When we brainstormed the Trip of a Lifetime feature for our Spring Outfitter Book, we asked the most traveled members of our guide team to pick the one expedition that stood apart from all the rest. They’ve logged some air miles, so picking just one was a challenge for each guide we asked. David Morton picked a journey to Mongolia, where he immersed himself in an ancient nomadic culture that ties back to the 13th century empire of Genghis Khan. His essay made us feel like we were there with him, trekking through Mongolia to climb Mt. Khuiten and visiting the yurts that still populate the high steppe, which is why we’re running running the extended version on the Live Your Adventure blog today. Enjoy. -LYA Editor
Words and Images by David Morton
I opened the ornately painted door with a bit of trepidation. Our guide had been telling us all morning that when we encountered a traditional nomadic homestead, it would be compulsory to stop and greet the family. We were in the northwest of Mongolia inhabited by ethnic Muslim Kazakhs. Was this a trick of some sort? In my travels, I’m accustomed to “compulsory” stops that usually entail some version of a contrived cultural tourist show or a thinly disguised tourist kitsch-shopping trip.
This was different. It was a real tradition. This tradition alone forces interactions I’ve rarely experienced in much of the world. The beautiful and welcoming “presence” of people is unparalleled. To add “icing on the cultural cake,” we were also obliged to take a turn mixing the fermenting mare’s milk (called airag) that sits near the front door as you enter and then seat ourselves near the head of the household for a taste. What a beginning to the day.
“With Heaven’s aid I have conquered for you a huge empire. But my life was too short to achieve the conquest of the world. That task is left for you.”
Although his heirs didn’t quite accomplish what he dreamt of, Genghis Khan’s legacy and legend has absolutely fascinated me. After being in Moscow for the first time and understanding the breadth of Genghis Khan’s reign, I’ve been captivated. The Mongol Empire once encompassed 16% of the earth’s land and ruled over 100 million people. His shocking conquest is unmatched by any relative measure, either before or after. Mongolia is loosely now what remains of that expansive and dominant 13th-century empire. And, like most countries of the world, the result is a cultural hodgepodge marked by borders created through the intervening years of political upheaval and power struggles. For my wife and I, this unique cultural landscape and a chance to satisfy my Genghis Khan obsession was hard to resist. Plus, Mongolia has mountains, which is why we were here in the yurt, mixing the mare’s milk in the ancestral land of Genghis Kahn.
As soon as we’d stepped out of the plane in the capital of Ulaanbaatar, we saw the remnants of the more recent Soviet control of Mongolia. Cyrillic script adorns signs throughout this 1.2 million-person city. The other million-plus live in more remote areas of this geographically massive country, making it nearly the least dense in the world. Greenland is the only country with a less dense population. This was just another unbelievable statistic, making my wife and I wonder why there aren’t more adventure seekers heeding the call. While Ulaanbaatar has certainly felt the influences of world taste in development (a number of notable restaurants, a handful of coffee shops), once you are a mile out of the center you are in another world.
After a few days taking in the sights and sounds of the “big” city, we got to the meat of the trip: the Mongol Altai. This mountain range is nestled against the border of China and Russia and is chock-full of rugged glaciated terrain, accessed by literally untrodden paths through meandering alpine meadows and green valleys. For people like us, accustomed to signs in national parks warning us to stay off the wildflowers, it was a surreal experience to be trampling through valleys filled with them and no trails. We couldn’t help but feel like we were doing something wrong. But there weren’t any trails. It was almost incomprehensible.
As soon as we jumped off the plane in the provincial capital of Oglii, we were picked up by a couple of Russian UAZ jeeps, unique because of the iconic vintage design, low cost, and great performance. A few hours later came our fermented mare’s milk breakfast scene I described above. Each of these nomadic homesteads consists of a couple of Mongolian gers (or yurts) where the extended family lives.
We eventually set out on our trek to base camp. It was a 20-mile walk through the lush alpine landscape. We shouldered light packs while a camel caravan brought the heavy artillery. Those big loads included our own traditional ger (yurt) to serve as our base camp for the next week, situated at the terminus of a massive glacial system. Our exquisite time in this pristine alpine playground included hiking to the tops of various smaller mountains and culminated in setting up a high camp on the glacier to ascend Mt. Khuiten, the highest peak in Mongolia at just over 14,000 feet. To top off the week, we climbed Mt. Nairandal (13,720 ft), which marks the common border point of China, Russia and Mongolia. The picture from the top of that peak is always fun for slideshows slideshows–such a novelty! This range has something to offer for everyone because the day hikes in and of themselves are superb, and the climbing ranges from easy low-angle glacier climbs to steeper mixed routes, all at relatively low elevation.
At the end of the week, the camels were loaded and we were set to depart. Instead of another 20-mile walk, we decided it would be interesting to ride a Mongol horse (a small native horse breed) back to the trailhead. We had no idea it would be one of our favorite parts of the trip. Not only did we not have to walk in a line, we helped a couple locals herd sheep while running the well-trained horses, a truly spectacular experience.
For custom trekking and climbing adventures in Mongolia, contact David Morton at www.climbjourneylive.com
Sorry, no posts matched your criteria.