Thursday, July 8, 2010

Border zone fishing

We spent one day in Olgii, farewelled Michiel, then visited the black market (bazaar, oddly enough) to buy provisions. This time it was much warmer weather, but the cows were still wandering around. We packed the Russian jeep (UAZ), now looking empty with only 3 people in it. Maximum is about 20.
We took off into the hills, this time driving up a smoothish gravel road on the floor of a deep canyon. Eventually we emerged from a tributary into a wide valley of Ulaankhus. Green valley, square mudbrick buildings, white gers, blue sky, white fluffy clouds, grey gravel pans, and in between a kaleidoscope of mountains of every colour of the rainbow. We continued into the wilderness.
The road followed a valley up, and with one eye on the oil temperature I was surprised when our driver pulled over without the familiar cabin smell of melting plastic. "Spring!". We walked back down the road towards a non-descript rock, and sure enough from beneath it flowed a substantial amount of icy subterranean water. Apparent oil-slicks nearby (composed of Iron oxidising bacteria) confirmed the water had been underground for a long time. It tasted pretty good. (Though very cold! Major potential for icecream headache.)
We continued on, now the road became (and remained) incredibly bumpy. Even with Russian leaf springs, tires, and a padded ceiling, the jeep bounced around quite a lot. With 15 people on board it bounces less. On one occasion I nearly swapped seats with the driver. This would have been problematic, as he would then have been in the back seat. The top of my head became well acquainted with the roof!
We continued past a gold mine to a couple of gers belonging (like almost everything else) to part of our drivers extended family. A few calved wandered around and we parked the jeep. About 12 children emerged from inside, we entered, drank tea and ate fried flour cookies. Later we had the traditional Kazakh 'meal of five fingers', (which refers to the method of eating, not the contents), which was fried pancake and 10 month old dried meat. Apparently mutton and horse - the horse had a strong flavour. Various condiments offered with cookies included curds, yoghurt, milk, cheese, dried cheese, and so on - all made from combined sheep, goat, camel, horse, and cow milk. Not much fun for lactose intolerance, but otherwise amazing.
We unfurled our sleeping bags and slept soundly on the floor, but not before slipping outside to watch a couple of shooting stars, one of which cruised from horizon to horizon in about 10 seconds.
Next morning we packed, gave some gifts, and drove on. Soon enough we bumped our way (even the bumps have bumps. The roads were heavily corrugated, but these aren't even felt...) past surreal mounds of post ice-age moraine and ancient burial mounds to the lakes district. Here we stopped briefly at the army outpost to register our presence in the border zone. Fortunately someone was on duty, or we may have had to wait for a while, possibly in prison.
One hair-raising wooden bridge later and we were at our somewhat mosquito infested campground. I once again found a way to hang my hammock, by driving the starting crank under a rock and belaying the webbing over the top (maybe I'll upload a photo?). The driver assembled his fishing rod, walked to the water's edge, and began to pluck fish out at the rate of about 5 a minute. This rate continued unabated for some time!
Once in camp we settled into the usual routine. For dinner we had several boiled fish, about as fresh as it is possible to be.
On the next day, my travelling companion John was ill, so unfortunately we were unable to hike all day to the Chinese border (so what we planned to do there will remain a mystery, although suffice to say it depends on maintaining adequate hydration...). Instead I calculated the angle from north that the sun would rise and set at any given day of the year, and wrote a song based on 'FML'.
The next day I slept in in wondrous warmth and comfort (yay, hammock), John was better, and we turned around and came back. The trip back was much the same, except we hit even more bumps. At one pinch point where the road crossed a ravine, the technique depended on bunny hopping the jeep side ways for about 2 metres on exactly the right sized rocks. Everything in the back was rearranged, something went 'crack' in my neck, and the driver's milk became a milk shake. Battling an intermittent problem with the fuel pump, we drove through Sagsai (the second richest sum in Olgii Aimag - most people lived in mudbrick huts rather than gers), and stopped at a settlement populated mainly by yet more extended family. One fellow in particular made a living by hunting with an eagle. This eagle was something else. Somewhat larger than the peregrine falcon favoured in the near east, the Mongolian eagle has about a 3 metre wingspan. The hunter rides a horse with the bird on his arm, they usually catch foxes, dogs, or small wolves. This particular one won several prizes at the national level, even though it was only 3 years old.
We were permitted to hold it using a special glove - the a strong wind its wings remained outstretched (wait for photos). Its claws were about the size of my little finger, and while hooded it declined to let go. I was the only person present not to get a scratch!
After that we retired to the ger, drank tea, ate home-made bread (the best in Mongolia by far), then drove back down the ravine to Olgii. We celebrated our return with a quality 3 dollar meal at the swankiest restaurant (Turkish) in town.
Hopefully tomorrow or the next day I'll find a lift to Russia.

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