Stage 23 – Russia & Mongolia: Baikal And Beyond [2/2]
It’s the 10th October 2010 and I have just crossed the remote border crossing from Russia into Mongolia at Ereentsav, immediately followed by Finns Toni and Marjo in their ancient green Lada Niva. We face no problems in initially entering Mongolia at this crossing, despite the quarantine measures in response to a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak still being in effect here in Dornod Province, the easternmost of Mongolia. However, due to the Mongolian consul in Ulan-Ude having misspelled my middle name on my visa, the Mongolian immigration officer initially refuses me entry, and it takes some patience and persistence to convey to him that I am not making a 2250 kilometre round trip journey due to someone else’s incompetence. We are delayed even further by the customs office who upon learning of the Finns’ intention to sell the Niva in Mongolia, spend so long calculating import duty that by closing time the car is still not cleared into the country and has to stay at the border, with the three of us staying in the house of the customs officer a few hundred metres from the border, which turns out to be quite a pleasant and relaxing evening. The following day, upon hearing of an exorbitant import duty amounting to more than the car is worth, Toni abandons his aim to sell the it in Mongolia and begins to plan a return journey through Russia, allowing us to begin our journey.
We only get two kilometres along the track to the sum (district) centre of Chuluunkhoroot, nothing more then a few buildings from a former collective farm, before our progress is halted again, this time because of the quarantine. We spend several hours obtaining special quarantine permits to allow us to proceed south, and it’s early afternoon before we leave. The route should be a simple straight-line following the old railway line built during the Second World War to facilitate the war with Japan, but we take a diversion due to quarantine measures which significantly slows our progress (and during which another leaf breaks on the front right spring). In the late afternoon we stop and camp by the limpid waters of Khokh Lake, the lowest point in Mongolia, watching a pink sunset sky falling over the very gentle undulations of the steppe towards the Chinese border to the east. Without any shelter or a roaring fire the night is long and cold, immediately making us miss the thick, cosy forests of Siberia.
Moving south from the lake, we parallel the railway line through magnificent rolling grasslands known as the Dornod Mongol Steppe, which is subtly different from any other landscape I have seen in Mongolia, and forms one of the very few intact grassland ecosystems in Asia. We pass a small abandoned village on the railway, a few concrete skeletons in which at least one family is squatting, then continue into the pristine wilderness, a sea of waving dry grass under deep-blue skies. As we make our slow progress south through the grassland, we startle several herds of wild Mongolian gazelle up to around one-hundred strong, whose white haunches flash against the brown steppe as they race past us and turn towards the north. This magnificent sight, perhaps unique in modern Eurasia, is of the largest ungulate herds in the continent; an unexpected experience that can perhaps only be rivalled in Africa. More encouraging still is that despite local poaching of gazelle, the population here in Mongolia (as opposed to that in China) is thriving in this sparsely populated area.
In the early-afternoon we come to a couple of gers (yurts) set-up by the roadside; not as a home for local herders, but as a disinfection station. What follows is another bizarre and unique Mongolian experience. A large tent has been set up and covered in plastic sheeting, which is used as a fumigation chamber for vehicles. We park the cars inside the chamber which is sealed and then filled with an unknown agent. After they are deemed to have been sufficiently gassed, we are handed gas-masks which we don in order to retrieve our vehicles, an act which has us all in fits of laughter, and is conducted in good spirits by the officers of the Ministry of Emergency Situations. A few hours later we reach the northern edge of the city of Choibalsan where we are hosted by Trinh, a Peace Corps Volunteer who very kindly lets the three of us invade his small apartment.
Choibalsan, the capital of Dornod Province and the fourth largest city in Mongolia, is named after Khorloogiin Choibalsan, an illegitimate son of a herder who was born nearby, and came to be the only autocratic ruler in modern Mongolian history. Choibalsan was nicknamed the ‘Stalin of Mongolia’, for his ruthless purges of the Buddhist clergy, intelligentsia and dissidents on the orders of Stalin, and was responsible for making Mongolia the first satellite state of the USSR. Like its namesake, Choibalsan the city has a strong Soviet influence, having become the economic centre of eastern Mongolia in the twentieth century. Today the city hosts plenty of crumbling and rusting industrial areas and has certainly seen better days, but the centre is remarkably pleasant and vibrant. Through Trinh, we meet many of the city’s Peace Corps and VSO volunteers and spend days drinking heavily and gorging ourselves on Chinese food; I am particularly gluttonous in the knowledge of the weeks of eating mutton which are likely to follow.
We visit the lively bazaar, where we meet a few rogues; life-long drinkers who seem to have degenerated to a state of dementia from drinking toxic substances; toothless, red-skinned and having seemingly lost the ability to even speak, they beg and sleep among piles of rubbish like stray dogs. Amidst such squalor I tend to a couple of pressing maintenance issues on the truck; three leaves have now broken on the left-hand front spring, and while no suitable spares are available, I manage to jury-rig a couple of leaves from a Korean light-truck, and have the crack in the mother-leaf welded to make a very satisfactory repair. Far less successful is a ‘repair’ attempted on my radiator by a local which if anything makes the leak (which has been intermittent since the start of the journey) worse.
On the morning we wish to depart, we must join a scrum of people outside the Ministry of Emergency Situations (near the displeasing sight of a new Mormon Temple) to obtain yet more quarantine permits, and it is not until late afternoon that we finally head out of town on the track across the steppe to the west. We follow the Kherlen River, the farthest tributary of the Amur, here almost five thousand kilometres upstream from the point where it enters the Pacific. Just before dark, with the Finns trailing behind I reach the ruins known as Kherlen Bars which are little more than the remains of a twelfth century Buddhist stupa; a rare ancient structure in Mongolia, and one of very few traces of the Kara-Khitan Khanate. The Kitans were the last of Mongolia’s pre-Mongol states, known as the Liao Dynasty in China, the remnants of which set-up the Kara-Khitan Khanate, a Central Asian state which lasted less than a century before being overrun by the Mongols. The stupa at Kherlen Bars is indeed the first and only structure I see in Mongolia which pre-dates the eighteenth century.
Well after dark we stop in the sum centre of Bayan-Ovoo and have dinner, then continue along the Kherlen, leaving it finally in Öndörkhaan where Jacob and I had split ways last month. Here we reach blessed asphalt and drive on into the night, though we separate and upon entering a cold Ulaanbaatar the next morning I receive a message that the Niva has had a small breakdown during the night, but that the Finns will arrive in the evening. We spend a somewhat debauched six days in Ulaanbaatar, during which time I come to like the city even less, particularly at the point when I am pickpocketed (for the first time in my life) by a group of feral-looking men in the notorious ‘Black Market’. I am however delighted when Maciej, whom I travelled with for more than two weeks in Iran in 2009, flies in and joins us (also bringing my -40ºC sleeping bag and winter parka). Resisting alcoholic dissipation, the four of us leave one morning, ready to cross the Northern Route towards Ölgii in the far west of the country.
Leaving the city’s western outskirts we head north on the road to Russia, turning west just before Darkhan and camping near the sum centre of Khutul. The night is cold, below freezing and we are of course out in the open, drinking vodka ostensibly to keep warm. I get to try out my cold weather gear and am pleased to find that despite being well below zero, I am still too warm in my sleeping bag, lying out in the open on a thin mattress without a tent.
In the morning we reach the historical Orkhon River, flowing north from the traditional heartland of the country. We join the Orkhon briefly and head north, leaving the asphalt and then turning north-west away from the river, reaching the isolated Amarbayasgalant Monastery which sits in a wide grassy valley dotted with patches of recent snow and backed by bare hills. Amarbayasgalant is one of just three major monasteries to have (partially) survived Stalin’s purges, with 28 of 40 temples surviving. Whilst lacking the significant location of Erdene Zuu in Kharkhorin or the vibrance of Gandantegchinlen in Ulaanbaatar, eighteenth century Amarbayasgalant has a genuine feeling of age (even slight neglect) and a graceful harmony of architecture which sets it apart. We enter the walled compound, walking among the light crimson Manchu-style temples with glazed terracotta tiled pagoda roofs and intricately carves beams and lattice panel doors. Visibly we are alone at the monastery, but from within one of the temples in the west of the complex we hear the rueful chanting of monks reciting the centuries-old mantras of the Mahayana rite of Buddhism, continuing an ancient tradition which was very nearly wiped out by Stalin with his ruthless murder and incarceration of the clergy.
Returning to the highway we continue west to Erdenet, Mongolia’s second largest city, built in 1974 to exploit the nearby deposits of copper ore and contributing a significant proportion to the country’s export earnings. Just an hour beyond Erdenet, continuing on smooth new asphalt we reach the town of Bulgan, capital of the province of the same name. Here we stay for three nights with another Peace Corps volunteer, Eric, from Wisconsin. Despite Eric’s wit and erudite conversation, we fall back into drinking and general debauchery, and the days and nights pass with just snapshots of vodka drinking, a karaoke bar, and an odd encounter with an openly (in fact optimistically) bisexual Mongol. We do manage to make one fairly lucid excursion, twenty kilometres south of Bulgan and back to the Orkhon River, to a group of Deer Stones (megaliths carved with stylised reindeer) in a landscape of grassy hills which must have been grazed for millennia by successive nomadic civilisations. It’s a beautiful spot and reminds me of the wilderness of ‘true’ Mongolia which we are about to enter, away from the asphalt roads and cities. Winter is impending and it is with a slight sense of foreboding that I imagine our journey east over the plains and highlands of the north.
The following day our journey into the wild begins, leaving a freezing Bulgan and returning to the dirt tracks which weave their way across the entire country. We move west and then north through a brown landscape of dry grassy hills with drifts of snow and patches of golden-brown larch trees, joining the Selenge River late in the morning and then crossing into the province of Khövsgöl, the most northerly in Mongolia. We see small wooden huts on the landscape alongside the ubiquitous white gers, and there are unexpected patches of wheat cultivation on the plains, now with only stubble remaining on which flocks of sheep are being grazed by shepherds on horseback. We spend a cold night camping near the sum centre of Tarialan, climbing the following day through barren mountains and dropping down to the provincial capital of Mörön for lunch, then continuing north to the sum centre of Khatgal where we reach the small wooden house of our Peace Corps host Patrick well after dark.
Khatgal is a small lakeside settlement with some attractive wooden houses, located at the southern tip of Lake Khövsgöl, the so-called ‘Little Sister of Baikal’ which is also one of the world’s oldest lakes and reputedly the cleanest with ultra-clear, unpolluted water. We make a short walk up into the hills of bare larch trees near town which offer spectacular views across the sapphire-blue water towards a snow-peak to the north. This region of Mongolia is renowned for its shamanistic traditions and in the forest we see signs of this; an old horse’s skull hung on a tree, and votive prayer flags wrapped around a tall, solitary larch in a small forest clearing. We drop down a snow-covered hillside to the lake shore where boats are moored around a small jetty awaiting the thick winter ice which in previous years has pushed a few of them almost completely onto the spongy lake-side grass, which is dotted with bleached tree stumps washed ashore over the years.
Returning to Patrick’s house the drinking starts once more and the evening is lost in a blur of beer, vodka and peach-flavoured ice tea, leading to a rather hideous awakening in the morning. Despite this melancholy we manage to make it out and drive around the southern shore of the lake on a snowy and very rough track through the hills, reaching a patch of wintry forest on the far side of an inlet. We set-up camp and walk amongst the bare larch trees which grow amongst broken, lichen-covered granite boulders, looking over the steely-blue lake to the snowcaps on the far shore. It’s an austerely beautiful spot, utterly still, quiet and with no trace of other human presence. After dark however, the forest is full of night-terrors; Maciej lays awake in his sleeping bag wet with sweat and I, further away from camp in my sleeping bag on the forest floor, am gripped by terror each time I close my eyes, at one point forcibly holding them open to prevent myself from falling asleep and being dragged into the dark depths of the forest in my sleep.
The morning is cold and grey with clouds arriving from the northwest, and we spend the day uneventfully retracing our steps to first Khatgal and then Mörön where we have dinner and a shower, then continue west out of town after dark to camp out in the open near the Delgermörön River. This is our coldest night so far at -12ºC, and sleeping out in the open in my sleeping bag, I awaken with ice in my facial hair. We drive west out of the Delgermörön Valley, climbing from the sum centre of Bürentogtokh over a 1650 metre pass, on top of which is a large ovoo (shamanistic cairn of votive stones) whose prayer rags are thrashing in a bitter westerly wind. On the far side of the pass, we descend and then climb steadily to almost two-thousand metres, soon reaching what looks almost like a different world; a vast and empty plain covered in fresh, blindingly-white snow. A few vehicles have recently passed and we follow their tracks, but in places the wind has already scoured away the snow from the surface and obscured them, leaving us with the menacing prospect of being lost in this featureless white desert. Thankfully however there are telegraph lines which we follow, once blindly plunging into a dry, snow-filled gulley, but eventually reaching the sum centre of Tsagaan-Uul. The Finns arrive after some delay, reporting difficulties in climbing the pass in their ailing Niva, now reduced to rear-wheel drive only.
After eating a good lunch and finding fuel for the Niva, we leave Tsagaan-Uul and re-enter the wilderness. The Northern Route, one of Mongolia’s principal east-west roads is here at best an ill-defined set of tracks, but with the fresh snow cover it is almost impossible to find our way and inevitably we become lost. I drive up a small ridge and stop to sight a distant track; after waiting quite some time, and with the Finns approaching in the Niva and the sun getting lower, I make the mistake of pressing on before they have reached our position, anxious to find the main track before dark. It would be the last time we saw the Niva, or the Finns.
As Maciej and I drive over the snowy highlands and the sun sets, a brooding pink fills the sky, and in the last light of day we see the storm coming straight for us; an indistinct grey blizzard of snow. We push on, now well off-course to reach the next sum centre of Tsetserleg, but with little choice but to follow the single track. We cross a small wooden bridge, heading south-west and eventually coming to a small mine where we get some directions. We push on a few kilometres hoping to find a track to take us back on course and even finding a lone ger at the edge of some low mountains, in a spot called Mogoyngol. We get some vague directions from the occupant who is more than surprised to have two foreigners appear in a car out of the darkness, but I rashly choose to try to reach Tsetserleg rather than accept his instantaneous invitation to spend the night in the ger. Within minutes we are mired in the snow and disoriented, but manage to retrace our path to the ger using the GPS and belatedly accept hospitality.
Inside the ger is a world removed from the bitter cold and snow of the huge landscape which surrounds it. Whilst we have been battling with the most extreme conditions we have ever encountered, our hosts, a young Mongolian man and his rather attractive wife, are perfectly at ease in their native environment. The ger, perfectly honed to its function over many centuries (and basically unchanged from the time of Chinggis Khan) is fantastically warm inside and totally insulated from the howling winds, heated by a stove fuelled by animal dung to the point where our (male) host happily sits bare-chested. We experience a kind of raw hospitality driven more by necessity and the harshness of the environment than by politeness or etiquette; we are accepted in without a moment’s discussion, fed and given a place to sleep in the male section of the ger, on the left as one enters from the front door.
In the morning we emerge into a world of ice; the temperature is somewhat below -20ºC though the sky is clear and the sun pleasantly warming. Large crystals of rime have grown on exposed objects such as the nearby hitching post or the front of the truck, which splutters into life, running roughly on fuel which I worry has started to thicken due to the cold. After breakfast we thank our hosts profusely, leaving them a bag of groceries and heading north through the mountains on a path which we can barely recognise now, and would have been impossible in the dark. After a couple of rather tense hours we are relieved to drop down into Tsetserleg, but there is no sign of the Finns. We send them a message but receiving no immediate answer, decide to continue west through a vast, two-toned landscape of white snow and deep blue sky.
We follow the track west through a frozen world; trees are not just covered in snow, but beautifully coated with ice, forming into bare, white skeletons. Horses graze, shifting the snow with their muzzles, and the landscape seems more beautiful and less hostile, so long as we have tracks to follow. Shortly after noon we come across a marvellous, timeless sight; a man leading a train of four Bactrian camels loaded with the components of a ger, totally unfazed by the trackless, snowy wastes around us. Here the Mongols are really in their element, away from the squalor and materialistic trappings of the cities, strong, vital and confident. Here I start to see the kind of endurance and resilience which must have driven these people ever west and south in the thirteenth century to form the largest contiguous land empire the world has ever seen.
Near this point, and despite asking directions, we seem to get tracked off-course, somehow losing the main track and continuing through mountains as we cross into Zavkhan Province, following what eventually becomes just a single set of tyre-tracks. We begin to worry about fuel; too long a detour, or having to backtrack could see us close to running out. Happily, the tracks eventually lead to a group of gers on a snowy hillside belonging to a very friendly extended family who have just moved to their winter home (though quite what possesses them to chose a bleak hillside in the coldest part of the country is rather baffling). We are invited in to have some celebratory vodka, take hits of very pleasant snuff from an elegant carved-bone snuff box, but turn down their offer of further hospitality to continue to the nearby sum centre of Asgat. We are driving through an initially trackless expanse of fresh snow, but the directions given to us by the family are good and in time we find some tracks in a glorious landscape of distant snow-covered hills. In the afternoon we reach Asgat, finding a small motel where we have dinner and sleep in a communal room, awoken late at night by a group of Tuvans coming from the south and heading to the nearby Republic of Tuva in Russia. We are just fifty kilometres from Tudevtei, where Jacob and I had camped in a warm, sunny landscape of wildflowers just three months earlier.
From Asgat we drive north towards the sum centre of Tes, where we urgently refuel and rejoin the Northern Route once again after our second unplanned deviation. We also receive a message from the Finns; the Niva had given out completely on the night we got separated, and they were rescued in the morning by some locals travelling to Ulaanbaatar, from where they are now planning on continuing their journey south on the Trans-Mongolian Railway to China. West from Tes the land drops and opens up, and to our great relief the snow-cover starts to thin as we enter the province of Uvs. We cross a flat plateau dissected by low but sharp fins of mountains, grazed by herds of horses. The track is good and we press on into the evening, arriving in the sum centre of Baruunturuun well after dark. Through asking a local who is driving back from a shop, we find a homestay with a family in their concrete house, far more comfortable than our motel in Asgat.
West of Baruunturuun we stop in Züüngovi for one of the better meals we have in Mongolia; fresh, hand-made buuz (meat-filled dumplings), then decide to make a short side-trip to Bayan Lake; a deep-blue oval of still unfrozen water surrounded by the very unusual sight of sand dunes covered in snow. Maciej and I stop and have a beer here for an hour or so, admiring the fantastic view and feeling quite satisfied at having made it through two rather tough days in the wilderness. Ironically, just west of Züüngovi we have another brush with disaster as we once again lose the track, and I foolishly drive onto a frozen stream, only for the front left wheel of the truck to break through the ice and leave us stranded. After a couple of hours of futile attempts at extracting the car, a local arrives in a Mitsubishi, the same man who had led us to the homestay in Baruunturuun, and pulls us straight out. We’re glad to be free but his asking for money leaves a bitter taste, contravening an unwritten law of the road and being something he would not have asked from a fellow Mongolian. It’s getting late and we have no chance of reaching the provincial capital of Ulaangom the same day, so having safely crossed the frozen stream on the nearby bridge, we continue into the night for a short distance, encountering another small snow-storm and then camp by the roadside; a particularly cold night for Maciej.
After driving for a couple of hours west the snow disappears finally and we reach Uvs Lake, in terms of area the largest in Mongolia, running all the way to touch the Russian border. Beyond the dull, peppermint saline waters of Uvs are a formidable range of mountains and beyond that lies my goal: the western border to Russia. Early in the afternoon we reach Ulaangom, which is attractively located but otherwise rather charmless and serves only as a lunch-stop. Instead of driving straight to the border however, I wish to make a final diversion to Khovd which lies almost 250 kilometres to the south. By Mongolian standards this is a huge distance to cover in an afternoon, but we are spurred-on by promises of asphalt and cans of Borgio lager. Progress is fairly slow and we drive into the night; despite the complete darkness we manage to stay on course, though the asphalt does not materialise until we reach the Khovd River, two hundred kilometres from Ulaangom. Our host Cameron, a Peace Corps volunteer from Detroit graciously receives us just after 23:00 and we collapse into our beds, exhausted after days of tough travelling.
Maciej has to leave after two days to get back to his native Gdańsk via Novosibirsk and Kaliningrad in Russia, while I settle down to join the clique of volunteers who live in Khovd, a small slice of Middle America out in deepest Mongolia. There is of course lots of drinking and partying, but I also witness some more wholesome American activities such as celebrating Thanksgiving with members of the local English-learning club, and organising a basketball game in the local primary school where many of the volunteers work. Generally however it is a time for me to relax, away from the rigours of travelling, and organise my forthcoming journey west across Russia.
Khovd, like nearby Uliastai is a Manchu-era city and amongst the oldest in the country, dating from the time when the Qing Dynasty linked present-day China and Mongolia on important trade routes. Although much of the city is the usual sprawl of style-less concrete boxes and ger suburbs, there are a few hints of a long-gone elegance on the northern edge of the city where the heavily weathered remnants of the eighteenth century Sangiin Kherem, a Manchu fortress occupied by the Khovd amban (high official of the Qing Government) until 1912 can be seen, alongside the occasional street lined by tall, aged poplars.
After nine days however I must begin a final drive to the Russian border before the worst of the winter arrives. The road heads north from Khovd through more fresh snow, this time thankfully marked by plenty of vehicle tracks and crossing a bitterly cold mountain pass where I ask some directions from a very hardy Kazakh family in their winter house. It’s so cold here that the truck engine is starting to miss occasionally, due I imagine to the diesel starting to wax in the fuel lines. I descend to Lake Tolbo; in July a glorious turquoise but now a grey-blue expanse of ice, and reach Ölgii in the afternoon. The following day I drive the final strip of asphalt out of the city, then over the harsh ranges of mountains, with the leak in the radiator worse than ever, to the border post at Tsagaannuur where the temperature is frigid. An exit stamp is made in my passport ’32-11-2010′ and then I am at the Russian border gate with just one other vehicle, a Russian fuel tanker. My three-and-a-half month trip through Mongolia has come to an end, at exactly the same point at which it started.
Mongolia has been utterly enthralling, a country unlike any other I have visited. Travel has often been tough, with communication and navigation constant problems, fickle weather, bitter cold, terrible food, insects, drunks and a host of tribulations that make travel wearisome on an almost daily basis. However, the chance to experience the kind of freedom which comes with travel in Mongolia, to adapt to the wilderness around and to meet people who in the modern age continue to live in real harmony with their surroundings, as our ancestors must have done for thousands of years, far outweighs these annoyances. With the friends who joined me on this journey; Jacob, Toni, Marjo and Maciej, I shared a kind of camaraderie (despite losing the Finns) which would be hard to imagine in most other places. I leave Mongolia with a great sense of satisfaction, having intimately glimpsed a country, culture and way of life which is surely set to change as the ugly, faceless bureaucratic forces of conformism to modernity seek to undermine the freedom and individuality of the Mongols, forcing them into a mould of settled, registered tax-paying citizens whose lives may be neatly entered into spreadsheets, along with all the others. I hope, perhaps as I do for myself, that the Mongols may show sufficient resilience to subvert this awful process.