If you were to look down on northern Asia from above, the city of Ulaan Baatar would appear as little more than the tiniest of dots in the midst of a vast unfettered field of nothing. Even on ground level it is easy to see that once you pass beyond the city limits, you’ll quickly be enveloped in an expansive virtually untamed wilderness. Mongolia is famous for this unbridled countryside, and before I made my way from London to UB, it was Mongolia’s great outdoors that I was keenest to see and explore.
Unfortunately, Mongolia is also famous for being one of the coldest places on earth. From September until well into April, it can be as cold as 40 degrees below 0, with heavy snow and ice covering most of the country. The treacherously low temperatures and dense blanket of snow that enveloped the capital and beyond meant that for much of the time that I lived in UB, getting out and about was not really an option. I arrived in Mongolia in early February, when the harsh winter weather was just about at its peak, which meant that for the majority of my first 3 months, I spent my time wrapped up warm within the confines of the city. The prolonged confinement worked to generate a type of cabin fever, which by early May had reached a worrying height--my friends and I had grown desperate to burst out and breathe the fresh country air.
Ulaan Baatar is ringed by mountains in almost every direction. To the south is a range known as Bogd Khan, at the centre of which are four mountains that roughly adhere to the points of a compass and are known as the Four Holy Peaks. The Bogd Khan range stretches to within just a couple of kilometres from UB, making it the perfect area to begin our exploration of the Mongolian wilderness. The highest of the Holy Peaks is Tsetseegum Uul, which stands at a blustery but achievable 2,200m and quickly became the target of our expedition. Most guidebooks we read and locals we spoke to recommended that we drive out into the country and attack Tsetseegum from the far side before descending through the foothills down into the city.
The path up the mountain runs passed the ruined monastery at Manzshir Khiid (see separate entry) and then climbs gradually to the summit. Everyone said that this would be by far the easiest way for us to head upwards; to get back down, we were advised to descend in the opposite direction along a far steeper incline that lead past the Zaisan Memorial (see separate section). With our route carefully planned, things were looking good. The only problem we faced was that everyone we talked to thought we were nuts. The weather had improved immeasurably since the chilly days of February and the country was beginning to take on a lush green colour. However, even though the spring temperatures felt positively tropical, in all reality they were barely breaking the 10-degree mark and at night they were still dropping perilously close to freezing.
Despite a lot of scepticism over whether we may freeze to death or get lost in the mountains, we were confident in our plans and were looking forward to hiking through the spectacular mountain scenery. Our plan was to camp at Manzshir Khiid on Friday evening before heading to the summit of Tsetseegum on Saturday morning, then spending the evening camped out in the mountains. Unfortunately, our ambitions took something of a bashing on just the first evening.
When we arrived at the monastery, it was a crisp, clear evening. We managed to find a nice secluded campsite in the surrounding woods, where we pitched our tents and made a fire. Everything seemed to be going perfectly to plan as we tucked ourselves into our sleeping bags. It was around 4am, though, when things began to take a turn for the worse. I awoke with the first glimmers of morning light and soon found myself shivering uncontrollably. I poked my head out of the tent and found that the forest floor was frozen and covered in a thick frost. All four of the group were awake and all of us were shocked at just how cold we were--all we could do was get up, start the fire, and have an early breakfast. As we toasted bread over the open fire, we began to reassess our plans. Manzshir Khiid may have been 20km of pretty rough terrain away from Ulaan Baatar, but none of us were keen on spending another freezing night in the wilderness. So we decided we would make a break for it and attempt to get to back to Ulaan Baatar that night. Things started off well as we passed by the monastery and began a steady climb towards the summit. For most of the way the ground underfoot was firm but in many places it was still frozen. Thankfully, by mid-morning the temperature began to rise and the summit slowly began to get closer and closer. It was just after lunchtime when we hit some steeper climbs and the wind began to get stronger as we got higher.
The final approach to the summit was rocky and relatively taxing, but once we reached the top it was all well worth it. The view across the city was truly awe-inspiring, taking in the urban sprawl and the open country and rolling hills on the far side. The four of us sat drinking in the view and enjoyed a tin of cold hot-dog sausages and a pack of Haribo candy for lunch. Once our whistle-stop snack had digested, it was time for our race against time back to the city. If we made good time we would be able to get back before the light faded and then sleep in our warm apartments. If the light ran out before we made the city, we would be forced to spend another night under the stars shivering in our tents.
We set off on our way down the back side of the mountain, with the afternoon sun making it pleasant hiking conditions. The way down was indeed far steeper than the approach we had taken up. Regardless of that, though, we made good time for the first hour or so. It was only when we encountered our first boulder that things began to go awry. We had just come out of a small wooded clearing when we were greeted by a giant field of imposing boulders. The only way through was to hop from rock to rock, which at first was tremendous fun. However, since we were all carrying large packs full of tents, sleeping bags, and food, it quickly became a precarious process.
The boulders just would not seem to go away. We passed through field after field of them and never seemed to be able to shake them. After each, we all began to feel more and more tired and were constantly preying that we would soon be rid of them. Instead, it wound up being like some vicious waking nightmare: each time we thought we had escaped, our spirits would rise, only to be dashed by the sight of yet more giant rocks. All the way down Tsetseegum and through the rocky foothills we were watching the light, hoping against hope we would make the city before it began to fade. Thankfully, it was still nice and bright as we found ourselves traversing the last field of boulders and passing the Zaisan Memorial.
Our trip into the mountains had certainly cured us of our cabin fever. We had seen enough of the countryside for the weekend and were glad of our return to the comfort of the city. Getting back in time had been an achievement we were proud of and grateful for, but it had left marks. We all had large blisters and a whole variety of scrapes and bruises acquired from crossing the boulders.