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Monthly Archives: July 2015

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Launching on the swift Buyant River, we were uncertain whether we’d see the vans later that evening or not. They had a long unknown shuttle ahead, crossing creeks and tracing old horse paths with tire tracks, thus qualifying them as roads. We paddlers packed sleeping bags, and extra snacks.
01 buyant
The river braided past rocky bluffs and opened into a valley where young men rode their horses and an old woman in a del whipped at some recalcitrant goats. We lounged at the rendezvous point in warm evening sunshine, placing bets on the vans arrival time, or their non-arrival. To our relief they pulled in at 7 pm. Jess was the big winner.
02 buyant
Driving into the town of Hovd, there was much conjecture as to the availability of hot water. Bulgaa explained that there was hot water from the town’s central plant in winter, but not in summer. I puzzled over this for some time before the obvious answer struck me. There simply weren’t enough resources—energy, man power, money—to dedicate to the luxury of hot water in summer, when it wasn’t a matter of survival. Still, our hotel claimed to have some. Pat Phillips persevered to find the one shower, and the one hour, when steamy liquid flowed. Impatient, I bathed delicately, part by icy part.
03 bulgaa storm
At the airport we said goodbye to Merida, Jess, Pat Welch, and Bulgaa.
04 the team
Phillips and I climbed into Akhtilek’s van, following Nurca and Jenke in theirs. At the edge of town, a young guy in a T-shirt pulled a rope barrier at some sort of checkpoint, and we sped off on a paved highway. It turned to dirt in about 200 yards. Five hours later, the pavement returned, and the town of Olgy burst into view, a panoply of colorful Russia influenced rooftops filling the valley bottom. It was obvious that Islam was a player here. Women wore head scarves and mosques appeared behind roadside walls. We turned down a pot-holed street and into an alley where a blue gate slid open revealing a grinning shirtless man. This was Bulgaa’s brother, Jagaa. Together, we would search the Harhiraa (Har heer a) Mountains for whitewater.

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Feeling better after my two-day bout with the Yak-dung-water funk, I walked down the far side of a pass with Bulgaa. He told me this was the place where his mother died. Bad brakes on an old Russian firewood truck, it was easy to see how it might have unfolded. All life is uncertain, but the edge is a little closer here in rural central Asia. Bulgaa’s father, in his sixties, is one of five survivors from a family of eighteen. We paused, and gazed at snowy ridgelines forming the Chinese border.
01southern altay3
By afternoon the vans were climbing over worsening boulders toward 10,500-foot Red Pass—the highest in Mongolia. Our van got high-centered on a rock at one point, requiring several of us to pull sideways on a rope attached to the roof rack so the van wouldn’t roll as it was extricated. By now we were accustomed to such tactics, standard Mongolian driving, really. Most of us walked down the other side of the pass. It was less violent than riding, and just as fast.
02southern altay
Driving in Mongolia is a lot like off-trail hiking in the States, sometimes you merely follow a route between a series of rock cairns. And if the locals tell you this is the way, this is the way. So we went, weaving from cairn to cairn through boulder studded alpine meadows. When another valley opened before us, it was again all riders out for the treacherous descent.
03 southern altay
There were no gers in this valley, a refreshing surprise. The vacancy made it feel like Alaska, and we camped straight in the middle of it, beside a gurgling tributary of the Buyant River. Among green meadows splashed with white and yellow wildflowers, Pat sat with his back against a drybag and made notes while sipping a beer. “I live for this shit, man,” he said grinning.

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I expected the Bulgan River to be washed out with the high water. I was wrong. Breaking waves filled every rapid (as evidenced by Merida Scully’s acrobatics below), and the rapids led one into the next, non-stop. A few of the harder drops left us chattering like giddy children from the safety of eddies below.
01 merida freestyle
The mood was celebratory at the take-out, where the high Bulgan covered the road and wolf tracks ran through the mud. An aging bridge looked vulnerable in the torrent, so we piled out of the vans and hastily crossed on foot just as a hard rain started to fall. Driving, we scanned for campsites, but nobody was too thrilled about jumping out into the deluge. At an empty white adobe, Pat scurried through the rain to test the front door—open! Within an hour my wet cotton was hanging near the warmth of the stove. The concept of private property is vague and insignificant in this land of nomads. This was a family’s winter home. If we travelers needed it for a night while the owners were up in the high country tending their herds, so be it. We tried to leave the cozy cabin as we found it, ready for the next person in need of shelter.
02 house camp
Pat Phillips and I awoke ill. Nausea, fever, muscle aches, exhaustion; nobody else suffered from this sudden imbalace of bodily humors, wo we figured it was a result of one too many open mouthed surfs on the flooding Bulgan. The following day, we “guides” watched while “clients” Jess Matheson and Pat Welch made a first descent of the upper Turgen. Jess is an instructor at Otter Bar, and the New Zealand Kayak School. Welch, a physicist, started paddling as a kid in the 70s, and has pioneered several rivers near his Oregon home. They enjoyed the clear mountain stream while Phillips and I staggered along the rim back to our sick tents.

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After a three-hour flight over steppe, then mountains, then desert, we landed in Hovd, a small town sitting in a broad desert basin with a braided river running through, it could’ve been somewhere in Nevada. From here our team of five kayakers, two drivers, one cook, and one very important translator—Bulgaa—would set off on a kayak tour of the Southern Altai. There was just one hitch in our plan. We didn’t have any kayaks.
01 hovd
They’d been arranged to arrive by truck from the capital city of Ulaan Baatar. But there are many potential pitfalls when shipping large items across a country the size of Alaska, and of mostly dirt roads. Cell phone contact told us that the shipment was “almost there,” but as the slow northern evening progressed, they still weren’t. So at midnight, Phillips, Bulgaa, and driver Nurca set out in search of the missing boats. While I stayed snugly at camp, the search team apparently drove halfway across the Gobi Desert to find the overdue kayaks. Through the night, they stopped every set of approaching headlights—about one per hour—to glean new information on the missing truck. Reports varied. “One day back,” “passed them six hours ago,” “never saw that truck.” At 10 am the road warriors finally crossed paths with their tardy cargo.
02open rd
Reunited, our caravan headed for the Dund Tsenger (Doond Sen ger, South Fork of the Blue), a river that was listed as “possible” on Pat’s maps, and showed great promise on Google Earth. At the road crossing, it was over wheel-deep, and the rocks were round granite. Out of a heat haze shimmering on stark desert basins, a real possibility of Mongolian kayaking began to take shape.
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While on the water a rain began. It didn’t stop for six days. Fortunately for us, kayaking is a fine activity in the rain, and the weather is also conducive to accepting the incredible hospitality of nomadic Mongolians. We each stepped inside, carefully striding over the threshold and moving to the left before sitting in a half circle on the ground rugs. The heat was enveloping and wonderful. A lean woman tended batches of fry bread at the center stove. A little girl stared inquisitively from across the room. A rifle that looked about circa 1920 hung on the back wall. “Did you see the baby?” Bulgaa asked, pointing behind him to a pile of blankets that I might have flopped straight into. The infant cooed.
Camp came at a grassy field beside the high flowing Bulgan River. I discovered my backpack had gotten wet, soaking the cotton clothes inside. This prompted me to start a drying fire, which led me to the question of what one burns in a land without trees. The answer is dung, but it must be dry. As I returned from the desert with a few dry sticks of prickly bush, the rain resumed. Fire prospects were not looking good. High water for tomorrow, however, seemed guaranteed.



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Although many Americans might have a hard time pointing to Mongolia on a world map, upon arriving in the country foreigners are swiftly reminded of Mongolia’s former empire. The wall map below is displayed at entrance to the immigration office.
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While much of the Western world associates Ghenghis Khan with barbarism, he is revered in his homeland principally for uniting the Mongolians, but also for many other forward-thinking achievements. American schoolbooks fail to tell us that it was ancient Mongolia which established some of the first public education. Brutal and effective as their warfare was, Mongolian khans executed fewer criminals than the United States does today. Ghengis Khan even established the first officially recognized hunting seasons. His statue overlooks Ghengis Khan Square in the center of Ulaan Baatar, the capital city.
Ulaan Baatar is a booming metro of well over one million residents, nearly half of Mongolia’s total population. Autos and paved roads have seen rapid construction here in the past decade. A government waiver on import taxes for Toyota Priuses has produced a plethora of the little gas savers. They buzz around the city with other shiny new cars, a strange juxtaposition of affluence in a city where a dinner out costs less than six bucks. Architecture in UB ranges from gers (yurts) and adobe structures—standard Mongolian fare—to Soviet style apartment blocks, modern high rises, and newly popular wood frame houses.
But I did not come to Mongolia for city life. After almost a week there making preparations for travel to western Mongolia with Pat Phillips and his Mongolian River Adventures, it was time to penetrate The Countryside as the Mongolians call it. Open steppes, roaming herds, horseback herdsmen, and lonely gers, this was the Mongolia I’d heard rumor of, the Mongolia beyond the fences; traditional, true.

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