The Views from the Top (Eden Camp)
The next morning, we woke up early to hike the rocky peak behind our camp. Boggi, our guide, had assured us that it was perfectly safe to do so and wouldn’t be too hard. We had some time before breakfast and with the camp plunged in silence — we began our uphill climb. There was no marked trail and the grass was still damp with the rain, from the previous night, making the climb slippery but not particularly difficult. We found skeletal remains of animals, animal droppings, wild flowers, and mushrooms growing with wild abandon. There was no sign of a previous human presence here. No footprints, empty bottles, or trash that you’d otherwise see in isolated spots like these.
Roughly, 15 minutes later, we were on top of the ridge. The climb was easier than it had looked from below. The views from the top were spectacular. Walking along the ridge was perfect to enjoy a panoramic view of Khogno Khan National Park and get an idea of how vast and desolate it truly was. You begin to realise how vulnerable we are, as a species, when you pit yourself against a rugged landscape like this.
Basil was in his element and walking along the edge of the ridge came quite naturally to him. I was so struck by the view that I temporarily forgot about my fear of heights and I tried to blindly walk in his footsteps. Turns out, fear knows exactly when to make its presence felt and the view does little for you — when it strikes. So, unlike his deeply contemplative pictures against the backdrop of the peaks; I got some rather ungainly shots of me — trying to show — that I was barely standing on the ridge.
The Great Lifestock Crossing
We left Eden Camp shortly after breakfast. Boggi was determined that I ride a Bactrian camel in the desert and had decided to make a quick pit stop at the camel herder’s ger. It was the third day of our trip and I was still amazed by how different the landscape looked with the changing sky. En route, we passed by ginormous herds of livestock alternating between cattle, sheep, and goat. Boggi was quick to rattle the facts. The population of Mongolia is about 3 million people. In contrast, the total number of livestock is a whopping 55.9 million animals — inclusive of cattle, sheep, goat, camels, and horses. These numbers are believable when you travel in the countryside and see animals dominate the scene.
In the past, nomadic herdsmen would ride a horse to roundup the animals. These days, they prefer using a motorbike to get their livestock together. It is a hard job tending to these animals and ensuring they don’t mix with another nomad’s livestock or worse — get attacked by predators.
Bactrian Camel Ride at Mini-Gobi
The wind literally threatens to carry you away at the Mini-Gobi. Now, I don’t believe in riding animals, especially on a trip, and try hard to avoid if possible. It feels very touristy and I had explained my reasons to Boggi. Additionally, I’ve always wondered why do we have to ride animals? It isn’t a symbiotic relationship and the animal has nothing to gain from it. I also understand, for the desert nomads, it’s an essential form of transport and they don’t have the luxury of such ideals.
Eventually, I succumbed to Boggi’s pressure and nervously sat on a Bactrian Camel. Bactrian camels have a better grip than regular camels. The double hump is ideal for seating and gives you something to hold on to. The herdsman gave us basic instructions: nothing should fly away during the ride (like my cap) or the camel could just run away. I was quickly converted within the first five minutes. I tried not to shiver with cold and was happy to warm my palms with the camel’s coarse hair. It was a spiritual experience of sorts — in which you feel one with the animal and nature. Everything effortlessly blends together.
Next, we entered one of the gers (also a homestay for tourists) of the camel herder. We were offered Mongolian tea and snuff (to sniff on) by the patriarch of the family. It was nice and warm inside and the tea was perfect. There are some simple rules to follow when you enter a ger and it’s always nice to ask before you click pictures.
From the desert, it was time to retrace our path along the muddy roads that we had covered on the previous day. The rainwater had dried up and we could see empty beds form veins in the mud.
As the vehicle tossed me around — I managed to click few pictures of the view outside my window. The sun was out and the clouds were glorious as ever.
We hit the tarred road once again. This time, we could see the landscape light up under the sun. We passed by ovoos and stupas and couldn’t get enough of how beautiful everything looked.
The journey of the previous day had left one of the tyres a little low on air. So we decided to visit Karakoram — the nearest town. Before we reached the town, Saikhna (our driver) spotted another repair shop and hoped we could get the tyre fixed there instead. There was a dump yard on the opposite side of the road. It was fascinating and disturbing to see Mongolian vultures and hawk scavenge among human trash. It was the only time we saw the Mongolian vulture in the wild.
Somewhere in the Middle of Nowhere
We couldn’t get the tyre fixed at the previous pit stop, so we had to visit Karakoram town. Boggi was worried about our footwear for the evening hike and suggested we buy hiking boots. We lost about an hour here and decided to have our lunch (packed by the camp staff) somewhere along the way. Sadly, it was too cold to eat outside the vehicle and we had to enjoy the views from inside.
Because of the difficulty of terrain at the next leg of the journey, we had to wait for another tour group to join us. We had to cover about 130 km to reach the next stop — Tovkhon Monastery, before we could finally retire for the day at the nomadic family homestay in Orkhon Valley (next post).