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After a three-hour flight over steppe, then mountains, then desert, we landed in Hovd, a small town sitting in a broad desert basin with a braided river running through, it could’ve been somewhere in Nevada. From here our team of five kayakers, two drivers, one cook, and one very important translator—Bulgaa—would set off on a kayak tour of the Southern Altai. There was just one hitch in our plan. We didn’t have any kayaks.
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They’d been arranged to arrive by truck from the capital city of Ulaan Baatar. But there are many potential pitfalls when shipping large items across a country the size of Alaska, and of mostly dirt roads. Cell phone contact told us that the shipment was “almost there,” but as the slow northern evening progressed, they still weren’t. So at midnight, Phillips, Bulgaa, and driver Nurca set out in search of the missing boats. While I stayed snugly at camp, the search team apparently drove halfway across the Gobi Desert to find the overdue kayaks. Through the night, they stopped every set of approaching headlights—about one per hour—to glean new information on the missing truck. Reports varied. “One day back,” “passed them six hours ago,” “never saw that truck.” At 10 am the road warriors finally crossed paths with their tardy cargo.
02open rd
Reunited, our caravan headed for the Dund Tsenger (Doond Sen ger, South Fork of the Blue), a river that was listed as “possible” on Pat’s maps, and showed great promise on Google Earth. At the road crossing, it was over wheel-deep, and the rocks were round granite. Out of a heat haze shimmering on stark desert basins, a real possibility of Mongolian kayaking began to take shape.
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While on the water a rain began. It didn’t stop for six days. Fortunately for us, kayaking is a fine activity in the rain, and the weather is also conducive to accepting the incredible hospitality of nomadic Mongolians. We each stepped inside, carefully striding over the threshold and moving to the left before sitting in a half circle on the ground rugs. The heat was enveloping and wonderful. A lean woman tended batches of fry bread at the center stove. A little girl stared inquisitively from across the room. A rifle that looked about circa 1920 hung on the back wall. “Did you see the baby?” Bulgaa asked, pointing behind him to a pile of blankets that I might have flopped straight into. The infant cooed.
Camp came at a grassy field beside the high flowing Bulgan River. I discovered my backpack had gotten wet, soaking the cotton clothes inside. This prompted me to start a drying fire, which led me to the question of what one burns in a land without trees. The answer is dung, but it must be dry. As I returned from the desert with a few dry sticks of prickly bush, the rain resumed. Fire prospects were not looking good. High water for tomorrow, however, seemed guaranteed.