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!”
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…