Tuesday, 21 August 2007

Orkhon River Valley

Saturday 18th August
Today we made a trip up the Orkhon River Valley. As I have previously mentioned, the valley is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and probably the cradle of Mongolia's nomadic culture. It's a wide valley - 10km or more for much of its length, and there are no roads only dirt trails. Owing to volcanic activity in the distant past it's something of a bumpy journey.

We travelled by Russian ATV again, accompanied by most of the family this time, with the object of visiting Tuvkhuun monastery and Ulaan Tsutgalan waterfall. The Orkhon valley is incredibly beautiful, and after the overcast weather yesterday, we had wonderful blue skies and billowing cloud today - which lit the lush greens of the valley and the dark volcanic rock beautifully. The valley is a very popular destination for horse-trekking and I think there can hardly be a finer place on the planet for it - there are mountains, rocks and boulders, pine forests, the river itself and the wide plain. It's an absolute paradise of animalkind - of course there are herds of horses, sheep, goats, cows and yaks wandering freely, but we also saw dozens of chipmunks, a pair of marmot and at one point our van passed beneath a tumbledown boulder crag on which were perched a golden eagle hanging out with a ruffianly-looking dozen vultures: they stared at us with the nonchalant "who do you think you are?" contempt of cats as we past beneath them, just 30 metres away.

The Russian ATV we travelled in has to be the only other choice of transport for this region (well, apart from going by foot), although we did occasionally pass an ordinary car on the valley plain. Straight out of Kharkhorin we had to ford the Orkhon river which was flowing pretty fast, wide and deep (well, it can't have been much over three feet deep but that feels deep enough). We then followed the river as it flowed underneath rocks and mountains, before crossing out onto the boulder-strewn plain. Russian ATV's are built to take terrific punishment, although they pass a hell of a lot of that on to the passengers too.

After an hour or so we stopped by a stupa out on the plain, while the driver went over to a ger to buy some airag for our journey - he came back with six or eight litres of the finest fermented mare's milk. There was a richer, creamier taste to this airag than that I've tried previously. I like it, but it's hard to match the Mongolian enthusaism, especially during a day in which you might also be drinking a litre or two of milk tea, eating arrul (dried curds) and probably having a healthy supply of vodka too (although I managed to sidestep that duty today). It's no exaggeration to say that milk, meat and flour make up 90% of the rural Mongolian diet. Enkhbold, on being offered pine nuts, would later refuse joking "I only eat meat" - but it was one of those jokes which was in essence just the bare facts.

A good while later and we arrived at our first objective. We parked up the van in some beautiful pine woods, part of a protected area, and walked up a long path intothe forest and up the mountain. Finally we reached the end of the trees, beneath a singular rocky summit: the home of Tunkhuu Monastery. This small place of worship was founded by Mongolia's prime Buddhist 'saint' Zanabazar in the 17th century. There's a small temple - destroyed in the 30s and rebuilt in the 90s - and numerous meditation caves and, supposedly, the foot print of Zanabazar in rock. Very precipitous paths lead up to the caves and the summit - no deterrent at all to the many very elderly pilgrims who determinedly make their way up there. Beneath the summit there's a rock seat, by tradition Zanabazar's favourite spot for meditation during the 30 years he spent here meditating and practicing various skills and arts (including creating the 'soyombo' script, seen on Mongolia's modern state flag). The top of the peak is very flat, and houses a fine ovoo where, according to the sign, nagas or 'hidden spirits' of the mountain are offered prayers and praise - presumably the Buddhist translation of the older Shamanistic worship of the spirit of the place. The views are spectacular.

Some time later we'd made our way down the mountain, where we had a picnic of tinned sardines and airag. Enkhbold and the driver had somehow managed to polish off a bottle of vodka on the way, everyone was in a very jolly mood. We played 'dembee' - a kind of variant on 'paper-scissor-stone' (thumb beats forefinger/forefinger beats middle/middle beats ring/ring beats little/little beats thumb - keep playing until one of you scores a hit). The loser of each round would have to drink a bowlful of airag.

Eventually we got back in the ATV, and left the forest, to head further up-river. The road got rockier, big and small boulders of lava deposited everywhere along the plain. We continued for a good few hours before reaching our final target: Ulaan Tsutgalan, the 'Red Flood'. The waterfall was very impressive, pouring 27metres down into a steep sided canyon, created by a combination of erosion and the long-ago volcanic activity. After admiring the view from very close to the edge on the top, we made our way down into the canyon, to pose for photos at the bottom of the falls, and submerge our heads in the cool water. More photos at the top and a drink of the fresh-tasting Orkhon, before getting back in our vehicle to return the 125km to Kharkhorin.

On the way we went out to visit relatives of our host family, but when we finally got to the corner of the valley where one nomadic family after another had pointed us, we found that the family had long since left for distant pastures. The sun was setting now, and we still had a long way to travel. I have noted that the Orkhon valley is wide and uneven, and that there are no roads, just dirt tracks. In the day time it's easy enough to point your motor in the general direction of a distant landmark, and when the paths diverge, as they do every hundred or so metres, you can see ahead whether the way you're choosing veers off in another heading. This isn't so easy at night time, and in short we got pretty desperately lost on the way back, zigzagging aimlessly making only the most gradual progress. Often the van was bouncing over boulders under a cliff face or across a heavily rutted bit of plain. Before midnight we'd stop and ask the way on at any ger we'd passed - but I guess it breached etiquette to do so once people were in bed. I think we finally made it home about 2am, having taken nearly 8 hours to cross that 120km. We retired aching to bed, to be woken periodically by the dogs fighting outside, so fiercely tonight that the walls of the shack shook.

More pics at Flickr