It was early evening in the Chikhertai Valley when I found myself standing on a weathered buttress, cheering the sudden onset of clouds.
A fresh weather-front was barrelling in over the Altai massif, and now the clouds were pluming at the mountaintops, some of them wispy and translucent, others dark and penumbral, draping columns of rain. By now I understood what this foreshadowed. Soon, the cloud-cover would fracture the dusk light, and sunbeams would daub chiaroscuro patterns on the land, transmuting the grasslands into prairies of gold. Far away, on the valley floor, smoke spiralled from yurt chimneys; a pair of boy-herders chivvied their sheep alongside a stream. But these were pin-pricks of humanity on a floodplain big enough to swallow Manhattan. Up here, I felt certain, the only sentient beings sharing this vantage were the snow leopards padding unseen on the ridgelines, and the raptors wheeling in the sky.
If you had questioned me on the Heathrow tarmac about my reasons for visiting Western Mongolia, I’m not sure I’d have been able to answer without sounding absurdly gauzy or grandiose. It is probably too glib to say that I wanted to get as far away as possible from the city. A more convoluted explanation might be that I was seeking to restore my faith in the human condition. My true motive lay somewhere in between.
A couple of weeks before my trip, the world marked the fiftieth anniversary of the first Apollo moon landing. Archive footage of the event had shown pictures of ordinary people watching the live broadcast of it in their homes, eyes glistening at the sight of astronauts venturing onto another celestial sphere. I loved seeing that, the awe people exhibit in the face of the sublime. But I wasn’t sure I could identify the last time I’d experienced it, nor even whether it was still obtainable half a century later, when so much of the planet felt tamed or trashed, seemingly hell-bent on the same untenable trajectory.
Neil Armstrong famously described the lunar surface as a “magnificent desolation.” That phrase approximated the palliative I sought for my misanthropy: somewhere remote and unmarked, where humanity’s incursion felt transitory, and no-one understood the phrase ‘Instagrammability’. Short of paying Musk or Branson several million dollars to visit outer space, Mongolia, the most sparsely populated country in the world, seemed as good a bet as any.
It would be no exaggeration to say that Ulaanbaatar, where I met up with photographer Marcus, was a perfect jumping-off point for this personal project. This wasn’t because Mongolia’s capital was any sort of preamble to the big spaces I coveted, but because it was their antithesis. In many ways, it embodied the stuff I needed a break from.
In a country with no urban heritage to counteract the tides of outside influence, the city seemed at first blush to be a monument to the homogenizing and pollutive forces of hyper-globalization. On the city outskirts, shanties of gers, Mongolia’s ubiquitous yurts, proliferated under the fumes of coal-plant smokestacks. The centre glistened with new buildings, assembled from the profits of the extractive industries, principally copper, that have seen Mongolia’s economy double in since 2010. Malls advertised Ugg boots and Mont Blanc pens to atria devoid of people. Near the expanse of Sukhbaatar Square, a banner announced, boringly: “The Apple Store is coming.”
We flew westwards.
On the advice of Jan Wigsten, a Swedish-born doyen of adventure travel in Mongolia, we’d opted to spend our week in the Khovd aimag, a province abutting the Chinese and Kazakhstan borders, where the population density was one person per square kilometre. Jan said the mountainous west promised something more untrammeled than the better-known tourist spots around Ulaanbataar, albeit one mostly populated by ethnic Kazakhs, herders who had migrated across the Altai Mountains over the course of the nineteenth century. “It isn’t really site-specific,” Jan had told me. “It’s just a wonderful place to get lost in the great Mongolian void.” Void, meaning “vacancy; empty space.” It wouldn’t take long to realize that Jan was rather underselling it.
The sharp-nosed Embraer touched down in Khovd, the provincial capital, in the early afternoon. There to greet us were driver Nurbat, and Berdigul, a grandmotherly figure in a pink cardigan, who also happened to be a polyglot, and a sage and patient guide.
Our ultimate destination was Deluun, a four-hour drive over pastel steppelands, first on the smooth new road built by the Chinese as part of their Belt-and-Road initiative, later on the unsealed tyre tracks that wove towards the main Altai massif. Dwarfed by its environs, overlooked by the magnificent saddle of Ikh Yamaat, ‘Big Goat’ mountain, Deluun appeared like a tiny outpost in the vastness of a wide plain. But it turned out to be a supine town of 4,000 people, its dust-blown aspect enlivened by bright metal roofs in blue, pink and green. The high-street consisted of two shops, and a low-ceilinged restaurant where we would end up eating half our body-weight in mutton dumplings.
We stayed in a wide crumbly building where the friendly owner, Yelik, a national park ranger, had converted parts of the upstairs into guestrooms with gaudy throws and golden wallpaper.
Over the coming days, we’d typically set out after an early breakfast, and barrel into one of the broad valleys radiating out from Deluun. You didn’t need much of a firm plan or definite destination. Nurbat seemed to just direct the Landcruiser at a compass point and drive, sending ground squirrels and marmots scurrying for their burrows.
Our main zone of exploration was the Chikhertei National Park, a lattice of floodplains spilling down from the main Altai watershed. As we grew accustomed to the rhythms of the valleys, we learned that the best time to visit local Kazakh encampments was in the mid-afternoon, after the bustle of the morning, and before the women went out in the evening to milk their yak and goat herds.
Encounters with local herders followed a ritualistic pattern. The first, at an agglomeration of gers at the head of Gants Mod Valley, set the tone. We drove up, and our approach sent children scampering ahead to notify the adults. Nurbat hopped out, sparked one of his slender Korean cigarettes, and instantly lubricated proceedings, because Nurbat seemed to have some connection — either social or familial — to everyone. After some handshakes, we were invited into a Kazakh ger, larger than its Mongolian counterpart, and more ornamental, with vibrant embroidery draping the walls, and talismans made of eagle owl feathers hanging from the ceiling. The women festooned the floor with sweets and aarul, a sun-dried curd, as three or four generations gathered to drink bowls of buttery tea. Then Nurbat and Berdigul were drawn into a protracted discussion about the latest news, while Berdigul offered a sotto voce commentary.
“They are asking: ‘how was the winter.’”
“He is asking: ‘how are the sheep?’”
“She is asking why Nurbat missed their daughter’s wedding.” (Poor Nurbat always seemed to be getting into trouble for things like this.)
This went on at least ten minutes before our hosts even broached the subject of what the two lanky white men waving clownishly at the baby were doing way out here.
The nomadic pastoralism of the local Kazakh herders is arguably the most authentic vestige of a lifestyle once practised in various iterations from here to Hungary. The Stalinist famines and coercive industrialization that benighted Kazakhstan in the mid-twentieth century meant that nothing like it survived in their homeland. Sure, most gers had a solar panel or car battery to power a single bulb, and the camels, two-humped Bactrians once employed to transport camps and commodities, had been supplanted by trucks. Now they ambled about the plains in semi-retirement, mostly farmed for their wool. But in the main the local habit of moving livestock with the seasons, at once impermanent and deeply venerable, had changed little since the days of the Great Khans. Often, on Berdigul’s bidding, we would pull over to find petroglyphs of animals carved onto a slate outcropping, or engravings of ibex on shafts of rock, so-called “deer stones,” lodged upright in the ground. Burial mounds, scattered with boulders and yak-skull votives, marked the graves of Bronze Age chieftains.
Despite all the furniture of current and former human presence, the valleys still permitted moments of exquisite isolation. Bundling along the remoter tracks, your gaze might be drawn to a distant ger, or a solitary truck dragging a halo of dust. But then the plains would empty again, and the sense of being the only people for miles around made your heart soar.
Under certain conditions, Mongolia’s outback felt less like solid earth than it did a series of moods, like the ripples of a cuttlefish’s skin-pigments transposed onto land. Marooned far from the moderating effect of any ocean, the country has a similar latitude to London but an average temperature more akin to Anchorage. Combined with the elevation — Deluun was 2,000 meters above sea-level, the surrounding mountains double that — the geography provoked temperamental high-pressure systems and swirling, luminous skies.
For this week in August, the weather was a relentless incantation. At times, the clouds would close ranks, grow monotonous. At others, the sky would clear entirely, washing out the mountains in glare. These were the moments to rest your eyelids, because you soon came to understand that it was only a matter of time before whatever old gods held dominion over this place would re-stir the sky to conjure something new. Sometimes, I would turn to Berdigul to express my amazement, and she would smile and shrug, as if to imply that this kind of phantasmagoria was the most normal thing in the world.
On our third afternoon, we went walking on the windward wall of the main Chikhertei plain. Down below, a braided river glimmered in the low sun, and stick figures could be seen legs apart, shoulders rotating, swinging body-length scythes to collect tall grass for the winter hay stocks. Towards the neck of the valley, patches of larch forest mosaicked the inclines. A day earlier, at the national park office in Deluun, Yelik had shown me footage of wolverines taken by WWF camera-traps in these forests. Nearby, the same technology was being used to monitor snow-leopards up on the high ridges.
The woodland, when we delved into it, felt prelapsarian. There was no sign of wood-chopping up here; tree-cover is so sparse in the Altai that herders rely on a more readily available resource — their livestock’s dried dung — for fuel. I was just pondering this pleasing idiosyncracy when a sudden flurry of movement erupted behind us, and a black kite harrumphed into the sky, where it circled above the trees to shriek its displeasure. We found its meal, a marmot’s head, sitting half-eaten on a stone. We soon left, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that we had trespassed somewhere sacred, best left undisturbed.
The next day we got much closer to a bird-of-prey, though this one was larger, and its ankle was roped to a gauntleted hand. Thickset, leather-jacketed, and with the face of a boxer, Khuanitkhan had suspended the day’s hay collection to show us his golden eagle. Like some other Kazakh herders, he used her to hunt foxes in the winter. It’s an age-old practice that has achieved recognition thanks to documentaries like “The Eagle Huntress”, and the BBC’s “Human Planet,” and which is now being re-popularized, in part because of its potential as a magnet for cultural tourism. Over 1,000 people, many of them curious visitors, attended the Eagle Festival in Bayan-Ulgii last October.
Slipping a hood back over her head, Khaunitkhan invited me to don the glove. Fearful of causing offence, I agreed, but I felt saddened by the feel of the talons pummelling the thick leather, and by the sight of the adobe dungeon, full of moulted feathers and guano, where she was kept over the summer. It was clear from the way she kept unfurling her wings that she was desperate to fly. On an island, down in the stream, a younger eagle, freshly netted, was tethered to a boulder. Now and then, Khuanitkhan’s eldest son would wade over to offer it meat, bonding the bird to its captor.
It was the one discordant note in a culture that otherwise exhibited an admirable symbiosis with the world around it. In my reverie, I had to keep reminding myself that the splendour of this place might pall in the depths of winter. Even now, it was cold in the night, and in a few short months the idyllic lakes would freeze from surface to floor. The sight of the herders’ squat winter huts, and its attendant image of families hunkered inside a single room for months on end, made me shudder. However, if my impressions were coloured by a westerner’s romanticism, it was only ever a reflection of the native sensibility. The people had nature-inspired names like Aisaule (meaning “Moonlight”) and Chuluunbaatar (“Stone Hero”). Nurbat, who often looked hangdog despite his ribald humour, was at his happiest when we took a detour to: “say hello to his cows.”
I was just grateful to be reassured that living within the boundaries set by nature is a thing not entirely beyond our ken, at least until China’s steamrollers pressed onto Deluun. Over the course of the week, I hardly saw a shred of litter, or any other tourists, or any grief whatever. No-one responded to our intrusion with anything other than warmth and generosity, and no-one asked for payment in return for Marcus taking their photo (though we did leave with a list of people who expected Nurbat to bring them copies, which were destined to join the sepia family portraits that always occupied the place of honour opposite the ger doorway).
On our last day, taking the long-route back to Khovd along a steep-sided gorge, we dropped in to a ger camp one final time. Inside, over tea, I watched a ten-year-old boy in a Superman cap look through photos on Marcus’ phone. Face glowing from its proximity to the screen, he chirruped with delight at images of Maasai tribesmen in Kenya, and walruses in the Arctic. A picture of a Botswanan bull-elephant made him jump from his seat.
“He’s never seen these things before,” Berdigul said.
For the first time in ages, I understood the feeling well.