Mongolia Trip Report Part 2 - Golden Eagle Festival and The Gobi

September 19, 2015 Sagsai Golden Eagle Festival Day 1

We set off at 9 am from Olgi to Sagsai for the Golden Eagle Festival with much anticipation and curiosity.  In reality, this festival was our main reason to come to this part of Mongolia.   We were not quite sure whether this event would be a genuine local festival or one put on exclusively for tourists. 

Arriving for the Festival

Arriving for the Festival

We arrived in Sagsai early as the organizers were just starting to set up.  Although the festival was supposed to start at 10am it really did not get going until after 11.30am.  While we were waiting around for the festival to start, we were watching the participants (eagle hunters) arrive on horseback from all directions.  They were arriving from their gers (round Kazakh tents), which dotted the flat planes around Sagsai.  One of the participants was our guide Baku’s uncle whose ger we visited the day before on our return trip from Mt. Khuitan.   It was all very exciting for us to see.  The eagle hunters rode slowly across the plain with their majestic eagles perched on their arms. 

Once all the participants gathered (there were around 40 of them) they had a parade that culminated with a gallop across the festival grounds.  They were all dressed in traditional Kazakh winter clothing made from felt and fox fur.  They were also wearing the traditional Mongolian or tall Kazakh hats made form fox feet fur.  Their large eagles were perched on their arms supported by wooden stands resting on saddles.  As they were galloping, they raised their eagles in the air forcing the birds to spread their wings as if getting ready for flying.   

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After the parade, the eagle hunting competition began.  Each eagle hunter launched his bird from the top of a small hill situated behind the festival grounds.  The bird was being called to swoop down and grab the bait that was being pulled on a long line by the assistant’s horse down below.  The assistant was on a horse and the bait was a dead fox attached to a long line.   To an eagle, viewed from above, the dead fox looks like the real animal running through the field below.  The assistant called the eagle with a special whistle-like “call” to get the bird’s attention.  If the eagle made an accurate landing, it was rewarded with raw meat.  The speed of the flight and the accuracy of landing were judged and tabulated.  The winner and his eagle were awarded a medal and a cash prize. 

Ready to fly!

Ready to fly!

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The panel of judges

The panel of judges

I went up to the top of the hill and watched the eagles being launched by their owners.  They took great pride in their birds.  They also took great pride in their appearance and their culture.  It was definitely a men’s world.  They seemed to relish each other’s company.  It was wonderful to see and experience.  I took some great photos of this rather wild and surreal scene.  We were also surrounded by fantastic scenery that provided a backdrop for the whole event and the photos.   The morning competition was not very successful due to high wind.  The wind’s noise was blocking calls from the assistants to the eagles from the plain below.  It also made the flight difficult for the birds.  Once the morning part concluded we headed for lunch of shashlyk on the festival grounds. 

Shashlyk stand

Shashlyk stand

The best shashlyk in Mongolia

The best shashlyk in Mongolia

After lunch, the weather changed from sunny and clear to overcast.  The wind became even stronger with powerful gusts.  Goat-pulling contest was the main afternoon event.   In this event, two horsemen pulled a carcass of a goat from one another until one person successfully took possession of it.  The pulling can take a long time and extends to fields around the main stage.  The entire thing is very unpredictable, involves some serious horse acrobatics and much strength.  It is fun to watch, as the audience has to run away from the horses.  There is much cheer, dust and action. 

The goat pulling contest

The goat pulling contest

The goat pulling contest

The goat pulling contest

As this event was taking place, the wind picked up even more and we decided to depart around 4 pm.  On the way out, I purchased a hat from one of the eagle hunters.  The hat is made from fox legs and unfortunately 6 of them were required to make one hut.  As much as I felt sorry for the foxes, it is the culture here and the foxes are hunted mainly for the pelts.  

Day 1 was a great success and we really enjoyed it.  It definitely did not disappoint.  Although other tourists were there, the festival was definitely a local affair with the participants and the local audience really getting into the competition and the spirit of things.    

September 20, 2015 Golden Eagle Festival Day 2

We were excited to see what Day 2 would bring after very enjoyable Day 1. We arrived at the festival grounds at 10am.  We did not expect for the proceedings to commence any sooner than the day before.  As we were arriving, we saw many camels arriving for the camel race.  We were happy that the events were different from the day before and not a repeat of the same.  At the end we missed the camel race – it was supposed to take place in the afternoon but was moved to first thing in the morning.   The festival is somewhat chaotic but this is what makes it special too. 

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The second day of the festival was less showy as most tourists were gone and the place filled with the locals.  The locals came from nearby villages and settlements.  The locals were a motley crew for the most part:  mostly country folk on horses.  Most of them quite rough looking.  With a bit of local hooch, the sparks would fly pretty fast with these guys.  In order to fit in and make it in this environment, one has to be tough.  Kids start riding horses at 5 or so and can handle animals with confidence.  There was a boy among the participants, maybe 10 years old who had his own eagle and was riding a horse like a pro.  The women are also physically tough and can ride horses very well.  Despite the rough looks, everyone was extremely nice and welcoming.  They were always smiling and made us feel very welcome.    

The Old and the young

The Old and the young

In the morning, the eagle-hunting contest was held again.  This time, the birds were flying better, catching foxes and making a good performance.  I stood down below the hill watching the assistants on horseback pulling foxes.  While this part of the festival was going on, a local bus arrived with the entertainers.  The bus arrived while the eagle hunting competition was still under way so the entertainers just interrupted the eagle-hunting contest and got on with their part of the show.  The performance was held in front of a large truck parked in the empty field.   The area soon filled up with old women and kids.  The men on horses and camels ringed the seated spectators.  Many of them had eagles perched on their arms.  It was all very surreal.    The entertainment consisted of three local singers, two of them dressed as medieval princesses and one old less attractive one.  One of the princesses roused the crowd with a lamenting song about Kazakhstan.  Considering that ethnically all the participants and spectators were Kazakhs, their hearts must be more Kazakh than Mongolian. At the key moment of the song (when the word Kazakhstan was sung), the men on horses would lift their eagles in the air and then lower them quickly forcing the birds to spread their wings.  This was accompanied by loud cheers and some really bad quality audio from large speakers set up on the bed of the large truck.  The song was so popular that the princess had to sing it again to great cheer from the crowd.  All of it took place in the strong wind with clouds of dust blowing around.

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There was also a young artist playing a traditional Kazakh guitar-like instrument.  Although enjoyable, the boy’s performance was not at the same level of excitement as the princesses.  As the concert was winding down, a large brawl broke out among the horseman.  Suddenly the crowd became very agitated with many people running away from the stage.  Groups of men on horses with eagles perched on their arms started galloping around.  Some guys on horses and camels were chasing someone.  It was all very wild.  A man got into a car and sped away.  As the car was driving away, the locals pelted it with large rocks.  Apparently, a sponsor of the event, a representative of a company called “Blue Woolf”, kicked an 80-year-old local in an argument and others got very upset.  As the fight abated, the entertainers packed up their instruments and the bus left as quickly as it arrived.  Wild.

The festival continued with sheep pulling, horse races and prize ceremonies.  The winner of the eagle-hunting contest got a medal and $50!  He was very proud and posed for a photo for me with his eagle sitting on his arm. 

The Winners of the 2015 Golden Eagle Festival

The Winners of the 2015 Golden Eagle Festival

One the prizes were handed out, the festival wrapped up pretty quickly.  Also, the wind started to blow really hard with large clouds of dust (we needed a long shower to wash it all off afterwards).  On the way back to Olgi, Secon run out of gas in his Łaz.  The Łaz was a total piece of shit.  None of the gauges work, there were no seat belts, and the engine jolts, vibrates and overheats.  The abhorrent condition of this “vehicle” did not stop Secon from driving it at 100km/hr (while the gas lasted) on bad roads while passing others in clouds of dust.  It was Mongolian Wild West driving!

We ran out of gas…

We ran out of gas…

Overall the festival has exceeded our expectations.  It was wild, authentic with a total feel of an exotic remote central Asian culture. The people were great. They take great pride in their culture.  Everyone participate eagerly in the competitions and gave their 110%.  It was great to have had this opportunity to participate in such an authentic event.  We met some visitors from Kazakhstan who told us that the Kazakh culture survives in Mongolia.  In Kazakhstan, the Soviets killed the culture and the current government modernized the country that finished the nomadic traditions off.  Nothing of what we saw in Sagsai exists in Kazakhstan.  Overall coming to the festival was worth all the effort! 

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September 21, 2015 Olgi and Lake Tolba

We had some time to spend in Olgi so we decided to go on the town.  In the morning we walked to the local museum.  It was a rubbish museum located in unkempt grounds in an old and dirty building.  The museum had a couple of bored but nice employees who eagerly sold us tickets and turned on the lights for us.  The main floor had an exhibit of old, dilapidated insane looking stuffed animals in rickety dioramas made in the 1970s.  On the walls were some faded old photos with explanations in Mongolian.  The room smelled musty and there was a cover of dust and old age on all of it. 

The second floor paid homage to the glory of communism.  It included an array of goods produced in the 60s and 70s by local factories.  In contrast to the glory and pride proclaimed by the museum’s exhibit, one has to look at Olgi and it is difficult to see the bright side of the legacy of the communist era. Other gems of the exhibit were numerous medals, photos of pioneers, cosmonauts, a carpet weaving of Brezhnev, old people posing with local apparatchiks and plenty of medals.  It was pretty clear that no one ever comes here and that the story of self-congratulating was all b/s.   The top floor had a ger and a swing.  Overall it took us 30 min to take it all in and we both concluded that the quality of the museum is consistent with the overall vibe of Olgi. 

The people responsible for the socialist disaster

The people responsible for the socialist disaster

After the museum, we wandered into the market area of Olgi (called “The Black Market”).  The “market” is made up of many shipping containers of all ages and sizes sitting side by side in a muddy field.  It looks like a scene from the Mad Max movie.  Many container shops were closed so we did not have had a chance to browse what was on offer.  Perhaps some other day…

The Black Market

The Black Market

We then wandered to the Grand Mosque, which is “grand” only in the name.  The small building in is the advanced stage of decay.  Everything in Olgi is unkempt, dirty, dusty and half finished.  We saw a wall being constructed:  a bunch of poor fitting bricks piled one of top of another without any cement.  The “builders” did not even demolish the broken parts of the old wall but piled the new bricks on top of its ruin.  Everything here is so dilapidated and brutalist and feels like the inhabitants just gave up on life.  In winter, the place is very cold and even greyer.  Everyone heats up homes or gers with coal, and this town must feel and look, like a Russian gulag.  Yet, the people living here make it their home and miss it when they leave and long to go back.  They have beautiful memories associated with Olgi and its dilapidated surroundings.  I do understand this very well as once I also lived in a grey and dilapidated city, like Olgi, that I remember fondly and nostalgically.  I think that it just shows you that what makes a place special is not how pretty it is but family, friends and a sense of belonging. 

The Grand Mosque

The Grand Mosque

The Wall

The Wall

After the city tour, Secon took us to Lake Tolba.  The scenery along the way was beautiful.  Vast expanses dotted with distant peaks and ridges some of which were already dusted with snow.  At Lake Tolba, there was a permanent encampment belonging to “Altai Expeditions” and a small house of the caretaker whom we visited.  David and I hiked to a nearby hill for a great view of the lake and the surrounding area.  The sky looked dark and ominous.  The view of the green lake from the summit was fantastic and we also saw three little petroglyphs on the summit. 

Small petroglyphs on the summit

Small petroglyphs on the summit

After the hike, we had lunch with the family of the caretaker.  The meal consisting of Plov was served in a large bowl and placed in the middle of the table.  We all ate from the same bowl with spoons.  After eating lots, Secon and the host belched loudly proclaiming that it was indeed a good meal.  I like this custom, belching sends a clear and unmistakable message to the host that one has enjoyed the meal.  I did belch too, wanting to fit in with the locals.  David could not overcome his Britishness and despite my encouragement, did not participate in the belch fest. 

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After much belching and slurping, we left for Olgi. Secon drove uncharacteristically slow putting me to sleep with the jolting Łaz. He drove in the middle of the road following the dividing line.  We were all full of food and comatose.  I was concerned that Secon would veer off into a ditch.  Along the road we were driving on, there were many random traffic signs and the road markings made no sense.  For example, passing was allowed in most dangerous spots and forbidden on long and clear stretches.  In another spot, the speed limit would go from 50 to 20 to 10 in a span of 25 meters for no apparent reason as we were on a straight and clear section of the road.  We were back in the concrete hotel in no time.  In the evening the wind picked up considerably creating a dust storm and loud noise. 

In the late evening a trio of already drunk Russians arrived and continued drinking vodka until late hours of the night.  This was after we had two nights of drunk and loud Chinese screaming and yelling all night in the hallway.  The sound of drunken parties resonated loudly among the empty concrete building. 

As I was lying awake on the bed that was the hardest of all beds in Mongolia. I was wandering how would we fly off tomorrow in the strong gale?   At this point we had no guide so if we did not fly, we would be stuck here on our own. 

The entire organization of our trip here felt very “Mongolian”.  At that point I had not even paid for the trip and there was no one making the effort or expressing interest in collecting the payment.  We seemed to be bouncing from place to place with no oversight but somehow sticking to the original plan.  It seemed that like everything in Mongolia, it was all left to chance and the wind (which there is plenty of here).

September 22, 2015

We woke up at 6am ready for our departure from Olgi to UB.  On the way to the airport we needed to stop at a gas station to be even able to get to the airport.  There was no gas left in the car.  Once we arrived at the airport, the building was dark and looked completely abandoned.  The only sound was the strong wind blowing around and there was no one in sight to ask about the situation.  There were no signs posted anywhere.  Our driver called someone on his mobile and told us that the departure time was changed to 17:00.  We went back to Olgi to the concrete hotel.

Our ride to Kovd

Our ride to Kovd

To kill time, we took a walk around Olgi again, sent some postcards and had a good lunch at the Turkish restaurant where we met Sophie Howarth from Australia.  By accident we overheard some people at the table next to ours talking about the flight to UB.  Evidently, the flight has been cancelled. The flight would now take off from Kovd, a city 6 hours away.  Apparently, the airline provided a free bus that would depart at 1:30pm.  We quickly paid and left to collect our bags from the concrete hotel.  As we were walking back to the hotel, a car pulled up with our bags and took us to the bus.  The bus was a dilapidated throwback to the 70s with hard and torn seats and scruffy windows. 

We took off from Olgi and soon after the road became quite bad.  The views were fantastic tough and I was glad that we had a chance to see this part of Western Mongolia.  We drove by Lake Tolba again, over a high mountain pass and through canyons and rivers.  It is a stunningly beautiful country with great vistas and great people.  After 10 hours of bone shaking ride, we arrived in Kovd that seemed cleaner and much more organized than Olgi.  We had a good late dinner and were taken to the airport for a 2.30am flight.

Lake Tolba

Lake Tolba

Western Mongolia

Western Mongolia

The flight finally took off at 3.45am.  We were very tired once we arrived in UB at 7.30 am.  We met J, our new guide and went to the hotel to repack.  We would soon leave for the Gobi.    

September 23, 2015 Karakorum – on the way to the Gobi

After quick repack, we checked out and took off for the Gobi.  The drive from UB to Karakorum, the old capital of the Mongolian Empire, was rather boring as compared to the beautiful Western Mongolia the day before.  We drove through a series of rolling green hills and arrived in Karakorum at 5pm.   Karakorum is the ancient capital of Ghingis Khan’s empire.  There is not much left of the original city.  There is a small monastery, massive walls and a few small structures inside the walls.  There is also a good museum that displays a model of the ancient city.  The display is very educational and we discovered that Ghingis’ Empire was actually quite open to the world.  He imported artisans and architects from as far as Italy.  Now the site feels abandoned.  The temples are not restored and do not seem to be used for religious purposes.  We walked around the site, took some photos and retired to the ger hotel nearby.  We had a nice night in our private ger with hot fire stove providing heat until 2 am.  Once the fire died, it was another cold Mongolian night.   

Our setup for the night

Our setup for the night

Five star Ger

Five star Ger

September 24, 2015 Gushinus = “Paris,Texas”

From Karakorum, we drove all day on a boring and shaky road.  The scenery reminded me of Southern Alberta and Eastern Montana – flat prairie and big sky.  We stopped at a grand horse memorial in the middle of nowhere with many skulls of horses.  The memorial is apparently dedicated to a famous race horse named Arvagarkheer: “local authorities decided to build on this equestrian reputation by constructing a large complex of stupas, or Buddhist shrines, in the center of Arvaikheer valley. These 108 stupas, collectively called “Morin Tolgoe” or “Horse’s Head,” surround a painted statue of Arvagarkheer” (www.patrickinmongolia.worldpress.com)

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Many horse owners come here and leave the skulls to ensure that their horses are as effective as the one to which the memorial is dedicated to. 

We stopped for the night at Gushinus, a small village in the middle of nowhere.  It felt like the end of the world.  The village looks like a Stalinist gulag.  I can just imagine what it looks like in the winter.  Everything here is broken and ugly.  The hotel is a Soviet dump with hard beds and a stinking shitter outside.  The little place where we ate was the only place in town to eat, but it did have Wi-Fi!!!!  The roads are covered in thick layer of dust that is blown around by cold wind. 

Gushinus

Gushinus

The Centre of Gushinus

The Centre of Gushinus

Gushinus

Gushinus

September 25, 2015 The Gobi

Today we drove for 7 hours from Gushinus to the Gobi.  It turns out that the Gobi is VERY, VERY far away from anywhere (including UB) and it is not easily accessible at all.  Majority of driving is on remote tracks through remote country.  There is no other way of getting there. 

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We had great scenery right after we left Gushinus and, as we approached the Gobi, the scenery got progressively better.  We arrived at the large sand dunes named Khongor, in time for sunset.  The dunes were very impressive and huge, stretching into the horizon.  The mountain range surrounding them provided an excellent backdrop.  There was a river and a lot of greenery right by the massive sand dunes.  The Gobi National Park is very large, open and barren.  To get from one end of the park to the other takes a number of days.  The park is very varied in scenery but it takes a long time and a lot of driving to get from one place of interest to another.

Approaching the Gobi

Approaching the Gobi

We climbed 300m to the tallest dune in the area.  The climb to the top of the massive dunes was not hard although climbing sand hills with 45 degrees incline is not easy.  Once I crested the ridge of the dunes, a great vista appeared before me.  The wind was blowing hard picking up sand with force.   We waited for 1.5 hours for the sunset admiring the wonderful views all around us.  Due to the blowing sand, we felt like we were being sandblasted.  I had to cover my face tight to prevent fine sand from being blown into my eyes, ears and mouth.  I walked along the crest of the massive dunes for some distance.  The walking was not easy and the sand would slide from under my feet as I walked.  The sliding sand would make a singing-like sound hence the name “singing sand dunes”.  The wind was strong and created a plume of sand blown across the ridge of the sand dune like snow.  Finally the sunset came at 7.45pm and provided us with beautiful orange light for photos.  After the sunset we ran/slid down the sand back to the car.  I had a kilo of fine sand in each shoe and inside my socks. The views and the experience were worth all the long driving to get here.  It is truly an amazing spot.  Mongolia has amazing nature but the towns and villages are quite the opposite.

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Climbing the sand hills

Climbing the sand hills

Strong wind across the 300m high dunes

Strong wind across the 300m high dunes

We seem to have the wind accompanying us in Mongolia everywhere we go.  The wind is strong and cold and it is always blowing hard.  It is the nature of open and barren spaces though and it is a part of the Mongolia experience.     

After admiring the dunes, we drove to our hotel for the night.  The hotel was another ger camp.  It was a nice and spacious complex and we seemed to be the only guests there.  The food was excellent and the service was first class.

September 26, 2015 Flaming Cliffs

We got up at 6.30am to go see the sunrise at the dunes.  The spot we chose was much closer and lower than the dunes we visited the day before.  It was still dark when we left the camp and it took a while to get to the dunes.  We had to cross a small river and hike across a scrub field to get to the sand.  The morning was windless and the silence rang in my ears.  As the sun came up, the soft light illuminated the sand changing from pastel to bright orange.  The low light accentuated all the ripples and wind formations on the rolling dunes.  Within 45 minutes it was all over and the light became flat and bright. 

Morning light…

Morning light…

On the way back from the dunes David rode a camel back to the camp.  I could not do it as my ass was still in pain after the horse riding incident.  I sat on the camel for a photo and his spine wedged up my ass preventing me from continuing.   I had a vivid flashback of the excruciating horse ride in the Altai.    I was good with 5 minutes on the camel.  David, our guide and a local camel driver rode back to the camp surrounded by a herd of goats.  It all looked very biblical.  I left the guys to enjoy the pilgrimage and I returned to the ger camp for a great breakfast.  After David returned to the camp, we showered and left for the Flaming Cliffs. 

My 5 minutes of fun

My 5 minutes of fun

The distances in the Gobi are huge!  The space is wide open and grand and the sky is big!  As we drove, we watched massive rain clouds emptying their watery load over distant mountains.  The views were superb and the light was changing every ten minutes.  This place reminded me of the Burang Plain near Mount Kailas in Tibet. 

On the way between the ger camp and the Flaming Cliffs we stopped at Bulgi.  Bulgi is famous for tomatoes.  I was very surprised that anything could grow in this inhospitable and barren place.  We got invited to a ger of a local lady who wanted to sell us some tomatoes.  Her daughter was breastfeeding in front of us and paid no attention to the three strange men coming into her house.  A Japanese comment I heard somewhere applies here:  Mongolians have shame but no modesty while we, in the West, have modesty but no shame.  We purchased tomatoes and 16 km later we arrived at the Flaming Cliffs.  The camp was located on top of a barren plateau with grand vista in all directions.  The entrance gate to the complex had a metal dinosaur attached to it.  Considering the fame of the spot for the dinosaur fossils, it made sense.  I recall reading “Bolek I Lolek in the Gobi” when I was a kid!

The Gobi

The Gobi

The Flaming Cliffs is a famous escarpment at the edge of a large plain of the Gobi Desert.  It is famous for dinosaur fossils and it is the first place in the world where extremely well preserved dinosaur eggs were found.  The escarpment is very eroded and has steep edges and indentations like small canyons with numerous sandstone formations.  The rock is composed of red sandstone reminiscent of the Utah Canyons of the USA.  The place looks beautiful in the sunset light when the entire cliff glows red and orange, hence the name “Flaming Cliffs”.   We spent two hours walking around the edge of the cliffs waiting for sunset.  After sunset we went to the dinosaur ger camp.  It was a very cold night!

The Flaming Cliffs

The Flaming Cliffs

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September 27, 2015 Yalyu Am – Vulture Cliffs

In the morning we took a car tour of the Flaming Cliffs.  We went to a small desert forest and walked among the cliffs and rock formations.  It was very beautiful.  We could see condor nests high on the cliffs.  This was our last day for seeing new things.  It was amazing how fast the trip went by and how action packed, unpredictable and wild it was.  Mongolia is an extremely photogenic and wild country.  It has a lot of wide-open spaces with animals grazing everywhere and distant mountain ranges on the horizon.  Towns and cities are rather unattractive and uninspiring.  They have a Soviet feel to them.  The country is difficult to get around but seems very safe.  The roads are not well maintained and the country roads are in poor condition with very little traffic. 

Ger Hotel at the Flaming Cliffs

Ger Hotel at the Flaming Cliffs

The Mongolians are tough, resourceful and hardy.  They remind me of the Tibetans.   They were all very trusting, kind and welcoming to us.  Everywhere we went, we were met with smiles and kindness. 

The day of driving to Yalyu Am, our final destination in the Gobi, was uneventful.  Our guide, a city boy, was ready for return to civilization.  David and I were also tired and ready to go back home.  Mongolia is not an easy country to travel in.  In the Gobi, the beautiful spots are hundreds of kilometers apart along poor roads taking many hours of travel.  According to our guide we had a 10-hour drive back to UB with nothing to see along the way. 

The Yalyu Am or the Vulture Cliffs is a long a dark canyon with icy spots. We did not see any vultures though. We hiked through the canyon and visited the local museum where some dinosaur eggs were on display.  Overall it was the least interesting spot of the Gobi but worthwhile seeing nevertheless.  We spent the last night in a nice hotel.  The following morning, we got up before sunrise and commenced our daylong trip back to UB.  Indeed there was nothing to see although a dead horse with vultures on the side of the road provided a welcome distraction. 

Petrified Dinosaur Eggs

Petrified Dinosaur Eggs

Vulture Canyon

Vulture Canyon

We stopped in a small town for lunch and I snuck out to visit the local museum nearby.  The town was nice but had nothing of interest to us. 

September 30, 2015 

During our last evening in UB, I finally met the owner of the agency and paid for my trip!  We did some last minute shopping in the Central Department Store, which had the best section for locally made goods.  UB was easy to get around and our hotel was in a very convenient location. 

The flight from UB to Beijing was less than 2 hours.  In Beijing I was picked up and delivered to a hotel near the airport.  I slept for 12 hours – my first good night in at lest two weeks – soft bed, warm and no wind!

My final observations about Mongolia:

1.     UB is a crowded city with horrible traffic jams. 

2.     The further away from UB the more basic the conditions.  Outside the capital city, Mongolia is like a time warp to the 1950s. 

3.     Mongolian people are very nice and honest.  The country is very safe.  In dealing with people everything is honest, upfront and clear.  There was no shifty business.

4.     The distances are long and the lack of good roads makes everything very far. There are countless tracks in the desert and it would be very easy to take a wrong way. 

5.     The wind always blows and in the evenings it blows hard.

6.     It is a cold country.  Sleeping in gers is cold!

7.     Central Mongolia is not as scenic and interesting as Western Mongolia and the Gobi.  The Kazakh culture of Western Mongolia is very interesting and unique.  The Kazaks are very different from Mongolians.  They are rougher and livelier.  They seem to be more passionate people while the Mongolians seem to be more passive and reserved.

8.     Hiking here is good but maybe not worth the effort and expense of multiple visits.  It is not a cheap place to visit and travel in.   Once needs a good car and a driver.

9.     Travelling independently in Mongolia would be very difficult and time consuming.  Very few people speak English outside UB although some speak Russian.  There is VERY limited infrastructure for tourists although home stays are an option.  The food in villages is mainly mutton based.

10.  Good meat and grill were hard to find in Mongolia (surprisingly!).  The best shashlyk was at the Eagle Festival at a makeshift BBQ stand.

11.  Leather goods and wood products were very cheap and of excellent quality.  

10 hours of nothing…

10 hours of nothing…

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mongolia - The Altai and the Gobi Photos

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Our objective was to climb Mt. Khuiten. Instead we climbed Mount Nairamdal and Mount Malchin.

Our objective was to climb Mt. Khuiten. Instead we climbed Mount Nairamdal and Mount Malchin.

The confluence of the Potaniin and Alexander Glaciers.

The confluence of the Potaniin and Alexander Glaciers.

Approaching Mount Khuitan on the Potaniin Glacier.

Approaching Mount Khuitan on the Potaniin Glacier.

On the Potaniin Glacier.

On the Potaniin Glacier.

Potaniin Glacier

Potaniin Glacier

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Mout Khuitan from the summit ridge of Mount Nairamdal 4,180m

Mout Khuitan from the summit ridge of Mount Nairamdal 4,180m

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Looking down to Potamiin Glacier from Mount Nairamdal 4,180m

Looking down to Potamiin Glacier from Mount Nairamdal 4,180m

Mount Malchin 4,050m from Mount Nairamdal 4,180m

Mount Malchin 4,050m from Mount Nairamdal 4,180m

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Russian Altai - Mount Bielucha from Mount Narimdal

Russian Altai - Mount Bielucha from Mount Narimdal

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Potiamiin Glacier

Potiamiin Glacier

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Mount Khuitan

Mount Khuitan

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Potiamiin Glacier

Potiamiin Glacier

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Mount Malchin 4,050m

Mount Malchin 4,050m

Mount Malchin

Mount Malchin

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Summit ridge of Mount Malchin and the Potiamiin Glacier

Summit ridge of Mount Malchin and the Potiamiin Glacier

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Potianiin Glacier

Potianiin Glacier

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Entrance to the National Park of Tavan Bogd in Western Mongolia

Entrance to the National Park of Tavan Bogd in Western Mongolia

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After the storm on the Potiamiin Glacier

After the storm on the Potiamiin Glacier

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After the storm on the Potiamiin Glacier

After the storm on the Potiamiin Glacier

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Mount Mulchin

Mount Mulchin

Mount Mulchin - the summit at 4,050m

Mount Mulchin - the summit at 4,050m

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 Nick Kirkpatrick wrote in the Washington Post: In parts of China, Kazakhstan, Russia and Mongolia, using eagles to hunt is deeply rooted in a culture in which men worked with birds of prey as early as the 15th century. It’s a rite of passage for Kazakh boys in western Mongolia who learn the craft as early as 13. Passed down through generations, the tradition has a strict set of rules and practices. The hunts happen during winter, when teams of hunters chase their prey by horseback and release an eagle to make their kill. Hunting once provided furs and meat during harsh winters, but the tradition is battling a dwindling number of hunters. [Source: Nick Kirkpatrick, Washington Post, February 10, 2015]

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The tradition of eagle hunting is more than a thousand years old. Genghis Khan is believed to have engaged in the sport. Marco Polo described it. In the Mongol era, it is said, a fine eagle and good horse cost the same price and both lent prestige to their owner. The Kazakhs inherited the sport from their Turkic and Mongol ancestors and were practicing it when they emerged as an ethnic group in the 15th century. As one falconer told National Geographic, “When Kazakhs came into the world, they were eagle hunters.”

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The Kazakh eagle (golden eagle), according to Reuters, “is one of the world's fiercest, with a wingspan of 6.6 ft, razor-sharp talons and the ability to dive at the speed of an express train -- up to 190 mph.” Hunters prefer females because they are larger and regarded as more aggressive. Females weigh up to seven kilograms, which is a third heavier than males. It takes a great deal of strength to hold one of these large birds in your arm. When horses are on the move the eagles unfurl their wings for balance.

 A quality golden eagle is worth $12,000 or more and can hunt for 30 years or more. Many hunters train and keep several birds in their lifetimes, generally releasing them to the wild after 10 years. Golden eagles are skilled hunters. In the nest of one large female, scientists found the remains of 27 foxes, ten gazelles, two eagle owls and one marmot. Golden eagles are struggling in the wild in some places because there is not enough wildlife for then to eat.

 Golden eagles can be very dangerous. They occasionally become out of sorts and even dangerous to their owners. Golden eagles have known to vent their anger from a lost kill on a hunter or its horse. People have lost eyes.

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Hunting takes place riding a specially trained horse, (called a "bercut”). To allow a rider to carry an eagle a special device (a “baldak”) is fitted onto the saddle to support the rider’s arm. A skilled pair, berkutchi (hunter) and bird, can typically catch 50 or 60 foxes, a dozen badgers, a couple of lynx and 4 or 5 wolves in a normal 4 month season, which starts in the late autumn [Source: advantour.com]

 Maria Golovnina of Reuters wrote: “When it snows on the steppes of eastern Kazakhstan, hunters saddle up and gallop off with eagles on their arms in search of prey. The men follow the animal tracks in the snow then release their giant eagles into the air to snatch up foxes and rabbits. "Hunting is my life," said Baurzhan Yeshmetov, a 62-year-old man in an embroidered velvet tunic, his eagle perched on his arm staring menacingly into the foggy hills. When he is not hunting he works as a taxi driver in Kazakhstan's financial center Almaty. [Source: Maria Golovnina, Reuters, December 6, 2009 \^/]

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Sent out to hunt fawns, foxes, or other small animals, the eagle dives down on them and kills them. But often it is also capable of killing young wolves when they cannot negotiate the deep snow. Sometimes the eagles hunt in pairs, just as they would in the wild. Eagles rarely fail to catch their prey, which it quickly kills, usually by breaking the neck in its powerful claws. [Source: advantour.com]

Eagles hunters mainly hunt hares, marmots and foxes. The hunter works on horseback. The primary object of the eagle is to catch the prey and grasp it long enough until the hunter shows up and clubs it to death. The eagles are given a piece of meat as a reward after each hunt. They are kept hooded when they are not hunting to keep them calm. During winter hunts, when temperatures can drop to forty below, a hooded eagle is swaddled in leather and carpets to keep warm.

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Describing a hunting eagle, Sebastian Allison of Reuters wrote, “High on a hillside overlooking the sweeping central Asian steppe, a horseman gazes down on the snow-dusted plain....At his signal a gigantic golden eagle glides effortlessly from the horseman’s arm towards the plain, circling once or twice as it soars higher...Movement on the steppe. A new urgency in the eagle’s flight. A tilt of wings as its seeks out the things that caught his eyes. The fox is in its sights. The hunt is on....The bird of prey swoops like lightning and with a tearing of its terrifying, razor-sharp talons the fox’s run is over.”

 “You don’t really control the eagle,” Asher Svidensky, whose photographs of hunting with eagles were published by BBC. “You can try and make her hunt an animal — and then it’s a matter of nature. What will the eagle do? Will she make it? How will you get her back afterwards?” [Source: Nick Kirkpatrick, Washington Post, February 10, 2015]

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Saksai Golden Eagle Festival

Saksai Golden Eagle Festival

“Although eagles can live for thirty years, the hunters keep each one for only about ten years, then release it to live out its last years in the wild. The bird is taken far away, and the hunter sometimes has to hide, or wait for darkness, to keep it from following him home. When Mohan talked to Shuinshi, in 2012, the old man had released his last eagle the year before. “It was as if a member of my family had left,” he said. “I think about what that eagle is doing; if she’s safe, and whether she can find food and make a nest. Have her hunts been successful? Sometimes I dream about these things.”

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Hiking in Western Mongolia

Hiking in Western Mongolia

Western Mongolia

Western Mongolia

Western Mongolia

Western Mongolia

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Olgi - the capital of Western Mongolia

Olgi - the capital of Western Mongolia

Mongoilan long distance bus service

Mongoilan long distance bus service

Western Mongolia

Western Mongolia

Western Mongolia

Western Mongolia

The site of Karakorum may have been first settled about 750. In 1220 Genghis Khan, the great Mongol conqueror, established his headquarters there and used it as a base for his invasion of China. In 1267 the capital was moved to Khanbaliq (modern Peking) by Kublai Khan, greatest of the successors of Genghis Khan and founder of the Mongol (Yüan) dynasty (1206–1368) in China. In 1235 Genghis Khan’s son and successor, Ögödei, surrounded Karakorum with walls and built a rectangular palace supported by 64 wooden columns standing on granite bases. Many brick buildings, 12 shamanistic shrines, and two mosques were once part of the city, which also was an early centre for sculpture, especially noteworthy for its great stone tortoises.

In 1368, Bilikt Khan, the son of Togon Timur, the last emperor of the Mongol dynasty of China, who had been banished from Peking, returned to Karakorum, which was partly rebuilt. It was then known as Erdeni Dzu (the Mongol name for Buddha), because during the 13th century lamaistic Buddhism had made progress under Kublai Khan. In the Battle of Puir Nor in 1388, Chinese forces under the leadership of the emperor Hung-wu invaded Mongolia and won a decisive victory, capturing 70,000 Mongols and destroying Karakorum. Later it was partially rebuilt but was subsequently abandoned. The Buddhist monastery of Erdeni Dzu (built 1585), which today remains only as a museum, was built on the city site.

In 1889 the precise location of Karakorum was discovered by two Russian Orientalists working in the area, and in 1948–49 the ruins were explored by members of the Academy of Sciences of the U.S.S.R. Among their discoveries were the site of Ögödei’s palace (in the southwestern part of the city) and the remains of a late 12th- or early 13th-century Buddhist shrine.

Karakorum - the capital of the Genghis Khan Empire

Karakorum - the capital of the Genghis Khan Empire

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The ancient capital of Genghis Khan - Karakorum

The ancient capital of Genghis Khan - Karakorum

The ancient capital of Genghis Khan - Karakorum

The ancient capital of Genghis Khan - Karakorum

The Gobi desert, one of the world's great deserts, covers much of the southern part of Mongolia. Unlike the Sahara there are few sand dunes in the Gobi; rather you'll find large barren expenses of gravel plains and rocky outcrops. The climate here is extreme. Temperatures reach +40° C. in summer, and -40 in winter. Precipitation averages less than 100 mm per year, while some areas only get rain once every two or three years. Strong winds up to 140 km/h make travel dangerous in spring and fall. Great Gobi National Park is one of the largest World Biospheres, with an area larger than Switzerland. It contains the last remaining wild Bactrian (two-humped) camels, wild ass, and a small population of Gobi bears, the only desert-inhabiting bear.

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The Gobi sand dunes

The Gobi sand dunes

The Gobi sand dunes

The Gobi sand dunes

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The Gobi

The Gobi

The Gobi

The Gobi

The Gobi

The Gobi

During a pause in a snow storm in the Altai Mountains

During a pause in a snow storm in the Altai Mountains

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Western Mongolia

Western Mongolia

The Gobi

The Gobi

The Altai Range

The Altai Range

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The Gobi

The Gobi

Flaming Cliffs in the Gobi

Flaming Cliffs in the Gobi

The Gobi

The Gobi

Ancient markers and grave stones in Western Mongolia

Ancient markers and grave stones in Western Mongolia

Canada - Kananaskis Country

Big Sister near Canmore, Alberta

Big Sister near Canmore, Alberta

Mt. Nestor and Spray Lakes

Mt. Nestor and Spray Lakes

Mt. Joffre’s north face on the right

Mt. Joffre’s north face on the right

Approach to Mt. Joffre

Approach to Mt. Joffre

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Mt. Joffre BC. Mount Joffre is the white peak in the background.

Mt. Joffre BC. Mount Joffre is the white peak in the background.

Lower part of Mt. Joffre

Lower part of Mt. Joffre

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Climbing the north face of Mt. Joffre

Climbing the north face of Mt. Joffre

North face of Mt. Joffre

North face of Mt. Joffre

Looking back at the basecamp

Looking back at the basecamp

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Summit ridge of Mt. Joffre

Summit ridge of Mt. Joffre

High on Mt. Joffre

High on Mt. Joffre

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Summit of Mt. Joffre 3,450m the highest mountain in the Kananaskis area

Summit of Mt. Joffre 3,450m the highest mountain in the Kananaskis area

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On Mt. Chester

On Mt. Chester

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The summit of Mt. Chester 3,054m

The summit of Mt. Chester 3,054m

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Winter in Kananaskis

Winter in Kananaskis

On Mt. Buller

On Mt. Buller

Spray Lake from Mt. Buller 2,805m

Spray Lake from Mt. Buller 2,805m

Mt. Buller

Mt. Buller

Bow Valley

Bow Valley

Bow Valley and Mt. Grotto

Bow Valley and Mt. Grotto

Mt. Shark 2,786m

Mt. Shark 2,786m

Mt. Assiniboine from the summit of Mt. Shark

Mt. Assiniboine from the summit of Mt. Shark

Mt. Shark

Mt. Shark

Mt. Lougheed

Mt. Lougheed

The summit of Mt. Lougheed 3,107m

The summit of Mt. Lougheed 3,107m

View from Mt. Lougheed

View from Mt. Lougheed

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Mt. Lougheed

Mt. Lougheed

Grizzly Peak

Grizzly Peak

View from Grizzly Peak

View from Grizzly Peak

Summit ridge of the Grizzly Peak 2,536m

Summit ridge of the Grizzly Peak 2,536m