Sunday, June 24, 2007

An Idyllic Altai Interlude

It's Sunday, June 24th, and we're back in the concrete, containers, dust and shattered glass that is Olgiy. We have just spent 8 days in the heart of the Altai Mountains, the rugged 4000-metre range that forms Mongolia's western borders with China and Russia. It may well be that this will prove to be the highlight of the entire trip, both in terms of scenery and for pure enjoyment. We had fabulous weather, breathtaking views and enjoyed some fine hospitality from the friendly Kazakh nomads of the area.

We drove out to the Altai Tavan Bogd National Park a week ago, a 6-hour bumpy endurance test in a Russian 4WD van. As we headed southwest, the dry mountains around Olgiy grew slowly greener, and we emerged onto a saddle near the end of our drive that gave a heart-stopping vista out over a wide valley of glacial lakes under a series of snow-capped serrated peaks. It was infinitely more grand and spectacular than anything we had seen from the roads, reinforcing the lessons we learned on our first big Asian bike trip through Pakistan, China and Tibet in 1998 that to really appreciate a mountainous landscape, you have to leave your bikes behind and take to your heels.

Or your hooves, in this case. We arrived at a little tourist ger beside Khoton Nuur, put up our tents and apprehensively met the horses who would be carrying us for the next four days. Having never ridden a horse for more than an hour, I was particularly nervous about whether or not I would get along with my mount.

The next morning we set off in a party of five horses and four riders: us three and our Kazakh guide Alinbai, an off-duty soldier who has been stationed in the Altai, guarding the Chinese frontier, for 26 years. The last horse carried our luggage, while we sat back, trying to get used to the rhythm of a horse's gait. We moved relatively slowly, rarely breaking out of a walk, which was just as well as trotting proved very bruising for our posterior regions. My horse, affectionately nicknamed Bony-Arse, did not much like the idea of carrying the heaviest member of the party and made his unhappiness apparent by lagging behind the others, ignoring all kicks, shouts of "shoo" or slaps of the halter across the neck. Finally our guide lent me his whip and with generous application to his posterior I was able to get him almost to keep up. Serge's horse had a similar problem with keeping up and on the right path, and he and I were always several minutes behind Audie and our guide.

We moved all day along the lakeshore, through stands of larch that had been drastically thinned by the local nomads, apparently not convinced that national parks were there to conserve nature. Looking out across the lake, or north towards the end of the lake, we saw snowy peaks in all directions, while underfoot our horses walked through meadows full of buttercups, dandelions, asters, forget-me-nots and any number of flowers we could not identify. It was an idyllic day, and we camped beside a rushing river, worn out by doing nothing all day except trying to control our horses and absorbing the views.

The next three days followed the first in form: up lazily, a leisurely breakfast and in the saddle around nine. Our guide took pity on Serge and me and replaced our horses with more tractable beasts from the army post near our camping spot, and for me this improved my experience immeasurably. My new horse, Simon Le Bon (very similar hairdo to the Duran Duran frontman) responded to commands and kept up with alacrity. Audie's horse, Stumblebum, seemed to have problems seeing the ground, constantly dropping his nose to inspect the terrain from a distance of three inches. Serge's new horse, known variously as Spot or Donkey From Hell, was the most energetic of our horses, but didn't really like heading in the same direction as everyone else, and Serge continued to have a testy relationship with his horse. Our guide, having spent his entire life riding, was probably mystified as to how three grown adults could all be so inept at such a simple concept as keeping a horse going in the right direction.

Having a guide made a big difference for our social interactions. For the next three days, we never had lunch alone; instead we followed our guide to nearby gers and enjoyed the unstinting hospitality of the Kazakh nomads who lived in them. We crowded into the spacious interior, seating ourselves on the floor around the mountains of food that appeared: fried bread and a bewildering array of fresh dairy products, including butter, cheese, dried curds, drier-than-dry curds, yoghurt, sour cream and something that we could nevery identify but which tasted rather like rancid butter. Fresh butter is one of the great pleasures of this world, and we would arise from lunch happy and sated, able to face with greater equanimity the certainty of instant noodles for supper. In exchange for the food, we always ended up photographing the family; I'll send prints to them once I get back to Yangon in August.

Our route led us uphill from the big lakes into a high, wild moor of bogs and meadows and waterfalls and ever more wildflowers. The views became more magnificent as we rose higher, reaching 2500 metres above sea level, and we spent much of our time looking around us in silent appreciation of the extreme beauty around us. We camped near some dubious hot springs, and returned downvalley on the third day via a different route. On our last day in the saddle, we rode down the opposite shore of the lake, past a couple of swimming beaches that seemed straight out of the Canadian Shield, particularly in terms of the water temperatures! We didn't let that put us off a brief dip, and then rode through increasinlgly arid land to reach our starting point.

Our last two days were spent walking. During planning for the trip, this had sounded like a good way to be in charge of our own route and to rest our sore knees and backsides after 4 days in the saddle. In fact, it was not a rewarding walk, except for a scenic graveyard with carved balbal figures (a holdover from pre-Muslim shamanistic times) and an unforgettable sunset after the first day of walking. The second day, a 25-km beeline across a bleak and desolate desert, ranks among my least favourite days of walking ever. Serge's knee began to bother him, and Audie proved herself tougher than either of us boys by carrying Serge's backpack along with her own. We did survive, in the end, reaching a lovely river where we drank litres of cold water and Serge celebrated by catching his first fish in the Altai.

We sped back to town in 4 hours this morning, and after an afternoon of resupplying and doing laundry, we're off tomorrow for the 300-km run to Ulaangom. It looks worryingly dry on Wikimapia, so we're contemplating how we'll deal with the lack of water. It's hard to tear ourselves away from the beauty of the Altai, but we have to start making some progress back towards UB. I just hope we have better roads and fewer headwinds!

Until next time, I wish everyone a great beginning of the northern temperate summer.

Peace and Tailwinds!!


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