Mexican Interlude

Courtyard, Rancho las Cascadas

Courtyard, Rancho las Cascadas

I don’t spend all of my time in the Arctic; Mexico is high on my list of favourite countries. But don’t expect to find me lazing on a beach, quaffing margaritas.Take me to a remote area in the mountains north of Mexico City, put me on a horse, and let a week of bliss unfold.

Rancho las Cascadas has it all: horses for every kind of rider, luxurious accommodations, pleasant scenery and wonderful staff, most of whom are monolingual Spanish speakers, but we manage to communicate well. And it’s also close enough to the World Heritage city of San Miguel de Allende to allow a day visit.

Here are some highlights from the week.

P1060085

Cactus and waterfalls

Cascada, of course, is Spanish for waterfall, and there are several that one can visit on horseback, as well as this one just below the main  lodge.

I love the way small spaces are turned into beautiful places that invite you to pause, relax, and reflect on the pleasures of life.

IMG_1274

Lunch in the shade

The main ranch house is large, but the spaces carved out in it are small and intimate, like the covered porch below. At one end, this cozy seating area, at the other, tables where we ate breakfast.

Cozy corner at the ranch house

Cozy corner at the ranch house

 

Another courtyard, this time in San Miguel de Allende.

Another courtyard, this time in San Miguel de Allende.

The welcoming sign in San Miguel says that the city is Mexico’s gift to the world. With steep, narrow cobblestone streets and colonial architecture at every turn, this is a place to savour slowly.

P1060050

Colonial architecture in San Miguel de Allende

But I came for the riding. No nose-to tail horse parades here. The horses love to run, and in hot months, one can also take them swimming.

The countryside is open, sparsely populated except for small villages where one can stop for a beer. A full-day ride will take you into the mountains, but I prefer to ride two or three hours in the morning, return to the ranch for lunch, and then ride again in the afternoon.

P1050932

Riding

The wranglers are local men who know the country and take excellent care of the horses.

P1060104

Excellent wranglers

P1060088

And beautiful horses.

Well, mostly…

Versace

Versace

What a misnomer! Versace is a scrawny, scruffy horse that loves to run like the wind but is also happy to walk all day with eyes at half mast. He was the perfect mount for a woman whose idea of haute couture is a tee shirt and jeans, and who has reached an age where galloping is decidedly unwise.

A Horse Trek in Mongolia 2013: Conclusion

RETREAT

CAMP FIVE:  June 18

Cloudy skies, cool wind and occasional light rain were perfect for retracing our steps down the valley, as  hot sun would have exhausted us.  The descent over the rocky hills was long, steep and occasionally difficult.  We came to one especially daunting drop, and Tom, who was riding today, stopped, unsure how to proceed.  At Amy’s urging I kicked Breeze forward, planning to take a rock ramp to my right.  Breeze decided to take the direct route and jumped straight down to a sloping ledge, landing sure footed as always but giving me quite a fright.  Tom’s horse showed more sense and took the ramp.

As we neared camp, two teenagers from our kitchen staff galloped up behind Karyn and gave a loud shout, a trick they often play on each other.  Karyn, of course, wasn’t prepared, and her horse bolted, throwing her off.  She came away with bruises and a sore ankle, which probably were less severe than the lambasting the boys could look forward to from Dosjan.  They seemed so stricken the next day that Karyn went out of her way to reassure them that she wasn’t angry.

Looking down on our camp

Looking down on our camp

We haven’t returned to Cheben Hill but rather have a lovely site in a meadow by a stream, with snow-capped mountains as a backrop.  I climb a hill behind camp for the view and find red-stemmed saxifrage and telesonix in bloom.  Later, Alex brings out popcorn, and those who haven’t collapsed in their tents munch and natter until vodka time.

Happy to be here after a long day.  Eddie, Alex, Amy and Dosjan.

Happy to be here after a long day. Eddie, Alex, Amy and Dosjan.

CAMP SIX – UPPER KHOTAN NUR:  June 19

Storms threaten all day, but our ride is easy over grassy hills, across bridges and streams, past herds of sheep and goats.  We lunch by a bridge and get to watch our camels and crew come across.

Here come the camels.

Here come the camels.

Alex is with them, tall astride his little horse, the ever-present wide grin on his face.

This is a little easier than being a cook on Kilimanjaro.

This is a little easier than being a cook on Kilimanjaro.

The river is the local car wash.

A soldier gives TLC to his vehicle.

A soldier gives TLC to his vehicle.

We enjoy some late-day sun in camp.  Sheep and goats from a near-by ger wander in, their gentle voices a reminder of all that I will miss once I return to Canada.

Eddie brings out his martini bar.

Eddie's martini bar

Eddie’s martini bar

And a group photo is required.

Dosjan,

Dosjan, Eric, Karyn, Laura, Amy, Tom, Heather, Lisa, Viktor and Eddie

Eric and the wranglers produce a roaring bonfire after dinner, and we sit around it, saying little, thinking. Tomorrow will be our last day on horse.

We all share the fire.

We all share the fire.

LOWER KHOTAN NUR:  June 20

Soft grey light on dark water.  Mist on the hills.  A gentle rain.  Plaintive cries of sheep and goats.  Warblers among the larches.  The dull clip-clop of horse hooves on wet grass.  For a few hours we are enveloped in beauty, and I give myself over to the poetry and magic of the place.  Can this really be the last time that I will come here?  There are moments when I wish I could reach out and stop the hands of time.

We come to a river that is deep and fast, raging from snowmelt and rain.  “Put just the toes of your boots in the stirrups, so you can get off if the horse falls over.”  It takes a lot to frighten me, but I am full of trepidation as I search downstream for something to grab on to in case I am swept away from Breeze.  The horses struggle in the strong current, and for a lifetime it seems that we are all being pushed sideways, making no forward progress.  There’s no way to completely banish the rushing water from the field of vision, and I fight vertigo.  Then Breeze finds firm footing, masters the current, and we lunge up the river bank.

Now the rain falls heavy and steady.  We decide to delay lunch until we arrive at Karbai’s ger, not far now.  As I start up the final hill, two locals on horseback come down through trees on my right.  Breeze shies and I calm him.  The riders pass behind, and I assume they will continue on down the slope.  Instead they turn, gallop up behind me and shout, just as the young boys did to Karyn.  Breeze jumps and bolts, and only blind luck keeps me in the saddle.  I’m furious, but Eddie just says that this is what the locals do, and you have to be prepared.  He’s right, of course.

FAREWELLS

Next morning we bid good bye to our wranglers and crew with many hugs and a few tears, then board the Land Cruisers for the return to Ulgii.  Dosjan leads us on a spectacular shortcut through the mountains and over a pass, giving us a final chance to appreciate the haunting beauty of this country.

Misty mountains

Misty mountains

An ovoo at the pass

An ovoo at the pass

We stop briefly in Sagsai to see a hunting eagle.  Hunting with eagles is still widely practiced in winter, and even though we hated to see this noble bird confined, we wanted to interact with it.

The eagle master and his bird.

The eagle master and his golden eagle

Getting so powerful a bird on your arm can be unnerving.

Getting so powerful a bird on your arm can be unnerving.

Karyn has a moment of joy.

Karyn has a moment of joy.

After tea and treats with the master’s family, we drive to our dismal camp in Ulgii. The gers have been properly furnished and decorated by now, but the caretaker is as clueless as ever, and breakfast is still stale bread and over-cooked eggs.

At 0430 our ger door flies open and we awaken to “Hooh!”  By 0730 we have checked in at the airport.  Ominously, all the locals who checked in have gone home.  We sit until 1530 on hard chairs, eating Mongolian dumplings, greasy fritters and western junk food until the plane finally arrives.

Did we really buy tickets on Aero Mongolia again?

Did we really buy tickets on Aero Mongolia again?

The farewell dinner in UB, that was scheduled for tonight, gets put off to tomorrow.  I finally reach my room at the Bayangol at 2100, grab a Heinekin from the mini bar, order a superburger and fries from room service, and reflect on how glorious trips sometimes end in a whimper.

REFLECTIONS

What do I take from this second venture in Mongolia?  I feel as much at home here as in the far north of Canada.  Indeed, Canadians and Australians are perhaps the people best able to relate to these vast, empty lands, for such lands comprise and define each of our countries.  Much of what I love about Mongolia I can find in Canada: vistas that seem to go on forever, wind that blows unhindered by any tree, the great blue dome of sky, silence, solitude.  But only here have I found a people of such unequaled hospitality, quick to smile, eager to help and share.  Add to them the courageous little horses, so willing and sure footed; the herds grazing peacefully, tended on horseback by nomads as they have been for centuries; the gers, those marvels of engineering, where doors are never locked and strangers never turned away; the quiet rhythm of a life centred around livestock and the home, where pleasures are simple and tradition still means something.

I know that Mongolia is changing.  Perhaps this snapshot that I take away will soon be as outdated as last year’s computer.  I have devoted much of my life to travel and adventure.  Always I learn and always I am enriched, but only rarely does the experience touch my innermost being.  Mongolia, as I see it today, will always be a part of me.

P1020766

A Horse Trek in Mongolia 2013: Part Four

P1020855

CAMP THREE – CHEBAN HILL:  June 15

Some places have magic; Cheban Hill transports me centuries back in time.  From a high ridge I look out on a valley where life has carried on virtually unchanged for hundreds of  years.  Widely spaced gers, gleaming white in the late afternoon sun, testify to human inhabitants.  Beside the winding stream directly below, a small band of mares and foals grazes peacefully, gradually infiltrated by a large herd of sheep and goats.  The horses barely notice. Whatever motivates the herd keeps it moving through the horses to a bend in the stream, where some individuals pause to drink.  Then the mobile carpet of wool and cashmere trends back through the horses and heads across the valley.

Lifeblood of the nomads: sheep, goats, horses and camels.

Lifeblood of the nomads: sheep, goats, horses and camels. Click on photo for a better view.

Farther away, in all directions I can see other herds, all following some inscrutable directive to flow this way and that.  A lone rider canters the length of the valley, followed by a dog.  Shadows lengthen on the larches that spill down the hillside across from me.  The water in the stream reflects the deepening blue of the sky.

Evening in the valley

Evening in the valley

Our camels glow in the warm light.

Our camels free to graze.

Our camels free to graze.

The breeze stiffens, blows colder.  It’s time to return to my tent in one of my favourite campsites on earth.

Camp 3

Camp 3

Our wranglers have their own tents and do their own cooking.

Our wranglers have their own tents and do their own cooking.

EN ROUTE TO CAMP FOUR:  June 16

Breeze trots ahead eagerly.  He knows camp is near and he has worked hard today.  I give him his head even though I don’t want to canter.

This morning we descended from our hilltop onto a beautiful green plain strewn with yellow draba and tiny potentilla.

Riding free as the wind

Riding free as the wind

After crossing a river we begin a rocky climb to a high valley.  Nothing seems to daunt our sturdy little horses – not rock stairs, precipitous descents or sheer drop-offs from narrow paths.  They may pick their way carefully where the going is difficult, but then they trot briskly to catch up.

Heading into the rocks

Heading into the rocks

Eric arrives at the lunch spot.

Eric arrives at the lunch spot.

We lunch by a group of camels, among which are a few babies.  Like all babies, these are cute.  Like all camels, they will soon lose their charm.  My opinion of camels undoubtedly stems from a ride I took two years ago when I spent three excruciating hours straddling the spine of a very thin beast.  But as I watch this bunch stupidly chewing their cuds and staring blankly at us, I find little to love.

Cute? Yes! Goofy?  Definitely!

Cute? Yes!       Goofy? Definitely!          Loveable?  Maybe camels are an acquired taste.

The rocky hills have brought us to a river and willow flats.  Two years ago the willows had leafed out and my sleepy Pun’kin was determined to get into the thick of them to scratch her belly.  This year the branches are bare and stiff, and while Breeze shows no inclination to stray from the narrow path, I find it difficult to keep my feet from being knocked from the stirrups.  As we near camp the terrain eases into grassy hills.

Despite the difficulty of the trip, we have enjoyed the matchless beauty of snow-capped mountains, ice on the river and most especially the carpets of wildflowers: whole meadows covered in blue forget-me-nots, others in yellow draba or potentilla.  Patches of bracted lousewort, white poppies and lavender.  Flowers I do not recognize.

Adrift in a sea of forget-me-nots.

Adrift in a sea of forget-me-nots.

CAMP FOUR – YAK MILK VALLEY: June 16, 17

ROADBLOCK!

Yak Milk Valley camp
                                                                  Yak Milk Valley camp

We camp by the icy river, below a waterfall in a narrow part of the valley.  I have less trouble setting up my tent now, but still have not learned all its secrets.

The view from my tent
                                              The view from my tent

In this small area the camels keep us close company.

Camping with camels
                                                        Camping with camels

It’s a beautiful afternoon, and we are soon lured onto the snow (just make sure you’re on land, not over water).

Playing in the snow.
                                               Karyn and Lisa enjoying the snow.
Laura and Amy
                                                                    Laura and Amy

Normally we would spend a rest day here, but Eddie is worried about the high pass we have to cross.  Once before he found snow there, and a long path had to be dug for the camels.  These desert beasts are great in sand and they cross rivers without difficulty, but they don’t handle snow well, especially when heavily laden.  All the gear they were carrying had to be unloaded and ferried by crew and trekkers, while the camels were led across unburdened to be reloaded on the other side. All of this had taken many hours.  In order to avoid reaching the next camp after dark, Eddie plans to move us today to just below the pass.  But first he sends Dosjan and Karbai out at 0600 to check conditions.  By breakfast time they have radioed back that the snow is so deep and low that access to the pass is completely blocked.  Not only will we have our rest day – we will not be able to complete our route to Tavn Bogd base camp.  The only way out from Yak Milk Valley is to retrace our steps and return to Khotan Nur.

If you’re not prepared to be flexible, stay out of Mongolia!

A Horse Trek in Mongolia 2013: Part Three

All things considered, I would rather pass on the day's activities.

All things considered, I’d rather pass on the day’s activities.

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.

Camels are far better load carriers than horses.

Camels can carry far more than horses.

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.

The world's first and still most practical mobile home.

A practical, comfortable and ecologically friendly mobile home.

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.

Laura in pink, Heather in blue, while Eric, Eddie and a wrangler lead the way.

Laura in pink, Heather in blue, while Eric, Eddie and a wrangler lead the way.

Dosjan cuts a striking figure on a white horse as he keeps track of us all.

Dosjan

Dosjan

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.

Camp 2.  Tusker tents and my little green Hilleberg.

Camp 2. Tusker tents and my little green Hilleberg.

DAILY ROUTINE

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.

Alex at work.

Alex at work.

Breakfast. Note the comfy chairs!

Breakfast. Note the comfy chairs!

Packing up.

Packing up. No wonder the camel wanted to opt out.

Lunch along the way.

Lunch along the way.

THe wranglers and horses appreciate a little rest.

Wranglers and horses appreciate a little rest.

Waiting for the camels.

Waiting at the campsite for the camels.

Here comes our gear.

Here comes our gear.

Eric watches the camels being unloaded.

Eric watches the camels being unloaded.

Setting up one of the large tents.

Setting up one of the large tents.

Viktor and Karyn at the beverage table.

Viktor and Karyn at the beverage table.

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.

Whither now?

Whither now?

A Horse Trek in Mongolia 2013: Part Two

P1020733

LOWER KHOTAN NUR:  June 13

There was frost on the tents this morning, and I could almost imagine myself back in the Canadian Rockies – if it weren’t for the goats.

Not everyone is thrilled with the temperature.

Cool morning

At least there aren’t any mosquitoes.

Today is a holdover day.  We will do a practice ride, enjoy the hospitality of our wrangler Karbai and his family, and watch some horse games sponsored by Eddie – a mini Nadaam festival he calls it.  All of this is intended to introduce us to Kazakh (and Mongolian) culture: the primacy of the horse and the unfailing generosity of the people.

We are a group of four Americans and four from Canada.  I’m the oldest at 76.  Eric, who works in Dubai, rides in the desert and has done more travelling than seems possible for someone his age, is 28.  The other two men, Tom and Viktor, plan to hike the route rather than ride.  Amy has brought her mother Laura along.  Heather, a grade four teacher, says she doesn’t know how to ride.  Karyn and Lisa are friends and seem confident about riding.  After breakfast the horses begin to arrive.

Our horses arrive.

Our horses await us.

Laura says she wants a horse that is half dead.  Viktor wants nothing to do with four-footed transport.  I’m hoping for something a little livelier than the mount I had two years ago.  Pun’kin, I named her.  She was sweet and sleepy and nearing the age when she would no longer be useful.  The people here waste nothing; Pun’kin was eaten last year.

We have each been assigned a saddle, based on weight and butt size, and now must be matched with a horse.  Eddie gives relevant information to Dosjan, who relays it to the wranglers, who speak very little English.  Dosjan speaks Kazakh, Mongolian, English, Russian and Turkish (I’m surprised he isn’t trying to learn Swahili from Alex).

Sorting the saddles, with an audience.

Sorting the saddles. It seems that all the local children have come to watch.

Amy helps Mom Laura get ready to ride.

Amy helps Mom Laura get ready to ride.

I’m thrilled with my horse, a grey roan pinto that is strong but very obedient.  I name him Breeze.  The Kazakhs don’t name their horses (you really don’t want to name something you plan to eat), but we westerners can’t resist.

Breeze. Photo by Laura Micks.

Breeze and me. Photo by Laura Micks.

Once we are all mounted Eddie leads us uphill and through the trees to Karbai’s ger, where we will be honoured guests.

Those of us who come from a land of locked doors and gated communities, where strangers are more to be feared than trusted, can only be amazed by the ingrained hospitality of the Mongolians.  Walk up to any ger, open the door without knocking, walk in, and you will be welcomed.  At the very least you will be offered salted milk tea (it tastes better than it sounds) and dried yogurt.  If you need shelter or more nourishing fare, you will be taken care of, no questions asked, no thanks expected.  Karbai’s family is wealthy by nomad standards, and we have been invited, but two years ago, by Lake Khovsgol, I sought shelter from the rain with impoverished strangers and was also welcomed.

On a far deeper level, if you work to establish a relationship with these people, they will be loyal friends for life.  Over the years Eddie has built such a relationship with Karbai’s family. And although I know them far less well, I have learned to love the gentle nature of our hosts, so open and genuine are they, and so untouched by the greedy competition of the outside world.  Will my fellow trekkers come to share my sense of wonder and quiet joy?  I keep my thoughts to myself.

Eddie with the elder member of the family

Eddie with the elder member of the family

The wife of one of the sons prepares milk tea.

The wife of one of the sons prepares milk tea.

Dried yogurt, cheese, fried bread, with music by Karbai.

Dried yogurt, cheese, fried bread and milk tea, with music by Karbai.

We return to camp and evaluate our horses.   Heather wants to change and is given one she calls Mondo.  Mondo immediately sinks into a deep depression, where he remains for the entire trip.  Heather thinks it’s because he had just been ridden by Dosjan, who was probably born on a saddle, and he hates being demoted.

Heather and Mondo

Heather and Mondo

In mid afternoon riders come from all around to compete for the prize money Eddie has put up.  It’s also a social occasion and a fun event for the children.

Greeting.

Greeting.

Eddie with some of Karbai's family.

Eddie with members of Karbai’s family.

The locals gather for the games.

The locals gather for the games.

Children ride almost as soon as they can walk.

Children ride almost as soon as they can walk.  The boy in white is riding bareback.

The games consist of a race, a tug of war and an attempt to pick an object off the ground while cantering past.

Racing five times around a long loop.

Racing five times around a long loop.

Fourth lap.  The brown horse in the eventual winner.

Fourth lap. The brown horse is the eventual winner.

Who will let go first?  Photo from two years ago.

Tug of war. Who will let go first? Photo from two years ago.

With the prizes awarded, the locals return to their gers and we enjoy a quiet evening, where the still water of the lake and the cloudless dome of the sky seem to merge into one vast expanse of blue.

Peace at day's end.

Peace at day’s end.

A Horse Trek in the Altai Mountains of Mongolia 2013

 

Dosjan

GETTING THERE

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.

P1020662

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

Ulgii

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.

Most tourist ger camps are both beautiful and comfortable.  This one isn't.

Most tourist ger camps are well appointed, well staffed and comfortable. This one isn’t.

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.

Khovd River.  The water is very high.

Khovd River. The water is very high.

Iris growing beside the river.

Iris growing beside the river.

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.

Sheep and goats graze peacefully against a backdrop of purple mountains.

Sheep and goats graze peacefully against a backdrop of purple mountains.

A palette of greens, greys, browns.....

A palette of greens, greys, browns…..

Picnic lunch beside the Khotan River, with yet another colour scheme.

Picnic lunch beside the Khotan River, with yet another colour scheme.

We stop briefly in Tsengel, a village where the modern world mixes incongruously with the past.

Tsengel.  Note the solar powered street lights and satellite dishes.

Tsengel. Note the solar powered street lights and satellite dishes.

No thing of beauty!

No thing of beauty!

Construction techniques

Construction techniques

Each doorway leads to a shop, but there are no signs to tell you what is within.

Each doorway leads to a shop, but there are no signs to tell you what is within.

A horse waits patiently beside a picture of horses.

A horse waits patiently beside a picture of horses, while its modern competition lurks to the right.

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!

Tusker camp at Khotan Nur

Tusker camp at Khotan Nur

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.