To Western Mongolia via Ulaanbaatar; June 15-17, 2011

After a whirlwind end to a busy school year, we're off for our traditional summer trip, to an even more nontraditional than usual destination: western Mongolia. When it came time to think about where we would travel this summer, the finalists were Mongolia, Iceland, western Australia, climbing Mt. Elbrus (follow the link and you'll see it's a good thing we didn't pick that one!), hiking the GR 20 in Corsica or the Walker's Haute Route in the Alps, and a sailing trip in French Polynesia. (Nepal would top the list of places we haven't yet traveled as a family, but unfortunately summer is not a good trekking season.) Western Mongolia was selected by family vote, with Iceland a close second -- looks like we already know where we're headed next summer, unless the kids' mounting activities and obligations preclude a real trip; it was a close one this year.

One attraction of Mongolia is simply to visit Central Asia, a part of the world we haven't even come close to before. It's also a country of wide open spaces, interesting past history and current culture, and a small but growing tourist industry. In fact, shortly after we decided on western Mongolia, we discovered that some mainstream adventure travel companies (Tusker Trails, Wilderness Travel, and Exodus) have introduced trips to the same region. It seems likely we're on the leading edge of an adventure-travel trend. Getting there first has its advantages (few tourists, unspoiled) and disadvantages (little infrastructure). We'll see how it goes.

Traveling independently as usual, we arranged the entire Mongolia portion of our trip through Bold Purev at Mongolia Trekking. Bold's email communication skills were excellent. We settled on an itinerary based around a 10-day trek in the Altai Mountains, culminating in climbing 2-3 peaks of the Tavan Bogd, or "five holy peaks." The trek will bring us past lakes, over a high pass, and through areas frequented by nomads living in yurts -- called "gers" in Mongolia. Tim is particularly interested in capturing photos of the iconic Kazakh eagle hunters, who live in the region.

A good depiction of the final high-peaks area is here. We should be able to climb Malchin without any difficulty. Then we'll set a high camp on the glacier, from which we'll climb either Nairamdal (whose summit lies on the triple border of Mongolia, China, and Russia), Khuiten (at 14,350'/4374m the highest mountain in Mongolia), or if things go exceptionally well, both. For the trekking we'll have a guide, cook, and two "extras" who will serve as jeep drivers for the first part, pack-camel drivers for the second, and finally high-camp porters. For the peaks we'll be joined by a climbing guide named Gangaamaa, who just last month became the first Mongolian woman to summit Mt. Everest. We were pretty excited when we saw a billboard congratulating Gangaamaa (photo 1) in downtown Ulaanbaatar.

Reaching the start of our trek is no small endeavor. We began by flying to Beijing on Air China, notorious as the least expensive carrier and certainly epitomizing "you get what you pay for." After an overnight in the Beijing airport, we continued to Ulaanbaatar. We were met at the airport by Bold, who had many plans for our afternoon in Mongolia's capital city: a traditional lunch, a visit to a sprawling monastery complex with an impressive 100' Buddha (photo 2), a tour through the extensive and somewhat decrepit natural history museum (though it did boast an impressive dinosaur-bone collection), a concert of traditional music and dancing (photos 3 and 4) including the bizarre Mongolian throat-singing, and finally as we were on our very last jet-lagged legs, a "Mongolian barbecue" dinner during which Emily fell fast asleep.

Ulaanbaatar is home to half of Mongolia's 3 million people. It's a fairly ugly, primarily Soviet-built/rebuilt city, but the number of cranes and street-repair projects suggests it's on the upswing. Despite our packed schedule we didn't see a lot of the city yet (we'll have a bit more time on our return), but we did note such curiosities as a large statue of Chinggis Kahn (you'll know him as Genghis) on one block followed by Lenin on the next (photo 5).

Early in the morning we'll leave internet and other creature comforts behind when we fly onward (on Eznis Airways -- better not to think about it) to Olgii, in the far west. From there it's a 1½ day bumpy jeep ride through roadless steppe to our trailhead.

The next travelog should be posted some time after our return to Ulaanbaatar in almost two weeks. From there it's back to Beijing where we'll spend two nights before heading home -- just enough time to visit the major sights and celebrate Tim's 16th birthday by taking an all-day hike along the Great Wall.

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