Should I return to the comfort of my Ger in Hovd or continue my journey onwards?
As the snow-capped mountains of Tavan Bogd national park disappear from view in my rear-view mirror obscured by rolling green hills and jagged peaks, I drive on in two minds. Should I return to the comfort of my Ger in Hovd or continue my journey onwards?
I planned to follow the Koryo summer tour itinerary, next in my sights was to be the stunning lakes of Khoton and Khurgan. I pause for a minute, not that difficult as the road is slow going.
It is the weekend 150 kilometres to the lakes maps me says one day 18 hrs. There are no roads; I have a full tank of petrol, sunglasses and no internet. I decide to continue with my mini-adventure.
The clouds above me break; while the sun fills the valley ahead, I pick my way through the rough terrain. Tracks forward mark the way vehicles have come before carving their paths into this wild area. These remote roads are, at times, clear, well beaten, and relatively smooth. 60-80 KM per hour can be achieved while at other times, the full path shrinks to two solitary trails, and my speed hardly registers. I am careful often rechecking directions, asking the few nomads I see to confirm my route.
The scenery is stunning still; I retrace around 20 km of the previous day's journey until it's time to turn off. Following a small river as it wraps its way through a pretty mountain valley. It is difficult at times to admire the view, for if I am distracted, a sharp rock or bolder could easily ruin my journey. I eventually near the river checking maps; it looks to be another 15 KMs to a bridged crossing. I am a little impatient to get on as I know the lakes well and would like to get some hiking in today. I stop to ask some more locals the way this time, two teenagers around 15-16 years of age resting next to a Modern Mongolian horse in the form of a Japanese Yamaha. I am a little surprised as one speaks excellent English; I usually get a shocked look followed by a nod and a pointed finger when asking directions. This time I am told I am on the right path, although I may like to consider the far quicker river crossing just a few meters ahead.
I drive close to the river and check my way across, and then it's in lowering gears, keeping the engine running I move through with purpose. The river's deep I hear the low deep grate of stones under the turbulent waters below the car. The engine pulls and struggles a little, but I am out. I climb up over a small hill as a wide green valley opens up before me. I need to be on the opposite side; this slight detour has brought me up early and on the wrong side of the valley. As I drive across the valley floor, I am aware that the recent heavy rains have turned the surface into a bog. I try to follow within the tracks of cars previously, but the running gets worse; there are worrying signs of trapped vehicles. Rocks, dug trenches a broken spade and a flat bucket all typical indicators of man's battle with a trapped car. My car skids a little I turn with it steadying as I go, a couple of times I am almost trapped as wheels spin and mud is thrown up over the windshield. Ahead I spot what looks to be a stable path, but it's too late as the car tears into the soft waterlogged mud below.
As I open the door, I am even more surprised to see not just sticky mud but water running across the surface. I am genuinely stuck with both rear wheels firmly implanted in the surrounding swamp; however, I have prepared for this very scenario. As much as I am disappointed, I am also quite excited. Before leaving Ulaanbaatar, I made sure to stock up; I brought a spade, one tow rope, a winch, and a saw. I begin by searching for rocks and stones, then digging around the tires. My first attempt and second fail miserably, the car doesn't even begin to move.
Now I am a little worried; there is no Ger's around, and I have seen very few vehicles, asides from this, I have also turned off an established track. The only two people who know I am here have long departed buzzing through the countryside on their motorbike I imagine them laughing as they go!
I prepare a sandwich and sit working out how long I can survive, it's not life and death as I know I can follow the path back, and I know where I turned off. At worse if no one shows, I think it's one or maybe even two nights here. I also have enough food and water for longer, even carrying some large bags of sweets, cookies, and pasta for any local families I happen across.
Just as my mind begins to wander thinking among other things friends in Beijing, I see an ageing blue Toyota Land cruiser in the distance, its older shape noticeable against the green hills. I spin my arm a sign I need help, and it turns towards me. Great I think although he's moving very quickly and I am aware suddenly aware that he's likely to hit the bog I am stuck in. I abandon my sandwich and run towards him, wet feet can't be avoided, but I manage to reach him on the stable ground a few hundred metres ahead of me. It turns out that the drivers from Ulgii city visiting the area with family, all of whom smile from the comfort of their car. His English is excellent; it turns out he studied in London and only returned to Mongolia earlier in the year.
I explain my obvious situation, and in the blink of an eye, all family climb out searching for stones and rocks digging and lifting. I join in feeling a little guilty and also a bit redundant to the action taking place. An older man I assume to be the boy's father-in-law starts my car, wheels spin, and we all push. Mud sprays over people to the right and left of me; there's a bump and the vehicles out. It looks to get stuck a seconded time; momentum is seized, we chase and push the car out from its boggy trap.
Very Mongolian, there's no complaining I grab some snacks from my car, and an impromptu picnic begins. When we finish sharing pleasantries, I advise on the road ahead for my helpers, and they do the same for me. The wheels slip a little as I pull up the valley, but I am away, I pause for a minute as the blue truck from Ulgii disappears into the distance on their way to the bridge.
I climb up over one last ridge, and there it is the Tsagaan Gol valley a well-trodden route that I have travel now for over eight years. It's almost like a warm embrace as I roll down towards the churning waters of the white river. Before I make my way onwards to my destination, I stop at the village of Tsagaast.
Tsagaast is a winter village made up of low built mud-brick buildings offering shelter to the regions nomadic inhabitants during the winter months. There is a school here as well as a perpetually unfinished mosque. My stop the village school is the home of the school caretaker and his family. We have been visiting the family with tourists every year. The caretaker's wife always offers a nice cup of warm milk tea, and I drop off a few essentials for this remote family. Before I leave, I help change a tyre on a bicycle the tour group brought for the children a couple of years ago.
As I leave, I hope to return next year the village is quickly obscured by the dust kicked up as I speed down the river valley following the churning waters of the mighty white river. This White River is fed primarily from the silt rich waters from the glaciers at Tavan Bogd although the recent heavy rains have added to its creamy waters. I follow onwards heading downstream, turning off before I reach the village of Tsengle.
I follow the track past mountain lakes ancient Turkic burial mounds and stone men, some of these monuments have looked out across these dusty valleys from hundreds if not thousands of years. Eventually, the road leads me to one last ridge I look out to a fantastic view of more snow-capped mountains, these reflected within the chilly waters of Khurgan Lake. My final drive for today sees me traverse across the tricky rises and falls of ancient glacial moraines before reaching the crossing to my stay for tonight.
A sound of water joins the lakes of Khurgan and Khoton; it is here that a rickety wooden bridge crosses to the west bank. The west bank of the lakes are covered with sweet-smelling pine trees, low rolling hills and punctuated by alpine pastures. In this beautiful area, many Kazakh families have set up summer dwellings.
Once I have registered my visit with the border officers, I am off to find old Koryo friends for a night in their yurt. Too late for hiking it's time to enjoy a beer, a few exaggerated travel tales and some lovely home-cooked food. Just before I sleep, I head outside to clear my head and to make sure the car is ok and having a well-earned rest.
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