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Mountains of western Mongolia

After my trip to the Gobi desert, I went to western Mongolia to trek in the mountains. The flight from Ulaanbaatar to Ulgii (Ölgii) takes 3 ½ hours by propeller plane. That’s quite a while, given that you’re barely flying halfway through Mongolia. I saw very barren-looking land, with hardly a village showing up through my window. Dark brown pieces of land erupted out of the earth forming mountains. Here and there streams turned into rivers. In the distance caps of snow covered the brown peaks.

After a few hours we started flying over the snow-capped mountains. The pilot announced the time at our destination airport. The thin sliver of western Mongolia is one hour behind the rest of the country.  Upon landing I found that the airport was a tiny two storey building that did not even have a toilet for the passengers.

Ulgii airport
Ulgii airport

I walked out of the airport building. A town was visible not far away, but it was the mountains that dominated the scenery. The ones closest to me had their peaks hidden in the clouds, but the snow-covered bits were low enough to be visible.

The view from the airport
The view from the airport

I made my way to Ulgii, the dreariest town that I had ever set foot in. It had a few buildings that rose up to four floors, but it was clearly filled with people who had been nomads until recently. Fences were made of pieces of wood of uneven length that the residents could not be bothered to level. The chilly wind blew dust all over the place – there is no shortage of dust in Mongolia. I walked the streets at mid-day and yet felt unsafe. There were very few people out and about. Military men patrolled the streets. The whole thing reminded me of something out of the video game Fallout. I would not have been very surprised if I were attacked by a supermutant or a gang of bandits or at the very least a pack of wild dogs. I couldn’t get out of Ulgii fast enough.

I arranged a trip to the Khukh Serkh mountains to visit an eagle hunter and experience the mountains. After 5 hours on the road, I arrived at at hut in the middle of nowhere, on a floodplain.

We stayed dangerously close to this
We stayed dangerously close to this

The hut belonged to the park inspector, Nuruun. His family made me welcome and they served the customary milk tea. There was also home-made bread and cheese. Nuruun’s job was to protect the park. His walls contained pictures of him with snow leopards drugged for tagging. Some Israelis from a few weeks prior had left a blurb on the wall thanking Nuruun for his hospitality and for having them around for the sighting of two snow leopards. The family kept sheep, goats and yaks for their livelihood as well.

Nuruun's hut and cattle
Nuruun’s hut and cattle

There were additional guests for Nuruun that night, so I moved with my driver and cook to their storage ger. The family had butchered one of their goats a few minutes prior to our arrival. I noticed the animal’s carcass – meat, bones, fat and innards – hanging off the walls of the ger. Its skin and horns lay on the floor. My cook, Baku, prepared dinner for us. Afterwards we slept in the ger.

Inside the ger where I stayed
Inside the ger where I stayed

There were weird noises at night. Something grunted from very close to the ger. I was not aware of any pigs in the neighbourhood. The thought of wild animals flashed through my mind more than once. I awoke to a bright and shiny morning. A herd of sheep had set up base close to the ger. They were huddled together against the cold. These were the grunters.

After breakfast I went out on a trek with the driver, Canat. We walked over the rocky riverbed. Patches of snow appeared here and there as we walked. Snow capped some of the hills around us. The chilly wind blew through the valley, ensuring that I only took off my gloves for a short enough time to take a few quick pictures. We passed a herd of yaks.

Yak herd
Yak herd

We were walking on a riverbed, so there were many streams that we needed to cross. About an hour into the trek, I slipped on a rock while crossing a stream and soaked one ankle. This shortened the trek a little as I did not want to risk getting frostbitten. Nevertheless we continued on for another ten minutes after I’d wrung my sock. We climbed up a steep slope and, as it flattened out, saw a herd of goats in the distance, perhaps 300 metres away. Canat pointed them out to me. We stayed low, motionless and silent, observing them for a few minutes before continuing a few more metres. Moderately satisfied with the sights and thinking I really needed to dry my ankle, we headed back.

A walk with Canat
A walk with Canat

I kept my boots and socks by the fire to let them dry off. After lunch, Canat suggested another trek. We set off, this time in our van. We drove to the base of a hill that made up part of the scenery. Quite some manipulation of the gears was needed to get the van there. Eventually Canat stopped the UAZ leaning sideways on a slope. He pointed to the top of the hill and drew a path in the air for me to take. I set off by myself.

I walked past a herd of yaks grazing on the hillside. White streaks of snow extended all the way down to us from above. The place was filled with loose rock, shit of various animals and hardy grasses. The ascent quickly became very slippery and steep and I found these grasses to be the best footholds. I started huffing and puffing and realised that I was more than 2000 metres up and the altitude was making things a little harder. The climb was steep and slow. I needed to stop and take a rest on a few occasions. The mountain wind buffeted the few exposed parts of my body: the bits of my face that were not covered by my hood or my sunglasses and my right palm on occasion when I un-gloved it to take pictures. My calf muscles were burning and tiring badly long before I reached the top. I turned around and sat down, pulled out a snack bar to refuel, and enjoyed the view from the mountainside for a few minutes. The UAZ was like a tiny fly in the distance.

Fuel break on the climb
Fuel break on the climb

I resumed the climb and finished it with some further effort. The view at the top surprised me. It was totally covered in snow. Further, I was not at the top, I was merely at level ground and there was much higher that I could climb if I were so inclined.

Snow-covered top
Snow-covered top

Time permitting I would have given it a shot, but I wanted to be back to base before nightfall. The trek back to the UAZ took another half hour, but it was much easier on the legs. On occasion I did have bits of sand and stone start rolling down from my feet, but it did not get too crazy. I got down and we drove back.

We spent a few minutes corralling the sheep before nightfall. The other tourists had left, so the bunch of us spent this night in the hut. I understood the next morning why it had been necessary to corral the sheep into a very cramped space. The next morning the landscape was blanketed with snow. The sheep had kept warm, huddled very closely together. The mountain that I had climbed would have been much harder to climb this day, given the snowfall. A bottle of water that I had left in the ger had frozen.

We packed up after breakfast and moved on to an even more interesting adventure – a visit to an eagle hunter.

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