RSS Social Icon Facebook Social Icon Dig Youtube Social Icon

Kharkirra – Bayan Olgiy Province

(Click here to view the complete list of diary entries) Posted 8/10/04 (this follows the entry 'Crossing the Kharkiraa with three horses and a camel (posted 3/10/04) ) Just as the sun was taking the cold pinch out of the air I sat on Bokus, gave the lead rope in my hand a tug, and we were off. I always liked those first few moments of movement. Leaving no trace of camp and moving towards the horizon inspired in me a sense of freedom. After more than two months on these animals they were beginning to feel like my own legs. Getting up on the saddle and gliding above the landscape was like snapping back into the dream. There was something so different about this morning though. I spun around. There was nothing but the mountains behind, and a tangle of rocks and hills in front of me. I was alone. There lay at least two days travel to the next village of Khovd sum. I aimed for a low mountain pass and soon found myself in a sea of salt-bush and sand. Red cliffs bore down over my right shoulder while this dry steppe extended into a murky sea to my left. A distant salt lake wobbled in the mirage. I rose over another pass and followed a narrow valley sunken between barren, red rocky peaks. A few birds of prey circled above, and every now and then a hare or marmot would scuttle away from under a salt-bush, scaring the horses. There were no traces of roads or gers- just a few horse tracks in the sand being erased by the wind. It was just before lunch that I was jolted out of my daze. My eyes as usual had been scanning the landscape for alternate routes and any unusual detail. High up on a precipitous-looking pass there suddenly appeared a tiny black figure. I stopped in surprise. Could it really be a human? I watched carefully. My eyes had become very accustomed to identifying details. Even from a far distance I could tell the difference between a camel, horse, and Yak, even if they were mere specs. The way the spec moved made me believe it could only be human. The figure seemed to pause just like me and so I raced for my spy-glass. However by the time I had it in my hand it had disappeared behind some rock. It was as if this person had seen me and had raced to hiding. Usually a hunter or herder would stop for considerable time to watch. I always found it ironic that in the wilderness of Mongolia it was not the remoteness or animals that frightened me but people. I expected to meet this lonesome figure sometime later in the day but it never happened. Furthermore, when I rounded the far side of these peaks I realized that this figure could not have reached such a pass on a horse. It left me a little mystified. After lunch the cluster of mountains to my left gave way to the western horizon. It was a view that had been hidden by the Kharkirraa mountains until now. Far below, the Khovd river meandered, shouldered by thick forest. Green steppe rose above the river to arid mountains, and from there the summit of Tsaast Uul (over 4000m) rose like a brilliant white cloud. Like I had experienced in Mongolia so often, everything before me was slightly blurred by sheer distance. Getting a sense of scale was difficult- much like looking out the window of a plane at altitude. Despite being told that this route would be rock-free I descended into a wide river valley (a tributary of the Khovd river) to find myself among rocks as far as the eye could see. My poor horses slowed to a halt searching for a softer route but never found it. The next few hours were frustrating. My map seemed to be wrong, and the landscape lied again and again. I cursed myself for not scanning the land for a good route earlier. I wasted time heading along the wrong compass bearing and became angry with the horses. Worst of all I lost my GPS and spent a good couple of hours re-tracing my route until it was found. Just as the sun was getting close to the horizon I reached a set of telegraph lines and decided to follow them. They were heading in the direction of Khovd Sum and I hoped that they would lead me to a good river-crossing point. It wasn’t until I was within the scrub and forest along the river that realised I had reached a small nomad community. At first I noticed a couple of men standing up above the trees, scanning the land with their spy-glasses. They were actually standing on the rooves of their gers and checking on their herds. There were even a few semi-permanent huts that were obviously places for storing winter supplies. I crossed a few channels of the river along a route used by tractors and four-wheel drives and met a herd of camels plodding their way back to where I had just come from. Then I pushed through some scrub to find myself just fifty metres away from a couple of gers. Two men on horseback in mid-conversation paused to stare. I was too exhausted to look surprised and just approached. It wasn’t long before I had a captive audience. As often happened the women from the ger brought out their young children to watch. I had planned to keep moving but when they invited me to camp next to their ger I could only accept. For once I thoroughly appreciated the help that the family gave me in setting up the tent and unsaddling- usually when nomads did this it was more work than if I did it on my own. Everyone grabbed a peg, and a pole, and after some instructions managed to get everything set up. A five-year old boy led my horses away and hobbled them, while his mother carefully folded my horse blankets. The children’s eyes lit up once it was finished and they all crawled inside the tent, and of course the adults soon followed. “An Australian Ger!” they laughed. Dinner was also a communal affair. Some local families came to watch, and taste my very basic rice with dried meat, but most were just fascinated by my petrol stove. This community was also Khotont (read my previous story about the Kharkirraa to find out more about them), and had recently migrated down from the Kharkirraa mountains. This location along the riverbank was their autumn home, whilst their winter home was back up in the hills. Everyone seemed to know each other intimately and I had the sense that their bond was strengthened by the need to migrate together. This was one big travelling community. A clear difference between this community and others I had met in Mongolia was the absence of mechanical transport. I was beginning to think that roads these days were like disease spreaders, bringing in foreign concepts, mechanics, and culture that did not really fit to this land. Not once did the Khotont people ask for gifts or money, or treat me as if I was an overly rich foreigner. Perhaps the sheer ruggedness of this landscape would preserve this lifestyle and culture of hospitality for some time to come. It was a pleasure to hand out some small gifts later on- some toys for the children, and some bits and pieces of horse tack from Ulaan Baatar. I always did this when I could, but sometimes had the feeling among other Mongols that this was simply expected, and that they were disappointed that I did not give them something that they really wanted- like my tent, knife, saddle, torch, or even horse. I tried not to offer money as gifts most of the time, however in some situations would offer generous payment for some borzog (dough dipped in animal fat), flour, or dried meat. Every now and then I would also offer a nomad family who had helped me considerably to call from my satellite phone. This was always a big event, calling back to relatives in the city (Ulaan Baatar). After dinner a man with an infectious smile turned up and sat quietly near my tent. His name was ‘Nergu.’ In his arms was his three-year old daughter rugged up in a little dele. They both had the same sparkling, kind eyes. After some time we spoke. Unlike many people who were just interested in my entertainment value he was genuinely interested in my journey. The following morning after packing up he invited me to his ger where we drank the obligatory salty milk tea. In line with custom I floated some borzog in my cup and spread some yak butter on a piece of dried yoghurt. They had been expecting me and many elderly men and women were crammed into the ger watching my every move with curiosity. It wasn’t until I was saying goodbye that I understood that Nergu wanted to help guide me all the way to Khovd Sum, a good 15km away. We waved goodbye and soon I was following the swift pace of Nergu through the scrub and across the many channels of the river. My horses were still struggling due to the rocks. I couldn’t understand how Nergu’s horse seemed to be unaffected until I had a closer look and realised that his horse was shod. Apart from Dashnim’s horse in the Kharkirraa, this was the first time I had come across horseshoes in Mongolia. Mongols know almost nothing of this practice, and it would be fair to say that in most parts of Mongolia horseshoes are simply unnecessary. I asked Nergu about it. “Yes, we all get our horses shod by a Kazak who lives across the river. The kazaks, they know about horse shoes very well.” It took four hours to reach Khovd sum- three hours of riding, and one hour of chatting with the herders who would come galloping over to find out what was going on. Each time a rider came Nergu would get off the horse and squat down on the ground for a cigarette. Once the cigarette was almost done they would start to talk. We also met a camel train along the way, each animal carrying 250kg of gear, children being rocked about among the equipment in the cane carrying baskets. As not to scare the camels we dismounted 100m from these nomads and waited for them to approach us. Eventually we arrived in the village, a collection of ramshackle huts and homes, and made our way to the centre. There was a small medical clinic in the centre with horses tied up outside. Every now and then a nurse would come out, chatting to a herder wearing a blinding white overcoat and hat. We didn’t make it far before being surrounded by spectators. One man who spoke Russian knew all about my route because he had seen me through his binoculars two days earlier. He had apparently been out shooting marmot. His wife was one of the doctors from the clinic and soon they were both inviting me to their home for lunch. By late afternoon I was getting worried that poor Nergu felt obliged to stay with me. However over some food, the Russian speaker explained that he wanted to help me over the Khovd river, because without him I would probably drown. Furthermore, Nergu wanted to deliver me to his good Kazak friend who would happily put horse shoes on my animals. Over a nourishing meal of carrots, potato, and noodles I learnt that the doctor’s son was my age, and worked in Ulaan Baatar as a Russian/English translator. He was planning to get a visa to Canada and find work there as a taxi driver. There was a look in his parent’s eyes that betrayed a naivety about the west, and excitement at the prospect of a healthy income. I couldn’t help thinking that it would probably prove to be a path to disillusionment. The river crossing was indeed serious. Khovd river is one of the largest in Mongolia, beginning high up in the Altai bordering Russia and China. The main channel was about sixty metres wide, and there were countless others to cross. Nergu gathered three of his friends together and at once they told me it would be impossible on my horse, Bokus. He was too short, and did not walk fast enough. Instead I was given one of their horses and sat high up on the Mongolian saddle. The stirrup leathers were so short that my heels just about reached up to my bum. This proved to be a good thing, as soon I was following one of the men deep into the current. We moved at a slight angle towards the far bank, the water rushing at our sides. Soon, even with short stirrups the water was up to my shins, and the horse’s throat. I was glad that I had taken the camera gear off Bokus because when I turned around the water was just about flowing over his back. The men following behind had cheerful grins on their faces for the entire crossing. On the far side we paused for a group photo, before all but one of Nergu’s friends left. There was a certain joy and excitement among the three of us now. The sun was gliding down, and its rays angled through the forest of birch trees in slender golden shafts. Soon we were cantering through this lush growth, ducking and weaving, breathing in the sweet scent in the air that spoke of the mingling between summer and autumn. There were hundreds of gers scattered along the valley, and yet almost all were well hidden. We would break through some more scrub and trees to find another family camped, the smoke exiting their ger in wispy tendrils. Nergu and his friend were proud to be travelling with me and met all locals with grins and giggles. They would also shout out “Which way to the Kazaks?!” We would then dart off in a very approximate direction until the next ger came into sight. We must have crossed another six or seven channels of the river when suddenly Nergu and his friend came to a halt. They sat down on the ground and began to roll cigarettes. I was worried that they were expecting some payment or something from me. However as I stepped off the horse Nergu’s friend produced a bottle of beer that had been hiding in his dele. He ripped the cap off with his teeth and raised the bottle into the air with a grin: “Here’s to our friendship!!! We will soon deliver you to our good friend, the kazak farrier.” In the glow of sunset the beer tasted like honey. Half an hour later the sun had gone and a blanket of cold was falling, visible by the mist that was beginning to gather. We were stuck in some swampy forest, and Nergu was arguing with his friend about which way it was to the Kazaks. It seemed to me that we were lost, but I never saw even a hint of worry in the men’s faces. Eventually we broke through the trees to find the last channel of the river. On the far side we could make out the sound of a barking dog. Soon we met the shadowy figure of a man on his horse. He spoke in soft tones with a very strange accent. I caught only a glimpse of his face as we left and was struck by his strong features, and wide, pale eyes. It seemed to me that somewhere within that deep, marshy forest we had passed an age-old dividing line. Perhaps this is how borders would have once been- without the bureaucracy and guards. Only later did I discover that in this area, the Khovd river is the border between Uvs province and Bayan Olgiy. Bayan Olgiy is really a part of Kazakhstan that happens to be in Mongolia. Ninety percent of the population are Kazak, and unlike the Mongols they are mostly Muslim. It was just about pitch black by the time we raced towards a camp of gers. Even in the dark they looked immediately different to the Mongolian variety- much taller, and wider. As we approached several dogs came running and took flying leaps at my horse’s throat. I was used to this though and proud of Bokus who didn’t even as much as flinch. The family surfaced and Nergu sooned jumped off his horse and grabbed one young man with an arm around the neck, almost knocking him off his feet. “My friend! The Kazak! This is my friend, Tim, an Australian!” He shouted it almost euphorically before ordering the Kazak to look after me well, and put shoes on my horse. The Kazak was a little shocked, but eventually he relaxed, and even in the dark I could sense his smile. He was an odd looking character- very skinny with a small head, and big ears and eyes like saucers. I was later struck by the size of his forearms that were huge in proportion to the rest of his body. He must have been hard working , and I sensed that I could trust him. It wasn’t long before we were all sipping hot salty tea. I sat inside the ger, overwhelmed by its sheer size and beauty. It seemed more like the size of a circus tent to me and far more lavishly decorated than a Mongol ger. The ceiling was woven with red, brown, pink and green motifs, and around the walls were reeds woven with wool. Everything from the rolling pin to the suit-cases were draped in colourful decoration. The beds were the centrepieces, draped in silk curtains, with bird feathers and jewellery dangling from above. Felt-carpets on the floor added to the cosy atmosphere. Almost without warning Nergu stood up and said goodbye. He walked out of the ger with the same abruptness with which he had chosen to help me. Only afterwards as I sat alone in the ger with my new Kazak friend did I realise that it had probably been my final goodbye to true Mongolia as well. I wondered what the light of day would reveal. (Look our for the following entry coming soon: 'Khovd River to Tsengel' (Among the Kazaks in Bayan Olgiy to the end of the Mongolian leg of the journey)) (Click here to view the complete list of diary entries)