Stage 22 – Russia & Mongolia: Altai To The Gobi Desert [2/3]
It’s the 28th July 2010 and alongside my new-found travel partner Jacob, I drive south out of Ölgii on what is known simply as the ‘Southern Route’, a mostly unpaved road (often just sets of parallel vehicle tracks) which loops through southern Mongolia, fringing the Gobi Desert on its way to the capital. Climbing steadily out of town, we reach a high, dry plateau from which the mountains start to recede to the west, leaving us on a raked red-orange gravel plain. To the south is the turquoise and saline Tolbo Lake, and in the background the twin peaks of holy Mt. Tsambagarav with their sensual saddle-like glaciers, marking the border with Khovd Province. I am again deeply impressed by the diversity of breathtaking landscapes which one finds in the Altai region.
In the tiny sum (district village or ‘town’) of Tolbo, which consists of a few dozen mud-brick houses and yurt-compounds arranged loosely on the gravel plain, Jacob and I are introduced to the provincial guanz, a small no-frills eating house serving the very sparse passing traffic. It’s a rather unsavoury room in a hut, reeking of years of mutton fat. There is only one dish on the menu: tsuivan, consisting of a greasy bowl of grey-brown chunks of fatty, gristly mutton and simple hand-cut noodles. It’s a truly un-appetising dish to which our palates never became accustomed, though the locals seem to relish it. Often the only alternative we could rely upon would be dry, bland biscuits (which we soon name sheep-shit biscuits), or a mixture of instant noodles and Russian tyushonka (tinned meat) which is little improvement on the local cuisine. For much of the time that we camped in the Mongolian wilderness, eating would become a matter of survival rather than pleasure. Finding a decent meal would be a joy that we might talk about for days after.
With hunger staved off, we leave the Southern Route as it turns east towards Khovd, and proceed due south, aiming for the south-western corner of the country. Here the land becomes slightly watered once more, which means we loose the smooth gravel plain and must proceed slowly over very lumpy and sometimes muddy tracks. Like eating, driving in Mongolia often also goes from being a pleasure to an endurance test. In the late afternoon we arrive in the rather scruffy sum of Delüün where we brave another bowl of tsuivan, before camping near a river just south of town. At 2150 m elevation, it’s a rather damp and cold evening, but it’s nice to meet the curious though unintrusive local Kazakhs who come over from their nearby yurts to check us out and give us onward directions.
Next day we set off early, crossing a wooden bridge and then climbing up into a bleak wilderness of craggy hills. We’re heading south down a narrow corridor in the extreme west of the country, with the mountains on our right forming the Chinese border. It’s far less attractive than the parts of Altai which I have recently passed through, and is almost unpopulated. We do see however our first yaks, with their long grey, brown or black woollen coats somehow confirming the harshness of the environment. We also see the winter homes of the Kazakhs (who are generally only semi-nomadic); small wood and mud homes at the base of towering mountains. It’s hard to imagine how harsh life must be in these windswept valleys, where winter temperatures may hit -40ºC. We climb a 3100 m pass, and as we would often do, begin to wonder if the track is really going to the destination we have in mind. We reason that the track must be going somewhere, and the bearing is good, so we press on.
We are very happy then, after spending the entire day driving just 130 kilometres, to reach the pleasant sum of Bulgan, located on the green banks of the meandering Bulgan River. After having a late lunch, we meet a Russian-speaking Kazakh from Astana in Kazakhstan who invites us into his family’s yurt (which is located in a yard outside their house). Here for the first time I get a real glimpse of Kazakh culture, as it would have been in what is now Kazakhstan prior to the ruthless Soviet collectivisation of the early twentieth century.
The Kazakhs of Western Mongolia have maintained a traditional existence, moving into this harsh, mountainous region from their homelands to the west and south in order to escape waves of persecution and forcible settlement over the last 200 years, from both the Chinese and Russian (later Soviet) authorities. With the fall of the Soviet Union, many Mongolian Kazakhs chose to move to Kazakhstan, enticed by President Nazarbayev’s oralman (returnee) policy which offers them incentives to settle. Of these however, many chose to return to Mongolia, perhaps missing the traditional way of life, disillusioned with the urbanised and often Russian-speaking society of modern Kazakhstan. We are invited to sit at the dastarkhan, a table spread with several types of biscuits and hard cakes, as well as traditional Kazakh bauirsak, (deep-fried pockets of dough) and Chinese flasks of tea. We drink the milky tea from wide bowls, while out host plays a short number on a dombra, a traditional Kazakh lute. After two days of nothing but hard driving, it’s a wonderful cultural experience.
We camp that night at the riverside but draw the attention of a pleasant, though drunk and slightly deranged Mongol who unceasingly mimes his intention to join us on a motorcycle the next day, twisting his clenched right hand and making loud revving engine noises until we drive off and camp a few hundred metres downstream. We leave in the morning, heading south to another Bulgan, this one in Khovd Province and in the far south of the country. The track is rough, but the scenery beautiful, following the Bulgan River along wide bends lined with tall elms and poplars. At one point the track simply ends, and we enter the river – not a conventional river crossing – but must simply drive in the river, through knee deep water, until we are faced by a glistening wet, muddy and extremely steep bank up which it seems we must drive. I have serious doubts that it is possible, but in low-range first-gear and 4WD, the truck admirably clambers up without the slightest hesitation. For a few kilometres the track consists of a narrow ledge cut from the rock, which is almost impassable in places, even with the truck’s formidable clearance. At times Jacob has to marshal me along at a crawl; sometimes we simply have to build a section of the track by re-arranging the rocks. Eventually however, the land drops and opens into a wide floodplain, a sea of swaying reeds and tall grasses. After so many days in the cold mountains, the air is balmy and I am almost overwhelmed when we reach a brand new, smooth asphalt road which leads the final few kilometres to Bulgan.
Bulgan is more like a town than anything we have seen since leaving Ölgii, with brisk trade from the nearby Chinese border. We get very excited when we spot (and smell) a guanz with Chinese lettering on the front and receive a delicious meal of Chinese-style lamian, hand-made noodles with meat and vegetable broth, with real, fresh chillies. Jacob and I gorge ourselves like half-starved animals while the ebullient cook and proprietor somehow, despite us not having a word of language in common, tells us that he is a Chinese-Mongol, who has left his native Xinjiang Province of China in face of persecution from the authorities. He also gives us a lecture in Kalmyk history and becomes almost tearful when I produce some pictures of my recent visit to Elista. True to Chinese form, he attempts to overcharge us for the meal, though it hardly detracts from the experience and we camp outside town in the pleasantly warm evening, rounding off a nice day with some Korean beer.
We are on the fringes of the Gobi Desert, and in the morning we set off (after noticing we have been sleeping right next to a rubbish dump) east on the new asphalt road. We stop for lunch in Uyench, continuing on alternating stretches of perfect asphalt and dusty desert track, until the asphalt road starts bearing off-course. While Jacob snoozes, I head off road, towards a distant track which I can see to the south. Passing the tiny and almost abandoned-looking sum of Altai, we reach a grassy riverbank where a clear river cuts across the desert from its source in the mountains to the north. After days on the road without a bath, we both strip-off and jump in, lavishly washing ourselves in the cold water and braving wretched horse-flies with large, iridescent compound-eyes. On the far side of the meadow is a Mongol ger (yurt), where a family has been watching our strange antics. We go over to ask directions and meet our first Mongol family; husband and wife with four young children. The smell inside is a rather strong mixture or human and animal odours, but the family are immediately hospitable and generous, and we are offered tea, sweets and yoghurt. A television, powered by a solar panel and car battery, and receiving a signal from a rather incongruous satellite dish beside the ger is playing, showing not violent Chinese films or Bollywood drivel, but images of cattle and horses being ridden on the steppe… pretty much what could be seen by just peering out of the door. The man gives us directions to continue on the asphalt road which I had earlier left, miming that one can drive along it at great speed, and we say goodbye after our accidental encounter with the almost intrinsic hospitality of the Mongolian steppe.
We follow the asphalt until the road turns decisively north and then find a track leading off to the east, towards the national park we are aiming for. Near the junction is a lone ger, advertising itself as a guanz. We step inside and mime to the rather perplexed family inside that we want food. They set about preparing pasta and cooking meat; the eldest daughter squatting above a board rolling out the dough whilst farting with impressive force and regularity. The family pay no attention, but Jacob and I have to walk outside to laugh. The father of the family shows us to an outhouse behind the ger offering it to us as a place to stay, though it turns out to be a reeking room full of half-decayed animal parts. We decline and I pitch the tent on the back of the truck. After more than an hour we indicate once more that we want food, and suddenly two small cups of tsuivan are handed over; not the food which was being prepared, but food which had been ready all along. We eat the small portions and then decide to leave rather than wait for anything more. We ask how much we should pay, which seems to confuse the woman who initially waves us off. We ask again, and then (more through confusion than avarice I imagine), quotes an outrageously high sum. We baulk, upon which the husband clenches his fist angrily. We leave a standard amount for the meal, and depart, driving a couple of kilometres down the road to camp at the roadside where we crack open a small bottle of ’emergency vodka’ and erupt in uncontrollable laughter at the utter strangeness of our encounter. This would be the first of numerous incidences where it seemed there was far more than just a language barrier between ourselves and Mongolians.
It rains in the night and we set off early the next day, heading south-east on tracks of black gravel through a landscape of desert greened by lush, tall grass from the unseasonable rain. It’s very remote, almost trackless country and we have to ask some miners for directions, but in the early afternoon we drop out of the mountains and reach the headquarters of Great Gobi ‘B’ Strictly Protected Area. I had not imaged that the Gobi would be a damp plain of endless green grass, backed by jagged black mountains but it’s a stunningly wild and remote location. We have the luck to meet Werner, a German retiree who lives in the capital and is accompanying a guest to the national park. He not only arranges us a free place to stay in a comfortable ger, but also sends his guide to take Jacob and I out to see the star attraction of the park: some extremely rare specimens of Equus ferus przewalskii, or Przewalski’s Horse, the only extant sub-species of the true wild horse, ancestor of all modern domesticated horses (including feral horses often mistakenly called ‘wild’). Extinct in the wild, a breeding program of captive animals led to their being re-introduced into the wild here in one of their native habitats. With the population of around 300 animals decimated by the zud (extremely harsh and snowy Mongolian winter) of 2009/10, less than 100 survive. As we race across desert tracks, myself and the guide in the truck, Jacob on the back, I can’t imagine that we’ll see any, but to my amazement we soon come upon three specimens. Sturdy, squat and short-maned, with small heads and slightly drooping mouths, the wild horses look like pale-brown stripeless zebras and are a stunningly beautiful site in this newly-greened desert. It’s doubly rewarding to see them here in Mongolia, where the horse is so elemental to the survival and development of human life and culture.
We leave the National Park the following day, heading further east across the plain of swaying fresh grass, then turning north towards the mountains once again. We climb up through bright orange and dark grey mountains, crossing a pass with a tremendous tail-wind and dropping down to the desolate sum of Bugat where we find no facilities at all. We continue north through dry, craggy hills until reaching the larger sum of Tögrög where, finding the guanz to be closed, the owner instead invites us into his home where he serves us a genuinely tasty tsuivan. It’s also interesting to see inside a Mongol urban home – a very simple two-storey communist-era apartment building with electricity but no running water – which is nevertheless warm and filled with similar trinkets and furniture to the traditional ger.
Next day we cross the large floodplain north of Tögrög and re-join the Southern Route for a few kilometres, stopping in the small city of Altai, capital of Govi-Altai Province. Here we have a good meal, resupply and have a shower in the town’s simple bath-house. Mongolia is pleasingly well set-up to cater to the basic needs of travellers such as ourselves, as well as more conventional nomads. There is nothing more to detain us in Altai and so we head north out of town, camping on plains of tiny white wildflowers. A cold night follows and we are not surprised in the morning – of the 4th of August – to find fresh snow on the low ridges of the Khasagt Mountains off to our west. Continuing north, we pass an outcrop of basalt columns near the sum of Taishir, then soon enter Zavkhan Province. The land slowly greens as we cross high, undulating grassy plains dotted with white gers and grazed by sheep, horses and yaks, then climbing the following day into hills which start to support stands of beautiful pine forest, crossing a pass and dropping down to the provincial capital, Uliastai.
Uliastai is a little more congenial than Altai, and we visit its hilltop monastery with eight whitewashed stupas (Buddhist reliquaries), a reconstruction of one of the hundreds of monasteries destroyed during Stalin’s religious purges of the 1930s, during which tens of thousands of Mongolian monks were killed. From the hill, the suburbs of Uliastai are very attractive with neat rows of colourful houses, each on a square of land ringed by picket fences, often including a ger. Though one would never guess, Uliastai, one of the most remote provincial capitals in the country is also one of its oldest cities; during the Manchu (Qing) Period from the late seventeenth century until 1911, it was one of the most important cities of the Province of Outer Mongolia, and a staging post on the caravan routes into China proper.
We have lunch and then head north again, turning west off the track up a side-valley towards Yaruu. As we climb the landscape becomes very pleasantly green, with numerous gers. Ancient balbals in various states of verticality line the road, attesting to generations of nomads having lived in these beautiful rolling hills. We camp high on this attractive grassland, and are joined in the evening by some local men who take a great interest in Jacob’s binoculars; a small but good quality pair which is evidently far superior to the halves of old Russian field glasses which the local squint into to spot their herds and look for wolves. During our travels in Mongolia we would always be the object of interest for locals, who are naturally curious to investigate any stranger who arrives near their home, but we would often be surprised by the length of time for which they would happily just sit and watch us.
Beyond our campsite we descend the following morning, leaving the lush green hills and dropping abruptly into a large sandy area. These dunes, the Mongol Sands, are spread across north-western Mongolia by strong winds, and are some of the most northerly in the world. Amongst the sands is the gleaming blue expanse of Khar (black) Lake, where we stop to have a dip in the water, and set up camp for the night. As we relax by the lakeside we are met by a group of Mongol fishermen who are camped in the nearby dunes, and they take Jacob out on an inflatable Chinese dinghy. I stay on land, walking in the dunes and marvelling at how, whilst I am standing on an accumulation of pure sand, on the far side of the lake the land is green and fertile and dotted with gers. Upon returning Jacob describes how the fishermen have a superstitious fear of the water – miming that it contains evil spirits – and deduced that none of them could swim. In the evening we are treated to a dinner of fried fish, a very welcome break from mutton, and the good company of the fishermen, though I decline their suggestions of driving back in the dark to Yaruu to buy some vodka.
The next two days are spent driving through remote country, over steep, sandy slopes down to Tsetsen-Uul, then through beautiful green valleys filled in places with purple wildflowers near Tudevtei, past deep-blue Telmen Lake to join the ‘Central Route’, another of the three east-west routes across the country. In the gorgeously located sum of Tosontsengel, set in a wide, emerald-green valley surrounded by patches of dark green forest, we have a wash, eat dinner and then camp out by the Ider River just east of town. Once again we are spotted by some locals who have set up camp nearby, and are filling a pressure cooker which resembles a piece of space-junk with meat, rocks, vegetables and water. Up until this point in Mongolia, I have managed to avoid drinking with Mongolians who tend to be wild, uncontrollable drinkers once they start, but after the inevitable invite to join them we are plied with vast quantities of vodka, to the extent that I have no recollection of the evening at all. I awake in my tent in the morning feeling hideous, with vomit smeared on my trousers. Jacob is asleep across the two seats of the truck, his head just above a pile of vomit in the driver’s footwell which we agree is most likely mine.
The day that follows is wretched; after cleaning up we set off (there is no sign of our hosts from the previous evening, or their car) and we make slow progress on rough roads through indifferent countryside, turning south at the eastern edge of the province and leaving the Ider River. By late afternoon I brave a bowl of tsuivan, despite the revolting smell and rubbery meat making me feel slightly nauseous. Jacob chooses to stay hungry and we spend a cold, damp evening camping near the roadside. We wake up feeling far better and continue south, crossing into Arkhangai Province and dropping into the valley of the Chuluut River, which braids across an expansive grassland dotted with yaks. The skies clear and the road improves, passing the dramatically cracked ancient black lava-flows of Tariat as we follow the river downstream, climbing onto a plateau where the river leaves the road and descends into a beautiful, steep-walled gorge. As we head towards the provincial capital Tsetserleg, we start to encounter stretches of asphalt where a paved road is finally being built from the capital. We stop just short of Tsetserleg to have a surprisingly good meal in a guanz, though as we are finishing a fight between two large Mongol men (no doubt fuelled by alcohol) breaks out and we drive a few kilometres down the road before making camp.
Tsetserleg is actually one of the most pleasant towns which we visit in Mongolia, with the same neat rows of colourful houses, fences and gers as Uliastai. Behind the few concrete apartment blocks and derelict square which make-up the centre of town, on the side of a hill, is the small Guden Monastery, consisting of three temples with crimson walls, carved wooden beams and beautifully tiled, curving pagoda roofs. Dating from the late seventeenth century, the buildings were declared a museum at the time of the purges, and thus the monastery is one of a very small number which escaped destruction at the hands of the communists. More intriguing still is the carved stele which we find on the eastern edge of town in a grassy area criss-crossed by vehicle tracks. This 2.5 metre high carved piece of basalt is covered in elaborate, stylised reindeer, with long, highly ornate antlers, and who appear to be in flight. Found almost exclusively in Mongolia, these deer-stones seem to depict an ancient form of Siberian shamanism, and although their purpose is a mystery, evidence suggests they are not graves, but may be religious objects, or even spiritualised humans representing a greatly revered person.
By late afternoon we cross into Övörkhangai Province and reach the banks of the Orkhon River, where we set up camp. The temperature is pleasant, there are no insects and no intrusive locals. Just as I think we are about to have our first genuinely pleasant night of camping in Mongolia, a storm appears on the horizon, and sudden winds flatten the tent. There is then a brief storm and a few claps of thunder. We retreat to the cab of the truck, cursing the capriciousness of the Mongolian weather.
The Orkhon Valley is historically perhaps the most important region of Mongolia. It was here, in the very centre of the modern Mongolia state that successive empires such as the Xiongnu (possibly the Chinese name for the Huns), Göktürks and Uyghurs (both early Turkic empires) established their power base. The most notable of course was that of the Mongols, with the immediate successors of Chinggis Khan establishing the capital of their enormous empire here, founding the city of Karakorum. Foreign visitors to Karakorum such as Marco Polo, William of Rubruck and Ibn Battuta describe a huge city of both settled houses and nomadic tents, a cosmopolitan, polyglot and religiously tolerant capital of an empire covering much of the known world outside of Western Europe. The city’s fortunes soon began to wane however, with Kublai Khan, grandson of Chinggis Khan establishing his imperial capital in Dadu (now Beijing), greatly eclipsing the old capital roughly fifty years after it was established. Later, when the Ming Dynasty replaced the Yuan in the late fourteenth century, troops were sent to destroy Karakorum.
It’s just ten kilometres from our campsite to the modern town of Kharkhorin, which lies very close to the site of old Karakorum. Today the area is dominated by the Erdene Zuu Monastery, a late sixteenth century Buddhist complex surrounded by a very impressive whitewashed wall of 108 stupas. In the huge monastery grounds lie only a few beautiful though melancholic temples, lonely survivors of Stalin’s purge, sitting picturesquely with their iconic pagoda roofs overlooked by grassy hills and a brooding grey sky.
Adjacent to the monastery we walk around the long grass where once apparently the imperial palace stood with its famous silver tree fountain, which would dispense great quantities of alcoholic drinks for the khan’s parties. Save for a very few stone monuments, notably a great stone tortoise or bixi, a creature from Chinese mythology which the Ming troops must have spared, there is simply nothing left. It is in fact rather hard to believe that this was once one of the world’s most important cities. Thinking about it, it’s also rather hard to believe that the simple herders we’ve met in the countryside, who know little of the world beyond their immediate environment, once forged an empire which connected the medieval world, fostering global trade, inventing the postal service, and transporting the knowledge of the Islamic world, then in the height of its glory, west to medieval Europe, sewing the seeds of the Enlightenment. But such perhaps is the way of the Mongols, who live their lives moving ceaselessly, leaving no trace of the presence behind (save for stacks of empty vodka bottles). It’s also fair to say that their greatest material achievements lie in Persia, Central Asia and India through their descendants. In a relative flash the Mongols transformed the world, then retreated to their beautiful but harsh homeland, never to be heard from again.
Contenting ourselves with what Kharkhorin has to offer, we head east on the last leg of our long journey to the capital, driving on an unbroken ribbon of asphalt through uninteresting scenery to Ulaanbaatar.