Khuiten (or Khüiten) Peak is the highest point of Mongolia. Summit at 4374m is covered in permanent snow cap. I set this as my next climbing target. It does to have the altitude of Himalayan giants but it's remoteness and relatively cold weather (in September) present enough challenge. Besides being in the heart of Mongolian Altai is an experience on itself. This relatively easy mountain can also be deadly. Just this summer 5 climbers died here. According to NEMA the bodies were found on July 14th and the cause of death is initially states as due to the frost.
Off to the countryside
Few hours after I took go Ulaanbaatar I landed in Olgii, the biggest city and capital of Bayan-Olgii province in Western Mongolia. Most of the population belongs to Kazakh ethnic minority. It is the only province were Islam is the main religion. in predominantly Buddhist Mongolia. As my trip was quite off season (for climbing) I was not too surprised that Olgii looked like a small sleepy town in the middle of nowhere and noticeably colder than Ulaanbaatar. I met with most of the guys from our expedition team, translator Jangbolat, driver Tugarik, climbing guide Baska and Jagaa who coordinated everything. After short trip to museum I went on to prepare myself for the adventure. Next morning we loaded everything into Russian minivan (uaz- 452). We were also joined by expedition cook Buyanaa. Distances in Mongolia are huge and thus the expedition/trip style is little different from what I know from Nepal for example. Here, there are no tea/guest houses. Only way is to take everything we need with us.
We drove few hours across beautiful landscapes. This was it, what I always dreamed of since I first took a note about Genghis Khan while I was a little boy. There are no paved roads in Mongolia. Countryside is criss-crossed by dirt roads that converge in the settlements and cities like veins converging to the heart. We did not travel on the horseback but don't underestimate this Russian minivan. These cars can take a lot of abuse, they are fairly comfortable and widely used by all Mongolian tour agencies for this purpose. If the distances are big, time is limited, this is the best option to get around. On the way we stopped in little settlement where driver's family lived. It is a tradition to invite guests for a tea and it is not to be refused. Not the tea you know from home. It is the salty-buttery milk tea but it is actually quite good. And some snack that are never missing on the table were also offered. Well known hospitality of people in Mongolia in practice. No matter who shows up in ger or house. They will always be greeted with tea and some snacks. After a short while we continued our drive outside the city, had a lunch in the steppe just next to the river (how romantic) and after a few hours of driving to higher altitudes we reached a ger of Tuvan family we were about to stay with for tonight. This is as far as car can take us. We conquer rest of the trail on feet. Needless to say, we were invited for some tea and snacks immediately after our arrival. I love this country.
I observed the land and people around. It was majestic. I was told I can tell the driver to stop any time if I wanted to take some pictures. However I decided not to, since we would never arrive to our destination. The landscape is just so photogenic and so different from everything I saw before. I couldn't help but notice the negative effect of climate change on the country. I came of peak season, with winter coming way too early this year. I didn't expect green grasslands but I was surprised how little grass was there. Lots of rocks and hard surfaces and few little chunks of grass or very scarce coverage which is hardly enough for live stock to feed on. A documentary movie I watched prior to this trip came to my mind. It followed the story of Mongolian women and her family living on the edge of Altai mountains. They faced the hard decision wether to spend another tough winter in the region and risk the loss of their valuable livestock or to embark on a long journey to a land with better pastures and conditions for herding. This documentary explained that the current conditions are caused by fast climate change where summers are very hot and winter are and colder than usual. Lack of rain causes the land to dry. Where grass doesn't grow the nomad cannot live. Life used to depend on horse, sheep, goat, camel and cow. And you need to feed all those. This is also one of the reasons many are abandoning the traditional lifestyle and are moving to the cities. Hence the reason Ulaanbaatar is growing so fast. I also noted the shift in traditional herding from horseback to cheap Chinese motorbikes. If the trend continues, the nomad life as we know it will disappear forever and it would be shame because it is magical.
There were 4 gers (yurts) at the Tuvan family camp. A small fiesta took place in the evening. As you can guess, we were invited. It is Mongolia so there has to be a meat on the table. This is not a land of vegetarians and vegans for sure. Few of us gathered around the table sitting on small stools. One of the males cut a chunk of meat and handed it to me as the honored guest. According to tradition I, as the guest, was about to be the first one to eat. I am all for it. Even though the big chunk of meat was pure fat I swallowed it. After that everybody dug in and soon half of the goat disappeared from the plate. All the bones were cleaned till they were nice and shiny :) Drinks soon followed the food. It is called Mongol Arkhi. This completely transparent beverage has a good reputation especially among mongolian men, because it was traditionally the strongest drink available. It is rarely sold to the general public. It is made of kefir (dairy product) and it tasted little like rice vine. Not too strong but had definite alcohol content. Enough to make one happy. Traditional way of drinking is also interesting. There is one (usually man) who is in charge of the bottle. And only one cup or glass is used. He fills it with drink and hands it to the first guest. After the glass(or bowl) is emptied it is returned. Then is filled again and handed to another guest and it goes on till everybody had their share. Whole procedure continues until there is just enough drink left to fill one bowl. During this last round glass/bowl is not given back to the "bottle guardian" but rather passed around the guests. And everybody sips only that much so everybody can take share of the last round. Bit elaborate description but this is best I can do :)
We spent a night in guest ger where we set up our own kitchen. Night was fairly cold but bearable, especially after the drink. Ger is very interesting form of accommodation. It's structure allows it to set it up or break it down very quickly. Gers survived from times long before Genghis Khan almost unchanged, that's how unique and clever their design is. Fire place or stove sits in the middle of it. It is used for cooking and heating. There is no fire wood here, instead dried cow dump is used. Roof above has an opening for smoke to escape. Stoves come with small chimneys. Roof can be closed at all time to trap the heat inside. Ger is a single space dwelling. There are no rooms or physically divided sections. Usually the head of the family with his wife sleep on the right side "at 2 o'clock", kids sleep at "10 o'clock", there is usually dining place at 12 and entrance is at 6. Entrance is usually facing East side. That can be used for getting a good bearing for orientation in country. There is a slight difference between Mongolian, Kazakh and Tuvan gers but for most outsiders they look same.
Trek to the basecamp
It's morning and it is trekking time. We are blessed with beautiful weather and true blue skies. Mighty Altai mountains are raising from horizon with daunting looking Khuiten just in front of me. South-East face looks quite un-climbable but I know we will go around and attempt the summit by much more approachable route. I am in awe, I cannot get enough of the view, the silence and the beauty. But it is time to pack up and hit the road. No more minivan. We loaded all the equipment onto two camels, the natural trucks of Altai. I am amazed how much load these animals can take. I almost felt sorry for them but I was assured it is ok weight for them. I opted to take my loaded daypack with me anyway as I almost felt the crushing weight sitting on top of camels. I spare the poor animal of few kg's. Not that it makes difference to them. But I felt less guilty anyway. Of we were into more remote lands on approximately 6-7 hours trek to base camp. Vistas were breathtaking. I fall little behind as I was always stopping and starring at surrounding countryside. I enjoyed the solitude, just me an nature. Occasional bird in the sky interrupted the silence. Actually it is not dead silence. When I stopped and closed my eyes there were all sorts of sounds around. Nature is alive. There was a lot of snow for late September. I was told winter has come unusually early this year. You hear me John Snow? Climate change in practice. And so many, especially the worst offenders just don't get it or don't want to accept it. It makes me sad. When I arrived to base camp the kitchen tent was already set up with very active Buyanaa inside. I was so glad to see that we were the only ones in base camp. I guess nobody is as crazy as me to climb Khuiten of season (not so much for difficulty as for cold). We quickly put up two North Face tents for ourselves and gathered in "kitchen" to warm up a little. Buyanaa the expedition cook did great ( I really miss her food now). Soon after the dinner we slipped into our sleeping bags for the night.
The Khuiten climb
Unfortunately, we woke up into complete mess, whiteout, cloudy, cold and gloomy weather. Did I mention wind and snowing? Mountains we saw day before were fully covered by clouds. Business of the day was immediately reduced to keeping warm and exploring the immediate surroundings of the camp. Some decisions were about to be made about how we are going to tackle the mountain if the bad weather continues or if we going to try it at all. This was not a time to get deceived by relative easy of the climbing route. Remember the 5 dead bodies in Summer? No mountain is to be underestimated, no matter how easy it is. Initial plan was to make the summit from base camp but that is a long way, especially with tons of fresh snow. We decided to go up and set up advanced base camp. Weather next morning turned out to be beautiful. We packed the gear, sleeping bags, mats, food for a day and little stove and of we went. One good thing about Khuiten climb is that you don't really need to wake up in ungodly hours. One of the hardest thing when it comes to mountaineering is getting out of warm sleeping bag in the middle of the night when temperature is below zero.
Progress was slow and snow was soft and deep. Especially for Baska the mountain guide as he broke the trail. But he is an incredibly strong dude, and he was not too bothered by it. Once we reached Potanin Glacier which is the biggest in Mongolia we put on crampons and tied ourselves into rope for safety reasons. Glaciers can be very dangerous due to constant motion, changes and crevasses. I already saw a man fall to crevasse before. It is not fun and extreme caution is required. Under deep snow it is impossible to see and almost every step needs to be carefully judged. After few hours walk we reached the spot where we decided to set up our camp. Baska marked the "safe region" not to be overstepped at any time. We quickly set up the tent and boiled some hot water to drink.
Night was cold. My Suunto watch hanging in the tent was covered in layer of frozen condensated moisture. Temperature read -12 degrees Celsius. That was the coldest temperature I ever slept in tent before. After quick weather check Baska gave his thumbs up and we started to prepare for summit. Weather turned out to be nice and sunny. Unfortunately my sunblock froze and was not to be used until we got back to base camp. Way too late. My face completely sunburned during climb. Direct sunshine and glare from the snow and ice did excellent job. It baked my skin untill tenderliciously crisp and tasty. I pealed of like a snake couple of times since then. I set out for summit push with Baska only. Geared up we left the camp and made our way through deep snow until we left the glacier and reached the final steep section. At this point summit was still 2-3 hours away. Although not a technical climb at all at the times the slope was steep with deep snow or just plain ice. Crampons were doing their job well and we successfully reached the summit of Khuiten less than 4 hours after leaving the camp.
On a clear days you can see into 3 countries, Russia, China and Mongolia and I bet if everything comes together you can see as far as Kyrgyzstan. Or maybe not but it is not that far of. This was one of those days. Mandatory shots from summit followed soon and then we started to make our way down to advanced base camp. Going down is so much more easier and faster. We were at the camp in less than 2 hours, packed up everything and descended to base camp where Buyanaa already started to cook our well deserved meal. It was a long but fruitful day. Weather held up until we came back and then strong wind started to blow and temperature dropped rapidly. Camels arrived the same day ready to transport the expedition gear back to Tuvan camp. As usual we all gathered in the kitchen tent for dinner and to warm up. Bottle of vodka was a must to celebrate our success. First glass was offered to the mountains for allowing us to successfully complete the climb and come back down safely. For some it might sound strange. All these prayers, offering and so. But it is a local tradition and I am strong proponent of following the traditions of the countries I visit. I quietly said little prayer or rather some Buddhist chanting on my own. I learned that in Nepal. Following night was very noisy. At the times wind gusts hit the tent so hard that the fabric produced a noise of gun affair. It didn't stop until morning but after long and tiring day I had no problem to get a decent sleep. Once again we woke up into a nice and sunny day.
We packed up, loaded the camels and left the beautiful Altai mountains returning to the same Tuvan family we stayed before. Again, same hospitality as I got used to from local people, same meat feast and drinking ceremonials. This time they were more relaxed and so was I. Looks like my price went up after I climbed the mountain. Another few rounds of vodka for celebration. Life is perfect. I enjoyed staying and mingling with locals. This is always the best part of the trip when you somehow get accepted into their circles.
Next morning we left the family also leaving behind the beautiful Altai mountains and expedition part of this trip. I looked back one more time before Khuiten disappeared behind horizon and listened for a beautiful Mongolian song playing from the radio in the car. On the way back down from mountains we stopped by the river for lunch and also by few settlements for a break and more vodka. There is always reason for celebration. People around here help each other, no questions asked. Who knows when they will need help in the future. Together they make this harsh environment liveable.
If this trip was a dream I do not want to wake up. It was that good. I am sitting in the car and looking outside the window at passing landscape. A beautiful Mongolian song is played in the radio. I am still here but I know I want to come back. Perhaps I am getting too old and emotional but I feel sadness thinking about leaving all this behind. I need to continue my trip. Eagle Hunting Festival is coming in 2 days and I want to be there.
Mongolia Part 1 - Ulaanbaatar and around
Mongolia Part 3 - The Eagle Hunting Festival
Mongolia, the best of