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Winging it in Mongolia

by Margot Wilson and Bill Zell
Reprinted from The Leader, Winter 1998.

There are as many different ways to plan a canoe trip as there are sheep in Mongolia. There are those who plan every detail, leaving no room for the chaos monster to attack, and there are those who "wing it."

The "wing it" people are often referred to as "yahoos" by the planners. Of course, when you have the resources to grant you the luxury of knowing water levels, planning shuttles and even knowing how long you will be out, it is wise to prepare yourself well. When we were planning our canoe trip to Mongolia, we had none of these. We made endless phone calls to tour operators, surfed the net and scoured all printed matter even remotely pertaining to the topic of canoeing in Mongolia. Didn't find a thing and even though I had moments of nerve attacks, I thought, this is how the explorers did it. As long as we don't get hurt or die, we're fine, right? We rigged a first aid kit for the worst. More than willing to take whatever was offered, our expedition fell into the "wing it" category.

When Ian, Bill and I arrived in Ulaan Baatar with four dry bags and two Mad River Escape collapsible canoes in duffel bags, we were hoping to be able to get some information on water levels and possible shuttles. As one can imagine, getting information in Ulaan Baatar without speaking Mongolian can be an ordeal.

Our first river to explore was the Eigen, which flows out of the south end of Lake Khovsgol. Since there are 99 rivers flowing into the lake, and only the Eigen flowing out, it stood to reason in our minds that even in mid-September, this river should have enough water in it to float a canoe. We traveled from Ulaan Baatar to a town in the north called Moron. After a 30-something hour bus ride that left us feeling we had been severely beaten, we set out to find someone to drive us up to the lake.

Wandering around the dismal town of Moron, we spotted a jeep and negotiated a price with the driver. Two young guys piled us and all our gear in asked for partial payment up front. With that, we started what was apparently a Mongolian ritual of driving around town to ask directions and buy liquor for the trip. This should have been a clue for us that this was not going to be a direct trip. These guys (whom we later named Mutt and Jeff) had no clue where they were going and it didn't help much when they spent the entire advance on Mongolian vodka, Hungarian champagne and candies. But this was our first expedition in Mongolia so we wanted it to have some truly Mongolian elements.

Only a few hours into the trip to the Eigen, we were stopped by a flat tire. We were driving parallel to the Eigen, up towards the lake. Every tributary we passed was bone dry. Even from a distance, we could tell there were multiple channels but not a huge amount of flowing water. We wanted to see the famous Lake Khovsgol, anyway, so on we went. Less than an hour later, our fearless driver led the jeep right into a mud pond, accelerating until the wheels were completely submerged. Their response to the situation followed the advice of Paul Petzoldt, who advocated lighting up a cigarette-figuratively-when getting in a dicey situation. But they took it a step further. They not only lit up cigarettes, but hit the vodka as well.

We tried a z-drag pulley system (ha ha!) off a power pole, but it was many hours later and almost dark until a farmer's tractor arrived and pulled the sad vehicle out. The Hungarian champagne helped to kill the time, and probably a few brain cells, as well. That night, we slept in the yard of a random house in the tiny town of Hatgal, at the mouth of the lake. Note that we drove in on that road parallel to the river in the dark. This was an important element in our already sketchy knowledge of the Eigen River.

We finally reached the lake later that afternoon. It was an incredible sight, the yellow larch and the glassy blue water stretching out in the sunshine. We were finally at a put in! To Mutt and Jeff, the lake meant nothing more than the relieving truth that they were finally rid of us. They stayed five minutes then cruised off.

We relaxed at the lake for a day, enjoying the absence of vehicles and machines. They say there is excellent fishing up there but we didn't even get a nibble. There are a few small towns along the western edge of the lake but other than that, the area is completely free of civilization. We placed guesses on how long it would be until a full-on hotel goes up there. Two years? Five? Ten? There just aren't many places left in the world like this.

The weather had been almost completely clear since we left Ulaan Baatar and that moonless night, as I sat by the fire enjoying the star-crowded night sky, all was silent and still except for the distant sounds of Ian vomiting up that morning's "delicious" breakfast of mutton pancakes. During the two months we spent in Mongolia, we each suffered gastronomical rejection. Bill dubbed himself "iron stomach" and happily received offers of such treats as dried cheese, mutton and the ubiquitous "airik," which is fermented mares milk. He got his, though. During the last few days, he was convinced he had brucellosis. It doesn't help that wild man Bill is a raging hypochondriac.

Early on, we were pretty convinced that the omnipresent Mongolian dogs presented a possible threat to our safety. The Lonely Planet guidebook suggested that we not approach the dogs, that they were NOT PETS and VERY FIERCE. After guarding (and marking) our tent and gear for two days, they howled poignantly when we finally paddled away from them. They must have wanted to be our pets. One even followed us down the shore and swam over to our boat. Bill and I were happy to have "Puppyroo" along for the trip, but Ian bagged the idea of having an expedition mascot and "Puppyroo" was set free at lunch time.

During our last night before launching down the Eigen, the lake changed drastically, becoming a raging oceanic surf monster. High winds and pelting rain ripped at the tent we had borrowed from NOLS, soaking Ian's side. I'm sure if it had been Bill's side there would be a lot more shifting and complaining-NOLS has taught him that life in the wilds can be relatively comfortable and hassle free if you only have all the right gear and use it properly, preparing for the worst during sunny and calm days. This is a good philosophy, but it didn't always mix well with our "yahoo" approach.

We were off the next morning and we never saw rain again. The lake soon narrowed into the Eigen River which runs out of the southern end. We passed under a small bridge and found ourselves in small, narrow rapids. Winding through a wide valley with mountains on either side, the river became increasingly shallow over the next two days, a fact that had been disguised by the darkness when we had traveled up the Eigen a few nights before. On the third day, sick of pulling the boats from puddle to puddle, we portaged about a mile to the tire tracks that signify a road in this part of Mongolia.

The river gods and goddesses were on our side, for it wasn't long until a jeep passed with some tourists we had met in Ulaan Baatar. They piled us and our gear in, with the driver looking on incredulously ("where the hell did they come from?") We traveled five hours back to the town of Moron to stay in the "truck drivers hotel" where we made seaweed-rice slop in the yard, with the drunk innkeeper and some coughing children swarming us curiously. I'm sure we left behind a lot of strange impressions about "American food."

The next day we headed out by jeep to the headwaters of the Selenge River, the largest in Mongolia. The jeep driver brought along his two brothers, and we crushed into this small vehicle for many hours. They motored across the countryside drinking beer and chucking the bottles out the window. They stopped in a small town to reunite with old friends and show them the Americans. Ian and I began to get irritated at the delay but Bill reminded us with the calm of a Buddha to mellow out and enjoy the "Mongolness" of the experience. At this point, I began to understand why people pay big bucks for organized tours.

Once we arrived though, it was worth all the trouble. We put in at the confluence of the Delger-Moron and the Ider rivers-the headwaters of the mighty Selenge. We didn't catch any fish at yet another famous Mongolian fishing spot, but some young boys taught us how to fish with a handline and showed us the enormous northern pike they had caught a few days before. We put the boats together under careful supervision of a dozen Mongols and we were off, paddling water that was deep enough for an entire blade!

Beautiful brown dry mountains were dotted with trees in their fall fashions and in the air hung a fine mist or smoke that gave the mountain scenery along the Selenge a dreamy quality. Sometimes the mountains opened into long plains that rolled into the horizon, other times they confronted the river boldly. The liquid jade of the river was bejeweled by the coruscating sun. We floated past goatherders' gers (Mongolian for yurt), astonished Mongols and a group of fat Russian fishermen smoking cigars in their underwear. The weather was much milder than we expected, allowing us to paddle topless and have a cold swim that first evening to celebrate our arrival on the river.

The plan at this stage was to paddle from the headwaters to the city of Sukbaatar, right near the Russian border. Keeping track of progress was challenging because we were using maps with 1,000-foot contours. Small towns and major bridges had to act as mile markers along the way.

On the third day, we hiked up a mountain and were surprised to see the town of Hutag a few kilometers away. This meant that we were halfway to the Russian border and we were going twice as fast as we thought! We decided to take it easy and spent the next day fishing for mammoth pike with a local shaman (that's another story).

At almost every site, we had visitors attracted by our colorful gear who came to sit by the fire and check us out. A popular conversation piece was Bill's size 15 clod hoppers. They also enjoyed looking at our U.S. military maps and were flattered that America "cared" enough to chart their country. Russians had made maps of Mongolia, but they were riddled with tactical deceptions in order to trick would-be invaders. They loved our lighters, head lamps, tent, river bags, boats, sunglasses and handy NOLS cook kit with pliers. I began to think how fancy our gear was and how we hypocritically need so much in order to live "minimally." As they say, "Westerners will be Westerners" and comfort is too often a priority. Mongols had every right to view us as "softies." We had far more possessions than they, and we were down to things we "couldn't do without."

Mongolian people, especially in the countryside are very friendly and gentle people. It is part of their culture to have an "open house" policy towards anyone who passes their door. Many Mongols will travel long distances, carrying with them no more than a shoulder bag. They know their people will take care of them. They took care of us too. We were invited into many homes and offered food and encouraged to spend the night. The herdspeople we encountered were incredibly generous and kind to us.

Much of the Mongolian folk culture has been systematically erased by almost 100 years of communism. It was rare to seek folk art or music. Americans have had an impact too and the culture is filled with the "Michael Trinity"-Jackson, Jordon and Tyson. Graffiti on city walls betrayed a strong attachment to American rap music. One can only hope that growing numbers of tourists will create a market for the disappearing Mongolian handicrafts.

Mountains subsided into wide plains with the river winding through like a tangled string. Cows everywhere watched us pass, looking mean from a distance and retarded close up. We stopped in the town of Dzunburen, which meant that we were very close to Sukbaatar. The next day, we got out of camp early (11:30), excited to get to the city where we would revel in all the decadent and perverse pleasures that Bill promised he would pay for.

Around lunch time, we came upon a large bridge. We climbed on it to get a view of the town. Things began to take on a distinctly "Alice in Wonderland" effect . . . an old man sat on top of the bridge smoking a long pipe. We asked him how far it was to Sukhbataar. (We had acquired a grasp of conversational Mongolian). He told us it was 250 kilometers. We were sure he must be tricking us. It wasn't until some truck drivers stopped and showed us where we were on the map, that we realized the truth.

The town we had first sighted was not on the map and the one that we thought was Dzunburen was really Hutag which meant that we were only going half as fast as we thought and were only half way to where we thought we had arrived! We hiked up the hill to a small store where we bought 20 bars of Swiss chocolate. This staple is available relatively cheaply almost anywhere in Mongolia. Perhaps it is a Swiss idea of foreign aid since the food in Mongolia is notoriously bland. One Mongol told me that the reason for that is because they don't have toothbrushes. I failed to believe that one.

After a few more days on the Selenge, we began losing energy as the result of our diet of millet and chocolate. It took days of deliberation to make the decision, but we ended up purchasing a sheep from a local herdsman, who slaughtered it nicely for us. We had a neolithical feast that night, gnawing on bones, tearing at flesh, only stopping to grunt and belch. Juice dripping from our faces and hands, we slept soundly that night, the only night I did not dream of food.

We finally passed the convergence of the Eigen River, which had been fed by some mother tributaries and was now fat and deep. The confluence of the Eigen and Selenge Rivers is famous for its elk habitat as well as being the site of a mega dam project slated to begin next year. It remains a river to explore.

The drop in elevation was evident as the homogenous larch forest gave way to a multiculture of pines, birch and aspen. Gnats appeared at dawn and dusk to nestle in eyeballs and nostrils.

On day 22, we paddled up to a bridge which signified the road to Erdenet, a town on the Siberian Railway line, and the end of the trip for us. We had decided to take out here in order to still have time to explore some other rivers. We packed up our boats and hitched a ride on a grain truck which dropped us off to camp on the lawn of an apartment building across from the train station. Nobody seemed to mind and we decided that the greatest thing about Mongolia was the non-existence of private land.

The canoe is a gentle vessel in which to explore a land that is so wide open and virtually roadless. In our boats, we could float noiselessly into another world, and experience it in its peace and hardship. To travel by canoe in a foreign country is an integrated, peaceful and independent way to experience people and land otherwise inaccessible. We had an incredible time and plan to return.

Ian Liston, NOLS alumni
Bill Zell, NOLS instructor
Margot Wilson

6 days-Lake Khovsgol/Eigen River
22 days-Selenge River
7 days-Orkhon River
3 days-Tuul River
Arrived in Mongolia on September 13, 1997


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