Published: January 20th 2006January 18th 2006
My ger for the 1st night
I almost froze to death here. I had 3 pairs of pants on, 4 shirts, two tuques, a pair of gloves and 3 covers including a -25C rated sleeping bag... and still I was cold!
Jan 13-18, 2006
Temp: -25 to -30C during the day and -33 to -40C at night… WHOA Momma!
Snow cover: 7cm (very arid here)
Warning: this is a LONG blog… for this reason I have included an index:
2) Irkutsk to Ulaabataar (UB) Train Ride
4) Mongol Empire History
5) JDV’s Dog Sledding Adventure 1) Intro
I can now say that I have lived through some of the coldest temperatures I have ever experienced. Before I get ahead of myself, I will recount the most frustrating train journey of my life. 2) Irkutsk to Ulaanbaatar Train Ride
We’ll pick up where I left off last in Irkutsk (Siberia) where I boarded a train headed to Ulaanbaatar (UB). I could not figure out how it was going to take us 36 hours to travel a mere 800 kms given that we were polishing off a good 1500 kms during this time on the TransSib. I soon found out why when we were stopped at the Russian/Mongolian border for… ready for this?!... 9.5 hours! We sat on the Russian side for 6 hours and the Mongolian side for 3.5 hours while they did
Baisa bringing up the rear... we spent 95% of our time travelling across frozen rivers.
God knows what. Every so often we felt the train cars jolt forwards and backwards and then we’d travel a couple hundred feet in either direction. At one point, I got off to find that our car had been isolated and neither of the 15 other cars nor the engine were even in sight. I guess this is how they go about checking for contraband and unwanted entrants. At any rate, not only were we held for 9.5 hours, but the washrooms were locked during this time! At the end of it all, I had basically resolved myself to a meditative state whereby nothing was going to faze me… I just knew that at some point it would be over and sure enough it was. A close second on the ‘this sucks’ scale was that of the 36 hours, we were actually moving during daylight (ie. got to see the countryside) for a mere 4 hours! All in all, I would suggest flying from Irkutsk to UB unless thorough research in analyzing human frustration is your idea of a good time. 3) Ulaanbaatar
I arrived in UB at 07:00 on January 13th and the mercury (getting close to needing an
It's a bit tricky to make out, but this contraption is rather ingenious. Fire was lovely... this day it was -35C DURING THE DAY... frostbite was the order but I managed to escape; thick skin coming in handy!
alcohol based thermometer) read -32C! I think I was the only westerner on the train who found this thrilling and I was first in line to jump off and suck the frigid air. I was not 2 feet into it when I began coughing incessantly… perfect… just getting acclimatized… hmmmm… 4 days later, I still have this cough… oh well. I was whisked off to my hotel by the tour people who were supposed to meet me at the train station. I had 4 hours to shower, pack things for the dog sled trip and eat… all was successfully accomplished in the allotted time I am pleased to report.
Before we get to the good stuff, I should mention a few words about UB. UB is home to nearly 50% of Mongolia’s 2.5 million inhabitants. It is a sprawling city with some of the WORST air pollution I have ever witnessed. The city consists of apartments, homes and ger districts. Gers are circular ‘tents’ which the nomadic people have lived in for centuries and still do today. Many have moved to the city for a ‘better life’ but still live in gers. At any rate, most homes don’t have central
Dog Sledding on sheer ice
The dogs had a tricky time on the ice whilst the sled swung round side to side!
heating and either burn wood or coal littering the air with heavy particulate matter… it is suffocating! The day before I arrived, 9 parliament members decided to quit sending the government into chaos. The Democratic party had demonstrated the day before and had even crashed the Communist party headquarters lobbing rocks and breaking windows. The day I arrived saw the Communist party members filing through the streets… at least calmly when I saw them go by. Apparently the government is Democratic but the parliament is run by the Communists so nothing gets done… isn’t that like the US?! At any rate, things seem to have calmed down for the time being… a day more would be nice so I can leave under a cloud of coal smoke and not bomb smoke please. 4) Mongol Empire History
This year marks the 800th anniversary of the start of the Great Mongol Empire. While Mongolia is really a backward 3rd world country, it hasn’t always been this way. At its peak, The Mongol Empire stretched from Iran to China and was the brainchild of Ghengis Khan. Ghengis Khan started from VERY meager beginnings in the steppes of northern Mongolia living a typical nomadic
Mongol horseman and his horses
This fellow is wearing the traditional 'deel' which even city folk clad themselves with.
lifestyle. By the age of 50 his ‘empire’ didn’t reach much farther than the few mountains and valleys surrounding his homeland. In the next 20 years however, he set about taking over large swaths of land and creating one of the most sophisticated, tolerant and enterprising empires mankind has ever seen. I recently read a great book called “The Genghis Khan: the making of the modern world”... I would suggest a read as virtually NOTHING was known about Genghis Khan nor the Mongol empire due to document destruction by the Russians and much of his homeland being ‘off limits’ (again the Russians). Through history, the Mongols have had a very bad rap and even today we witness bits of the hatred in our language. A baby born with Down Syndrome is still often referred to as ‘Mongoloid.’ Most historians have chosen to portray the Mongols as ugly barbaric villains who literally raped swaths of land as they rode their horses across Eurasia. While the author of the aforementioned book sheds the Mongols and their empire in a much different light, I would imagine the truth lies somewhere in between. My personal opinion is that Genghis Khan was one of the
great ‘mafia’ dons of our time. He basically would approach a monarchy or city and say ‘surrender and send me 10% of our output or else.’ Many refused and then were victim to the ruthless warfare of the Mongols who seldom lost even though they were almost always outnumbered and fighting thousands of kilometers away from ‘home.’ Genghis Khan however used his empire to bring goods and skills from Asia and Europe together which had not been done before. He created the Silk Road which was the largest free trade zone ever created. He even invented and implemented the first working postal system. Accomplishments of the Mongol empire have implications on the way in which we live today and I would strongly suggest you read about it; you will be shocked and amazed! 5) JDV’s Dog Sledding Adventure
Ok, enough history. We left the next day for our first night which was to include ice fishing. Unfortunately the ice was too thick (more than 1 meter!) and they needed to create a new drill to get to water. We went for a brief horse ride instead. The brevity was a function of the temperature which effectively diminished our desire! My
Great view above valley floor!
We took the dogs (or rather they took us) up a few hundred meters for this fantastic view!
guide, Baisa, is 21 and studies economics at university. This is his first guiding trip in the winter and he packed two full bags compared to my one small backpack… I travel lightly! Apparently my trip was the only one in January and everyone was keen to meet me at the ‘Nomad Tours’ office as they were wondering who was insane enough to visit Mongolia in the winter! ‘Oh, you’re Canadian… I guess you’re used to this’… if I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard this… no, I’m not used to this but bring it on!
We left the next day with our trusty turbo diesel ‘Defender’ Land Rover (yes, Ron/Randy… it did have a snorkel for all one’s snorkeling needs). We were to take a short cut (I like short cuts) and had a nomad along the ride to guide us along. It had snowed the day before and was blustery and foggy but damned if this guy was going to get us lost… he nailed our destination bang on. We met Joel, the French musher, and his helper who were going to be our dog sled guides.
Incidentally, dog sledding originated in Canada in the 17th
century. The French Canadians began using dogs to pull equipment (and their lazy behinds… ok, that wasn’t nice… couldn’t help it) across the snow. They would yell ‘marche’ to the dogs in encouragement. We English folk thought it sounded like ‘mush’ and hence called them ‘mushers.’
We loaded up our stuff and received our 5 minute (Safety Steve/Stubbs would not approve) orientation lesson. There is one speed for the dogs: full speed ahead… there are breaks on the back of the sleds to slow them down… stopping them on ice is impossible! Each sleigh had 4 dogs except Joel’s which had 6 because his assistant was also on the back. Joel would yell ‘droite’ ‘gauche’ or ‘devant’ in directing the lead dog. It was pleasing when our dogs also followed rather than careening into river banks or trees. We traveled over rivers most of the way as they were frozen for the most part and easy to navigate. Even though it was -30C there were spots where the river was not frozen. This was more due to the angle of the sun hitting the ice and melting the top layer. We would go through the water and sometimes even fall
The only potty I saw in 5 days!
They had a cloth seat cover; I can't imagine what -30C + no cover =s... ?!
a good foot or two until hitting the solid underlying layer of ice. Other times, we would travel across the ice and hear cracks and creaks whilst hoping the ice wouldn’t give! Joel assured us there was always ice below… it was just a matter of a few feet at times. The scenery, as you can see from the photos was spectacular. Steppe landscape, jagged mountains and meandering river beds… unlike any geography I have ever seen. We would pass herds of cattle or wild horses… nomads collecting water from the rivers… wolf and fox tracks everywhere… absolutely stunning country.
We stayed each of the 4 nights in various gers with nomadic families. Every time we entered we would have tea and food put in front of us. Mongolia is not a kind place if you are a vegetarian. Mongolians think that eating too many vegetables is problematic and feel its food for sheep and not humans (such advanced thought: I could not agree more!!). I have never eaten so much meat in my life! Each ger is identical in layout. There is a small door which always faces south. There are a few practical reasons for this: maximum sunlight,
shelter from predominant and cold north wind and easy to see the invading Chinese coming! The centre has a fire stove which heats the ger and is used for cooking of all kinds. Beds (3 or 4) line the felt walls as does a Buddhist alter. The Mongolians are very friendly and happy to accommodate tourists in their homes. Joel commented that there is no hierarchy in Mongolian culture. Whether one is from the city or a nomad, regardless if they have never met, they would be in full conversation and laughing within minutes of becoming acquainted… western culture could certainly learn from this.
Our days consisted of three dog sled jaunts of approximately 10 kms each… broken up by a tea break (usually in a ger) and lunch (usually on the side of the river with a fire). We would arrive at the night’s lodging in the late afternoon and would basically eat and drink tea until 21:00ish and pass out to the sounds of howling wolves. The ger fire would be periodically stoked to prevent the latent temperature falling to meet the outside temperature of -35C… this made it difficult to sleep as the fluctuation in temperatures was
Close up dog pic
These were two of the better behaved dogs... sadly not on my sled!
more than 25C with at least two peaks and troughs throughout the night. It was enough for me to get a migraine on the second day (changing temperature and pressure is a common trigger for migraines)… however it was actually pleasing when I found out it was a migraine and not frost bite. The second day was particularly cold and Joel froze part of his face and Baisa the bottoms of his ears. When we stopped for lunch I took off my glove and realized that I could not feel my thumb. I immediately thought I had frozen it but quickly figured as the numbness moved across my hand that I was in the early stages of ‘aura’ which in my case precedes the migraine. Luckily I had medication with me and was able to avert the worst of the headache. Furthermore, I have all my digits which are happily typing away with few problems!
I won’t ramble too much more other than to say that dog sledding is a fantastic mode of transportation. It is fast enough that one is able to cover ‘good ground’ (in all we traveled 110 kms) and slow enough that one is able to
Nomad lady making booze
Booze is one of the national foods... dumplings filled with onions and meat... YUMMY!
appreciate the surroundings without feeling rushed. It is quiet and has relatively little negative environmental impact. I would certainly take another trip of this nature. Mongolia is a vast and fascinating country. It’s history, people and geography being the major contributing factors.
I trust this finds you all well… its Beijing next for me and then off to thaw out on the beaches of the Palawan Islands in the Philippines. I will be back to Vancouver in early February and look forward to seeing you all then.
PS... special hello to all the St. Paul's and Burrard Street Surgery gang... I've gotten your messages and am glad you're enjoying the blogs!
There are more photos below