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.