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When we're not filling orders, we're out hogging fun.
Not every day in Mongolia is pleasant, but they are almost always interesting. As Pat and I started across the grassland with our boats in tow, it struck me that Jagaa’s departure in the jeep came somewhat hastily. But at the moment it seemed there were more important issues at hand, like finding a route to the water.
Off the edge and down fields of wildflowers, we emerged from thick stands of larch onto a moraine field of round granite with a clear mountain stream coursing through. This was the Khagartin (Ha gar teen). Our descent would not be the first, that honor went to the British Universities Expedition several years ago. Still, this was probably the hardest whitewater in Mongolia.
The river was fast and shallow. After berating myself for portaging a rapid that was all clean, I came to see my decision in a better light after watching Pat narrowly pry himself off a boulder. I did the same a couple rapids later. The riverbed was young, and unexpected rocks lurked in every channel.
At a scout, we agreed the move was to split the boulders. I was too aggressive, and stalled on the pillow, sluicing backwards into a submerged rock that flipped me. Trying to roll in the shallows, all motion stopped when bedrock pressed against my back and the kayak pushed down from above, flattening me forward onto my front deck. It wasn’t overwhelming force, but the seriousness of the situation was apparent, and I resolved to swim out at the next opportunity. Seconds later my chance came, and I surfaced standing chest deep in a marginal eddy. “Paddle!” I yelled as Pat swept by. It wasn’t encouragement, it was an alert to locate my missing blade. He chased it down, and javelin-threw to shore. From opposite ends of a gorge corridor, we exchanged the all-okay signal.
A bedrock sluice, an up-and-over portage, and more paddling brought the Footbridge Gorge. We’d seen a picture of this on Google Earth from back in Flagstaff. The glimpse of whitewater in that photo led us here. Now reaching the long sought location, there was more whitewater than we’d ever imagined.
Another mile led to the Ireg River, below which we floated on a luxurious 400 cfs through a scenic class IV canyon. Emerging into an open valley, we scanned for Jagaa and the waiting jeep. We saw neither. I reached for theories, “Maybe we’re late and he’s off looking for us.” Pat was more resolved for a long wait. “There’s a spring downstream where we can get water, and those larch trees will provide firewood.” Two hours later we sipped fresh water by the fire. The sky was cloudy. A gentle breeze wafted upstream.
Around midnight, I put on my drysuit, arranged my pfd as a pillow, and announced to Pat wishfully, “I’m crawling in.” To deter the occasional mosquito, I draped my sprayskirt over my head. In a half-sleep haze, I could feel the chill of night on my back overpower the warmth of the fire at my belly. When this happened, I’d sit up and place more wood on the smoldering coals, then watch as it smoked into a release of beautiful orange flame.
We followed a wide dirt road into a desert basin incongruously featuring a big blue lake. Red crags rose on the far shoreline and our destination, Harhiraa (Har hear a) Mountain, rose snowy in the distance. Another hour of driving brought a green plain and rocky foothills dwarfed below the snow draped massif. Entering the facade, we passed ger villages filling verdant valleys where streams tumbled over beds of granite.
Our route degenerating, we stopped to ask directions from a woman wearing a traditional del. Although I couldn’t understand a word, she clearly spoke with conviction, telling Jagaa that our route lay a couple draws back.
The road climbed onto mountaintop steppes. At 9,000 feet, we realized that we were off course, but it was too late and too beautiful to turn back. Jagaa turned his jeep off the two-track and drove across the grassland toward the rim of a glacial valley below. When the snow dome of Harhiraa rose above the treeless plain, it was clearly time to camp.
Our morning started by glassing the river, its noisy rapids easily heard from 1,000 feet above. Pockets of larch grew throughout the valley, where two streams joined to form the Khagartin (Ha gar teen) River. The raucous creek seemed too low for paddling at first, but through the binoculars our perspective changed. We returned to the jeep and geared up for a day of kayaking, blissfully unaware of the adventure that was due to unfold.
Launching on the swift Buyant River, we were uncertain whether we’d see the vans later that evening or not. They had a long unknown shuttle ahead, crossing creeks and tracing old horse paths with tire tracks, thus qualifying them as roads. We paddlers packed sleeping bags, and extra snacks.
The river braided past rocky bluffs and opened into a valley where young men rode their horses and an old woman in a del whipped at some recalcitrant goats. We lounged at the rendezvous point in warm evening sunshine, placing bets on the vans arrival time, or their non-arrival. To our relief they pulled in at 7 pm. Jess was the big winner.
Driving into the town of Hovd, there was much conjecture as to the availability of hot water. Bulgaa explained that there was hot water from the town’s central plant in winter, but not in summer. I puzzled over this for some time before the obvious answer struck me. There simply weren’t enough resources—energy, man power, money—to dedicate to the luxury of hot water in summer, when it wasn’t a matter of survival. Still, our hotel claimed to have some. Pat Phillips persevered to find the one shower, and the one hour, when steamy liquid flowed. Impatient, I bathed delicately, part by icy part.
At the airport we said goodbye to Merida, Jess, Pat Welch, and Bulgaa.
Phillips and I climbed into Akhtilek’s van, following Nurca and Jenke in theirs. At the edge of town, a young guy in a T-shirt pulled a rope barrier at some sort of checkpoint, and we sped off on a paved highway. It turned to dirt in about 200 yards. Five hours later, the pavement returned, and the town of Olgy burst into view, a panoply of colorful Russia influenced rooftops filling the valley bottom. It was obvious that Islam was a player here. Women wore head scarves and mosques appeared behind roadside walls. We turned down a pot-holed street and into an alley where a blue gate slid open revealing a grinning shirtless man. This was Bulgaa’s brother, Jagaa. Together, we would search the Harhiraa (Har heer a) Mountains for whitewater.