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.

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A Horse Trek in Mongolia 2013: Part Four

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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 Two

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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.

Images of Patagonia

Image

All journeys unfold chronologically, but for me Patagonia is a collage of snapshots, without order or even geographical cohesion.  I remember blue lakes, immense glaciers, flaming skies, tranquil landscapes, arid badlands, strange birds and soaring granite peaks that stretch to the heavens.

Who dropped the petrified firewood?  The tree that produced these logs lived during the age of the dinosaurs, long before there were humans around to use an axe.

One crazy rock!

Some giant was obviously having fun.

Mother-in-law cushion

Ubiquitous in Patagonia, this thorny mat plant is no place to sit.

Fitzroy massif.

An iconic image of Patagonia on a rare cloudless day.

Long-tailed meadowlarks, the signature bird of Patagonia.

More colourful than our Rocky Mountain meadowlarks, these birds are happy to pose for photographs.

Perito Moreno glacier

Even the hordes of tourists and intrusive metal walkways cannot spoil the majesty of this roiling sea of ice.

Lake below the Upsala glacier.

A far more peaceful and natural landscape.

A lone guanaco stands guard.

These camelids of Patagonia roam the grasslands, paying little attention to hikers.

Sunrise on the Torres del Paine

Once in a rare while a photograph does justice to a memory.  This image will never fade from my mind.

Earthcreeper

I’m not sure what kind of earthcreeper he is, but he is certainly bright eyed and cheerful.

Prehistoric cave paintings

In this cave high above a valley nomadic people paused and hunted.  The open hand indicates that this is a good place to hunt.

Sunset at EcoCamp

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 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.