We are back in Olgii City after 9 days in the Altai mountains. All we can say is.... WOW, what an incredible adventure!
We left Ulaanbaatar on the 4th of September for the city of Olgii (or Ulgii) - after a 2 hour plane ride, we were whisked away from the airport in our Russian made Uaz van. After 3.5 hours of riding off-road, we camped in a meadow outside a small town next to a river.
Our team consisted of the Three Amigos (Adam, David and Jimmy) as well as UK expats (now living in Australia) Giles and Elspeth, as well as Leslie, who hails from Colorado. All great people and easy to get along with.
Our journey continued through the Mongolian countryside on September 5, as we bumped along in the Uaz for another 4 hours before we reached the Tavn Bogd National Park gate, where we camped for the day. The ground was still soft and although there were no trees and little grass, the area was still relatively lush (by Mongolian standards at least).
September 6 we walked to base camp - a 14km trek that saw the terrain become more mountainous, culminating in us reaching the foot of the mountains and just about 10,000 feet (3,000 metres). Bactrian camels carried all of our gear, while we slowly made our way through the park. We pitched our tents at Base Camp and found shelter in a ger, a traditional Mongolian tent-house, still in use today all around the country. The ger - owned by our guiding company, became our mess tent, heat source, and card venue for the next week. The weather was clear and beautiful today, and the setting, at the junction of three large glaciers, was stunning.
September 7 saw the weather turn cold and overcast, but we didn’t let that deter us - we started out in the morning to climb Malchin Peak (4,050 metres), which straddles the border of Mongolia and Russia and is the main objective of most climbers who travel to the area. After the first hour, the trail grew very steep (50-55 degrees) and when we reached the ridge, we were scrambling over icy, snowy rocks before reaching the summit almost 4 hours after our departure.
The route down was extremely slippery, so we improvised and started walking on a snow cornice and down the steep backside of the mountain in deep snow. Adam improvised some more, sitting down in the snow, pushing off, and sliding down the steep slope until reaching the bottom, over 2,000 feet below. The rest of us followed suit, squealing all the way down the hill - it took 20 minutes for a descent that would have taken over two hours! Plus, while sliding, we had crossed into Russia! We walked back to base camp tired, but happy to have reached our first objective.
September 8 was another trek - this time to the border monuments of Russia and Mongolia - on a plateau in view of Malchin peak (on the left side of the picture - the snow slope is the one we slid down the day before). Also at the site was a Mongolian monument - the Mongolians marked the farthest four points of their empire (East, West, North and South) with huge bronze monuments noting key points in their history. After hiking for 2 hours, we reached the monuments, and David decided to hit golf balls from Mongolia over into Russia - a unique experience!
On September 9 we were set to travel up the glacier to our high camp, but overnight we received a lot of snow and the winds were high, so we stayed at base camp, in the ger, playing cards and eating. By this time we were in awe of our chef, Aha (great name!) who was providing restaurant quality meals out of his little cooking area. He baked bread, made pasta from scratch, and always provided an amazing meal for us...
By now, the weather had turned nasty - lots of snow and wind had created avalanches on several parts of the glacier. We were told by our head guide, Gangaa (a celebrity in Mongolia who has climbed many of the worlds highest peaks, including Everest and K2), that with the weather, it would likely be too dangerous to climb Mt Khuiten. We would use September 10 for rest and shoot for Friendship Peak, a nearby peak on the same glacier the next day.
We woke up on September 11 thinking our mountaineering trip was done - more snow and wind and cold. However, Gangaa told us to pack up - the weather would get better and we would try to get up to high camp. The three porters, all on horseback, went first to set up camp. These horses would climb through the snow, through the crevasse fields and up the mountain - incredible!
We loaded up our personal gear, our packs weighing almost 40 pounds each, and trudged up the mountain. The glacier was gorgeous, the going really tough, and 7 hours later reached high camp, exhausted. The winds picked up, so we quickly set up camp in a safe place behind a rocky outcrop at 3,500 metres.
The next 42 hours were spent in our tent in a blizzard - the worst conditions we have ever seen! The wind would pick up speed up the mountain and would roar like a train, while the snow continued to pile up against (and in) the tents. By the morning of September 13, over 2 feet of snow had fallen, creating a real danger of avalanches and killing our chances of attempting the summit. We waited for a weather window in the morning, packed our gear and headed back down the glacier in knee deep (and higher!) snow. 3.5 hours later, we were back at base camp, watching an avalanche off the face of Friendship Peak!
September 14 proved to be a long day - we decided earlier in the trip to hire horses to ride out to the South Gate of the park, 20 Kms away. Our horses arrived early and we galloped through the rocky countryside, feeding our inner Genghis Khans. 3.5 hours (and many sore knees and butts) later, we were at the gate. We drove on the beautiful, but rocky terrain, for the next 7 hours, jostling around in the Uaz like ping pong balls.
An hour before we reached Ulgii we pulled into a field and stopped at the ger of an Eagle hunter and his family, where we were treated to a traditional Kazak snack and were allowed to hold an actual hunting eagle - impressive, indeed. Off to Olgii, into the hotel, hot showers and bedtime for all!
September 14 was the last real day of our adventure before making our way to our homes. We drove 30 minutes out of Ulgii to see an Eagle Hunting festival, where the skills of the eagles and their trainers would be on full display. We spent the whole day watching traditional Kazakh games such as dead goat tug of war on horseback, men and women racing horses while trying to whip each other (actually it was the woman whipping the man - is it something he said?), and of course, Eagle calling. All the while, traditional foods, such as goat on a stick and sheep dumplings were on sale.
After the Eagle festival we headed over to Mongolia Expeditions compound where they have a ger. We were treated to a traditional Kazakh meal, which comes on a big platter and includes an onion and cheese “bread” as well as lots of potatoes and meat (sheep and horse, yes horse). The whole meal is eaten with only the hands and it was like our entire trip - it was surprisingly delicious. At the end of the meal we were serenaded by a traditional Kazakh band which included a father, his son and 11 year old nephew, who was a prodigy on the dombra, a 2 stringed guitar.
We said goodbye to our assistant guide Tino, cook Aha and headed to the hotel to play our last game of cards together, finishing around midnight. This was one of the most memorable days of any trip we had and encapsulated our time in Mongolia - pleasant surprises at every turn!
September 15 was our last full day in Mongolia - after a late start, we hopped into the Uaz for the last time and headed for the Ulgii airport, where we said goodbye to our assistant guide and host, Erick. One of the smartest, most organized hosts we have ever had, Erick is also a great person. We want to thank him for all his work - our trip wouldn’t have been the same without him.
Onto the plane, and 2.5 hours later, we were back in Ulaanbaatar, where we said goodbye to Adam, whose flight to Australia left in just 3 hours, checked into our hotel for the last night and went out for a final dinner together.
After another great dinner, we said goodbye to our guide Gangaa, who kept us safe throughout. Gangaa has a great demeanor, likes to laugh and has no pretensions for a world class climber. We would have her guide us again in a heartbeat! Back to the hotel, where three of us (David, Jimmy and Leslie) would pack up to leave in the morning.
We were whisked to the airport in the morning, boarded our flight to Beijing and 2 hours later were each catching connecting flights to North America. And that was it!
Quick final thoughts - not much is known or written about Mongolia in North America, but this was truly an adventure at every turn, making it our favourite destination in the 10 years we have been going on these expeditions. If you like the wilderness, landscapes, good people and cultural experiences on a less traveled path, this is the place for you!
Stay tuned for our videolog of our trip, including the recurring "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" segment. The video will be available in the next 6-8 weeks...
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.”
- Mark Twain