Sunday, July 4, 2010

Mongolia, a land untouched by road building.

In Hovd, I teamed up with an American and a Belgian to hire a jeep for 50US a day and drive to the ends of the Earth. Well, almost. The remote far western part of Mongolia is the most authentic home of Kazakh culture, and we spent 2 days crawling on dirt barely-roads, camping on land-slide scree slopes above perfect lakes and impossible mountains, watching 3 hour sunsets, and shivering in snow and sleet as the temperature rarely snuck above 10C. My tent of choice is the hennessy hammock (google or die!), but it is uniquely unsuited to Mongolia, a country with about 10 trees, and none within sight of another. So I tied onto the jeep tow point and a  well positioned rock, unrolled my absurdly over-engineered sleeping bag, and slept wonderfully as small animals froze to death while trying to nibble me.

After 3 days we climbed above 2800m along a glacial valley, the river's partially melted icebanks and sprinting marmots combining with sporadic gers and grazing goats and yaks to give the perfect picture of a land untouched by time, except that every ger (white felt tent) had a solar panel and sat-dish for Chinese TV! We stopped at a few for tea and biscuits, as our driver spoke Kazakh, Turkish, Mongolian (all related), English, and Russian. Well qualified.

We prepared a dish of Mongolian mutton stew, played bartok, and went to sleep. The next morning we packed our bags and set off on the forbidden (to cars) border road towards the Tavan Bogd (five saints) mountains on the corner of Mongolia, Russia, and China. 17kms along muddy roads we exceeded 3000m and were rewarded with a 180 degree vista of pointy mountains vanishing in cloud and a majestic glacier in between. Stopping briefly at base-camp for tea and a chat, we climbed over a mountain of moraine and ventured onto the ice itself. We walked out, hopping narrow and transverse crevasses (not really dangerous - only 10cm wide) to find some Japanese scientists disassembling a weather station in the middle. They told us the ice was about 100m thick at that point! Due to all the dirt we thought it was maybe 10cm... only out by a factor of 1000 - that's PRL territory for astronomy.

Soon enough the weather came in and we had to scramble back over the moraine, composed of rocks and quicksand in a semi-frozen jumble of instability, and then went cross country to cut about 2km off the return trip. Our shortcut took us (inevitably) through dozens of high-altitude bogs (Tavan Bogd = Tavan Bogged...), leading to the useful scientific discovery that the water-proof-ness of my left shoe is no longer a running concern. With one final look over our shoulders at craggy snowy peaks towering 1000s of meters above us we trekked back for four hours to our base camp, ate 2-minute noodles, played a Mongolian war card game, and did some Mongolian restling. That night I mis-hung my hammock and woke at 4am to find I had ejected myself onto the ground.

Following breakfast we packed everything back into the trusty Uaz Russian jeep and high-tailed it, over impossibly rough and bumpy roads, back to Olgii. On the way we were rewarded with a dust devil, more flat valleys and high peaks, hundreds of mummified animal corpses from a particularly harsh winter, rocky, semi arid plains and rocky, semi barren hills. Russian jeeps operate optimally at an oil temperature of 60C, and above 80C begin to stop and start. We overheated about 6 times, the last on a high saddle with a view over the plains through clear air to our destination.

Arriving back in town we unpacked, drank tea and headed into town. Still wearing woolen thermals we walked unimpeded into the swankiest Mongolian restaurant in town, ordered the 3 (of about 20) things on the menu which were actually available, and ate. I had to walk across the road to get a soft drink as they only sold beer (and pretty terrible beer at that). We then checked into the soviet-era shower house, washed away 5 days of dust, grime, and ghosts of receeding glaciers, then checked into a mud-brick internet cafe (with CRT monitors!) on the way back.

One final thing - to get valid security certificates and check my mail, I had to reset the computer clock, which was marked January 2002.

Not a bad way to spend 5 days!

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