Hiking the Steppe: Wanderings In The Mongolian Hinterland

“Forecast says there’s a calm ahead. Mild days and sunny rain. Mountain breeze, days at ease. Clear skies overhead.” -Todd Scheaffer

Orkhon, Mongolia

A hot and sunny Saturday.  Barely a breeze and clouds were sparse.  It was to be our most distant hike yet.  Orkhon, nestled in its valley between rolling hills and far-off  mountains we often picked a hilltop not yet explored by our American eyes and set out every weekend.  We branched out hiking to farther peaks and crests, eager to experience a new view.  We headed out one sunny Saturday.  Five of us, armed with water bottles and backpacks.  Past Orkhon’s rickety haashas and wooden houses.  Over gentle slopes and through dried up creek beds.  Into forgotten fields of Orkhon’s discarded relics.  Weaving around herds of grazing goats and wandering sheep.  Orkhon became a distant speck at our backs.  The sun was hot, eagles circled overhead, and a breeze rustled through the wild grasses.  With  each pace of our sandaled feet sent a flurry of grasshoppers and insects jumping about.  Hopping alongside our toes with each step.  Like dolphins chasing the bow of a ship.  The elevation steepened.   Up the slope we went.  The Orkhon River snaked its way into our peripheral vision.  Lazily flowing through grassy plains and alongside mountains.  We skirted past a forest of boulders.  A few resting at awkward impossible angles.  Tossed aside by some ancient glacier.  It was all so peaceful.  The breeze picked up, billowing our shirts and accelerating clouds over head.  As we neared the summit we were met with quite a view.
A colorful ovoo,
A rocky slope,
and a sky divided.

“Forecast says there’s a storm brewing. Heavy rain and heavy wind.  Batten down and board them up.  Best stay overhead.”
As we looked out over the valley our blue sky changed to black.  The rolling white clouds turned dark and menacing.  The storm system extended for miles.  Far away we could see lighting streak down into the countryside and the unmistakable haze of a distant downpour.  Judging by the winds direction it would only be a matter of time before it passed over us.  Too far to make it back to Orkhon, we headed down the far slope to an outcrop of boulders.  We took shelter amongst the rocks and a lone tree as the first giant droplets began to fall.  The sky rumbled and the wind howled.  We laughed at our luck, at our situation, and nervously at the raw power of nature.  Drops splashed down the face of our boulders.  Lightening sizzled in the sky behind us.  It was easy to see why Mongolians and many other cultures held the sky as their most revered god.  Never before has nature impacted me the way it has in Mongolia.  I feel humble and mortal beneath its beauty and fury.  For me, its a necessary piece of perspective.  As quickly as the storm had set upon us it drifts away.  The rain settles to a drizzle then stops.  The sky changes from dark to light again and the storm moves onward to drench another remote hill.  Moving away from our primitive shelter, we continued our hike heading back towards Orkhon.  It was just another Saturday in Mongolia.  Just another memorable experience.
Omnodelger, Mongolia
I lie awake in bed.  Candle light flickering off the metal of my stove pipe.  My power is out.  It’s been out for hours.  The candle light is usually therapeutic, relaxing.  Not tonight.  Wind billows outside.  Gusts sending the stove pipe clanging against the opening at the roof of my ger.  It stormed all day, now temperatures plummeted, that same rain has turned to snow.  My ger ceiling, made of sheep felt and wool has soaked through.  I don’t have enough pots and pans for all the places it is dripping.  It streaks the walls and puddles on the floor.  Every so often a drop hits my stove.  Still hot with the evening’s fire it lets out a hiss and a puff of steam.  I scrunch my feet aside in my blankets to avoid getting dripped on.  Once again I’m at the mercy of nature.
I lean over and blow out the candle.
Close my eyes.
Drift back to that day in Orkhon on the hill.

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