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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).

Descending to the Shoreline is Strictly Forbidden!

– Sign by Baptismal Site on the Jordan River

Ah, the road trip. The lure of the open road, the sight of roadsigns and asphalt zipping past your speeding wheels, the smell of the three day old McDonald’s containers left in the back seat.

After a month and a half of being at the mercy of felucca captains, bus drivers, train schedules and donkey jockeys, we finally took matters into our own hands and rented a car for a 4 day trip up through Israel’s Upper Galilee and Golan Heights areas and then back down to the southern tip of the country at Eilat near the Jordan/Egypt border.

We camped and ate like first year university students. We hotelled and ate like Rothschilds. I can’t tell you all the details from the trip because I’m lazy. But here’s a sketch of the best parts and the parts where I hurt myself.

***

We left Nazareth in a shiny, silver chevy. Specially designed for the petrol-conscious Israeli market, it was about 5 long and topped out at around 105 km/h. Still, for us it was a Ferrari. We joyfully puttered down from Nazareth’s hilltops towards Tiberius on the Sea of Galilee, loudly singing along to the bad western pop songs that are a staple on english music-playing radio stations here.

The sea of Galilee itself is beautifully set amidst the beaches of Tiberius on its Western shore and the starkly rising hills of the Upper Galilee on its North and East. Still, in terms of size, we were amazed at how unbiblical it was. We’ve regularly paddled on bigger lakes in Canada, while in Newfoundland, the Galilee would be lucky to get past the “pond” designation.  Then again, in Newfoundland, Lake Superior would be lucky to get past the “pond” designation.

Cruising towards the north shore, we soon came to the Mount of the Beatitudes , decorated with a peaceful shrine set amidst lovely gardens overlooking the water. I’ve always loved the Sermon on the Mount and it wasn’t hard to picture its stirring words being pronounced in this picturesque place for the first time.

 From the mount, we rolled back down to the sea shore and continued around to its eastern shore, passing banana plantations and cyclists along the way. In the fading afternoon light, we found a practically abandoned camp ground on the shore, its lone young attendant (who had he pissed off to catch this job?) in the process of locking up the place for the night when we rolled in. Of course, he was one of the few Israelis we met in all our time there who spoke little to no English. But applying the universal language of Smiling Charades, we managed to convey that we would return to stay the night after a further drive down shore to find some dinner.  The attendant smiled and agreed enthusiastically and we headed to the small Kibbutz town of En Gev to stuff ourselves on cannelloni at a small cafe next to the Galilee ferry dock.

When we returned to the campsite a few hours later in the dark, the gateway at the top of the lane leading down to it was locked up tight as a drum.

Cursing, I hauled on my jacket and started to walk the kilometer down to the attendant’s hut, the beautiful starscape failing to take my mind off the increasing evening cold and the increasingly close calls of the coyotes. I felt that they sensed an opportunity and by the time I got to the hut could hear them scuttling in the bushes behind me. Obviously, they were too intimidated by my manly physique and macho whistling rendition of Julie Andrews “Whenever I feel afraid, I whistle a happy tune!” to try and pull anything.

The young attendant, who I was convinced had locked the gate and buggered off as soon as we left was startled to find me beating on the door of the hut and looked at me in stark confusion through the glow of my headlamp. I mimed a key going in a lock and then a seal clubbing action for what would happen to him if he didn’t let us in quick and pretty soon I was walking back up Coyote Lane with the key for the gate lock in my hands.

I was on a roll and it showed when, upon inserting the key in the lock, the thing promptly came apart in my hands in a flurry of grease, metal hunks and small, small, small springs.  The young attendant blamed me for this and together we spent 20 minutes crouching in front of the car headlights trying unsuccessfully to put the lock back together, while the coyotes rambled off in search of more intelligent and motor-skilled prey.

Still, I thought as Janine and I climbed into our tent a little later it was a nice campsite. Cheap too.

***

In the morning, we made our way to the south end of Galilee. Here at the sluggish outlet of the Jordan River, smart Christian capitalists have opened up a baptismal centre. The actual site where Jesus was baptized is further downstream along the West Bank. But neither that nor the low single digits of an Israeli winter morning, deterred dozens of born again Christians from cueing up in little white robes to testify and get dunked in the brackish waters.

After a night’s camping, we needed a bath pretty bad and contemplated joining our white-clad brothers and sisters until we saw the first one emerge from the river with what looked like icicles instantly forming on his dripping nose.

With that, we decided that we’d rather be dirty than cold and/or saved and headed for the gift shop.

***

Today we’re bound for the old Upper Galilee towns of Rosh Pina and Tsafed. Before leaving the sea of Galilee, however, we stop at the shore for one more iconic view – a fisherman in a small boat hauling in a net thrashing with fish. In the warmth of the early morning sunshine, his silhouette 20 yards from shore is a timeless image and we’re not alone in snapping a few pictures.

Rosh Pina began as a rustic 19th century Jewish settlement of stone and mortar farm homes set on a high hill overlooking a broad green valley. Now, while this heritage area is lovingly maintained by the local tourism and government authorities, the town’s red roofed homes flow down over the hillside to the valley and Rosh Pina brims with upscale B&B’s, restaurants and spas. We spend a few hours touring the lovely old settlement area. Then, armed with half a dozen maps and brochures from the uber-friendly and helpful tourism information office, we get back on the road for Tsafed.

On the suggestion of the tourism office, we take a secondary highway to Tsafed that doesn’t even appear on the tourist map. It’s barely wide enough one car in places, which is tricky as it winds its way up through a beautifully maintained cedar forest via a series of blind, u- and hairpin turns. On one of these, we nearly make the acquaintance of an oncoming Honda. Thankfully, everyone veers the right way.

We scout a campsite on a high hill just outside of Tsafed and then make our way into the old city. Like Rosh Pina, it flows down a steep hillside, its various atmospheric quarters linked by a series of winding stone staircases. Janine and I wander the artists’ quarter, where shops displaying top quality painting, glasswork and weavery shoulder together along the narrow streets. In the synagoge quarter, we crowd into numerous houses of worship and hear various miraculous tales of famous rabbis, along with explanations of the Kabbalic imagery that covers so much of the walls (my favourite is the 613 seeds of the pomengranate representing the 613 commandments found througout the Torah – what does eating the pomengranate symbolize?).

Outside of town, our plans for the evening take an unexpected turn when we investigate a restaurant called the Gad Eden. I’m charmed by the enthusiasm of its chef and owner Avram and its beautiful views overlooking Tsafed. The collection of fine Golan Wines and the mystery of Pomengranate Port don’t hurt either.

I know immediately we’re going to want to eat here. But the prospect of driving to our pitch-black, cold camp site afterwards doesn’t jive with the prospect of a gourmet meal. Fortunately, there’s a luxury spa-hotel called the Villa Galilee literally next door to the Gad Eden. With a huge gulp for the amount of money we were about to spend, we booked a corner room overlooking the city and settled in with a little bit of shock to it’s comfyness, marvelling at its flat screen t.v. and just rolling around on its delightfully puffy bed like puppies in that bathroom tissue commercial.

“Merry Christmas to us! Again!” I say happily.

Janine agrees. “We’re definitely not camping anymore.”

Dinner at the Gad Eden more than lives up to expectations. Delicious dumplings stuffed with locally made cheeses, mixed fresh pastas cooked to perfection. The wine really is great and I am convinced that Pomengranate Port is destined for big things (just writing about it from spectacularly wine-deprived Egypt makes my throat clench).

I sleep the sleep of the innocent on valium in the puffy bed until about 5:30 a.m. when the Pomengranate Port wakes me with the call of nature. Not wanting to wake up any more than absolutely necessary, I tip toe to the bathroom with eyes half closed and slowly lower myself to the toilet seat, in the process bashing my nose against the unseen and ajar shower door with just enough force to illuminate the early morning twilight with a flash of silver stars.

***

Northern Israel is a driver’s dream. Scenic, twisting, plunging roads that seem custom designed for a sports car commercial. I have to make do with the Chevy Midget Coup, but it’s still fun.

“Hello Lebanon!” I say happily as we roll alongside the concrete and barbwired wall that separates the two countries. Across it, Lebanon looks green and peaceful. I’m struggling to believe that it’s a recent warzone when a huge Israeli armoured jeep with a massive gun turret emerges from the roadside bushes as we pass and lumbers onto the highway behind us.

“Holy shit,” Janine mutters.

“If they want us to pull over, I’ll gladly pull over,” I agree, watching the jeep’s tinted glass through the rear view mirror for any sign of a desire to pass us or blow us up. As with the coyotes, I obviously come across as no one to be trifled with and the jeep pulls off the road again at the next intersection.

However, the incident is enough to help us decide to forgo taking the upcoming offshoot highway marked “military access road”.

***

We have no plans for today, New Year’s Eve, and so we just decide to go as far north as we can. This leads us to slopes of Mount Harmon, Israel’s skiing playground at the border with Syria. We reach it via a narrow road that several times has the hair standing up on the back of my arms with its non-existent shoulders and airy drop-offs. When we pull up in front of Harmon it’s snowless and deserted except for a few lonely looking soldiers carrying big guns. They return our smiling please-don’t-open-fire waves politely.

We’d hoped to stay at a cozy ski resort town near Harmon. But, surprisingly for a so-far-snowless winter, it’s packed with New Year’s revellers. Instead, we head back along the western border of the country, for Rosh Pina. It’s a fairly deserted drive and we stop carefully for a roadside pee at one point in an area littered with “Caution – Land Mines!” signs.

Not knowing how sensitive these mines may be, I aim as near to my feet as hygenically possible and ruminate on how boring the US-Canadian border is.

***

“Happy New Year!” we toast with another clink of the Golan’s finest red wine. Well, maybe not the finest, but it’s pretty great. Back in Rosh Pina, we have found a small B&B in one of the original settler’s houses operated by a smiling and warm elderly couple named the Kellers. After depositing our bags, we walk to an atmospheric Argentine steak house lodged in another settler house. The veal fillet is straight out of a magazine and we eat and drink until the weariness of a long day on the road overtakes us.

Tomorrow we’ll zig and zag down Israel’s mediterranean coast, past Haifa and Tel Aviv, finally turning into the remains of the famous mountain top fort of Masada. Then it’s on south to Eilat for the border crossing into Jordan.

It all feels to fast. Israel is an amazing place that deserves as much time as we’ve given to Egypt. But it’s also about 6 times more expensive and that burning smell from our Visa says it’s time for us to get back to some countries where we can live cheap.

But we’ll be back.

Where are we now?

Home, Sweet Home

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