was too shallow and produced no water.  My hole was also too shallow and only produced 2” of water.  Because my hole was producing some water, we decided to dig it deeper.  I dug an 18” hole, and it quickly filled with 6” of fresh water.

We took our TDS reading and questioned the results of 771 mg/l.  This is about half of the test hole at the N of N.O. with 1300mg/l.

We rinsed out the equipment in the dry hole again and turned off and on the equipment and re-checked our settings.  After this, we returned to the rest of the team and re-took the TDS reading.  We repeated the retake procedures that I just described.  The reading remained the same:  1300mg/l.

Realizing that we had become so pre-occupied with the discrepancy in the readings that we had forgotten to take pictures of the test hole at M.N.O., Tahka volunteered to return to the site and take the pictures.

When he returned, we were all ready to return to base camp.  It had been a good leisurely climb and a successful operation.  In fact, we had found and documented that after scores and scores of years, perhaps much longer) water (fresh water) had returned to three different Oachins.  Dr. Gu was most pleased with the findings and again asked me to go to Vienna in April to present a paper reporting our findings and produce a “poster.”  I told him I would think about it, but that I had no funds for such a venture. As we headed back to Nortu and base camp, our pace and paths staggered as each of us realized that what we were really doing was walking out of the desert and away from our principle adventure in China.  The Shadows grew long and our hearts were heavy.  Each of us kept stopping, trying to somehow capture the sheer beauty and magnificence of our surroundings.  We were walking up and down across the rolling desert floor with the highest sand dunes in the world – mega dunes guiding our path from both the right and the left sides of the valley in which we walked.  A cool breeze gently blew over us.  I could not help but think of Dr. Gu and the wonderful knowledge that he had imparted on us and the possibility that the cooling was caused by the winds pulling the moisture from the mega dunes.  Water had perhaps come all the way from the Himalayan Mountains.  It is a  possibility that water from those mountains had sustained the mega dunes for thousands of years and had returned to the Aokchins in such quantities due to accelerated melting, generates grave concerns about the finite water sources across our entire planet.


Water has returned to the Aokchins!  The relatively scarce, but collective information gathered on this Earth Watch Expedition strongly suggests that fresh water has returned to the Aockins in the Gob Desert.

Aochins are fresh water lake beds that are now completely dried up.  In the absence of fresh water, only salt crustations remain.

It only takes a day at the beach, building sand castles, for anyone to realize that water is the essential ingredient necessary to build sand structures at a height of about a foot and above.  Remarkably, in the Gobi Desert, we find that sand dunes (mega dunes) reach the height of 500 meters.  How is this possible?  One answer suggests capillary action involving copious amounts of water that result in the creation of these behemoth dunes.  This, of course, would require a constant source of water.  As stated, stable isotope ratios indicate that desert lakes are fed by shallow ground water, which is not related to local precipitation (shown to be insufficient in a sufficient quantity to explain dune maintenance.

However, what if the water source is indeed not form the Yabulai Mountains (which again, do not contain sufficient rainfall, but rather from the distant Qilan Mountains/Tibetan Plateaus having traveled by interbasin flow through fault systems.  My discovery of the warm well waters outside of the Lamasery suggests possible thermal activity and a deep water source.  Dr. Gu had suggested that the Gobi Desert water source might be multiple in numbers.  Given that, let’s consider the possibility that the Tibetan Mountains are one of those sources, and a significant sustaining source of the water feeding the Qomo Langma Desert Mounts (Mega Dunes).

When Sam and Chewen summitted the highest Mega Dune (1,608 meters), they took water content levels at the top of Bilko Peak (the highest Mega Dune that we found) indicating a water content level of five percent, and then lower dormant 1,595 meters at seven percent.  The implication is that 1) there is water in the dunes rising up from the bottom by capillary action thus sustaining the dunes to a height of 500 meters.  The carbon 14 testing of the petrified wood found within the dunes indicates that these dunes may well have existed in the present state for up to 7,000 years.  Usually desert dunes ebb and flow with wind conditions typical of desert environments.  Note:  There are two at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, which constantly disassemble themselves, blow across a road and reconfigure themselves only to repeat the cycle.  In the Gobi, however, the dunes remain stationary and anchored by water, and the desert growth is now thriving off their water content.

In the Gobi, however, the dunes remain stationary and anchored by water, and the desert growth is now thriving off their water content.

Assuming that the principal sustaining source of water is the Tibetan Plateau, environmental changes of late, specifically the recent slow melting of snow in the Qilan Mountains/Tibetan Plateau due to global warming might well explain the increased water levels in the Gobi Desert, and the slow reintroduction of fresh water into the Aokchins.  Recorded evidence supports the return of fresh water at all Aokchins tested.

Last night 10/20 at dinner, Dr. Gu gave us each a Chinese coin from his coin collection.

It was cast since 621 AD the beginning of the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD).  Such kind of coins were cast continuously for about 200 years or until about 821AD from Wei-Zu in the Gobi Desert, Inner Mongolia.

I wear my coin around my neck for good luck.

We had another fantastic dinner of camaraderie.  We, again, had as many as 14 dishes, tea, wine (contributed by Eric and George) and Chinese Liquor.  We celebrated George’s birthday with a bread signed in red sauce by Dr. Gu.  Tahka vicariously celebrated his 37th wedding anniversary with his wife Coo, so we too celebrated that.  We celebrated each other, and we celebrated our expedition with Dr. Gu.  He said (and Eric and I believed him when he said it) that ours was the most productive team that he had ever had.  We ate until we could eat no more.  As the night progressed, we grew a little quieter and perhaps a little nostalgic, and we retired to our rooms.  Sam came by perhaps not wanting to let go and continued her bridge lesson with Roger.  He continued in practiced patience which may have come from fathering four children and seven grand-children.  I started this trip with my brother Eric, but I’ve also grown especially fond of Roger, Tahka, Sam, and Dr. Gu, and enjoyed the company of Mary, George and Ellen, along the way.  We’ve bonded over some rather challenging, shared experiences and some damned good times.


Today is a return travel day.  First we traveled 2 1/2 hours by jeep out to the main highway across some rip-roaring rising and diving dunes at break-neck speed.  The exhaust fumes, the rapid fire and jerky turns soon have Sam and my stomachs in our throats.  We/she speaks of possibly throwing up; I quickly locate the Dramamine that Sylvia had so thoughtfully packed for me.

So many times throughout the trip my thoughts have returned to Sylvia and my daughter Colleen.  I’ve missed them so and shared many, many stories about each with my new extended family.  The pills work, and we make our rendezvous in Yabali.  There we ate lunch and transferred gear to our pink bus.  We headed across the desert to the Gold Holy Site (Alontugo Ao).  Along the way, we stopped at a government controlled historic site where we climbed a short distance to see the Mandelo Mountain pictograph that nearly everyone agreed were probably done by Mrs. Johnson’s first grade class.  They included stick men, stick men on camels, a “temple”, and stick men on horses, goats and a Mon


golian yurt that Eric insists was really a muffin.  Several had numbers painted in fingernail polish cleary by modern day folks in an attempt to identify and categorize each.  We reloaded the bus.  We arrived at a truckers’ stop in the middle of nowhere.  It consisted of several truck repair shops and a strip center on each side of the road with about 7-8 empty restaurants and general merchandise stores also hosting no one.  We shared three rooms here and one horrific smelling outhouse that would have benefited with a good powdering of lime.

At dinner, we toasted to everyone’s health with several liters of fairly good Chinese beer.

We slept fairly well.  I woke at 6:00 a.m. to take a very cold shower, and do a few outdoor exercises with the hope of an early morning walk.  However, it turned out that the gate to the compound was still locked.  When it eventually opened, Roger and Sam had arisen.  The three of us walked out into the desert past rows of duplicate 300 square feet duplex houses, one story in height,.  Behind each duplex were also duplex animal pens.  There were no animals.  Later we learned from Professor Gu that these were the Mongolian relocation houses.  The Chinese government contending that the 10,000 (total) Mongolians who were over grazing/utilizing the desert have been offered relocation dollars to come occupy these houses.  They are then given $80.00 per adult per month to live there and do nothing.

The Mongolians were enticed to live in the structures with the promise of room and pen for their animals.  What the Mongolians learned was that they had no way to feed their livestock, so the animals were all eventually sold at slaughter.


On the side of each duplex is a large rectangular pit about three meters by four meters and three meters deep.  At one end there is some kind of access by way of an extremely steep slant.  We surmised that these must have been intended manure pits for animal waste and used straw.  All we saw at the bottom was a few empty bottles and trash.  This all seems very tragic.

Dr. Gu claims that the Nomads are not over using/grazing the land but rather this is merely a way for the communist government to gain total control of all the land, for what purpose, no one knows.

Off we go.  Today, we continue our return trip in the pink bus.  While enroute, we found ourselves re-routed and literally side tracked off the main road to the desert floor sands again.  This lasted for several miles of blinding, choking sand dust.  At one point the sand curled up against the right side of the bus covering the windows and reducing the light of the desert sun to an opaque dim light.

Alasantoechee is the town that we next returned to.  We then spent a fair amount of time at their Lamasery.  Once again, we were overwhelmed with the dedication of their ministry for peace.  We were invited to sit with the monks during a ceremony.  They incessantly read prayers from prayer cards.  They dressed in maroon robes.  The youngest among them (about 20) had the strongest prayer voice, but he too had the beginnings of gray hair.

Their Lamasery had been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution as had so many other cultural relics along with them.  Their buildings had been painstakingly restored to their original splendor.  Interestingly, as I entered each building, I noticed ornately designed and intricately detailed structures that I imagined must have mirrored their temple in Tibet.  Each temple was dark, cold, damp and musky, but also draped in an endless array of brightly colored pennants, tapestries, banners, silk scarves and flags.  The outside of their buildings were ornate as well, but here every intricate crack and crevice became a surface for bright blue, yellow, red and gold paint, each brilliantly strong.

One of the singularly striking objects in the Lamasery was a bell.  It had been salvaged from the wanton destruction of Mao and his cultural crusaders.

One of the tongs at the bottom of the bell had been broken off probably during the destruction frenzy.  The bell was covered in Chinese writing in relief.  Next to the bell lay its clapper. I could not resist in giving the cone a few distinct raps.  The tones were pure and strong despite the missing tooth.  I’m sure its sound carried all the way to Tibet.

One more fantastic dinner with an endless supply of Chinese beer.  People two tables away provided the evening’s entertainment.  Their bill came to 63 yuans, a paultry fee by any standard.  However, these two patrons felt that given tradition, their bill should be rounded own and the three yuans should be dropped from the bill.  The restaurant people saw it differently.  The discussion became heated.  There were about five restaurant personnel around the cash register which is where the morally wounded restaurateurs were pleading their case for sanity and economic relief over and over again.  Collective voices grew louder and louder.  Unbelievably, two policemen showed up.  Before long, they too were shouting and even pounding the counter. I told the members of our party that I was prepared to pay the three yuans if someone would only lend it to me.  I found no takers…or givers. I guessed the message was “stay out of it”.


We loaded up and headed to the beautiful metropolitan city of Yinchaun.  We road in the pink bus for the last time.  We made one final stop where for only 40 yuans we got an entrance to the XiXia Mausoleum.  It is the royal burial place of the Xi Xia Kingdom located on the eastern slope of the Lelan Mountain which is about 35 Kilometers west of Yinchuan, Ningxia.  It is the burial mounds of three of Emperors.

The burial mounds were about 12 meters high and roundly conical in shape.  They were now just mounds of adobe that looked as if they had been melted with a blow torch.  They once had an elaborate wood casing that has since given way to the elements exposing only dirt remains.  These were no longer overly impressive.

Eric and I had always hoped to go to Xian and see the Terra Cotta Soldiers.  Up to this point our travel plans had not dove-tailed perfectly and any opportunity to see them was going to be lost.

Eric however, had not given up.  He took a pole of the group about terminating the trip one day early.  Everyone agreed including Tween, who helps take care of the group.  Dr. Gu when approached agreed to inquire about reconfiguring various connections.  It all worked out extremely well, and Eric and I traded in our tickets, paid a penalty and headed off to Xian.

Xian turned out to be the most polluted city that either of us have ever visited.  The yellow smog was so thick that in places maximum visibility dropped to 60 feet – unbelievable!  It attacked our eyes, our noses and our sinuses.  Trees, now yellowed, remained standing, but their duration is indeterminate, and I fear the prognosis is terminal.

Finally, our dream was realized after an hour taxi ride to the Terra-Cotta site build in 246 BC where 700,000 slaves once labored at the base of heavily terraced mountains.  We started at the film center with a 360 degree video.  We stood in the center of their amphitheatre and became part of the action. We watched horses pulling our chariot and we turned completely around to see the road from a rearview perspective.  Awesome!  It made the destruction and emollition of the Terra-Cotta Soldiers quite dramatic.  The first emperor of the Han dynasty, Emperor Qin Shihuang, took 37 years to construct this tribute to his life and death.  There were 7,000 Terra-Cotta Soldiers constructed to protect the Emperor in the afterlife.  Astonishingly, the face of each Terra-Cotta Soldier was individually and painstakingly crafted.   He died suddenly while on an inspection tour.

There were three pits and one small museum.  The first pit was clearly the most dramatic.  In 1974, a farmer, while digging a well, unearthed a clay figure of a head.  An archeological dig ensued, and decades later the exhibit opened to the public.

There is the amphitheatre, three pits and a museum.  The most dramatic and spectacular of these by far was pit number one.  Here (while still under renovation) was unearthed evidence of 6,000 life size Terra-Cotta Soldiers.  The Emperor wanted to pass into the afterlife with protection and honor.  The soldiers faced in at least two directions to guard his flanks.  They each held bronze weaponry consisting of either a sword, spear, or battle ax.  They wore full body armor.

Remarkably, their weapons were coated with chrome 2,200 years ago.  This enabled their instruments to retain their sharp edges when unearthed.  Germany and the United States did not start the chroming process until the 20th century!

Ultimately, the townspeople (the slaves who painstakingly constructed the 7,000 Terra-Cotta Soldiers (under the whip) revolted, they smashed all but a handful of the soldiers and set the wood housing the underground structure on fire.

Archeologists have agonizingly and lovingly reconstructed hundreds of the soldiers.  The steel building in which we stand was constructed around the massive destruction/ construction site.  This is being heralded as the Eighth wonder of the world.

Pit number two and three have revealed more potential for new soldiers.

The museum held (along with hundreds of related documents) two miniature bronze chariots with a driver and four horses each.  While perfect in every other detail, they stood only four feet tall.

It is now believed that the Emperor may have constructed an entire underground miniture city to carry him into the afterworld – simply amazing.

10/25/07 – We flew to Beijing and spent what was left of the day shopping for Eric in hopes of securing silk scarves and t-shirts.  We did this as we headed toward Tiananmen Square.  Once again in hopes of glimpsing Chairman Mao in his after-death repose.

We haggled with many vendors and were approached several times by young Chinese girls who wanted to “practice their English” on us.  At the end of each helpful and familiar conversation, they would explain that they were students and would we like for them to show us their calligraphy.  But Eric saved us each time, he retold a story where George had relayed to him a similar experience where he had been held against his will and unable to escape.  Narrow escape for us!

Some of these desperadoes had even tried to waylay us by contriving a story that Mao’s tomb was closed.  Eric shrewdly announced that this was another ploy to keep us from walking the remaining 40 to 80 blocks to the square.  We knew we had to hurry remembering that on Thursdays the display was only open to the public from 2:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m.  After a half dozen failed attempts to locate and then identify silk scarves, Eric and I entered the “Friendship Shop.”  This was the original “official” government sanctioned store for out of country tourists that the nation had opened up to the outside world in the 1990s.  The goods here were more expensive, but guaranteed to be authentic.  Having made our purchases, we pressed on to Tiananmen Square.  Those evil hearted girls were right.  While posted otherwise, the exhibit of the embalmed body of Mao Tse Dung was closed.  Once again, we were not going to see the “great” ruler.

10/26/07  – Yet another travel day…This time to Tokyo.  We sat over two hours on the runway waiting for the “fog” to lift.  Eric and I suspected this may have been smog.

Tokyo – We stayed overnight at a Radisson, ate sushi, and drank a beer!  Eric had a glass of chardonnay.   It was a nice decompression.

10/27/07 – We woke up to face a fourteen hour travel day that returned us (after much travel abuse) to Dallas, Texas, where we first started our trip together 30 days before.  We arrived at Terminal D.  Eric headed to terminal A, and I was off to Terminal C.  We took just a moment to reflect on the fact that we had fulfilled one of our life dreams which was to travel in China.  One better…we rode camels and played in its sands.  We felt good.  Eric continued to Philadelphia, and I returned to Austin excited to see my loves, Sylvia and Colleen.