Tuesday, June 2: Orkhan Valley, Mongolia
7:15 There are a few cranky campers this morning. Neill estimates that the mercury dipped to -8C during the night.
8:00 We set out to walk up the hill/mountain to the Tuvkhon Monastery which was established in 1651. I consider turning back twice, especially when it begins to snow, but after a few rest and bathroom breaks I eventually reach the top just as the youngest and fittest are ready to return to the truck. For a few minutes I stand alone on a mountaintop with a solitary monk chanting in the background. That was pretty surreal.
10:37 I catch up with three others on the way down and for some reason the “leader” of this little group decides that we will take a shortcut. Nothing could go wrong here.
11:00 We arrive to camp at 10:59:30, or about 30 seconds before our scheduled departure.
12:05 After driving for an hour it’s decided that the road is too bad and we’ll have to turn around and take another route. While turning the truck gets bogged down in soft ground. This could take a while.
14:07 After two hours of digging we place large rocks and four metal “sand mats” under the wheels. All the prep work pays off as Rachel is able to back out of the predicament and heads to solid ground.
14:13 All but Neill and Amaraa are back on the truck. I watch Amaraa through the open window and hear him mutter a rare word in English. It begins with F and rhymes with stuck.
14:15 We are indeed stuck again. To keep things positive, everyone agrees that it’s a lovely day and a lovely meadow in which to be stuck. Eagles circle overhead, a friendly local dog approaches looking for scraps of our lunch, and hundreds of horses, sheep and goats graze within 100 meters of the truck. It didn’t hurt that we had a few bottles Chinggis vodka and a carton of orange juice.
14:31 The sand mats work surprisingly well in the soft ground and Sura is free again. The plan is to take a north-west route straight to Tsenker hot springs but on the advice of a local driver we head back to Khujirt, then on to Kharkhorin. While shopping at the market in Kharkhorin a police officer approaches and wants to see the truck’s papers. It’s not clear if he’s a legitimate officer or a wannabe as he’s driving an older model unmarked car and wearing a badge that looks suspiciously like the one I wore at my 8th birthday party. Rachel shows him her driver’s license, the vehicle registration and the truck’s very official looking UK-issued carnet, which is in English and almost certainly a foreign language to the officer. He looks it over for a few minutes and finally gives us two thumbs up.
16:00 We drive west for 1-1/2 hours on a paved road before turning onto another dirt track for the final 2-1/2 hours. The “road” is really just a series of ruts in the Mongolian steppe. In places there are 10 or more paths and you simply chose the one that appears to be the driest. … I ride in the roof seat while we cross two rivers and pass countless mares, yaks, goats, sheep and their babies.
17:30 We arrive at the town of Tsenkher but there’s not much to see so we press on to the camp which is “just” another 20 km.
19:06 The ger camp looks great. It’s chilly outside but the staff have started fires in our yurts and a hot dinner is soon served in the main hall. We unanimously decide to stay three nights rather than two.