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Published: November 24th 2019
The 8 Lakes horsetrek in Orkhon Valley
Day 2 camp was a beautiful place to wake up.
Having the lowest population density of any country on Earth has always made Mongolia extremely appealing to Magdalena and me; this is the reason why when living in Newcastle we often chose to go hiking in the invariably empty Cheviots, the UK’s least visited national Park, as opposed to the much lovelier but also much busier Lake District. Every Mongolian square kilometre averages just 1.9 people, compare that to 274 people per km2 in the UK, 334 per km2 in Japan, which I now call home, and a thoroughly cosy 18,960 per km2 in list-topping Monaco.
A consequent highlight of Mongolia’s emptiness is that you can pick a direction and walk. You will see more wildlife than humans, more animal tracks than vehicle tracks, and hear more bird song and animal noises than mobile phone social media notifications.
The Russian part of our Trans-Siberian Rail trip had to be planned carefully because train tickets were bought a couple of months in advance and that dictated what we could do, where and when. Then we arrived in Mongolia with nothing booked and only a vague idea of what we wanted to do. This soon changed when we heard
that the closest national park to Ulan Bator – Gorkhi Terelj – had left several tourists we met disappointed (lots of people, busy dirty ger camps playing loud music till late, a road under construction to get there – none of this I can confirm). We decided against the much recommended Khovsgol Lake because the 12-hour bus journey wasn’t appealing after our nightmare 14.5-hour bus ride from Russia into Mongolia (see previous blog) and also because we’d just spent quite a bit of time at Lake Baikal. We skipped the Gobi Desert because we wanted some steppe rather than some sand. We decided on central Mongolia from where we could always stop at the “Mini-Gobi” on the way back (this we didn’t do as the views of the sand dunes beside the road were largely blocked by tour buses and large groups on camels).
After escaping the better than expected Ulan Bator, we arrived in Karakorum without much of a plan. The monastery was worth seeing, but perhaps not worth going to see, but the great joy of the place was just strolling out of the back of the guesthouse and wandering in the hills. It was
also one of those guesthouses that remind me of backpacking in former days when people talked to each other rather than sitting on laptops (the wi-fi was dire) and there were interesting people in such an out of the way place with whom we shared travellers’ tales, travelling tips, pots of tea, and email addresses.
Because we were in Mongolia, it seemed only right to do a horse trek. The guesthouse had big photos on the wall of some very pretty lakes. We inquired about the location of the photos and they had been taken in the Eight Lakes Valley, which was the upper part of the Olkhon Valley. This wasn’t too far from where we were, by Mongolian standards of vast distances, and it turned out we could do a 4-day horse trek to reach the lakes. Despite having little to no horse-riding experience, we signed up.
A 3-hour drive along potholed tarmac, then bumpy dirt road with a few forded rivers, and finally trackless steppe, brought us to Orkhon Waterfall. Given the nature of the drive, we were surprised by how busy it was. There are a lot of ger camps, many
The 8 Lakes horsetrek in Orkhon Valley
Final camp on Day 3. This one had a hot shower and sold beer!
of which operate horse treks, though we assume people don’t get much further than just here as numbers thinned rapidly when we eventually set off up the valley. The waterfall itself is apparently Mongolia’s tallest. At about 15 m, I find that fact hard to believe given the massive Altai Mountains in the west of the country and others elsewhere. The waterfall was pretty but also pretty busy thus we were eager to set off.
One thing to note about the car journey to the waterfall, I say “one thing to note” but it was actually one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen: Speeding along the dirt tracks of the steppe, or making our own new tracks around waterlogged patches, swerving between boulders, we regularly saw eagles, buzzards and vultures soaring overhead. We also regularly scared the crap out of ground squirrels that would rapidly scramble into burrows as we zoomed past. One little chap that appeared atop a rock on the left of us as we approached decided to take a long route in scampering right across the front of our car aiming for a hole about 15 m away on the right. We all
Somewhere on the 8 Lakes horsetrek in Orkhon Valley.
giggled at him as he shot across our path until suddenly from over our shoulder a massive golden eagle plummeted from the sky and slammed into the ground where the ground squirrel had just been scurrying. The three of us, Magdalena, driver and me, all WOWWED!! involuntarily and quite loudly. The difference in size was like a human running along and a 747 landing on their head. But it missed. The little rodent had made it to its burrow just in time and the big eagle, seemingly with a lot of effort as it must have weighed a fair bit, climbed hungrily back into the air. It lasted a mere moment, but I still remember it with awe.
We met our horse guide and his family in his ger where we had a meaty pasta soupy lunch – standard Mongolian fare. He spoke almost no English, just “left” “right” and “stop”, though he did speak a bit of French. For some reason, most of the tourists in Central Mongolia are from France. When you pass other tourists in these parts the first proffered greeting is “bonjour”. Apparently, all the tourists around the Gobi Desert in the south
The 8 Lakes horsetrek in Orkhon Valley
More forest than we expected. Mongolia seemingly isn't just grassland steppe.
are Korean and everyone around Khovsgol Lake in the north are German. Travel fashions I suppose.
For some reason, I was put on the smallest horse of the four. Mongolian ponies are fairly small anyway, but why Magdalena, our guide, and the baggage required bigger horses than me – the biggest person in the group – was uncertain. Maybe that contributed to the reason why my horse refused to go. As Magdalena and the guide waltzed off up the valley with the baggage horse in tow, mine just stood. It took the guide circling back and whipping it on the bum to get it moving, though not for long. Even when it did walk it went much slower and frequently stopped. I was given a stick for hitting it with but I think it knew I didn’t want to use it. I asked the guide its name so I could encourage it onwards. “It is called horse” he answered bemusedly.
So the day progressed with the other two walking and trotting off in the distance while I ambled, stopped for a bit, then with some gentle encouragement got into a really uncomfortable trot to catch up. The foam
saddles have a thick metal rod looped underneath them but mine was a bit worn thus every trot I came down on the metal. Not knowing how to ride didn’t help either as I’m sure I didn’t have to slam into it with every trot. It was initially just a bit annoying but it would become quite a problem.
Despite my pony woes, the scenery was stunning. We only went about 3 hours up the valley on the first day, which involved crossing and re-crossing a river passing supping herds of yaks, along the broad grassy floodplain while eagles circled overhead, and stopping at many of the ger camps to say hello and have a drink of fermented horse milk (nicer than it sounds). It wasn’t the endless steppe that we expected, rather the valley was hemmed in by quite high and forested mountains.
The camp consisted of three gers at the edge of the plain where the forest began. It was a lovely spot, and absolutely silent until the yaks and goats were herded back. The gers themselves were remarkably comfortable. I didn’t expect to see furniture like proper beds and cabinets, on top of thick carpets
The 8 Lakes horsetrek in Orkhon Valley
On day 3 when I had finally got the hang of handling a horse.
with more decorated carpets lining the inside walls. The wooden struts holding the thing up were painted with bright patterns and the ornaments, photographs and wide range of pots, pans and crockery made them extremely homely. The ubiquitous stove with its chimney poking up through the roof serves to cook the dinner, make the tea, heat the tent and provide the soundtrack as the burning logs pop and sizzle. The family living there were really nice and very welcoming, especially the tiny daughter who fed us chewing gum straight into our mouths, only after which did we realise the brown stuff on her ankles was where she picked up and rubbed goat cack so that she could more easily slip into her glittery plastic party shoes.
A river ran through the forest offering the opportunity for a refreshing but freezing shower of sorts. I thought the strange pain from my behind was just due to the cold water. Later inspection – an unenviable job for someone – revealed my riding action on the metal of the saddle was actually causing quite a sore, well actually three sores; one left, one right, and one down the middle.
Inside a nomad's ger
They were surprisingly comfortable and well kitted out inside.
We were up early to the sound of the women milking the yaks in the otherwise completely still valley. We needn’t have rushed as our guide was last up an hour or so later. After a leisurely breakfast and reloading the ponies we set off. Soon we were into the forest and the track started to climb. It was steep and rocky; thankfully for my bottom this meant walking rather than trotting. I was impressed with the horse as it picked its way up between the trees and I actually felt grateful to have it as we passed groups of (French) trekkers who were sweating up the slope trying to avoid the unavoidable deep mud. At least they have trains of yaks to carry their bags. And to create the mud they have to hike through.
We emerged into a higher valley, this one unexpectedly covered in quite recent looking lava flows (later research revealed they are about 50,000 years old – that’s very recent to a geologist). It was very boggy between the rocks and again the ponies proved their worth. However, Mongolian horses are very skittish. Apparently, it’s because for much of the year they are left
to run wild so they are only semi-domesticated. While riding them it’s not recommended to make any sudden movements or even unzip a jacket and often a passing insect or prospect of a deep puddle would startle the ponies into a little leap.
Eventually we reached the camp. This one was more of a tourist set up; not as nice inside, a row of five or six gers, but sitting on the rim of a crater containing an endhoreic (no outlet) lake with a great view up the valley. The extra pair of boxer shorts I’d been wearing had offered little additional inspection and my three sores were now one big one. Therefore, instead of having an exploratory ride we (I) decided to have a hike around. As with anywhere else in Mongolia, the trick is just to walk for a while until you are somewhere high, then just wait and observe. The wildlife, the butterflies, the flowers, the view, the shepherd, the herds of goats and yaks, it’s a wonderful place.
By the next day I seemed to actually be getting the hang of horse riding and we largely trotted to the last lake. My
Hills above Karakorum
We saw one shepherd, several golden eagles, loads of ground squirrels, and lots of big weird insects.
travel towel folded up into a little cushion and placed between the two pairs of boxers certainly helped. There definitely aren’t eight lakes in Eight Lakes Valley, I think we saw four. The last one is the most hemmed in by the forested mountains and made a lovely swimming spot. Unfortunately, the sun went in as I got out of the lake making the ride back to the gers quite a chilly one.
We had lunch in the ger, looking out of the door as if it was a TV screen at a ground squirrel scurrying about (unable to take our eyes off of it in case there was a repeat of the eagle attack), goats playing, yaks strolling majestically as they do, and the lake in the background.
Then we set off back down the hill, over the lava flows, through the bogs, just as it started drizzling. The steep descent through the rocky root-strewn muddy forest was quite hairy though the horses coped amiably.
The final night’s ger camp had a very welcome solar powered hot shower – much easier on the bum wound.
It was a short ride the next day back to
Erdene Zuu Monastery, Karakorum
Karakorum being the capital of the former vast Mongol Empire.
the waterfall, lunch with the guide’s family, then a repeat of the bumpy car journey back to Karakorum, only this time stopping every 20 minutes because the car kept overheating.
Now that a few months have passed and wounds have healed (it actually took less than a week), I remember the horse trip more fondly. At the time I remember thinking I hope this injury isn’t lasting because in the future it'll just become a funny story and I will mostly remember the good bits of the trip, i.e. everything else. That is what has happened. Although, I’m not sure how soon I’ll be doing another 4-day horse trek.
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