We left the beautiful Tavan Bogd behind us and set off early after a breakfast of the usual milky tea, cheese and bits. I remember offering a few apples to the kids, who looked at them in disgust and politely refused them. Their stomachs weren’t used to digesting apples. So my attempt to introduce a bit of nutrition into their diet didn’t take off. The parents of the family we stayed with left at the crack of dawn for Olgii, leaving the little ones behind. They were apparently going to find out about schooling for their daughter. I pressed the issue and the importance of education. Hopefully she’ll get to school one day. There is the eternal struggle of schooling children of nomadic families. The children I spoke to showed little interest in education, and they hated the idea of being stuck in one place for so long. It’s no surprise many drop out relatively young. Some have to return to help out at home. Young boys especially succumb to the pressures and expectations from the family to stay and help with the livestock. Without their children, nomads simply cannot survive.
We drove along the most scenic route imaginable. We crossed Tsagaan gul, passed Sheveed Uul and drove on through the Mogoit valley. Tsagaan gul (meaning white river) was exciting to cross. Japur relished the challenge and showed off his driving skills whilst crossing the milky white rivulets and streams. He’d psyched himself up for the task, informing me with great enthusiasm that it would be touch and go as to whether we’d cross it successfully. Of course his jeep missioned through that river pebble for pebble, inch by inch.
This particular stretch of the journey is probably one my favourite routes of all time. Only the Pamir Highway could rival this. The colours of the dramatic tundra was spectacular. We spotted a few emerald lakes among the white powdered mountains which just made my heart sing. Japur caught a glimpse of my foolish grin and he drove us right up close to have a better look. Beautiful beautiful colours.
We were lucky to come across a ger, with a friendly host who took us in for lunch. Her husband was out with the herd and she welcomed us in for tea, tea tea and more tea. Japur is a pretty handy chef and cooked up a delicious lunch
on his bunsen burner of a contraption. I remember eyeing out the most gorgeous hand woven wall hanging (tush) in the ger. The Kazakh designs are something special with their whirling twirling colours, you can’t help but become memorized and lost in a gaze. I remarked upon how beautiful it was, and our savvy host offered it up for sale. A real, hand woven antique tush with a million stories to share, was all mine. It was hefty and heavy to cart around for the next five months, I had to throw out loads of clothes to make space for it in my backpack. But it was totally worth the effort. It’s now hanging proudly in my room, reminding me of this special time and place. Hell, it still smells like a ger.
We passed through the interesting Mogoit valley. It was completely unexpected to come across the most amazing archaeological collection of Turkish stones, balbals, a Kazakh cemetery, mausoleums and burial mounds littering the valley. It felt supremely surreal walking around the small cemetery in the middle of nowhere under the brazen sun. Suddenly, the sands of the deserts and rubble coalesced to form this small niche of an otherwise forgotten era of humanity. It was breathtaking being able to see such detailed balbals, one can make out figures adored with mustaches, belts, swords and holding chalices.
Incredible. Next we headed toward Khurgaan Nuur. We were running late, out of time and light. We stopped at what can only be described as a ramshackle tavern/office to ask about petrol. There wasn’t good news and that was worrying, as we’d been chugging through a fair chunk of our petrol. Japur, thankfully had two huge tanks which we filled on departure. Despite that, we’d have to fill up somewhere …sometime soon. That wasn’t my main concern, I was eyeing out the wolf walking around. Yes, there was a wolf, tame as he seemed I know better than to mingle unwillingly with wild animals. I’m from Africa! The locals laughed at me hiding in the car with eyes on stalks. This thing was lurking about, running after people and looking hungry. Japur, told me there was nothing to worry about and after some coaxing I leaped out of the jeep and into the tavern/office. It was smutty, everyone had one thing on their mind…vodka.
The next few days were spent in the idyllic lake region. We saw the three big lakes, Khoton Nuur, Khurgaan Nuur and Dayan Nuur. The lakes are all in pretty close proximity to each other but despite the short distances, the roads were pretty much washed away and driving was excruciatingly slow and painful along the river banks. We first camped at Khoton Nuur. It was nice to camp in the wilderness in the frigid conditions. I had my thermals on, thermal sleeping bag, I slept in layers upon layers of clothes, with gloves and my beenie and I still froze. I had a moment of terror when Japur decided he wanted to share the 1 man tent with me. I had to sweetly decline, but I kept my lock on the tent just in case!
We then drove up to gorgeous Rashany Ikh uul. It was really pleasant to see such greenery and the short autumn season was already in full swing. I never tire of pine tree forests I love the smell, we even had pine tea! We hiked about, took it easy, cooked and ate loads of noodles and generally lived the life of Riley out there. The stars were incredibly inviting to gaze upon at night. The local Kazakhs we came across greeted us like old friends and having Japur being able to translate, I could communicate with my new found Kazakh family. Tea, yogurt cheese, dried curds, airag, fried dough, mutton and the occasional potato constituted my diet in nomadic Mongolia. How I didn’t contract scurvy is a miracle. What was really frightening about driving in this area were the bridges we had to cross. I actually got out the jeep when we approached the bridges. It was Japur’s idea! He thought it was a joke, but I saw method in such madness. I’d rather eek across them bare bone bridges on tippy toes than go over in the jeep. Every time Japur rode over them, they’d creek and split…
We came across a gorgeous sight. A family we’d met on the way were dissembling their ger and packing up for their big move. Mum and her two sons called us in for tea. It was just amazing sitting in the ger and watching it being unwrapped like a parcel. I had wished to see a ger being set up or disassembled but didn’t think I’d get the chance. What a rare and wondrous experience. The family were heading down to their winter camp, the winter snow was chasing them as it encroached down the mountain slopes. Within a week the lakes would start to freeze and the snow would make the route totally inaccessible for transport. Winter comes fast, allowing autumn about 2 months to display her colour. I was so lucky to be up there in the nick of time, a few days later and we’d have missed it. It was time to set back, the whispers of winter were now upon us.