by Ivan Mackerle
Our off-road vehicle halted close to the edge of a deep chasm. It was quite impossible to drive any further. We were deep in the uninhabited, unexplored and pristine region of the southern Mongolian Gobi, amidst a labyrinth of rocks, valleys and moving sands. We picked up the transmitter and started walking that way, to explore what lay ahead and search for the most suitable and safest route. Sweating heavily and out of breath we finished climbing the weather-beaten sandstone cliff and stood amazed. A gigantic desert of sand spread out below us towards the horizon. Far towards the south at the Chinese border spread the blinding yellow dunes of fine sand. We were standing on the border of a region veiled in frightening tales of mystery. We had arrived at the goal of our journey of eight thousand kilometer, in the region of the mysterious creature Allghoi khorkhoi - The Death Worm.
Searching for extinct or unknown animals is no longer practised by a small number of far-gone adventurers. The founding of the International Cryptozoological Society in Washington D.C. by a group of scientist from around the world in 1982, provided the stepping stones for serious research. To the interests of the society belong some of the more popular creatures such as the Loch Ness Monster, Yeti or the Mokele Mbembe - a dinosaur said to be living in the jungles and swamp lands of Central Africa. Numerous books and articles, including research material, has been written about these fantastic creatures, yet no one has ever mentioned the Allghoi khorkhoi from the smouldering Gobi desert in Mongolia. It is not listed among sought after animals either because cryptozoologists do not know it exists. Since no one has heard the chilling and mysterious tales told by Mongolian herdsman, no one has attempted to verify their authenticity.
I came upon my very first clues that got me onto the Allghoi khorkhoi trail by chance. It was during a conversation I had with a young female Mongolian student at a party. After describing my diving expedition in search of the Loch Ness Monster, she began to unfold an odd and unforgettable tale. She slowly leaned over to my ear, as though she were about to reveal a secret, and whispered; "We too have a horrible creature living in Mongolia. We call it the Allghoi khorkhoi monster and it lives burried in the Gobi Desert sand dunes. It can kill a man, horse, even a camel." This is all she told me. After being told this small bit of information my curiosity forced me to ask every Mongolian I came into contact with about this horrific creature. To my surprise, the Mongolians I spoke to were retentive and unwilling to tell me what they knew, as though they were frightened to speak. I was left empty handed with no concrete information. As to why, I did not find out till much, much later.
If we look back into history we will find several cases where "tales" have led explorers to scientific discoveries ( let us not forget the discoveries of the Komodo dragon or the Mountain gorilla). As much as I wanted to, I could not put the hope of the Allghoi khorkhoi becoming a new discovery born of a tale. I began by reading about Mongolia, but could find nothing written about this particular creature. In vain I searched through the travel books of Kozlov and Przewalsky, two Russian explorers from the end of 19th century. Their material led me to documents from the beginning of this century written by Sven Hedin, Ossendowsky, Haslund and others.
None of them had anything to say about the Mongolian creature. At last, in Roy Andrews's The New Conquest of Central Asia, I found a very short paragraph on the 62nd page. In his scientific publication he describes the first paleonthological expedition he led to the Gobi desert in 1922. Before setting off he was approached by the Mongolian Prime Minister who wanted Andrews to find an example of the Allghoi khorkhoi. The creature was described to him as being at least half meter long, similar to a sausage and very dangerous. He knew where to find the animal; in the most parched areas of the southern Gobi. He had little time and made but a small effort to look for the animal believing it was more important to concentrate on the purpose of his expedition. While in the desert, Andrews writes that he and his team saw no signs of the creature, nor did they meet a person who may have seen one. He admitted, however, that several of the natives they spoke to claimed to know of people who have seen the monster.
"If the faith in its existence was not so strong and widespread among the Mongolians," writes Andrews, "and if everyone did not describe the animal exactly the same way, I would believe it to be an idle myth." He adds: "I hope the next explorers have better luck then we had." His short mention, that only a few scientists are aware of, has attracted little attention.
The second and final mention of the Allghoi khorkhoi I stumbled upon was in a book "Doroga Vetrov" ( The Wind's Path ) by Russian paleonthologist and writer Yephremov. He re-tells legends told to him by Tseveng from Dalandzadgad, an elderly man he met during a Russian expedition to the Gobi. The old man told him that the Allghoi khorkhoi is a horrifying animal, mysteriously killing its prey from a great distance. Yephremov remembers being told that the animal can grow to be up to a meter and a half long, and that it lives in he sandy dunes of Khaldzan dzakh, an area lying approximately 130 kilometers south-east of Dalandzadgad. It emerges only during the hottest months of the year, in June and July. Then, for the rest of the year, it burrows into sand and sleeps.
How is it possible, that this exciting legend is still veiled in secrecy and has escaped public interest? "The shepherds of the Gobi desert refuse to talk about it," I listened to this explanation from Tschimed, the interpreter and driver of our expedition. "They fear, that only the mere utterance of its name can bring ill fate upon them." There are more reasons, however. This is mainly the inaccessibility of the regions of the southern Gobi for foreign researchers and travelers. To travel freely in Mongolia without official permission from "higher places" is considered impossible. But most importantly, to search for the Allghoi khorkhoi was strictly forbidden when the former government decided the creature is but a ficticious fairy - tale, making it incompatible to their Marxist ideology. Up until recently it belonged to so-called "forbidden themes", like the Chingis Khan. The Chingis Khan, though everybody knew it existed, was practically erased from Mongolian history thanks to Communist censors.
That is why my attempts to establish an expedition to find the Allghoi khorkhoi were unsuccessful for many years. Not only did this country's government give us the cold shoulder, the Academy of Science never responded to my letters. Not until the fall of the Totalitarian Communist regime in 1990, were we able to visit Mongolia. Along with my longtime friends, photographer Jiri Skupien and Jarda Prokopec, a physician, we took advantage of the country's overall relinquishments. We knew about the hunger for American currency and quickly set off on a trip, a sort of expedition into the unknown. In Ulanbatar we rented an off-road vehicle and hired a courageous driver who was willing to drive us without permit into a "forbidden" region, and area an average tourist could never step foot, for a hundred bucks.
Our plan was simple. To find our way into the desert in the south, there to collect reports from the nomads, and - to search for the gigantic worm. In its early stages our search was something of a game of hide-and seek. The young people did not know much about the murderous worm, the old folk refused to talk about it. People in Dalandzadgad said it could be found in Khanbogd, but when we arrived in Khanbogd, they sent us back to Dalandzadgad. And so we decided to make a systematic search of the whole of the southern Gobi right down to the Chinese border. Tschimed told me that our guide Khamgalagu, whom we had hired in Khanbogd, knows about a case of the Allghoi khorkhoi having killed a whole family. However he did not wish to talk about it. We could do nothing but wait for a suitable opportunity, and that came along the following night. We struck camp near the ruins of an old monastery, where we found a little wood and made a fire that evening. We opened a bottle of Archi, the Mongolian vodka - and the effect came soon enough. All we heard at first was that the killer worm looks very much like a cow intestine, hence its name " intestine-worm". We were told it has a dark-red color, like blood or salami and that it is difficult to tell its head from its tail because it has no visible eyes, nostrils or mouth. The creature also moves in odd ways, either it rolls around or it squirms sideways, sweeping its way about. It likes yellow - the color.
After we opened the second bottle, the fire was burning low but spirits were high and we soon heard the story I had been waiting for with such impatience. The story of a yellow box having enticed the evil worm right inside a yurta. A little boy was playing in the yurta, and he went into his yellow box to pull out a toy. But he touched the worm, hidden inside, and he was killed on the spot. When the parents returned, all they saw was the wavy trail from the yurta. They realised what had happened and followed that trail in order to avenge their little son, but the Allghoi khorkhoi killed them too.
After the story, the fire died down, but I still sat beneath the black star-spangled sky, staring into the red charcoal from which a blue flame would still flicker from time to time. I was tired but I could not fall asleep. My head was full of that odd creature, which might be lying in wait in the vicinity.
When I asked how the worm did its killing, nobody gave me any straight answer at first. They thought it was either an electric current or a strong poison. Everything that comes into contact with this poison, even metal, looks as if it had been corroded by some acid, and turns yellow immediately. But the poison loses its potency from the end of June onwards, and meeting this dangerous worm then does not always end in death. Another interesting fact - the Allghoi khorkhoi most frequently appears near places, where the desert plant "Goyo" grows. This is an ugly cigar-shaped parasite found on the saxaul roots, which contains some sort of drug or poison. Could the killer worm be using the plant to produce its murderous substance?
Not far from Noyon lives camel herdsman Zhamiandorzhin Tseden, who claims he has seen the Allghoi khorkhoi. Each one of us was eager to meet and question our first eye-witness, but we were out of luck - his yurta was empty and nobody knew when Zhamiandorzhin could be expected back. As if to make up for this, however, the yurta of the old woman named Puret was open and we were invited in most cordially. After the inevitable ceremony of serving tea, koumiss (fermented, slightly alcoholic mare's milk) and the rolling of cigarettes, came some "light conversation" about cattle, and then Tschimed deftly turned the subject to the Allghoi khorkhoi. It took awhile before the old woman was willing to come to terms with this subject-matter, but finally she did start talking.
"I have never personally seen the Allghoi khorkhoi, but I have heard much about it. It is said to move about under the sand and when it wants to kill someone, it moves half its length out of the sand. It starts to inflate, the bubble on its body keeps getting larger and in the end, the poison squirts out from it."
She refilled our bowls with tea and continued: "An Alghoi khorkhoi has the ability to kill not only a human being, but also a camel. Roughly thirty years ago it killed an entire herd just south of Noyon. Camels are well aware of the lurking worm and nervously avoid it. The Allghoi khorkhoi, however, appears very rarely and usually only after rainfalls, which are more then scarce in these parts of the world. It then basks in the sun for several days only to dissapear again." And so we huddled and sipped tea, excited by the unforgettable stories that circulated among the small group of herdsmen. Stories with a short life-span, often told only once.
No one has succeeded in photographing the Allghoi khorkhoi, nor has its body ever been placed in the hands of scientists. We believe the facts we gathered during our first expedition may be useful when deliberating about the creature's paculiarities. We can say with enough certainty that a legend, such as this one, could not have originated from, for example a snake, since it is a much too familiar sight to the herdsmen. It could, however, be an up to present unknown species of skink. Skinks are categorized among lizards even if though some species have little or no physical resemblance to one. The Stump-tailed skink has a cone-like body up to 40 cm long, and a short rounded-off tail and head, making hard to tell the two ends apart. It lives buried under the sand, just like the Allghoi khorkhoi. But all Skinks have short legs, and their bodies are covered with scales while our animal is said to have a smooth body and that, like a worm, it contracts and expands or squirms to move about.
If the Allghoi khorkhoi is indeed a lizard, then it would probably be closest to the Worm lizard. This reptile has no scales, grows to be at least 50cm long, lives underground and surfaces only after a rainfall. But like the Stump-tailed skink, it is not poisonous. Only one species of lizard, the Mexican beaded lizard and the Gila monster, have poisonous venom in their teeth. But neither of them resembles a worm, and their venom is unlikely to kill a human being instantly, even at a close range.
We can search among spine-less worms and find that certain marine species use poison as their weapon. The Bootlace worm, for example, is a remarkable creature. It can grow to be several meters in length and in a pouch on its back, it carries a sort of hollowed out trunk that stretches out to twice the length of its body. The thorn-like tip of the trunk has a poisonous gland and when the worm senses danger, it can easily shoot out the trunk and spike its predator with the gland. But we will not solve our mystery by studying this animal because the Bootlace worm, and other poisonous worms like it, live in the sea and not in dry sand.
We are left with one last probability; that the Allghoi Khorkhoi is an entirely unknown relict creature that managed to survive in a desolate part of our world. The remoteness and unadmissability of the Gobi desert offered ideal conditions for this animal to exist undisturbed. The Gobi desert is the largest deposit site of fossilized dinosaur bones, proving it was once home to a number of prehistoric creatures.
Of course, zoologists will remain skeptical until they see convincing evidence - a quality photograph or the animal captured on film. This was the goal of our second expedition to the Gobi desert. This time around we did not need to tour the yurtas in order to collect information. We needed to get close enough to the mysterious creature in order to capture it on film. Filming the creature would help us gain so much useful informations a photograph could not give us. And obviously it would simplify the process of specification and categorization. Yanzhingin Mahgalshav, an old ranger and nature protector from Dalandzadgad, gave us tips on where to find the Allghoi khorkhoi. All the spots had local names we could hardly pronounce: Gooczingin kholoi, Oendoer govt, Khaldzan uul, Orag nuur, etc. We didn not find them on any of our maps, and so it forced us to hire a local guide. Before setting out, we thought up a plan that would give us a "chance" to see the illusive worm. We did not have time to wait and hope the monster will deign to show itself to us. We figured it would be easiest to force it out of the sand in front of us and our set up camera. Our initial idea was to use an electric field, but we went on to use the explosives we had brought with us. The explosions would send shock waves and shudders through the sand, forcing whatever living thing to emerge from the dunes. We followed the advice given to us by the herdsmen and prepared ourselves to keep a 10-meter distance from the worm. It was a close enough distance for us to acquire clear, quality shots. We combed through several regions and found them inert and lifeless. The wind, we realized, never stops blowing in the Gobi and that the only movement is that of the drifting dunes, while the only sound we heard was the boom of our explosives.
We were taken aback one day when we stumbled upon a yurta. In these inhabited parts we figured it had fallen from the clouds. We soon found out it belonged to an old Shaman. The yurta itself was curiously decorated while the atmosphere was odd and mysterious. Strangely enough, the old man had premised the goal of our journey and his first words were words of warning. He told us to leave the site and to drop the experiment because we had violated the "taboo of the desert". The Allghoi khorkhoi is not a living creature, made of blood and flesh, but a supernatural and evil beast, "the Demon of the desert". I began to remember a similar tale I had been told by lamas living in a monastery at the edge of the desert. Their only words were words of caution - that only a mention of its name could be hazardous. The Shaman was more willing to speak to us, but when we pressed him to be more graphic and to describe the "demon" he frowned and answered simply: "It is an intestine filled with blood." I was spellbound when the Shaman recited these words and a perfect image of the creature unfolded in my mind. I was swept with a sudden rush of nausea.
The following night I felt the same awful feeling in a dream. I dreamt of a large purple sand dune from which stirred a horrible creature. I wanted to run away, but could not. I struggled to turn around to escape, but my legs were heavy and my body weak. A horrible worm-like beast emerged from the depths of the dune. It suctioned itself to my back, like a disgusting leech to a wound. A burst of pain pulled me out of the nightmare and away from the purple dune and creature, but the acute pain remained- it was real. Thank God that next to me lay Jarda, a doctor. He uncovered my body and saw I was studded with swollen bruises. He carefully turned me over- a pouch full of blood had formed on my back - "...an intestine filled with blood." How had this happened?
In despair, Jarda gave me an injection of medicine, but it hardly helped. New hematomas appeared the next day along with the first signs of heart failure. I was in seriously bad shape and our plans to explore the desert dissolved. My condition forced us to listen to the Shaman's words of warning: "If you intrude upon the Allghoi khorkhoi, you risk death!"
Could it really be a curse? Nonsense, surely. But there could be a certain explanation. What if the creature is really an immaterial apparition? When a person stays in a desert, where it seems only the shape of the dunes change, where there is sand and only sand, that person can fall into a sort of hypnotized state. Images and odd visions can seep into their mind, either from their subconscious or they are mentally forwarded by a Shaman or a lama. Or are we dealing with beings from a world of different dimensions? One theory states, that apparitions are closely linked to certain places. Our planet is laced with ley lines". They are imaginary lines that correspond to underground currents of a unknown earthly force. Very sensitive people such as dowsers are aware of the force. It is said, that on ley line crossings, where the energy is concentrated most powerfully, some kind of "bridges" can be created from time to time. These bridges unite our world with other invisible worlds or realm of being that run parallel with our own. Some people believe that these specific spots are closely linked to paranormal phenomena, as are apparitions of "ghost", raging poltergeist, and even UFOs.
A less frightening and more down-to-earth possibility is that the Allghoi khorkhoi is in the end a living animal. But so rare, that the shamans have for ages worshipped it as a deity. They might still be bent on magical ritual, sending out negative forces by telepathy onto anyone, who attempts to disrupt the Allghoi khorkhoi's peace by trespassing onto the sacred dunes. Is the animal protected by a sorcerer's curse like the mummified Pharaohs were by the Egyptian priests? Scientists discard the "curse" possibility, but if we have a bit of faith in so-called healers, people who have the ability to heal from a distance, why could there not exist a shaman with the power to do the opposite, and to make his victim ill?
It is possible, however, that coincidence played an important role in our expedition. My sudden loss of health may have been caused by the extreme conditions of the Gobi desert, and that the Allghoi khorkhoi had nothing to do with the hemorrhaging and heart troubles. Is this creature alive, or are we dealing with a mythical monster? The only way to solve this mystery would be to set up another Gobi expedition to comb through the arid dunes once again. No one really knows what the sand has blown over. The Black Gobi, the most terrifyin desert on Earth, has yet to disclose its secrets.