Out of the woods

There are probably typos in this very very long recount of trekking in the woods and not knowing whether we could get out in time.

Hatgal & Jan Khai, Mongolia, 23 July, 2019

I couldn’t find the owner to start a fire in the hut, so I practiced this week’s dance routine. I would have enjoyed the practice even more if not for the flimsy, squeaky wooden floor and my unsettling imagination of the 10000 things that could happen to me during the night. After layering a blanket, both my bed’s and the other bed’s quilts on top of my sleeping bag and carefully hiding my knife under the pillow on my dominant side, I slipped into the sleeping bad fully clothed with my windbreakers, like a worm tunneling into the soil. I journaled a bit, and listened to my new favorite podcast, Philosophize This till the episode on Gramsci’s Cultural Hegemony finished (which sounded more sociological than philosophical btw). It was nearly 1. Oops. Thank God I could afford to sleep late for now.

(Ohh did I mention that a lady from the other tent came to knock on my door, looking for things to keep her and her husband warm? It was no joke seeing someone’s face suddenly on the glass in the middle of nowhere when I couldn’t lock the cabin door properly.)

In the night I woke up again, this time due to heat and not coldness. It was the better, almost luxurious kind of waking up though, since I just needed to take off my jackets, instead of looking for 4 layers of daal out of nowhere, or binge-eating chocolate and trying to start a fire with tampons (they were surprisingly inflammable) at 3am like my friend Zina did at East Tsaatan. I didn’t have any tampon anyways.

The hut at which I sayed for one night in Hatgal

I was hesitant to eat the chocolate bar for breakfast the next morning. It was getting too decadent too soon even for me, and I once ate 1/3 pint of matcha Hagen-Daz ice cream for breakfast (which I bought with the money I earned, thank you). But the minute I slung my three bags that weighed 20kg in total, I (very aggressively) bit into the chocolate bar. I finished another podcast on Dewey while packing and waiting for Jitka to get ready. The husband of the lady who visited me last night swung by, trying to start a conversation past ‘where are you from’ based on gestures alone and then very kindly offering us to hitchhike back to UB. The kind of offers that never happened when I actually needed one. Sighs. Grateful for his repeated offer, we bid him goodbye.

Spotting some cars near the zipline that we thought was affiliated with the cabins, we decided to take a look before departing after some deliberation. It surely didn’t hurt to try out free stuff, especially free ziplining. And since we would trek with 20kg of luggage each for the next few hours, why not do something light-hearted for ourselves before setting out? It was obvious that Jitka was really excited about the small zipline from the start. I was much less unimpressed because the height was not too thrilling for a zipline, but who knew the view was sorta magnificent 50m above the ground. Sometimes a bird’s view transformed the entire reality. The person-in-charge then asked me for 5000 Tugrik. I should have known that there simply was no such thing as free ziplining in the world. But it really could have been worse – this price was shruggable.

We started descending along something that barely resembled a human path through the pine trees. The idea was to trek down the other side of a hill to return to the main road, even though it was probably wiser to take the route from which we had come up the previous night. But we were adventurers. We refused to tread the same path (when physical exhaustion hadn’t exhausted our dignity). Soon we paid for our pride when we had to climb some fences of a ger camp to get back to the main road. Thankfully there was no dog chasing us or angry owner aiming at us for trespassing.

By the time we reached the main road, I had already finished the chocolate bar. I had wanted to stock up on food for the trek, but the minimarts, which were everywhere 500m back, disappeared. Judging how touristy the place had been overall, I assumed that there would be enough restaurants along the paved road next to the shore, which according to Lonely Planet would have finished construction by 2018. At this point of my travel I simply didn’t want to feed myself cold food any more, even if it was chocolate.

As the river looked more and more like a lake, all other stores disappeared along with the minimarts, except for the wooden huts and ger camps. I hadn’t seen this many wooden huts elsewhere in Mongolia. Single-floored with huge and colorful triangular tin roofs that were almost one floor tall, they were constructed with only pinewood, which was easily available from the nearby pine forests. Had the interior been cleaner and more elaborately decorated, they could have come straight out of some Switzerland stock photography.

The paved road turned almost backwards meandering into the hills when we were stopped by Ashihai Resort, which practically monopolized the little peninsula at which we had planned to take a break. We had trekked off and met the main road again, and we were convinced that either the road would reappear in a short while, or there must be some trekking path along the shore through Ashihai Resort. After all, people came here for the lake and not the mountains. The little path in between Ashihai Resort and a ger camp was too muddy to pass, so we decided to pass through Ashihai Resort instead. It just felt like that there must be a path through the resort as established as this, which might involve some more fence-climbing but after the earlier fence-climbing we simply couldn’t care less. The gate was shut. Jitka climbed the fences to get inside first. I didn’t feel like I should as well, so I waited for the yaks to leave and then squeezed through the small opening between the gate and the fences, when a guard finally emerged out of the house, asking us for 1000 Tugrik to pass by. It was a very small sum, but one unjustified – there was no reason why any resort could just fence up a trekking path, a frustration I was no stranger to. But I decided that it was too early for this kind of bullying and told him we were looking for lunch at the resort, which was true anyway, so he could let us off.

For the next five minutes on the way to the restaurant, Jitka was complaining about a hole on her backpack she made while climbing the fences, which annoyed me because the hole was so small that I could hardly spot it even when I tried to. Wasn’t it normal for a backpack to have cracks? And if a hole this small was worth such rambling, I probably needed to kill myself five times over for all the decisions I’ve made during this trip. I tried my best to console her, which wasn’t working since her self-blame seemed to come from the very depths of her soul. Then I had to convince myself that different people had different coping mechanisms, and that it was probably better for everyone if verbalizing helped resolve one’s emotional afflictions, than just bottling it up and letting it ferment inside. Even so, a part of me was frustrated at her fixation on trivial things, but the other part of me was even more frustrated that I didn’t have the capacity to accommodate and forgive her fuss, which explained why I would often be so harsh on myself when I couldn’t let go of small mistakes.

[ok at this point Idek why I spent so much time describing the non-essential parts of this trek. There really isn’t any reason why. Please bear with me]

We passed by a coffee shop and then the lovely restaurant by the water. You would expect more people to speak English in a picturesque place with many foreign tourists, but initially I couldn’t find anyone to give me any useful information on whether external guests could dine here. We decided to take a short break on the rocky beach anyways. The water closest to the shore had the familiar hue between light turquoise and aquamarine that I had seen in Komodo, and similarly it turned to midnight blue as the water got deeper. The long and narrow beach, consisting entirely of white rocks the size of adult hands and occasional bleached driftwood, resembled the white sand beaches that encircled Komodo Islands, too. Did all places start to look similar when you travelled more? At least I was glad that I hadn’t travelled enough to know the answer to this question.

A gorgeous view of the lake, finally, from the little peninsula inside Ashihai Resort. We aimed to reach the other peninsula in the picture by that evening.

I took the first picture of the lake after I had reached Hatgal. We ate Jitka’s lifesaving biscuits. It was very tempting to laze the afternoon away on the benches but the wind was freezing even after I put on my extra pair of pants and jacket. Jitka believed that the meals were only served to guests who stayed there and went to get a cup of coffee, but I decided to give it another try. After some communication assisted by Google, a very nice waiter who had offered me free hot water earlier told me that chicken was available for 15000 Tugrik, or 40RMB, 8SGD. It was the second most expensive meal I had had in Mongolia, and I didn’t get to pick the restaurant when I had the most expensive one. I’d love to pay for it though, since a few peeks of what other guests were having assured me that the food would be decent, and they accepted credit card payment, which saved me from a cash crisis. To be clear, it wasn’t so much the fact that the meal exceeded my budget that made me hesitate. I had earned enough part-time to afford it without my parents’ money (and seriously, even though it was more expensive than average, it was still just 8SGD!!!). Rather I was held back because I saw Travel Fellowship as a promise that I didn’t want to break. In my proposal I promised to authentically experience the life of ordinary Mongolians, from 21st-century herders, ger district residents to city dwellers. Yes, ‘authentic experience’ was a buzz phrase in tourism. But to me ‘authentic experience’ had always been more than just the fun part, or a simplified, lighthearted version of the hard labor, e.g. milking one cow, doing some archery and riding horses, activities of a typical touristy herder family homestay. I had taken great pains in screening and handpicking each host. Now that I couldn’t volunteer at a herding farm, the least I could do in this very touristy part of the country was to avoid spending like a tourist. It was not just emotional sunk cost, or an issue of integrity. I personally thought there was nothing wrong with doing touristy things in touristy places. Just not on this trip. I just wanted to quietly experience the landscape, with my feet, eyes and heart.

The honey mustard chicken with kimchi I had at Ashihai Resort. Fine-dining woohoo!

I gulped down some hot water before departing. I liked the feeling of a warm stomach especially on days like this. The downside was bloatedness and food coma, but I guessed I would have to walk them off. Even with Google Translate, I didn’t have much faith in the directions given by the kind waiter. Nonetheless we asked him which way to go, the woods way or the beach. He said both, so I chose the beach path. As long as we could see the peninsula at which we planned to stay along the way, we wouldn’t get lost too soon right? We couldn’t walk fast initially because the rocks made the trek bumpy. Jitka headed inland a bit, so we could walk on the mostly dry grassland parallel to the beach.

A few hundred meters later we met some fellow backpackers for the first time – a couple, the girl from Netherlands and the guy from Argentina. Just like Jitka, the girl had some wounds from falling off the horse while dodging tree branches. Once again I was really grateful that my Tsaatan horse ride was very smooth. The couple had camped some distance from the resort. The guy asked me whether the three bags were all I got, since despite the heaviness they didn’t look big enough for backpackers. He then expressed serious concern about me carrying three bags through the hills forward, and Jitka reassured him that I was doing ‘very well’ on the way here. Hills then let hills be. I was cheerful. I loved trees and hills, and since Jitka had plans to climb mountains the next day that I couldn’t join because I had to write, I could really use some trekking today.

It quickly became clear that the hills they mentioned were really the hills, and the kind of hills that could kill you when you carried 20kg. Soon after walking back to the beach, we had to climb up a steeper slope when the beach became submerged, but I was confident that the slightly difficult but walkable white beach would re-emerge out of water. The hill dipped and rose, so did we, scrambling through several really steep slopes. Unlike earlier paths on the plain, the trail was minimal, but I didn’t give it much thought till much later. The day was bright without being too sunny, and the water occasionally visible through the pine trees was as lovely as it could be. Along with wildflowers, dozens of different kinds of mushroom poked through the thick carpet of pine needles, the kind of scenery I had only read about. We were walking fast enough that the flies and mosquitoes couldn’t catch up with us, though we still couldn’t go back down to the more direct beach path because it was still just cliffs along the shore.

Five low but steep hills later, things started to worsen. The little bit of narrow plateau we had been trekking on disappeared into the slopes and every step forward was either high knee up or the kind of down steps that hurt your knees. I wouldn’t have minded it all very soon, but we were barely inching forward, and the peninsula that we aimed to reach seemed as far as fifty minutes before. Trekking 10km withint 2 hours was a hilariously underestimate that I still didn’t want to admit yet. The road must be smoother in a little while. I repeated to myself.

Crap. Suddenly my throat started to throb. It must have been the strong lake wind. Crap. I didn’t want to fall sick again, having barely recovered from the last cold. Talk about Murphy’s Law – I finished my last Strepsils the night before to lighten the load.

When I had been trekking in the Tsaatans’ Village without the load, I felt like I could walk forever even it was all mountains. With some load, I could still walk all day with small regular breaks and a slower pace. But I just couldn’t charge forward at the same speed with the load. Remembering the Israeli couple’s recount of army life, I told myself this was just a taste of BMT for me. Back in Singapore I refused to use weights in the gym. Why would I weigh down myself physically too as if there were not enough suffering from day to day? Carrying the unwanted load rejuvenated my respect for all the guys who have gone through NS. Seriously, salute to all the servicemen and servicewomen out there. But I shall always hate the military at the thought of this kind of weight training.

The yellow bag carried my laptop and Jitka’s tablet inside. As the bout of sickness felt nearer, my now very dirty waterproof bag had become my crutch. While she had worried so much about the scratches on her Huawei tablet to ask me to keep it inside the yellow bag in the first place, Jitka didn’t seem to mind me repurposing the yellow bag as a trekking crutch, maybe because she forgot which bag carried her tablet.

I was panting. My meaty lunch was quickly being digested. I was approaching my limit and if I still couldn’t take a break I swore I would just give up and call the rescue hotline. Jitka reluctantly agreed, rushing me the whole time while waiting. With just one backpack, albeit a heavy one, she seemed to have better stamina. ‘There were bears in the forest in this region and they woke up in the evening, so we should really get out of the forest before the evening.’ She explained. I really hoped that by evening it meant by sunset, because evening as defined in other parts of the world was in just another two to three hours. I knew that she had read about it in Lonely Planet – the same chapter also warned about the wolves  and poisonous vipers. But they all sounded very distant the night before, and it turned too real too soon. I was utterly unprepared, having forgot how to react to bear attacks and hoping that the scares were just part of her paranoia. Surveying the landscape, I envisioned myself climbing trees or jumping off the short cliffs during a bear attack, neither of which sounded very viable. Forget about the bear attacks – I had enough to worry about right now.

Despite the risk of falling sick again, I took off my pants and the first layer of my windbreaker so I could walk a bit faster. I became the one asking to stop, and I asked more and more often. For the first time I felt I really might die in this beautiful forest. But no, lots of people camped in places just like this and we had a tent. Plus we weren’t even that far away from Hatgal. Never had I thought that my forestphillic self would want to walk out of any woods so desperately.

After checking Google Maps a few times to realize that we really were barely moving along the coast, Jitka suggested that we either started going back to Hatgal, or crossed the hills to walk along the main road again. I was all for continuing along the coast because the main road would be much more boring, but I didn’t want to give up so easily, so the only option was to climb up to the peak and scout for a route down the other side. Unfortunately for us, the road that had been along the shore was now all the way on the other side of the hills, a good three kilometers away. The worst part, though, was summiting a hill when you didn’t know the height. The pine treetops completely covered the peak, and with each subsequent step, the peak just felt higher, even though it was no more than 200 meters higher than where we were now from Google Maps. Eager to reach the top for some reassurance, we trekked along the steepest slopes, which was just plainly unsustainable. There was no foothold, and we soon resorted to our hands.

I asked for a break again, now starting to panic, when Jitka again rushed me. Exhausted, I was about to talk her out of the plan when we suddenly realized that we were standing on some plateau that resembled a path at least for now. We didn’t know whether the path would lead us all the way to Jan Khai, but desperate enough, we immediately scrapped the plan of climbing up and decided to follow the trail as far as it extended. Soon it became clear that this was an established trekking path, with turquoise-colored circles painted onto the barks of trees by the side every ten meters. Desperate people like us sure were optimistic. Everything was much more manageable when we were on a flat surface.

We took only two or three breaks in the next hour and half, and every time we checked Google Maps, we were making visible progress. A ger camp was only 20 minutes away where we took the last break. Immediately we felt much more assured, knowing that we had a shelter and food for the night even if we wouldn’t reach Jan Khai tonight. And when there were houses, there would be roads. The road that had abandoned us earlier wasn’t too far.

Past the swamp that wet my shoes right in front of the ger camp, the trail turned sharply inwards. We were walking on a dirt track, and just a few hundreds of meters down the trail we were finally back on the road. Happy as we were, all at once I was unspeakably more tired than before (because I could finally afford to feel exhausted), so we decided to try our luck and hitchhike for the last and easiest five kilometers. It was my first time to hitchhike, and we didn’t wait long till a couple generously welcomed our dirty selves and gigantic bags into their car, slowly circumvented all the potholes and drove us to the destination even though they clearly didn’t know where it was.


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