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.”

Thwarted in Russia

[posted from Ulan Ude. It’s sort of a day-in-the-life-of type post. Enjoy.]

Chuckle chuckle. How my fortunes can change, in just a day! I was in the middle of writing a frustrated report from Ust-Barguzin. It was going something like this:

If I write a book about my travels in Russia, the working title will be “Thwarted.”

I endured a 7-hour bus ride here, to this miserable and dusty little town, because it is the perfect staging point for hiking trips to the Holy Nose Peninsula, the Ushkanny Islands (home to the rare Nerpa seals), and the Barguzin Valley. Alex Betekov was recommended (again, both by LP and the Aussies!) as the man who would get me there.

Our email exchanges didn’t gain me much – no precise options for tours or hikes, no information about groups I might be able to join. Instead of doing a broken-English battle via email, I took his advice and just told him when I was coming. We would discuss details in person.

Of course, there are no details.

There are no groups to join. (“One group left today morning,” he said. “Too bad you not come one day earlier.” ARGH. “But I asked you about groups, and you didn’t tell me,” I replied, trying to remain calm. “I could have come earlier.” Alex either didn’t understand, or didn’t want to. “Yes, too bad you not come one day early.”

There are no one-day hikes – he’s got a straight job now.

There’s nothing to do, but wait.


But now – a miracle! No other tourists have appeared. Still no groups to join. But suddenly Alex has a friend who can take me on a 3-day trip, at the exceptionally (suspiciously) low price of 1500 rubles/day (about $50). I don’t know if it’s because I told them I’m a travel writer (in the Russian conversations about me, I kept hearing the word “pisatilnitsa,” which means “writer”) and they’re worried about bad press. If only they knew.

Anyway, a bearded Ulan-Ude native called Victor is going to take me on a tour. We’ll kayak from UB out to the Holy Nose peninsula. Then (I think) we’ll hitchhike (with the kayak!?) across the neck to the opposite bay. At some point we’ll camp for the night. (This part isn’t so clear.) But assuming we make it, we’ll then kayak to Snake Bay, a secluded but popular destination for Russian tourists and fisherman. I’m told there’s someone there who might be able to take me diving (?) for fish (?). Again, unclear. Anyway, we camp again. The next day we reverse the road back to UB. Again, the return trip is a bit hazy – will we catch a ride? Will we kayak?

I realized, while having this very vague conversation with Victor about itinerary and costs, that my growing frustration wouldn’t get me anywhere. It certainly wouldn’t get me to the Holy Nose. So I took a deep breath and said, “Eff it. Why not.” The trip might suck. Despite Victor’s assurances, it might cost a lot more than 4500 rubles (plus food). But then again, if all goes well it could be pretty fucking amazing. So I’m smiling and nodding and rolling the dice.

Ha….hahahaha. It’s just too funny. I’m writing this in UB, but I’ll post it in about 8 hours, when I get back to Ulan-Ude. “What?” you may be asking. “No trip?”

The squishiness began almost immediately after Victor and I had sorted out a plan. Within just two hours, we went from “we’ll leave at 11 in the morning” to “we’ll leave at 7” to “we’ll leave at 9.” But the day dawned cold and rainy. At 8:56 Victor called. “We will wait one or two hours to see about the rain. I will call you.” OK. By 11:30 the rain had stopped (though the clouds were still low and threatening), but I hadn’t heard from Victor. So I called him. “Yes, you can come meet me and we’ll go.”

Um…so why were we waiting? Why hadn’t he called me? How were decisions being made? Victor’s English wasn’t good enough, so I called Alex, whose English is marginally better. I explained that I was confused. Alex called Victor to see what was up. He called back. “Yes, he told me he is ready and waiting for you to come.” I explained again that I didn’t really want to go out into the wilderness with a guy who seemed so nonchalant, so infuriatingly vague. And what happened to the problem with the weather? Though it hadn’t improved much, somehow now it was OK to go? I could imagine three days of me trying not to strangle him. Alex said he’d call Victor again to discuss.

Ten minutes later, Alex was back on the phone. “Christina, you are right. Victor is not ready to go. So I think maybe you should find another plan.” It was already in the works: Svejta would arrange a seat for me on the 2 pm bus to Ulan Ude. Enough of this!

To cap it all off, about 15 minutes later Victor called again. “Christina, Sasha [Alex] tells me you are having doubts?” I was silent, stunned. What is reality, what is true here in Ust-Barguzin? What had been said, really, between Alex and Victor? Yes,” I said. “So you will cancel?” asked Victor. “Yes,” I replied. He sounded angry – I couldn’t believe that HE was the one who was angry. “Fine, you are canceling. I wish you good luck,” he replied. Derisively? Sullenly? Hard to tell.

But I don’t give a shit. I’m getting out of Ust-Barguzin, and frankly I think I’m ready to get out of Russia. I think I’m going to skip the planned day in Khabarovsk, go straight to Vladivostok, get my Chinese visa, and get out. Make like a store, as we say in Hungary, and bolt.

PS – the sun just came out. ha! hahahahaha.

PPS – The working title is back and better than ever.

Sucks to be alone


This morning I took a 7-hour bus ride from Ulan-Ude north to Ust-Barguzin. There’s this guy here, called Alex Beketov, who has a homestay and purportedly can arrange hiking trips – no matter if you’re alone! he said by email. Feh.

His proposal is for me to borrow his tent and to hike alone to the top of Holy Nose Peninsula, camp there, and then hike back. “The trouble is, you might lose your way. The way is marked, but sometimes people miss it.”

Um, no thanks.

The other option is that maybe there will be a Russian-only group doing the hike tomorrow. He’ll know by 9 pm. We’d leave tomorrow at 7 am. Yes, this is last-minute Russia at its finest.

If I had someone to go with, in theory I could do this intriguing hike (scroll donw to Stop 3), but it’s not really something to do on your own. At least not if you’re a girl who doesn’t speak Russian.

The good news is that if this turns out to be a bust, I have a backup plan: On the bus I met a Russian woman who is an English-language teacher in Moscow. She’s in a village about 30 km away visiting her mother for the summer (with her German boyfriend). She says the beaches there are nice, and there are thermal springs and whatnot. She gave me her phone number and invited me to come stay. So we’ll see.

OK gotta run – I’m using Alex’s internet and his friend who is putting me up for the night (Alex’s place is being renovated) will be home soon.

I love love love to travel alone. If I wasn’t alone, for instance, it’s less likely I would have met the English-language teacher. But if you’re trying to book a tour or go hiking, it can be a pain in the ass.

Oh I’ve got a whole post to write about Ulan-Ude, by the way. What a crazy place. I’ll write it tonight and try to post tomorrow.

Mysterious Baikal

Jeez it’s been almost two weeks since I posted! Well I have an excuse: yesterday I returned from a 7-day hiking trip along the western shore of Lake Baikal. On the trip I learned many things, including that hiking up fairly steep hills after spending the past 6 weeks just sitting around on trains means lots of huffing and puffing, and seriously sore hamstrings and butt.

The group was a perfect size: 4 hikers and two guides. Nikki and Russell, the British couple I had met in Moscow; Nikkie, the Dutch man they had met in Yekaterinburg; Anton, our guide; and Anton (aka Father Frost), who drove the supply car containing our backpacks, food, tents and so on.

The tour started with a Russian banya, a steam sauna right next to the lake. Our final cold plunge was a squealing splash and dunk in Baikal, which I had been told is about 4 degrees centigrade at the moment. After drying off we had a traditional post-banya shot of vodka, and then shashlik for dinner. Mmm.

The next day, which I’ll call “Hills,” we started hiking. Oooh boy. I had no idea I was so out of shape. But the views over the lake were spectacular enough to be worth it. Over the next few days we climbed up and down rocky hills, through pine forests, across low grassy hills blooming with hardy wildflowers, and along mesmerizing monotonous steppe. At night we camped – usually by the lake.

And the lake. It’s the largest fresh water lake in the world. It contains 20% of the world’s fresh water reserves. And it is remarkably, unbelievably unpolluted – in a country with a pretty terrible environmental record and in an area that is clearly the tourist epicenter of Asian Russia. If we needed to refill our water bottles – go to the lake. If we needed water for tea or soup or washing – go to the lake. If we needed to wash our filthy hands or feet, or cool our faces after a long sunny hike – go to the lake.

Our guides and caretakers were Anton and Anton. Clearly we needed a nickname for one of them, which came quickly enough on the first evening. After we tourists had our banya, the Antons did as well. It was a cold-ish night, so after drying ourselves we bundled up in layers and hats and scarves. But not Anton the driver/firestarter. As we sipped vodka in winter gear, he ate salami and cheese in nothing but his Speedo and some sandals. Thus we dubbed him Father Frost (the Russian Santa), or sometimes “Mr. Frost.”

The other Anton, our guide, is a native of Irkutsk who has been running his tour business for about 10 years. He’s got a muscular frame, sandy brown hair and light hazel eyes surrounded by crows feet whose depth age him well beyond his 29 years. (I had guessed he was in the 35-38 range.) He spends all of his time working – either guiding hikes/rafting/dog sledding/etc. or organizing trips for the freelance guides who work for him.

As you might imagine, he’s in great shape. Even Nikkie, the most gung-ho of all of us, struggled to keep up with Anton’s walking pace, especially up hills. Between the rugged scenery, our number, and the fact that we spent days just walking fast, I felt like I was a fellow in The Fellowship of the Ring.  Anton was clearly “Strider” – the character more colorfully described in the book than depicted in the film. I, of course, was Samwise Gamgee – “the fat one,” as Gollum put it. But hell – I am 10 years older and less fit than the rest of our party, so just the fact that I kept up makes me feel OK.

Over the seven days we shared many funny and wonderful moments – the tea bag fling (get yer mind outta the gutter, Andy Sullivan); Anton splitting logs for the fire using a WWF body-slam method; odd head gear to battle the strong sun; a sandy beach camp so isolated that we had to hike up a hill to get our tents, etc. because the truck couldn’t make it down to us; Father Frost and his 6 lumps of sugar in every tea; blisters, splinters, burns and toothaches; and much more.

So yes, I had a wonderful time. But I think I would have enjoyed it more with my friends. I like the Antons, the Nikki(e)s and Russell, but I’m not really connected to them. I kept thinking things like, “I bet Michele would love this!” and “I bet Lis could keep up with Anton” and “I can picture Henry betting Sean and/or Andy that he can [insert ridiculous and potentially dangerous act here].”

I guess I miss my friends.

On the last night, we camped on a small grassy plateau above the lake. Nikki and I hiked down to the small rocky beach below and I went swimming – not just a dunk, but *swimming*. I couldn’t resist. It was freezing, but so nice to float a bit – not to mention to wash off a few layers of the dirt, sweat, DEET, sunscreen, etc. that had gathered on our bodies over 6 days with no shower.

Before, during and after dinner we shared two small bottles of vodka. It’s interesting, what happens to cheerful Russian men after a few shots. All of a sudden Anton was bitter, scoffing at our questions about life in Russia (“You can never understand what it’s like to live in this place, where nothing works. You are thinking like a European, where the system takes care of you” etc etc). As he described the difficulty and uncertainty of life – from running a business to getting decent health care – dusk set in. Occasionally he would flick a knife into a makeshift wooden table in frustration. The discussion turned into a monologue – Anton ceased to listen to our explanations and protestations, wanting only to express himself.

(This wasn’t the first time this had happened to me – Jack, the owner of the hostel I’m staying at in Irkutsk, had spewed another bitter, pessimistic monologue at Nikkie and me after a few beers about a week earlier.)

It’s a complex dynamic. On the one hand, we are, in fact, (relatively) rich tourists who do not know what it’s like to try to eke out an existence in the New Russia. On the other hand, there we were, paying a 29-year-old 345 Euro each to do what he loves to do, to finance the house he is building (himself) for his wife and baby daughter. I don’t know if he was expressing jealously or frustration or pessimism…or otherwise well-hidden disdain for (perhaps) naive foreigners who think they can learn something of the Russian mind by asking a few questions of a Russian man on a desolated hilltop. Anton, I think, has already lived a few lifetimes (he studied podiatry, but being a doctor doesn’t pay; now he started a business, but the responsibilities of managing a growing business are weighing on him). It’s not just the constant exposure to sun and wind that has creased his face so prematurely.

I went to bed angry – it’s a pet peeve of mine to be accused of being a rich tourist. I can’t help where I was born and the circumstances of my life. I appreciate the freedom that my stable life gives me, and I try not to take it for granted.  But I’m not exactly running around the world, staying in 5-star hotels and paying for air-conditioned bus excursions to see stage-managed poverty. I said as much – angrily – to Anton before retiring to my tent.

The next morning I realized how silly it was for me to have gotten angry. By the end of the night we had all been talking past each other, each grappling in our own minds with knotlike complexities and cultural differences, and with our own individual limitations and fears.

Over breakfast, all seemed to be forgotten. After a fantastic expedition into an ice-crystal-encrusted cave, we piled ourselves and our bags into the SUV for the 4-hour ride back to Irkutsk. I rode shotgun and gently probed Anton for his mood, asking neutral questions about the flora and so on. I have no idea what he was really thinking, but it seemed to me that the previous night’s argument had broken a layer of reticence. He seemed cheerful and relatively chatty and (for the first time) asked me a bit about myself and my ongoing travel plans. When he dropped Nikkie and me off at our hostel, we hugged goodbye and he seemed genuinely happy to have met us. Personally, I’m sad that I won’t have the chance to get to know him better. I have a feeling we would be great friends.

Then again, perhaps had and I will meet again. There’s a  ice trek across frozen Lake Baikal that he runs in the winter. You camp on the lake in a teepee-like structure. The best time to visit Baikal, he says, is in March. So…maybe a Siberian birthday? If not next year, perhaps for my 40th (egads!)?

Until then, however: today I am catching up on email and uploading pics. Tomorrow I am going to Listvyanka, a village situated right on the lake, about about 70 km away from Irkutsk. I’m going to get certified to SCUBA dive using a dry suit, and then…diving Lake Baikal! I can’t wait. I’m going with Three Dimensions Dive Club, recommended by the very friendly, helpful and cool folks at Baikaler Hostel in Irkutsk. The best-run hostel I’ve found in Russia so far!