Here I am, doing one of the things I hate most: flying. Why? Well, if I could get to Mongolia in a rowboat, I would. Instead, on June 7, I fly from Edmonton to Vancouver, spend a highly overpriced night in the airport hotel, board Air Canada for ten sleepless hours, change to KAL in Seoul and arrive in Ulaan Baatar late in the evening of June 9. Or so I think; the international dateline has my mind as well as my body confused. I’m getting too old for this nonsense.
It’s all Eddie Frank’s fault. He runs Tusker Trail. I’m a big fan of Tusker Trail. In 2009 I climbed Kilimanjaro with them and was so impressed with the company that I signed up for their Mongolia horse trek in 2011, even though I didn’t have a clue at the time how to ride a horse. That trip was so exhilarating and inspiring that I knew I had to repeat it. I have conveniently forgotten the discomfort associated with getting to the actual starting point of the trek.
Mongolia doesn’t have paved roads linking the capital to any major town, and the Altai Mountains lie in the westernmost part of the country. It’s a big country. So you can drive for days on dirt tracks or fly. At 0330 on June 11, eight jet-lagged trekkers plus Amy Micks, Eddie Frank’s wife and co-leader, stagger from our beds and head to the airport for the flight to Ulgii.
Aero Mongolia seems to fly only if the weather is good, a policy that gives us lots of time to get to know each other as our flight is delayed for hours. Eventually we board for the three-hour trip. Mongolia teaches patience.
Ulgii is a decent sized town inhabited mostly by Kazakhs, who have their own language and traditions. They are nominally Muslim, while most Mongolians are nominally Buddhist. Religion of any kind was brutally suppressed by Stalin, so it seems to play a minor part in everyday life.
Dosjan, our local guide, meets us and we drive to a tourist ger (yurt) camp, which is only just being set up for the season.
Located beside the Khovd River, the camp is picturesque, but the gers are still sparsely furnished, with little carpeting or decoration. The caretaker is a squirrelly little man whose vocabulary seems to consist entirely of “Hooh!” and whose understanding of the needs of his guests approaches zero. Still, we appreciate the beauty of the place.
We drop our gear, then go into town to visit the museum, do some shopping and dine at a no-alcohol Turkish restaurant, which serves good food and fresh salads (food safety is not generally a problem in Mongolian restaurants). Bedtime is early, as tomorrow will be a long day. At 2130 I am awakened from a sound sleep by two women who burst into the ger. They chatter loudly and incomprehensibly in Kazakh, but finally convey that they are the cooks. “Go find Amy!” I snarl. The women descend on the men in the next ger and eventually find Amy, who deals with them and returns to bed. A few minutes later the women throw open her door, cross the floor, turn on the lights, and depart as inexplicably as they arrived.
Our “cooks” manage to produce hot water for breakfast, along with stale bread and over-done fried eggs.
Getting to Ulgii is only part of the fun. Now we take to Land Cruisers for the overland adventure called “driving to Khotan Nur” (nur = lake). Six hours of shake, rattle and roll as the vehicles bounce from one crater to the next, plough through water, tilt alarmingly sideways, then race at full speed whenever the dirt track lacks major obstacles.
However rough, the drive gives us our first chance to appreciate the scenic beauty of the Altai. It is a landscape of muted earth tones and pastoral images.
We stop briefly in Tsengel, a village where the modern world mixes incongruously with the past.
After long hours in the vehicles, we arrive like James Bond martinis: definitely “shaken, not stirred.” But oh how beautiful the sight of the golden Tusker tents by the lake shore! Eddie greets us with big hugs. Alex, our Tanzanian cook, (Eddie brings him over from his Kilimanjaro operation) sets out hot water and beverages. After days of travel we are here. Let the trek begin!