Monday, 30 July 2012

Looking for Khovd

The journey to Khovd from Uliastai was planned to be split over two days, partly due to the distance involved and the condition of the roads. We’d heard there were tourist ger camps near some lakes a days drive away, so hoped to stay there and perhaps have a swim in the evening.

Side streets of Uliastai after a thunderstorm.
 I’d enjoyed my stay in Uliastai; it was a pleasant little place with a gentle feel and the surrounding mountains almost felt like paternal arms around the town. The previous two places felt a bit like frontier garrisons, but Uliastai seemed to have an identity and purpose of it’s own, despite the fact I read it too was established as a garrison town by the Manchurians, whoever they were.

On our last night there, we took some food down to the river, just bread, tuna, some bad spreadable cheese, an onion and a jar of strawberries, washed down with a couple of beers and had a sunset picnic. Ben and I went into the waist-deep freezing river for a bit of a paddle, but it was too cold to immerse myself for long.
Our picnic down by the river.
We left the next morning just after 8am and were soon on the steppe highway of sandy tracks through open grasslands and rocky peaks. I really enjoyed the ride, it wasn’t too bumpy, or I was getting used to being rattled about, and the spectacular scenery was an ever changing Windows standard screensaver.

The road towards Khovd - a Windows desktop wallpaper all the way.
Land of the blue sky.
These little square huts are fairly frequent on the steppe, and are a shelter for herders.
Pretty, isn't it.
Ben in the cave.
Around noon we took a 90 degree turn from the track we  were following to head towards some rocky outcrops a few miles to our left. Our driver knew of a deep cave in a small canyon and so when we stopped we dug our torches out of our bags and made our way up the scree and into the mouth of the mountain. The chamber quickly turned into a narrow oesophagus, and the darkness swallowed us up when we turned our lights off to experience pitch black. At first the cave felt very clean, almost as if it were made of fiberglass and I was actually at a theme park, it then involved a little bit of climbing, and only Ben and I continued into the darkness. It began to get wetter and dirtier, as well as much shallower, and I became slightly shallow of breath as the air deteriorated. We were crawling on our knees and elbows by the end and wouldn’t have been able to go any further without sliding on our bellies, which we decided against as we didn’t know where the next shower would be coming from. We could hear the girls calling as we started to make our way back, and decided to approach in silence in order to try and give them a fright. We also decided to turn our torches off, should they give us away, and so very gingerly edged our way back, feeling every surface with every inch of available flesh in a black darker than death. I really enjoyed this, unusually the dark didn’t bother me and it was a great sensory experience. At one point I couldn’t feel any more surface for my feet, so we flashed the red night-light on, to reveal an 8 foot ankle-breaking drop onto boulders. We navigated the danger before continuing in pitch black, occasionally hearing the girls voices as we edged forward. Eventually we began to see a splinter of light that grew into a soft glow before becoming blinding white; it was the entrance to the cave and we had reached sunlight. The girls were outside waiting, having got bored waiting by torchlight perched upon a rock, we’d traversed the entire way back without our eyes. We had the remainder of the night before’s picnic, bread and tuna, before getting back on the road.

Cave man.
I didn't get bored of it all day.
Steppe highway.
In the afternoon the grasslands gave way to gravel fields and desert and the sun pressed down like a hot weight against my skin. I have one arm twice as tanned as the other, due to it being draped out of the window for most of the journey. All day, even in the grasslands, we hadn’t passed a settlement and I can’t recall a single solitary ger or herder that I saw, and we perhaps only passed four oncoming vehicles; it really was remote. The desert again was a field of bones. Mongolia is famous for having excellent fossil deposits; well when we are all extinct dinosaurs, the fossil deposits will continue as skeletons sleep everywhere you look here. I wondered if some great animal war had taken place, but then recalled reading that a few very harsh winters killed millions of livestock, perhaps some of these were the evidence.

Skinning the sheep.
Eventually we reached a small ger settlement, two or three families were settled out in the desert, next to a strange old brick built house that apparently used to be a type of hotel, a halfway house for those on this journey. There was no sign of the tourist ger camp we had heard of or hoped for, and nowhere to stay here, and the day was drawing to a close. The families were offering food, and whilst I declined a meal, we waited there an hour while the others ate. Other travelers were also taking food here; we met four motorcyclists from Switzerland who were on a 5 month adventure, and a French researcher called Fred who was with a party from Khovd university, and he invited us to come and spend the night out in the desert with them. We had nowhere else to go, so we made our way out to the outpost, which was the only building left from some Russian collective abandoned nearly 30 years ago. There was no power or running water, and when we arrived two Mongolians were skinning and gutting a sheep on the porch, so I sat and watched the process of that, which was fascinating and gruesome at the same time. Ben and I played a bit of basketball with a group of Mongolians on an old cracked court covered with shards of glass and lumps of concrete. We lost 6-1, but I didn't feel too bad about it considering they play it all the time and I've not played since I was 17, and I'm always happy when I manage to score, regardless of the result. Selfish player. The building itself was crooked but clean, just the odd cobweb and pile of bat shit, but that’s to be expected. We were jokingly warned of the ghosts, and it was a perfect setting for a horror movie with it being so remote and featureless around the horizon, but I never once let my imagination trick me into fear, perhaps that part of my childhood has finally evaporated.
You don't see this in Tesco.
Cutting the stomach from the oesophagus - a horrible smell of rotting grass wafted out.
Ladling out the blood from the chest cavity - this will be stuffed with the fat into the organs and boiled - delicious!
One thing that hadn’t evaporated under the desert sun was a huge lake that stretched as far as the horizon just a few hundred metres away, and we changed into our shorts and waded out into the water. It was ever so shallow and 100 metres out it was still only thigh deep. We bathed for a while and washed the dust from our pores as the final rays of the day made their way to us. Bad planning on my part meant that I was out of water. I had a few mouthfuls of juice left, and a warm can of beer I’d been carrying since the barbecue at Bayankhongor. I decided to save the juice for breakfast, so spent the dusk and early part of the night sipping on that can, much to the jealousy of the Swiss biker I was chatting with who cried a Shakespearean ‘My kingdom for a beer!’. Bats flittered about and mosquitos bit as we talked of everything between here and home, and I took a twenty minute exposure of the outpost. I’d wanted to do some star trails but sods law this would be the one night with thick cloud. I was asked by a Mongolian if I wanted a shot of vodka, of course I did so I was sent into a room of six young Mongolian men, none of whom really spoke English, and I’d been given five cupfuls before I left. I thought it would help me sleep on the hard wooden floor: it did and I woke up with a mild headache rather than backache.

Bathing in the lake - Unuru and Zaya.
The abandoned outpost.
Twenty minute exposure - the light trails are people's torches as they go for a wee.
Looking down on the van.
The next day we continued through the desert and later in the morning we made a stop to have a look at a hydro electric power plant, which was just a dam, a building and a substation looking thing, but I was treated to a decent flight display by some Swallows. We also took a short break by another lake, I scrambled up the red rocky hill for an explore and a photo from the top, discovering some abandoned eagles nests along the way.

We arrived in Khovd (silent K) by late lunchtime, so went straight to a hotel restaurant and I had a soup, which consisted of meat and chunks of potato and carrot in an oily water, and a potato and spam salad, which I enjoyed more. We then went to the children’s centre in which we would be staying and working, where more food, an almost identical meal, was put in front of us. I managed to eat most of it. Later on we went out to the children’s park, which had a bit of a fun fair, with a small roller coaster, swinging pirate ship and carousel and so on. We bought two tickets each which cost 50p per ride. We went on the roller coaster which was entertaining enough as I’ve never been the biggest white knuckle ride enthusiast, and then on the swing carousel which was quite good fun. We wandered about and some kids were playing football with a flat ball, I decided to join in and enjoyed being the best player on the park for once, and wasn’t afraid to muscle the teenagers off the ball with my slender but still adult frame; they were too old to patronise but too young to compete against. We went to a Buddhist temple which was next door and had a walk around the fairly unkept complex, before retiring to the children’s centre for the night.

Big kid - hanging about in the children's park
When I was told I would be a big player in Asia, this isn't what I thought my agent meant.


  1. ...Outstanding pics + narrative again, I wanted give you B-, but its smiley faces all the way: really loving your virtual 'show & tell'. Did you see the sheep being killed Ben? I once saw Mongolian's kill a sheep on TV: small slit to the belly, reach in deep with their hand with a quick squeeze to the heart - lights out? So, if any locals approach you with a knife.....?

  2. I spy an ET Weather picture!! All that's missing is the Lido!

  3. Nice stuff mate - ditto what andrew said. By the way, you should consider buying a new shirt... Jem

  4. Cheers. Haha, the Posh shirt? All those pictures were taken on the same day. I do sometimes get changed. Honest. I did just do 5 days without a shower though. Because there wasn't one.