Into the Gobi and further west

From our correspondent Emily van Oosterom…

The last three weeks have been amazing. So much has happened in such a variety of landscapes that I’m putting them into seperate chapters for your enjoyment, rather than lobbing a huge and potentially mind-numbing blog at you all at once.

Our journey begins with an(other) epic road trip. This time we travelled across the northern reaches of Gobi. Gobi simply means ‘the desert’ and encompasses a surprising variety of landscapes. I never expected to like the desert but I’ve fallen in love with Gobi. I wish I had more time to go further in. As it was, we barely brushed the surface of it.

We left Uliastai without incident. Our new translator, Amra, is a lovely young guy from Ulaanbaatar with excellent english. He was fully capable of holding a conversation, unlike Dima, so we were able to actually talk to him rather than just struggling to get more than “yeah, it’s ok” out of him. Our first day passed with me looking out the window, mesmerised by the beautiful emptiness that kept getting bigger as we drove. We covered 160km in a mere 5 hours, so we were travelling pretty fast by Mongolian standards.

Our driver, Toromonk (I spent the entire trip calling him Saroman in my head for some reason – he doesn’t look anything like Christopher Lee, nor is he an evil wizard as far as I can tell), is Mongolia’s safest driver but is also pretty slow. I guess the two go hand in hand. But we get where we’re going in the end, and always in one piece. Toro is lovely, too, very shy and quiet and when he speaks it’s generally without vocal cords so his mongolian sounds like a mixture of hisses and tch’s and indrawn breaths.

Our first camp was outside a town called square, of the geometric persuasion, the mongolian word for which I cannot recall. But it rhymes with Torvil and Dean. We stopped in town to find out about the desert takhi (Przwalski horses) herds and whether we could detour to see them on our way past. There was some kind of town meeting in session when we arrived so we actually got some fairly good information along the lines of: the researchers are coming in to town tonight for a party so if you are here at 9.30pm you can ask them about the takhi.

This was staggeringly detailed in our experience of Mongolian planning so we were understandably both hopeful and cynical about it’s accuracy. We decided to go out of town to find a campsite by the river and see how we felt at 9.30. We picked up a local guy who wanted to show us to a good camping spot and also got us to stop for photos just out of town. The town is perched on a 200m cliff over the Zavkhan Gol (river) and from that angle reminded me a bit of photos of Portofino but brown. Very pretty. We also got our first glimpse of sand dunes.

Our camp was just across the river from the dunes and our guest stayed for dinner. By 9.30 our scepticism had overwhelmed our faith in Mongolian organisation and we decided to catch the researchers the next morning. As it turns out we were given a flat “no” when we asked if we could see the takhi, so it’s just as well we stayed warm by the fire the night before.

Instead we kept driving along our planned route. The desert was endlessly beautiful with so much to look at, from the plants to the rocks to the animals to the cloud patterns. I almost didn’t mind all the driving. My enthusiasm for the Russian anti-puke pills has waned though. After four days of taking them they were definitely making me grumpy. The beautiful views helped, though. The sunrises were especially lovely.

Our next night was at a lake called Har Nuur, not to be confused with Khar Nur. It was huge and slate blue with hazy mountains on the far shore. Hazy, snowy mountains. Sunset was gorgeous with jesus beams for Africa. We also had a nearly full moon that evening.

On the fourth day we reached the city of Hovd, a veritable scab on the face of Mongolia. We stopped only long enough to pick up some watermelons and bread before moving on. After that we camped by a little river where we got a visit from a couple of local boys who were reluctant to talk to us but enjoyed their hot chocolates. I was starting to get used to the odd local ducking into our tent for a hot drink. Over here there’s no need for an invitation and it’s considered rude to knock so generally people will just come straight in. This applies to hotel rooms and gers as well as army tents. It was a very windy night that night so I’m surprised they only stayed for one cup. It was definitely getting colder at this point, making me glad of my ‘North Fake’ puffer vest I’d bought before leaving UB.

The final day of driving was a relief. No matter how lovely the landscape was, I’d reached my limit for road travel. Give me a train any day! We stopped briefly at a little village called Tolmo for suu-tei-tsai (salty milky tea) but the tea house stank so badly of old meat that I had to wait in the car. There was also a monument outside town dedicated to a battle between the Bolsheviks and the White Russians that was interesting but f***ing freezing. We were well into the mountains at this point and the weather was bitterly cold. When at last we drove into Altai, our destination, it was sleeting heavily and we were all feeling a bit crazy, considering we were planning to ride out for a week of camping in the mountains the next day.

The town is situated at the southern end of Altai Tavan Bogd national park, where our ride was planned. It was quite barren, with rocks and mountains all around. It’s staggering that people and their livestock can survive here, especially as the winters are the harshest in the country, easily reaching -40 degrees celcius. The village itself is similar to most we’ve passed through. A collection of tumble down stone cottages with just the ghost of former soviet prosperity in the shells of larger buildings which would have been houses of industry 20 odd years ago. The towns defunct central heating and water supply was visible in bits and pieces but now there is no working plumbing or heating for the village. Capitalism has a lot to answer for.

We drove in to the village and eventually found the hotel. It was severely run down with no running water. The bathroom was a public long-drop located across the street. But it was warm from the wood stove (although really it was a dung stove as there’s no wood to be had for burning) and there were real beds and electricity for charging ipods and camera batteries.

The host was an absolutely lovely woman called Amangol and we were very glad to be there. It’s funny how quickly your perceptions of quality of life can change. The hotel would have been derelict and demolished at home, but to us it seemed perfectly comfortable and to Amangol and her family it was home. And there was really nothing wrong with it (except at 2 in the morning when the distance to the loo seemed too great and a spot behind the furgon in the yard had to suffice for a midnight wee). We went to sleep that night hoping that the next day would be clear for our ride. We’d decided to make a day trip to start with, visiting a local Kazakh family that kept eagles and getting used to our horses.

Written by Rick Rakauskas in: Uncategorized |

We didnt want to leave Mongolia

By Emily van Oosterom…

The first trip is sadly over. It was absolutely fantastic. What follows is a brief description of the last two weeks spent in the Wilds of Outer Mongolia.

I’ll start with a character summary, so you’ll all be able to follow the plot with more ease.

Our little group consisted of:

John and Sam – a New Zealand couple leading our adventure. They’re really lovely and it’s been like travelling with old friends. Not like an organised tour at all.
Otgo – 65, our head wrangler. Also an accomplished traditional Mongolian singer.
Megan – 58, a breeder of Welsh Ponies, living in Wales, researching travelling with pack horses because she is planning to ride from Beijing to London over 4 summers to correspond with the next two Olympic Games.
Trina – 53, a lovely English lady who used to hunt with the Prince of Wales, very well travelled and great fun.
Barbara – 45, from Christchurch, one of two non-riders but was galloping with the best of us by the end of the trip.
Dan – 32, our last minute American, courtesy of Elise, our other non-rider. He was good fun, a balance for all the oestrogen on the trip and he always had an amusing story to tell… I’m pretty sure half of them were works of fiction.
Emma – 29, a conservator from Leeds, used to be a gilder (!) and now works for the Leeds Armoury. She’s a lovely lass, too.
Elise – 29, a French girl with a confusing accent which is a legacy of having lived in London, the USA and Australia for the last 7 years. She looks like a supermodel, eats like a horse and is absolutely lovely.
Me – 28, I need no introduction, of course.
Dima – 27, our translator who was a third choice and pretty new at the job. He did ok unless he was on the vodka at which time he became totally, utterly useless.
Hoiga and Adia – 20ish, our wranglers. We weren’t sure they were enjoying the trip until the last day when they said they’d had a blast…. an example of the limited translatory job Dima did for us.

Now, back to the story.

It all begins in Ulaanbaatar. We were set to leave at 9am the first day. With the inevitable delays posed by the nature of all Mongolians (or so it seems) we were still sitting around the guesthouse at 10. I opted to wait with Sam for our errant translator, Nargi, who had been due at 8. She would be replacing Olgi in the role. The others left in the Furgon with John and Sam and I went off to get a few last minute things for the trip. By 11am Nargi still hadn’t shown up and we were forced to track down Dima out of desperation. He finally arrived at 12, sans warm clothes/sleeping bag etc. We then departed to the other side of the city to pick up his gear. Consequently it was 1pm when we finally left the city.

The first three days were spent driving along some truly appalling roads. The first day we drove for 8 hours, the second for 12 and the third for a further 8 hours. I’m sure you’re all wondering how I survived this. After all, I get carsick withing minutes on a nice smooth western motorway. Mongolian roads are so bad that they can barely be called a road, for the most part. This makes them bumpy as can be and they can only be managed in a 4 wheel drive, hence the Russian Jeep and the Furgon. It also means that the average speed travelled along these roads is 30 – 50km p/h, usually erring on the side of 30 which makes for a very slow, bumpy ride. It seems to have a different effect on the inner ear – more like a fun park ride than a road trip. Of course, it palls after the first few hours. The other element involved in my survival, certainly not to be sniffed at, was good old Russian pharmaceuticals. They are potent as all hell and really truly work. I’m thinking of stocking up before I come home.

Our first night on the road was spent at Karakourum. We were staying in a ger camp which really wasn’t that authentic. The gers were real enough, with the traditional furniture etc but there was a bloody great restaurant with uniformed waiters and they had flush toilets and showers. In the morning we visited the monastery of Erdene Zuu which dates from the 16th century. Unfortunately most of the monastic buildings were destroyed between the Russians and the Chinese. It was still kind of impressive, but (and I’m sorryto say this mum) buddhist monasteries look pretty much the same after a while. I was far more interested in the surrounding landscapes. We also visited the stone turtle that marks one of the four corners of Chinggis Khan’s 12th century capital. That was pretty cool.

Our second night was spent in Tariett after our epic 12 hour “drive”. It was a little wooden town that looked straight out of the wild west. The guesthouse had four gers out the back and was also the town disco, complete with mirror ball and karaoke.

Finally, after the third day of driving, we arrived at Tosontsengel where we were to pick up our horses and begin our adventure. Tosontsengel is a sprawling metropolis of single room wooden shacks. Most little plots of land also contain a ger, perhaps for the die-hard grannies who are too smart to move into the drafty wee buildings during the winter freeze. However, Tosontsengel also sports a nifty set of public showers which, after three days of sweaty jeeps and long drops, looked like heaven. We were staying in yet another ger camp but this time without the luxury of a restaurant. What this meant was that we actually got to eat something other than boiled mutton soup followed by fried mutton on rice. Damn it.

Our horses were due at 8am the next morning. With Mongolia being the model of efficiency that it is, that time became 3pm before we actually mounted up and rode out of town. The usual wrangler used by John and Sam had turned up at 11am to say that he’d misplaced his herd of horses, sorry. They rustled up another horseman who actually knew where his horses were and somehow they managed to procure us the requisite 19 horses (including the pack horses). They weren’t in great condition and some of them were a bit long in the tooth but beggars can’t be choosers and by 3 o’clock we were pretty close to begging. I was assigned a quiet old fella I dubbed Simon. He was at least 14hh, positively gigantic, and seemed sound enough for the job. I got to keep him for three days. On the third day Dan’s horse developed a nasty saddle sore so he switched to Barbara’s horse George. George had thrown Barbara on the first day but she’d bravely stuck with him.

George threw Dan later that day when a packhorse went beserk. Dan decided he’d rather not ride George after that and Simon was deemed the most suitable horse available. I didn’t mind too much, except that I’d only just started getting some fire out of his lazy arse and Dan insisted on renaming him Max. Sam gave up her little horse for me to ride but after a morning of having my boobs shaken off my chest I decided I’d rather try my luck with George. The first afternoon went smoothly enough but on the second day of riding him I was foolish enough to try to take off my jacket while mounted and he went ballistic. That was fine, I stuck on him and got him quiet again but the proceeded to dismount Mongolian style. That is, with one foot still in the stirrup. George decided that he wasn’t done with his bucking fit after all and soundly dumped me on my bum. I have a wicked bruise up my wrist to show for it now…. I hadn’t realised how much I missed the war wounds from Kempo until now.

For 8 days we rode through some of the most beautiful countryside I’ve ever seen. We rode across the steppes, into the forested mountains of Zavkhan, up on the boggy highlands above the treeline and along crystal clear rivers that were made of water that didn’t give me the shits, even without iodine. It was magic. Almost every campsite was set amongst some beautiful scenery and every morning I saw the sun rise. Which is bizarre. There’s something about Mongolia that gets me out of bed hours before my usual 8.30. We had one day of rain on the second day, but even that was enjoyable since I was pretty much waterproof from head to toes. On another day we had a flash sleet storm which caught us all a bit unawares. Luckily it was only a couple of hours ride from the soviet spa, which I’ll come to later in the story. Every night the temperature dropped below zero, one night hitting -8 which was cold enough to freeze Dan’s washing solid. Mostly the days remained in the 20′s so we were comfortable in short sleeves.

One morning I got up before dawn and went on a mushroom gathering mission, so we had mushrooms on toast for breakfast that day. Another day Otgo gathered wild onions and rosehips which went into the pot. That was pretty much the extent of living off the land. Most Mongolians don’t have a clue about the wild harvests of their country. They really do live on boiled mutton, three times a day, although our wranglers seemed to like Sam’s cooking – as did we all. Of course, most westerners wouldn’t know a field mushroom from their elbow, so who am I to talk?

Mongolia is an amazing place, especially the landscapes. The steppe land has this incredible smell. There is a herb that grows in absolute abundance. I don’t know if it’s edible but it has the most beautiful smell and it’s carried on the wind no matter where you go. It even perfumes the odd public pit toilet. Once you move into the mountains you lose the aroma of the steppes but in return you get these incredibly beautiful rivers and beautiful larches that are all turning yellow at this time of year. Above the treeline you hit the bogs which have tiny flowers and reminded me of Sweden.

Even the huge swathes of burned forest (from the fires of 2000) have their own beauty. The burned trees give way to millions of acres of fire weed which was releasing it’s cottony seeds when we were there. The landscape is also positively lousy with several of my favourite things. There are millions of crickets and grasshoppers, countless beautiful birds of prey, horse skulls for Africa and a confusing number of abandoned shoes. The grasshoppers propel themselves not only by hopping but also with frantic spurts of flight making fart noises as they go. The birds of prey are so diverse and so numerous that they’re referred to as m-bops by John and Sam (that’s miscellaneous birds of prey, to the uninitiated). The horse skulls are scattered all over and are very picturesque. It is nomad tradition to put pieces of horse shit in the eye sockets in respect to the deceased horse, but I never saw any evidence of it, myself. The random shoes are a mystery and must remain so.

One of the highlights of the trip was our night at the abandoned Soviet spa. It’s a little collection of buildings in the mountains of the Zavkhan national park and a little way down the river is a shack housing three thermal baths. The locals still use them, occasionally, but they’re pretty much relics of a bygone era. In any other world they’d have grossed me out, completely, but after 5 days of riding with nary a washcloth in sight they were utter bliss. I’ve included a photo for your enjoyment. I had two leisurely baths and even managed to wash with soap – since my soap was made of coconut oil and water I didn’t think it’d hurt the river.

After 8 days of riding we arrived back in Tosontsengel. From there we drove out to Talmen where we stayed in a ger camp that had delusions of grandure. There was a restaurant building without a restaurant attatched, an actual sit down camping toilet in place (or rather, along side) of the usual squat pit toilet. There were even plans to provide electricity and wireless internet, although no plans in the works for running water or flush toilets. But that’s Mongolia for you. We had our unofficial final dinner together there because Barbara, Emma and Dan were leaving to go up to Khovsgol in the north rather than on to Uliastai with the rest of us.

Elise, Trina, Megan and I were given the option of either driving out to Khar Nuur or staying an extra night at Talmen. Trina and Elise opted to stay, Megan and I to go. John and Delga (our jeep driver) came out to Khar Nuur with Megan and I and Sam and Dima stayed with the others. I’m very glad I chose to go, despite it adding and extra 8 hours of driving between Talmen and Uliastai. Khar Nuur was a magic place. The name means Black Lake but it was the bluest bit of water I’ve ever seen. The misnomer comes from the Mongolian belief that it is bad luck to name something truly. Khar Nuur is a huge fresh water lake in the middle of nowhere. Most of the drive there was on a barely visible track across the steppe. We camped at the end of a peninsula of sand dunes, swept down a valley from a pass that leads to the Gobi.

It was beautiful.

It was also my first experience of real sand dunes. And they’re cool! We got there a bit late so only had time to enjoy the scenery at sunset but the next morning I got up early and went to the end of the peninsula to watch the sun come up. Then I went for a walk in the dunes for a couple of hours. I saw some beautiful views and cleared my head of the driving. After breakfast I went for another long walk in the dunes with Megan. Whoever said Mongolia has no beaches has obviously never been to Khar Nuur. The peninsula was shaped so that down one side were a series of the most perfect little turquoise bays surrounded by golden sand dunes. The water was amazing – it kept it’s colour even when the sky clouded over. It was sad to leave although the weather was packing itself in.

We drove on to Uliastai where we were staying in the newest, bestest hotel in the city. Unfortunately none of their showers were working. Fortunately the town had public showers like Tosontsengel. Unfortunately they weren’t nearly as good. But it did the job. Once again, several days of riding and walking without a wash lent them a slightly more romantic air than they’d otherwise have had. We got back to UB today (we flew from Uliastai so no more driving for a few days) and I’ve spent the day buying up more warm clothes. I was only just warm enough this last trip and the next one is definitely going to be much colder. Winter is here already – it snowed on the drive from Khar Nuur to Uliastai and that’s not as far north as the Altai mountains. But I have a good fake North Face puffer vest and a couple of truly hideous second hand woolen tops and a couple of very sexy mens longjohn’s, complete with willy holes, from the black market, so I should be ok.

Tomorrow I’m heading out to Khustai Nuuru National Park with Trina and Elise for a couple of days in hopes of seeing some Przewalski horses in the wild. Fingers crossed.

Written by Rick Rakauskas in: Uncategorized |

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