It had to be somewhere wild. A place least travelled. Where you could roam for days without seeing a soul. Empty, or at the very least sparsely populated. And having found this rare and hidden place it had to set the scene for an expedition that was long, demanding, and unusual.
By Charles Turnbull
In pre-internet times scouting the globe to find a destination meeting my pre-requisites could have been time consuming, even fruitless. But not so for a procrastinating uni student – an erstwhile Clancy breathing the “foetid air and gritty of the dusty, dirty city, through the open window floating, spreads its foulness over all.”
Without the help of Google maps, Banjo Patterson’s Clancy went a-droving down the Cooper. One hundred and twenty four years later I discovered that Russia and Mongolia share a border. And you could paddle a canoe across it.
For more than two million years Lake Khovsgol has sat, fenced in by its dramatic surroundings, in northern Mongolia. Reaching down from Russia, the green pines of the Siberian Taiga carpet the northern shores, while the western banks are interrupted by the craggy peaks that form the eastern end of the Sayan Mountains. Fed by the rain and snowmelt that slide off these slopes, the ancient lake, of which there are thought to be only 17 in the world, is Mongolia’s largest freshwater reservoir. In a country that struggles with a semi-arid climate Khovsgol’s plenitude makes it a landscape of national significance. Likewise, its dramatic backdrop and transparent waters have made it a major tourist attraction for those who are willing to brave the three-day drive from Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s burgeoning capital. But whatever its volume or its beauty, Khovsgol has always played second fiddle to its much, much bigger sister. Covering an area larger than Belgium and descending 1600 metres, Lake Baikal holds 20 per cent of the world’s unfrozen surface freshwater. Not only is it the deepest and most voluminous freshwater lake in the world, it is also the oldest. Its grandeur brings tourists by the trainload, wearily clambering off the Trans-Siberian to gaze into the clear waters, perhaps hoping to glimpse Baikal’s endemic freshwater seal. But despite their allure, it was what lay between the two great lakes that was pivotal to our adventure. Snaking from the southern end of Lake Khovsgol, the tiny river Eg tracks south across the Mongolian plains before bearing east between mountains and across valleys where it joins the Selenga River. The much larger river then heads north, crosses the border into Russia, and flows straight into Lake Baikal itself. This was it, the perfect cure for a case of inner-city cabin fever. A one-thousand kilometre canoe journey through one of the least densely populated countries on earth, finishing at the world’s oldest lake. Believing it would be as simple as that, I immediately began the search for willing accomplices.
In the summer of 2007, when I was sixteen years old and eager for adventure, one of my great friends, Will Brown, and I began to plan our first “proper” expedition. In what may have been the catalyst for our Mongolian journey, we decided to try a one-night canoe trip on a river near Australia’s south coast. Courageous pioneers, we set off with our boats loaded. Unfortunately we forgot both the tent and the matches and spent a rainy night underneath the canoes eating uncooked pasta. And so it was with this track record that Will and I first put our 16-foot Canadian canoe in to the cold waters of the river Eg. Sliding out from the enormous lake, the Eg resembles little more than a quaint country brook and is, disconcertingly, not much deeper. Rounding out the trio is Ryan Carters, another close friend from our high school days. Although his enthusiasm for adventure is unwavering, Ryan’s actual experience in the outdoors has been stifled by his professional cricketing career. Nevertheless, when I ask him if he wants to sit in a boat for a month and paddle to Siberia he frantically consults his overloaded diary. Celestial bodies align and Ryan can paddle with us to the Russian border, before heading back to a more orthodox training routine whilst Will and I continue to Baikal. And so after an overnight train ride and a 14-hour drive, of which only around 30 minutes is on a sealed road, the three of us sit on the edge of Lake Khovsgol, savouring the moment. For 16 months we have been grinding through the logistical groundwork that this type of adventure warrants. Securing maps and visas is just the beginning. There’s transport to organise, a communication system to reassure our families and a menu plan that needs to satisfy one very hungry cricketer-come-canoeist. After endless attempts to procure a canoe for the journey we loan a boat from Ernst Von Waldenfels, an enterprising German journalist who lives in Ulaanbaatar and runs a small canoeing business. But our biggest problem arises just two days before we are due to leave Ulaanbaatar and travel to Khovsgol. We are told that our border permits, an ambiguous Mongolian document that allows you to travel near to the Russian border, have not been processed on time. We are subsequently told, in an annoyingly laze faire manner, that this means we cannot go ahead with the trip. Mongolian border police allegedly patrol some areas of the river and detain those who don’t have their permits, even if they have a Russian visa. After some heated discussion we come to an agreement that the permits will be faxed to us when we arrive at the lake in two days. Of course, when we arrive Khovsgol is experiencing village-wide power outage and we lose a day waiting for the fax to come through. And, as we somewhat sourly predicted, we didn’t come across the infamous border patrols. But with the drama behind us and enough food for a month we finally push off. Three excited friends on a mission to find Baikal.
After the first 10 kilometres of paddling the Eg you are out of touch. The river bends east and leaves one of the few tracks that make up the Mongolian road system. As soon as it does, you find yourself immersed in the enormity of a landscape that has changed little from the days when great conquerors stormed across its plains. Reaching its zenith as the centre of the world’s largest empire, spanning from Eastern Europe to the Sea of Japan, Mongolia then receded into gentle anonymity. But, thanks largely to the resource boom, Mongolia has re-emerged with one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Eyeing the huge quantities of gold, copper and coal, foreign investors from both the east and west have brought unprecedented wealth to Ulaanbaatar. To help appreciate the scale, this year Rio Tinto will open one of the world’s biggest coal mines in Mongolia’s Gobi desert. The operation is estimated to boost Mongolia’s GDP by 30%. But, as in most boom towns, the distribution of profit has been questionable. Black Hummers and Porsche four-wheel drives whisk the elite from luxury hotels to shopping malls with exclusive fashion labels and cinema-size plasma screens. Ten minutes away, shopping malls are replaced by chaotic markets and houses give way to the iconic gur; a circular tent that has housed nomadic Mongolian families for centuries, and continues to do so. But while the mining industry may have changed Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s countryside still remains relatively untouched, and we marvel at the immensity of it as the first kilometres slip under our collective belt. That evening, as the fire burns under a northern sky completely unpolluted by human light, we laugh at our circumstances: the success of our first day on the river, the natural beauty which far exceeds our preconceptions, but above all, our tremendous freedom and fortune. We have the means to buy airfares, rent canoes and spend weeks away from home at a time. We come from a country where our basic needs are so well met that we can chase frivolous dreams of adventure and exploration. We’re the luckiest kids in the world and for a change it doesn’t slip past us. And, if the first day is any indication, we’re in for a lucky month.
The next morning the river runs dry. As we round a corner it disappears below an incredibly large valley and leaves only a pebbly trail of where it once flowed. Not more than 40 kilometres from Lake Khovsgol and we’re high and dry, paddles but no creek. I struggle to comprehend the situation. Of all our Mongolian contacts, internet sources and maps nothing and no one suggested the possibility that the river we planned to canoe might not actually exist. After more than a year of preparation the expedition seems destined to fail before it has really begun. Panic and a fear of the awaiting ridicule sweeps over me. As Will and I consult the maps, Ryan climbs a nearby hill to try and gauge whether the river reappears towards the end of the valley. He returns and tells us he can’t see water but did spot a gur back towards Lake Khovsgol. “We’ve got two options,” he says, “walk back to the road or ask whoever lives in that gur for help.”
The only problem with asking for help in Mongolia is that it is incredibly hard to physically do so. In all my travels I have never come across a place where the language barrier is so great and the dialect so varied from region to region. We could manage to say ‘thankyou’ in Ulaanbaatar, but when we tried it on the road all we got was confused faces. Nevertheless, we leave the canoe and approach the gur where we are greeted by a family of eight. Eight confused faces. Over a cup of fermented horse milk we try to explain our predicament with inventive sign language. Luckily for us, the family owns a clapped out blue pickup truck and, after an hour of us speaking English and them speaking Mongolian, we manage to convince them to load up our canoe and drive us down the riverbed in search of water. Our predicament seems to both amuse and perplex them and so all eight of them jump on the tray back with us, relentlessly attempting conversation. Not understanding a word, we bump along in anxious anticipation, uncertain if and when the river will resume its flow. To our enormous relief it suddenly emerges thirty kilometres further as the valley narrows, flowing like it had never stopped. We unload, thank our family and count our blessings.
It wasn’t long until the doubt crept in. Had we cheated? Should we have carried the canoe for an arduous thirty kilometres and resisted the use of a motorised vehicle? Were we just soft and wimpy pretenders? I agonised over the fact that our expedition had become imperfect. I voiced all of these concerns as they arose and it began a dialogue that continued throughout our journey. We spoke of the nature of expeditions and decision-making, the idea of leadership and the power of public perception. In the comfort of hindsight, it is easy to say that what happened on Day 2 was the catalyst behind the most pertinent learnings of our journey. We began to understand the nature and purpose of adventure. It has no regard for plans and logistics or idealised fantasies and visions about how things are supposed to unravel. I realise that to use the term imperfect when describing expeditions is both naïve and superfluous. They simply are what they are – unpredictable. We had loved the idea of adventure when the river was flowing and the sun shining, but we needed to learn, perhaps not to love, but to accept its real nature when the inevitable imperfections arose. Trying to fight the uncontrollable swings would leave us only tired and jaded. As would worrying about what people would think or whether we had technically succeeded. Because, after many days of doing this, I realised that the milestone, the title, the distance all had very little to do with our journey. It was not one for the record books and vanity and hubris had no place in our wilderness. Instead, the physical journey was a medium for us to explore the world around us and learn more about the intricacies within. And while our goal was important to us, it was the challenges we faced and the quietness we experienced that was the true essence of our journey. It was three friends canoeing in the middle of nowhere hoping to learn something somewhere along the way.
To say the next three days on the river are tense is an understatement. Every valley where the river widens is a source of considerable anxiety. We have no way of knowing if the river will decide to disappear again and, if it chooses to do so, our chances of a gur rescue are slim now that we have moved away from Khovsgol. Disturbingly, the depth of the river dwindles and it becomes impossible to prevent the canoe from scrapping over river rocks. The water is swift, and some stretches are twisted and awkward. On day three we are carried towards a large strainer and the boat flips. After recovering our gear we realise that both the solar panel and the camera are more than a little damp. Neither is functioning and we can’t really believe how quickly our journey seems to be on a downwards spiral. For two hours we try to dry the internal pieces of the camera in the sunlight, and then we try with the heat from our stove. Miraculously the camera turns on but the solar panel is lifeless and the rollercoaster ride continues. In camp the next evening we flip the canoe to find the outer layer completely shredded along the spine. After a shoddy duct tape repair job we continue along the river the following day, painstakingly avoiding the hundreds of boulders below us. Later that afternoon we meet our first major tributary and the river deepens. It is a sign, a turn of the tide. Our stress recedes and for the next ten days we glide down the Eg, the landscape continuously changing. From the vast network of valleys speckled with the shadows of enormous clouds, the Eg funnels and takes us through pine-clad mountains that fortify the river with steep banks.
On the eleventh day we reach the Selenga. The mountains give way to marshlands where the river zigzags across the open plains under the watchful eyes of deer, wild horses, and the ubiquitous birds of prey that rule Mongolia’s skies. In our 750 kilometres of paddling our contact with people is confined to two small settlements at the river’s edge. Dwarfed by the enormity of the valleys surrounding them, the brightly coloured buildings are home to communities that live off the fertile land in apparent harmony. Cheerful, but surprised to see us, the local people help us purchase basic re-supplies. They take turns at sitting in the canoe. We, in contrast, find little novelty in the canoe. Making the most of the generous hours of daylight that characterise Mongolia’s short summers, we are canoe-bound for eight or nine hours each day. To reach the border in 20 days or less we set 40 kilometres of ‘as the crow flies’ progress as our daily target. While this is more than achievable on the flat stretches, the convoluted flow of the higher sections makes for harder and longer days on the river. Each day when we call it quits on paddling, with aching arms and numb backsides, we take advantage of Mongolia’s relaxed approach to land ownership and pitch our tent on any patch that takes our fancy. In the evenings the river flows slowly by. It looks more like molten silver than water. The enormous sky puts on a show above us until the sun finally dips below the horizon just after 10:30. We talk, read, brew tea and then repeat it all. Sometimes we have peas with our pasta and sometimes we have carrots but each night we go to bed content. To crudely paraphrase Huckleberry Finn, there is nothing quite like life on the river.
The town of Altanbulag sits on the border between northern Mongolia and Russia. It is, apart from the disorderly border crossing, a quiet place. But much like the rest of the country, it endures the strain of geopolitics. Landlocked between China and Russia, Mongolia is often in the middle of political tug of war. From two hundred years of the Qing dynasty to immersion in the Soviet Union, Mongolia has struggled to find its footing. These days both neighbours are trying to get a piece of the resource boom. China, Mongolia’s largest trading partner, has proven more adept at this. But some Mongolians are nervous about their neighbour’s growth and fear Chinese expansion into the grasslands of Mongolia. Indeed, canoeing through a country three times the size of France and with only three million inhabitants, we relish Mongolia’s space. But after crossing the border into Siberia, a nine-hour process, we return to the river to find the land has become larger and emptier. Saying goodbye to Ryan, Will and I continue our last 300 kilometres. Not long after we set off, Will complains of a toothache that has worsened in the last few hours. A recent filling is the source of discomfort and we both assume it will only be brief. That evening Will can barely eat. Instead, he tries to cool his tooth by gargling river water over the troubled spot. Once he spits the water out he breathes in sharply so cool air fills his mouth. It is the only thing that can assuage the pain but it needs to be repeated almost every minute as the burning sensation is never far away. For the first time our remoteness and its silence begins to make me nervous. The dentist-per-kilometre ratio is frightening. Fearing infection, Will starts a course of antibiotics and we both agree that the sooner we reach Baikal the better.
For two days straight we spend 12 hours in the boat. Will sits at the back in a codeine haze, cooling his tooth and placing steering strokes. I paddle relentlessly, propelled by the fear that things could get a lot worse. We allow ourselves one break for lunch each day and don’t stop in the evenings until we have paddled 90 river kilometres. The monotony of paddling becomes immune to distraction but I still try. Singing turns to humming and then to thoughts about food and family and left-behind romance. But the sound of paddles slicing through water doesn’t stop. Three days in and our fatigued bodies sense an ending, we hope to be finished by the end of the fourth. But as we learnt time and time again, nature doesn’t care much about what you hope for, and the following day we are blasted by headwinds straight off the giant lake. Two-foot waves on what was yesterday a glassy highway and the hours crawl so slowly by. Singing, humming, thoughts and silence. The sound of our paddles is drowned out by the wind.
The sternest warnings we are issued before leaving Ulaanbaatar all concern the delta of Lake Baikal. Ernst Von Waldenfels repeatedly tells us that the delta is not to be messed with. “It’s enormous and difficult to navigate and without knowing it you can end up in the middle of the icy cold lake, and then your parents would have to pay to get your bodies back to Australia,” he says, half-jokingly in his gruff German accent. He is a cowboy but his message hits home. Six days after leaving the border we begin our attempt at crossing the delta. The flow stops and the river breaks into hundreds of threads that can take us in any variety of confusing directions. The horizon is obscured by the large reeds that spread out over the river. Will doesn’t put the map down for five hours and our process is painfully slow. The countdown begins. Five kilometres trickles down to one but there is still no glimpse of the largest freshwater lake in the world. But as we round a bend the reeds vanish and water stretches as far as our eyes can see. In an instant it’s there. It’s more of an ocean than a lake and suddenly our canoe doesn’t feel very big at all.
That evening we arrive at a camping ground in the lakeside village of Istomino. Russian families crowd the communal kitchen, stirring borsht or grilling fish over open fires. In less than an hour we are part of the feast. Their hospitality is not to be refused: our plans for an early evening have no chance against their desire to show us a real Russian time. With broken English they ask what we are doing in Russia, and with sign language we try to tell them. They conclude that we are going fishing in Baikal. We leave it at that. True to form, the vodka appears immediately after dinner. Within minutes every last camper is cutting moves on a makeshift dance floor. Whole families groove to Russian pop as the stars come out over Baikal. The Vodka dampens my regard for style and Will’s pain receptors, and we dance until the early hours of the morning, agreeing that there could be no better finish to the trip than our Istomino disco.