Horse Trek in Mongolia Final Post (Ten)

Today is our final chance to ride, and we will be back in Ulgii by nightfall.  For once it’s not raining, but the peaks are still playing hide and seek with the clouds.  This glacier-carved terrain reminds me strongly of the Canadian Rockies, with its rocky summits, barren moraines U-shaped valleys.

I walk over to have a last chat with Pun’kin, passing Patrick, who is stroking the head of a saddled horse that is asleep on the ground.

Pun’kin is hobbled, head low, patient and resigned.

I scratch her forehead under the thick hair and rub her ears.  She accepts the attention but doesn’t really respond.  I know that she is reaching the age where she will become food for her owners.  Horses here are used for only 15 years; their lives may be short, but they are treated well and their end is undoubtedly quicker and more merciful than North American animals experience in slaughterhouses.

We watch the camels being loaded with an ungodly amount of gear – hundreds of lbs surely.  What strange creatures, constantly chewing their cud.  They are almost machine-like in the way they carry their loads over all types of terrain.

The group photos require a lot of shuffling and jostling of horses as we try to get all the camels, riders and staff into a formation tight enough to fit a photo frame.

Then we are off, up and down ridges, mostly easy terrain.

I press Pun’kin into long, fast trots, but don’t let her gallop.  She is completely responsive, as always, until I foolishly mess with my rain parka, spooking her into a tight spin that dumps me on the ground.  No harm done from my rodeo stunt – just a bruised rib in payment for my stupidity.

A little less than 3 hours sees us to the rangers’ gers at the park entrance.  We lunch inside one ger, then gather outside with all the staff to say goodbye and hand out tips.  Hugs all around.  We are sorry to see the camp crew and wranglers go as they have looked after us so well.  The wranglers will take only 2 ½ days to return home with the horses.  I don’t know what happens to the camels.  Dosjan and Alex stay with us.

I say a reluctant goodbye to Pun’kin.

The vehicles have arrived from Ulgii, and we now face 5 to 6 hours of driving.  On this route we do not have the Khot River, with its verdant riverine vegetation, to guide us.  Instead we traverse a seemingly endless succession of brown valleys between brown hills that all look alike and which stretch in all directions.  There is almost no sign of human life.

At one point the Russian van gets stuck in the mud, the rear wheels buried to the axle.

Our group is eager to offer help and suggestions.  Eddie, meanwhile, co-opts the toilet stool and sits quietly.  “Let them figure it out,” he advises.  And indeed, after unloading the van and scooping out mud with bare hands, the entire crew push the van out with brute force.

The vehicle I’m riding in becomes separated from the others and our driver doesn’t know the way very well.  Radio contact is lost, and so are we.  Which valley?  Which track?  We finally see a ger quite a distance from our track.  Our driver runs over and gets directions which may of may not be correct, but we follow them, becoming rather alarmed as we head north.  Russia lies to the north; we want to go east.  At last, however, we see the other Land Cruisers atop a hill, where they have been waiting while we made our little detour.

Ulgii at last, Dosjan’s home.  We’re tired, but everyone wants to see a hunting eagle that Amy has mentioned.  Eagles are used in fall and winter to hunt foxes and rabbits.  Training is long and complicated, and the skills are passed down from father to son.  The eagle we see is about 5 years old, hooded and perched low on a stout piece of wood.  The owner’s son handles the bird under his watchful eye as we each get to don a thick leather glove and take the creature on our arm.  Another first for all of us.  I will cherish the photo.

Eddie, meanwhile, has taken off to pick up vodka for some of us.  I ordered a beautifully decorated bottle of the local stuff for a neighbour, in thanks for looking after my mail while I’m gone.  Dosjan has a different errand: Noa inadvertently deleted all the photos on the family camera.  Dosjan has a degree in IT and teaches computing skills in the Ulgii high school.  He later returns with the photos restored to the memory card.

We roll into the ger camp, tired, hungry and more than ready for hot showers and flush toilets.  Later we gather in the dining ger, drink beer, wine or vodka, trying in vain to summon a party mood.  The food arrives, we eat and soon collapse in our gers.

Some trips end on a high note; this one ends with an exhausted whimper.  But we are forever changed.  The memories of experiencing Mongolia in the centuries-old manner, on horseback, will endure.  I know that I will return to do this trek again.  And I can state that of all the countries I have visited outside of Canada, Mongolia and its people rank at the very top.

Horse Trek in Mongolia Part Nine

Thursday June 23          Nomad Hospitality      Trek to Tavn Bogd base camp

Today was to offer spectacular views of the high peaks and glaciers, but we wake to low mist, drizzle and snow on the ground. Amy helps me take down the wet tent, commenting that the weather is not usually this cold and rainy. My rain parka has seen too many years – it soaks through before I even get to the breakfast tent. It will be one of those days.

For most of the morning the clouds are content to drizzle on us, although wind-whipped, heavier rain turning to snow dogs our tracks. Up and over ridges, narrow paths above steep gorges, rocks and uneven turf – the horses never hesitate. By noon we are all dripping wet and chilled to the bone.

Eddie has a friend he wants to visit in this high country, but has made no arrangements for our coming.

Dosjan rides up to the ger, opens the door and walks in, as is the custom among nomads, only to find the four occupants asleep. The idea of a crowd of soggy strangers descending without warning on this family and filling their ger to overflowing exceeds my comprehension, but hospitality is given unhesitatingly.   Water for tea is put on the stove, cheese and dried yogurt are set out, and freshly baked bread, no doubt intended for the family’s dinner, is cut.

I had read about nomad hospitality, how any stranger could walk into a ger and be fed and sheltered, no questions asked, no thanks expected. To experience it is deeply moving. I doubt that anything in my time here will be more memorable.

Patty gathers the children together to pass out her airplanes and bubble makers. Eddie chats with his friend through Dosjan as translator. Dosjan doesn’t speak Tuvan and the man doesn’t speak Kazakh or Mongolian, but they find common ground in Russian. The friend is ill; he has been to a doctor in Ulgii several times, but we are not sure what the problem is.

He is almost 60, looks 80. Average life span here is 60-65.

After tea and airag, we view the family’s handicrafts, feeling a genuine obligation to buy.

We ride onward and upward, pausing for lunch on a windswept bit of grass above a gorge.

The afternoon weather is no better than the morning’s, and Tavn Bogd base camp (really just the place where people camp to climb the nearby peaks) is anything but welcoming. Setting up tents in the wind is a multi-person endeavor.

We all crawl in and seek the warmth of our sleeping bags, doing our best to keep them off the wet floor until the wind can dry the tent’s interior. Amy and Eddie, thoughtful as ever, have the staff prepare tea and coffee to serve in our tents. Later we go to the party tent for more vodka martinis.

The weather eases a bit afterwards, and a few of the keener hikers scale the moraine across from camp to view the glacier.

For the rest of us, it’s early to bed.  Tomorrow will be the last day of our trek.

Horse Trek in Mongolia Part Eight

Wednesday June 22                        Tuvans, Petroglyphs and a Big River

Back to our normal wake-up at 0700.  We all ride as the ground is too wet for walking.  Dosjan has arranged a ger visit with a local Tuvan family.

The Tuvans speak a language unrelated to Kazakh or Mongolian, believe in shamanism, and have smaller gers than the Kazakhs.  Only 2 women and some children are present, plus a 3-day old goat that was brought in from the cold.  A stove in the middle burns dung.

We are served salt tea, which isn’t nearly as bad as it sounds, having little flavour.  The usual solar panel provides power for a TV and music player.  Patty brings out treats for the children – toy airplanes for the boys and bubble makers for the girls.

After a while we go outside to view the handicrafts, which are priced fairly high.

The little goat charms all of us.

From the ger we ride to an area which has recently been designated a World Heritage Site because of its treasure trove of well preserved petroglyphs dating from 11, 000 to 1300 years ago.

Eddie plans to lead a vehicle-supported cultural and photographic tour here next June.   I stumble around among the boulders but find the terrain hard on my knees.  I know that I should be more interested, but I would rather see some of the wildlife depicted in the carvings.   So far on this trek we have encountered only livestock.

We lunch in howling wind while our horses relax.

It’s not far to the river and our next camp.  The river crossing was supposed to be major, but today the water is shallow.

Patrick kindly takes some excellent photos of me steering Pun’kin across.

Camp is just on the other side, with the usual beautiful view.

Incredible as it seems, we have only two more days in the saddle.  I don’t want this trip to end.  I would gladly stay here while the short summer yields to snow and bitter cold, while the icy winds sweep over the valleys and steppe, while the nomads seek the warmth of their gers and the animals struggle to survive in a brutal climate.  Maybe I will return sometime in the winter, because I think that Mongolia would truly seem like northern Canada, my spiritual home.

Horse Trek in Mongolia Part Seven

Tuesday June 21                        The Bog Camp

Blue sky at 0600, but the outlook is ominous.  We must hurry this morning because if there is snow in the pass, it will delay us 2 or 3 hours as  horses and camels are unloaded and led across while we transport the gear.  I pack rapidly and have the tent down before breakfast.

It’s cold, wet and windy when we set off.  I wear everything but my down parka, which is strapped to the saddlebags.  Chemical heat pads go in each leather glove, and I put a thin hat under my riding helmet.  Even with this gear, I am slightly chilled.

We cross a bog, then head up a ridge, climbing for several hours over rough terrain.  The Mongolian horses amaze me with their ability to negotiate rocks, bog, streams, willows and steep slopes.  Pun’kin doesn’t seem to be as sure footed as most of the others, but she plods on patiently.  Her disagreements are with other horses, not with me (I think that she is at the bottom of the pecking order).  There is a sketchy trail, but it is only marginally better than the ground beside it.

Under intermittent drizzle and constant wind, we pass through fields of flowers more spectacular than I have ever seen.  All colours vie for attention, and the variety is unbelievable.   I wish that we could stop and spend an hour or two here.

I recognize many of the flowers of our Canadian Rockies, but there are far more that I do not know.

Lunch is in a meadow below the pass, again in howling wind.

A final climb brings us to a broad saddle where we sigh with relief; there is only a little snow, just enough to tickle the horses’ hooves.

The pass descends so steeply on the other side that we have to lead the horses down for a good 1000’ vertical.  Dosjan takes Pun’kin for me, as I need to use my trekking poles on the wet, slippery scree.  From below I photograph our camels descending.

A telephoto lens would have been handy, but the camels are just visible against the snow.

Remounted, we continue down toward a broad valley with a view for miles.  Our camels keep pace.

Camp is by a stream in a wet meadow (almost a bog).

The rain stops, the sky turns blue, but the wind persists.  Even though the view is breathtaking, this is our worst campsite so far.

Horse Trek in Mongolia Part Six

Sunday June 19            Trek to Yak Milk Valley

I doubt that I will ever get this landscape out of my mind.  There was a time when I thought that only the wild heights of the Canadian Rockies could be my spiritual home.  That was before I discovered the North, the granite spires and massive glaciers of Baffin Island and the windswept tundra of central Canada.  Mongolia has the same barren and terrifying beauty, the same loneliness, the same sense that this is a land of the gods, where only the hardiest mortals dare to tread.  Travelling here, I can understand why the Mongols could conquer most of the world only to give it up and return home to their vast spaces and great blue dome of sky.

Eddie said that this would be our longest day – 20 km in about 8 hours.  As usual, we get away a little before 10, through open country at first, where the horses can gallop or (for me) trot past monuments from Mongolia’s prehistory: 5th century Turkic mounds.  In these, the dead were buried under a pile of stones.  On the better preserved mounds there is a roughly carved stone man.  Many have parallel lines of stone markers running across the land, each stone representing 10 soldiers who went to war.

After crossing a shallow river we headed up a rising valley for our first experience with steep inclines.  The trail is rocky, almost a staircase in places, but our ponies are sure footed.  Wildflowers peeking from the grass soften the ruggedness.  A couple of the riders haven’t quite figured out how to keep their mounts from running down the other side of a hill, leading to some wild moments but no falls.

The valley narrows to a canyon, forcing us to follow the river through bog and willows; all of the walkers soon decide to ride.  Pun’kin is a “shrub horse”; given the choice between a muddy path and crashing through willows, she’ll opt for shrubbery and a quick belly scratch.

Although the morning was warm, a cloudy sky keeps the afternoon temperature cool.  The river is running but large sections of thick ice remain, which we have to cross.  Eddie feared that the final section before camp would be snow covered, forcing us to lead the horses over a steep ridge, but fortunately the lower route is open.  The horses recognize the site and start to gallop.  Eddie is beside me.  When I tell him that I have never galloped, he says, “You will now!” and takes off.  That’s the only cue Pun’kin needs; she flies across the flats, and this time I don’t rein her in.  My butt slams up and down in the saddle, but I somehow manage to stay on.

Our gear is on the camels, which are still somewhere on the trail.  As wind howls up the valley and rain threatens, we hunker down to wait.

The camels arrive and we set up our tents in the nick of time, avoiding a downpour by minutes.  No one moves for more than an hour, until Amy comes round and invites us to cocktails in one of the large tents.

Inside, Eddie is playing host with jazz on his iPod, popcorn in 2 large bowls, and vodka martinis.  I opt for the “sweet” variety, with the vodka well disguised by pineapple juice.  Most people take the “dirty” version with olives.  It doesn’t take long for the volume of conversation to rise and the ability to speak clearly and coherently to decline.

Dinner under the tarp is late. Bedtime.  Rest day tomorrow.

Monday June 20            Yak Milk Valley            Rest day

Call it Rain Valley!  Yesterday it poured.  This morning was nice, but after lunch it rained until 1700 and has started again now at 2045.  We can only hope that things improve by tomorrow.  This morning we went in different directions.  The largest party took horses and went up the valley carved by the river we are camped beside.  Others went downstream to photograph flowers.

I stayed in camp to catch up on my journal before a lunch that was more elaborate than what we get on the trail.

Eddie was going to give riding lessons to Adeline and me in the afternoon, but with the weather so bad, we all sat around, talked, napped or busied ourselves with special projects.

Suzie and Noa are making a spirit banner, such as the Mongol warriors used to carry.

I wandered around after dinner trying to fix this campsite in my mind.  We are in a flat area beside the river.  Amy and Eddie’s tent is only a few feet from the water, while the rest of us are spread out in more sheltered locations.

The evening sun lit up the ice on the river, as well as the hillside, where our horses were grazing free.

Patches of blue, pink, yellow and white flowers are strewn about the meadow.  Like all wildflowers that have to cope with harsh weather, they are shy, growing low to the ground.  It is easy to trample them unknowingly.

The hills all around us are high enough to be called mountains, although of the hiking variety.  We are at 7200’.  Tomorrow we leave this valley to climb through another one that leads over a 10,000’ pass.   Hoping for sun!

Horse Trek in Mongolia Part Five

Saturday June 18                        Trek to Chebin Hill

Sometimes I wish that I could reach out and stop the hands of time.  Some moments are too precious to relinquish. I’m sitting on a hillside overlooking a valley that will remain in my memory as one of the most beautiful I have ever seen: broad, green and huge, tapering at both ends where the winding river enters and exits.  Widely separated gers, their white tops gleaming in the evening light, dot the plain.  Grazing peacefully in circular clusters, large herds of mixed livestock wander beneath the gentle, larch-covered hills that rim the valley, unaware of the jagged peaks looming up river.  From time to time a lone horseman canters across the grass; an occasional dog trots to a destination only it knows.  As if on signal, the various herds move off, forming long lines, some going towards a ger, others disappearing over a hill.  I assume that they are going home for the night, but a little later they are back.

Our yellow Tusker tents almost seem like an intrusion into this bucolic scene, but we are on a hill, not occupying the valley – as distant from the lives below as the massive clouds and scattered rain showers that share the vast blue sky.

Today’s trek was short and flat, open at first, then a bit narrower as we turned up a valley.

Surprisingly, the walkers are as fast as the horses and even reached the lunch stop ahead of us.

Lunch was spread out on a long cloth on the ground: salad, meat, cheese, pumpernickel, pickles, juice and more.

We had our first deep river crossing today, and everyone had to ride.  The more agile riders took off their shoes while still astride their mounts.  Others managed to raise their feet out of the water.  Stiff old me had boots filled with the water that rose halfway to my knees.  I found the current alarming as Pun’kin really struggled against it.  Some of our wranglers, however, had gone ahead and were crossing and re-crossing with shouts of glee.

At the end we climbed to Chebin Hill.  The name means “mosquito”, but Eddie admitted that this is simply his name for Amy.  Once in camp we spread out on a multi-level site.  We have to put up our own tents, a 2-person job I accomplished today with Amy’s help.  I’m not used to these huge Eureka tents that would easily sleep 3 (outfitters seem to think that we need such monsters).  The Eurekas are extremely well ventilated, with front and rear doors, a large vestibule and large interior panels that unzip, one on each side and 2 at the top.  If I used all the pockets I would never find my gear, so I prefer to stow everything compactly in plastic bags.

Dinner was served on a long table with 3-legged stools – our good weather set up.  We have 2 large tents for rain and a tarp for variable conditions.  Alex, our Tanzanian cook, has had lots of experience on Kilimanjaro.  Eddie is convinced that Mongolian food will not be to the liking of his clients, so he brought his own cook and we eat western.

The above photo, taken at Khotan Nur, shows our standard camp setup.

Horse Trek in Mongolia Part Four

Friday June 17            Trek to upper Khotan Nur

I like the people who come on adventures like this.  Living outside, sleeping in a tent, climbing a mountain, riding a horse, mushing dogs, paddling a raft, shaking off the trappings of city and profession – all these serve as equalizers. Often I never find out what my fellow adventurers do for a living.  Who we were before, what life we will return to matter less in the context of a group outing than how we relate to the group and further its objectives.

On this trip we have more than the usual amount of time to talk and get to know each other, but I think of my fellow participants not as doctors, engineers, nurses, or whatever.  We are hikers and riders, older and younger, stronger and weaker, quiet or boisterous.  The younger set includes Leslie, Suzie and their son Noa, who are completing a round-the-world trip, and Patrick, who did this same trek a couple of years ago.  The more “mature” group includes Jay, his wife Patty and their friend John; Adeline, Phyllis, who always has a large Canon SLR attached to her, and me, the oldest participant.  Not a sour apple in the lot.

Today we begin the trek in earnest.  Breakfast at 0700, and bring your packed duffle with you.  Tent takedown after breakfast and get ready to ride or walk (only a few of us plan to ride all the way).

Loading up take some time, however, so there is an opportunity to enjoy this beautiful site.

Wildflowers always deserve a close look.

The wranglers have already rounded up and saddled the horses and are busy loading the two-hump camels that will carry all of our gear.  Other wranglers help those of us who need a hand to mount safely.

We all set off together, but the fast crowd is soon galloping away, running back, playing games.  I manage to get Pun’kin going at a fast trot a few times, but mostly we walk.  I’m trying to use the crop effectively, but end up dropping it all too frequently, forcing one of the wranglers to dismount and retrieve it.

Our pace is leisurely and we travel rather independently – certainly not in a line, but side by side or on our own, close to the front or lagging behind.  Eddie, Dosjan and 2 wranglers, who are leading saddled horses for the walkers, keep an eye on us, but for the first time I experience freedom on a horse.  The country is open, and we can choose to ride the rough track or make our own path.  The wind on my face, the steady movement of Pun’kin beneath me, the broad blue dome of sky and the flat terrain stretching toward distant, snow-capped mountains transport me to an almost trance-like state.

After a nice lunch by a stream in the trees, we don rain gear under dark clouds.  A cold wind accompanies us to the next  campsite on a broad plain above the lake.  We manage to get the tents up ahead of a downpour that justifies taking a quick nap before dinner.  We enjoy a rainbow with our meal.

A clear stream runs along one side of the camp, lined by willows where unseen birds sing an evening chorus.  In the distance, a cuckoo repeats his monotonous 2-note call.

John, Jay and I walk toward a large boulder to take sunset photos.

 

On the way back we notice that the crew have a horse hogtied on the ground.  It’s the Kazakh version of shoeing.  Only the front feet get shoes, which are one size fits all.  The “nails” are crude metal spikes which are hammered to a point (4 nails per shoe).   The nail is driven part way in, pulled out with pliers, pounded some more, driven in again, pulled out, etc, until at last the wrangler is satisfied.  The horse seems resigned and accustomed to this treatment.  Indeed, all of the horses submit readily to people, even though they run wild for most of the year.