Our driver, Khajbek, grinned as he steered the jeep over a bridge made of logs. It was so narrow that he could not see the edges around the vehicle. We awaited him on the other side. Zhan guided with one hand and filmed on his phone with the other. One of the tyres lifted onto the edge of the bridge: a narrow branch just above the burbling water. Zhan waved Khajbek back to the centre and soon we are congratulating him on the other side. Kahjbek used to hunt wolves, and his father before him hunted bears. It’s not much of a surprise that this twig bridge didn’t faze him. We piled back into the jeep. Gul, our kind-hearted cook, took her place in the front seat, while our guide Zhan sat with Tom, my partner, and I in the back. We continued on our bumpy adventure.
Our Altai Adventure by Catherine NeeleyThis article describes Catherine and Tom, two New Zealanders who travelled the Altai Mountains of Mongolia and the adventures that occurred to them during their trip. "On our way to Mongolia, somewhere in the Pacific, I felt my first note of longing for my homeland, but in the end our tour of the Altai was a bit like home. You did not expect this: New Zealand is far from this endless land of heavy winter and a nomadic lifestyle that stretches back thousands of years. Perhaps, only because the Kazakh-Mongolian peoples are indeed the most hospitable people. Whatever it was, while in the Altai, I didn’t feel homesick once"- says Catherine.
Gul and Khajbek were pivotal parts of the resourceful three-person team that Zhan assembled for our journey around Western Mongolia. At first it seemed a bit strange to Tom and I that we would need a guide, a driver and a cook to travel around these wide open plains. We were used to being self-sufficient. It became apparent that each member of the team had skills that were difficult to find in one person. Gul planned and prepared delicious authentic meals with ease. Khajbek was not just an experienced driver, but also a mechanic and a steady hand in a crisis, for which we were grateful when we broke down out on a dusty plain, miles from town. Zhan was fluent in English (a polyglot, in fact) and held a great sink of local knowledge while being an easy-going and organised guide. They were all of them laid back and cheerful, to the point where I felt as if we had been adopted by their family, and just happened to join them on a gallivanting camping trip around the countryside.
On our way to Mongolia, somewhere over the Pacific Ocean, I felt my first pang of homesickness. I longed for the comfort of my home and my bed. I told myself that this was just a part of adventure for me, and it was okay to feel this way. I was excited to find out about life in this remote, nomadic country. I had no specific objective. I wanted to dive into the unknown and see where I ended up.
Western Mongolia is largely inhabited by Kazakh-Mongolians, people who have moved there from Kazakhstan. These people are now sometimes considered more traditionally Kazakh than their neighbours, because the influence of Russia has impacted traditions in Kazakhstan herself.
Our tour with Zhan began in Ulgii, the only city in the Altai. We visited the market, where there were clothes, vegetables, household products, hardware and meat for sale. The butcher’s shops were most fascinating, with their hunks of mutton, beef, goat and horse (identifiable by its bright orange fat). Dark sausages of horse meat hung from the ceilings, looking like dried eels. Zhan showed us around a museum, which had a plethora of taxidermies, including eagles, wolves, bears, owls and a snow leopard. The second floor was filled with photos of memorable people, while the third displayed various forms of traditional garb. Zhan also took us to a mosque, where we sat quietly and witnessed men bowing repeatedly to Mecca in one of five daily prayer sessions. I will never forget the calm experience of watching everyday Muslim people praying. It is interesting how a thing can seem so foreign until you are sitting with the ordinary people doing it.
The next day we set out in our jeep. We were expecting the six hour drive to be bumpy and exhausting, based on what we had read online, and were surprised to find it passed quickly and pleasantly, broken up by our first encounter with a herd of camels, and the repeated cries of ‘marmot!’ as the fat, orange rodents lifted their heads to watch us before leaping into their burrows.
Our first night in a gher was in a camp of the Tuvan people, nestled up close to the mountains. As we rested, caravans of camels were loaded for trips up to Potanin glacier, where we planned to spend a couple days exploring and attempting an untechnical mountain climb.
There is a delicate balance between trying the local cuisine and succumbing to it. Zhan suspected the soft orange cheese, although kind to the palate, may have been too much for Tom and me. We never did attempt the summit of Malchin, feeling too weak to emerge from our tent most of the time, and spending the rest of the time perched on boards over the typical Mongolian long-drop toilet. I did manage to scramble over the moraine and down to the scarred and melting surface of the mighty glacier. It was quiet up at the base camp, early in the season, with just a small group of army men staying on a training expedition.
We were feeling better after a few days, and enjoyed the walk back down, following the bouldery gorge of White River. We shared the way with cantering herds of roaming horses, rested amongst shaggy, grazing yaks and watched locals gathering their huge mixed flocks of sheep and goats across the hillsides. The ground squirrels bounded for their burrows at our approach and one dog growled at us until Zhan sharply told it to leave us alone.
Lakes Khoton and Khurgan
After another night enjoying the rustic floor of a gher we made the journey to the lakes Khoton and Khurgan. It was a long drive but our jeep behaved well. We broke the journey up with a lunch of mutton mince, short noodles and a tasty fried and salted lake fish. All along the drive we marvelled at the incredible kindliness of the Kazakh-Mongolians, who greeted everyone like a friend that had been missed.
At the lakes we stayed in a Kazakh yurt, where Tom, at 6 foot 5 inches, could stand inside without stooping, unlike in the smaller Mongolian gher. The family we stayed with had six children, three girls and three boys, and a dog named Tyson, who watched us carefully but allowed the young children to tumble around him. The children worked together to milk the cows at the end of the day. They penned up the calves before milking, and then allowed the calf a small drink to let down the milk. The milker would then sit on a stool, bucket held between knees, and milk the cow while someone else held the calf back nearby. One young girl frowned in concentration as she milked, having to elbow away the cow’s interfering hoof. When the cow kicked the bucket of milk over, the girl stood with a fierce scowl, pounded on the uncaring bovine’s back with her small fist, dragged her stool closer and sat back down to milk again, not even shedding a tear of frustration. Zhan told us that the family had good sons, for they helped their sisters with the women’s work of milking.
The yurt was decorated with bright handmade rugs and tapestries. It sat amongst an evergreen wood, where the trees opened up to a view of the lakes. A murder of crows nested in a nearby grove, cawing a cacophony at dawn and dusk. We went for walks among the trees, coming across other campsites and pens constructed from branches. It would have been easy to get lost in the woods. If we had strayed too far up into the mountains we could have crossed over into China.
After our stay near the lake we made camp in the most beautiful valley in Mongolia. It was decorated with enduring snow drifts, evergreens and sweet-smelling shrubs. We took a walk one day and Tom stepped on a stocky brown snake. It writhed in dismay, hissed at us and fled to the undergrowth.
Further up the valley we came across a family milking their sheep and goats, having tied them up in tight lines. A couple of men harvested cashmere from a trussed-up goat, using a comb with long tines. We enjoyed milk tea in the hospitality of their yurt and a song from one of their sons on a traditional two-stringed instrument. As visitors, we did as Zhan did and took a few turns churning the butter, which was done by pumping a wooden stave into the sack containing the cream.
I ventured out on my own one afternoon while Zhan was sleeping, going further up the valley towards a second waterfall, past a boy watching the flock. I was quite alone, and thinking about the young shepherd’s purpose in guarding the animals when I came across a snow drift marked with what appeared to be two large paw prints. I chided myself for being too nervous, but then again, a boy watched the sheep for a reason, and what did I know about the danger of wolves? I was walking alone in a wild country, and our guide had not seen me leave. I took a photo of the prints and retreated. Back at the tent, Kahjbek, Gul, and a local man looked at my photo and all agreed: “Bear.” They believed that the prints would be relics from winter, as the bears should have moved further up into the mountains by now.
We changed our itinerary to allow an extra day in the valley, and enjoyed relaxing and exploring. There were ant nests under every boulder, grasshoppers and huntsman spiders among the grass (Zhan was not fond of spiders!) and all along the stony tops butterflies swept each other up into little tornadoes of yellow, black and grey.
Our next stay was with an eagle hunter, in a vast valley dotted with yurts. Kahjbek took us on a gallivanting off-road journey along the way to find some friends that were leading a horse trek. He did find them, somehow, amongst the rolling hills. Their horses were snorting and nodding their heads, annoyed by flies biting the insides of their noses.
The eagle hunter, named Bashunhun, was a quiet, patient man, with a confident bearing. His grandchildren gambolled around camp, pretending to drive a parked jeep, play-fighting, hugging dogs and calves, and chewing large mutton bones. It reminded me of my own grandparent’s home, where I used to run wild with my cousins. The eagle hunter wore a t-shirt given to him by a tourist that read ‘Crossfit New York USA’. It suited him; his forearms were massive, and no wonder, because his eagles weighed 7-8kg each. We dressed in traditional garb and took photos holding one of his eagles, who would open her great wings if you had the strength in your trembling arm to bounce her up and down in the air.
The eagle was huge, with a lovely curved beak emerging from her hooded head and wicked talons wrapping over her perch or crushing your arm. We were allowed to sit with her, stroke her beak, plumage and prehistoric feet. She kept tossing back her head. The eagle hunter laughed when we asked about it, saying that she did it because she was just a baby, only a year old and still learning. She could hunt fox and wolverine, the skins of which hung in the yurt where we slept. The largest eagles are even able to hunt wolves. One evening we sat in Bashunhun’s yurt, enjoying the warmth of his stove, while he prayed. His family were observing Ramadan and only ate when it was dark. This made for a late dinner in the Mongolian summer, where the sun sets after 10pm.
A brother country
Our jeep trundled us back to Ulgii. Zhan took care of us right up until we hopped on our plane back to the capital.
I don’t know whether it was the base fair of mutton and potatoes, the practical ingenuity of the people, or the vast farmland, but in the end our Altai tour felt a bit like home. You wouldn’t expect it; New Zealand is a far stretch from this endless land of hard winters and a nomadic lifestyle that stretches back millennia. Perhaps it is only because the Kazahk-Mongolians really are the most welcoming of people. Whatever it was, while in the Altai, I didn’t feel homesick once.