Culture Wanderlust Writing

West Mongolia August 2018 diary – Part 1


From Ölgyi, we took a multi-terrain van heading towards the North Ranger Station in the Tavan Bogd National Park. The 200km distance would take about 7-8 hours. The jeep tracks were frequented by ground squirrels and marmots who did not seem to take their time from burrow to burrow. Hawks and kites were circling aplenty above. No wonder these little furry things kept on scurrying about!

We made our first rest stop at a Kazakh ger. It was inhabited by an eagle hunting family. They kept three golden eagles near a swamp close to the ger. The man of the ger introduced us to his children, including his twins who were a few months old. We helped ourselves to tea, sweets and local bread.

Our second stop was on top of a hill. We found a cow head on the ground. Animal heads were a common sight here. Before arriving in Mongolia, I had read about animal heads on poles as shamanist gestures of respect, but I did not expect to find them on the ground. Mongolia, like in other parts of the world, was now a place of receding tradition and advancing modernism. What I was witnessing then and there was the daily friction between the old and the new, where hidden values would sometimes give way to practicality.

Down from the hill, we entered a village, apparently one of only 340 to be found all over Mongolia. It was hard to fathom such a small number in this expansive land. On a moment’s reflection, it started to make sense. Nomads were loners, and probably only got together in a community by way of necessity or efficiency. There was a supermarket in the village. A lot of stores in Mongolia were called supermarkets. They were more similar to milk bars in Australia, probably with a wider variety of goods. A few trekkers wanted to buy something, but the owner of the supermarket could not unlock the door. She had left the key on one of the shelves and deadlocked it from inside. A few able men came together to assist. Half an hour later when we were leaving, they were still trying to brute force their way through. I wondered why doors needed locks in this part of the world.

I wandered down to the mosque, squinting at the sun peering at the Altai on the horizon. A small girl was pushing an older boy, probably her brother, on a bike. They both looked at my zoom lens with utmost curiosity as I gave them chocolate and signalled for permission to take photos of them.

Our lunch stop was by a river. There was little wind, and the view of the mountains, with its layers of colours bouncing off the afternoon light, was breathtaking. The location reminded me of where our group used to have lunch on the way to the Kilimanjaro summit a few years ago. It would be hard anywhere to find another lunch spot like this.

We arrived at the North Ranger Station shortly after, where we unloaded, set up our own tents and unpacked. I had a lot of fun chasing ground squirrels and whistling hawks around for good shots.

The following day, we trekked about 16km to the base camp. The route was mostly uphill, rising steadily, and the walk did not feel hard. Sitting at 3092m altitude, the camp was about 4km away from a Buddhist pilgrimage site. I liked this site a lot. There were no obvious rituals and no fanfares. Just a few rocks, prayer flags, a generous view of Potanina – the 20km long ancient glacier – and the peaks rising above her, a few pigeons, ravens and hawks, and the murmurs of the wind. One could just simply fall into a state of meditation standing or sitting at this site.

Arriving at the base camp, we sat on flat rocks watching the horses and camels coming in with our luggage. Evoking imageries of the cold war, there was a Russian bunker which was now serving as a weather station. The Mongolian military had set up camps here overnight, with about 40 soldiers, and 30 more to arrive the next day, for alpine training. Apparently there had been a few deaths on the mountain the previous year, and the government demanded the military to respond more skillfully in alpine conditions. The night at base camp was expectedly quiet, interrupted briefly in the late hours by the songs and laughter of the soldiers.

The following morning, Ernar guided Francis and me up Malchin Peak, one of the five peaks of Tavan Bogd that could be climbed without specialised mountain equipment. The mountain was deceptively small as we approached. Rising about 1000m above the base camp with its aggressive gradient, a bit over 4000m above sea level, it provided a decent physical and mental test. Standing at the summit, we could see far beyond the Russian border. Its northern side facing the Arctic was covered with ice. This time of the year was the warmest time in Mongolia! We had climbed up the other side, where there was no ice until about 100m away from the top. Like on other peaks in Mongolia, I could see a Buddhist prayer flag at the highest point.

Coming down Malchin, we were welcomed by Paul who broke the news that his hips were troubling him. He had decided to pass on Khüiten this time and wait it out at camp over the next few days. I walked up the ridge separating the base camp and the glacier, and found myself alone in a pond. The water was very cold. But above me was the blue sky. Surrounding me were ice capped mountains. Underneath my feet were wild flowers leading my eyes far onto the glacier. I was not going to miss this opportunity. The Infinity Pool in Singapore had nothing on this one. I breathed hard to warm up the body and jumped in. The only other outdoor bath in the world that could challenge this one was the pool overlooking a lake full of flamingoes in Tanzania. That day, I had an interesting encounter with a baboon. But that would be a story for another day.