Into the High Altai

A journey into the wide open spaces of Mongolia

The advice on the beer mat sounded familiar: “Time in Mongolia is an uncertain notion. Foresee some security gaps in your journey timing. Estimate distances in hours instead of kilometers.”

Others had also warned us that Mongolia could be predictably unpredictable. As we waited and waited for our connecting internal flight with a couple of Golden Gobi beers at Chinggis Khan Airport in Ulan Baatar, we realized that this had not been an exaggeration. I started to wonder whether I had made a mistake with my choice of summer holiday.

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We were on our way to the far west of Mongolia, near the border with Russia and China, a land of horses, eagle hunters and the snow-capped mountains of the Altai. It is Asia at its most remote, about as far from the ocean as it is possible to get, and one of the most sparsely populated areas of a very big country. Although more than five times the size of Vietnam, it has just one-twenty-fifth of the population – so an ideal place to come to get away from it all.

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After a 30 hour delay in Ulan Baatar and a three hour flight west, we landed in Bayaan Olgii Province. A quick stop for provisions and we set off into the wilderness for a further 12 hour journey in an old Russian van, having to overnight because the river in a village called Tsengel was too high to cross. The next day, we reached the Altai Tavan Bogd National Park, and were awe-struck by the scale of the landscape that surrounded us – wide plains, rushing rivers and glistening blue lakes, surrounded by snowy peaks.

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We arrived at the Kazakh ger near Lake Khurgan where we would pick up our guides and horses. Friendly children with cheeks red from the wind ran out to greet us, watched by more cautious adults. The cursory Mongolian greetings that we had tried to learn while waiting for the plane were useless – although we were still (just) in Mongolia, this was Kazakh country. The language is wholly different, closer to Turkish than Mongolian, the people are Muslim, rather than the Buddhists found in much of the country, and the greeting “As salaam aleikum” reminded us of our time in the Middle East.

Like Mongolians, the Kazakhs also live in gers, though theirs are larger and more brightly decorated with beautiful embroidery. They rely on sheep, goats and yaks – so lots of mutton and many different types of cured dairy products. In the summer, the Kazakh herders move all of their possessions and animals up from the lower villages where they spend the winter, to set up their gers and make the most of the short grazing summer season. In our naïveté, the scene seemed idyllic, but the more time we spent with the family here, it was clear that life for the nomadic herders is very tough.

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The next day our horses were ready and we began (what we thought was to be) a seven-day expedition over a pass to get to Mongolia’s only glacier. As the horses were being loaded, the guides and horsemen beckoned me over to a small huddle around a map. As we all squatted around my woefully inadequate small-scale map, our guide Baybok pointed out our first setback – we would not be able to cross the highest pass because of heavy snowfall, so we agreed to take an alternative, less familiar route and set off on our little horses.

Mongolian horses are really ponies by height classification, being 12-14 hands with short legs and disproportionately large, more horse-like heads. They were incredibly tough and surefooted, which we found out immediately as we forded our first raging river crossing. Though the water was high enough to reach the saddles, the horses calmly plowed through, even taking the opportunity for a quick drink while at it. After a long eight-hour day in the saddle we set up our tents and tethered the horses in a sheltered dip.

Turning Back
The next day we were once again lucky to have clear skies as we headed off into a wide valley. The terrain was smoother so we were soon galloping across the plains and racing each other while the horses deftly avoided all the ground squirrel holes that pepper the plains. Soon we started climbing gradually out of the valley. The weather became colder and the wildflowers kept changing from poppies to edelweiss, and then other less familiar alpine flowers. By 6pm the path was still going up and the scenery was only getting bleaker and more windswept. I wasn’t sure that our horsemen or guide had even ever been to this remote corner of the national park. Just as the light was starting to go and ominous clouds rolled in, we found a herder’s winter cabin which provided shelter for the supplies and horsemen.

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The next morning, black clouds were still with us and we were freezing cold at over 3,000 meters with no sun. After layering up, we thought we were ready for the rain that was clearly coming. I realized I had made a tactical error bringing a Vietnamese poncho which was now flapping loudly and scaring all the other horses. We climbed higher and higher towards the pass, thinking we could just about cope with the rain that had begun. Soon, however, the rain turned to snow – and not just a light dusting, but a blizzard, blowing horizontally. The biting, icy snow was unbearable on our faces so we just put our heads down as the tough little horses trudged on.

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Our next campsite was to be a bleak lake with no protection at least six hours away. The Kazakhs were starting to get worried, and as the snow clung to the bodies of the horses, we realized it was time to turn back. We simply weren’t equipped for conditions like this, unseasonable though they were at the end of June. To keep warm, and to lighten the load for the horses, we hopped off and retreated. Luckily, we made it back to a small wooden shelter where two brothers who were looking for their herd of camels were also waiting out the storm. We realised then that the route ahead was too uncertain – even if we did make it over the pass, the rivers ahead were likely to be too high to ford, and there was no way back but the route that we had come. As we melted snow for water and rubbed our hands to get warm, we agreed that the sunny valley that we had left just two days previously was a reasonable substitute for the glacier.

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Although we had to turn back, we had two beautiful days riding back to the lakes, with lovely rainbows over old sandstone Kazakh tombs. It also gave us two more days to ride along the lakes, spend time with Erbolat’s (the horseman) family, and enjoy the relatively warmer weather. We took the opportunity to explore around the ger where we had arrived the first evening.

A Day at the Races
The Altai Mountains are one of the few places in the world where golden eagles are still used for hunting. We marvelled at the beautiful bird, but were sad to learn that the sport of hunting wolves and foxes with eagles on horseback is starting to die out. Young Kazakhs, we were told, preferred football and television to spending hours in the saddle with a heavy eagle in subzero temperatures. With wolf and fox numbers down in recent years, the hunting is also not as good as in the past.

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We were lucky to catch a Kazakh horse race on one of our last days. We were told to turn up at 2pm by a rock with a metal horse sign in the middle of the plain. We waited for some time and then a 100 men and boys on horseback started to suddenly appear from every direction. We watched 20 or so boys between seven and 10-years-old riding their beautiful horses bareback. The racehorses all had owl feathers tied to their forelocks for luck, giving them a fairy tale look that did not belie the race ahead.

With the jockeys heading off to the start in one direction, we had our own impromptu spectator race up the hill to the finish line, the local teens ululating as I pulled into the lead on my horse. After some minutes, the jockeys started to appear, their horses still galloping strong while the tired children clung to the horses’ manes as they raced along to the finish.

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Our days in the valley with Erbolat’s family were an opportunity to see more of life in this far away place, and soon we forgot about the aborted trip to the glacier. We enjoyed playing with the children in the evenings, the opportunity to meet the extended family when all came to meet the
prospective bridegroom for one of the sisters, and an impromptu bonfire with traditional Kazakh dancing, three generations all joining in enthusiastically. On our last evening, watching the goats play king of the rock, silhouetted against the setting sun with the mountains behind, this was as calm a scene as could be imagined, salve for the soul, and a place quite unlike any other.

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Korean Air and various Chinese airlines all fly with one stop to Ulaan Baatar from Vietnam. Best months to visit are June – September. Pack warmly and prepare for rain in the mountains. For travel to the Altai Taven Bogd National Park and internal flights I used Bek from www.backtobektravel.com.

Bio: Jura Cullen has been based in Hanoi for the last two years. She has also lived in Sudan, the US, France and the UK. Her blog Hound in Hanoi (juraphotos.wordpress.com) includes photography from quirky things seen in Hanoi with her Nubian hound Tala, and other travels around the region and world.

 

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