Mongolian Adventure Diaries Continued...
It's now February in Mongolia, and like most countries in the world, we have unfortunately had the dreaded coronavirus affect our lives.
For quite a while, we were lucky, and Mongolia remained virus-free; however, due to a series of errors, the country was affected in late 2020. The only countries virus-free appears to be those with stringent entry and exit laws and remote, far-flung Pacific islands.
As much as I love Mongolia, it has been immensely challenging shut off from my usual adventurous life. At the end of 2020, I didn't feel like updating my adventure travel journal.
But that was until some of my former passengers contacted me... I won't mention any names (Brad...)
So here's my next chapter in my 2020 summer adventure.
After returning to Hovd, from Bayan Ulgii, I believed my adventures for this summer would be coming to an end. It was decided one last week in this beautiful part of the world and l would take the long drive back to Ulaanbaatar.
It was a Monday morning when I pulled back into Hovd just after lunch in time to attend a relatives hair cutting ceremony. At the ceremony, I talked with friends and family and told our neighbour of my recent adventures to Ugii. He seemed impressed and invited me to join him on a journey to visit his family.
He told me I was welcome to follow, and the road wouldn't be too bad; I could even take my family.
I thought to myself one more adventure and this time to an area I had never visited before, so it was a most definite yes! I was to follow him as he drove his Prius and I the Kluger back towards Ulgii then off into the valleys behind the snow-capped mountain of Tsambagarav Uul.
What could go wrong?
I checked again and was assured that the way wouldn't be too difficult.
Eventually, the day arrived. I awoke early and checked my kit, tent, food, tow rope, winch, saw and shovel I had it all ready for the off. Enkhbaatar arrived in his Prius, and we set off into Hovd picked up a few gifts for families and people we would meet along the way. We cruised the new Hovd Ulgii highway the car running well we eventually reached a turning Enkhbaatar signalled to make the turn. Once off the tarmac we bumped and jostled along a rocky track kicking up a plume of dust as we headed into valleys unseen.
Our first stop a small, unimposing river cutting across the valley ahead, Enkhbaatar seemed to manoeuvre the Prius into place nicely.
Down a mud bank half in the river and out he immediately became stuck.
No matter how he manoeuvred the car, there appeared to be no way to pull free. Upon seeing his predicament, I immediately rushed to my car with excitement, as I had my tow strap untested since its purchase in Ulaanbaatar.
Through rivers and across hills we drove the going was good, we occasionally stopped to admire the snowy slopes of Tsambagarav Uul and its many flowers, birds and small mammals. The sun served to bring out the varied colours of the grass slopes below. All seemed perfect, and I thought that going was a lot better than my visit to Ulgii.
My mind was filled with thoughts of summer days, enjoyable driving and a feeling of being cut off from the chaos that filled the outside world, as we hit our first slippery surface. It can be quite common in these mountainous areas as the water from mountain streams and rivers flows across the shallow grass the effect heightened at the moment due to the regions unseasonably heavy rainfall.
Four wheels spin and the car slips sideways, but I take control and work my way through, powering through I even earn a thumbs up from Enkhbaatar.
As we continue on the driving gets more difficult as the terrain becomes boggier, I rattled onwards at times following Enkhbaatar in the Prius and other times towing him out.
I felt almost superhuman until thud we got bogged down.
I hit reverse and manage to move a little although it's not long and were stuck fast no matter how what I try we're not moving. Enkhbaatar gives it a whirl and no joy he creates some impressive clouds of mud, however. Spads out rocks under wheels the process of moving on begins but to no avail.
Moments like this in Mongolia make you realise that this is no game here we are miles from anywhere no cell phone coverage, no set path. No one even knows we are here. We are not even on an established tourist trail.
We make the gamble and bring the Prius back into the bog. Tying the strap, we eventually manage to free the Kluger until another few metres again were stuck. It goes like this for some time at first were stuck then them mud spraying high into the air, kids and adults cheering.
Finally, we reach a ridge looking down into a long sweeping valley is where we're told Enkhbaatar's family are likely to be living. The hill leading down in front of us is a mass of bog, the road long ago ploughed into a running stream. I decide to go for it.
I put my foot down and drive on counting on vehicles momentum to keep me going. It's like some crazy roller coaster mud splashing over the windshield any lose items in the car taking in air and kids laughing.
Eventually, we reach the river that cuts through the valley, and a reasonable trail awaits us stable enough to take the car.
Before we set out on this crazy road, the children had asked for an adventure specifically requesting snow-capped mountains, snow to build a snowman and sleeping in a ger! I had explained that some of this would be possible but not all.
We had achieved a lot already sleeping in a ger for around one month, the snow-capped mountain lay right next to us, and the drive had become more than just an adventure. The snow seemed unlikely but began shortly after us laughing about how it wouldn't happen!
The clouds darkened and swept across the sky, swallowing up the warm summer sun. The snow began shortly after a rather heavy hail storm.
It wasn't those weak, soft, shallow flakes but that heavy chunky full-on snow, flakes that seem to pop with a poof on the windscreen. The kids cheered and clapped as my stomach sank. I wondered could this be worse as I watched the Prius in front skid trough a complete 360 spin and the kids shouted from behind "can we do that too?"
Now, in the Mongolian countryside locating one's friends or family isn't an exact science, it's usually the case that they may be in a set location from year to year. However, this may vary depending on the expected weather or the quality of Pasture.
As it turned out this was very much the case this time as Enkhbaatar couldn't find his family.
When you can not locate your friends or relatives, the thing is to do is ask in the nearest Ger to where you think they should be. Making sure that the dogs are tied up, and you do not surprise anyone you ask away. We went from family to family checking, each time greeted by a warm handshake and a pointing of hands as we gradually moved further up the valley. All the while on the snow kept falling.
Skid, spin, break, all-wheel-drive at one point it was snowing so hard we had the wipers on full in an attempt to see. Then we veered off the track up a steep bank and came to a rest at a solitary ger; we had arrived!
The Ger was a small, modest construction compared to Gers I had visited before although it still had that lovely warmth upon entering.
The family were very welcoming, and as is the norm in Mongolia hot tea was immediately served along with, some tasty biscuits and homemade snacks.
As the snow continued to fall outside, there was suddenly the discussion about whether we should leave the same day as the weather may worsen.
We were told if it got to bad the roads returning may become impassable for a few days. Inside I felt exhausted and although I love driving there was that crushing feeling that I didn't want to replicate the journey that we had just made. Luckily after some minutes, a stranger knocked the door to pick up some elderly relations sat quietly in the corner. True to form, more tea was poured, and the conversation continued. He appeared to hold some authority and suggested that if we left now our way would become blocked by the swollen rivers.
If no heavy snow tonight we would be best to go after breakfast tomorrow.
We spent an afternoon playing with the resident kids climbing snowy mountains and eating, for dinner, there was a healthy helping of Mongolian noodles, horse milk vodka and beer. I rolled up the car, folded down the seats, and in proper Mongolian driver style climbed in my sleeping bag and slept.
Awoken by barking dogs (a sign that the family were emerging) I rocked up for breakfast tucked into some delicious scrambled eggs and bread. There was further discussion on today's plan we looked out at the sky, which although sunny had some dark clouds bubbling up on the horizon.
It was decided that we would depart. There was a checking of cars, engines revved, long goodbyes said, and a live sheep passed to Enkhbaatar. It fitted in the trunk on the Prius, I asked 'is this normal?'
I was told that this sheep was supposed to be our dinner yesterday, but due to the weather being so bad they had given it to us to eat in Hovd (a Mongolian takeaway!).
Our journey began. Most of the snow had cleared, but the surface water was horrid, we span, skidded got stuck panicked and cheered. The cars became so caked in the mud they looked like an advertisement for a car rally. I loved it, but there were moments when I was concerned that we would remain stuck.
The views were incredible and served only to add to my love of Mongolia, whilst the trials earned my profound respect of the wilderness.
As we drove slowly back towards Khovd, a storm appeared to be closing behind us as once again, dark clouds filled the sky.
The going was good until we came to a river, yesterday an easy crossing could be made over a small bridge, but since then it had been swept away. We followed the river's course looking for a suitable place to cross a couple of sheep carcasses lay in amongst scattered debris along the banks showing how treacherous it had been.
Peering from the rear of Enkhbaatar's Prius I wondered if yesterdays dinner had any concerns.
I want to say we found a safe place to cross, but in the end, we had to settle for a safe-ish location one that if I were alone, I would not have attempted. We stopped worked out the angle of attack, depth and speed of the water. The windows were then rolled down to allow for a possible escape.
Enkhbaatar, of course, went first into the fast-flowing water in his Prius which appeared to alter his route there was a heart-stopping moment where I thought the river would carry him away.
But he skilfully kept pushing on eventually emerging the on the opposite banks. Now my turn, as I eased forwards, the only noise was the rushing water and the deep grating noise of my tyres on the rocky river bed. I could feel the surge of the water against the car, some even pushed through the seals, but at last, I was free and a giant sigh of relief.
Now it was a clear run to Hovd making it to the town borders as the skies opened up hail and rain beating down.
Our next adventure would be the long drive back to Ulaanbaatar, mostly paved it had to be an easy run.