Monday, August 08, 2016

Mongolia by Horseback Part 5: The End of the Trail

This is the fifth – and final – installment of a series of posts I've been writing about my recent travels through Mongolia with my friends from Tusker Trail. If you haven't read the first four parts of the series, I suggest you do so before proceeding onward. They'll help to put the story into context, and give you a better sense of the entire trip. Here are the links to those earlier posts: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4. And as always, thanks for reading!

When we last left off on our tale of Mongolian adventures my traveling companions and I had just cleared a high mountain pass on horseback and had descended into a pristine valley populated by the nomadic Tuvan people. As with the other nomads we had seen on our journey, these herders travel across the steppe four times a year, moving their campsite for spring, summer, fall, and winter. With few exceptions, their lives have remained mostly unchanged for centuries, and their white yurts dotted the landscape throughout the remainder of our ride.

After descending from the mountain pass, we spent a soggy night huddled in our tents as the rain fell outside. It made for a good excuse to climb into our sleeping bags and relax after a long day on the trail. The next morning we rose to find the ground saturated, and dark gray clouds hanging overhead, but thankfully no rain coming down. Temperatures had dropped noticeably however, so we all bundled up for our day in the saddle.

Getting our day started quickly, we continued our ride down the valley, stopping to visit one of the local Tuvan families as we went. As usual, they welcomed us into their home with traditional Mongolian hospitality, offering fried breads, milk tea, and various other snacks. Later, they would show us a number of craft goods that were made right there in their own homes, which several members of the group gobbled up quickly for souvenirs to take home to friends and family. The colorful handbags and stuffed camels were particularly popular.

Back in the saddle, we all watched the skies overhead warily. At times it looked like the clouds would part and we'd have another glorious day in the Altai. Minutes later it would appear that rain was imminent. By the time was stopped for lunch we could look back up the valley to where we had camped the night before and see that the rain was falling in bucket loads. Thankfully, we had avoided it so far, but it seemed only a matter of time before our luck ran out.

In the meantime, our lunch spot for the day turned out to be one of the true highlights of entire trip. As we rested atop a small hill, we could spot numerous rock formations dotting the slopes around us. This particular place featured a number of spectacular petroglyphs – ancient carvings of humans and animals – on the rocks, and we all had a great time wandering about finding various displays of this unique artwork. The images includes ibex, goats, sheep, and other creatures, as well as images of early man who lived in this region over the course of thousands of years.

After scrambling through the rocks for a time, we hastily had lunch and got back on our horses. By then, it was clear that rain was imminent, and we wouldn't be able to avoid it for long. Sure enough, within a half hour of leaving the petroglyphs behind it began to pour, and I soon regretted leaving my rain pants in my duffle bag that day. While I had a great shell jacket on to keep my warm and dry, my pants were soon soaked through as the cold rain continued to fall. It made for an uncomfortable ride to say the least, and a learned a valuable lesson about the importance of packing the right gear in my saddlebags before I left camp each morning.

Fortunately the rain didn't last too long, and after clearing a couple of mountain ridges, it was soon behind us. The sun even popped out to warm us up and dry off our clothes and bodies. It was a welcome relief for sure, especially as our afternoon ride wore on. That day we were descending to a campsite in the Tsagaan River valley, which would be our home for two nights. To say that everyone was looking forward to a brief break from moving about every day was an understatement, so we were all eager to get to our next stop.

The trail took us down a couple of steep descents and over some small, but rapidly moving, rivers. But the Tsagaan itself was far too high and dangerous to cross on foot or horseback, so we had to ride an extra mile or two to reach a wooden bridge that would allow us to safely pass. After that, it was a short ride to the campsite, were we all quickly settled in for dinner, great conversation, card games, and a good night's sleep beside the glacially fed waterway.

The next day was listed as a "rest day" on our schedule, but for most of us that just meant that we didn't have to pack up and hit the trail right away. We didn't sit idly in camp however, as after breakfast we took a nice long walk up a nearby trail to reach a beautiful mountain lake. The hike not only gave us a good excuse to stretch our legs, but it allowed us to climb up to an elevation that provided outstanding views of not only where we had been and were currently camping, but where we would be headed the next day as well. In the distance we could see sweeping glaciers coming down from the mountains, creating an enticing preview of things to come.

The morning hike took several hours to complete going round trip, with the group returning to our campsite in time for a late lunch. After that we were expecting a local Naadam Festival to take place, in which the locals would once again put on a display of their riding abilities. We were also hoping to see a demonstration of their wrestling skills as well, which is a popular sport in Mongolia. Unfortunately, the threat of poor weather loomed over the valley throughout most of the afternoon, so the Naadam ended up being cancelled. That led to a leisurely day around camp as we prepared to hit the trail once again the following day.

Back in the saddle on day 12 of our journey we left the river valley behind and began climbing back up into the mountains. The route began easily enough as we passed through mountain meadows on clearly marked trails. The mountains loomed ever closer however, and those sweeping glaciers that we had seen at a distance just the day before, began to grow much closer.

As the day went on, the trail wound its way into an area filled with large rocks and plenty of loose scree, all of which was deposited there over many centuries by the movements of those ice flows. Our mounts carefully made their way through this treacherous section, and I was once again glad that these sure-footed ponies were accustomed to this type of terrain.

After riding about 15 km (9 miles) that day, climbing steadily as we went, the group reached what would ultimately be our final campsite. Perched alongside the glacier at roughly 10,000 feet (3048 meters) we had clear views of Khuiten Peak, the tallest point in the country at 4373 meters (14,350 ft). We could also spot nearby Nairamdal Peak as well, which marks the exact location where China, Russia, and Mongolia come together.

Spirits were high in the group that evening as we all knew we were closing in on the end of the ride. It was a bittersweet feeling however, as the scenery and hospitality that we had been shown was second to none, and all of us travelers had built a bond with one another throughout the journey. While we were all starting to look forward to starting our return trips home, we all knew that it would be difficult to say goodbye too. That is always the toughest part of seeing an adventure come to an end.

In typical Tusker fashion, we celebrated our final night in the Altai Mountains in fine fashion. Prior to the start of dinner, our wonderful guides broke out some unexpected luxuries for us to enjoy. Those included tasty smoked salmon, caviar, and vodka. They even mixed up some fine dirty martinis to enjoy with the spectacular backdrop of glaciers and mountains that surrounded us. It is nice touches like these that helps to set Tusker apart from the crowd, and elevates them above any other adventure travel company I've ever traveled with.

The following morning we were eager to get underway once again, and hit the trail about as early as we had the entire trip. Breaking camp went very quickly, and before we knew it we were already on the road to toward the finish line. We weren't the only ones eager to complete the last stage of the ride, as our horses clearly knew that it was the final day too. Turning down hill at last, they trotted along very quickly, occasionally breaking into a run as we neared the local ranger station that would be our exit point.

The final ride was only about a half-day in length, but it didn't disappoint. Once again, the scenery was spectacular as we rode through valleys with snowcapped peaks towering above us. For the most part, it was a very easy trail to the station, with one significant river crossing and mostly rolling hills. My horse, obviously ready to be rid of me, even broke into a solid gallup from time to time, which left me hanging on for dear life a couple of times. But eventually I learned to let him go, and simply enjoyed the final stages of the trip.

Once we reached the ranger station, we collected our gear, organized our packs, enjoyed a quick lunch, and said goodbye to the talented horsemen that had seen us through the journey. They took their herd of horses and camels and soon departed, beginning their own journey back home. It would take them a couple of days to get back to where we started, and they would arrive there even as the rest of us were leaving Mongolia behind as well.

The adventure wasn't quite over, as we still had a couple of long trips by 4x4 vehicle before we reached the relatively modern comforts of Ulaanbaatar, the capital city where our adventure had begun. That started with a six hour drive across rugged dirt roads just to reach the town of Ulgii where we once again stayed in a ger camp for the night. The following day we had to do a similar trip to another nearby city to catch a flight back to UB. All of the aircraft leaving for the capital from Ulgii were completely sold out, so we were forced to get a little creative along the way.

A short three-hour flight later however, and we arrived in Ulaanbaatar where a hot shower and a comfortable bed were most welcome. While we all enjoyed our travels through the Altai, I think everyone was certainly happy to have a few modern conveniences once again. The following day, we would all slowly, one-by-one, make our way to the airport and the long flights back home, bringing a close to our Mongolian adventure at long last.

To say that this was a thoroughly rewarding travel experience would not do the trip justice. Mongolia is a place that has to be seen to be believed, and its friendly, happy, and outgoing people are a big reason to go there. Yes, the scenery is unbelievable, and the opportunities for adventure are boundless. But it is the people that I met along the way that helped to make the journey such a special one. And if at some point in the future you happen to find yourself there, I think you'll probably agree. Mongol hospitality is second to none.

I'd like to thank Tusker for hosting me on this adventure and reminding me once again what a first class adventure travel company they truly are. Guides Andrew and Mel were exceptional, as were the the entire crew that we traveled with there. It was a true privilege to meet and get to know the entire group, including each of my travel companions too. It was a wonderful experience from start to finish, and one that I'd highly recommend to anyone looking for a truly unique experience in this beautiful country.

The best part is, you can actually do this exact trip yourself. Find out more at and checkout the entire Mongolian itinerary for yourself. And if you have any questions about Tusker in general, or this trip specifically, don't hesitate to ask me. I can be reached at

Thanks for reading!

1 comment:

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