Culture Wanderlust Writing

West Mongolia August 2018 diary – Part 2


The wind had picked up overnight, the temperature dropping quickly. I unzipped the tent and the 30 knots wind hit me in the face. Snow flakes! Little snow flakes in summer. Being a land of extremes, what is common in Mongolia might be uncommon in other parts of the world. In Ulaanbaatar, the temperature spread in any given year could be 80 to 100°C, -40/50 in winter and +40/50 in summer. Take the North Pole, put it in the middle of the Sahara, entice a few nomads there, each one with a Bactrian camel and a horse, and you pretty much have Ulaanbaatar. But that was Ulaanbaatar of the olden days. Ulaanbaatar today is like most developing cities, with traditions ebbing away leaving space for steel, concrete and traffic jams. A trip from the Chinggis Khaan Airport to the city centre could take two and a half hours covering a distance of about 20kms. Running would be faster, without luggage of course. At this time of the year when students from all over Mongolia were flooding into Ulaanbaatar, the congestion was even more pronounced.

With this wind, the mountaineers in our group who had planned to move up to ABC (advanced base camp) would have a rest day at base camp. ABC would be their launchpad for Mount Khüiten. But I would still trek to White River, together with Ernar, the young man who had guided Francis and me to Malchin Peak the previous day. Joining us on the trek were two Malaysians who were not very keen on climbing Khüiten. I took one last look at the Potanin glacier that was sparkling under the morning sun, and wished that I could stay for a few more days to summit Khüiten. But I had flights to make and commitments to honour. Maintaining a subtle balance between my many activities was a top priority. Losing discipline and pushing it too far one way or another, and I could risk dropping balls. Even glass ones.

One camel was kneeling on the ground, with our bags and supplies fully loaded on his back. He chewed slowly, calm, quiet and unfussed, ready to take on another day’s work. At times, facing something challenging, I still fall into the trap of overthinking and losing my poise. I reminded myself to commit the image of this camel to memory for future inspiration. Without uttering a word, Francis had the same admiration for the camel. One could tell by the way he looked at it. Old Nietszche, when proposing the three metamorphoses of camel, lion and child, probably had not spent enough time observing camels. They are truly noble animals, often underestimated by men who are unfamiliar with their ways. Francis and I were pretty much the only two who still hung around looking at camels. After a few days, the sight of them seemed to have worn off as a novelty on most. A French Aussie, Francis was an old hand at bushwalking and mountaineering, having stood on many peaks all over the world. Francis and I had shared a few perspectives over a very short time, and ventured into topics that even close friends would stay away from to avoid friction. He called me the son he never had. I called him Saint Francis. Saint Francis loved reptiles, especially snakes, and knew everything about trees, plants and animals. As we parted ways, I found myself looking forward to sharing a few bushwalks with him in the near future.

I said goodbye to everyone, leaving the copy of Swann’s Way (Proust) with Paul, who would stay at base camp for the next few days nursing his hips and ageing bones. I took a few photos and exchanged gratitude with the expedition leaders and their crew, including Gangaamaa, the first Mongolian woman on the Everest summit.

So with one camel, one horse, a good dose of smiles and whistles, we were off on our merry way. Ernar recognised the tune I was whistling: Santa Lucia. The trek today would be mostly downhill, and my feet were itching for some speed. So I left all the heavy camera gear in the camel load, leaving only the iphone for camera work. The wind picked up a bit more, but being a tail wind, at times blowing sideways, it did not slow us down. Ernar and I were ahead leading the way, stopping frequently to wait for our fellow Malaysian trekkers.

Snow capped peaks appeared one after another, collectively looking like giant orcas frolicking in the sun, with white ice patches scattering over black and brown mountain sides. Soon we were on the high plains with many muddy traps. Ernar showed me how to avoid them by examining the grass patterns. By the time we reached an enlarged section of the White River, where yaks – black and white – roamed about to their hearts’ content, the wind had eased. It was a good spot to rest and have lunch. I looked around for burrows, hoping to see some marmots, but there were none in this area. This area was still too close to humans. To some of us, marmots are chubby bundles of cuteness; to others, they are nothing but protein.

We passed several horsemen and nomads on motorbikes. They always stopped to talk to Ernar. This was how information used to be transmitted in the old days – via conversations with travellers, rather than through technologies. Simple, effective, free. And social!

Large herds of domestic horses, cows and goats drew us sharply downhill to the gers scattering along two banks of the river. We could spot the green roof of the station tower afar. The White River current was strong. I considered jumping in later for a dip, but Ernar cautioned me against it, as the water was full of sand and not particularly pleasant on the skin.

At the station tower, after my passport was registered, I wandered around looking for interesting photo angles. A military man, spotting my bulky lenses, came over to check me out. He probably just wanted to see what types of photos I was taking. This area was of military sensitivity, as it was close to the borders with three other nations.

The quality of lighting was not ideal, so I ended up hanging around with the children of the ger and their horses. These people were Tuvans and they would come here every summer. The camel man who had come with us earlier, a towering figure of a Mongol, came over and beat my chest. I beat his chest, and he let out a hearty laugh before jumping on the saddle galloping away, back to base camp. He would come back the following day with more supplies.

I spent the remaining hours in the afternoon in zazen. I had found a large stone with red patches, flat enough to sit on, amongst burrows, where ground squirrels scurried in and out from time to time.

Before dinner, the owner of the ger came over to give us three cans of Seruun Light beer. He could sense we were thirsty. The beer was a pale lager, good for summer, rather flavourless, but refreshing nevertheless. Outside the sun was setting, the flapping wings of the kites and the odd gull dissolving into little dots before disappearing in the darkness. It was nearly 9pm, about bed time. When trekking or mountaineering , I get to rise and set with the sun. This rhythm suits my body clock. It just feels right to be in synchronisation with nature.