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!