Mongolia 05 – Horses, Waterfalls and the World’s Smallest Rabbit 

Orkhon Khürkhree, Mongolia
July 2016

Full Photoset @ Flickr

The Orkhon Khürkhree valley woke filled with swirling mist, slowly pierced and broken by the morning sun. This morning’s early start for the horse trek ended up being 11.30. You have to adjust to Mongolian time, things happen when they happen. A walk along the nearby canyon fills the time in before getting started.

The slightly psychotic Mongolian horse, don’t let the size fool you. 

Mongolian saddles are small and hard, they require a different technique to Western riding style. I’m not complaining, it was still more comfortable than yesterday’s van ride. I get my steed for the day, a short stocky mare with a bit of feist. The handlers are a bit worried that it might be too feisty for me, but for the first hour or so it’s more of a battle of wills to get it to do more than plod and go her own direction. I think she must have eventually warmed to me, we’re soon cantering and galloping across the valley, going in the direction I wanted whenever that was also the direction my horse wanted.

Mongolian horses could be said to have a vague homicidal nature about them. Never approach them from the rear, never approach them from the right for some reason, never stare them in the eye and on no accounts play poker with them over distilled fermented yak’s milk. They’re said to keep you on your toes, mostly as they start galloping and, in a effort at preserving the possibility of continuing your lineage, you raise your nether-regions off the rock-hard saddle.

Orkhon Kurkhree, Övörkhangai Province, Mongolia

The goal was to reach the nearby waterfalls, the largest in Mongolia. Not huge by any normal standard but still impressive. Also very popular with Mongolians apparently as well. The water, fortunately full from recent summer rains (it only flows for a few weeks each year) plummets off the edge of a lava flow into a chasm below. Safety standards here are a little more relaxed as people either jump to the small island above the falls with their kids in tow, and clamber down the sheer cliff single handed (the other hand carrying children too small to walk). I see parents waving their small children over the waterfall, considered good luck seemingly – presumably for those that are successfully retrieved to relative safety.

Everywhere you look, the scenery is dramatic here. Mini canyons and craggy pine clad peaks, mist rising through the forests as the afternoon thunderheads build. Heavy rain knocks the afternoon’s ride on the head but clears late evening to allow a hike out in the long twilight.

I come across something surprising here. The lava flows I’d seen along the valley so far could be thousands or more years old, but across the valley I find relatively fresh lava (no more than a few hundred years old I would guess), new enough that no soil and almost no vegetation had yet developed. And seemingly it had erupted from fissures rather than volcanoes. I guess I’m readjusting my understanding of Mongolia again.

Lava flows, Orkhon Kurkhree, Övörkhangai Province, Mongolia

The sun breaks through to light up the low mist at the head of the valley. As I turn to head back, I spy a pika scurrying about the lava blocks, most likely happy to use these as protection against the falcons that frequently pass overhead. Pikas look a lot like a hamster with large inverted ears. They’re actually the smallest member of the same order that includes rabbits, smaller than the palm of your hand. Possible contender for cutest small animal also looking like the progeny of a Pikachu & a hamster.

Being immensely timid creatures (understandable when you see the size of the vultures circling overhead), you need to remain stock-still and completely silent for a good 10 minutes or more. They were thought to be extinct in China, but it turned out that it was just that nobody had managed to stay quiet for that period of time.

Mongolian Pika, Orkhon Kurkhree, Övörkhangai Province, Mongoli

Darkness is at hand, as I hike back across the old lava flows, a brief sunset display flicks its way across the valley, the only sounds are the distant roar of the river, the braying of animals and the laughter of the family’s kids as they play football and chase goats. Mongolia life.

Orkhon Kurkhree, Övörkhangai Province, Mongolia

Mongolia 04 – A Bumpy Ride

Uvurkhangai, Mongolia
July 2016

Full photoset @ Flickr

Sunrise colours started a couple of hours ahead of the actual sunrise across the plains, the horizon lighting up purples and yellows over the distant mountains.

When the brilliant yellow light hits the land finally, filling it with impossibly long shadows, the wandering animals begin to stir and the first movements of the locals emerging from their gers gets the day started. Life moves slowly at the start of the day here, then progresses at a similar speed for the rest of the day. Come to think of it, the end of the day is fairly sedate too.

Mongolian steppes: the morning starts slowly, continues at the same pace during the day and ends much the same way

I go for a walk getting some photos of the herders getting the animals out to pasture and wander out on to the dunes to watch the shapes shift in the sand and the day slowly get started out on the plains.

A couple of hours drive through more wild scenery, alternating between wide open valleys, rolling hills and money mountains. Always the ubiquitous herds of horses, sheep and goats and the white gers break up the otherwise endless green expanse.

At the end of this is the small town of Khurjit, a mix of permanent gers, Siberian-style wooden houses with brightly painted roofs, and the occasional Soviet era building thrown in to the mix. This is as big as towns tend to get outside of the capital which act as a centre for supplies and services for the thousands of nomadic families that live in the region.

Khurjit. The locals were beginning to question the “Annual Road Maintennance” line on the council rates.

Khurjit also marks the end of the sealed road which is where things get a bit more lively. Rather than having a single road to follow, the road splits into several meandering threads which criss-cross and down which several cars vie with each other for pole position as they bounce and slide along the muddy tracks. The vehicles are everything from large 4×4’s to small Toyota hatchbacks and Soviet era vans. I start to feel a bit like I’m in an episode of a Mongolian version of Wacky Races.

A combination of Mongolian roads, Mongolian driving and rock hard suspension ensure you get to stay airborne for as much of the journey as possible. The last thing you hear when boarding a Mongolian bus may well be “enjoy your flight” …

Along the way we come to a cliff with a dark history. Before the second world war there were thousands of Buddhist monasteries in Mongolia. During the Soviet era, Stalin ordered  the Mongolian communist government to destroy almost all the monasteries, the only survivors were the ones that managed to convert to museums. Some 30,000 monks were massacred, and at this spot alone, 100 were thrown to their deaths off the cliff top. For such a serene place of beauty, and with modern Mongolians seemingly being such gentle and spiritual people, it’s hard to imagine such a thing happening here.

The route to Orkhon Kurkhree, Övörkhangai province, Mongolia
Serene scene with a dark past

What seems like hours of butt pounding road adventures brings me to the head of Orkhon Khürkhree, a beautiful remote valley flanked by Siberian looking spruce forests and filled with a wild river tumbling it’s way towards Lake Baikal in Russia to the north. My family greet me with a bowl of fermented horse milk and dried yak yoghurt, much better than it sounds. A walk along the river is quickly abandoned as lightning strikes the nearby hillside and the skies open.

Lightning struck off the opposite bank a few minutes after this shot … time to be somewhere else in a hurry …

Late evening brings a clear in the weather, enough time to try my hand at yak milking (definitely not as easy as it sounds) and a walk out across the ancient lava fields that fill the valley to watch rainbows and sunset colours.

Home for a couple of nights …