LOWER KHOTAN NUR: June 14
Eight camels to load for the first time, multiple horses to round up and saddle, eight participants who haven’t quite figured out how to take down their tents or help with camp chores. Not quite chaos, but hardly an efficient start to the day. We don’t set out until 1130.
Our path along the lake leads through a larch forest, the soft needles aglow in early season green. Small herds of goats scatter at our approach, then cry frantically as they rush to rejoin their companions. In the open we pass white gers, some just being set up after a long winter that brought record amounts of snow.
This is no nose-to-tail ride; so long as we keep each other in sight we may ride as we please. Laura, Heather and I keep our steeds to a sedate walk, but Eric is soon cantering back and forth with some of the crew members. Lisa and Karyn are more restrained but also let their horses run. The rivers and streams are high, and our hikers, Tom and Viktor, have to mount up for the difficult crossings.
Dosjan cuts a striking figure on a white horse as he keeps track of us all.
We have to check in at a military post, so Dosjan rides ahead with our passports. Meanwhile Tom, walking alone, encounters a soldier who, of course, demands to see his documents. How does one convey to a monolingual Mongolian that one’s passport is somewhere ahead on a horse? We’re close to the Chinese border, so soldiers are on the lookout for people who shouldn’t be here. Visions of arrest and a jail cell! Fortunately help arrives in the form of some of our crew.
Our campsite by the upper lake is as beautiful as the first one. We arrive about 1700, tired but happy after an enchanting first day of riding. Now I’m supposed to prove to Eddie that I had good reason to bring my own tent (I used one of his at the first camp because it was already set up). My stated justification is that I find the Tusker tents too big for one person (= too cold) and too difficult for me to put up (I don’t have the necessary hand strength). Mine, I claim, goes up in five minutes or less. The truth is that I bought the tent, a Hilleberg Jannu, for a dogsledding trip in Greenland that I had to cancel. It’s designed for extreme weather, cost a small fortune, and I’m determined to get some use out of it. Eddie, of course, wants to see this eighth wonder of the world.
I am what is called an expert on winter camping in Canadian conditions. What do I tell novices? ALWAYS put your tent up at home and learn its secrets before you take it into the field. You may have to put it up in the dark, in a raging storm, when you’re cold, dog tired and wearing heavy mitts. I’ve set this tent up only once, on a calm day, without attaching the footprint or pegging out the guy lines or bothering to investigate the basic construction. Today the wind is howling and as the tent flops around wildly, I can’t distinguish front from back or figure out how to mate the footprint to the tent. The poles don’t want to go in the proper sleeves, and I run out of pegs before all the guy lines are set. Thirty frustrating minutes later, the tent is more or less rigged, but I’m embarrassed, and Eddie is looking smug.
Aside from putting up our own tents and looking after our gear, we trekkers have few responsibilities. Wranglers tend to the horses and camels. The camp crew put up the cook tent and the two large tents we use for meals in bad weather, as well as fetch water, dig the toilet hole and set up the “outhouse,” and generally help wherever needed. Alex looks after the kitchen. So what do we do?
Up at 0730. Pack duffle. Take down tent. Eat breakfast. Help pack tables and chairs. Mount up. Picnic lunch. Rest. More riding. Arrive at next campsite, usually before the camels. Set up tent. Rest, wash, read or enjoy tea, juice, etc. and popcorn provided by Alex. Vodka anyone? Dinner. Bed. Sleep and repeat.
How dull it all sounds! At most the routine is the skeleton on which the trip was built. It’s not what fills my memory or tugs at my heart as I sit in Edmonton, wondering if I will ever tread these mountains again. No, it’s the next turn in the valley, the next climb, the unexpected setback and always the haunting beauty of the Altai. The best lies ahead.