Crossing the Kharkiraa with Three Horses and a Camel
Article courtesy of Tim Cope - www.timcopejourneys.com
Tim Cope is a world renowned adventure traveler and explorer, who has previously cycled from Finland to Beijing, across all of Russia, amongst other adventures. In this article he describes his journey, across the Kharkiraa Mountains in Western Mongolia with just himself, three horses and a camel, as part of his journey retracing the steps of Chingghis Khan and the Golden Horde all the way to the borders of Hungary in Eastern Europe.
I arrived in the village of Tarialan at 7am just as the sun was peeking over the mountains above. Taralian was about 40km from Ulaangom at the foot of the Kharkiraa range. The houses in the village were typically Mongolian- constructed with anything and everything available. Oil drum lids, bits of wood, rusty pieces of wrecked cars, stones from the river bed, and pieces of throw-away gers were standard building materials. Some homes were just normal gers barricaded with a fence made of this instead.
I made our way to the home of a man who had promised to drive us to Ulaangom airport - the 2km patch of dirt just south of the town. It was all over in a flash. Unsaddled, I lugged my backpack in the back of the beaten up old van, and jumped in. The driver cranked the engine over and rushed to the steering wheel. I watched the van putt away and was soon left with an empty third horse and three locals staring on in curiosity. My plan was to find a local guide named Dashnim and with the aid of a camel cross the Kharkiraa mountain range. I had been gazing up to its glacier-encrusted peaks for days and felt drawn to the mountain air and the hidden valleys that were so removed from the flats near Uvs lake. It felt like a new chapter of my journey was beginning.
Dashnim had worked for Tseren- my Mongolian friend who had supported me so much from Ulaan Baatar. With the help of a local I found his ger a little way up the Kharkiraa river, parked on a patch of green between several shallow channels. Only after some tea and ‘borzog’ (dough dipped in animal fat) did we begin to talk. I liked Dashnim at once. He had a grin on his face that betrayed a sense of simpleness and curiosity. His eyes were large, his cheeks round and polished by the wind. The lines on his face, and thick, callused fingers told a tale of a hard physical life. He was the kind of man I thought who would work extremely hard and expect little. His ger was very poor. He had a dirt floor and just a couple of beds. All of his children’s clothes were stowed away in old shopping bags. I watched as one little girl came in and opened her bag with the care that one would normally only afford a nice expensive set of drawers. As a herder he was one of the poorest I had met. He owned 17 goats in total and one old horse. His pride and joy was a rusty Belarussian tractor that was probably handed out after the collapse of the soviet union’s collective farm system. For a herder with few animals cash was required to survive. This unexpected arrival of an Australian was a welcome surprise. He was excited by my plan.
"When do you want to leave? Today? Tomorrow? I need to fetch a camel."
We looked over my map and agreed that seven days would be required to reach the far side of the mountains. He helped me unpack and set up my tent and then we wandered into the village. I felt at ease around him- he may have been amazed by my saddle and equipment but had not so much as touched it, let alone asked for it. As Tseren had told me, he was a listener.
It was the first day of school in this village and as we made our way to the shop we passed children dressed up like dolls. The girls wore black dresses and white pretty decorations in their hair, the boys little suits and ties. After buying goods, he sent me back with a note for his wife to bake some bread for our journey. He trotted off on his horse to find a camel.
Reintroduction to the Wild
I spent the day preparing things, getting to know Dashnim’s family, and using the rare time to rest and write diary. Just on dark Dashnim arrived with a camel. He had travelled about 30km to find it. His five children rushed out to greet him in the dying light. I waited for Dashnim to stake the camel before approaching. A plan of mine had been brewing all day and it was time to tell him. Schneke, Kathrin’s horse, was starting to show signs of fatigue, and what’s more he had always hated rocks. The next section was to be particularly rough terrain. I wouldn’t ride him again, so it was time to say goodbye.
Through a satellite phone call with Tseren, she translated that I would like to give the horse to Dashnim for the equivalent of two days work (about $27). Dashnim was over the moon, and after I said goodnight I listened to him tell the news to his family in the ger. Schneke couldn’t have found a nicer home.
I woke in the morning with a sense of new and excitement. After some tea and bread in Dashnim’s ger we packed the camel and discovered that with some little adjustment my pack-saddle fitted this Bactrian breed of camel perfectly! The camel let out a melancholy cry as we tightened the straps and I got a whiff of its rotten breath. Its eyes and feet seemed enormous and overall made my packhorse, Rusty, seem tiny.
Then with the swing of the legs over the saddle we were off. The first part of the day we weaved our way up a canyon, criss-crossing the icy cold Kharkiraa river. It came rushing down the over smooth stones and boulders, a translucent blue. Leafy aspen trees grew along the banks just beginning to turn yellow. A few hours brought us into a wide rocky valley where we paused for lunch. Around us peaks rose blocking out much of the sky.
Soon there appeared a camel train. There were about ten camels in all, each packed with around 250kg of gear steadily making their path downwards. It was a family of Khotont people migrating to the plains for Winter. The Khotont people are a tribe numbering about one or two thousand and live primarily in the Kharkiraa. Their history is very murky. No one really knows where they came from or when. They have adopted many Mongolian customs, but their language is different, and their facial features differ from Mongolians. The color of the train was dazzling. The women leading on horseback wore silky deles and colourful headscarves. Sitting in the cane baskets on the first camel were two small children, their eyes peering out between pots and pans and pieces of Ger tent. When they stopped to greet us the camel went to its knees, and the women pointed at one of the cane baskets laiden with rugs. It wasn’t until some sheepskin was taken away that I realised that deep within this cocoon was a newborn baby. Just its face was visible, eyes gazing up through a frame of fur to the sky. I was taken by its calm, captured expression. What a world it had been born into.
A little further up this deep valley the pyramid peaks of the Kharkiraa cut into the sky. High above, glaciers clung to almost vertical slopes. The air cooled and in the afternoon light the dark shapes of ancient ‘Kurgans’ and ‘Turkic’ grave markers dotted the otherwise wind-cleaned steppe. Dashnim suggested that in one Kurgan about 45 people would have been buried along with horses. Around these ancient sites I always had the sense that the people of today are aware of their history but do not understand it. The history of people in Mongolia lives on in the clothes, songs, expressions and way of life. Nomads live from day to day, with the changing of the winds, and looking into the future, let alone the past is largely irrelevant. This valley had obviously been populated for thousands of years, but how much had really changed in that time?
We camped in a remote gully with a family of nomads tending to a large herd of camels. I spent a couple of hours repairing Dashnim’s basic tent. The zippers were broken and he had been using safety pins to keep the snowstorms from blasting inside (without success). He was euphoric once it had been fixed, and then pointed to the huge holes in the floor- burnt by a misused gas stove on a previous trip. He would have to cope with that. Throughout the night I was woken by the howling of wolves, movement of animals, and inevitably the sound of gunshots. Hunting wolves, marmot, fox, and even snow leopard are standard practice despite Kharkiraa’s status as a national park.
Morning came biting and fresh, and soon the camel was packed and we were moving gradually upwards. The river made a turn and we entered a deep valley from which peaks rose almost vertically. The snow line was just visible, and every now and then the glaciers above came into sight. The valley itself was largely abandoned but a few gers still remained. Herds of woolly yaks could be seen grazing, dwarfed by the scale of the environment. Every now and then I would also notice black dots in the distance, sometimes half way up a mountain on a precarious ledge: hunters. They would lie in wait for hours with their spyglasses and Russian rifles. These hardened looking men would sometimes come galloping over the rise, marmot tied to their saddle, gun slung over their back, dele flapping like a sail in the wind. Despite making it only a short distance, Dashnim was keen to stay at the last ger we passed by. He greeted the elder of the family with the traditional swapping of Tibetan-style snuff bottles, and sharing of a long oriental tobacco pipe. I was grateful for a large chunk of dried Yak yoghurt, the bitter taste satisfying after a day in the saddle. Their daughter, a lady with a kind face and endless smile was my age, and I soon understood that she was blind. I watched the way she still managed to cook over the fire, feel her way around the ger, and even gather dried animal dung outside for firewood. In the evening she was lead out to the yaks where she did the milking. She loved to listen to everything, and sometimes I watched her sitting outside with a smile, listening to the animals, the wind, and of course my strange accent. She was curious just to touch my tent, and saddle. For her sounds and feel were everything and I had the impression that she was far more aware of the rhythms and beauty of this place than us. The valley turned more to the west again the next morning and gradually the high range of the Kharkiraa seemed to slide into view. Glaciers paused in mid tumble shone a brilliant white in the light. A cloud of wind-whipped snow hovered above. I was surprised by the sheer drama of this landscape that had been largely hidden until now. Soon we came across some hunters that blended in with the dirt after several nights out in the mountains. We paused to share some black tea. They lay alongside the discarded innards of marmots and fresh skins. Then we began to rise abruptly. Below us the lower end of a glacier twisted its way down a valley. The climb became very steep and the sounds of slipping rocks and cries of the camel cut through the mountain air. A fox darted out from a hole in front of us, soon consumed by the detail of the land. To both the north and the south these mountains rose riddled with ice-choked gullies and glaciers. Some peaks were razor sharp, while others were snow-capped domes. The Kharkirra rise to about 4100m and are actually part of the greater Altai range. The Altai are geographically at the very heart of Asia and are split between Russia, Mongolia, China, and Kazakstan. It was from these mountains that nomads are thought to originate from. The Turks, Mongols, Kazaks, Hungarians, and even Iranians trace their history to a people who came out of these mountains a few thousand years ago and at some stage tamed wild horses, yaks, and camels. Our route lay ahead via a high pass between the main peaks. After a couple of hours we arrived as if into the clouds, suddenly above the many valleys and looking straight on at the peaks. The saddle was more of a wide, open alpine plain squeezed between these mountains at about 3000m. As we crested the highest point the distant Sayan mountains in Russia could just be seen to the west beyond a myriad of glittering lakes. I was struck by the image of Dashnim on his horse, leading the camel. I had never associated camels with such mountains, yet here we were plodding on with glaciers that almost seemed to be tumbling down upon us.
We made camp just to the western edge of the saddle and rested in the glow of sunset. The mountains were a peach orange and revealing many of the details that were washed out in the harsh daylight. I shared tea with Dashnim who I was beginning to come to know better. He couldn’t stop telling me how good the grass was up here for the animals, and how I was good for not smoking. He said he had picked up the habit of smoking 15 years earlier. In the Mongol fashion he often rolled a cigarette in old newspaper, and spent half the time spitting out the pieces of paper and tobacco that made it into his mouth. All day I had been gazing up at the peaks, and the various ridges that angled towards the alluring ice. A plan had been brewing to spend a day climbing to the northern side. Dashnim agreed that it was a good spot to give the animals a rest and so after dinner I packed my things. By morning I was sure my plan had been crushed. Snow had been falling for several hours, and with it came a terribly cold wind rushing down from the mountains. However by the time I had boiled some water and warmed my hands the clouds were parting. I shouldered my backpack and gave Dashnim my spyglass, instructing him to check on me each hour. I felt a shiver of excitement to finally be alone. The wind cut through my thermals like a knife, but the effort of pushing up the rock made my skin a tingly warm. Loose rock skittled away from under my boots, and I drew in deep, cold breaths. With each step I rose above the pass and the mountains to the south came clearly into view. By the time I had reached about 3700m a series of crystal blue lakes appeared, sunken into the rock just beneath the tongue of glaciers. I aimed for the sliver of white at the top of the rise before me, and passed the tongue of a small glacier with freshly formed icicles dangling over the edge of crevasses. The wind blew colder, and up here the clouds seemed to race. The campsite below was now just another spec, almost impossible to find. On the hour I paused and waved down, knowing that Dashnim would be looking up with a grin on his face, probably muttering something like: ‘Ahaaa!’ He always said this when something positive was happening- like when I gave him a cup of tea, a piece of bread, or some horse blankets at night to keep him warm. Funnily enough he used this same expression when telling the camel to stop. At last I reached the sliver of snow, expecting it to be a false summit. As I stepped into the crusty white however there suddenly came blue sky. A little further, and like in a dream a rugged skyline of peaks suddenly appeared. A little further and I was standing on a saddle. Dropping down in front of me and from all the peaks were glaciers, forming a spectacular ice bowl below. The wind roared, yet nothing as much as shivered, all frozen into place. It was a view that I had never expected and I couldn’t help but throw my hands into the air and giggle. I spun around to see the southern range, and Kharkirra peak itself. Below the steppe panned out in a murky brown sea, dotted with lakes. I spent a couple of hours making my way along this high ridge, reaching a mini summit. In every direction there was a mountain or horizon that intoxicated my senses. I forgot about the pain in my legs and began to imagine the original peoples of the Altai migrating down from its many valleys, eventually becoming the nomads who would rule the steppe for millennia. By late afternoon it was time to head down and after a few hours I found Dashnim cooking up some tea over a fire of dried animal dung. He met me with his partly toothless grin. I smiled and put my thumb into the air. It was enough for him to understand.
Heading down from the pass, we entered a new environment: a land of hills, pock marked with a thousand little lakes. By late afternoon we had slipped into a river valley and the high peaks were erased from view. We arrived ravenously hungry to our evening camp and sat, eyes glued to the stive waiting eagerly for the water to boil. The following day the 7am start was abandoned with the onset of a heavy snowfall, and by 11am we decided to take the day off. Apart from anything, the camel would struggle to keep its footing on snow and ice. That was also one of the reasons for the nomads migrating out of the mountains by September when the colder weather started to set in. At around midday there suddenly came the typical clearing of the throat noise. Herders always seemed to do this when warning of their approach. Up went the zipper on my tent and I came face to face with the hardened face of a hunter. In fact there were three of them, all peering in, their deles dusted white, rifles over their shoulders. Dashnim soon appeared and beckoned them to his tent. I joined them and we sat for a couple of hours holding up the walls as the wind and snow beat down outside. I cooked some tea and we ate a few pieces of borzog (dough deep fried in fat). When the weather finally cleared in the afternoon I followed the hunters a few hundred metres up the mountains to their hide-out. It wasn’t so much as a cave as a very poor rock shelter. Laid out in the dirt were about 15 marmots. A blackened pot was brimming with greasy, boiled meat. They had been living here for six or seven days and planned to stay another week. They had no sleeping bags, just their deles for protection from the weather. It was such a poor shelter that the snow easily drifted in. Soon a feast got underway. A communal knife was passed around and pieces of meat were sifted out of the fatty water. I watched one of the men slurping on the jaw of a marmot. They sucked the grease off their fingers and chewed heartily on every little piece of meat possible. I preferred to munch on the dried yoghurt that they offered. Many Mongolians refuse to eat marmot because they are known at times to carry the plague. Despite this I met people every day of my trip who routinely feasted on marmot. Along with the meat, some Mongolian vodka was passed around. It is made from fermented yoghurt and is actually only about 12-15 percent alcohol. It went straight to my head and for a time I watched this scene wondering whether much had changed since the time of Ghengis Khaan. Ghengis himself had spent many years in hiding, living off the land in the Khentii region of Mongolia. Then when Ghengis formed his formidable armies of mounted nomads they honed their skills during exhaustive hunting expeditions. Their methods of ambush, false retreat, and stunning speed were also used in their terrifying raids on settled communities. We woke the following morning to a crisp blue sky and a hard frost. Dashnim had of course predicted as such. Soon we were on the move again. The river that had began as a trickle eventually became a raging torrent in a canyon far below. We followed the flats above and at lunch descended to a forested little valley. The leaves were ablaze orange and red. A river gushed down over rocks, tumbling in some mini-waterfalls. I had the feeling that we had descended into the land of the living. The scent of the forest was sweet. As we sat next to the river I offered Dashnim some vegemite. He had seen it in my lunch bag and assumed that it was facial cream. Another thing that had made me laugh was that Dashnim had been wearing my backpack upside down for a couple of days. I didn’t have the heart to tell him. I spread the vegemite nice and thick onto a piece of borzog. It seemed only fair after all the lips and ears, innards, and marmot that I had been offered and forced to try. I could see him struggling to swallow, but in typical style he just grinned and put his thumb into the air. ‘Delicious!’ He then went on to thank me, and say how proud he was to be part of the journey. It was classic Dashnim.
We crossed the river via the first bridge I had seen since we began, and then followed the edge of a slope. The camel struggled here, its feet often slipping, threatening to tumble down into the gorge. It always righted itself though, and it was sobering to think that nomads made this journey every year with 250kg on each animal, children included. For seven or eight hours we rode on. Gradually the brown turned to green, the rocks to grass, and the air thick and warm. At each turn I was surprised. Eventually we descended into a land of countless valleys, ridges, and gullies. I felt like a bird hovering above then making a dive and becoming lost in the mystery below. It all felt very surreal. Just as the sun was fading we arrived in the abandoned summer camp of Khovd brigad. Only a few old shoes, and round circles of yellow grass indicated that the nomads had even been here. Hundreds dot this valley in summer. We unpacked the camel and set up camp. Dashnim was to return in the morning and from here I would continue alone. I was looking forward to our last evening together when all of a sudden the sound of a motorbike cut through the air. I turned to see two men steaming towards us in the murky light of late evening. They crossed the river and plonked themselves next to our tent. They both wore colourful deles and the traditional hats with the golden spire on top. They had been riding all day and had arrived without food or shelter. I cooked them tea over my stove, but was reluctant to continue with dinner. Since we took the unscheduled day off my food supplies were very low, and I still had to give Dashnim enough for the trip back. What’s more my petrol was almost finished. We were both ravenous, and the thought of halving our rations again was heart-breaking. Eventually however it became clear that these men would stay the night with us. I cooked up some rice and dried meat, and inevitably we shared it. All went to bed hungry. At dawn the next morning the men simply stood up from the earth, dusted the frost off, and jumped on their motorbike. I was always astounded with the way that Mongolians just took hardship in their stride and never complained. Conditions in Russia were pretty tough too, but the Russians will let you know about it from day one. It’s almost frustrating when you can be in the most dire of situations and Mongolians will carry on as if nothing is wrong. Dashnim and I surfaced as well and began to take down our tents. Although the journey had taken us seven days to get here, Dashnim planned to make it home to his family in just two and a half. I still don’t really understand how it could have been possible. We had our last pot of semolina, and of course Dashnim licked his meal down like a cat. He had not even thought to bring a spoon, or perhaps he just thought it unnecessary. I gave him a packet of Russian cigarettes and paid him an extra couple of days as a gift. He then presented me with a packet of ‘kangaroo brand matches.’ I accepted it with two hands and rose it to my forehead in respect, but it hit my head-torch and went tumbling to the ground.
Then I split our meagre rations and it was time to say goodbye. He swung his arm in an arc to the north-west indicating which way I was to travel- it was typically vague. It only took him about ten minutes to saddle up and pack. I was struck by his lack of equipment- just a potato sack with his old tent, one pot, his tobacco and brick tea. I felt embarrassed by my clutter of heavy equipment that took me two hours to prepare, and envious of Dashnim. It is true that one of the main reasons for the mounted warrior’s success was the fact that they travelled so light-weight and were such hardened people. Both they and their horses survived on very little. The armies of settled people were weighed down with gear and food rations for both man and horse. I was just carrying on the tradition. We said goodbye, and then I was left watching he and the camel shrink into the distance. The camel cried out a few times- the melancholy sound echoing up the valley. Then they disappeared beyond a ridge and I was truly alone.