Conquering Mongolia on the hoof
SO, how far is it back to the base camp from here?" I asked Nurjan, the attractive young Kazakh woman who was the translator for our horse trek through Mongolia's Altai Mountains.
We were standing in a clearing next to a wild river, having just spent the morning forcing our way through virgin pine forest on deer trails with horses and fully loaded pack horses. She replied with wonderful steppe logic. "Well, look at your watch now, then look at it again when we get there, then you'll know how far it is."
"Oh ... right."
If Mongolia, previously called Outer Mongolia, is one of the world's backwaters then the Altai Mountains in the country's far west must be the backwater's backwater.
And our group of 10 riders from around the globe, along with John, our Kiwi trek leader from Zavkhan Trekking, and the local Kazakh family employed as wranglers, a cook, translator and their kids who had come along for the ride, found ourselves in the even more remote Yolt Canyon, part of the Altai Tavan Bogd National Park, a region where permanent habitation is prohibited, even for nomadic herders.
The restriction on access is due to its proximity to the Chinese border - "just over there" according to Nurjan - and getting to the Yolt is certainly no easy task with most of the park accessible only by horse or on foot.
We had taken a three-hour flight from Mongolia's capital Ulaan Baatar to the town of Bayan Olgii, famous for its exports of cashmere and camel wool. Then four hours along dirt tracks in a "Furgon", Russia's answer to the Kombi van, to the village of Altai, which lists dust and dried yak dung as its main products.
From here it was horses all the way - Kazakh horses rented from local families whose community benefits from the financial input. Amangul, our robust cook and camp mother, Sarkus and Nurlan, and the indefatigable wranglers and their children, all call Altai home.
On the first morning horses were matched to riders of varying ability, ranging from old Outback Aussie trekking hands to others who had recently learnt to ride in New York parks. Then to shouts of "Murrin dor!" - let's ride - we were off across the steppes and into the mountains.
At brisk trots and easy canters we made our way through the Altai range. With fellow riders from miscellaneous backgrounds from around Europe, North America and the Pacific there was plenty to chat about as we rode, a diverse rolling conversation on the hoof as I drifted from one cluster of horses to the next. The only thing we all shared was a love of horses and adventure.
Our mounts quickly earned themselves names, from the obvious "Shaggy" and "Baileys" to the more cryptic "Restaurant" and "Bistro".
Late in the afternoon we came to a large, wide river. The wranglers had fallen behind to take care of the slower-moving pack horses and so we were guided across the hazardous flow by a 12-year-old girl. Later she told me didn't know how to ride a bicycle but she commanded the stallion she was mounted on like she was born in the saddle.
Before finding a suitable campsite for the night we stopped for afternoon tea with a nomadic Kazakh family. Inside their "ger", the round domed tent of Central Asian herders, we were served arral, rock-hard lumps of dried curd and bowls of milky tea made with salt.
Everyone must drink two bowls of tea "because you have two legs" - more intriguing logic - and we couldn't decline the staple Kazakh snack of balsakh, delicious pieces of flat bread fried in mutton grease and with a name which led to endless jokes lasting the rest of the ride: "Would anyone like Vegemite on their balsakh?"
By evening we were camped on the shores of a long lake, snow-capped peaks rising on both sides of the narrow valley that held it. Dinner was cooked on a yak dung fire as sore bums were rested and the night passed around the campfire, with a bottle of local hooch and choruses of "ooohs" and "aaahs" triggered by shooting stars, all accompanied by Kazakh folk songs played on a two-stringed dombra.
Morning began with porridge hearty enough to see a Scottish shepherd through his day and we were back in the saddle. Our route for each day was made up as we went along in consultation with the wranglers. By their nature Zavkhan Treks are exploratory, there is no fixed route, no objectives to meet each day, so where the riders go, what they do and where they spend the night are by mutual consent and just seeing how the day turns out.
Rain clouds gathered overhead and thunder grumbled across the wooded valleys as we entered the Yolt Canyon region. In Kazakh, yolt means vulture and I wondered if the name was some kind of warning about who you might end up as dinner for.
A rugged log cabin was home to a group of lads in military fatigues charged with guarding the park and the nearby Chinese border from any incursions. As we stood about on our horses an argument erupted between one of the boys and Amangul, our cook. Apparently one of the "Ts" on our permit hadn't been crossed and the officious guard wasn't going to let us in. But within moments he had crumpled in the face of a damn good ticking off from the formidable cook.
The rain clouds made their threats real the following day as we climbed to almost 3000m, above the tree line with views across tor-topped ridges. Cresting one ridge we surprised a small group of elk, they loped off out of view but not before having a good look at us.
Later we came across two wriggling snakes in the grass, but our most exciting find was a large lump of bear poo, identifiable by its content of berry skins. "Onoordor," Sarkus the wrangler told us after examining the doo-ings and concluding it was fresh.
The following day was Friday the 13th and the notorious date lived up to its name. Within an hour of setting off we'd had one fall, one of the kids was kicked by a grumpy horse and a pack horse ended up on its back in the river. We were lucky, however, that the day fell when it did and not the next when we attempted a mountain crossing through what has been nicknamed "the Pass of Certain Death".
The lead-in to the pass crossed high alpine meadows, still covered in wild flowers in the beginnings of autumn, and the gentle ride had us wondering how the pass had earned its foreboding name. The views from the top were breathtaking. Far below in the valley floor, tiny lakes shimmered in the afternoon sun while around us barren Altai peaks capped with snow stretched away into China.
Then came the realisation: "Oh, shit. How do we get down?" This was no pony ride. The other side was a near-vertical slide over loose shingle, snow and rock, a knee-wrecking scramble to the valley floor, which daunted us riders who led our mounts down in trepidation, but taken in their stride by the mountain-wise horses.
By the time the trek ended, after two weeks on the trail it was a sad goodbye to our horses and the Kazakh family who had welcomed us into their mountain home. Some of the group stayed on in the village of Altai to help set up a community garden project to benefit local children by providing sustainable crops of vegetables. The rest of us flew back to the capital, most dozing on the flight as we dreamed of hot showers, clean clothes and cold Chinggis Khan Beer.