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The pristine shores of Khoton Nuur (more photos).

Onorbek said we couldn’t camp at the lake.

It looked like an absolutely beautiful site. A perfect, blue green circle, several km in diameter set amidst a backdrop of white-clad mountains. The waters gleamed in the brilliant early afternoon sunshine and lapped calmly against the stony shore. Herds of yaks and horses wandered along the water line, walking ahead of their Kazakh owners. These, in turn, brought all of their worldly goods with them in a swaying train of Bactrian camels, heading for their winter camps.

It was idyllic. But it was also cold.

As we stood outside the jeep taking pictures, even the light wind skipping across the chilly water was enough to have us pulling tuques down over our ears and hugging ourselves for warmth. So, instead of camping we drove on, up over the pass overlooking the lake and snowy Mt. Tsengel and on towards the Altai Mountains.

On the way, we passed a snug looking one room Kazakh house. It was made of roughly squared logs chinked with earth. Its roof was flat and a plume of smoke emanated from its chimney, a grey ink stain on the blue sky. The house was attached to a long barn and the whole complex was surrounded by a wall made of piled stones, surmounted with a layer of dried dung paddies almost two feet tall.

At the top of the pass, we looked out over a varied landscape of arid hills, river valleys and snowy mountains. It was part desert, part Arkhangai, part Rocky Mountains. Onorbek put the jeep in neutral and we rolled down the pass into one of the river valleys, driving for another half hour or so before coming to a stop at a beautiful shoreline campsite. We set up our tent on a flat patch of coppered grass and relaxed in what remained of the yellow sunshine. Rough, dark mountains loomed on either side of the river. The jeep track we were following went straight between them, then disappeared in a bend, heading for the Altai Mountains.

***

The jeep rolled to a stop outside a solitary ger as the thick snow flurries intensified. Onorbek left the jeep to go and talk with the inhabitants for some unknown purpose while Janine and I stayed inside and surveyed the scene through the increasingly white windshield.

Commonly for Mongolia, a large dog paced about 20 feet from the ger. Uncommonly for Mongolia, this dog was tied with a 5 foot length of chain to a stake in the ground. We stared curiously for a moment before Janine gasped in recognition.

It was a wolf.

Suddenly oblivious to the wet snow, we got out of the jeep to investigate. The wolf, obviously distressed, had worn a small circle in the ground around the stake. As we approached, it tucked its tail between its legs and lay down. But it quickly bared its teeth when I held my hand out to see if I could touch its beautiful white, black and grey coat. Mongolians and Kazakhs hunt wolves and sell the pelts to foreign buyers. This one had been caught as a pup and was now being raised until old enough to be killed and skinned. When we drove away, I felt sad to see the wolf resume its frantic pacing in the miserable snow, its life destined to be short and unpleasant.  At the same time, I could tell from the state of the ger that this family was far from wealthy and that this pelt would probably do much to see them through this region’s harsh winter.

And it did seem harsh today. The morning had begun clearly enough at our riverside campsite, but had quickly clouded over as we drove away from it. Within an hour, we were introduced to the less friendly side of autumn in Western Mongolia, and Onorbek had to focus determinedly to keep the jeep steady on the slickening track.

In this weather we reached the next major stop on our Western Mongolia road trip – the twin lakes of the country’s famous Altai Mountains. Unfortunately, with the deteriorating weather, we had to take it on faith that the lakes, the mountains and in fact anything beyond the two slushy ruts immediately in front of the jeep were there at all.

It wasn’t shaping up to be a pleasant sightseeing day. So when we pulled up to a family’s ger camp near the military checkpost where we had to have our border area permit verified, and the family offered to put us up in its spare ger for the night at a reasonable price, it didn’t take much soul searching to agree.

The ger was drafty and bare except for a rusty wood stove in its center. But it was mostly dry and, once we had a few felt blankets rolled out over the dirt floor and a kettle boiling it felt downright cozy. The Kazakhs, curious about their visitors stopped by our ger regularly throughout the day to stare and laugh at us. Given the weather, they were probably justified in doing so. We spent the afternoon trying to make our little felt fort as comfortable as possible. Our main enemies were the leaks that kept appearing in the felt roof as the wet snow melted upon it.

Just before sunset, though, the snow ceased, and not long after that the air grew perceptibly brighter. Cautiously, I got up from under the mountain of blankets and sleeping bags we’d piled on top of ourselves and opened up the door of the ger. Outside, everything from the jeep to the other gers to the old dog that had stayed still too long in the squall was covered in a deep mantle of white. But overhead, as if God had suddenly pressed the reset button on his sky remote (I assume God has such a remote, along with his kick ass digital cable package), the air was devoid of cloud.

It was as if a white curtain had been lifted on a natural masterpiece. Before us sat Khoton Nuur, a long turqoise alpine lake. On its west side soared the 3500 meter peaks of the Altai range, glimmering from their cloudy heads to their larch covered feet with fresh snow. To the north and east, the land rolled steadily upwards in a series of barren, rocky hills – a forbidding preview of Siberia.

It was easily one of the most beautiful alpine lakes we’d ever seen. It was a postcard, or better yet, a Christmas card. If Khoton Nuur were anywhere less remote than Western Mongolia (and that means, just about anywhere), it would undoubtedly be a tourist epicenter, a Winter Olympics site, a retreat of the wealthy and the ski-bunnies.

But here, besides the a few scattered gers and yaks, we had it to ourselves.

*** 

We prayed for the good weather to hold through the night and awoke the next morning to more clear blue sky and brilliant sunshine. Down at the stream pouring out of Khoton Nuur and past our ger, Onorbek and half a dozen Mongolian army officers were enjoying a Saturday morning fishing derby, pulling grayling after grayling out of the frigid waters.

As tempting as the fishing was however, Janine and I could hardly wait to start exploring. After paying and saying good bye to our host family, we drove down the eastern shore of the lake, still marvelling at its scenic mountain backdrop, brilliant in the morning sun. Onorbek soon steered the jeep down to the shore and a perfect campsite beneath a golden larch tree at water’s edge. There, we passed a magical afternoon, hiking to the top of a large rounded hill that gave us a magnificent panoram of the whole lake, the mountains and the rolling barren lands. We collected drift wood on our way back to camp and built a campfire big enough to ward off even the chill of a Western Mongolia fall evening. When we went to bed, we felt content and excited to be headed for the very pinnacle of the Altai the next day – the lofty peaks of Tavan Bogd, Mongolia’s highest mountains. 

 

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First glimpses of the Altai Tavan Bogd (more photos).

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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.

Where are we now?

Home, Sweet Home

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