Western Mongolia Trek part 1; June 18-24, 2011

All photos are Jennifer's -- Tim doesn't have a laptop along for photo processing. As always, Tim's photos will come out later and will be a lot more artistic.

So much happened during our expedition into the Altai mountains of western Mongolia that we're dividing the travelog into two parts.

From Ulaanbaatar, our EZNis Airways flight to Olgii in the far west was surprisingly modern, in fact the pilot hailed from Connecticut. We were met in Olgii by the three individuals we'd be with for much of the next 13 days:

Erlan our guide. Guiding should be interpreted loosely -- Erlan was a friendly but fairly passive individual who mostly pointed out the general direction and did his best to handle any issues or requests. The one other guided group (actually pair) we met had an even more passive guide, so it may be the Mongolian way for now; tourism is certainly quite new to this region. To his credit, Erlan's English was by far the best of any Mongolian we met outside of Ulaanbaatar, so he did serve well as a translator.

Bodra our cook. Bodra is the sister of Bold Purev who organized our entire trip. She's experienced and welcoming. and she did a very good job understanding that the typical meat-focused Mongolian diet was not to our taste. Although Emily dipped liberally into the duffel bag of food we'd brought along "just in case," the rest of us were quite happy with Bodra's fare.

Gaana our driver. Gaana was the charismatic clown of the group, despite speaking zero English. He was also a master of the tough four-wheel-drive Russian UAZ van that accompanied our expedition except in the highest parts of the trek. The terrain over which he navigated was remarkable: boulder fields; mud, sand, and snow; fording deep rivers. We only had engine problems or got stuck (photo 1) a handful of times, and Gaana handled them all expertly.

We drove 10-12 hours from Olgii over 1½ days to reach the start of the trek. There were no actual roads, although we often followed well-worn tracks. On the rare occasions that we encountered other people they were traveling by horse, motorcycle (photo 2), jeep, or large truck transporting a complete household including the house: we were soon introduced to the many semi-nomads who move their entire existence -- "ger" (yurt) home, furniture, vehicles if they have them, and many livestock -- into the Altai mountains for the summer (photo 3).

In fact. our second evening it was pouring rain, so our crew arranged for us to stay in a nomad family's ger rather than pitch our tents. The patriarch happened to be some type of district manager, so despite a complete lack of, say, plumbing, they did have a TV (solar-powered), satellite phone, printer (though no computer), and the latest Nikon SLR camera which Tim admired. The colorfully-decorated ger (photo 4) had a partly dirt floor and central stove for warmth, while yaks, cows, horses, sheep, and goats wandered outside the small door. All told a study in contrasts, as we found Mongolia to be in general.

Word had mysteriously gotten around that we were interested in meeting one of the Kazakh eagle hunters who live in the region. After several stops we'd still failed to find one, but while enjoying the district manager family's hospitality, a jeep pulled up with an eagle in the back seat! An elderly man -- a former eagle hunter -- was more than happy to don traditional garb and pose for photos. Tim's photos will undoubtedly be excellent; for now you'll have to do with Jennifer's (photo 5).

Other than the periodic ger encampments, a couple of desolate villages, randomly-located graves from 50 to 2000 years old (photo 6 is the latter), and a few rivers and lakes, we largely drove through quite beautiful but stark mountain nothingness (photo 7). The landscape was similar when we finally began walking on day 3. The first two days of walking were easy despite no actual trails, and we covered a lot of distance.

At the end of the second trekking day we reached a settlement (a few buildings, no plumbing as usual) near some hot springs. It turned out to be akin to a mountain sanatorium -- sick people would stay for a week or two, under the belief that each of the warm-water pools has a healing effect for a different disease. A building with actual bathtubs had been constructed over some of the pools; we paid a hefty $10/person to enjoy lukewarm baths, and perhaps cure a few ills. Incongruously, one of the ramshackle buildings contained a ping-pong table (and nothing else), which we also enjoyed.

We don't usually dole out gifts when we travel, but since the area hasn't yet been ruined by tourism, we brought along a bag of balloons and stickers for the nomad children.
(In the more popular places we've trekked, we're often hounded by kids fully expecting handouts of pencils or candy.) Our gifts were accepted shyly, and certainly appreciated (photo 8). Likewise we were offered salted milk tea, curd and fermented cheese snacks of all description (mostly not to our taste), and on one occasion fresh and delicious yak-milk yogurt. In general the people were reserved but welcoming, and to a one they enjoyed posing for photos (photo 9, not too visible are our gift stickers all over the kids' faces).

Weather had been disappointingly overcast or rainy for our first several days, and on trekking day 3 we woke up to a couple of inches of fresh snow. We were scheduled to hike over a difficult high pass, and -- like many logistical aspects throughout the trip -- we were unclear of the plan. Eventually we were introduced to Shaaga, a local herder, hunter, and camel-fleet owner, who with his expert knowledge would lead us over the pass. It turned out to be one of our most epic hiking/travel days ever.

First of all, Shaaga was a true character (photo 10, on the right). Fifty-four years old but appearing much older, he was dressed in well-worn suit jacket and pants, though he did sport knee-high leather boots. He carried only a walking stick, sunglasses, binoculars, and what appeared to be a bedroll but turned out to be a trench-coat. No food or water. He walked incredibly fast and with great confidence, regardless of whether we were climbing over boulders, scaling a steep slope, or skipping from rock to rock in a river or lake. Each time he got sufficiently far ahead of us, he sat down and smoked a cigarette.

Shaaga spoke no English so we assumed a hiking day of regular duration, but it turned out to be a good 10 hours at a reasonable clip. We'd visited some of Shaaga's relatives before setting off (including one family harboring two baby wolves until their pelts could be sold), so it wasn't an early start. Having no clue where we were headed, we clambered over wet rough terrain, crossed a couple of passes, traversed stark steep landscape, went up and up and more up (photo 11), and finally crossed a seemingly endless snowfield in worsening weather before beginning the long steep descent to a distant valley.

Exhausted and relieved to have arrived back in "civilization," we were welcomed into the ger of yet another of Shaaga's relatives to await the arrival of the van, which had to drive 200km around the mountain range to meet us. (So far the van had averaged about 15km/hour during our drives, but it had set out early that morning.) It was cold, so we huddled around the central stove fueled by yak-dung, and we were kindly offered endless bowls of salt-tea.

We waited and waited, and waited (photo 12; note similarity to ger in photo 4, and chess game underway). Finally we had to admit that the van wouldn't arrive that night. The wife of the ger-couple fed us a rice-and-meat dinner (had we been Mongolian she probably would have omitted the rice), and we all stretched out on the floor. It was a tight fit with the four of us, Shaaga, Erlan who had come along on the hike, the actual ger occupants, and a new baby yak who needed protection from the weather. We had nothing to wear but the rather wet clothes we'd hiked in. Nevertheless, we got more or less a real night's sleep, a good story to tell, and in the morning we spotted the van parked a couple of kilometers away -- after a treacherous drive due to the snowfall, it had finally arrived around 1:00am.

With the big adventure behind us, there were two more days of straightforward hiking to reach the base camp for the high-peaks portion of our trek. When we reached the last vehicle-accessible terrain on trekking day 4, to continue hauling our gear we swapped the trusty van for four of Shaaga's trusty two-humped camels (photo 13). The gear wasn't minor: Bodra set up a spacious cooking tent each evening that doubled as a dining tent for inclement weather, and we had a comfortable table and chairs along as well. Our sleeping tents were generously-sized as were the crew's, and there was no skimping on food or other supplies. We've been on several other "full service" treks (Nepal, Peru, Tanzania, Morocco). We expected Mongolia to be considerably less organized given how few treks are run each year, but they're doing quite well in the scheme of things, and will only improve over time.

Next: The peaks of Tavan Bogd and our return to Olgii, with plenty of additional excitement.

Back to Aiken/Widom Family Travel List