‘Big coat, more respect,’ whispers my trusted guide, Borkoo, who like most Kazakhs was not one for wasting words. Before us stands a solitary ger hut, poking out of the sea of golden grass like a huge white mushroom. Opening the tiny orange door, resplendent in wolf-skin, is Shohan, one of the Altai region’s fabled eagle hunters. Perched on his arm is the most magnificent bird I have ever seen.
It’s been a long day. After a three- hour flight by old-school prop plane from Ulaanbaatar, I had landed in Ulgii – an end-of-the-world town in the wild west of Mongolia – with the rest of my journey consisting of a seven-hour drive across the steppe in an old Russian van (affectionately referred to by locals as a ‘bukhaku’ or ‘loaf’, on account of its shape).
I quickly learnt that what these relics of Soviet engineering lacked in comfort they made up for by being able to go pretty much anywhere. And that suits me perfectly. My aim is to head into the Altai Mountains to research a new trekking route through the isolated glacial peaks that rise up from the rolling plains to form the spectacular border with China and Russia.
Now comfortably plied with airag, a mildly alcoholic fermented mare’s milk offered to all visiting guests, I discover that the temporary partnership between hunter and eagle is nearly always one between the youngest son of a family and a young female bird of prey. Caught in the wild, the eagles are trained to hunt for a period of six to eight years before being released back into the wild to breed. According to my hospitable hosts, it was their ancestors that had originally invented falconry and, whether this is strictly true or not, it’s clear that the practice remains an enormous source of pride and a strong badge of identity for these nomads.
Mongolia is a land of big, blue skies and stunning landscapes; the endless perspectives impart a sense of freedom that somehow invites exploration. Hidden away in the far western corner of the country is Altai Tavan Bogd – or ‘the five saints of the Altai’, which refer to the region’s five tallest peaks – an untouched gem and epic backdrop for any intrepid adventurer. And so, shaking off a thick head from the night before (the airag is stronger than you think), we set off to trek into the upper reaches of Tsagan Gol, arguably the most beautiful valley in Mongolia.
Our expedition consists of me, my guide, a cook and a large Bactrian camel with all our supplies strapped between its woolly humps. We are also armed with a special border permit and a gun.
Fording small streams as clear as bottled water, we follow the meandering ‘White River’ for two days before discovering a pristine sanctuary buttressed by snowy peaks and home to ibex, red
deer, argali sheep and more. The following morning, while scrambling up through the burnt-red hillside, we chance upon a small lake with patches of overturned earth clearly visible by the milky meltwater. Imprinted in the mud is the unmistakable clawed paw of the endangered Altai brown bear.
Retreating to a small outcrop, we lie motionless for two
hours, with only the buzzing grasshoppers disturbing
the precious silence. And then, in the
far distance, we catch a fleeting glimpse of a
mother and her two cubs heading away over
a spectacular ridge down into the next valley.
I spend the following days trekking through stunning, untouched scenery illuminated
by the most mesmerising light, immersing myself in the experience and bonding with new friends. I learn that marmut, a golden-haired rodent the size of a loaf of bread, tastes like fatty lamb and was responsible for carrying bubonic plague into Europe in the 13th century while scurrying alongside Ghengis
Khan’s conquering armies. Borkoo attributes his own piercing blue eyes to the ubiquitous Khan. ‘Genghis
travelled far and had many women,’ he says with a smile.
The climax to the wonderful trip is
almost upon us as yet another
sunny day dawns. The
previous afternoon we had trekked up to the nose
of Potanin Glacier,
the longest in Mongolia,
and made camp near the only other
people we had seen for a week; a team of scientists
who were monitoring the effects
of climate change on the huge ice sheet (alarmingly they claim it is retreating at a rate of five metres per year). Before us, beckoning us, was Malchin Peak and a hard three-hour climb to the top. From the 4,000m summit the panorama is truly awe-inspiring. In one direction, the Siberian steppe stretches out as far as the eye can see and, in the other, endless corrugated snowy peaks
– utterly clear, utterly still.
Remarkably though, the Altai
has one final surprise in store for us. Trekking back down the valley to rendezvous with our ‘loaf bus’, the first dark clouds we’ve seen all trip burst open with icy rain, before parting again and unleashing a bright ray of sunshine that forms a solid rainbow, so close that it feels as if we can reach out and touch it. And then, while rummaging
through my dry bag and grabbing my camera, right on cue, a herd of wild horses trots by under the beaming, multi-coloured arc. Transfixed, it feels like we’ve discovered a pot of Mongolian gold.
‘Very lucky,’ said Borkoo.
With flights from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital, just two-and-a-half hours long, Mongolia is closer than you think. Frequent flights by Air China and MIAT to Chinggis Khaan International start at around 3,300RMB return.
Adrian Bottomley is the founder of Whistling Arrow, a Hong Kong-based travel consultancy specialising in adventurous trips to destinations off the beaten path in Asia. The 14-day Altai adventure trip is due to run from 17-30 August (2015) and small trekking groups will be taken along the route each time.
The price for the full trip is 3,900USD per person and includes the domestic flight to Ulgii, accommodation, equipment, guides, transport and meals.
Accommodation includes hotels
in Ulaanbaatar, a ger-stay with the eagle hunter family and eight nights camping in the wilderness.
This trek is physically challenging but well within the capability of
most reasonably fit walkers. The expedition is supported by horses and camels to carry all the heavier loads. Trekkers only need to carry their small rucksacks during the day. On average, the route will require six to seven hours hiking per day and,
in some parts, involves exploring uncharted territory – be prepared for some scrambling.
For more information, visit the website here, email adrian@ whistlingarrow.com or call +852 2811 8892.