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Published: July 21st 2009
Most of the time the only signs of civilisation were the wheel ruts on which our eight-seater Russian 4x4 bumped and bounced for hours on end northwards across the otherwise empty brown plains that stretched as far as the eye could see. Occasionally the barrenness, to which the sparse, crunchy, unhealthy grass was insufficient to lend even a hint of colour yet enough to nurture the odd herd of camels, cows or flock of sheep, was interrupted by a group, usually between one and three in number, of gers, the white felt tents in which half of Mongolia's 2 million-strong population live. On even rarer occasions we passed villages, tiny collections of ramshackle wooden houses and gers, forlorn outposts of the settled way of life in this land of nomads.
On the morning of the second day I awoke to the sound of men shouting. I unzipped the door of our tent, pitched a hundred meters or so away from the road, and emerged into the freezing cold morning air. Despite the bleariness of my eyes and the grogginess in my head I was still able to marvel at the simple beauty of this empty, lunar landscape. It would have
been impossible to tell, if one did not already know, that Mongolia's main North-South highway, the wheel ruts on which we had driven throughout the whole of the previous day, cut straight across one's field of vision, its twists and turns imperceptible from this distance amid all the other scarrings on the land. Turning round I saw the source of the shouting that had awoken me: appearing over the crest of a hill perhaps two hundred meters away was a herd of thousands of sheep being kept in order by several dogs and a man dressed in the traditional Mongolian long coat (del) on horseback. More and more of the animals spilled slowly over the hilltop, followed finally by another horse rider, and for half an hour I watched them inch their way across the landscape, kicking up a vast dust cloud amid a cacophony of bleating, barking and shouting in a scene that I imagined had repeated itself almost unchanged billions of times since the days of the great Mongol leader Gengis Khan. They had stepped out of nowhere, as if from a time warp, and eventually they disappeared back into nowhere over the other horizon.
only five thirty in the morning and the wind was biting cold, even for me in a jumper and jacket. I wondered whether those two men had been out looking after the animals all night but hoped for their sake they had just had an early start this morning. As for me, I had had the beginnings of a flu-like illness ever since arriving in Mongolia so I decided it was high time to get back inside the tent.
After a breakfast hastily cooked on our gas stove in the vehicle's boot to give it what protection we could from the howling wind we moved on. As the vehicle crawled northwards we all spent a lot of time with our eyes fixed out of the windows, staring into the vast, post-apocalyptic bleakness of the Mongolian plains. There is something exhilarating in such utter vast emptiness that appeals to a part of us that has long been lost in the chaos of the hectic, overcrowded lives that most of us live, something to do with the fact of being able to move unrestricted as far as one wants in any direction without the likelihood of meeting another soul. I wondered,
in this country the size of Western Europe but with a population of only 2 million half of whom lived in the capital, if we suddenly decided to veer of the road and head off at right angles to it, how long would it be until we saw a ger encampment, a lone horseman, another pair of tyre tracks, a herd of animals? Would we even see anything at all? How many hundreds or thousands of kilometers did this inhospitable place continue for in either direction? I thought of the people who lived in this land, in communities of two or three gers, moving from place to place across the steppe with the change of the seasons in search of grazing for their livestock. Although they were trapped by the need to constantly feed their animals they had no one else to answer to. They had a certain freedom that very few people in the West can claim to have: they were the masters of their own realm, and of themselves.
The hills and undulations gradually reared up into small mountains and, late in the evening, coming over the top of one, the town of Moron suddenly came into
view far below. A cheer went up from all of us in the vehicle and spirits soared at the thought of a comfortable bed and some normal food after two full days having every bone in our bodies rattled continuously on the contortions of the road north from Ulaanbaatar.
Calling the capital of Khovsgol province a town was somewhat optimistic - having spent much of my life living near Kidlington, officially the largest village in the United Kingdom, I can safely say that Moron was smaller. A raggedy sprawl of mostly wooden houses and gers intersected by a grid of dusty streets, it was an essential stop on our journey to the far north of the country as we could go no further without obtaining a permit from the military garrison stationed here.
We arrived just as the sun was inching its way down towards the mountaintops on the other side of town, a 120 degree section of their peaks and ridges gilded and blazing with a fiery, golden light. The clear, crisp, freshness of the unpolluted air seemed to allow the entire land - ground, trees, houses, people - to be tinted with an ethereal orange glow
which endured until the very last sliver of sun disappeared behind the mountainous wall and instantaneously took the magical phosphorescence with it. The golden hue that had formed around the rapidly blackening mountains diminished and was joined by a multitude of pinks, oranges and reds that blended into one another and hung above the houses of the town like a gargantuan watercolour. Having parked the vehicle we walked down a grassy track, dogs baying and snarling at us with their snouts poking through gaps in the fence that lined it, before we reached a door that opened onto a small compound in which the ger hotel we would be staying in was located.
The next morning, after the hotel owner had kindly helped us obtain our permits, we ate lunch at an eatery in the enormous outdoor market surrounded by del-clad nomads grabbing a bite to eat and a beer while their horses impatiently trampled the ground outdside. Immediately afterwards we were into the vehicle and off northwards again, the condition of the dirt track disintegrating yet further to include bogs, river crossings and forty degree slopes. The grass became a little greener, although no
longer or less sparse, and the temperature dropped to somewhere around freezing. Forests of barren fir trees appeared on the ever taller and steeper mountain slopes and small patches of snow were to be seen here and there like pools of water reflecting the near-perfect whiteness of the sky. I could not put my finger on exactly what it was about this stark, empty landscape that was so stunning but none of us seemed able to stop mentioning that it was one of the most beautiful places we had ever been to.
At the top of one hill our driver, Mogi, stopped next to a pile of stones pehaps eight foot tall with splashes of blue paint and pieces of blue cloth adorning it here and there.
"We have to get out and walk round it three times," he said. "Throw some pebbles on it too."
"Why's that?" I asked.
"It's called an ovoo. It's like a shrine for the spirits. Up here people are not so much Buddhist, more shamanist," he said, smiling. We walked round it three times clockwise, myself wondering at the fact that we were taking part in a ritual that harked
to back God knows how many thousands of years ago in reverence of which spirits, demons or ancient deities I knew not.
When it began to get dark we set up camp next to a forested area near the village of Ulan Uul having passed only one tiny hamlet all day and far fewer gers than on the way from Ulaanbaatar to Moron. It was now bitterly cold, well below freezing, and the wind lent the air a savage bite that I had not experienced since wintering in Russia. It made preparing the evening meal and setting up tent almost unbearable tasks. We had a hot meal and plenty of vodka before retiring to our tents where, wearing two jumpers, two jackets, two hats and in two sleeping bags, it was mercifully warm.
On waking up we packed our tents, brewed some coffee and left. Feeling somewhat dehydrated and searching the vehicle for water I found that everything in our only remaining container had frozen solid overnight and was only just beginning to thaw.
"Is there a shop where we can buy water in Ulan Uul?" I asked Mogi.
He replied that
it was possible but on driving down into the village it turned out that the shop had run out. Driving on out of the village I picked up the frozen container, a small amount of melted water now slushing around in the bottom, and unscrewed the top.
"Don't drink it," Lizz warned, "it's dangerous, it's been frozen."
"But it's twelve hours to the next shop," I replied, "and I'm parched. I just need to have a little bit."
I had a little bit more than a little bit and, with terrifying rapidity, a deathly chill spread throughout my entire body. I put on all the clothes at hand but the chill got worse and worse, creeping slowly into every inch of my body. I sat it out for half an hour, borrowing more jackets from everyone until I was wearing six or seven and was the size of a sumo wrestler in a futile attempt to warm up as the cold within me increased to an agonising intensity where I genuinely feared that every bone in my body would shatter with it. Soon I was lying inside a sleeping bag on a row of three seats, adrenaline
flying around my body, my heart beat, usually around sixty, now way above a hundred, my breath coming in raking gasps as I tried to stop my entire body from shaking uncontrollably.
"Stop the car," I stammered through wildly chattering teeth, "something's wrong. I've got to have a hot drink, I've got to warm up."
While Lizz was boiling some of the now mostly melted ice I got out of the car and jogged around for about thirty seconds, as long as I could manage. When the ginger, honey and lemon tea was ready I began to drink it, every sip of it making me feel sicker but at the same time spreading warmth through my frozen innards. After finishing it the the terrible chill inside me, unlike anything I had previously experienced, was still there but now drastically diminished and I opted to continue on the road. However, as we drove on, to my horror, it crept back into my bones and spread down through my arms and torso and on to my legs. Excruciating to the point where I felt it could drive me to insanity, the cold soon reached my heart like an icy fist squeezing it cruelly. Gasping for air and shaking as if I was having a fit, I fell into the most brutal fever of my life, dreaming or hallucinating while at the same time being fully aware of the others around me in the car, occasionally erupting with shouted nonsensical attempts to join in the conversation and for the first time ever genuinely afraid of dying.
We stopped the car again, more tea was brewed and I took some paracetamol. Halfway through the second cup the chill evaporated from me in an instant and was replaced by a raging, hellish heat. One by one I took off my many layers as it became unbearable to be wearing them until I was down to just my T-shirt, so drenched in sweat that I might have been swimming in it. My head was aching and spinning and I did not have the energy to sit up but at least that deathly chill had gone from my heart and bones.
Lizz began trying to get me to eat something but I could not bear the thought of it, feeling that it would make me sick. After fifteen minutes or so on the road I thought I might be able to handle a cracker so asked Lizz to make me one.
"Do you want honey on it?"
When she passed it to me I yelled, still slightly delirious, "You put something sweet on this, didn't you!"
The cracker sat heavily in my stomach and for a while I could not imagine being able to handle more food until the idea of eating something fresh, light and full of Vitamin C came to me.
"Could you sit on a satsuma to warm it up?" I asked Lizz, thinking anything slightly cold might bring the chill back. She put a pillow under my head and a satsuma under the pillow.
"Is it there?" I cried, "The orange!"
After the last straggling strands of delirium had faded from my mind I began to feel better but still exhausted. Three hours later I was able to sit up again although still with a crushing headache and almost no energy. Looking out of the window for the first time since my ordeal had begun I saw that we were now in a land of pine forests, frozen lakes and rugged, rocky, snow-capped mountains in the distance, their slopes so sheer that they looked as though the would be impossible to scale. Gers and livestock, including a large number of cows with long shaggy hair that hung to the ground, were more common than the previous day and a new type of dwelling had appeared, often alongside a ger - hastily erected wooden shacks built using logs from the trees that covered the foothills of the mountains. They looked colder than gers, their irregularly cut planks and beams piled haphazardly together with gaps in between visible even from a distance.
Several times we had to cross rivers on rickety wooden bridges that did not look stable enough to support pedestrians, let alone our enormous vehicle. Each time Mogi asked everyone to get out before he crossed and by then I found I had just enough energy to do so. None of us could imagine what could have caused such a terrible attack that had gone on to disappear so quickly but the general consensus at this stage was that it must have been something to do with the icy water I had drunk immediately beforehand.
By afternoon we had arrived at Tsagaannuur, a village of wooden shacks and log cabins separated from one another by large areas of grass on the shores of a vast frozen lake. The simplicity of the dwellings, the weathered faces of the people, the coldness of the air, the countless snowy crags that surrounded it, the fact that we had had to drive for four days on a dirt track to get here, all of these lent Tsagaannuur a certain end-of-the-world bleakness. Indeed it was almost as far as the Mongolian world extended, being right at he top of Khovsgol aimag (province), itself a peninsula jutting out above the rest of the country and cutting into the territory of Siberia.
Mogi directed us to a small compound where a handful of soldiers lived, making up the last military outpost before the Siberian border. The one in charge, whose watery eyes and lopsided smile, along with an over-friendliness that did not quite befit him, led me to suspect he had been drinking, was pleased to find that Lizz and I spoke Russian.
"Where are you from?" he asked.
"England," I answered.
"Russia," said Lizz.
"Really?" he asked, eyeing her up. "But you're not pure Russian, are you?"
"No, I'm half Armenian."
"And where are you going?" he asked me, the hint of the lopsided smile still touching the corner of his mouth. He was tall, well-built, about fifty years old with grey hair and, as were all the soldiers, dressed entirely in camouflage gear that in this land of browns, oranges, greys and whites would have made him stand out from a mile away.
"We want to walk north from here," I replied, "to find the Dukha, the reindeer people."
At that moment the door flew open and another soldier staggered in, the reek of vodka and stale tobacco coming with him. He went round all of us newcomers shaking our hands one by one without saying anything before walking to the back of the cabin, lighting up a cigarette and starting to chat with one of his friends.
"Give me your passports and permits then," said the one in charge, paying no attention to his wasted colleague.
Ten minutes later we were out of there and Mogi directed us to a log cabin guest house where I quickly fell asleep on one of the many beds lining the walls.
I woke up to find everyone else talking to a woman named Ultsi who spoke English that was usually understandable but always broken, still quite amazing for someone who had spent her entire life in this remote corner of the world. Soon it was agreed that the next day, with her as our guide and her husband Oktyabr looking after our pack horse, we would walk north from Tsagaannuur towards the taiga, the vast swathes of forest found across the world's northern latitudes above the steppes and second only in coldness of climate to the tundra and polar ice caps. The part we were going to visit is the only example of this biome in Mongolia and forms part of the southernmost fringe of the Great East Siberian Taiga. Home to the Dukha people, the country's only reindeer herders and the only people to live in teepees rather than gers, it was said to be an almost unimaginably harsh living environment. According to Ultsi, during the winter just gone temperatures had dropped to -52 degrees Centigrade. I fell asleep hoping that by the next day I would be well enough to go through with our plans.
Click here for information on independent travel in Mongolia
and independent travel to the Darkhad Valley
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