I love maps. Always have. I love the crisp, organised feeling of a nicely folded new map, and equally the satisfaction of making new folds and creases, organising it to your own plans and purpose. And I love pouring over them, picking out the roads and structures, rivers and contours that allow you to build up that 3D picture of a place, without ever having been there. But there a many things a map cannot show you: the condition of those roads, the colours of the hills, the nature of the people who inhabit that landscape. Planning this trip had given ample opportunity to examine the maps, and scour Google Earth for little snippets of detail that might tell us whether a route was possible. The Ider Valley, where we now found ourselves, was one such place that I have stared at for the past six months, wondering if it would provide us with a route through to the northern province of Khövsgöl.
The first obstacle seemed to be a bridge, or rather part of a bridge. Examination on the ground confirmed what I had suspected – it was an ex-bridge, with both ends washed away by flood waters. No matter, the river wasn’t deep and the road continued on the other side, so tomorrow we would cross. In the meantime, we had another visitor to the camp, who within two sentences had established I was a fisherman and led me away to show me the local pools. Turns out the Ider river contains taimen, the largest salmonoid species in the world and a prized capture for any angler. Fishing trips organised by western outfitters run into several thousand dollars for a 10 day chance to catch these monsters (which grow up to 1.5m long). Unfortunately it is currently the middle of the spawning season, and all fishing in Mongolia is closed until the middle of June. Next time. We spent an enjoyable half an hour chatting with Chuluumdorj, through a combination of mime, his fledgeling English, and the dry-wipe board Cas had had the foresight to bring with us (though mostly for communicating with children).
The next day dawned to the sound of a revving engine and occasional tooting car horn from across the river. I went to investigate and found a couple of nomads had got their van stuck, whilst moving their camp for the summer! We packed up, crossed the river (which had come up a few inches overnight) and towed them out without much difficulty. Cas’s reward? Turns out they had a goat in the footwell too, although he wasn’t really the cuddling type. They had come from Jargalent, where we were heading….if they could get through, we reckoned we could…
The sun shone, the birds sang (and posed for photos) and we slowly but surely made our way along the river valley, enjoying the most beautiful surroundings of the journey so far. Velvety hills of oranges, reds and infinite shades of green rose up from the wide, fast, glistening river below. Dotted with the occasional Ger or log cabin, which seem to be more common in these northern latitudes. The small, pretty town of Jargalent, with its multicoloured rooftops, sits neatly into the hillside, as the road winds its way over the flood plains and around the cliffs which sometimes leave you tiptoeing close to the waters edge. The main road headed north from Jargalent, over the mountains, but we opted to continue in the valley bottom, such was its allure. We passed few folk, save for a wizened old herder on his horse. He stopped for a chat, gave us directions for where we were headed (or directions to somewhere anyhow…), and was delighted when we offered him a swig of vodka for his troubles. The whole bottle was rapidly tucked deep within his tunic and he was mounted and on his way.
Several more hours, with backdrops changing from grassy plains to rocky peaks and back again, we regained the tarmac at the town of Mörön (pronounced Mu-roon). The 200km drive here had taken us 11 hours. Shattered, but delighted our route choice had paid off, we tucked in to the shelter of a hillside half way to Lake Khövsgöl and called it a (really good) day.
Our thanks this week go to Cooper Tyres….