The flight from UB to Ulgii gave a new perspective on the vastness of Mongolia. We flew over multiple sights that we saw in the weeks prior, including Kharkhorin and the White Lake. Our flight had been delayed but as a result we got a free night in the nicest hotel in Ulgii! However, the luxury was different than Western standards as there still were stiff frame mattresses, an open top toilet bowl and the shower was the entire bathroom. Dosjan from Kazakh tours met us at the Airport as arranged. He seems very responsible and organized. We were able to arrange a border permit, rides to and from the national park and a Kazakh guide through Dosjan in a very economical and independent manor. That night in Ulgii we walked around the main square, bought groceries for our trek ($50 for 8 days and 3 people) and ate dinner at a high value Turkish restaurant, Pamukkale.
The second day in the west we woke to mosque prayers as the Kazakh people are primarily muslim. Today was the start of our trek, but first we needed to get to Khoton nuur. The Kazakh only speaking driver of a very artfully decorated Russian jeep picked us up at 10. It was a good thing he had custom padded the ceiling as the next 7 hours to drive 200 km were very bumpy. The landscape outside of Ulgii looked like pictures from Central Asia (Pakistan, Afghanistan, etc.) and we were struck by the difference from the rest of Mongolia. Our driver did a great job making the trip a tour with 4 stops. First, we stopped outside of Sangsai at a eagle hunter’s home. We drank milk tea, tried new more chewy cheese curd, and of course too much of our favorite cream and stale pastries. Finally, we each held an eagle which was too heavy for Stacia’s arm. The eagle hunter was obviously very proud of the bird and dressed in his traditional hunting outfit. It was unfortunate to see the bird spent the vast majority of the time locked in a dark shed, but it looked very healthy. Next, we stopped in Tsengel a quaint village and had more milk tea and stale pastries with a local Kazakh Muslim family (wooden home not ger). As we entered the national park the scenery changed to more similar of the Rocky Mountains. Just before the lake we stopped at two nomadic families. The first were friends of a the driver and he dropped off some tea and flour. The second was the home of our Kazakh guide, Hurmet. It was nice to find that Hurmet does know some English, totaling to around 50 words! At his ger, we ate a communal meal of rice and goat. Finally we continued to the lake with our guide a few hours behind with horses. At the lake the we checked in with the military, made our first poop fire and waited for Hurmet to arrive.
The next day we awoke after our first cold night in a tent. Hurmet showed us how to pack the pack horse and we were soon off following Hurmet on his horse, escoon asban, with the pack horse skin asban in toe. A huge white dog followed us for much of the day, but disappeared after reaching the end of the lake. That day we hiked from 9:30 to 4:30 and covered over 17 miles. Just before camp we had another military check point to wait through. At camp we cooked a communal vegetarian meal by the bright blue glacier river. Hurmet also showed us the surprisingly delicious mix of milk tea dipped sugar cube and goat cheese.
On the second day of our trek we started off by breaking our water filter in the glacial river (good thing we had replacement parts). We then hiked into green valley, which is lined by trees on either side and a beautiful turquoise glacial river going down the middle. We hiked for another 17 miles and set up camp along the river with the larger mountains beginning just in front of us. Near dark a herd of horses entered the valley, pushed by five Mongolian men. Hurmet was able to act out that they we using the wood in the valley to make winter horse shoes. At night around the poop/wood fire we created a Kazakh vocab list and laughed at our inability to do a proper Asian squat.
The next morning we started late (10:30) as the sun didn’t hit us until later. We hiked for 16 miles up and into white river valley and down into Mongolian ger camp. White river valley was absolutely stunning. Hiking up and over the pass we were struck with the view of black rock walls, white sheets of ice and golden fields of grass. The contrast was unlike anything we had seen before. That night we stayed with a nomadic Mongolian family in their ger. This was the most authentic family stay we have had. Nick ‘enjoyed’ sheep vertebrae from a communal platter and we watched a horse get shoed. People were continuously coming in and out of the ger as we watched black and white Mongolian dish tv. That night we were kept up by the 5 guard dogs barking the wolves away.
In the morning we ate a stale pastries, yak butter, cheese curd and multiple milk teas for breakfast. After some lying around and procrastination of the cold, we hiked down stream and through a bog. The mountains continued to get bigger and bigger with permanent snow accumulating. At the end of the ger community Hurmet showed us some petroglyphs of yaks, ibex, red deer?, sheep, goats and horses. After a few miles of hiking we were invited into another family ger for milk tea and distilled milk vodka. We soon realized that this was the ger of the men who were shoeing their horses a few nights before. Hurmet had given them pastries and a can of our vegetables as they had no dinner and now their wives repayed us in fresh, not stale, pastries, delicious! We also met a blonde haired toddler of the family who lived Stacia’s camera. Immediately after this ger we rounded a bend and saw for the first time, Malchin (our goal summit) and the rest of the five sisters. We descended into the valley and made camp by a final military check point and the river valley entrance to base camp. That night we made a communal spaghetti, veggie, tuna and unfortunately ketchup (the Russian and pictures made us think it was spaghetti sauce) dinner before practicing our Kazakh.
When the sun hit our tent we rose to Hurmet making hot water for our coffee, what a treat! Soon the horse was packed and we were on our way to base camp. A very haggard looking dog followed us in search of more stale pastries. Of course we didn’t make it far up from river before one of Hurmet’s dos (friends) invited us in for milk vodka, milk tea and stale pastries. We were able to give out some toothbrushes to two of their adorable children. Base camp was just another 5 miles, two bogs and increasingly beautiful skylines away. Upon arriving we broke out the rain gear for the first time. By sunset it turned into snow gear, as the weather pattern changed. Dinner was another communal meal with Hurmet and we met a number of his guide friends. We also met other tourists but of course the local guides were more fun. One of the other guides happened to be he husband of the woman we stayed with two nights previous. Mongolia is really a small place. We fell asleep to the sounds of snow storms getting bigger.
At 5:30am our Malchin summit alarm went off. We looked outside and Nick was immediately unhappy as the weather looked unbearable. Stacia convinced Nick to go back to sleep and give up hopes of a summit but after two hours Nick poked his head outside to a few patches of blue skies! With a little 😉 convincing we headed out to see what the hike would be like. With a fresh 4 inches on the ground we took our time but made our way successfully to the summit of Malchin! It’s never an adventure without a few tears and scares. The views of Russia, the five sisters and western Mongolia rivaled all others so far. Breaking snow was fun but sliding trail on the way down was treacherous. After a lazy evening and a final dinner with Hurmet (and his neighbor/guide friend) we turned in for our final cold tent night.
The next and final morning we packed up in a surprisingly similar routine. We ate some of Hurmet’s stale pastries and yak butter with our last slices of bread and jam. Soon we were off following/herding a loose camel out of the national park. Stacia and I had come down with a little food poisoning (or so we thought) so the last 10 miles went slowly. Now we are taking antibiodics for Giardia and hoping we feel better soon! At the north park entrance we said some sad goodbyes to Hurmet and had some final milk tea and stale pastries in a beautiful Kazakh ger. Our Russian jeep and two Kazakh drivers were waiting and we rallied off to Ulgii. This time it only took 4.5 hours to go the 150km. That night we stayed at the traveler’s guesthouse and had a much needed shower and rest.