Following the Route of the Roerich Expedition and the 13th Dalai Lama Through Bayankhongor Aimag, Mongolia

by Don Croner

On March 6, 1925 the Roerich Expedition, led by painter, theater set designer, mystic, occultist, alleged spy, and dedicated Aghartian-Shambhalist Nicholas Roerich, left Darjeeling, India on what would be a three-year cirumnavigation of Inner Asia. Accompanying the expedition were Roerich’s wife Elena, a Theosophist and follower of Master Morya who would translate The Secret Doctrine of Madame Blavatsky into Russian, and his Harvard-educated son George, a world-class translator of Tibetan texts (see The Blue Annals). Roerich claimed he was looking for inspiration for his paintings, and his son George was supposedly engaged in various ethnological and linguistical researches, but from the three books churned out by Nicholas Roerich about the expedition it is pretty clear that they were actually looking for Shambhala. In The Secret Doctrine Madame Blavatsky had posited the idea that Shambhala might be found somewhere in the Gobi Desert. The Roerichs were also aware of the Tibetan version of the Shambhala mythologem, which placed Shambhala somewhere north of the Himalayas, possibly in the deserts of Inner Asia. Their journey would eventually lead them through the deserts of Mongolia where some believed the fabled kingdom could be found.

From India they had traveled north into the Tarim Basin in what is now Xinjiang Province, China, visiting the Rawak Stupa near Khotan, and then continued on northward to Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang. After a brief detour to Moscow where they had attempted to recruit the Soviet Secret Police into a scheme to establish in Central Asia an actual state modeled on the Kingdom of Shambhala, they proceeded to the Russian Altai Mountains and then to Mongolia, arriving in Ulaan Baatar in September of 1926. Here Nicholas Roerich presented one of his paintings entitled “The Ruler of Shambhala” to the Mongolian government. This painting, now labeled as the “Red Warrior” can now be seen in the Zanabazar Fine Arts Museum in Ulaan Baatar.

They left Ulaan Baatar by motorized vehicle on April 13, 1927 and arrived at Amarbuyant Monastery in what is now Bayankhongor Aimag a week or so later. From here they intended to continue on their sojourn south through the Gobi Desert of Mongolia and China and then on to Tibet, hoping to eventually end up back in India.

Amarbuyant Monastery

The Gelug monastery of Amarbuyant is located on the high desert steppe north of the Gov-Altai Mountains in Bayankhongor Aimag. Monks now in residence say that the monastery was founded in the 1690s by an incarnate lama named Dugarzaisan. Originally there were forty monks in residence. They soon became famous for their chanting in a particularly forceful style and eventually became known as the “Beautiful Voiced.” Dugarzaisan was the first of the monastery’s incarnate leaders. The seventh, Luvsanjambaldorj, was born in 1899. According to local informants he fled to Tibet in 1937, at the height of the Repressions, and died there in 1975 or perhaps 1977. The current incarnation, thirteen years old, is currently studying at Gomang College in India. The monastery was heavily damaged by communist iconoclasts in 1937. A few other monks, in addition to Luvsanjambaldorj, managed to escape to China or Tibet, but many of the older and higher ranking monks were shot, reportedly holding their tea bowls, symbols of the traditional begging bowls of monks, in their hands. Monks under twenty-five were reportedly drafted into the army and some ended up serving alongside Soviet Red Army troops in Germany.

Amarbuyant Monastery

Restoration of the monastery began in 1990. In the main temple there are three thrones: one reserved for the Dalai Lama (the 13th Dalai Lama visited here in 1904), one for the Bogd Gegeen of Mongolia, and one for the current incarnate head of the monastery now studying in India. Also kept here is an almost five-foot long sword which the first incarnated leader, Dugarzaisan, used to combat, presumably in a ritualistic manner, lamas from Xi Xia in China who were reportedly practicing Black Magic and other non-Dharmic practices. An amulet reportedly belong to Dugarzaisan is kept in the Laviran Temple behind the main temple. The monastery boasts of three wells. The water from one small well is used only for ceremonial purposes. The water from another well is used only for livestock. The main well, some twenty feet deep, can only be used by men. According to tradition, this is because a woman once dropped a comb into it and several monks subsequently got sick from drinking the water.

Amarbuyant Monastery

The monastery was at one time well-known as the junction of two important caravan routes: the east-west Great Mongolian Road from Hohhot in Inner Mongolia with branches leading to Khovd and Uliastai in Mongolia and Qitai and Urumqi in Xinjiang Province, China; and the north-south route from here to Anxi in China, across the Black Gobi and the Mazong Mountains. The monastery lost much of its important as a caravan crossroads after the communists closed the Mongolian-Chinese border in the mid-1920s and halted much of the caravan traffic to Xinjiang.

Amarbuyant Monastery under a Full Moon

The monastery is also remembered for the visit of the 13th Dalai Lama in 1904. The Dalai Lama had fled Tibet after the invasion of the Younghusband Expedition. His exact route after leaving the Tibetan Plateau is unclear, but apparently at some point his party picked up the Anxi–Amarbuyant route across the forbidding Black Gobi. Locals now claim he used this remote and difficult route to avoid the attentions of the Chinese. After crossing the Mongolian border his party, said to number about one hundred people—monks in the Dalai Lama’s entourage, Tibetan governments officials, bodyguards, camel men, cooks, etc.—camped at Shar Khuls Oasis. Word had already reached Amarbuyant of the Dalai Lama’s approach and a party of monks and notable local herdsmen was sent to meet him at Shar Khuls, a six-day camel ride south from the monastery. The head of the delegation, and also reputed to be the best chanter, was a man named Gendensüren. His grandson Tserendash, who was five at the time, went along with the delegation to Shar Khuls. Tserendash lived until the late 1980s and was the source of much of the information about the Dalai Lama’s sojourn through Bayankhongor. He became famous in Bayankhongor for his eccentricity and stubbornness. This latter trait earned him the nickname of Zörüüd (stubborn).

Accompanied by the delegation of chanters and local dignitaries the Dalai Lama and his party made their way north to Amarbuyant. All day long while riding their camels to Amarbuyant monks chanted in their famous style. Later, when the Dalai Lama was in Örgöö, he heard many chanters and was asked what he thought of them. He said they were good, but could not match the “Beautiful Voiced” chanters of Amarbuyant. At least this is what local monks now claim. This story may of course be apocryphal. Meanwhile, the monks at Amarbuyant were preparing for his arrival. Starting two and a half miles south of the monastery, at a place now marked by two ovoos, a pathway was smoothed out for the Dalai Lama’s approach by removing all the large rocks and throwing them to one side.

Two small ovoos marking the beginning of the smoothed path for the Dalai Lama

This pathway, with the piles of rocks on either side, can still be seen today. The edges of the pathway were lined with “carpets,” as the monks now describe them, of red, green, yellow, blue, and white Buddhist designs made from powdered minerals found in the surrounding hills (samples of these minerals can now be seen in the small but well appointed museum in the nearby sum center of Shinejinst).

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Path smoothed for the Dalai Lama in 1904, with stones on either side

About 1.8 miles south of the monastery, along the pathway, an assembly area measuring about 150 feet by 200 feet was created by leveling and smoothing the ground. This area, outlined with stones, can also still be seen today. On the northern side of the assembly area is a smaller area outlined with stones where the Dalai Lama sat. The Amarbuyant monks sat on either side of the assembly area and the Dalai Lama proceeded up an aisle in the middle to take his seat. The Dalai Lama reportedly stayed at Amarbuyant ten days, meeting with monks and giving teachings. One of the monks who had accompanied the Dalai Lama the whole way from Lhasa, the enigmatic Buryat Agvan Dorzhiev, who had once studied at Gandan Monastery in Örgöö (Ulaan Baatar) and went on to become the Dalai Lama’s tutor, hurried on from Amarbuyant to Örgöö by himself to inform the Russian government via telegraph that the Dalai Lama was now on the territory of Mongolia. At this point the Dalai Lama’s itinerary was unclear, and it was mooted that he might want to continue on to Russia. Dorzhiev, a dedicated Shambhalist (it was probably he who introduced Nicholas Roerich and his wife Elena to the Shambhala mythologem), had once hinted that Russia was actually the legendary kingdom of Northern Shambhala and that the Czar of Russia was the King of Shambhala. Thus the Dalai Lama might be interested in visiting Russia and meeting the Czar. As it turned out nothing came of these overtures.

Amarbuyant appears in the travel accounts of George and Nicholas Roerich, Owen Lattimore, and other non-Mongolian travelers as Yum Beise (or Yun Beise) Monastery. On my first visit to Bayankhongor I asked dozens of otherwise well-informed people about the whereabouts of Yum Beise Monastery. No one had ever heard of it. I first assumed that it had been totally destroyed by the communists and had now even passed from people’s memory. Then I met a very knowledgeable man who worked as a cashmere buyer, traveling all over Bayankhongor (he claimed to have met every herder in the entire aimag), and he explained that beise is a title given by the Qing to Mongolian noblemen. Yum Beise was a local nobleman and the monastery was located on his territory; thus foreigners, perhaps due to faulty translations, began incorrectly calling it Yum Beise Monastery. He claimed that this name was seldom if ever used by Mongolians.

By the time the Roerich arrived in Yum-Beise, as they called it, in April of 1927, the caravan routes to Hohhot and Xinjiang had been closed by the communists and the monastery had fallen on hard times. Nicholas Roerich was not impressed by what he found: “Yum-Beise is an unpleasant, windy place. The monastery itself is not an inviting one and the lamas are not gracious. Beyond and above the monastery, on the mountain, a tremendous phallus is erected.”

Nor was George Roerich enthusiastic:

The northern wall was occupied by the state throne of the Incarnated Lama of the monastery and several cases containing brass and clay images of crude workmanship . . . We noticed only a few painted banners. A big one hanging on one of the columns displayed a black and white drawing of the mandala or mystic sphere of influence of Shambhala, said to have been presented to the monastery by order of the late Bogdo Gegen. The rest of the banners were painted in bright colors, but of a very inferior design. We searched in vain for the finely executed banners from eastern Tibet and Derge. Most of the brass images in the glass cases either came from eastern Tibet or from Dolon-nor. We were surprised to find such a paucity of really good things. The küren situated on the caravan route to Tibet should possess better examples of Tibetan religious art.

They had planned to continue on by car and truck south across the Gobi, but the monks and caravan men at the monastery warned them that this was impossible. They finally hired a man named Lama Sambu, “well-known guide and caravan leader,” and proceeded south by camel on the caravan route used by the Dalai Lama.

A few years ago I retraced by camel the route used by 13th Dalai Lama and the Roerichs between Amarbuyant Monastery and Shar Khuls Oasis. It took us six days to cover the 105 miles from Amarbuyant to Shar Khuls, the same number of days the Roerich Expedition took. According to local lore, the Dalai also took six days cover the same distance, although of course he was traveling from south to north. This is extremely remote country. Apart from a ranger we met on the first day who worked for the Gobi A Protected Area, which we were passing through, we did not encounter any people on the entire trip.

My camel crew at Amarbuyant

On the third night we camped at a place local people now call Khul Mortiin Us (Palomino Horse Water). This is the same small oasis where the Roerichs camped on their third night. In his book Trails to Inmost Asia George Roerich calls this place Dzogo-usu, which he claims means “tasted water.”  He adds, however, that the term also has a different connotation: “Dzogo is a polite Mongol expression meaning ‘to partake.’ The formal term is used because the Dalai Lama had camped here during his memorable flight from Lhasa in 1904.” My camel men were unfamiliar with the name Dzogo-usu, but they were aware that the Dalai Lama had camped here.

The oasis of Khul Mortiin Us, Roerich’s Dzogo-usu

This oasis is located almost exactly half way between Amarbuyant (51.4 miles to the north) and Shar Khuls (53.6 miles to the south), and the well here provides the only fresh water between the two places. So of course it is a natural place for people traveling by camel to stop when traveling between Shar Khuls and Amarbuyant.

The Well at Khul Mortiin Us

Just after noon on the sixth day we spotted stark, sharp-ridged mountains off to the south. We ride on and about two hours later we can just make out through binoculars dark patches of vegetation at the base of the mountains which must be trees. These would be the first trees we have seen since leaving Amarbuyant Monastery 100 miles to the north. Thus our experience was very similar to that of the Roerich Expedition when it arrived at Shar Khuls on May 5, 1927. George Roerich wrote in his Trails to Inmost Asia:

Towards four o’clock in the afternoon . . . we noticed several dark spots at the foot of the mountains and at the entrance into a narrow narrow gorge hidden behind a long spur. Someone in the caravan column cried out “Trees!” We could not believe our eyes, for most of us were firmly convinced that at best, we would see only miserable juniper shrubs. But there in the distance were actual trees, desert poplars (Populus euphratica) that grew along the banks of the river. How refreshing it felt to enter the coolness of the forested gorge, and camp on the green meadows.

We reach Shar Khuls (shar = yellow; khuls = reeds) at four in the afternoon and set up camp on the gravel bars at the northern end of the oasis, which extends for a half mile or so up a narrow valley cutting into the mountains.

The northern end of Shar Khuls Oasis

Shar Khuls was once the crossroads of two important caravan routes. One ran north-south from Amarbuyant Monastery and across the Black Gobi and Maajin Shan to Anxi in current-day Gansu Province. The other route ran east-west from Hohhot in what is now Inner Mongolia, China, to Gucheng (now known as Qitai) on the northern side of the Tian Shan in Xinjiang, China. (I had visited Qitai a year earlier but could not find a trace of the caravanserai for which the town had once been famous.)

Shar Khuls Oasis

The 13th Dalai Lama was met here at Shar Khuls by a delegation of the famous chanting monks from Amarbuyant Khiid. They accompanied him by camel for the six day trip back to Amarbuyant, chanting all the way. On a knoll at the northern end of the oasis is an ovoo which local lore maintains was built by the Dalai Lama himself. Out of respect to the Dalai Lama people do not add stones to this ovoo when they visit here, as is usually the custom.

Ovoo erected by the Dalai Lama

Below the ovoo, in a grotto beneath a cliff of basalt, is a tiny medicinal spring. According to my camel men the 13th Dalai Lama blessed this spring and prophesied that one day the water from here would serve as a great cure for local people. They added that people had in fact started coming here to drink the water in hopes of curing a peculiar throat ailment which seems to afflict residents of the south Gobi.

The Dalai Lama’s Spring at Shars Khuls

Because of its important as a caravan crossroads Shar Khuls had not escaped the attentions of outlaws, including the notorious Bandit-Magician Dambijantsan, also known as the Ja Lama, who in late 1910s had robbed passing caravans from his hideout in the mountains near here. George Roerich:

Situated not far from the Mongol border, the gorge was always a favorite haunt of robbers. Ja Lama maintained outposts here to look after the caravans coming from China, Tibet, and Mongolia. Even after Ja Lama’s death, the gorge was still visited by robber bands. Only a month before our passing a big camel caravan en route for Ku-ch’eng [Qitai, in Xinjiang] was plundered in the gorge and one of its drivers killed. Our Mongol guides advised us to be very careful and to keep watch in the night.

Near our camp a spring issued forth a six-inch wide stream of water which flows for maybe one hundred feet before disappearing beneath the sands. This is the main water source for the oasis.

At one time Chinese renegades and outlaws from Gansu Province in China had settled here to grow opium. George Roerich says he found the former dwellings of these opium growers at Shar Khuls, but that the Chinese had left some twenty years ago. Yet one of my informants, an eighty-two year old man named Tsedev who now lives near Shinejinst in Bayankhongor Aimag, claims that the opium growers were still there in Dambijantsan’s time. in the late 1910s and early 1920s. As a young man he had traveled the Amarbuyant Monastery–Anxi caravan route many times and had once lived for awhile at Gongpochuan, Dambijantsan’s Fortress-Castle in the Black Gobi south of here. He claimed that Dambijantsan, who was opposed to all use of drugs and alcohol, killed the Chinese opium growers at Shar Khuls and destroyed their plants. He said that when he was a young man he saw the skeletons of Chinese killed by the Ja Lama here.

From Shar Khuls the Roerich continued south through the Black Gobi, passing by Dambijantsan’s Fortress at Mazong Shan, to Anxi in Gansu Province, China, and then across Tibet to Sikkim. They arrived back in Darjeeling, where they had started the expedition over three years before, on May 26, 1928. The Roerichs would later say that Shar Khuls Oasis was the best camping spot they encountered on their entire trip from Ulaan Baatar to Sikkim in the Himalayas.

From Khar Khuls we rode 60 miles west by camel to the oasis town of Ekhin Gol, and from there traveled by jeep back to Ulaan Baatar.

One of my camel men, Zevgee, and his wife Tümen Ölzii