Stage 22 – Russia & Mongolia: Altai To The Gobi Desert [1/3]

22i

Mongolia sits squeezed between Asia’s two largest countries, Russia and China, which have in turn dominated this rugged, high and remote land for most of the last 350 years. Looking further back into history however, Mongolia’s high steppes and mountains nurtured generations of vigorous pastoral nomads whose tribal confederacies came to dominate the region, most famously the Mongols who under under Chinggis Khan seeded the largest contiguous land empire in history. Today, physical remains of this past are extremely scant, and Mongolia remains largely pre-industrial and (at present) of little importance to world politics. Herein lies its allure however, for Mongolia is unlike any other country; virtually roadless, very sparsely populated with no large cities outside the capital, a wilderness of true nomads living a traditional, pre-modern lifestyle in a stunningly beautiful and endlessly varied landscape. My two wilderness months driving more than seven thousand kilometres in this landscape, almost all of it off-road, wild-camping and touching settlements only to take on provisions, are some of my fondest memories from all of Eurasia.

Pine Forest, Novoyegoryevskoye, Altai Territory, Russia

Pine Forest, Novoyegoryevskoye, Altai Territory, Russia

It’s the 3rd July 2010 and after a very easy border crossing, I am in Russia’s Altai Territory; a patch of fertile farmland between the steppe of Kazakhstan, the wilderness of Siberia, and the Altai Mountains. Despite the border being an arbitrary, straight line drawn across the Earth, there is a very subtle change in the scenery with increasingly frequent stands of pine forest. The Altai Territory is a veritable breadbasket of Siberia and the small farming towns and villages through which I drive, surrounded by vast arable fields, have typically Russian names; Nikolayevsk, Mikhailovskoye, Volchikha. Turning east in Volchikha I enter some very appealing pine forest, bathed in the late after noon light from a low, golden sun. Colourful Soviet signs line the road, reminding picnickers and day-trippers to respect the flora and fauna of the forest, and avoid starting fires. It’s all deeply comforting; a cosy paradise amongst the inhospitable wilderness which surrounds it for thousands of kilometres.

My destination is Rubtsovsk, a provincial town which I had passed through on a rainy night back in 2007 on my very first trip to Russia. I had back then imagined Rubtsovsk to be a dingy, decaying town full of drunks, and I am pleasantly surprised to find it a pleasant and likeable place, with only touches of decay and alcoholism. The town is in fact a good example of provincial Russia; hit hard by perestroika and the collapse of the USSR, when the collectives were closed and the machinery sold off by the directors, the economy stagnated and became controlled by a gangster underworld, and the streets became dangerous, filled with drunks and violent gangs. Although lagging far behind the revival seen in many of Russia’s larger cities, Rubtsovsk has come back from the dead, with a large factory re-opening, and small businesses flourishing following a major economic clean-up.

Tsarist Building, Zmeinogorsk, Altai Territory, Russia

Tsarist Building, Zmeinogorsk, Altai Territory, Russia

Nicer still are my host family; Alexander, Olga and 4-year old daughter Sofia. Alexander and Olga are a lovely couple; warm Siberians (renowned throughout Russia for being especially friendly and kind) who don’t drink or smoke, don’t watch TV (to my delight), and of course have nothing to do with politics. The following day we go for a picnic at a lake in the forest I had driven through on my way from the border, a long, shallow lake occupying an imperceptible fold in the land, the outermost ripple of the Altai Mountains. On another day, Alexander drives me to meet his friend Sasha in the nearby town of Zmeinogorsk, an eighteenth century mining town sitting on a once lucrative poly-metallic mineral vein. After a short tour of the mining museum and some charmingly down-at-heel red-brick Tsarist-era buildings, around which cows graze in knee-high grass, we retire to Sasha’s house, which he has built himself. Surrounding the house is a carefully planted cottage garden, in which lies Sasha’s newly created wooden banya (sauna). I’m very impressed by Sasha’s handiwork; on a very modest teacher’s salary he has created a small but idyllic countryside home.

While we eat dinner cooked by his wife, much of it consisting of home-grown vegetables and home-made preserves, Sasha heats up the banya and in the evening Alexander, Sasha and I enter for this most quintessentially Russian experience. The three of us sit naked in the steam-room, wearing traditional felt hats to protect our heads from the 80ºC+ heat. Water is poured over the hot rocks which sit above the banya’s wood-burner creating a dense, sweltering atmosphere which brings out a healthy sweat. I am given a light thrashing by Sahsa, brandishing a birch-branch venik to produce a gentle reddening of the skin; an unexpectedly pleasant and invigorating experience. After a couple of trips in and out of the steam room, we wash from buckets of hot water and then sit out in the cool of the night wearing only towels. The banya experience brings on a kind of deep, bodily relaxation well beyond that of a simple bath.

Crop Fields, near Belokurikha, Altai Territory, Russia

Crop Fields, near Belokurikha, Altai Territory, Russia

After five relaxing nights in Rubtsovsk, I resume my trip, driving first north to Aleysk and then cutting east on backroads towards the Karun River and the road to the Mongolian border. These small, potholed roads pass through what was once productive farmland, but today the land stands idle, and the villages around are yet to emerge from the economic collapse of the 1980s and 90s. Here lie tumbledown wooden houses, fields of rusting old farm equipment, broken-down cars and wandering drunks drinking themselves to oblivion on home-made samogon (moonshine), too poor to buy vodka. With these come all the deeper social problems; poverty, despair, broken families, ragged children and a hopeless fondness for the good old days of the USSR. There is little money in the Russian economy to be made from farming, with profits taken by intermediaries between the farmer and the shops, and with no money to invest in farming, and seemingly little initiative to raise it, it’s hard to imagine how these villages will ever survive.

As I approach the Karun River, the border with the Altai Republic, the land starts to buckle and the gorgeous green outliers of the Altai Mountains come into sight. Crops start to appear in the fields, and I reach the resort-town of Aya, thronging with jolly Russian tourists, mostly from nearby Novosibirsk. I cross a toll bridge and drive a few kilometres south to the capital of the Republic, Gorno-Altaysk. Here I have the great pleasure to meet Pasha, who hosted me in Novosibirsk in June 2007. It’s a very fond reunion, and after a day in the rather seedy and unlovely city, we leave together for the mountains.

Kuray Steppe, Altai Republic, Russia

Kuray Steppe, Altai Republic, Russia

The M52, or Chuya Highway runs initially south along the Karun River, passing tourist cafés and restaurants, trinket stalls and other overpriced tourist paraphernalia before it swings west and then south again, climbing onto the ridges of the Altai Mountains then re-joining the Karun near Onguday. Here the Russian influence soon weakens, and the villages start to be populated by the native Altai people; often rather distant and unwelcoming, and with an evident weakness for alcoholism. Along the road are faint traces of ancient shamanism; ovoos (piles of votive stones) and menhirs, and the scenery becomes increasingly impressive as we climb. The road turns to the south-east, leaving the Karun and following the Chuya, one of the most distant tributaries of the Ob, which eventually floes into the Arctic Ocean. Near the scruffy village of Kuray, we camp for one night in front of the glorious, jagged and snow-capped massif of Ak-Tru, in a tranquil spot amongst solitary pine trees.

Chuya River, Kosh Agach, Altai Republic, Russia

Chuya River, Kosh Agach, Altai Republic, Russia

Leaving our campsite and rejoining the road, we cross the beautiful Kuray Steppe where the magnificent mountain scenery continues to improve. Climbing a little further, the scenery suddenly changes from mountain valley to the deserted expanse of the Chuya Steppe, grazed by roaming, moulting packs of pungent Bactrian camels. Upon this bleak and windswept but starkly beautiful plateau, the district town of Kosh Agach sits amidst a few small villages and patches of green land along the river, surrounded on all sides by distant saw-tooth mountains dappled with patches of bright snow in their crags and lees. The town has a stark, end-of-the-world feel to it, a staging post between one wilderness and another, though the people are friendly, mostly smiling Kazakhs rather than the cold Altai folk who live to the north. It is a harsh place however; storms race in from the surrounding mountains whipping up great clouds of dust, and the weather changes very quickly. The locals tell us that it reached -50ºC last winter.

After asking around in the bazaar we find lodging in the house of a saleswoman named Dinara, a melancholic but kind Kazakh lady who trades in Chinese clothes brought across the Mongolian border. We also secure vital border permits from the police, and then head west out of town, leaving the asphalt and driving 30 km across the featureless gravel plain to a large prominent rock with ancient petroglyphs. Then another sudden change of landscape occurs and we are amongst green, grassy valleys with rushing rivers of glacial melt. Heading for the magnificently remote point where Russia, Mongolia and China meet, we stop for the night at a friendly Molybdenum mine (and make use of their banya) near some curative radon-springs at a point known simply as Tyopliy Klyuch (warm spring).

Ukok Plateau, Altai Republic, Russia

Ukok Plateau, Altai Republic, Russia

The following day, the track beyond the mine soon deteriorates to a rocky quagmire, and I decide not to take the truck any further for fear of damaging it out here, just before finally entering Mongolia. Thus I continue on foot, climbing a nearby 3000 m high ridge and am rewarded with a truly magnificent view. Thirty kilometres to the south is the gleaming white massif of Tavan Bogd, a massif of five peaks on the tri-border point, with Khüiten Peak (4373 m) being the highest in Mongolia. Slightly to the west is the dark green and almost mythical Ukok Plateau, speckled with lakes and kurgans (burial mounds) of the Pazyryk Culture. Beyond the plateau is a forty kilometre chain of ice-peaks marking the narrow strip of China which separates Mongolia form Kazakhstan. Far in the distance to the west, amongst the dark clouds of a gathering storm is the smooth, prominent peak of Belukha, the ice-giant of Siberia. It is quite some time before I can tear myself away from this inspiring view of true wilderness, and make the long trudge back to the truck (shortened somewhat by hitching a very uncomfortable ride on the back of a Russia tourist’s quad bike).

Kazakh Man, Ölgii, Bayan-Ölgii Province, Mongolia

Kazakh Man, Ölgii, Bayan-Ölgii Province, Mongolia

Pasha and I spend another evening with the miners, who are a rough-cut but very warm bunch, with scars and missing teeth, before retracing our steps to Kosh Agach where we part. Pasha heads back down towards home, while I head south. After camping for a night on the beautiful (but mosquito-infested) steppe, I am the first in the morning at the border in the village of Tashanta. After clearing Russian customs, I drive the final twenty-odd kilometres of neutral territory to the Mongolian border.

Crossing into Mongolia, the land opens abruptly; gone are the rolling green hills, replaced by a huge landscape of high gravel plains and distant grey-brown mountains dissected by desolate valleys. The border settlement is a tiny collection of half-collapsing mud-brick hovels, but within minutes I’m totally alone in a bleak and dusty semi-desert, with nothing but vehicle tracks to point the way to the next town. I cross a steep and rocky pass, pausing at the top next to a large ovoo to look out across a forbidding landscape. Far to the south-west are mountains high enough to have small glaciers lining their upper ridges and folds; in places distant rain-storms obscure the horizon like grey curtains, their clouds dappling the ridges of mountains in black shadow. It’s hard to believe that I will find a sizeable town in this utter wilderness.

Yet soon after descending the pass, I find myself on a smooth, recently constructed asphalt road, heading straight to the town of Ölgii, capital of Bayan-Ölgii, the westernmost and highest province of Mongolia, and the most remote from the capital. With almost 90% of the population consisting of Kazakhs, it is also the country’s only Muslim province. The whole of western Mongolia has long been a remote and highly isolated place, cut off from the outside world by deserts and great mountain ranges. After the collapse of the USSR (and economic subsidies) in 1991, the whole region found itself without electricity for several years. However, with the growth of the nascent Mongolian economy, and the recent opening of the border crossing with Russia, this small frontier town seems finally to be opening up.

Balbal, Sagsai, Bayan-Ölgii Province, Mongolia

Balbal, Sagsai, Bayan-Ölgii Province, Mongolia

I spend my first afternoon walking around Ölgii, a tiny town of simple, low whitewashed huts, with the odd Communist-era two- or four-storey apartment block. I camp on a city street, sleeping in the tent on the back of the truck. In the morning, I set out to obtain the necessary permit to enter Altai Tavan Bogd National Park, which covers most of the extreme west of the province where the Russian and Chinese borders meet. It is here that I meet two young Germans, Tilo and Katrin, professionals who have driven their Land Rover all the way from Australia. After sorting out our paperwork, we happen upon a sports-field where men in traditional costume are shooting arrows from longbows, part of the midsummer festival of horse-riding, wrestling and archery known as Naadam. Here in this western backwater of Mongolia, the local Kazakhs seem to have a very low-key Naadam, but in the rest of the country it constitutes the cultural highlight of the year.

Tsengel, Bayan-Ölgii Province, Mongolia

Tsengel, Bayan-Ölgii Province, Mongolia

I’m delighted when Tilo and Katrin agree to my idea of travelling into the national park together, and the three of us drive out of town to camp next to a nearby river. The location is beautiful; a grassy riverbank dotted with small trees, but the mosquitoes are voracious and we all don our insects headnets; something I am very glad indeed to have bought prior to departure.

After stopping in Ölgii once more to buy provisions (mostly cans of Korean beer) we drive west, immediately entering the vast wilderness of Bayan-Ölgii and climbing another rocky pass, stopping in the village of Sagsai to admire the balbals (anthropomorphic megaliths) and mud-walled Kazakh mausolea before camping in a gloriously empty valley amongst the barren mountains. We pass Tsengel the following morning; a beautiful village of yurts pitched among tall larch trees and the gentle meanders and grassy fluvial islands of the Khovd River. We track the river south-west for much of the day, crossing a very rustic wooden bridge and climbing up onto a large plateau, to the ethereally beautiful Khurgan Lake. A large expanse of crystal sapphire-blue water, Khurgan Lake is backed by the snowcapped ridges of the Altai, where they form the border with China. Sun-bleached, half-submerged rocks are arranged in an almost Zen-like formation just off the shore; it’s a stupendously relaxing and soothing vista. We spend all of the next day at the lake; with Tilo kitesurfing at great speed across it, and the two of us later floating out on inner tubes dangling bated hooks on fishing line in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to catch fish.

Khurgan Lake, Bayan-Ölgii Province, Mongolia

Khurgan Lake, Bayan-Ölgii Province, Mongolia

Leaving the lake, our next intended destination is the furthest western extremity of Mongolia, our aim to climb part-way up the Tavan Bogd massif, and we take a back route over a high pass and rough, seldom-used track in order to reach the Tsagaangol Valley, which gives access to Mongolia’s highest peaks. The Tsagaan (white) river is in full spate however, living up to its name and after driving the truck in to the point where the current begins to rock it, I quickly back out and we decide to camp and wait until morning, hoping that the glacial torrent will be less fierce then. In the morning the river is no less vigorous, and we reluctantly decide to abandon our attempts to cross it. As something of a consolation however, we continue up the right bank of the river to another deep and rocky crossing, where Tilo and I set out on foot to the small dark ridges of Mt Sheveet, which are decorated with magnificent panes of ancient petroglyphs depicting elaborate hunting scenes and a stunning, metre-high hunter on horseback.

Petroglyphs, Mt Sheveet, Bayan-Ölgii Province, Mongolia

Petroglyphs, Mt Sheveet, Bayan-Ölgii Province, Mongolia

It takes a day and a half to make our way back via Tsengel and Sagsai to Ölgii, where we return to a spot close to our riverside campsite, but high enough to avoid many of the insects. The following day we have a final meal together in a small guanz (canteen) in a disused railway carriage. Tilo and Katrin leave towards Russia, while I have the good fortune to meet Jacob, an itinerant Californian wildlife biologist who has just entered Mongolia. I ask Jacob if he’d like to join me on my journey across Mongolia, and such was the beginning of a deep friendship which we would develop over the next seven weeks of driving and camping, right across the country.

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