Mongolia Trip Report - Part 1 - Beijing, the Great Wall of China and the Altai

Part 1: Mt. Khuitan (Cold Mountian)  

September 1, 2015 – September 30, 2015 

Participants:  David and Derek 

The overriding feeling about this trip is the unknown factor and the difficulty in dealing with the Mongolians.  We will see how it all works out as I have a gut feeling that they are a shifty bunch (it turned out that they are not shifty but extremely disorganized and random).   

September 2, 2015 

Prior to the departure from Canada I had a lot of headaches with various minor issues related to this trip.  My plan was to take the train (part of the Trans Siberian railway) from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar.  The train ticket turned out to be a problem though.  The process of purchasing the ticket online via the Mongolian office turned out to be quite difficult.  After 30 e-mails the office still issued me the wrong ticket.  So I decided to fly from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar on Air China instead.  I was disappointed, as I was looking forward to sitting on the train for 36 hours and looking at the flat and feature-less Mongolian steppe go by.  The main difficulty was poor knowledge of English on the Mongolian side during my email exchanges.   

Before leaving Calgary, I was contacted by Tracey (a lady from China who worked at our office some time ago and put me in touch with the CGA China office).   She contacted me about a possible teaching job in China for the CA/CGA program. Tracey arranged for me to met Isaac, the Chinese CA office rep, upon my arrival in Beijing.  Isaac met me at the airport and brought me to the Friendship Hotel.   Originally, I booked a hotel closer to the center of Beijing but unknown to me at the time of booking, the reservation was going to be cancelled due to the military parade that was to take place during my stay in China. Of course, I was not told that the reservation was cancelled and without Isaac’s help, I would have been stranded without a hotel.   After I arrived in Beijing, Isaac and I went for a nice Peking Duck dinner.  I was very tired after the 10.5 hour flight (with all the extras, it took 14 hours to get to Beijing).  During the flight, I had a spectacular view of the Denali Range in Alaska. We flew right in front of Denali in perfect weather.   On the same flight I also met a guy who taught English in Beijing and gave me some good ideas for things to see and explore since I did not have had the time or energy to read up about Beijing before I left.  I just left it to chance.  

September 3, 2015 Beijing  

Today was the date of the great parade and the entire city was on lock down.  I decided to take advantage of it and went to the Great Wall of China.  I was quite impressed by the precise execution of the parade but also unnerved by its overtones of aggressive militarization of the country.  It reminded me of the German parade documented by Leni Riefenstahl who made a documentary about the Nuremberg Congress in 1934.   Some scenes from the Beijing parade were almost a carbon-copy of the 1935 film. 

One of many parks in Beijing

One of many parks in Beijing

I realized very quickly that in China, in general, people do not speak English. They also struck me as very rule oriented.  I think that to get things done here, you need to know right people.   I went to the part of the Wall called Mutyanahu located relatively close to Beijing.  The drive did not take long on the modern highway through a concrete city. Beijing’s suburbia look like many other large cities in the world.  The same drab concrete warehouses.  The concrete city lacked any soul or character. The mass of concrete blocks and office buildings, the foreign stores, the people dressed in western clothing.  There seemed to be nothing uniquely Chinese about it at all.     

We arrived at the Wall at a modern looking complex full of souvenir shops and western fast food joints.  Even the Burger King was there.  Again, there was nothing Chinese about this place.  

To get to the Wall proper, one has to take the cable car.  The cable car takes people to the ridge between two sections of the Wall.  The Wall is build on ridges spanning a few mountains at an elevation of 1000m.   The guard towers and the wall seemed to go on for a very long distance.  After a 5 hour walk, I passed through the restored section and got to the old part of the Wall that was just a foot path on top of a heap of rubble that long time ago was a solid wall.   

The entrance to the Wall trail was in the middle of the restored section.   First, I had to go all the way in one direction. After I reached the end (blocked off) I had to go back all the way to the mid point and repeat the process in the other direction.  The ruined watchtowers, in various stages of disintegration, dot the ridges into the distance.  Those sections are not accessible and are purposely blocked off by the officials.   

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Since the Wall trail follows the ridges, the views in all directions are very spectacular.  The trail along the Wall is quite steep in places – 70 or 80% like climbing a ladder.  The trail is like a rollercoaster, up and down on a giant staircase.  In the heat of plus 30C it was quite a workout (I spent a little bit of money on water from many happy vendors capitalizing on the heat applying a 400% markup).   There were not too many people at the Wall (almost empty) as it was the parade day. The patriotic Chinese were told to stay home and to watch the parade on TV and text each other about how great it all was.  Consequently, I had the entire Wall to myself.  Also, due to the parade, the factories around Beijing were closed (so the sky could look blue on the TV broadcast) which meant that the sky also was blue for me.   I really enjoyed the trip to the Wall and decided to go back again.   

We got back to Beijing after a short drive and I asked the driver to drop me off by the local supermarket near the hotel so I could stock up on the essentials. On the way to the hotel, I passed a “Bruce Lee” fast food restaurant and an Exquisite Merchandise Shopping Centre. Under the veneer of modernization the old China was surviving; the quality of buildings seemed poor and the overall appearance was shabby and dirty.  The city was full of Chinese flags and citizen guards.  The TV was full of patriotic songs, war movies from the Japanese war and Soviet style propaganda.    

Friday, September 4, 2015 Beijing – Temple of Heaven

Today I went to China’s National Museum since it was raining.  I took the clean and efficient subway to the main shopping street in central Beijing and had to walk from there to the Tiananmen Square as the subway stations around the Square were closed due to the parade.  The museum is located right by the Tiananmen Square. The number of police, military and paramilitary personnel around the Tiananmen Square was astonishing.   The surveillance cameras monitoring everyone and their every move were everywhere – sometimes half a dozen on a single pole. The young conscripts from police and military were on guard all around.   In order to enter the Square, I had to go through an airport like security screening complete with x-rays and body search.  Once in the museum, x-rays again.  

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The architecture around the Square is rather Soviet Brutalist in style.  It was all very interesting to see for me.  The building housing the National Museum is huge. The museum displays the history of China from the ancient to modern.  Some of the artifacts were 5000 years old.  By the time I got to the year 1200 of the modern era, the exhibit was almost over – this is how old and rich the Chinese history is.   I really enjoyed this museum.  The bookshop had very limited amount of books or materials in English (like everywhere in Beijing).  The lack of exposure to English (no printed materials, TV or radio at all) explains why so few people speak it.  Even the young people working in places frequented by tourists do not speak any English.  

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After the museum, I made my way to the south section of the very large Tiananmen Square.   I found a good Chinese restaurant and had nice spicy Chinese dishes:  Cashew Chicken and Duck Hearts.  I waited the rain out in the restaurant and then made my way to the Temple of Heaven and Earth that was quite a ways away (looked close on the map).  The temple is located in a huge beautiful park.   The temple is restored and is very beautiful.  It is however a museum and lacks a soul (unlike the temples in India or Nepal that are full of people and spirit).  

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After the Temple of Heaven, I took a motorbike taxi back to the Tiananmen Square.  

September 5, 2015 Jinshaling Great Wall

After my first excursion to the Wall, I decided to go again as it was quite spectacular.  At 7 am in the morning, I met Mr. Personality to take me to the Jinshaling Wall located 120 km outside Beijing in Hebai Province.  The highway was very good but it costs $10US each way to travel on it.  It seems to me that most things here cost and sometimes cost a lot.  To get to the Wall was $10 plus $15 for a shitty cable car ride to the ridge.  The main problem is that it is very difficult to get any information without knowing how to speak Chinese.  At the Jinshaling Wall, there is a huge building with “Tourist Centre” sign.  It is basically a dilapidated shell run by one really dumb looking and uninterested girl.  The “center” has nothing in it and the girl does not speak any English of course.   There were other 6 bored half – asleep workers at the empty cable car building. The cable car seemed to move at the speed that was slower than walking.   It was all shabby and unkempt.  

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All the nuisance was soon forgotten though.  The location and scenery of this sight is absolutely spectacular.  The views span for miles in all directions along many ridges and peaks of green mountains.  It was fantastic.  I walked towards Senatai section of the Wall but was stopped by the gate (I did not know why as I could see the Senatai section close by).  I wanted to climb the steep hill on the Senatai side with the guard tower at the very top.  Since I could not go there, I went back the other way.  I had the entire wall to myself as there were no people there. After some distance, I was again stopped by a gate and prevented from continuing on the other direction as well. Unknown to me at that time, it is a military area.  The gate had a barbed wire and signs that it was a “closed military area”.  I spent 5-6 hours walking along the wall as far as I could in both directions.  I had a great time but was disappointed by the limited area I could cover.  The concept of walking the wall as far as one wants is not possible as it is closed off.  

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We drove back to Beijing in gridlock traffic.  My driver did not say a single word to me all day.  He did not even looked at me when I passed him.  Mr. Personality seemed like a real tool.  He charged me quite a lot for the ride though.  

September 6, 2017 Summer Palace in Beijing

Today was my last day in Beijing.  Being tired from my Great Wall explorations the day before, I decided to go back to the Forbidden City to take some photos but after meeting Isaac for a coffee in the morning, I learned that the Forbidden City was closed due to the Parade (maintenance was the official reason).  So I decided to go to the Summer Palace instead.  The Summer Palace was located only a couple of subway stops away from my hotel.  The light was very harsh for photography and the Palace was quite crowded for Monday. The Summer Palace covers a huge area consisting of a very large park and a large lake.  Inside the park, there are numerous pavilions and temples.  My first impression of the place was not the greatest – contrived, crowded and run down.  However, after some exploration, the place turned out to be very interesting and varied.  The large pagoda was brilliant with very elaborate and beautiful architecture. The Garden of Eternal Harmony was another beautiful spot in the complex.  I spent the entire day walking around and still did not see all the places in the complex.  The complex was full of Chinese tourists and I did not run into any foreigners at all! The lack of English makes navigating in China very difficult.  The Chinese do not have even a very basic understanding of English (Toilet or Hello).  Most Chinese seem quite indifferent, uninterested and not very engaging.  

Dressing up for a family photo

Dressing up for a family photo

 

Summer Palace

Summer Palace

China is still a mysterious land for me.  I dreamt of visiting it when I was 14 years old and back then, it seemed like an impossible dream.  I am glad to have had the opportunity to see it and experience it for myself.    

September 8, 2015 Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia 

After a 2 hour flight from Beijing, I arrived in Ulaanbaatar at 11 am.  On the approach to the airport, the Mongolian landscape looked very pretty with rolling green hills and yurts.  It was exactly what I expected Mongolia to look like. Ulaanbaatar from the air looked like a mid size city with two large electricity power plants right in the middle of town.  The smoke stacks were very large spewing smoke over the residential buildings. The city was surrounded by a forest of gers (a ger is a yurt or a local round tent).  I was supposed to meet David in a hotel in Ulaanbaatar. 

On arrival, I was met by an old guy that looked like he just got off a horse.  He took me to his rickety car and we spent the next 1.5 hours stuck in a horrible gridlock that seems to be permanent in the city. We went to the hotel and after a small confusion I met David in the room.  We left almost immediately after I arrived as he had an appointment with the eye doctor who works in the hospital that is supported by a charity that David is involved with.  We got a tour of a public hospital in UB and it was quite interesting.  All staff were female as apparently, in Mongolia, a doctor is a female profession that is low paid.  After the hospital tour we ended up in a Japanese restaurant where we had dinner of Mongolian meat skewers.  

David and the strange monument in UB

David and the strange monument in UB

We walked around UB and it was an interesting experience.  The city looked different from other cities I have been to. The economic growth was quite evident by the amount of new construction.  The center was full of cafes, shops and modern office buildings. There was a sense of progress in the air.  We visited the State Department Store that had an excellent Mongolian craft section. The Department Store was probably the most attractive place to shop in the entire country under the communist rule. 

Mongolian wedding - dressed in their finest

Mongolian wedding - dressed in their finest

September 9, 2015 Ulaanbaatar

After breakfast, we started our city tour.  We got picked up at 9am and our first stop was a large Soviet monument of the Mongolian and Soviet bromance.  The monument was located on top of a hill and it was quite grand although neglected (a closed chapter in Mongolian history for the new capitalist regime).  From the hill we had a great view of the city partially covered by smog from the two power plants.  UB looked like a mix of new and old.  The old had a grim communist look.  The infrastructure in UB was quite old and crumbly as well: sidewalks were broken or non-existent, the infrastructure seemed poor and inadequate for the number of people.  At the bottom of the monument, there were some souvenir sellers and army veterans, decked out with medals from the Great War, reminiscing about the good old times.  There was also a T34 tank that apparently made it all the way to Berlin in 1945!

From the monument we drove a short distance to the Winter Palace of the Mongolian religious and political leader before the communism.  It was an interesting place (a rare example of old Mongolian architecture) but run down and unkept. The museum had an interesting display of old items and a great photo of an elephant that was walked to Mongolia and unfortunately did not last long after arriving.   

After the Palace, we went to the Gaydan Temple, the main temple of the Yellow Hat Buddhism sect in Mongolia.  The temple was full of very unfriendly and fat monks milling about.  They were quite nasty, unpleasant and outright hostile at times.  The temple complex consisting of a few buildings and a large concrete parking lot was not large and could use some fixing up.  There were “No Photos” signs everywhere as if they were holding some secrets there.  Since there were no tourists, the standoffish attitude was rather ridiculous and uncalled for.   The largest building of the complex houses a large statue of Buddha that was quite impressive.  At the entrance to the hall, a monk was collecting cash for even a greater statue that was to be taller than the Statue of Liberty.  One can dream! One has to wander what was the point of such megalomania while the local population was scrapping by on an average monthly income of $400 per month.  It was an interesting place but lacked the feeling of the Tibetan temples, which follow the same lineage of Buddhism.  

We already have a great tall Buddha, but wait…

We already have a great tall Buddha, but wait…

Our Buddha will be bigger than your Statue!

Our Buddha will be bigger than your Statue!

Gaydan Temple UB

Gaydan Temple UB

After visiting the temple, we went to the National Museum that had was stale and dead and had an abandoned feel about it.  We walked through the dusty exhibits and were done in 20 minutes or so.  We walked over to the Ghingis Khan Square and had a bad coffee and a stale cake.  After a fantastic cultural performance, we ended up back in the hotel at 10pm.  We repacked and went to bed to wake up at 4 am for our flight to Olgi In Western Mongolia on Aero Mongolia.

The booming UB

The booming UB

September 10, 2015 Olgi – Western Mongolia

We took the 6 am flight from UB to Olgi in Western Mongolia on Aero Mongolia on Fokker F28.  As we flew west, the landscape changed considerably to large barren hills with snow capped mountains in the distance.  It all looked very dry.  We landed after the 3 hour flight in Olgi airport consisting of a runway and a old rundown building.  The town, although looking large from the air, turned out to be an outpost with dirt roads and goats running around.  

Olgi

Olgi

We were picked up by Gangama (our mountain guide), Baku and Secon (the fearless driver who took particular liking to David).  We all pilled up into a Russian łaz and drove  to collect our cook lady.  The plan was to reach the gate of the Tavan God National Park that day.   The National Park is located 180 km west from Olgi at the end of a dirt road.  

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We drove through beautiful landscapes dotted with gers and grazing animals. There were a lot of animals as the nomads were in the process of collecting them from remote pastures and returning to their winter homes closer to Olgi.  We stopped at a mountain pass from where we had a fantastic view of the panorama of the entire Mongolian section of the Altai Range.  The range spans China, Russia and Mongolia.  Mt Khuitan is the tallest mountain in Mongolia but not the tallest in the Altai Range (It is Mount Bielucha located in Russia). The clouds indicated that bad weather was coming. After 5/6 hours of driving, we arrived at the gate of the national park.  Our cook made a fantastic meal and we went for a stroll in nearby hills.   The white peaks of the Altai Range seemed very close rising from behind the brown hills.  

Little Laz vs Mongolian roads

Little Laz vs Mongolian roads

September 11, 2015 Mt. Khuitan base camp

Two camel drivers arrived in the morning.  The Bactrian camels used by them are very common in Central Asia. The camels can carry loads of 200kg each which is much more than 50kg for a horse.  The camels are very large and graceful.  Their noses are pierced with a large spike which is used to control the animal.  When pulled, the spike is quite uncomfortable for the animal.  Before the loads were placed on each camel, we had a quick ride around our camp.  

Mongolian cowboy

Mongolian cowboy

We left on foot before the camels for the trek to the basecamp 15 km away.  The walk is quite easy, on rolling hills through easy terrain and partially on a jeep road.  After an hour we reached the top of a hill with a large chorten.  The chorten had many blue prayer flags and food offerings.  I hang the Nepali prayer flag I received from Rajendra on it.  

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From the chorten, we had a great panorama of the Altai and the large glaciers.  The peaks, although not too high (Khuitan is 4,340m), were ice and snow covered and looked impressive.  There were no trees around us and it was difficult to judge the distances.  What seemed close was actually far away.    We took our time and arrived at our camp site after the camels.  We took some photos of the camel caravan along the way.  The weather was still very beautiful with clear blue sky.  We made the decision to climb Khuitan next day to take advantage of the weather.  The forecast for the days after was not good.  We were also joined by some American women who had limited time as well and wanted to climb Mount Khuitan with us.  They had porters and we had the guide. 

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September 12, 2015 Naraam Dal 4,180m

We got up at 5.30am under a clear sky.  We left the camp after breakfast with the objective to reach Mt. Khuitan’s advanced BC on the glacier at the altitude of 3,600m.  Usually, the climb of Mt. Khuitan is done over 2 days.  The first day is from the BC to the ABC – 5/6 hours to 3,600m.  The second day is from 3,600m to the summit and back to BC.  I was under the impression that the climb was basically a walk on an easy grade slope.  The walk from the BC to ABC was on a large snow covered glacier for 10km.  The confluence of glaciers form a massive snowfield surrounded by five holy mountains.  The snowfield has some crevasses and had quite a bit of fresh snow.  The walk was easy but the wind was ferocious and right into our faces.  The wind was so strong that at times it would push me over.  As we got closer to the ABC we caught up with the porters who left some time before us.   The porters were huddling from the strong wind uncertain whether to continue.  

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Most of the group decided to retreat as it became obvious that climbing Mt. Khuitan in this wind would not be possible.  One of the American ladies, Linda, asked me if I would climb Naraam Dal with her.  It is slightly lower than Khuitan (second highest in Mongolia) and one of the 5 holy mountains.  The summit seemed quite close to us so I agreed without hesitation.  I parted with David and the porters and we set off. After an hour or so, Ganga became quite sick to the point that she would stop and just kneel over in pain.  She decided that she would not continue and unclipped from the rope leaving Linda and I to finish the climb on our own.  Linda led the way through the wind and snow.  The wind increased in intensity as we ascended.  The climbing against the wind was quite something.  I also had to stop every 30 to 40 steps to rest due to the altitude (we were not acclimatized at all).  

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I dropped my backpack below the summit ridge and we continued on.  We reached the middle summit of the 3 summits forming Mt. Naraam Dal after some scrambling on wind blown rocks.  Since we were now above the main ridge of the range, the wind became crazy strong.  The visibility was good though and we could see far into Russia and China.  We could see Mt. Bielucha, the highest mountain in the range located in Russia maybe 100km away.   The last summit along the ridge was 100m away but once we peaked over the ridge, the wind became absolutely ferocious.  It was difficult to keep upright and I started to get really cold.  I took photos from the high point and quickly descended to where I left my backpack.  The views all around were very grand, we could see the entire face of Mt. Khuitan and the large glaciers flowing down into the valleys below.  We were now right on the border with China and Russia above Mt. Malpuchin.  I did not realize that we were at 4,180m, which explains why I felt so tired and winded once we reached the top.  After the photo stop, we descended to meet Ganga lower down trying to navigate back among hidden crevaces.  

We headed down together and arrived back at the camp at 5pm or so.  Ganga was so sick that she asked for a horse to take her back to the camp.  The porters used horses to ferry the loads to the start of the glacier.  After I got back to the camp, I was really tired but happy to have done the second highest peak in Mongolia.  The wind seemed to have calmed down a bit and the sky was still blue without a cloud.  

September 13 and 14, 2015 Khuitan BC

We woke up to the sound of rain falling on the tent.  So the weather forecast was accurate after all and it was a good decision to have done the climb of Naraam Dal the day before.  The caravan of the Americans departed in the morning in the rain giving us an opportunity to take some good photos of the packed camels.  

cold

cold

After lunch the rain changed to snow and by the evening, it snowed a lot.  We had a lot of time to talk as we were now snow bound. We learned that our cook’s family kills a lot of animals for the winter:  6 sheep, 2 goats and one yak.  They eat all the meat between November and August.  An average Mongolian nomad family has between 400 to 500 goats or sheep but no more than 3,000 animals.  Ganga comes from a family of 11 kids.  She grew up in the southern Mongolia, the coldest part of the country. Her family killed more animals for the winter.  

We were trapped in our tents due to the snowstorm and the severity of the storm was much more intense than we had expected.  It definitely put a dent in our plans and forced us to wait it out.  It was cold and wet – a full on winter.  

Burried and cold

Burried and cold

Burried

Burried

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September 15, 2015 Malpuchin 4080m

Last night snowed and blew hard for many hours.  When I got up to pee in the middle of the night it seemed that we would get totally buried.  The tents were almost covered under the cover of thick snow.  In the morning, the first signs of clearing up made us feel optimistic. We could spot some blue above our heads but the mountains were still behind a thick layer of clouds.  

Buried!

Buried!

Although the wind was still blowing hard though, we decided to hit the trail feeling tired of sitting around.  We had breakfast at 8.30 and hit the trail at 10 am.  First we walked to the Russia/Mongolia border signpost.  It was a cool place with great views into Russia and back to the Altai on the Mongolia side with swirling clouds all around.  We then decided to go up Mount Malpuchin.  This was another one of the 5 holy mountains. 

The border between Russia and Mongolia

The border between Russia and Mongolia

We ascended the ice/snow slope of 45 degrees incline that sheltered us from the wind. As soon as we cleared the ridge, the wind picked up considerably. At -10C the wind felt like -20C.  We walked up the snow-covered ridge to the summit. The views were obstructed partially by the clouds and we could not see Mt. Khuitan at all.  The only good view was to the south down the long glacier.  David struggled a bit but made it to the top. I did not have any problems and found the ascent quite easy.  I did not cough or had any other usual problems with the elevation.  I was a little tired but nothing like the Naramdal experience a few days prior.  Evidently the acclimatization was progressing.  

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The wind on the summit was oppressive – cold and super strong, almost knocking us over. The wind formed mini tornadoes and a huge plume across the summit ridge.  The climb down was fast but I was concerned about the hidden crevasses under the fresh snow.  The entire ice slope was covered by a foot or more of fresh snow, making us feel concerned about possible avalanches.    

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Summit ridge of Malpuchin with strong winds

Summit ridge of Malpuchin with strong winds

We punched through one hole in the snow to reveal the blackness of a crevasse under our feet.  The problem was that the snow slope was smooth and we could not tell any undulations usually formed by a crevasse.   Ganga pressed on and since we could not communicate due to the wind we pressed on behind her.  If it was not for her pushing on, I would have turned around due to the wind.  On the summit ridge the wind was blowing really hard.  On the summit, I sent a SPOT message and took some photos.  We got out of there pretty fast.  Right behind the summit, a dark cloud threatened us ominously with more snow. As we descended the sky darkened and it got colder.  

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One thing about our experience here is the constant wind and cold.  I am cold in the morning with cold boots and feet, cold in the afternoon and cold in the evening.  At night it is freezing in the tent.  The wind blows all the time so stopping during hiking or climbing is not pleasant.  We are alone in the great wilderness and have the entire place to ourselves.   We do not seem to be able to escape from the cold though.

September 16, 2015 White River

We got up to under a blue sky and white blanket of fresh snow all around us.  The scenery was very alpine.  It looked much more beautiful than the brown grass and brown hills when we arrived.  It was also -10C inside the tent and much colder outside.  The inside of the tent was covered with frost and the outside was encrusted in hard frozen snow.  My boots were completely frozen and it took some time to work my feet into them.  The evening before we were treated to a spectacular light show of the setting sun and the storm clouds.  Fantastic for photos.  

The glaciers of the Mongolian Altai

The glaciers of the Mongolian Altai

We packed up everything after digging our tents from the snow and ice and left the basecamp with camels for the lower camp at White River.  On the way, we stopped to photograph the caravan of camels carrying our gear.  It was brilliant and worth all the snow and cold.  It was picture perfect with white all around except the camels and horses carrying our stuff.  We could see a wall of the Altai Mountains in front of us with large glaciers flowing from the north.  One of the peaks at the head of one of the large glaciers has not yet been climbed. It looked quite doable. 

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The descent to the White River was boring at first crossing a large plateau.  Once we got closer to the White River, the view became spectacular with gers and grazing animals dotting the landscape. Behind the meadows, a wall of white peaks surrounded the valley.  It all looked especially pretty with the recent snow on the peaks.  We descended to the flats of the meadow and had lunch in one of the gers. I tried the local brew made from fermented horse milk and also local yogurt.  After lunch, the wife of the ger owner was selling little wool camels.  After lunch we walked down for another half kilometer and stopped in another ger where we spent another cold and freezing night (it was minus 3 inside the ger).  The ger was heated by a stove fueled with shit of the animals grazing all around us. It is strange that the Mongolians will not allow us to burn garbage not to upset the fire god but they will burn bag-loads of shit.  There must be a dispensation for shit burning in the Mongolian heaven.  

September 17, 2015 White River

Today, Ganga had a brilliant idea to go and explore rock carvings in the nearby valley. Since the valley is 10 km away, the idea was to utilize the Mongolian horses.  Riding this bloody horse was the MOST unpleasant, painful and horrendous experience EVER.  It had long lasting nerve damaging consequences for me.  After I got off the horse, I was in such excruciating pain that I could not stand up on my feet or walk.   I was stiff, in pain.  My legs and my ass were in pain.  No matter how I would turn in the small saddle, my ass hurt.  My legs hurt due the circulation being cut off.  The horse was too small, the saddle was too small and I was just too bloody big for this horse! And then there were the horse farts!  The farts just finished it all.  They placed me on the small horse and, since I was too big and heavy for the small horse, he refused to move (his load is usually 50kg and I weigh almost double that).  So to give him some encouragement, the Mongolian tied my horse to his horse and pulled it.  As his horse was pulling my horse, his horse started to fart away from all the effort. The farting was so intense that I was engulfed in the oppressive cloud of horse methane.  It was discomfort all around!  The small saddle would wedge up my ass, and as the horse went down to cross rivers or up the hill, the pain intensified.  I could not feel my legs and I had pain up my ass (with bloody wounds due to the saddle ramming me).  I asked to dismount an hour before we reached our camp as I could not stand it any more.  I collapsed and then sat on the ground for at least 40 minutes regaining the circulation in my legs.  I then limped back to the camp in pain.  The experience left a numb feeling in my feet due to nerve damage that eased with time but still lingers on 3 years later.  It was the most painful thing I have ever experienced and worst than a dentist drilling my teeth without an anesthetic. 

Crazy! Poor horse and poor me. We were just not meant to be together…

Crazy! Poor horse and poor me. We were just not meant to be together…

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On the way to the petroglyphs we passed a mysterious gravesite with headstones. The gravesite was quite large with tall gravestones (like markers with faces carved in the obelisks) pointing to the sky.  There were four principal gravestones with male faces that looked like leaders or army men. The setting was beautiful in a narrow valley with beautiful larch trees changing colors.  The only trees for many miles around!  The trees make this place special and auspicious. 

Mysterious gravestones

Mysterious gravestones

The petroglyphs were very interesting as well.  There were many of them depicting animals and hunting scenes.  Apparently some of them are over 10,000 years old!   There were carved into a large reddish rock overlooking a large valley.  It was a very beautiful and worthwhile excursion minus the horse.  

In tow and engulfed in farts!

In tow and engulfed in farts!

the petroglyphs

the petroglyphs

September 18, 2015 Drive back to Olgi

I am done with this part of the Altai and the cold/wind especially.  We saw the same view for a week as we camped in the basecamp.  We had snow, wind and cold, which made hiking around impossible and unpleasant.  I was surprised with the intensity of the cold and the ferociousness of the wind especially on Naramdal.  I was not expecting it nor was I prepared for it. The elevation seemed to be quite low (low 4000m) for such extreme conditions.  It will be good to sleep in a normal building and take a hot shower. 

On our drive back to Olgi our Łaz kept breaking down with astonishing regularity. The driver, Secon, would fix it “in the field” by first removing the front seat and tinkering with the large engine buried beneath.  He would strike the engine with small rocks and slowly replace the radiator fluid with our supply of drinking water.  As were leaving the White River camp, Secon could not start the engine at all.  He crawled under the car in his bulky coat and tried to blow life into the dead lump of metal.  

Please God! Please! Let it not break down again!!!! Secon focusing on the road ahead.

Please God! Please! Let it not break down again!!!! Secon focusing on the road ahead.

Regardless of the dead engine, and not to put any dent into our plans, we loaded up the Laz  and rolled down the hill hoping that the engine would engage by the force of gravity. And to our surprise, it did!  Once started, we had no problems with it except with constant overheating.   

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As we drove, the views were absolutely spectacular with changing light.  We came across a horseman with his animals.  He posed for photos and seemed to enjoy the attention.  Thanks to the constant breakdowns and the need to tinker with the engine, we had plenty of time and opportunities for spectacular photography.  Along the way, we stopped in Tsingle Village to visit our cook’s mother who was 68 but looked 88.  She had 12 children and received many medals from the government for such fine production efforts.  The first medal was for kid #4 and then one more medal for each additional kid.  She was also mentioned in a locally published book as one of the top 10 child producing females (the winner had 18 kids!). We had lunch, looked at some felt carpets for sale and then took off. On the way to Saksai, the Laz broke down few more times.  

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We arrived in Saksai at a ger of a local Kazakh family.  The family head was an eagle trainer and one of the participants in the Eagle Festival we came to see.   We had some tea and partook in a feast of goat head.   The head was placed in the middle of the table and we all shared the meal with eyeballs being the biggest delicacy.  

An Eyeball anyone?

An Eyeball anyone?

After the goat head experience, we proceeded to Olgi, which took an hour instead of 20 minutes due to numerous breakdowns.  We arrived in Olgi at sunset at the Eagle Nest Guesthouse.  It is a Soviet style concrete building with poor design and horrible sound proofing.  We had a dinner with Ganga at a Turkish restaurant Pemulke.  Ganga was going back to Ulaanbaatar on the 19th.  She showed us a photo of the frozen Polish climber Tomek Kowalski on Broad Peak in Pakistan.  She took the photo while climbing there the year prior. The Polish climber was just sitting there, slightly tilted over, frozen solid looking like he was about to get up any second.  He was dressed in the red Orlen polar down suit with a yellow climbing rope tied around him.  It was a very sad thing to see…

During the night, the hotel was loud with drunken Russians and Chinese fighting and screaming until 3am.  

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See Part II for The Golden Eagle Festival

and adventures inThe Gobi