Mongolia on Horseback Part 4: Into the Altai Mountains

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This is the fourth installment of a series of posts that I’m writing on my recent travels in remote regions of Mongolia. If you haven’t read the first three parts yet, I suggest you do so before reading this one. It’ll help to put the entire trip in context and will give you a better understanding of the entire journey. Click on the corresponding post to read more. Part 1Part 2Part 3.

After spending the first couple of days traveling with Tusker Trail through Altai Tavn Bogd National Park getting acquainted with our horses and settling into a routine of making and breaking camp each day, it was time to truly get our adventure started. During the early days of the trip we had been camping along Khoton Nuur, a beautifully scenic lake overlooked by the numerous gers of the nomadic families that call this region home. But over the course of the next few days we’d leave that section of the ride behind and wander into even more remote areas in the Altai Mountains. In fact, once we changed course we wouldn’t see any yurts at all for a few days, and our encounters with other people from outside our group would become next to nothing.

Up until that point, the trail had been mostly flat and the riding very easy. This allowed each of us to get use to long days in the saddle and learn to trust our horses to find a safe and easy route for us to ride. But all of that was about to change as we moved away from the shores of the lake, crossed the Tsagaan Gol River, and moved into the steep gorge of Yak Milk Valley.

The valley marked a definite change in scenery for our team. Prior to entering it the landscapes had been mostly wide open, with plenty of rolling grasslands and gentle hills to ride through. Sure, we were surrounded by high peaks at all times, but those mountains were off in the distance, and didn’t seem quite so imposing. But once we rode into the valley that all changed. The walls of those mountains began to close in, the riding became a bit more technical, and the hills that we were forced to climb, both on foot and horseback, grew much steeper.

That said, the scenery remained utterly spectacular. Now we were moving into the heart of the mountains themselves, and Yak Milk Valley – so named for the milk-white water that flowed through the glacially fed river at its bottom – was our gateway to this new landscape.

On our fourth day of riding the morning started like most of the others. We broke camp and hit the trail, which was still mostly flat and easy. But within a couple of hours we crossed a rushing river and entered the valley itself, which was punctuated with rocky ridges, narrow trails, and steep climbs and descents. This was certainly a change of pace from what we had encountered up to that point, keeping both riders and mounts alert at all times.

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As usual, the sturdy Mongolian ponies did a great job of finding their way through what could have been a treacherous trail. At times, the best path wasn’t always clear, nor was it easy to scamper up and over some of the larger rocks that cluttered the route. But the horses have traveled this way before and they all knew how to proceed, constantly maintaining a steady pace while navigating in and out of trees, around boulders, across rivers and streams, and even through the sometimes-marshy valley floor. And other than an occasional stumble here and there, they did so with remarkable agility and strength, making it easy for even the most inexperienced riders in our group to feel at ease.

After a long day in the saddle, we made camp that night alongside the Tsagaan River in a spot that provided not only spectacular views of where we had come from, but an enticing look at where we were going too. Up the valley we could see taller mountains peeking through the clouds, their snow-topped summits glistening in snow. We all knew the next day in particular would be a challenging one, as we would ascend to one of the highest altitudes of the entire trip while crossing through a mountain pass that has been used by travelers in this region for centuries. It would be a test for both the riders and trekkers, and one that we were all eager to see for ourselves.

That night we all enjoyed another fine Tusker meal, and curled up comfortably in our sleeping bags. It had been the most demanding day yet, but we knew that tomorrow would be even more challenging. It would involve more than 3000 feet (915 meters) of vertical gain, which always makes for a big day in the mountains. But, we also knew that once we cleared the pass, there was a dramatic descent on the other side. One so steep that everyone would have to walk it, not just those who had elected to hike the route. What that might look like remained a mystery, but we were all eager to find out.

The following morning continued our string of great weather, with more sunshine and blue skies overhead. Temperatures had dropped somewhat when we entered Yak Milk Valley as well, which meant it should be a pleasant day to ride and hike in the Altai.

When looking at the itinerary for the trip I had always circled this day as one that I wanted to hike. I thought by now (rightfully so!) that I might want a break from the saddle, and I truly enjoy a good walk in the mountains. There was even a part of me that was looking forward to the challenge of ascending out of the valley, walking across the mountain pass, and descending down the other side. So, on that beautiful morning I joined our intrepid group of trekkers for what promised to be a nice long walk. I was not disappointed.

Not long after we hit the trail we began moving upwards. With so much altitude to gain that was to be expected of course, and it wasn’t long before we were huffing and puffing as we dragged ourselves up the flanks of the mountains. Our companions on horseback soon passed us by and were definitely enjoying the views while their mounts did most of the work. In the early stages of the walk I envied them to a degree, as it was much easier to ride than to hike. But eventually we climbed over a ridge and the trail changed from a steep climb to a more even-paced, slow but steady, ascent. And by the time we broke for lunch in the bowl of a mountain vale, our trek had become a very pleasant stroll indeed.

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After lunch the walk shifted into an aerobic workout once again however, as we scrambled onto the dusty, rocky trail that would take us the rest of the way up to the pass. That route proved to be a challenge not only for us hikers, but our camel train as well. Loaded down with equipment and supplies, the camels were working hard too. As a result, they slowed greatly as our guides gave them time to catch their breath and crest the hill at their own pace.

My fellow trekkers and I took this as an opportunity to slip past the animals and make our way to the top. Our mounted companions found themselves stuck – and waiting not-so-patiently – behind the camels, so it turned out that we were the first to reach the mountain pass and begin crossing over to the other side. We wouldn’t stay out in front for long however, as the camels eventually topped out as well, and the travelers on horseback soon over took us in the wide saddle of the pass that slipped seamlessly between two mountain peaks.

Once we crossed over the pass we learned why even those who had elected to ride would have to walk down the other side. The steep descent featured numerous switchbacks along a dusty trail that featured loose scree that made keeping your footing a completely different kind of challenge. The camels and horses slowly crept down the other side without any problems of course, but doing so with a rider in the saddle seemed like an unnecessary risk.

Descending to the valley below took nearly as much time as climbing up from the other side. The route was slick enough in spots that you had to slowly in order to avoid falling unceremoniously on your backside. I was glad I had elected to bring a set of trekking poles for the hiking portions of the trip, as without them it would have been even more of treacherous descent. But eventually we all made it down, and the riders were allowed to return to their steeds to continue the final portion of the day. I rejoined my fellow trekkers as we hit the trail once again, knowing that our campsite for the night wasn’t especially far off at that point.

Despite our optimism, we still had a couple of hours of hiking yet to go, although by this time the route was mostly down hill. We did stop at the top of a steep cliff to marvel at the unbelievable view of the valley below as however, as it was simply too gorgeous for words. At that overlook we could see for miles as a classically U-shaped valley – the tell-tale signs of being carved by a glacier – stretched out before us. It was one of those places where you simply wanted to sit down and take in the view for as long as you possibly could. It was definitely one of the highlights of an already amazing trip, and one of those “Kodak moments” that don’t come along very often.

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Eventually we did have to continue our descent however, and after walking for another hour or so, we reached our campsite for the evening in the Sheveed Uul Gorge. The area had clearly gotten quite a bit of rain recently as the small river that ran through our camp was rushing at a high speed and the ground was saturated, making it a very wet spot to camp. We made the best of the situation however, and soon got as comfortable as we could.

That particular campsite proved to be a memorable one for a number of reasons. In addition to being a bit like camping in a bog, we also found ourselves just across the river from a ger – the first we had seen in a couple of days. The family that lived there had a rather large herd of goats and sheep that were grazing on the hills above our camp as well, and that evening as we started to get settled into our tents, the entire herd descended upon us. We had a mini-stampede of tiny hooves go running through the camp, and I opened the door to my tent to find it completely surrounded by the animals. It was quite a sight to see indeed, and although they passed through very quickly, the managed to pass with only a bit of minor damage to a couple of the tents.

That evening also marked the end of our string of good weather. Shortly after dinner heavy rains moved in, sending all of us travelers scrambling to our tents for shelter. It was early yet, so we weren’t necessarily ready to call it an evening, so my tent-mate and I set up an impromptu home theater system using my iPad as our movie screen and propping our duffle bags behind our sleeping pads to create stadium seating. It ended up being a pleasant way to spend the evening as we whiled away the hours watching a Lord of the Rings film.

At this point we were about halfway through the journey, with plenty of riding and great scenery yet to come. For me, the trip was already everything that I had hoped for, but it wasn’t over yet. The was plenty more adventures on the horizon, which I’ll share in another installment or two in the days ahead.

Kraig Becker

3 thoughts on “Mongolia on Horseback Part 4: Into the Altai Mountains”

  1. Ahh, this brings back fond memories. I hiked most of the way, primarily riding to cross rivers too high to wade. My friend Louis and I don't ride and asked for easy mounts. We got Sleepy and Sleepy 2, both of whom had only one gear – slow – and we were very thankful for that.

  2. I feel you Jim. I was only a beginning rider when I went. Came back much more comfortable in the saddle though.

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