We started one of the long drive days of the trip, heading towards Tovan Bogd National Park which is located about 10km from both the Chinese and Russian borders. It was a good six hour drive on roads that google maps shows as highways, but are really one lane rough dirt roads that you can go a solid 40mph on some of them. Other roads we were going less than 10mph on. We only got stuck once in a bog, and the driver had to dig us out and reroute ten feet away. Some of the roads were pick-your-path roads, and you had a choice of about six tracks to follow, while others were narrow, rocky, and well defined.
The National Park has a rangers’ station that you need to register at and a cluster of about five gers, with probably another 15 gers within a mile. It was raining when we arrived, and they setup a kitchen tent with a table. We spent the remainder of the evening relaxing and playing games.
We woke up to surprisingly few clouds in the sky, but they claimed it was going to storm later in the day. After breakfast, which partially consisted of slaw with tomatoes and pickles (I have some limits and this slaw approached them), we got on horses for a couple hour ride. Mongolian horses are rather on the small side, but at least the stirrups of these horses were able to be adjusted relatively long. We had a very pleasant ride to the Altai Tavan Bogd (“five saints”) mountains where China, Russia, and Mongolia meet. At the base of the mountains sits Potanii glacier and a heard of yak. Our speed on the horses wasn’t much faster than a walking pace, but at least these horses would trot occasionally, and they didn’t care about the muck that they were walking through. We returned from the glacier a different way than we came (a much steeper and more precarious way, Katy notes). We passed various flocks of sheep and goats, herds of yak and cows, and horses. The river leaving the glacier was large and fast moving. Most of the gers along it were positioned close to accessory water flows since the main river was moving too fast and too sandy for water consumption.
It started to rain with about an hour of riding to go, but it was a gentle sprinkle. We dismounted when we arrived at our tent and had to walk around a bit to get our knees functioning again. It continued to rain for the rest of the evening, and we played some games and drank a bunch of tea/instant coffee.
The game plan the next day was for the driver to cross the rickety bridge and drive us over a couple large water flows where we would start a hike up a hill/mountain and then come down the other side. The driver would then drive around the mountain and pick us up in the next valley over, and we would then find a campsite. The day started rain free, but all of the rain from the previous day made the grass very wet, and soon our shoes were wet. Elka had rain galoshes that she was wearing and was wondering why we didn’t have rain boots. She also commented that most people bring a lot more stuff than our carryon size backpacks. My backpack also contains our sleeping bags, and Katy’s contains travel-edition Settlers of Catan as well as all the guidebooks, but traveling in the same furgon for so long we were able to decompress and keep the sleeping bags out of the backpack and are using a shopping bag for dirty clothes. Needless to say our boots got wet quickly as we trudged through the grass up the hill. At times the ascent got steep and it looked like there was one way to reach the top of the mountain. We went up the steep part, and it plateaued into soft wet grass for a while and then changed to grey shale that was sticking out of the ground at oblique angles. The rocks sticking from the ground combined with fog that had rolled in and the utter lack of vegetation made the top of the hill appear other worldly.
As we were trudging along on the stones we spotted a herd of ibex about fifty yards away and after giving us a good look they took off down the shear side of the cliffs. It always amazes me how some large animals like ibex and mountain goats can cling to the side of the cliff. It then started to sprinkle, and we started our descent and ate our lunch of spaghetti. We had Mongolian spaghetti, which differs from Italian spaghetti by a wide margin. I will give them credit that the noodles were spaghetti, but the “sauce” was made by combing BBQ sauce and ketchup which falls a little short of my definition of spaghetti sauce…
The descent started off a little sketchy when our guide started by darting into an unknown abysses and then coming back and trying another gully that disappeared into an abyss. She then declared that she had found our easy descent route that went down a horse trail. It was small loose gravel that rested on the angle of repose with a fine sheen of fresh rain on top of it. Katy was not happy during our twenty minute descent down the sixty degree slope.
After we descended we then crossed into the neighboring valley and began our descent down. It continued to sprinkle, and we caught site of our trusty green furgon chugging up the valley road. We hopped in and went for about half a mile before we exited to view some petroglyphs during a brief respite from the rain. The petroglyphs were oddly interesting, but it did show us why we go through lengths to limit access and protect ancient sites because interspersed among the 2000+ year old etchings were various newer etchings, including etchings of a furgon.
We bundled back into the furgon and our driver, Khoti promptly lost the way. The roads in Mongolia varied between well worn single track dirt roads, to engineered dirt roads (normally ones that went up a hill with switchbacks or along a river), to six parallel paths, of which you could take your pick to less travelled roads that sometimes involved some imagination to figure out. After a couple minutes walking around Khoti spotted a brand new looking bridge that didn’t really have a defined road leading to or from it. Well without a second of hesitation he had the furgon going straight down the hill to the bridge. We then all got out in the rain and with all of our various expertise in determining if a bridge could hold a large Russian van, we examined the bridge. After five minutes of examining the bridge it was “determined” that it could hold the van, but no one went to get back in the van except the driver. Our determination was correct, and we piled into the van after it had crossed the bridge, which it turns out was just built 10 days ago by some locals that had pooled together some funds.
We continued to travel out of the valley and got to a stream crossing and the decision to spend the night there was made. It was not where we were planning to spend the night, but it was flat, not super wet, and most importantly not filled with mosquitos. They said the place we were planning on spending the night was known for being filled with mosquitos so we thought it was a wise choice.
A little after we ate dinner two Mongolians that spoke Kazahk so well they could be mistaken for Kazakhs came to our tent, and we offered them tea. I was very surprised at their arrival since we were literally in the middle of nowhere, up a valley with very few gers. It turns out that their furgon, an untrustworthy white one, had broken down 4 kilometers up the road, and they had seen our blue mess tent and came ambling over. Khoti and Baku (our cook, his wife) went in our furgon to attempt to fix our new friends’ ride. Once they left we had Elka teach us a Mongolian card game. It was slightly confusing at first because it involved trump, and the goal of the game was never mentioned, and we couldn’t figure out the point in taking tricks, since whoever took a trick never kept it, but eventually we figured it out. After a couple games our furgon returned successful, and we went to bed shortly after that.