Gobi or bust

Hello friends!

In a few hours I am at long last leaving for the Gobi. Karly, the Aussie I met in Russia, and I have hired a van and driver to take us to the Flaming Cliffs (where archaeologists keep finding dinosaur bones, eggs, etc) and the great sand dunes. Then he’ll take us to the Chinese border.

I don’t want to leave Mongolia, but Karly’s visa is up on the 31st. and since we’re going to travel to western China together (Urumqi, Kashgar, then loop back to Sichuan province) I gotta go.

This means that, assuming my previous experience with shitty internet in China still holds, I won’t be posting extremely often.

The general plan is to go to western China, try to get to Xian, and then head for Vietnam, probably near the end of September.

I wish I could write more, but there’s no time. Sometime soon, however, I’ll need to find a place to sit for a few weeks and just write and think and write. I am, as they say, all backed up.

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Bagged my first peak

I never would have imagined myself going to a place called “base camp” by my own choice and on my own dime. Base camp means cold, and I like warm. Base camp means mountain, and I like sea. Base camp means uphill, and I’m more of a coaster.

But there I was, trudging along the top a 3000-meter mountain pass, head down against the icy gale hammering hailstone pebbles into my forehead. I was about 130 km and nine days into a 168-km, 14-day test of my physical and mental endurance. I had passed all the stages of exhaustion and had entered absurdity and resignation. I started singing ““”We’re Off To See The Wizard.”

We were headed to Tavan Bogd, a group of peaks in Mongolia’s section of the Altai mountain range. Tavan Bogd means “five peaks,” and the itinerary from Mongolian Expeditions had us climbing Malchin, at 4051 meters the lowest of the five, the following day.

Gundei, our guide and one-third of the “us,” didn’t know that I had already decided to beg off the climb. “I don’t have proper climbing shoes,” I would say. “And my legs are too fatigued to haul my khushuur-enhanced butt up there.” The best laid plans…

About two weeks earlier I had sent an email to Batbayar, owner of Mongolia Expeditions, asking if his company had any trips to the west that I could join. He called about 30 minutes later. “You’re in luck,” he said. “We have a trip going in a few days, and all except one of the confirmed guests canceled at the last minute.” He was willing to give me a big discount on the price – after all, any money I paid would be money he wouldn’t be losing on the trip. I reviewed the itinerary. “I’m not exactly a mountaineer,” I said. “No problem,” he assured me. “There’s an easier hiking option if you don’t want to climb the peak.” I agreed to go.

A few days later I was standing outside the Golden Gobi guest house at 3 am, waiting for my ride to the airport. Donna, a remarkably fit 50-year-old Canadian and experienced climber/trekker/mountain-sports person, and I would take a three-hour flight west to Olgii, the low-slung capital of Bayan-Olgii province.

BO is home to a large Muslim Kazakh population stranded here during one of the many sudden border changes in the area over its history. They live in perfect harmony with Mongolians as well as Tuvans and other minorities. The Kazakhs look like…well, Kazakhs. Their hair, eyes and skin are lighter than Mongolians’. Their cheekbones aren’t quite as high. They are taller and bigger – as are their gers.

I’m not going to give a day-to-day travelogue, cuz that’d be boring and too long. The heavily edited version:

– drive west from Oglii to Khurgan and Khoton twin lakes. at a petrol station, meet two cars at the tail end of the Mongol rally. stop along the way to meet a family who hunts with eagles in the winter. hold an eagle. they’re very heavy and have sharp, sharp claws.

– camping and easy hiking along lakes. go swimming in freezing water. vodka, beer and singing by a bonfire. (37 km in 2 days)

– hike to the mouth of the White River valley. from here our driver and Russian van will be replaced with two Tuvan camelmen and their camels. (23 km)

– hike up the White River valley. go over a 3500-meter steep mountain pass during a brutal 8-hour hiking day. consider throttling guide, who rarely chooses the trail in favor of difficult “short cuts.” come up with the idea for “steppe aerobics.” (40 steep km in 2 days)

– arrive in camp 7 early enough to attempt a “shower” in (believe it or not) a shower tent. the hair wash was great, but the sudden winter gale that sprung up as soon as Donna finished her shower kinda ruined the overall effect. woke up the next morning to the remains of overnight frost and hail. sat through a snow squall during breakfast. made snowmen. it was cold.

– hike to camp 8, near our camelman’s ger and the entrance to Tavan Bogd Nat’l Park. enjoy a much-needed rest day. share a liter of fermented cow’s milk (the local spirit) with our camelman, named Olonbayar. “Olonbayar” means “many celebrations.” (16 km)

– hike 17 km to camp 9, Base Camp

Which brings you up to date.

As we started a long, gentle decent toward base camp we saw the peaks glowing in the distance. The clouds over them had parted, revealing a bright blue sky and shockingly bright sunlit snow. Hail was still falling all around us, collecting in the depression of the path. (This pic doesn’t do it justice.) I was reminded of a scene in The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy and her companions had fallen asleep in a field of poppies – a trap by the Wicked Witch. But the good witch Glenda made it snow, waking them up. In the distance shone their destination, the Emerald City.

They ran through the snow along the yellow brick road towards the glimmering green spires of Emerald City.

We walked (no energy to run) along the white hailstone path towards the glowing blue and white of – let’s call it Sapphire Mountains.

Did I mention that I was a bit out of my head by this time? (I blame altitude sickness.)

By late afternoon the sky had cleared and the sun was shining. But clear skies mean cold nights, and that night was freezing. Worst of all, we were out of vodka. Thank god for Gundei, who had been rationing beer.

In the morning we woke up relatively early and started for the peak. It was an hour-long hike to the base of the mountain. And somehow during that time Gundei and Donna convinced me that I could, in fact, summit. No problem. Feel free to quit anytime. Just see how it goes. Etc.

Halfway up Donna almost quit. The climb was *very* steep, and there was no path. We were scratching our way over rocks that often moved or slid down as we scrambled over them. It was irresponsible and dangerous – at any time I could have loosened a boulder that would crush my finger or break an arm or leg. But by that time my competitiveness had reasserted itself. “I’m gunna bag this peak!” I declared, glaring up at yet another false summit. I may as well have scratched my balls and spit. I was being a dumb man.

Happily, Donna found a path (still very tough, but safer) and we followed it to the top.

We spent about 30 minutes at the peak (not the actual peak, which was a further steep, snowy 100-meter climb – too dangerous for our lacking-in-equipment selves, but close enough). Then I sent Gundei and Donna down ahead of me. I had to pee, and was determined to cop a squat with my butt facing China. Gross? Not really – we had spent 2 weeks relieving ourselves behind rocks. Immature? Probably – but not nearly as gross or immature as, say, pressing your bare penis against monuments and large buildings. (You know who you are.)

The descent was like skiing, but on rocks instead of snow. The technique involved stepping with your heel and letting your foot slide down as long as possible. It was kinda fun. I had to stop twice to empty my shoes.

We rolled back to base camp around 5 pm. Our prize for summitting was marmot – shot by our camelman the day before and boiled up by our cook. (Marmots, by the way, are carriers of Black Plague. Gundei assured us that care was taken to ensure that this was a healthy marmot. Besides, Malchin hadn’t killed us. Why would a marmot?)

A few days later we drove back in to Olgii, where we were promised a hot shower and a *bed* in a ger. The shower was more of a trickle, but it felt so good to wash off a thick layer of accumulated shit – we felt sure that over the previous 14 days our panting mouths had inhaled cow, sheep, goat, yak, horse, camel and human shit, and that it was also embedded in our hair. We *smelled*.

As for the bed, it was wonderful – though after the two bottles of vodka with dinner, I could have slept – well, in an icy tent in a place called “base camp.”

Back from western Mongolia

I just got back to UB after a two-week trekking and camping trip to western Mongolia. I’ll write all about it by tomorrow, but I wanted to drop a quick post to answer the “where the hell are you” emails that have clogged my Inbox during my absence.

It was a last-minute decision to join a trip organized by Mongolia Expeditions, an “adventure travel” company. On August 8 I flew to Olgii, the capital of Bayan-Olgii province in western Mongolia. On August 21 I flew back, having spent exactly one of the intervening nights in something other than a tent.

At the moment I’m rather hung over (lots of farewell vodka last night) and sleeepy. So instead of writing I’m catching up on my photo-uploading (China’s done – now I’m on Mongolia).

Also, BTW, here in UB I happened to run into Karly, one of the Australians I met waaay back in Krasnoyarsk, Russia. She has recruited me to join her on a Gobi tour (finally!) starting Monday. Then we’ll cross back into China and travel together to western China (Urumqi, Kashgar), etc. It’ll be good to have someone to share the difficulties of travel in China. Yay.

OK now I gotta run to take a shower and meet Donna (the Canadian who was also on the western Mongolia trip) and Batbayar (the owner of Mongolia Expeditions) for dinner.

The nomadic sloths

Last night I returned from my Ger-to-Ger (G2G) trip smelling of sheep, horses and sour milk.

As the bus rolled west towards Ulaan Baatar from the hills of Terelj National Park, a dramatic thunderstorm rolled east, dropping gallons of water that turned the streets of UB into muddy streams.

I was joined on my 6-day/5-night holiday by Bjorn and Kjersti, a lovely Norwegian couple. I use the term “holiday” deliberately, because we spent a good portion of the trip lazing around. The idea of Ger to Ger is for you to stay with real nomad families as they go about their everyday activities – milking cows, herding sheep and goats, and so on. The families are not there to entertain you, though in theory there are activities planned – crafts, horse riding, playing shagai with the kids.

In reality, a typical days goes like this:
– wake up around 8:30
– eat breakfast
– hang around doing nothing for a few hours
– eat lunch
– hang around
– get invited by wife of the family to “herd sheep” or do crafts
– pack up tents (which means the kids pack the tents and we stand around)
– horse ride/ox cart to next ger
– drink milk tea
– pitch tents (again, the kids insist on doing most of the work)
– eat dinner
– in bed by 9
– rinse, repeat

After five days of this we started referring to ourselves as the sloths.

Yes, it was interesting to observe the dynamics of the four different families we visited. Yes, we had one ~10km horse ride and another 23km ride between gers. But six days was enough. Neither my Lonely Planet guide nor the language section of the G2G guide gave us the right words to have a meaningful exchange with our host families. There was a lot of awkward smiling, amusing miming and long, long silences.

Some highlights and observations:

– we were picked up from the local bus stop by two boys, roughly 11 and 15 years old, in an ox cart. We spent a good portion of this first ride debating whether they were scammers bringing us someplace else, or if they were really family members of “Chukha” the man who was supposed to collect us. (they were the real deal)

– we helped some of Chukha’s boys (he has 4 daughters, but many nephews/friends/random local boys helping him) “herd” sheep and goats from one side of a mountain to another. To get them to stop climbing the wrong hill we howled like wolves. The animals froze. As we approached we baa’d like sheep. The animals followed us. Pretty cool trick.

– one morning we watched Chukha slaughter a sheep. that afternoon we were treated to a large bowl of boiled sheep entrails as a snack after a 10-km horseback ride. for dinner we joined various neighbors around another bowl of grilled/boiled mutton – just reach into the bowl, grab a hunk, and tear into it with your teeth. after dinner were toasts with a variant of aimag, the local rot gut. Normally made of fermented mare’s milk, this version was made from cow milk.

– hunting for wild strawberries during a rest stop on our 23-km horse ride to the second ger. mmmm, so sweet.

– happening upon a wedding during our ox cart ride between the 2nd and 3rd ger. wedding ceremonies are community celebrations, complete with mini-nadaams: a horse race, wrestling, etc. Not only is the community celebrating the (presumed) continuation of the Mongolian people, but also a continuation of their traditions and way of life. It seemed the perfect way to celebrate a wedding: the bride and groom were guests of honor at a community party.

– the madly in love, happy couple who hosted us at the last ger. And their baby son was adorable.

– on the way back to town to catch our bus to UB, something went wrong with a wheel on the ox cart. So what do you do – change the tire (so to speak)? Nope – you stop at the nearest ger and borrow the ox cart of a “neighbor”. that’s the nomadic culture.

There’s a lot more, of course, but since I lost a day to technical problems (I started writing this post yesterday. in the middle my computer froze, necessitating a 3-1/2-hour stay in a local tech shop reinstalling XP) I’m a bit behind.

More in a bit (plus photos!)