Help! We’re Lost in a Mongolian Forest.

After the camel ride and lunch, we proceeded towards Tovkhon Monastery — our last attraction for the day. The monastery is roughly 100 km from Karakorum. Our guide was worried about the condition of the roads near the monastery. The rains could have destroyed the dirt roads and there was no way of knowing how bad things were until we reached there. As a precautionary measure; we tagged along with another tour group from the same travel company. En route, we crossed the vast plains of Orkhon Valley (our pit stop for the night). Sadly, we couldn’t click pictures of grazing livestock, the glistening river, and wide blue sky. The sun was out and that was a good sign. We drove for a couple of hours, dangerously skidded once, before reaching a vantage viewing point. From here, it was only an hour to the main entrance.

The views from the vantage viewing point were fantastic. I circled an Ovoo, with the drivers, for good luck and took in the fresh air. Honestly, I was too tired with the changing temperatures and bumpy ride. I wanted to sit there and take some rest. But we didn’t have the time.

The Khangai Mountains were covered under a blanket of trees and did a fantastic job of hiding the green rooftop of the monastery (seventh picture from the top). The downhill drive was pretty scary. The travellers from the other vehicle had to walk down the steep slope.

We reached the main entrance of the national park at 4 pm. All the tour vehicles were at a makeshift parking lot — 20 minutes from the main entrance. we had to hike the mountain to reach Tovkhon Monastery. I was so tired with everything; I’d have preferred to sleep. I was in two minds about the hike and I finally decided to tag along.

Now, I don’t think the trail was particularly difficult. My cheap plastic boots (bought in Karakorum on Boggi’s insistence) made climbing challenging for me. I may not be an expert hiker, but I do know: it isn’t wise to break in a new pair of boots before a hike. The new boots aggravated the pain in my right knee (an old condition) and climbing was a tortuous ordeal. The uneven ground made it harder to get a clear grip. I wanted to give up on multiple occasions. Boggi and Basil were clearly ahead of me. It’s hard to describe the feeling of lagging behind and struggling on a trail that should have been cakewalk after all the Korean hikes I’d been on.

The trail had very little water on it. Probably, it had dried up in the sun. But the extent of damage was pretty evident. Had we come a day before — we would have had to climb up a slippery mud trail.

It took me nearly 2 hours (with multiple halts) to reach the top of the peak. It wasn’t my lucky day. The monastery was tucked in the rocky face of the mountain. At this point, I thought I wouldn’t go further. Basil told me to take some rest and think about it. We entered the lama’s ger and they offered us some mare’s milk — which I politely declined. Two lamas stayed here through the year. The younger lama was yet to complete his education in Buddhist studies.

After a brief period of rest, I was reasonably excited to explore the monastery above. A narrow trail leads to another steep trail of stony steps. Running water was flowing over the steps and keeping our balance — on the slippery trail — wasn’t easy. After a few tense moments, we reached in one piece (no broken teeth or bones) at the main gate of the monastery.

It was certainly not my lucky day. Tovkhon Monastery is a collection of smaller monasteries spread across the rocky face of the mountain. I had only made it to one of the main prayer halls. Multiple paths lead a devotee/visitor to the other monasteries and sacred caves tucked in the mountain. My body had made the decision for me and I sat on a bench. Boggi spent her time walking around, clicking pictures, but didn’t go further. The younger lama was kind enough to open the doors of the prayer hall for us.

Basil climbed up and got these splendid (dizzying) views of the dense forest cover. As much as I wanted to take a sneak peak, the height had triggered my fear.

Now, while Boggi and I waited below, Basil snuck on the trail that hugs the mountain face and leads to the sacred caves of the monastery. Honestly, even back then, I knew this trail was a kind of death walk. Only after seeing these pictures, I knew I (unlike Basil) was wise not to try it out.

That’s Boggi sitting on the ridge (I was too scared to climb to that point). I have no idea how Basil clicked this picture. He had to be holding the flimsy, blue ribbon in one hand and must have been precariously perched on the narrow path.

It was nearing closing time and the lama was waiting for Basil to come back. I had started to worry about Basil’s return. Fortunately, Basil had decided to ditch the whole trail and break the rule of following the trail in the clockwise direction and retraced his steps back to us. Climbing down the slippery steps, from the monastery, was more tricky. I let out a sigh of relief when we made it to the lama’s ger below. I prepped my knee with my knee support and hoped to complete the trail without much strain on my right knee.

At first, our descent was pretty smooth. We were chatting, describing adventures of our past trips, and the trail didn’t feel difficult. I realised that we were taking another route on our downward journey, but wasn’t too worried, because I knew we’d eventually reach the main clearing — as long as we stuck to the trail. Somewhere, along the trail, Boggi realised we were on another path and felt it might be easier to stick to the path we had climbed earlier. So, we began cutting across the forest. And that was a big mistake. The forest was dense and covered with shrubs and mossy, fissures in the ground. It was beautiful and terrifying at the same time. My leg kept slipping into gaping holes and I needed to hold Basil’s hand to continue walking.

I knew we were lost. Now, I was on the verge of a panic attack and no one wanted to listen to me. I suggested: we retrace our path and go back. Instead, we kept going further. On a sloping forest floor, when you’re cutting across diagonally — it’s hard to know if you’re walking upward or downward. Finally, they agreed to stop walking across and descend downwards.

And then, Boggi started yelling.

“Sain bains uu!”

“Tuslaarai!”

“Tuslaarai!”

“Help!”

When your guide screams for help, there are only two things that you can do. You could choose to sit on the damp forest floor, rest your throbbing knee, and get some shut-eye. Or, muster all your courage and reset your body to survival mode. I knew I was the weakest link and if I slowed the others down — we wouldn’t make it out of the forest. That isn’t a very good idea when you don’t know what you’re up against in a Mongolian forest. Besides, we didn’t have water or food with us and the cellular network wasn’t working. I didn’t read about rescue missions anywhere. We had to exit the forest before sunset.

Fortunately, someone (perhaps a nomad) returned Boggi’s distress calls and became our beacon. That’s the sign that we needed. Basil started yelling louder and every call was returned with another sound from a distant location. We kept following the voice. By now, the forest had levelled and I didn’t need to hold Basil’s hand. It was a team effort of just wanting to get out without blaming anyone. In a few minutes, we could see sunlight. The voice had stopping calling back, but we had to simply follow the direction of the rays of the sun.

Once we reached the forest clearing, we all heaved a sigh of relief. Boggi had to find Saikhna, our driver, who was parked at the parking lot. So whilst she walked along the road to the parking lot, we walked towards the ger at the main entrance. We looked back at what we had escaped from. From this side, we could see what a mistake it was to try to cut across the dense forest. It was hard to spot trails or openings. The forest spread wildly from one peak to another.

It was nearing 8 pm and we had to head to the nomad’s homestay in Orkhon Valley. Our ordeal wasn’t over. The next two hours were equally terrifying. In Mongolia, in the heart of the country, when it’s dark — it’s pitch black. Saikhna did a brilliant job of driving in the middle of nowhere. At one point, our vehicle nearly toppled over as he tried to drive over a heap of lava rocks (next post). I’m not sure how they found the nomad’s ger in the darkness. I couldn’t see anything and prayed to every single travel god that existed. We finally reached the nomad’s ger at 10 pm.

“Bonjour!” said the Nomad’s wife.

I didn’t know what to say in return. For me, tourism had killed the true beauty of Mongolian nomadism long before we could observe it. From hereon, anything that we’d observe or experience — would only be a caricature of what we were meant to see.

We ate steamed dumplings (vegetarian for me) and smiled at the kids. Later that night; we drank Mongolian vodka with the drivers and tour guides. We laughed and exchanged stories by the fire. We also learned that few kids had gone missing in the same forest and had later been found eaten by wolves. We were lucky to have found our way outside.

Towards midnight, we admired the Milky Way and shivered in the cold. The night was long and the cold wind made sleep a distant memory in our ger…

39 responses to “Help! We’re Lost in a Mongolian Forest.

  1. This sounded like quite the hike, Cheryl – all good and bad rolled into one. Good to hear your knee held up and you didn’t push yourself at the top of the monastery. Going uphill can be more taxing on the body than you think. Basil sounds every bit the daredevil and probably put himself out there on a limb going the extra dangerous route 😀 Getting lost in the forest sounded so scary, and all around you the bush and trees must have looked the same. Good that the beacon came in handy and you got out in the end 🙂

    • It was a scary experience! 😦 Wearing the right kind of shoes is very important. I learned my lesson! My knee was feeling very bruised after the whole experience. In the forest, when you’re lost, everything does look the same. The sun and the guy who called back navigated out of it. It all ended well and we have a great story to tell! 🙂

  2. Gosh, what an adventure that was…I’m with you about getting lost…it’s a very despairing feeling…it happened to me once only I was lost driving around on a mountain with no service…and no idea which road led to the right way out…but yours would have been scarier…especially with the day getting dark…the fortunes must be on your side on that day…more, all the stars must have aligned on that day so I’m happy you made it out and survived that drive in the dark…👍😊

    • Surviving that forest wouldn’t have been easy. We haven’t seen that many episodes of Man vs Wild! lol. So, I’m glad we came through. The drive was equally scary. But had we needed to camp in the open, I wouldn’t be terrified. We had our supplies and we could have waited till morning and it would have been alright. 🙂

      • Hahaha…I can just imagine…driving in the dark is no fun for sure…glad that you had an alternative option then…better than nothing! 🙂

    • It tops the list of the scariest trips we’ve been on! You and Domingos would absolutely LOVE Mongolia! It’s so good to hear from you, Anjali. Belated birthday wishes! I should have marked it on my calendar. 😦 Basil didn’t even tell me! Hope you had a good one! xo

  3. There’s always something exciting in your posts, Cheryl! Is Buddhism very popular in Mongolia? The monastery seem to have different architecture than the ones in Tibet, Ladakh and Bhutan?

    • You bet! 🙂 I’m glad we’re alive to write about it. Buddhism was introduced in Mongolia by Kublai Khan — grandson of Chinggis Khan. They follow the Tibetan (Dalai Lama) sect of Buddhism. The monastery (inside) is actually very similar to the ones in Ladakh and Dharamshala (we haven’t been to Bhutan and Tibet yet). Externally, it might look different because of the Mongolian influence.

      • Chinngis Khan was born as Temüjin. After uniting the nomadic tribes and his ascension to power he was known as Chinggis Khan.
        Here’s an excerpt from Wikipedia:
        Temüjin was acknowledged as Khan of the consolidated tribes and took the new title “Genghis Khan”.
        Over here, Khan is a title of a military ruler.
        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khagan
        So Chinggis Khan wasn’t Muslim. Here’s another excerpt from Wikipedia:
        “Genghis Khan was a tengrist, but was religiously tolerant and interested in learning philosophical and moral lessons from other religions. He consulted Buddhist monks, Muslims, Christian missionaries, and the Taoist monk Qiu Chuji.[32]”
        Mongolians practiced shamanism (still existent) before the spread of Buddhism.
        Hope that answers your question. 🙂

      • Thank you for the detailed answer. On a different note, I have often wondered whether the history we know was accurate? For example we all know that most rulers would get daily journal recorded from their perspective. At times that’s the only recorded event we have. Nothing to do with this information you have mentioned but the recent controversies on Muslim rulers like Akbar and Aurangzeb is a good starting point. Thanks for the info Cheryl 😊

      • I guess history is a matter of perspective. I’m not sure if I’m aware of the controversies surrounding these two Mughal Emperors. Aurangzeb never had anything positive written about him. I’m curious about Akbar though. He was known as Akbar the Great! 🙂

      • Surely. I have read by a historian that record keeping or journaling was best in Egypt and Mesopotamia. In India it didn’t exist. Whatever we know about these two rulers have been questioned that both these images are on either sides. Which seems acceptable since everyone has both sides. I guess let’s leave it for the historians themselves. 😃😋

    • We rarely travel with guides on trips. 🙂 Our guide was from Southern Mongolia, so she wasn’t a local of this region (Central Mongolia). Mongolia, outside the cities, is hard to figure out or even navigate. We should have never wandered from the trail. I guess, she was worried about my knee or if I’d complete the trail. That’s how I reasoned it and we never blamed her. We made it to the ger and that’s what mattered. But the experience was scary for all of us and we were all pretty shaken.

  4. If you hadn’t gotten lost, you wouldn’t have gotten that great evening light and the lovely lavender-tinged photos! How’s that for a silver lining?! Seriously, I’m sure getting lost in the forest was quite scary. Interestingly, we also had a driver get woefully lost in the darkness of night as we tried to find our way back to our ger. It took two hours and many circles to find it, and we all finally climbed out of the vehicle to gaze at the Milky Way while the guide and driver tried to reach someone to guide us back. Maybe this is a common thing in Mongolia 🙂 … glad you made it back unscathed!

    • Hmm…possibly. Now that we’re back, I can laugh about the experience. Back then, it was super scary because the forest was a mix of bushes, trees, moss, and wild in every sense of the world. And there wasn’t a place to sit — if we had to spend the night. I hadn’t even thought about wild animals. The forest was terrifying enough. Finding gers isn’t very easy. Without proper markers and GPS, I wonder how the drivers navigate at all. I wouldn’t be worried if we had to spend the night in the vehicle. We had food and heating. It would have been pretty cool! Those lava rocks were scary (Orkhon Valley) and driving over them (in the darkness) was crazy! 🙂

    • hahaha…I know you were! I really don’t know how we got out of that forest! It was so SCARY and beautiful! Back then, I wasn’t scared of wolves. The cold and darkness was on my mind. I appreciate Seoul all the more now! lol…I hope you’re feeling better. The trees are turning yellow (and red) outside. I love it! 🙂

  5. I do not think you could get lost in a more beautiful ~ peaceful place…perfect for an adventure. Wonderful writing and photography, something always to look forward to with your posts. Cheers to a great week ahead.

    • Thank you, Randall! 🙂 I agree with you. We couldn’t click pictures of the forest while we were lost in it, but the beauty of the place will remain etched in my memory forever. It’s one thing we all agreed upon — after we got back to the ger! I’ve never seen such diversity of plant life growing anywhere. But, I’m glad we made it back and wouldn’t want to repeat that again! 🙂 Thanks for stopping by. It’s always good to hear from you. Have a great week yourself.

  6. I can see why this adventure is not one to repeat – and your photos are wonderful – from the green to the artsy doors to the grand depth we can feel….

  7. Oh my J,
    what an adventure, Cheryl. And my the kids’ souls rest in peace.
    And for all the effort you both, and guide had made, comes beautiful pictures of it.
    And I was amazed by how you chose to buy the plastic boots for hiking a such area, not to mention the cheap part 😀 *pardon me*.
    As I reading your story, I think I find one perk of not travelling alone. 🙂

    • Hey Yuna! How have you been! Hope you’re doing well. It was sad to hear the story of the kids who went looking for fire wood and never came back. 😦
      Basil absolutely enjoyed taking these pictures. 🙂 I’m so glad you liked them!
      Abt the cheap boots! lol…we stopped by Karakhoram before lunch (previous post) to buy boots. Our guide thought rainwater would make the forest trail murky. It was bought in hurry and they didn’t fit me well. That’s what caused the problem. Basil liked his boots. 🙂

      • Than you, Cheryl.
        I am well, even though it’s moonson season already.
        I hope you are well too. ❤
        Yes, it's upsetting to hear about the kids.
        Ah, yes the, you needed some waterproof shoes then. Ah, that might be the biggest problem. It didn't fit.
        Through the adventure's thin and thick. I do hope you enjoyed every moment of it. 🙂

      • It’s still monsoon? I’ve been out of action after suffering a bad bout of cold and flu. Arghhh! Temps are dipping below 0 and I’m practically under house arrest.
        Now that I look back at the adventure in the forest — I think it was an unforgettable experience. That being said, I wouldn’t want to repeat it again! 🙂

  8. Pingback: A Day in the Life of a Mongolian Nomad | twobrownfeet·

  9. This post had me at the edge of my seat. So glad to hear that you found your way back to civilisation instead of dances with wolves! You wouldn’t have escaped from the pack especially with those boots on! I am curious about how you both ended up with a guide who is not a native of that area!

    • Writing about it made me relive our experience. I didn’t think of wolves back then. I was more worried about the cold and having to go without food and water. The forest had no flat ground. It was captivating, beautiful and frightening. Without light we’d be helpless.
      We signed up for a week long tour of central Mongolia with a Franco-Mongolian Travel agency. Central Mongolia covers a vast area of desolate landscape and barely has any people (like the rest of the country). Guides are chosen by experience and are trained accordingly. Honestly, it’s the same principle all over the world, unless you are on a Himalayan expedition or a specialised research trip. Our guide was experienced, but she should have stuck to the trail. It was an ordinary hike and wasn’t challenging at all! I believe she chose to go off the trail because of my knee. It was a bad decision, I agree! Mistakes happen on trips. But, truthfully, I don’t think even a local could have figured the route (because there was none) out without difficulty! In the ger, later that night, we heard that two other tour groups had got lost. We were forewarned to be prepared for any kind of situation (in the pre-rout booklet). One must understand that in certain terrains, unpredictability is what makes the trip adventurous! 🙂

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