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First views of Western Mongolia (More Pictures)
 
It was an obscenely early flight. What our brother in law in the military calls “O-dark-stupid”.

I dealt with this by rising at the appointed silly hour, showering, stumbling to our waiting taxi cab and shuffling through the pre-boarding  procedures at Chinggis Khan International airport in Ulaan Baatar with the same mental attitude as you have when  going to the bathroom in the middle of the night. I wasn’t really here,  I told myself, I was certainly not going to wake up and I would soon be slumbering peacefully again.

And with the aid of my sleeping mask, I was proven right. Within minutes of take off from Chinggis Khan International airport in Ulaan Baatar I was drooling happily on Janine’s shoulder, bound for western Mongolia.

I didn’t stir for three hours. Then Janine shook me and with an excited whisper announced that I had to look out the window. I obliged and took off the mask, immediately blinding myself with the white glare pouring through the portal. As I regained sight, I noticed two things. First, our stewardess had repossessed my breakfast sandwich. Surely, I thought, this violated several rules of proper airline conduct and general civility. Second, the white glare was not sun streaming through cloud, but sun reflecting off high, snowy mountains, higher than any we’d seen since leaving the Himalaya. The landscape below was a starkly contrasting mix of barren, treeless plains and soaring white peaks. It was dramatic, severe, beautiful and a jolting reminder that we’d be spending the next two weeks in a very different part of Mongolia.

***

Twenty minutes later, our twin engine Fokker 55 touched down on a gravel runway at Olgi Airport. With the other 25 passengers, we milled about on the tarmac behind the terminal for a few minutes until a battered flatbed truck pulled up with our luggage. Two workers hopped in the back and began to hand down bags to the passengers, who, as they received them, walked into the back entrance of the terminal, through its single arrival/departure/ticket purchase/general hangout room and then out the front entrance.

Strangely, although the airport runway is not paved, the road to the airport itself sports the nicest blacktop in the province. I appreciated this fact as I took in the confines of our aging Russian jeep on the smooth ride into Olgi. Foreswearing capitalist luxury, soviet jeep makers had obviously decided that communist passengers should be as uncomfortable as possible. The floor was lined with faux-wooden linoleum, through a rough hole in which sprouted the bare metal gear shifts. Our driver, Onorbek, honked at the various cattle that blocked our progress by hotwiring the horn. This didn’t seem remarkable on a dashboard that was mostly a flat panel of grey metal. Seatbelts either hadn’t been in vogue at the time of manufacture or had simply disappeared over the intervening years. I meditated on this last point with particular interest the first time I sat in the front seat, contemplating the round iron grip bar that was positioned where the airbag would be in a more modern vehicle. I’m hoping, in the event of an accident to go straight through the windshield. That is, unless I can manage to somehow impact instead on the roof. This is lined with cushy white leather that looks like the apholstry on a hotel lobby sofa.

I won’t say much about the 7km to the litre gas consumption rate. But I will say this (mainly to assuage my mother, who I imagine by now is having minor heart palpatations). Old, ugly and uncomfortable as the jeep is, it looks and feels as sturdy as a tank. So, after a stop in Olgi to buy groceries for our nine day safari into the extreme west of the country, we wrapped a sweater around that grip bar, angled open our windows (they don’t roll down – too bourgeois) and hit the road.

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***

We weren’t long out of Olgi when we saw our first eagle hunter.

The big draw of Western Mongolia was the famous Olgi Eagle Festival. This was an event designed to showcase the skills of the famous Kazakh hunters who ride through the snowclad mountains and valleys in the winter, their eagles perched on their forearms, hunting for foxes and other fur bearing animals.

We had planned our trip’s end to coincide with the festival in Olgi, so we were pleasantly surprised when Onorbek pulled over on a winding gravel jeep track half an hour outside Olgi, pointed to a rider
galloping towards us and said “eagle”.

The rider reined in his huffing black gelding at the jeep to chat with our driver. He was dressed in Kazakh style with black trousers, a wool sweater and suit jacket. He was friendly enough but unsmiling, his eyes shaded by the peaked brim of a leather cap. A rifle was slung casually over his back. On his right hand he wore a large rough sheepskin mitt that looked much like an oven mitt.

On the mitt perched a full grown golden eagle, cocking its head beneath a form fitting leather hood and emitting questioning cries at the sounds of our oohs and ahs. I marvelled at the bird’s size and beauty, but mostly I marvelled at the training and horsemanship that was on display here. I hadn’t been able to keep Throwy under control after flashing a badminton racket near his face. I shuddered to think what he would have done had I tried to ride him with a 5-foot-wingspan raptor on my arm.

Obviously having someone or something to kill, the rider soon resumed his gallop. Janine and I got back in the jeep still chattering with excitement. Onorbek, pleased with how happy we were, soon diverted from the track again, driving up a shallow valley to the camp of two herders.

They stood outside a small felt tent expertly butchering a freshly killed sheep. A herd of a hundred more sheep and goats grazed around them, watched carefully by a furry border collie and seemingly oblivious to the fate of their colleague. The herders greeted us with warm smiles and handshakes and immediately took us around the tent to have a look at the camp’s pride – another gorgeous golden eagle. But this time, we’d get to do more than just snap pictures. While his partner continued work on the sheep, the other herder removed the hood from the eagle’s eyes placed the sheepskin mitt on me and holding a bloody, meat-flecked mutton bone, induced the eagle to hop up onto my forearm.

Meeting the stare of such an incredible creature was mezmerizing. I know she was probably only wondering how one of my eyeballs would taste, but I could live with that. Not a bad way to lose an eye really. I could see the young lawyers at the firm whispering in my wake years from now.

“How’d old man Murphy lose his eye anyway?” And then, some old geezer in a rocking chair behind them would smack his gums and say, “Yip. Eagle pecked it out. Nigh on 40 years ago now.” I’m not sure what the old man would be doing at our firm, but I’ll work that out in the second draft.

Janine and I each took a turn holding the big girl (most hunting eagles are females because they are the bigger gender of the species). Then, with heartfelt thanks to the herdsmen, we left them to their work and resumed our journey.

“I think we’re really going to like it here,” said Janine grinning like a kid at Christmas. She says this at the beginning of every trip, but this time, she had my wholehearted agreement.

***

Like Ladakh, western Mongolia is a high, mountainous, arid landscape. The tall peaks are separated from one another by broad, treeless valleys where often the only life seen is a line of furry, two humped camels plodding serenely against the severe backdrop of dry plain and jagged hill.

The lateness of the season added to the sense of desolation. Snow lay on most of the mountains and even in shallow banks on the valley floors. Small streams and rivers were already frozen; larger ones flowed sluggishly, their winter stasis not far off. Most families were moving or preparing to move to lower, warmer areas. We drove past several caravans of such people, their gers and belongings piled on the backs of camels or on the roof of a large, puttering Russian truck, often followed by a herd of horses, yaks and the ever-present border collies.

A month ago and the whole province would probably have looked green, lively and inviting. Now it was yellow, cold and a little intimidating. But it was also gorgeous in its largness and severity. We had our warmest clothing, plenty of food and a vehicle that looked like it could survive armaggedon to jump into if necessary.

We were eager to explore.

***

“Maybe an hour was a little optimistic,” Janine allowed.

We were on our first day hike of the trip, climbing a ridge to get a better look at the brilliant white peak called Mount Tsengel. Onorbek had driven us as far up the valley towards the ridge as possible. There we’d left him with instructions to meet us on the other side of the ridge in what we confidently said would be an hour or so.

With these instructions, we made several stupid assumptions. First, we assumed that we had an idea of the scale of west mongolia’s landscape. That was stupid because, being so large and being mostly devoid of human sized landmarks, western mongolia’s landscape can play tricks on the eye. Therefore, a ridge that looks like it’s say, 45 minutes walk away, can easily be at least double that.

Still, we already had the feeling that Onorbek was a steady hand and wouldn’t panic at us being a little late. So we enjoyed the climb up the valley to the ridge top and there marvelled at the grandeur of a truly spectacular mountain panoram. On our left, Tsengel rose like a smooth white bowl against the deep blue sky. Immediately next to it towered another peak, as jaggged as its neighbour was smooth, the light wind tearing plumes of snow from its corniced top. Far beyond these two giants, the horizon was lined with similar peaks, all glistening under a cloak of shimmering white. These were the Altai Mountains and knowing that they were our next destination only enhanced the thrill we felt as we enjoyed the view.

We savoured the skyline for a while and then began our hike down the other side of the ridge. We weren’t descending for long before we realized our second error. The other side of the ridge, far from sloping down into one valley, sent off several branches and further ridgelines, creating a number of valleys into which our guide could have driven to await us. None of these valleys were small, and trying to pick out a small grey jeep from amongst the pathes of snow and ice on their floors was next to impossible.

Perhaps a map would have been a good idea.

We took our best guess as to where Onorbek would have parked and made our way down. Of course, he wasn’t there. Thus ensued an additional hour of hiking, scanning, fretting and cheerfully telling ourselves there was nothing to fret about until the little Russian jeep finally appeared, Onorbek making a careful search of the valleys for us after we’d failed to turn up at the one he’d thought we sent him to. All in all, it was a bit more of an adventure than we had thought it would be. But the views had still been worth it.

Janine gets her snuggle fix at the Donkey Sanctuary in Leh (more photos)

Alright, let’s do some shit in Leh.

– Jason

4 days can feel like a long time.

It feels especially long when you spend most of it in bad web cafes trying to download flight information, on shaky telephone connections with agents and hoteliers who speak little English and holed up with travel guides that you’ve read a half dozen times already and that actually seem to be getting less helpful with each perusing.

But that was our first 4 days back in Leh after our beautiful trek in the Markha valley and Karnak region of Ladakh. We were trying to plan the next big leg of our trip – Mongolia – and it was proving tough. Before giving a 60 day travel visa, Mongolia wanted a letter of invitation issued to us from a tour agent or citizen of Mongolia. Without a letter, it would only give us a 30 day visa, that it said could not be extended. Travel agents in Mongolia were reluctant to go through the trouble of issuing us a letter, preferring instead to simply help us extend the 30 day visa once we got to Ulan Batar. But that meant we’d need to get a 30 day return plane ticket with a reasonable change fee. Figure that one out on Expedia.com with a 0.03 bite per second connection speed, I dare you.

So it was a long, drawn out and frustrating first few days back in the provincial capital of Leh. We’d hit the web cafe after breakfast, taking breaks to make international calls to the Mongolian embassy and travel agents, and finish the whole operation by around dinner. Sure, you’ll say, it’s better than going to the office. And you may be right. But not by much.

By the end of day 4, we were ready to burst. Here we were in the Himalayas, one of our dream destinations, and all we were was tired and pissed off with foreign bureaucracies. With a last burst of organizational energy, we booked a 30 day return ticket (screw it – we’ll fix everything when we get to Mongolia) and headed for Markha Valley Tours to visit our ever-reliable Leh travel agent, Tashi.

It was time to have a little fun again in Leh.

***

“I like Mahakala the best. He really doesn’t seem to take shit from anyone,” I whispered to Janine in the dusty courtyard of Phyang. 20 km from Leh, this little monastery town was putting off its annual festival before a crowd evenly divided between Ladakhis and foreigners. On this, the first day of the two day celebration, monks paraded and danced in peacock-colourful robes and elaborate masks depicting the visages of the tantric Buddhist gods. Displaying swords, banners and reproductions of sacred relics, the deities acted out stories and themes that have been circulating in these mountains for centuries, while their colleagues tapped drums and sang throatily in the background. I had come to especially like Mahakala, the multi-armed, skull-crowned protector of the dharma; for all his fierceness and frightening aspects a force for good and an ass-kicker of those who need to be ass-kicked. Everytime he came out over the course of the day long ritual, I elbowed Janine excitedly and perked up a bit like a little kid watching his favourite part in a movie, looking forward to Mahakala doing something suitably action-heroesque.

But mostly he just danced.

Monks dance in spectacular costumes during the festival at Phyang Monastery, Ladakh.

Seated on the sun-baked ground around us, Ladakhis watched politely, munching potato chips, nursing babies and twirling prayer beads. Some were dressed in the traditional fabrics and styles of their ancestors. Others sported knock off Calvin Kleins and t-shirts of U.S. football teams. Monks all ages circulated among the crowd, exchanging pleasantries, picking up items that had fallen off the dancers’ costumes during the dances. Two young boy monks played the part of monkeys for one of the dances, doing cartwheels among the twirling gods until they got too dizzy and started falling on their behinds. Another small boy, dressed in the maroon and gold robes of the monastery, blew bubbles with his chewing gum in between performances on a large horn. The hours flew by, despite the intense heat and the dust. As the sun made its passage over the courtyard, the audience moved with it, following the shade. The only truly annoying thing was our fellow tourists, who treated the spectating Ladakhis like zoo animals, shooting photos of them incessantly and without permission. I thought about how I’d feel if I were strolling about at the St. John’s Regatta and some camera toter came up to me and started shooting right in my face. It upset me.

Beside us, an elderly Ladakhi lady, dressed in traditional garb, had fallen asleep sitting up. An Israeli woman smiled delightedly, walked over to the dozing woman, crouched down right before her face and shot a pic within a few inches of the woman’s nose. Noticing me staring at her rudeness, she looked at me and smiled obliviously. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I’m not taking a picture of you.”

“Why not?” I thought.

***

“Grab the rope!” our guide yelled frantically, dropping to the floor of the raft and grasping the nylon cord that bordered its rim as it, in turn, dropped 4 feet down into a churning recirculating wave on the Zanskar River.

I thought I’d misheard him. Kayaks flip, canoes roll over all the time. But those huge rubber inflatable rafts don’t capsize; even in the big waves. Right? When our Nepali guide had shown us the rope grabbing maneuver on shore, before we’d set off on our one day thrill ride down the Zanskar, I’d assumed that it was similar to the stewardesses on the plane showing you what to do in the case of an “emergency landing.” The information was essentially useless and the chances of needing it were extremely remote. Far better to simply prepare yourself mentally for the messy death that was obviously coming.

But when I looked back, there was the guide, white knuckled on the floor, together with Janine and the 6 Israeli kids we were sharing the raft with. Just as I joined them (with a dazed expression on my face that clearly said “Are you shitting me?”), we hit the big wave, whirled sideways and tipped savagely upwards at a 35 degree angle as a cascade of glacial water rushed over us. I wanted to scream like everyone else. But the water was so cold I was instead left gaping, soaked and silent – kind of like those people in the Batman comics that get frozen by Mr. Freeze’s cold-ray – as we exited the rapid an instant later, shakily returning to our rowing positions on the edge of the raft. Janine, who had wisely hauled on a nylon jacket before starting downstream, had already shed most of the water and was laughing contentedly.

I, who am unwise, dripped.

The petite young Israeli girl sitting behind Janine summed it up best, her mascara dripping, dark curls plastered around her face. “F-f-f-fuck!”

“Does that happen very often?” I asked our guide, regaining my powers of speech and wondering how my testicles had managed to crawl so far up my bodily cavity so quickly.

“Yes. Sometimes. Not very much,” he said helpfully, digging his long paddle into the silty grey water and performing a powerful draw to face the raft downstream once again. Apparently, his first answer had been the most accurate. Later that day, we talked with another team of rafters who had actually capsized near the same place. Unlike us, they’d been given wetsuits by their rafting company. But they’d still been quite shaken by the experience.

Still, it was a blast. For three hours, we zipped down the river, shooting water that would have been suicide in a canoe and enjoying the orange, red, purple and brown peaks of the Zanskar mountains that surrounded the river. The Israelis told jokes and sang songs in Hebrew, shakily smoked joints during breaks on the river bank and generally enjoyed the fact that they were young, alive and no longer in the Israeli army. How could you blame them? Always a few dozen meters ahead of our raft, our safety kayaker kept an eye on our progress, playing and bobbing in the huge rollers with the ease of dolphin. Janine and I savoured the views, discussed the technicalities of the rapids and generally agreed that this whole thing would be a rather nice contrast to the monastery tour we had planned for the next day.

That is of course, if we lived through today.

Rounding a tight bend in the river, we saw another massive wave rear up in front of us. Our guide yelled a command, but one side of the boat completely flubbed it and we spun like a drunk right into the teeth of a roaring souse hole at the worst possible moment.

“GRAB THE ROPE!” our guide yelled.

“ARE YOU SHITTING ME?!” I yelled back at him as I held on for dear life. I could hear Janine laughing again.

Fondling my jugs, in happier, drier times.

***

The snaking, single-lane roads of Ladakh are marvels of engineering. Conquering 5000+ meter passes is routine, skirting razor edged cliffs fronting churning mountain rivers is commonplace. But they are not for the faint hearted or the unskilled driver. We were reminded of this forcefully as we left Leh on our monastery tour, driven by our skilled chauffeur, Tenzin. Fifteen minutes outside of town, at a blind bend in the road we passed the freshly crumpled wrecks of two trucks that had collided, head-on. A policeman walked among the wreckage taking notes.

“Oh, that’s blood,” I said queasily, looking at the ooze dripping from the shattered glass of one door. Whoever, had been in that vehicle had not walked away. “I hate seeing these,” Janine whispered. She’d been in a bad car accident as a child and the memories hadn’t faded gracefully. We reminded Tenzin of our favourite Ladakhi road sign, “Safety on the road, means safe tea at home”, and drove on, subdued.

In retrospect, it wasn’t an entirely inappropriate start to a day that was mostly about Tibetan Buddhism, a religion that tackles head on the issues of life, death and suffering. With our limited understanding of the faith, we couldn’t claim any great insights into these matters. But as we wandered the chorten-topped hills above Lamayuru monastery, stared in awe at the mandalas and giant sculptures in the atmospheric temples of Alchi and contemplated the serene smile of the mammoth gold statue of the Buddha of Likir, we at least started to feel some of the peace of mind possessed by the Ladakhi practitioners of this rich religious tradition.

***

“Don’t eat too many of those,” Tenzin said, looking back at us over his shoulder as he drove, smiling. “Diarrhea.”

We stopped, mid-mouthful and looked at each other warily over our pile of Ladakhi apricots. It was high season for these miniature juicy marvels and we’d gone a little crazy. Earlier in the morning, we’d stopped for our first sample near a roadside tree and had gotten completely hooked. At lunch, we’d stripped most of the low-lying fruit from the branches of our restaurant’s tree, much to the bemusement of our waiter, who I left a suitably guilty tip. On our way to Likir monastery, we’d passed a group of hitch hiking monks and offered them a ride home. They were taking back a huge crate of apricots (I swear this had nothing to do with our stopping to pick them up – we were just trying to get a little further ahead for our next reincarnation on the wheel of life). Guess how they insisted on repaying us? Finally, on the way home, we’d driven past an adorable little Ladakhi girl on the side of the road selling apricots in a used soup tin. It was like buying Girl Guide cookies with all the cuteness and none of the guilt.

By the time of Tenzin’s warning, Janine and I had a blood-apricot level that was off the charts and our Tilley hats were filled with the pits, stains and uneaten little globes of fruit’s equivalent to crack cocaine.

Damn you, Cute Little Apricot Girl!

“Well…” Janine mused, “I guess this is one of the reasons we sprung for a hotel room with an en suite bathroom.”

I thought on this and looked forward to the long evening that undoubtedly lay ahead of us. “We could give some away,” I said tentatively.

Janine’s eyes flared for a moment, rather like Bilbo when he tries to take the Ring back from Frodo. Then she softened. “Yes,” she said. “Or…. we could just not eat anymore apricots today.”

“Yes!” I agreed hastily, my body already craving another apricot. “By tomorrow, our stomachs will surely be adapted to them!”

We sat in silence for a little while, the mountains of Ladakh whirring by us on the highway, golden in the fading sunlight.

We each ate another 8 apricots before getting back to Leh.

“Maybe we’ll give a few away,” Janine said quietly as we exited our jeep. I nodded sagely.

Meeting a monk at the store across from our tour agent’s place, I offered him some fruit. He smiled happily as he picked an apricot from my hat. “Do you mind if I take two?” he said hopefully.

“Sure, take half a dozen if you like!” I replied, excited by the prospect of both diminishing our laxative stores and getting more good karma for helping monks twice in one day.

“Oh no,” the monk said demurely, patting his stomach. “I don’t want to get diarrhea.”

***

“Thank you for coming,” said Tashi, draping the white Kata over our necks.

I’m sure there are lots of nice tour operators in Leh. But how many of them are the kind of people who will invite you to their homes for a formal dinner and treat you like dear friends during your stay? Tashi Gonbo of Markha Valley Tours is such a man. We’d booked our Markha Valley/Karnak tour through him after interviewing many other agents and hadn’t bothered dealing with anyone else since. A soft-spoken man gifted with a near-constant smile, Tashi had made every one of our trips with him a care-free pleasure and had taken a truly miniscule profit to boot. It was such a pleasure dealing with him that we’d gotten into the habit of simply popping by his office for a cup of tea during our days in town. Now, as our time with him and in Leh neared its close, he invited us, along with a few other clients, to his house for a meal.

As we sat in his tidy living room/eating area with an amiable small group of Dutch hikers and an American professor, Tashi’s wife poured salt and butter tea and served a beautiful traditional Ladakhi meal of mutton dumplings (“momos”), stew (“skiu”), and fresh vegetables. Tashi, though a non-drinker himself, uncapped bottle after bottle of Ladakhi beer and entertained us with stories of his days as a herder, kitchen boy, trekking guide and ultimately, business owner in the busily-expanding capital of Leh. In between tales, the family’s new puppy, a fuzzy bundle of fury named Tommi, attacked our mutton-greased hands with playful abandon. Janine played with him until the blood started to drip freely from several nips on her hands.

When we finally could eat and drink no more, Tashi disappeared for a minute and then reappeared with a bundle of white silk scarves called katas. An auspicious symbol, the kata is a blessing to the start of any enterprise or relationship and indicates the good intentions of the person offering it. As we bowed our heads and accepted Tashi’s draping of the katas over our necks, we were all deeply touched by this simple but beautiful act of Ladakhi hospitality.

“What a beautiful way to end our time with Tashi,” Janine said in the car on the drive back to the hotel.

“Worth the rabies?” I said with a smile, looking down at her hand.

“Totally worth the rabies,” she laughed.

Tashi Gondo. Quite simply, the nicest guy in Leh. And a hell of a figure skater.

***

Ladakh had more than lived up to expectations. Like many of our favourite places, it had surprised us by being much more than we’d thought. We’d come for the mountains. But we’d been equally if not more enthralled by the people and the culture. It had been a long sojourn. Long enough to make friends and feel the lovely sad pain of parting. We’d miss the stunning vistas, the delicious Kashmiri, Indian and Ladakhi food, the smiling “julays!” of the locals, the deep, immortal calm of the holy places. Mongolia was calling. But we’d miss Ladakh.

Where are we now?

Home, Sweet Home

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