The first time you hear about the Mongolian Death Worm you assume it has to be a joke; it sounds too much like the monster from a B-movie or an especially dire comic book to be true. A five-foot (1.5m) long worm dwelling in the vast and inhospitable expanses of the Gobi Desert, the creature is known to Mongolia’s nomadic tribesmen as the allghoi khorkhoi (sometimes given as allerghoi horhai or olgoj chorchoj) or ‘intestine worm’ for its resemblance to a sort of living cow’s intestine. Apparently red in colour, sometimes described as having darker spots or blotches, and sometimes said to bear spiked projections at both ends, the khorkhoi is reputedly just as dangerous as its alarming appearance would suggest, squirting a lethal corrosive venom at its prey and capable of killing by discharging a deadly electric shock, even at a distance of some feet.
The first reference in English to this remarkable beast appears in Professor Roy Chapman Andrews’ 1926 book On the Trail of Ancient Man, although the American palæontologist (apparently the inspiration for the Indiana Jones character) was not entirely convinced by the tales of the monster he heard at a gathering of Mongolian officials: “None of those present ever had seen the creature, but they all firmly believed in its existence and described it minutely.”
So was the Death Worm simply a myth, or could there be a real creature out there, awaiting discovery?
On the Internet I came across plenty of stories to the effect that the Mongolians were so afraid of this terrible beast that they simply clammed up and refused to talk about it; that it lived in the most hostile terrain, where other, less fearsome beasts would surely perish; and that it could kill just by looking at people, shooting lightning from its eyes! This last bit, in particular, set alarm bells ringing; to say I was sceptical would be an understatement, as this wasn’t the first cryptid with such a ‘magical power’ that I’d pursued. A few years before, I’d travelled to the Congo in pursuit of the mokele m’bembe, a ‘living dinosaur’ which, the pygmies claimed, possessed a similar control over deadly lightning (see FT145:30).
Czech Explorer Ivan Mackerle (see FT150:50) has mounted two expeditions in search of the allghoi khorkhoi (in 1990 and 1992), and intends to return this summer. This time, he is planning to pilot an ultralight aircraft, from which he hopes to spot the creature basking on the surface. As well as assembling a huge volume of information on the creature, much from obscure Mongolian sources, he has compiled a useful and concise information sheet on the creature – required reading for all would-be Death Worm hunters:
Sausage-like worm over half a metre (20 inches) long, and thick as a man’s arm, resembling the intestine of cattle. Its tail is short, as [if] it were cut off, but not tapered. It is difficult to tell its head from its tail because it has no visible eyes, nostrils or mouth. Its colour is dark red, like blood or salami… It moves in odd ways – either it rolls around or squirms sideways, sweeping its way about. It lives in desolate sand dunes and in the hot valleys of the Gobi desert with saxaul plants underground. It is possible to see it only during the hottest months of the year, June and July; later it burrows into the sand and sleeps. It gets out on the ground mainly after the rain, when the ground is wet. It is dangerous, because it can kill people and animals instantly at a range of several metres.
Ivan proved to be a great help in getting my own proposed expedition off the ground, providing some promising leads as to places where we might begin a search for the creature. All the eyewitness accounts of the Death Worm had occurred, as Ivan’s info sheet suggested, at the hottest time of the year – June to July – and in the southern Gobi, a place of real extremes, brutally hot in summer, freezing in winter. If I were to have any chance of finding the Death Worm, it would have to be in the summer.
Being entirely self-funded, I then had to save up enough cash to get to Mongolia. By the beginning of June 2003, though, everything was in place and I was off. Joining me was an old colleague, Andy Sanderson, who had previously accompanied me on a number of other expeditions and who carried out much of the planning for this one.
There had been some debate about the issue of Sars before we went [see FT172: 32-37], not least because we were travelling through Bejiing. However, we’d waited more than two years to make the expedition a reality, and we weren’t about to let anything stop us. It was still a shock to be greeted by Air China stewardesses in masks and gowns as we stepped onto our flight from Heathrow.
Arriving in Beijing, we found it something of a ghost town. Tiananmen Square was deserted but for a few people flying kites, and we wandered around the Forbidden City quite alone except for occasional groups of Chinese soldiers marching past in masks and gloves.
The next day, running the gauntlet of obligatory temperature checks, we arrived in Ulan-Bator and met up with our Mongolian team: Jagaa, the driver, Bilgee, the cook-cum-interpreter, and Bayamba, who was to organise affairs for us in the capital.
Over dinner that night, I went over the plan I had devised to search for the creature. Broadly speaking, we were to travel to the area south of Noyon, where there had been the greatest concentration of sightings, gather eyewitness reports, assess the reliability of witnesses and then head off to investigate these areas. We were to use GPS and the best maps we could find, but we were aware that the place might not have been surveyed comprehensively for some time, if at all.
The team seemed to be bonding well, with everyone getting along famously and Bilgee seemingly in approval of our plan. He did, though, utter a warning: “We will be spending weeks in the Gobi, just camping in the open. That is a very long time, we will all be exhausted!”
Exhausted or not, we would have limited time, and to maximise our chances of finding the creature we would have to stay in the inhospitable Gobi for as long as possible. I made it clear that this was our intention. And so we toasted our departure and set off.
The first thing that strikes you about Mongolia is the sheer vastness and forbidding beauty of its plains. Endlessly rolling, punctuated by the occasional herd of antelope or a hurrying marmot, they are utterly unique. The people themselves are among the most hospitable and genuinely friendly in the world – once you get past the large vicious dogs they keep to guard against wolves.
Mongolian food, though, we quickly, if somewhat uncharitably, decided, is best left to Mongolians: mutton for breakfast, mutton for lunch, mutton for dinner. In summer it’s washed down with airag, a fermented mare’s milk (though being in the Gobi, we primarily had camel airag) which tastes a lot like creamy, lumpy sour milk. Custom is very important to the nomadic Mongolians, many of whom still live in traditional felt tents known as gers, and it would have been impolite to refuse our hosts; so we ate and drank what we were given, appearing as appreciative as we could and taking advice from Bilgee as to what was appropriate for us to offer in return.
On the journey down, we camped near an abandoned monastery. It was a sobering thought that just 10 years earlier the communists had murdered all the monks who lived here. It was at this time that Ivan Mackerle had first visited; perhaps the stories of tight-lipped Mongolians, reluctant to talk to foreigners, stemmed from the fact that their society had been so consistently repressed since the Stalinist era.
While I sat in camp that night, pondering such questions, a small snake slithered past, arching its head towards me as it did so. “Wolf snake” said Jagaa. “Very poisonous!”
Gradually, as we travelled, the terrain became less verdant, greens turning to browns. I took every opportunity to ask as many Mongolians as possible about the Death Worm. Many had heard of it, but there were no firm clues to its habitat or location. It was at the Gobi National Park that we got our first really big lead.
Speaking to one of the Park’s guides, it emerged that a local man had apparently made a carving of a Death Worm; it now sat proudly in the museum, among the snow leopards and mountain goats. The guide also knew of an elderly man who’d spent many years researching the stories of the khorkhoi, who lived in a tourist ger about 30km (19 miles) away.
After a day spent tracking the old man down, we sat with him and began to talk in earnest. He pinpointed precise locations on our map where we could most usefully search. He explained that the creature appeared mainly in June or July, that it burrowed in the sand and that the most common sightings occurred just after rainfall and when the Goyo plant (a parasitic plant with a yellow flower) was in bloom.
One particular piece of information did give us cause for concern: the valleys, the old man remarked, were home to a particularly vicious spider which wasn’t averse to running and charging at human beings! I was a little sceptical of this, as in my own experience spiders, snakes and other creatures we often invest with threatening qualities normally disappear at the first sign of trouble. Andy, though, who counts the spider as his least favourite creature, looked distinctly worried.
The next day we headed off to a region never before traversed by foreigners, and picked up our first really good eyewitness lead – a young man who had seen a khorkhoi only three years before, near a well in the area. It turned out that in the local villages there were several people who had seen the khorkhoi, and armed with this information we resolved to interview them before travelling on to the most promising of the locations.
We were told that near the local army base lived a very reliable witness, a man by the name of Khurvoo, who had seen the creature on three occasions. Having found Khurvoo, I was asking him my standard questions – where and when did you see it, length, description and so on – when we were promptly arrested and placed under guard in our jeep! The Colonel of the base (a man with whom I had shared a vodka just the day before) had suddenly become suspicious that we might be Chinese spies! Andy and I spent the rest of the afternoon being interrogated in turn before we appealed to the General of the area, who promptly released us.
From then on, we had to report our movements (the Colonel was obviously missing us), but apart from this inconvenience, we were in high spirits, excited about the fantastic witness statements we’d gathered. I used a tabulated chart to cross-reference features from these accounts with locations. One of the things that struck me most was the high degree of correlation between the statements in terms of physical description. All had seen a maggot-like creature; most referred to its burrowing action; all described it as being snake-like. One particularly graphic account was of a man who had mistakenly touched a khorkhoi; his arm had started to burn, so he had stuck it in a bag of cooling airag, which turned green from the poison.
Armed with this information, we decided to try our luck at three locations linked to sightings, based on their proximity to our current position and the time we had available. We resolved to trek at different times of the day to find evidence of the creature. First thing in the morning for two hours, after breakfast for another two hours, in the afternoon after lunch, and finally in the early evening – a minimum of six to seven hours in total. It turned out to be tough going. At altitude in the desert you begin to feel that you are walking in a suit of armour; as you become increasingly hot and begin to suffocate, your mental processes start to slow and words become slurred.
Our tent didn’t help much either. Before leaving, we had discussed buying a specialist tent designed to handle high altitudes, extreme UV exposure and heat, but as it cost at least £400, we simply couldn’t afford it. As the Mongolians offered to provide us with a tent, we decided we’d settle for that. Unfortunately for us, it appeared to be a child’s tent purchased from the Mongolian equivalent of Woolworth’s, decorated on the inside with clowns and teddy bears! To make matters worse, we sometimes had to spend hours inside it, simply to get away from the baking heat outside (at times as high as 49º C [120º F]). Suffice to say, I now have a pathological hatred of clowns.
Nevertheless, the tent stood up to some pretty brutal treatment –it survived a major sandstorm one night and looked in better shape than we did by the end of the expedition. The clowns, unlike us, were able to sustain their maniacal grins on even the toughest of days.
The first camp brought plenty of wolf tracks and airborne ticks, but no joy on the khorkhoi front, so we ploughed on to the second. This, I felt, was perfect habitat for the creature, and indeed it had been sighted here many times. Unfortunately, it was also home to many thousands of biting flies. On one day I counted over 50 bites on myself; even combinations of various proven insect repellents provided no release. Nevertheless, it was here that we celebrated Andy’s birthday, which I doubt he’ll forget in a hurry.
On our last afternoon here I had instructed Jagaa to break camp while Andy, Bilgee and I went on our final trek. As we approached camp, we found Jagaa waving his arms excitedly. It turned out that one of the dreaded spiders had taken refuge under our tent, and, as he moved it, the creature had charged him.
It was now lodged under our water container and, as Bilgee moved it, the spider behaved exactly as the old man had described – it seemed to raise its legs and then charged straight for me! I dodged out of its way.
“Kill it!” cried Bilgee.
“No”, I rashly declared, “give it a chance”.
Then it turned for Bilgee and managed to get up his leg. One bite from the spider would be highly poisonous and, considering the remoteness of our location, very dangerous. Bilgee managed to shake the beast off.
Undeterred, the creature now turned for Andy.
“Kill it!” I cried.
Eventually we broke for our final camp. On the way there, we stopped at the ger of an old man who had been part of a geological survey back in 1948. He was an enormously enigmatic character, and recounted his tale over tea, hunched down in his ger, punctuating the story with the occasional snort of snuff.
He recalled how one of the geologists had first spotted a khorkhoi and asked him exactly what the creature was. Both of them had been nervous and left the creature alone. The following day, the survey team saw two more in the same area – which they had promptly burned... When I asked the old man why, he turned towards me, stared me straight in the eye, and said: “Because we were afraid. I am afraid of this place. It is a bad place. Since then, I have only been back there twice in my life. You will see...”
The Mongolians are superstitious people, and so Jagaa and Bilgee did not welcome our arrival at the last camp with anything but trepidation. My main concern was having enough water to stay there. The Gobi water from the wells is very salty, and we were some distance from the nearest well.
The locale was a large ridge of jutting sandstone, and as you reached the bottom of it, we could feel ourselves cooking in the heat, as if we’d fallen into a giant frying pan. We all agreed that the place did have an unnerving atmosphere about it – a feeling only strengthened by the large number of animal carcasses we came across en route, casualties of the previous few years’ droughts.
By now, running out of both time and drinking water, we had to make the decision to turn back, no closer to sighting the elusive Death Worm – despite the numerous eyewitness accounts – than when we had set out. Disappointed, we headed once more for the capital.
The journey back was enlivened by a visit to the house of the Naddam champion wrestler, an acquaintance of Bilgee’s. In one of the stupidest decisions of my life, I volunteered to wrestle him. Given my complete inexperience, this was akin to someone who had never boxed taking on Lennox Lewis. Even my tough Mongolian team, who encouragingly referred to me as ‘big boss’, looked more than a little worried.
I did my best, but it was a foregone conclusion, really. They clearly admired my willingness to make a complete fool of myself; the wrestler’s brother offered to kill a goat in celebration, telling me that I would be a wrestler if I lived there!
At the end of the expedition, arriving back in Ulan-Bator, Andy and I were given a marvellous present – a four-banded silver puzzle ring, each band representing one of our team, all of which were hand-made by Jagaa’s brother and representing the lifelong friendship we had forged together. It would always be a moving reminder of what had been a fantastic experience, one in which we had travelled to areas never before seen by Westerners, even if we hadn’t found the Death Worm…
And what of the mysterious creature we had come so far to find?
Well, despite our lack of success, and the fact that we found no scientific proof of its existence, I really believe that it’s out there somewhere. The habitat and remoteness of the area are consistent with a creature of this kind, the ecosystem could support it, and the vast and remote regions in which it is said to live might explain why it has remained unknown to science. Most impressive, though, were the many eyewitness statements from people living many, many miles apart, all having a high degree of consistency in their descriptions and details.
I can only echo the sentiments of Roy Chapman Andrews: “If the faith in its existence was not so strong and widespread… and if everyone did not describe the animal exactly the same way, I would believe it to be an idle myth.”
I know it’s out there and I wish the next explorer the best of luck in proving me right. Who knows? I might even have another go myself.