• Don Lessem


-- Dusk, Gobi Desert, Mongolia

Batkmunkh had been climbing, ever more slowly, since dawn. Until that moment the craggy cliff-top seemed to loom as distant above him as it had when he began his ascent. Now, at last, he could see the summit just yards ahead of him in the growing mist. He crawled, wheezing, to the top of rocky pinnacle.

He tossed his backpack to the ground and collapsed beside it. He cursed his own body – chain-smoking city folk with thirty pounds of belly fat had no business climbing slopes as steep as these. A fit nomad, maybe. Him, no.

But no local would dare climb the slopes surrounding Yelyn Am, the fabled “Vulture Gorge.” Nomads all across Dorngobi Aimag knew from childhood to mind the injunctions of their elders: Vulture Gorge was sacred ground. Forbidden. Deadly.

A myriad of natural hazards did await trespassers – crumbling precipices, flash floods, landslides, vipers, and, owing to the isolation of Vulture Gorge, the last significant population of snow leopards on Earth.

But far worse than these worldly threats were the consequences of angering the Gods of Yelyn Am. To Mongolians, the valley was the “Energy Center of the Universe,” a vortex of spiritual force so great it was reputed to drive those to entered it to madness.

And, worst of all dangers, to venture into the valley was to risk unleashing the “Dragon Guardians.” The portraits of these monsters were myserious – cat-quick, vicious, with sharp teeth and slicing claws. Leopard? Eagle? A chimera of both? This much was certain about the Guardians in Mongolian lore: from their sharp talons there no escape.

But Batmunkh was two generations removed from the tall tales told to his nomadic grandparents. When he was very young, they’d taken him to the countryside to live in their ger. He had ridden the sturdy little Mongolian ponies, and joined his elders in hunting and fishing for food. But years of herding in –40 degree winters took their toll on his grandparents. They passed into the Eternal Blue Sky when Batmunkh was barely into his teens.

Batmunkh’s parents, like so many of their generation, had long ago headed to Ulaanbaatar to hunt for jobs. And, like so many, they found none. Instead, like so many others in “U.B.”, his parents drank themselves into an early grave.

Bamunkh was headed that way himself. He’d hustled on the crumbling streets of U.B. for most of his adult years, getting by on odd jobs and petty theft. Successful scrounging earned him a junk-food paunch, a drinker’s veinous nose and football-sized liver, and a chain smoker’s hacking cough. (Though, thanks to rampant coal-burning, nearly everyone in the world’s most polluted capital had the same productive cough).

It was just a week ago, in Ulaanbataar’s Chinggis Khan Irish Bar, a favorite hang-out for aventurous travelers and ex-pats, that Batmunkh made his big score. It took him less than a single bottle of Chinggis Khan Vodka to drink the friendly, clueless American hunter he met there into unconsciousness.

Batmunkh found the keys to a jeep in the hunter’s pocket, along with a wad of tugregs that could buy Batmunkh enough petrol to get halfway across Mongolia. Under the camel blanket in the trunk, Batmunkh located a shotgun and cartridges.

This was all too easy. And it didn’t take Batmunkh long to figure out where to head. The biggest prices on the black market were for a huge rack of Marco Polo ram horns, or better still, the pelt of a snow leopard. The best places to poach these rare prizes for those unafraid to go, were the pristine slopes of Yelyn Am.

Two days’ drive across bone-shaking terrain had brought Batmunkh to the base of the looming escarpment. Now, gasping, he was finally crawling to its summit.

At last reaching the peak, he felt a cool, bracing draft roll across the promintory, nothing like the broiling stillness of the Gobi below. After a few minutes, Batmunkh was able to rise to his feet. As he did, he marvelled at the view.

The chain of spiked peaks ran to the horizon to either side of him, and a parallel row, just as long and intimidating, stood several miles before him. Between the two rows of peaks, even farther down it seemed than the base of the slope behind him, was something magical -- a valley so narrow, so deep that he could not see to its bottom.

What Batmunkh could see, the upper slopes, looked unlike anything he knew, unlike anything in Mongolia, in fact. Though surrounded by endless barren desert, the valley slopes were verdant green, dotted with wildflowers, a sprinkling of brilliant purple and yellow. Mountain goats clambered across the rocky slopes within yards of Batmunkh, oblivious to his presence. A huge lammergeyer wheeled overhead, kettling in the warming wind.

Time for a barbecue, Batmunkh thought to himself. Meat, any meat, is manna to a Mongolian. Batmunkh hadn’t held a gun in twenty years, but at forty yards he’d have to be half-blind to miss a stationary goat. And he wasn’t half-blind yet -- it was too early in evening to drink that heavily. Batmunkh adjusted the gun site, aimed for the nearest ram’s head, and barely nailed the animal in the hindquarters.

But the bullet ripped enough gluteal muscle to drop the goat, wailing, to its knees. Batmunkh smiled. He walked slowly up to his quarry, admired his handiwork, then shot it through the temple.

The goat was still twitching when he sliced it open with the hunting knife from his pack. He cut the choice meat and organs for his own fire, then tied the bloody carcass to a spike of rock. Now all he had to do was wait for the snow leopard. Batmunkh was most of the way through his quart of vodka when the late summer twilight swept quickly over the cliff top. The air suddenly chilled.

Snow leopards are solitary hunters, so perfectly camouflaged, so stealthy, that even had Batmunkh been alert, he likely would not have seen nor heard a leopard’s approach. His first awareness of danger came with the slash of claws across his neck, followed by the thudding weight of a hurtling animal striking the back of his head. It growled, with an unearthly guttural sound, as it ripped off his right ear and gouged deeply into his neck.

The second attacker leapt upon his prostrate body, slashing with the long, sharp claw on each foot, and tearing the entrails from his fleshy belly.

Bamunkh writhed, screaming in agony and terror. In the moment before he lost consciousness, one of his attackers hissed and snapped at his contorted face. Batmunkh found himself staring directly into a gaping jaw, smeared with his blood. Above the bloody maw, a cold reptilian eye stared back at him.

The Dragon Guardians had found him.

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