Back then, I could only dream of touching a glacier; now it's part of my life.
Our other destinations tour manager and leader Rich is currently living in Mongolia.
He usually resides half a year in this vast country and the other half here in Beijing China - when he isn't leading tours in North Korea, Mongolia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan.
Upon his return from the adventure travel show in London UK to Beijing his flight was cancelled, so he made the detour to Mongolia with his family. The Mongolian borders closed and there Rich remains, Mongolia still Coronavirus free he continues his travels and ramblings this week finds Rich returning from an adventure to the far west of the country.
As the weekend approached, I was more than happy to see the return of my modern Mongolian steed; a twenty-year Toyota Kluger kindly loaned to me over the summer months. I had driven it 1700 kilometres from Ulaanbaatar to Hovd, however within sight of this small regional capital, the suspension gave way.
Repairs completed, I thought it was time to finish my mission and drive to the far west an area where Mongolia, Russia and China meet.
The area is known as Tavan Bogd national park and is a region we visit on tour every year with Koryo. As the borders have been closed and I am missing my tour groups, I am after catching some of my yearly fill of travel and need an adventure.
I only had a limited number of days. Over the coming weeks, there seems to be a lot of appointments arranged; some planning new tours meeting officials, contacts and friends and other more personal holidays like family birthdays.
So, early on Friday morning, I set off from Hovd. The weather looked beautiful as I rolled out of the low dusty town, windows down. I nervously listened for noises, bumps and rattles worried the car might have a sudden mechanical relapse.
As my confidence grew, so did the music volume picking up along with my speed. I rolled along the beautifully smoothed tarmac the new road between Hovd and Ulgii.
The scenery began to change from the dusty sand patched grass to a more lush green spread; the jagged rocky mountains made way to snow-capped giants. The sort that makes it challenging to distinguish between cloud or horizon as they loom large in the distance.
As I continue onwards, I reminisce about journeys past. We've travelled this way since before the road, during its construction and last year after opening.
The conversations always the same; admiring the scenery and trying to understand the nomadic life in this beautiful yet harsh region. I do miss the excited buzz of the tour and strangely feel quite lonely as Ali Farka Touré kicks in on the CD player, Talking Timbuktu oddly fitting this journey.
I pass Tolbo, a beautiful mountain lake fed by water from high glaciers filled from surrounding peaks. Not stopping, I continue with my adventure. Ölgii is the capital of Bayan-Ölgii Province and the jumping point for the stunning and remote Tavan Bogd national park. Ölgii is also home to coffee shops, gift shops and some tasty restaurants, housed in Soviet-style constructions, pastel-coloured buildings frayed at the edges yet offering an inner warmth.
While in Ölgii, I meet with the head of our local partners, a proud Kazakh gentleman who, like many in the travel industry, at the current time has the weight of the world on his shoulders. However, he has decided to use this year to plan and prepare for the future. He explains that he knows his team is the best, so he's holding them together until better times. This news reassures me as after working together now for over seven years, I know his crew are great. Fantastic drivers, guides and the camp chiefs (able to cook pizzas on a camp stove!
He also advises me on my planned route. I am driving to see the Potanin glacier, but wish to test a new direction.
Now, I have to be clear that when I say 'new route', I am not travelling up an undiscovered trail to Everest or anything as extreme as that. It is a known path, but with no paved roads and only a series of undulating mud trails to follow. For a westerner here in Mongolia, it can be complicated. He warns me that some of my planned journey is difficult even for some locals, but me being stubborn, I nod and agree to meet upon my return.
I do, however, have an advantage as I have been to many of these areas before. I know some of my route and understand how to reach some of the villages and the turnings needed. More importantly, I know the terrain that lies ahead; I have a healthy respect for it and remember to take care.
I devour my cappuccino (a rare treat in these parts) and make two more stops - one to pick up supplies and another to obtain my permit for the border regions.
And I am off through Ölgii over the mighty river Hovd, past the tiny airport. It's goodbye tarmac, hello off-road and hello Depeche mode as the music blares out of the opened windows carried on the crisp fresh air.
The road here is a mix of sand clay, and desert-like scrub. A visible, well-beaten track has been cut through the area. Over time, wind and rain have caused bumps and groves it feels like driving on corrugated iron in parts.
The road climbs and I push my foot down. The engine pulls me up over the 2300 meter high pass the small village in the valley below I have visited before.
Ulaan-Hus has the feeling of a settlement from a Mad Max movie. Worn buildings, dusty unpaved streets flooded by recent rains. I stop at a fuel station, its purpose advertised by a flickering neon sign. No fuel, I am told not understanding the language, but clearly, the crossed arms and empty forecourt say it all.
I drive on another 200 metres to the next station. A pointed finger shows they have diesel, but no gasoline. Two more times, I eventually meet success. The queue of five cars makes it clear that this station has recently had its fuel delivered.
As I pull out of Ulaan-Hus, valuable advice still rings in my ears; 'never pass by a petrol station in these parts without filling up'. As the sound of the engine kicks in, I have that content feeling almost like one who has just eaten a pleasant meal. I have been here before and remember clearly the route I took then, but now I follow a different path.
I am not alone, since while I am out contemplating, consulting maps and phone apps, two more cars pull up. One of the guys is from Ölgii. He has a rather lovely Land Cruiser, and he's also lost. It's a nice feeling not to be alone, but I want to max out my time and be on the road.
Now, Mongolians are lovely people, but time has a whole new meaning here. It's best never to be in a hurry and accept that plans change while other projects will be enacted within a minutes notice.
If someone says they will meet you at 5 PM, don't be surprised if they arrive at 6-7-8 or even 9. I have also known some officials arrive two days late. Joined by two more cars, more people get out and converse, checking where everyone is from even asking each other's school history. The first guy tells me that one of the other travellers used to be his classmate! I ask "do you remember him?" he responds "no we weren't in the same class! He was studying chemistry I Chemical engineering!" I raise eyes to myself; in a country of only three million, surely this isn't so much of a surprise. If I was in China, I might be taken aback!
Beautiful pleasantries continue, but for me, it's very frustrating. I am sure of the way, but I just need a little reassurance. Eventually, a motorbike arrives carrying some real locals. I get the usual surprised looks and double-takes they seem happy and smile kindly. My route is confirmed, and I am off.
I say goodbye, leaving the growing group of travellers conversing happily.
I power onwards, and the CD's switched making way for Metallica, a healthy choice as the terrain begins to show signs of deteriorating.
The recent heavy rains have turned the trail ahead into a bog, the steering wheel and dashboard double as my air drums while I muddle through. I slow as the wheels slip and slide, nervous but relieved as I keep moving forwards.
I see a Russian UAZ pushing through ahead and follow in its trail. Its route frees me from the awful quagmire.
I am free from but very aware there is worse to come.
The sky is clear, and I stop for lunch, Russian style sausage and a hunk of cheese make a perfect summer sandwich.
I sit on my roll mat and contemplate the world.
It seems from the headlines that just beyond the approaching borders of Russia and China unplanned madness reigns. It's at odds with when I am sitting now! In the distance, the green pastures dotted with white Kazakh yurts. Beyond, the horizon lined with the astounding peaks of Tavan Bogd national park my destination.
If I am to make the park by nightfall, I need to pick up my game. It's difficult as the valley ahead is so beautiful a perfect stop with a tour group - but alas, if I am to keep my tight schedule I must be content with a smile and wave as I pass by friendly locals. Black-necked cranes forage in nearby lakes, and fat marmots run for cover.
The mountains never seem to get any closer. Have I made a wrong turn, or am I following the wrong path? Frustration reigns.
In my rear-view mirror, the Landcruiser from earlier comes into view, powering past, he stops ahead. He offers some cookies, I stop to chat, and also bringing some of my tasty supplies. I need reassurance, so I must follow the pleasantries, "I am from England, yes I live here, yes really, I work in tourism, and Mongolia is beautiful!" He is a pleasant man, and to my surprise, he explains that due to the COVID outbreak, he is also stuck in Mongolia, he studied and lives in Seattle and seems more westernised then me! He misses good pizza and wants a hamburger. I laugh with him and even make him a sandwich which he shares with the occupants of his car. (I assume wife and in-laws.) Eventually, he confirms that earlier he asked directions from more locals and we're all on the correct path.
Finally, it's off again.
Ahead of me, the giant engine of his modern land cruiser whirs into action sounding as though it's about to suck up the surrounding wildlife. As I bounce happily on, I spy him disappearing into the distance, and once again, I am alone.
Maybe in space, a satellite is watching me as a solitary dot in this vast landscape.
At times, I feel sleepy my head dips a couple of times. But the terrain shakes me back to the present. I open the window open and switch to old school dance, it's Carl Cox essential mix!
The terrain worsens even more now only 30 KM to go, but so slow the ground is a mixture of rock mud and water.
Every so often, dirty water splashes up over the windshield. Wiper's come into play smearing then clearing. 28-27-26 kilometres; the distance narrows so slowly my arms ache and eyes feel heavy, it's got to that point in the day where the light is dropping faster than the distance.
Eventually 15 KM from my goal it's wise to stop. I look for a place to set up my tent, but then there are Kazakh yurts offering a stay for the night. At around 20-30 dollars they are not so cheap but what the hell. The yurts are beautiful and provide a fantastic splash of colour with traditional embroideries hanging inside.
An added treat is Yak cream, milk and even some noodles all given by the local families. The soup noodles here in Mongolia are not high on my list of tasty foods, but I eat them as I am hungry. As I wrap up warm in my yurt for the night, the wind picks up outside, and I slowly fall asleep to the sound of the canvas flapping, and wooden joints creaking.
My dreams vivid and sleep broken a norm for me at this altitude.
The morning brings in a crisp early light; frozen crystalline patterns stretch across trickling mountain streams. It may be only 6 AM, but I need to make up time. I load up the car and continue with my journey. Blurry eyed, I am off bidding the local family farewell I am surprised as the park entrance is just around the corner.
Permits checked and fees paid, I cruise through under the barrier and into this stunning border park. The going becomes even slower, at one point as I climb to 3000 metres I am sure the glacier will be in view. But alas it's not to be just another mountain in front.
As I dip down into another valley, the road becomes even boggier; a river crossing confirms it's time to give up as water floods under the doors I am lucky to make it across!
I can't risk the car becoming even more stuck, so pull onto some solid land and begin to walk. It's an area I know I have started to recognise peaks and valleys and can't go astray. My only battle now is the fact I am a little out of shape, and I am over 3000 metres above sea level. Pushing on and puffing away, I spy the Ovoo atop the next hill line. I know from here I will get a view of the stunning Potanin glacier ringed with mountains all topped with crisp white peaks.
As I near the top, emotions kick in, my head awhirl with thoughts. Stuck in Mongolia, I have lost my home in Beijing, the family are safe but most of all I should be here at this time with a tour group. Every year for the last 8-9 years, I have been leading people of all walks of life to this unbelievably beautiful place. I realise I have enjoyed my journey, but I miss the tour groups and the company that they bring.
As I reach the Ovoo, the scenery is as I remember, words cannot describe the exquisiteness of the area. However, it does remind me of those, wildlife documentaries I watched when younger.
Back then, I could only dream of touching a glacier; now it's part of my life.
I smile I am sure this year's tour would have been great; anyway I have the further adventure to complete Hoton and Khurgan lakes. As I turn to return to the car, the sweet smell of incense fills a heavily clouded sky, and Lou Reed's it's a Perfect Day pops into my head.
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