Horseback in Mongolia (well sort of)
Aug 28, 2004
|A quick 18 hours after arriving in Ulaan Baatar, I joined my travelmates for the next 12 days on a flight to the northcentral region of Mongolia. We flew on the imfamous MAIT Airlines (known for not being the safest airline in the world)to the Khovsgol/Darhad region of Mongolia, under the adventure flag of Boojum Expeditions. Boojum in located in Bozeman, and so I was happy to hook up with folks I knew - at least from the company end of thinsg. As for the other paid "guests", they were all new to me and we all did surprisingly well together for a group of eight people from different worlds.
After landing on the dirt runway at Khatgal (see photo), we started the long boat ride up the west shore of Khovsgol Lake, to our first camp at Jigleg. While the boatride itself left a lot to be desired (I don't claim to do well in rough waters, below deck, with the smell of deisel and cigarette smoke - and so spent much of the 3+ hour trip on deck - this explains why I don't have any pictures of the lake, as I was focusing on other things), the scenery helped keep whatever urge I may have had to want to puke (and there were a few) at bay. For perspective, here is a slightly paraphrased version of how the Lonely Plenet guidebook described the lake:
"Try to imagine a 2760 sq km alpine lake, with water so pure you can drink it. Then add dozens of mountians 2000 meters or more high, think larch forests and lush meadows, with grazing yaks and horses. It is the deepest lake in Central Asia (up to 262 meters), the world's 14 largest source of fresh water, containing between 1% and 2% of the earth's fresh water."
All in all, the town and Khatgal and the trip up Khovsgol Lake was a fine start to a grand two week trip.
From the get go, all indications were that we had stepped back in time, with respect to life in the countryside and the region's infrastructure. While not significantly different than Ulaan Baatar in this regard, this region (like most of the rest of Mongolia)is just that much further "behind" in terms of development. But it was right where I wanted to be in terms of the pace, people and place. Big landscape (it felt bigger than Montana by a good bit), a great countryside pace (often referred to as "Mongolian time", where things happen when they do, which is not always necessarily when one planned for them to occur), and it was clear from the start we were with a friendly, open, helpful, curious and patient people - who, above all else, were (are) extrodinary hosts. I mean, how many people do you know who would open up their two same buildings (one a log low ceiling log cabin and one a circular ger, each of which was about, say, 200 square feet) for the night (yes to sleep) to a group of twelve people - ten of whom were strangers - at 10:30 at night, including serving tea and yogurt and even offering their bed in a whirl of confusion about who was sleeping where?
At anyrate, we had arrived in the land of no fences, where the open countryside was mirrored in the way the residents approached each other and outsiders.
The next day we headed over Jigleg Pass on horse (see photo), the start of our horsetrip into the Darhad Valley. At the end of the first day, a good size chunk of my right buttock was literally raw, as I ain't no practiced Montana cowboy - the saddle and I just didn't get along. So, after a short couple hundred yards of riding the next day, I gave up one type of horse power for another, and jumped in "the truck" (see photo) for almost all of the remainder of the trip. So, for all but 6-8 hours of the next ten days, my cohorts in travel were Mishig (the leader of the group) and Maggii (the cook) - two great people to spend time with when you don' speak the languange.
While I missed getting that "riding across the open Mongolian countryside" experience, I had many other types of experiences riding in the truck, where I became the English teacher, and got treated to many visits with locals in the comfort of their ger. So, all was not lost, instead much was gained in terms of a unique Mongolian experience (as some of the upcoming stories will tell) - my pain was also my gain.
For instance, that first day in the truck, I was intrigued by the small piles of hay I saw in one area, and so Mishig stopped the truck and took me over to meet the heared who waas collecting hay for the winter. We sat in his tent (a samll canvass tent with a wood stove in the middle, much like the way the gers are set up) and drank tea and ate pine nuts (a staple of food in the countryside) while they chatted and laughed. It was wonderful, to get a glimpse - albeit limited by the lack of conversation and thus information - into how these folks live. It's basic, beautiful and hard, much like I imagine Montana was 100+ years ago.
Later that afternoon we entered the Darhad Valley (see photo) and arrived in the town of Renchinlkhumbe, where we stayed at a ger camp (see photo) set up and run by Boojum Expeditions and their Mongolian partner - Mishig. Part of why my time in the truck waas so good is because he is a mover and shaer in the region, having been the governor of Renchinlkhumbe for eight years until recently.