Skip navigation

Monthly Archives: August 2015

hovd header

This blog brought to you by Funhog Press and MRA.

Leaving the tourist enclave of Tavan Bogd, we were the morning sideshow. Pat, Susan, and I paddled away on the swift Tsagaan Gol, the Milk River.
hovd 1
Back in the van, we rattled down the Tsagaan Gol Valley. Out of the high country and into the desert, Ahktilek turned down a dirt track that climbed back into green steppes, topping a windy pass where the snowy Altai revealed itself in distant grandeur.
It was 8 pm by the time we found a semi-sheltered camp near the outlet of Hurgen Lake. From here, it would be 130 kilometers down the Hovd River back to the town of Olgy.
The lake gathered itself into a deep blue river, big and choppy. At 5 miles, a tributary entered. Neither watercourse looked like a normal river. There was no evidence of high water; no beaches, no driftwood. They flowed over wide beds of boulders right up to grassy banks, like spring fed creeks. But these creeks combined to make a swift river of 5,000 cfs. We rode the restless current into a stiff wind, stopping for lunch at a ger with racks of cheese drying in the breeze.
hovd 4
Out of the mountains, the river braided into a bizarre maze of channels. It was like a sluggish floodplain, but it wasn’t sluggish. Steady current raced through a patchwork of willow jungle, and we followed the biggest arteries, hoping they would all re-unite. They did, at an open bay where a westerly wind swept us past sand dunes into an inexplicable gap through a stark desert range.
hovd 5
Clouds swallowed morning’s blue sky, and we sped out of the desert range into a blustery grey valley.
hovd 6
Camp came atop a rocky promontory surrounded on all sides by the river, and millions of mosquitos, but up there on our breezy outcrop they were scarce. A winter residence, or hasha, provided a windbreak.
hovd 7
Jagaa’s welcome smile greeted us at the bridge in Olgy. Laying in the hotel bed that night, I realized it was the first time I’d been awake after dark for weeks. Moslem prayer songs echoed through the streets, doing battle with brutal karaoke coming from the hotel bar downstairs. In 7 hours, I’d be meeting a ride to the airport, and the start of the long journey home.

hovd last

tavan bogd header

This blog brought to you by Funhog Press and MRA.

The chief ranger, Gana, greeted us in a worn purple hoody. He wasn’t the picture of earnestness that we all know from our NPS rangers in smoky-the-bear hats, but if I was stranded somewhere in his park, he seemed like the kind of guy I’d want on the search.
tavan b 1
Ranger Gana led from his horse. Behnid him on a string walked the camel with our kayaks. A light rain began as we scrambled along the rim of the gorge, scouting. At a chunky 20-foot falls, a simple up-and-over portage route was apparent, and I signaled Gana onward before turning to Pat and Susan, “Is that sleet I’m seeing?” Twenty minutes later there was little doubt about the precipitation. It was full-on snowing.
tavan b 2
I pulled on my drysuit over wet socks and soaked long underwear, sucking on my fingers to keep them operable. The glacial water was difficult to read, and we skipped over rocks hiding in the dirty grey silt.
tavan b 3
The Tsagaan Gol Gorge is an angry place; cold, grey, fast, sharp, loose. The unrelenting snowstorm only added to the drama. I was loving every second.
tavan b 4
We shared a relieved high-five at the mouth of the canyon. The run-out was dreamy, the afterglow of adrenaline coaxing us into crashing wave trains. Children of the ger camps alerted their families, and lines of people came spilling out to watch from above.
tavan b 5
I woke in the middle of the night to find a crystalline twinkling sky and a fresh cover of snow, July in the Mongolian Altai.

tavan b final

back to olgy header

This blog brought to you by Funhog Press and MRA.

Cresting a range of desert hills, a broad swampy lowland opened before us, prompting Jagaa to proclaim, “I think you’d die from mosquitos down there.” The thought of a breakdown in these lonely barrens crossed my mind just then, and the swarming marsh took on a sinister aura. I rattled along in the passenger seat feeling detached, like I was a character in a Lord of the Rings remake, powerless to my fate amid the spooky mysticism of Middle Earth.
back to olgy 01
We rattled past the death zone of skeeters cleanly, following a road that wasn’t on my map. Almost imperceptibly, the desert was replaced with foothills of rolling green steppe bathed in late evening light.
back to olgy 02
With no shade for miles, the morning sun rousted us too early. We all gave up on sleep and climbed inside the jeep to creep up the Harhiraa River, an unknown blue line on the map that held paddling potential. As we hesitated at a deep crossing, Pat implored, “Jagaa, there’s no pressure to cross this river.” Jagaa sighed, then declared, “It’s okay.” We rolled in. Water seeped through the doors. The jeep buckled, but kept crawling out the far bank. We cheered.

back to olgy 03

The Harhiraa ran a light glacial blue, speeding down a broad cobble floodplain. Pat and I zoomed along, dodging shallows and sprinting for the occasional surf wave.
back to olgy 04
Across a huge valley and through a mountain gateway, we stopped to cool the radiator as a motorcycle horse herder pushed past. He stopped to share a drink of water, thirstily gulping beneath a Life is Good ball cap.
back to olgy 05
Back to the lowlands, it was again time to cool the engine. Pat and Jagaa set up the stove to boil ramen water. I went for a walk, listening to booms of thunder over the mountains of Russia, rising blue beyond an inland sea surrounded by sand. The arid landscape offered familiarity for me and Pat, the desert rats, but it also whetted our appetites for the glaciers and green meadows of Tavaan Bogd Park, and the highest mountains of Mongolia, our next destination.

back to olgy last

Shiver Gol blob header

This blog brought to you by Funhog Press and MRA.

I was half-awake watching the flames of the fire when the sound of a jeep rousted me to my feet. Guarding my relief, I looked closely to see if it was Jagaa’s familiar white Russian-made four-door. He opened the latch. “Jagaa, it’s good to see you,” I said. The vague glow of dawn crept over the mountains as we sat around the fire and shared beers in celebration of our reuniting.
shiver gol 01
It’s hard to say exactly what went wrong with our shuttle mix-up, but I’ve had similar things happen in the States, where we share a language and a culture. Take away those commonalities, and shuttle follies are bound to occur sometimes. We were just glad to be back with our friend, and our gear.
shiver gol 02
After a few hours’ sleep everyone rallied to continue downstream. The river was now called the Shiver Gol. Jagaa insisted that the translation for “shiver” was “foot odor.” Taking his claim with some suspicion, we coined the stream as the Stinky Foot Fork, and followed its penetration into the rocky front range of the Harhiraa Mountains.
shiver gol 03
The rapids were perfect class IV, with chutes and eddies spilling through round stair-stepping boulders.
shiver gol 04
Several drops in, we were surprised to see vertical walls emerge, closing the river between sinuous smooth cliffs—a real gorge.
Shiver Gol05
The upstream Khagartin was perhaps the hardest whitewater in Mongolia, but the downstream Shiver Gol was almost certainly the best. As the gorge grew, the rapids diminished, allowing our worry-free gaze at the soaring walls.
Shiver Go06
Tumbling out of the mountains and into the desert, the river refused to flatten completely, constricting into class III sluices beneath steep low banks. Finally, the Shiver Gol split into multiple channels, as many Mongolian rivers do, once reaching the valley plain. Jagaa was waiting patiently at the take-out, standing in the smoke of a dung fire to keep the horseflies at bay.
Shiver Gol07 last

khagartin header

This blob brought to you be Funhog Press and MRA

Not every day in Mongolia is pleasant, but they are almost always interesting. As Pat and I started across the grassland with our boats in tow, it struck me that Jagaa’s departure in the jeep came somewhat hastily. But at the moment it seemed there were more important issues at hand, like finding a route to the water.
01 benight
Off the edge and down fields of wildflowers, we emerged from thick stands of larch onto a moraine field of round granite with a clear mountain stream coursing through. This was the Khagartin (Ha gar teen). Our descent would not be the first, that honor went to the British Universities Expedition several years ago. Still, this was probably the hardest whitewater in Mongolia.
02 khagartin benight
The river was fast and shallow. After berating myself for portaging a rapid that was all clean, I came to see my decision in a better light after watching Pat narrowly pry himself off a boulder. I did the same a couple rapids later. The riverbed was young, and unexpected rocks lurked in every channel.
03 kagartin benight
At a scout, we agreed the move was to split the boulders. I was too aggressive, and stalled on the pillow, sluicing backwards into a submerged rock that flipped me. Trying to roll in the shallows, all motion stopped when bedrock pressed against my back and the kayak pushed down from above, flattening me forward onto my front deck. It wasn’t overwhelming force, but the seriousness of the situation was apparent, and I resolved to swim out at the next opportunity. Seconds later my chance came, and I surfaced standing chest deep in a marginal eddy. “Paddle!” I yelled as Pat swept by. It wasn’t encouragement, it was an alert to locate my missing blade. He chased it down, and javelin-threw to shore. From opposite ends of a gorge corridor, we exchanged the all-okay signal.
04 kagartin benight
A bedrock sluice, an up-and-over portage, and more paddling brought the Footbridge Gorge. We’d seen a picture of this on Google Earth from back in Flagstaff. The glimpse of whitewater in that photo led us here. Now reaching the long sought location, there was more whitewater than we’d ever imagined.
05 kagartin benight
Another mile led to the Ireg River, below which we floated on a luxurious 400 cfs through a scenic class IV canyon. Emerging into an open valley, we scanned for Jagaa and the waiting jeep. We saw neither. I reached for theories, “Maybe we’re late and he’s off looking for us.” Pat was more resolved for a long wait. “There’s a spring downstream where we can get water, and those larch trees will provide firewood.” Two hours later we sipped fresh water by the fire. The sky was cloudy. A gentle breeze wafted upstream.
06 kagartin benight
Around midnight, I put on my drysuit, arranged my pfd as a pillow, and announced to Pat wishfully, “I’m crawling in.” To deter the occasional mosquito, I draped my sprayskirt over my head. In a half-sleep haze, I could feel the chill of night on my back overpower the warmth of the fire at my belly. When this happened, I’d sit up and place more wood on the smoldering coals, then watch as it smoked into a release of beautiful orange flame.

kagartin last

khagartin header

This blob brought to you by Funhog Press and MRA

We followed a wide dirt road into a desert basin incongruously featuring a big blue lake. Red crags rose on the far shoreline and our destination, Harhiraa (Har hear a) Mountain, rose snowy in the distance. Another hour of driving brought a green plain and rocky foothills dwarfed below the snow draped massif. Entering the facade, we passed ger villages filling verdant valleys where streams tumbled over beds of granite.
01 khagartin
Our route degenerating, we stopped to ask directions from a woman wearing a traditional del. Although I couldn’t understand a word, she clearly spoke with conviction, telling Jagaa that our route lay a couple draws back.
02 khagartin
The road climbed onto mountaintop steppes. At 9,000 feet, we realized that we were off course, but it was too late and too beautiful to turn back. Jagaa turned his jeep off the two-track and drove across the grassland toward the rim of a glacial valley below. When the snow dome of Harhiraa rose above the treeless plain, it was clearly time to camp.
03 khagartin
Our morning started by glassing the river, its noisy rapids easily heard from 1,000 feet above. Pockets of larch grew throughout the valley, where two streams joined to form the Khagartin (Ha gar teen) River. The raucous creek seemed too low for paddling at first, but through the binoculars our perspective changed. We returned to the jeep and geared up for a day of kayaking, blissfully unaware of the adventure that was due to unfold.

04 khagartin