(Buddhist Prayer wheels in one of the many monasteries that can be found around Kharkhorin)
I came across a phrase last week that states any decision you make should be made within 7 breaths, if it takes more than 7 then you shouldn’t go with it. I’m also learning rapidly that whilst travelling being flexible is essential… After all plans are made to be changed.
With that in mind, when I came across an opportunity to travel for a few days through the mountains of the Khuisiin Naiman Nuur nature reserve (Which translates to English simply as 8 lakes) by horse, it certainly took me less than 7 breaths to work out it was an opportunity not to be missed.
(My sure footed ride from the last few days)
Khuisiin Naiman Nurr Nature reserve is a UNESCO protected world heritage site that lies in the mountains between Tsetserleg and Arvaikheer. This incredible area is very rugged and dramatic, with mountains, large areas of grassland, vast boulder fields and a river that cuts right through the centre. It’s a harsh environment that is inhabited with equally as hardy man and beast. You will often find herds of horse, yak or goat in the area, all of whom have adapted to cope with the harsh weather with thick coats, that at this time of year they are beginning to shed.
(Jahrno, one of the local herders with an incredible knowledge of the local landscape)
The local Nomads here are typical of all Nomads I have been fortunate enough to come across so far, they live in Ger’s, with a central stove that burns constantly either on wood or dung. Each stove is a work of practical art, adapted perfectly for heating, cooking, cleaning… I even saw one being used for blacksmithing! They really are a do anything piece of equipment. The pace of life seemed perfect, fairly slow and relaxed with days filled with tending to livestock, maintaining the Ger’s and vehicles (Most families had a small Korean truck and a motorbike or two, all of which required frequent maintenance), and other essential day to day tasks. There was no stress or rushing like we are used to in the west, simply getting on with life. Plenty of time is also set aside for enjoying Milk tea, which as the name suggests is a green tea boiled in milk and salt to create a warming, refreshing drink that is perfect as you come in from the cold.
(A typical nomadic Ger camp)
It’s safe to say horse riding is not my strong point, and it’s not something that I have done much of at all in the past. I was certainly ‘thrown in at the deep end’ and quickly found myself on top of a horse; I had little control over, on a narrow mountain pass with some pretty steep slopes to either side. Or we could be crossing a gushing river, or picking our way through a boulder field. My tactic soon became to trust the horse and let it pick its own way through the landscape it knows so well, and thankfully that tactic payed off. The horses were incredible; there was seemingly no obstacle too big to stand in their way.
When on the second day I woke up to a 4 inch blanket of snow and blizzarding conditions I really wondered whether I would be able to keep up and pull my weight, there was much discussion (all in Mongolian, so at the time I had no idea what was going on), until eventually a decision was made to try and push forward, we rode in the snow, which was truly incredible and again I was pleased to be atop such a sure footed animal.
(Sunset over one of the lakes we visited with the mountains in the background. The lake still had a thick layer of ice in the centre but was beginning to thaw around the edges)
It was in the snow that we saw the first of the lakes, still semi frozen at this time of year but lying against a surreal mountainous landscape. It struck me as a truly wild place, but also a truly natural place. I found it strange to see a landscape with no sign of human habitatation, not even walls or fences.
By two in the afternoon the snow had virtually all disappeared, and you could almost see the green grass begin to sprout its first shoots. You can tell summer is on its way here; it just can’t quite push through just yet.
(Its hard to believe that only a few hours before this image was taken there was a fresh blanket of snow on the ground)
Whilst in the valley I was welcomed to stay with a number of Nomadic herders, as I have expressed already the people here are incredible, so warm and welcoming and each night I was presented with warm food and a bed, along with plenty of milk tea and slept in the Ger’s along with the families. It was a really nice opportunity to get an even more in depth view of life here.
(This lady was the mother of one of the families I stayed with, she was really very special, skilled and had a great sense of humour)
The thing I found hardest with the riding was the stress it put on my muscles. My legs are not used to being sat in the position they were on top of the horse for any period of time, and I was told in retrospect that the wooden Mongolian saddles are notorious for being sore to ride on if your not used to them. My legs, which were already sore from the cycle, became very stiff and painful and I struggled to keep up as anything faster than a walk on the horse.
(A thunderstorm over the outskirts of the town of Kharkhorin. Following this was a hail storm with hailstones the size of golf balls falling from the sky)
I’m now back in Kharkhorin, and preparing to set out again once again on the bike. I have actually found myself really looking forward to getting back on the road. I’m looking forward to seeing what I will come across on the way. The next section takes me up into the mountains, the bit I have been really looking forward to. There will be much more climbing, from what I can tell a little over 1000 metres in the next 300km or so and the weather will get harsher, but the scenery is promising to be stunning which will certainly make up for it. I’m not expecting ‘nature road’ as the translation seems to be here for a few days yet but I’m looking forward to getting onto it reasonably soon. The condition of the road is reported to be different from everyone that I ask, but I’m expecting it to be reasonable for the foreseeable future.