Heading out west for a week-long tour through the Altai Mountains, our fourth day in Mongolia started with a relatively short (3 hrs) yet surprisingly annoying early morning flight (up at 4 am) to Olgii which set us back considerably in our quest for acclimating to our new time zone. We were met by our Kazakh Tour organizer, Dosjan, who escorted us to our hotel for the first nighth and, while the name sounded rather exotic – The Tsambaragav Hotel – it really just meant “Green Hotel”, which it indeed was. However, it also featured many, many pounds of gold curtains and an shocking amount of gold leaf wallpaper, not to mention a fairly elaborate set of toiletries that, while not offering any soap, did include what was surely some of the worst toilet paper known to man, not one but two combs, and the obligatory 3-pack of condoms (“Romantic Lover Rubber”).
Located in the far western corner of Mongolia unnervingly close to each of the Chinese, Russian and Kazakhstan borders, Olgii is practically the definition of an outpost town, partially due to the dreary, desolate feel, partially due to the grey, windy weather at the time we happened to be there, and partially due to basically everything else about it. It is mostly comprised of low, square, Communist-style buildings, just one paved street (that also happens to boast an actual traffic light, albeit of questionable influence) and for some reason the near-constant keening of circling birds which I want to say were hawks, but deep down suspect were actually vultures.
This far out, thanks to yet another historically debatable line drawn on a map, nearly the entire population is actually Kazakh, almost entirely Muslim, although I’m told not very devout (most of the women wear headscarves, although not so much in a Middle Eastern way but more of a “huge fan of Def Leppard” sort of way), and Kazakh is also the main language even though everyone can also speak Mongolian in a pinch (just in case they are ever chosen to participate in a popular national game show, presumably involving a lot of questions about the whole slew of different animals it is possible to squeeze milk from.) Since I had not yet had time to really learn any Mongolian, switching to Kazakh was really no trouble at all, and before long I was practically conversing like a local, enthusiastically bellowing all my favourite phrases such as “ootnem tohta” – stop please, and “jaksa jaksa” – good good, generally in reference to how my most recent roadside urination went.
Other than that, the highlights of Olgii, as far as we could tell, included the standard local history museum (yes, of course there was a really old clothes iron, in case you were wondering) and a strange, crowded bazaar that seemed to be a mix of Middle Eastern souq and SE Asian market, and had all the usual stuff (Tupperware, cabbage, screwdrivers) plus the far less usual homemade stoves and a large outdoor billiards hall rambunctious under its tattered tarp. Of course, there was also the Turkish restaurant, according to our tour company the best restaurant in town, which I assume is why we were treated to their tasty kebabs a total of 5 times over the course of our stay (including takeaway once), although it may also have had something to do with our guide’s ability to enjoy their impressive free wifi.
The next morning our tour started in earnest, as us and our guide, yet another Dosjan, who suggested we call him Doggie, for reasons that remained unclear, were joined by our driver, Ada, our cook, Ayju. Bright and early we piled into our Russian jeep – a vehicle that was completely foreign to us until arriving here, but which we’ve now noticed to be as ubiquitous as Dodge Caravans with stick figure families back home. Picture a VW van on steroids, all heavy grey steel and no-frills square-ness, built for the sole purpose of withstanding the intense pounding of those faint, gravelly tracks that pass for roads in this part of the world, comfort and style be damned. Despite ours actually being a 2007 model it still looked exactly the same as every other model since they were conceived somewhere deep in the utilitarian mind of some hungry, oppressed Russian scientist back in the Cold War, and it is all too easy to picture Nikita Kruschev riding in the very same boxy metal contraption back in the 60’s while on his way to tour a budding nuclear facility, or maybe witness a top-secret, VIP-only firing squad. Apparently, besides being both practically indestructible and almost genetically incapable of arousing the interest of car thieves, they are also simple to fix, with almost no electronics and every livestock herder around able to produce spare parts at a moment’s notice. One cold morning it wouldn’t start, but only until Ada pulled out a short metal bar and effortlessly hand-cranked it to life like it was Al Capone’s old 1925 Packard. Of course, manual hand-crank was also the method of choice for obtaining gas from the rusted-out old tank we encountered in the middle of nowhere, accompanied by an extremely unlikely-looking metal shell of a gas pump that was clearly a century old and proudly emblazoned with a wide variety of CCCP logos.
Despite having moved this portion of our trip ahead a couple of weeks in hopes of better weather, our departure coincided almost exactly with the start of a sudden cold snap. While the days were sunny, clear and perfectly comfortable at around 5-10 Celsius, the nights were a different story, dropping to much more dire figures in the minus 5 to minus 10 range. Fine for a weekend of curling bonspiels or cross-country skiing but hardly ideal for sleeping in a tent on the frozen ground, let alone scampering out in nothing but a pair of long underwear and a hastily-donned toque for a 3 am pee. We spent a total of 3 nights in tents, and on 2 of those mornings we woke up with the tent covered in frost and the ponds around us frozen. With my sleeping bag rated to a slightly milder temperature than Laynni’s I quickly discovered it was not up to the task, even wearing a full complement of clothes along with my toque, gloves and a buff protecting my nose from the elements. One night I had Ayju boil some water for our water bottle which I wrapped in a towel and put inside my sleeping bag for warmth. It definitely helped, both to keep me warm and to even further amuse our 3 Kazakh friends with my girlish sensibilities. Between my propensity to succumb to the cold, my aversion to late-night tea or early morning onions, and my habit of occasionally actually urinating in the toilet rather than Kazakh-style, which is apparently just turning around and unzipping wherever you happen to find yourself, as well as standing with your feet way farther apart than seems strictly necessary, like you’re bracing yourself against sudden winds, or maybe an unexpected tackle, I’m pretty sure I don’t strike them as particularly “rugged”.
For more serious undertakings a new toilet hole was dug fresh each night, then fitted with a jury-rigged facsimile of a western toilet and decorated with a waist-high privacy curtain – a wonderful idea in theory but the cause of some highly difficult multi-tasking in high winds. And I can’t say I ever got used to the feel of frost on the toilet seat. Of course, there were no showers or running water at all, tempting me to foolishly brave 30 long seconds in the icy mountain creek one day, frantically splashing myself and flinging a bit of shampoo at my hair while my feet went numb and breathing started to become worrisomely difficult. Very refreshing.
On the other hand, the food throughout our trip was surprisingly good, especially breakfast (cereal, eggs, toast, sometimes fries), with Ayju consistently producing a touch of magic despite the lack of refrigeration, just a portable propane stove and not a single bottle of BBQ sauce within a hundred miles.
Now, as for the sights and attractions, well, as usual it was all about the scenery, with just a few cultural nuggets thrown in for good measure. We spent much of each day traversing the rough dirt/rock/gravel tracks which criss-cross the open plains in almost willfully random fashion – rough, insanely bumpy, but constantly scenic. We passed a couple of small villages but mostly just herders with cattle, horses, goats, sheep and yaks, and usually all of the above, with the occasional herd of camels thrown in to spice things up. Basically all Mongolians outside the large cities live in gers (also known as yurts in other parts of Central Asia) – large round structures designed out of wooden poles and canvas covering, with mats and usually a wood stove. Sort of like if you took a North American teepee and pushed it a little flat from the top down, then added a small wooden table in the middle and filled it with an obscene amount of dairy products. As it was the end of summer many were already starting to pack their gers up, often hauling the entire contraption – furniture and all – piled in the back of big old trucks hillbilly-style, wooden poles sticking out the back, tiny stools balanced precariously on top while Ma and Pa rode in the cab bickering about why somebody already needed to stop for another bathroom break, when they were making such good time and all, but maybe somebody needed to understood that it wasn’t a race and that nobody was going to want to hear about just how fast they managed it this year.
On the very first day we visited an eagle hunter (who use the eagles to hunt other animals, and don’t actually hunt the eagles themselves) and were encouraged to not only hold his eagle, but annoy it mightily by waving our arm up and down as wildly as possible, which wasn’t all that wildly, really, considering there was a 10 kilo bird resting on it, and that the bird in question had talons like a Disney witch’s hands and a beak that looked more than capable of removing any number of my fingers, or maybe an ear, without really even worrying about ruining its appetite. After that rather exotic and bizarre few minutes of mayhem we were invited into the family ger for milk tea, fried breads, a wide range of cheeses seemingly at all different levels of completion and varying in taste everywhere from “bearable” to “quite unbearable”, an unsettling culinary experience unfortunately followed up very closely by our first encounter with authentic Mongolian airag, which is drank out of large bowls and best described as heavily fermented mare’s milk, because that’s what it is, and which tastes about as good as it sounds. Or, to be more specific, a bit like the lid fell off the salt shaker into a vat of rancid cream roughly the temperature inside my hiking shoes. The look on our faces following our initial test sip must have given something away, as it coaxed our guide to lean over and whisper “You are going to have to finish that.”
One day we spent a few hours riding horses along the shores of Khoton Lake – the scenery was incredible, the sun was shining and there was barely a hint of wind, although these fortuitous circumstances seemed lost on Laynni’s horse, who spent all day grouchily harbouring his attitude problem, and he clearly longed to do anything but walk, or stand still, or even stand up, and at one point he took advantage of a brief lull to try lying down, unfortunately without alerting her first, and she only just managed to get her feet out of the stirrups in time to jump clear like an equestrian performer in the circus, but rather than grinning in spandex and bangles, she was sporting prison-grey hiking pants and an irritable frown. She did, however, reap the benefit of the surprising variety of saddles, with hers a large, flat padded luxury model, while mine was, due to some still-mysterious purpose, so steep at back and front with such a narrow and hard middle section that I, after a few hours of extremely uncomfortable shifting and grinding, concluded I was either the victim of a ribald Kazakh practical joke, or using the Official Saddle of the 2015 Eunuch Games.
Our 3 nights of camping spots were routinely spectacular – first on a tree-lined ridge overlooking the lake, next on a stunning point surrounded by water (with the evening’s gale force winds presumably outweighed in the minds of our crew by the convenient fishing locations nearby, despite their prodigious lack of success), and the third in a mountain valley next to a rushing creek that led to an amazing waterfall where we marvelled at the changing colours of the surrounding forest and the looming snow-covered mountains, as well as generously helping Dosjan use the picturesque location to test out a wide variety of Tinder selfies.
We spent our final 2 nights in the ger of a friendly family well up into the Altai Mountains, luxuriating in the warmth from the stove belting out heat from the rapidly burning yak dung, and both falling asleep and waking up to the grunts and snorts of yaks wandering aimlessly outside the walls of the ger, soothing sounds of home for those who’ve ever spent time in homeless shelters or Spanish dorms.
Every day we drove through incredible scenery, from hilly valleys to desolate moonscapes to a Mongolian version of Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crater, except instead of teeming with zebras, giraffes, wildebeests and the occasional rhino or lion, it was mostly sheep, goats, cattle and the occasional two-humped camel, or a dog.
Mix in a number of stone “balbals”, 2000-year old stone carvings that served as Turkic grave markers, many still featuring carefully-designed stone paths leading the way from, well, somewhere else, by the looks of them, and some ancient petroglyphs illustrating a variety of wildlife – some shockingly intact and intricate, others like the childish renderings brought proudly home from kindergarten depicting things like blue dogs or mysterious uncles – and we even felt justified checking off “culture” on our “Things to Gawk Appreciatively at While in the Altai Mountains” list.
One of the bonuses of heading out early in the fall is the opportunity to spend our anniversary someplace memorable and kind of cool, at least cooler than Opa followed by some movie featuring Robert Downey Jr. at Rainbow Theatre. So, based on those lofty standards, we were once again wildly successful in this respect, although, in fact, we basically just spent the entire day bouncing around in the back of the jeep on a particularly nasty stretch of paths and listening to Laynni’s iPod shuffle (cue an unusually heavy dose of Lana del Rey). For my birthday the next day, however, I was received an authentic Kazakh hat from Ada and was treated to the guys singing the small portion of Happy Birthday that they knew in English. And that was before we even had breakfast. It somehow went uphill from there. Literally, as we did a long but amazing day hike to Khuiten Uul Base Camp where we stood in awe of of 5 stunning peaks and the Potanin Glacier, all at once, then spent an hour exploring the valley, had lunch overlooking another valley, all the while enjoying a perfectly calm day, cool enough for there still to be ice on the puddles when we started out, but bright and sunny with mesmerizing blue skies, and some kind of sushi-style rice/meat wrap contraption for lunch that tasted far better than it looked and allowed me to avoid the vegetable- and mayo-heavy sandwich that bore a passing resemblance to my worst nightmare. Add in the fact that Ada drove us about 7 kilometres up the hill to knock the entire hike down to a more manageable 15 kilometres, and that we didn’t see a single other soul until 5 minutes from the end and it would have to rank right up there among the coolest day hikes we’ve done. Had a rogue giant eagle swooped past on its way to the herd of wild ponies down the hill, then grasped one in its improbably strong talons and surprisingly managed to carry it off into the sky kicking and screaming, yet still somehow looking a little dour, that would probably have moved it to top spot. But it turned out the eagle completely misjudged the weight and barely got the horse off the ground before giving up and flying off, screaming in frustration, and because eagles are annoying that way. So it wasn’t quite the best.
Overall, the week flew right past, and almost before we knew it we were down to our last day and it was time to leave the impressively rugged environs of the mountains and head back to civilization, or at least Olgii, which may not be the most cosmopolitan of cities but certainly can’t be faulted for a lack of swirling dust clouds, and eventually a flight back to the capital of Ulaanbaatar. The day was mostly spent driving, just stopping every now and then to admire the snowy peaks slowly sliding from view behind us, and the rest of the time openly gaping at the dozens and dozens of portly, jiggling marmots constantly scurrying away from our comfortably distant vehicle like fat kids from a burning ice cream shop while the guys stared and pointed and exclaimed gleefully each time as though marmots were some fascinating new species just introduced this summer for their amusement and to spice up their lives in particular, rather than simply an endemic species that has been living in those same fields for thousands of years. Ha ha, marmot.
Next time, Pizza Hut gets some surprise visitors in UB, and the gang visits the Gobi Desert. Sand. And stuff.