We’re just finished our 6 day trek around the lakes SW of Olgii….walking in the wilderness without meeting anyone else, shitting in the open and washing in the ice cold rivers with stunning views in the Altai National Park. This is in the far west of Mongolia and not nearly as many visitors come here as it’s normally reached by an expensive flight from Ulanbataar. It’s only really trekkers and mountaineers that visit here or tourists for the eagle hunting festival in October.
We had a day driving there, 4 days trekking and a day driving back. The trip was really great and we ended up camping every night. The first night was outside a herder’s home. It was a bit of a mission to get there but probably a normal journey for a lot of Mongolians – it was all off road, we were in an old Russian van, passed through a winter storm and had one puncture (which was repaired amazingly quickly). We stopped at a broken down car 2 hours into our 5 hour journey to discover it was out horseman’s – they broke down the day before and the whole family was sitting it out waiting for a part to come to them. He jumped in our van and left the rest of the family there.
That night we were in their house and saw his neighbours eagle (it’s a big tradition of hunting with eagles here) – they are massive birds and weigh about 10-15kg.
We had to check in at an army border checkpoint with our permit before starting as we were in a national park right next to the Chinese border. Despite being so far away from a major town there was a small village here and a bunch of nomad’s gers and livestock. The first day’s trek took us away from them into valley’s where the herder’s didn’t move to until later in the year so we never met anyone else – just us, our cook, our guide, our horseman and a pack camel carrying the gear. We walked over a pass at about 2600m which brought us up to the snowline. It’s been a harsh winter here and a very quick spring where loads of snow has melted in a few weeks…..this as great for us as it meant the majority of the walk was in grassy areas or a dirt track, no families had moved into the area yet, and the surounding mountains were still covered in snow giving us our most scenic camp spots to date anywhere!
The cook was great with various things for breakfast and we had our fair share of fried mutton with rice and noodles although it always tasted great – partly helped by the camel lugging around a proper metal stove for us!
The second and third day’s trek became a bit easier as our legs got accustomed to it, and I guess we got a bit more used to the altitude. Our camp spots became ever more scenic and we went even more remote. We crossed quite a few small rivers where we needed to be taken across by horse due to the rapid snowmelt and the fast flow.
On the final day we had a bit of a mission as we backtracked for 90 minutes then walked over what looked like a small pass over a hill. That small pass ended up taking us three hours to walk up, ending at around 2750m, in wet snow, then a large bit of snow that was deeper than us. The horses found it hard to cross but were taken across several times to pad it down for the fully loaded camel. When it passed it sunk into the deeper snow and refused to budge for a bit. Four of us had to encourage it by helping to lift the load up and putting some branches in front on him. The horseman even put his jackets in front to try to stop the camel’s feet sinking.
After that we trekked for another 3 hours to reach the lake that never seemed to get closer. We had three more river crossing where the horses were too far ahead so we had to wade across getting wet almost to our knees at one point, but once we were set up in yet another amazing spot we started to forget about it.
The staff got a bit more used to us after a day or so and I ended up getting one of the horseman’s traditional hats as a gift.
We were picked up in a Landcruiser which made the journey back a bit more ‘exciting’ as he raced along the dirt roads….although we had to stop off in a family’s yurt for yoghurt 10 minutes into the trip. The driver slowed down a bit though when he ploughed into a short river crossing and the car cut out. It looked drastic as the guide had to walk up a mountain to get phone reception, the car was half in the water, and failed to start. After about 40 minutes the son gave it another try and whatever was flooded must have cleared, the car started and we were back on our way – saving what could have been a 3 hour wait for another car.
After stopping at the guide’s family home for more tea, we got back to Olgii around 4.30pm. We were due to take the 2-3 day bus to Ulanbataar but had started to dicsuss getting the flight as it seemed a bit brutal to sit on a minibus for that long, travelling 1500km, with no paved roads….especially after the 6 days of wilderness.
When we got back to the town, like normal when we get back to bigger places everything turned expensive – we reluctantly splashed a lot of cash on a flight, and had to rush between the ticket office, money changers, the hotel, and the internet to check up on tours and accommodation.
But that does man that I sit writing this in Ulanbataar. The flight was great on a 30 seater plane which was only half full (despite the agent saying there were only 2 seats left when we asked). We saw great vistas of the wilderness of Mongolia – vast landscapes of emptieness, but there always appeared to be a jeep track somewhere around!
We got picked up by Idre’s Guesthouse which is like your normal backpacker’s place – internet, big tele with DVDs, kitchen and various shared spaces. This seemed really bizarre for us as there is a load of people just off the trans-siberian, or up from China and loads of chat going on. Remember we’ve had about 5 proper conversations in English since leaving!
After about 30 minutes we were almost sick of other people, the noise and the weirdos!…but we went out for a proper dinner and a few drinks with an English couple, spent a proper amount of cash in the city (yikes!)….then came back to a night of noise as they watched the world cup in the middle of the night!
Why oh why do some backpackers not give a shit for other people in hostels!!! I think there may be a few people given a bit of a talking to today!
Anyway, after hearing some horror stories of joining tours with people you haven’t met….(there’s a right freak in the hostel!)…..we’re heading on a 10 day Gobi desert tour tomorrow (Monday 14th) with 3 or 4 other folk from another guesthouse – at least one English girl and a Japanese girl. We’re trying to get the train to China booked for the 25th of June and then it’s the countdown to New Zealand.
We can’t believe we’re half way into our travelling time already…..although we feel like we’ve been away for ages, when we realise that it’s seems to be going too quickly.