I mentioned in this post that one of the best things about my apartment is that I have enough floor space to throw some pallets down and host the one courageous backpacker that would make it this far west. But surprise surprise, that one guy brought a bunch of friends, because from October to November I hosted a grand total of ten people.
I don’t know if we did cool stuff because I had backpackers, or if the backpackers just had fabulous timing, but here’s some of the trouble we got ourselves into with our rolling cast of backpacking buddies.
The Obstacle Course
With French Couple 1 and British Couchsurfer (who went with us to Eagle Fest), we did a day hike out to the obstacle course. To get there, we had to plod through people’s fields, creep over, under and through their fences, and occasionally locate strategic hopping points in order to cross the various streams and rivers that wind all up and down the river valley.
Then we hit the obstacle course (the one and the same from this post. Can you find the Frenchman free-climbing down this rock face and giving me an aneurysm in the process?
I was pretty convinced he was dead, but even better, he’s a rock climbing instructor. I tried to follow–I made it about two feet up before I noped the fuck out and decided climbing a mountain was good enough for me.
Red Goat Mountain
My second group of backpackers, I think, got the best deal and as a result probably think I live a way more interesting life than I actually do. The day they arrived we had a massive fish dinner courtesy of my German friend’s epic haul from the river that day. And on Saturday, a couple coworkers decided they were going to hike Red Goat Mountain, occasionally known as Holy Shit That Thing’s Huge, and invited us all to tag along.
The hike itself took several hours and was a bit demanding–we had to backtrack along the smaller peaks multiple times, squeeze ourselves over and under rocks, and control slide most of the way back down to the bottom–but the views were incredible (as was the wind). Our one Israeli friend schlepped a guitar all the way up to the peak; I initially thought he was insane, but then we spent an hour at the top eating chocolate and singing songs, and it was fabulous. So it turned out that he was actually a genius.
The next day, our Russian friends decided to go check out Tsenkheriin Agui (цэннхэрийн агуй), caves about 100 km south of Khovd. The caves are famous because they contain a series of cave paintings, some of which are apparently of extinct plants and animals. So we brought our flashlights and our hiking shoes and not our gas masks, which was a mistake because the cave is so full of dry, dusty birdshit, you might as well have cut out the middle man and shoved your head up a chicken’s ass. But who cares, caves!
Initially, we simply ran around the giant cave and looked for all the cave paintings, which was fun in and of itself. At some point I wandered over to the back of the cave and saw a tiny little Mongolian man who appeared to have lost the bottom half of his body. When I got a little closer, I realized no, he had not been cut in half by cave demons, he was simply standing in a hole. He looked at me and said something–what, I didn’t know, but he didn’t have to tell me twice. I wriggled out of all my layers, dropped my purse, said “don’t steal my shit” to whoever was there (possibly no one), and followed the small Mongolian man down the rabbit hole.
I quickly discovered that Small Mongolian Man was apparently part ferret because the dude could squeeze himself through the tiniest slivers of rock. And, like an idiot, I followed him, because when tiny, fierce Mongolian men say “army crawl under a mountain,” you army crawl under a goddamn mountain and hope they do not have a cave troll. We came out into a chamber that was so small, we had to kneel and duck. He pointed his flashlight at the wall…cave paintings? No, no, he just wanted to show me the wall. Then we turned (shuffled) around, and went right back out the way we came.
I emerged tan, birdshitty, and so elated to be tan and birdshitty that when Small Mongolian Man gestured wordlessly and left the cave, I grabbed Other English Teacher and followed him out, up the mountain, and into the mouth of yet another cave. We continued to follow the ferret man over boulders, squeezing ourselves through more small passages than we could count, simply to come out into tiny “rooms” within the boulders before turning around and going right back. All this culminated in scaling a vertical rock face in the dark, wedging our hands and feet against either side of the narrow tunnel and spider climbing like goddamn ninjas. When we got to the top, our guide turned off his flashlight, and we sat in the darkness for who knows how long.
By the time we all left the caves, we were completely brown. Our hair, teeth, skin, clothes–everything was cake in half an inch of birdshit. And it was awesome. We wrapped out our cave adventure with a dusty picnic by the river, in which we unintentionally befriended the Mongolian picnic that was going on fifteen feet from us, traded beer for carrots, and chased away the horde of Mongol men who had congregated around the Russians’ car, tapping on the window and ogling their very, very blonde baby.
French Couple 2 also got a dose of life with our Russian friends–this time, they packed us all in the car and drove to the lake for a few lovely hours of running around on the ice.
We weren’t totally sure how frozen it was, so at some point our exploration devolved into a game of “throw the giant rock really hard and see if it cracks the ice.” At one point it was the French guy’s and my turn at bat, so we chucked the rock, and, when the ice didn’t crack, slid our way over to the rock to retrieve it. Except as soon as we got there, we could hear the ice under us cracking, so we looked at each other and hightailed it back for the shore. Everyone took one look at our Jesus-take-the-wheel faces and had to sit down, they were laughing so hard. I relegated myself to the weeds in shame.
As was probably to be expected, the backpackers have all moved to more tropical climes because the only people dumb enough to spend the winter in Mongolia are us. Fingers crossed that when spring rolls around, it will bring some more backpackers with it.
But for right now, I’ve got to go do some backpacking of my own–school break means I’ve got three weeks to run around Mongolia like a chicken with my head cut off, which I have every intention of doing. First stop: Ulaanbaatar, via a 40-hour bus ride. See you on the other side, hopefully!