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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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