Monday, August 24, 2009

Sunday, August 23, 2009

khovsgol lake trip

we just got back from an 8-day trip to central and northern Mongolia with erick's friend Bryan and two Chinese girls who did the same trip but in a separate car. we really enjoyed the trip, Mongolia is an amazing place, very beautiful and undeveloped. just as it's described outside the cities nomads with large herds of livestock- horses, goats, cows, yaks, sheep (and a few camels) everywhere.

before the details, the highlights. 8-days of driving 8 hours a day (except one day) on horrendous roads. picture backcountry unmaintained 4x4 roads, averaging about 22 mph except for the last day where it was almost all paved. and there's not one dirt road but many. in many stretches, the "road" is 1/2 mile wide with 8 - 10 parallel but sometimes interconnected roads to choose from. it's like those choose your own adventure book. lots of nothing, just big plains and mountains with the occaisional ger and livestock, pretty awesome. we had an awesome driver and a cool Russian 4x4 minivan/jeep which was very durable (only one flat tire, one fuel filter problem, and a brake fluid lake, all of which he fixed within 10 minutes) but which always smelled of gasoline. and the driver only listened to one tape though he had more. we calculated and we heard that one tape ~60 times. erick, bryan, and i can now sing those Mongolian songs in our sleep. the other car (an old Japanese SUV) lost its exhaust system, spewed black smoke, and had some other problems.

we stayed with families in gers for tourists and got dinner and breakfast as well for $3.70/night. ate in local restaurants for lunch. food was hard for erick (vegetarian) and he had a couple days of stomach problems (from inadvertently eating meat we think) and ate clif bars for a few meals. bryan was brave and ate some BBQ marmot today that the drivers bought off a girl on the side of the road yesterday. we also bought some fresh airag (fermented mares milk) from a family yesterday and got to watch them milk horses and go in their house.

sights besides the vast emptiness and nomads. small sand dunes, ancient city of kharkhorin and the erdene zuu monestary (very Chinese style with Tibetan Buddhism), beautiful terkhiin tsagsan nuur (great white lake) with a cool volcanic crater and an early morning horse ride, khovsgol lake- beautiful large fresh water lake. we did a great hike there around the lake and had good smoked fish. a remote monestary restored by UNESCO, amarbayasgalant khiid, then back to UB.

we all had a great time despite the the rough conditions (bad roads, no showers, all outhouses, camping conditions- which erick and I are used to).

next up, most likely a 7-day gobi trip with a trip back on the public bus, then a flight to western Mongolia to see the big mountains for a week. will try to post pics tomorrow.

of other interest, our north Korea visas are approved and our trip is still on for mid-September.

Friday, August 14, 2009

terelj national park

just got back from spending a night at terelj national park near ulaanbaatar. it was a very touron experience, staying in a ger, horseback riding, etc. we were mainly curious to check out the potential climbing there since we heard there limitless potential.

we found a few bolted routes and some good potential routes with a mixture of rock quality. the area looks like jtree with grass and small mountains but similar rock formations. we bouldered a little bit which was fun and hopefully we'll be able to climb a little bit while we're here in Mongolia.

we just arranged for a 8-day tour starting Sunday when Bryan arrives. pretty packed itinerary but hit many recommended stops including white lake, karakorum, lake khovsgod, and the famous monestary. The hostels providing the car and driver and we'll stay with families on the way and eat in roadside cafes. should be fun.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

out of russia...

we made it out of russia and into mongolia today. the train border crossing is a model of inefficiency, we spent a total of 7 hours for the border crossing including the 30 minutes it took to travel between the border towns.

luckily it was a painless process and we could go outside the train for most of it, until the went on the train to search the ducts and luggage compartments for stowaways. they make it much harder to leave russia than enter!

we'll spend about a month here in mongolia before heading to china and north korea. erick's friend bryan is arriving Saturday and we'll take a week long trip with him to lake khovsgol then come back to ulaanbaatar and arrange some other tours to the gobi desert and who knows where else.

we enjoyed our time and adventures in russia but it's good to be out.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

siberia adventure pictures

spend the last 3 hours posting pictures from our adventures in siberia (backpacking, climbing, mountaineering):

Friday, August 07, 2009

arshan and russian grade II mountaineering

we're out of arshan after 3 days, now in ulan-ude, our last stop in siberia (and russia!). were finally successful in getting train tickets without any big surprises today, we take the train from here to ulaan-baatar (mongolia) on monday afternoon. now that we have train tickets out and everything's set, i can say that the russia portion of the trip has been a lot more memorable in ways i didn't expect and also a lot more enjoyable than i expected. i think this may turn out to be one of the highlights of the whole trip (among many). alright, after all that reflection onto the fun stuff.

we took the bus from irkutsk to arshan, a mini-van which was pretty quick. got to arshan and went in search of the climber's hostel, priyut alpinista, as described in the lonely planet (with twin rooms, climbing maps, camp in the mountains). well we got there and the buildings had burned down in a fire during winter. only tent camping. the owner of the place, igor, spoke very limited english. luckily there was a couple from st. petersburg staying there after a 12-day backpacking trip, who spoke english. we asked for information about climbing and igor offered to guide us. he didn't want to do anything hard, since we came across as complete morons (no gear, no idea what we're doing, etc). we couldn't communicate that we were after the splitter hand cracks and even if we did, he wouldn't have had gear to do it. erick took out our gear to show him (harness, shoes, belay devices, quick draw). he took out what he had left after the fire, 5 rusty thin pitons (all similar size), 2 ascenders (both right handed), 3 figure-8 devices, and about 5 screw gate carabiners. nice. and a hammer. he agreed to guide us though on a russian grade II peak, which we didn't know what that meant at the time.

that evening he invited us to a fire/bbq. we bought food and showed up at this place. he ended up taking us on a walk to the site, which was about 1/2 hour straight uphill, about 600 feet elevation gain. great view though. met some other tourists from moscow and also the couple from st petersburg came as well. had a nice fire and food.

next day was a long one. we started out at 6 am from igor's place, with a 2 1/2 hour, ~3,500 foot uphill climb to start it off. then traversed over a big boulder field to a cirque below Peak Zdorobye (Friendship Peak), our first destination. About an hour of 3rd class scrambling up some talus, then we roped up. by roping up, i mean we each tied into the rope about 10 feet apart with a butterfly knot and simul-climbed without pro. most of it was 3rd class with the occassional 4th and easy 5th class move. it was pretty exposed though in some sections and not as secure without climbing shoes on. we got up to the left summit then traversed over to the right sumit (~2450 m high). from there we downclimbed (still roped together) to the saddle between Zdrobye and Arshan peaks.

since we'd gotten up pretty fast and proved ourselves not to be incompetent, he suggested we also climb up arshan peak. this was a bit harder and it started raining. we belayed at a few points, up the steeper sections and erick and i changed into our climbing shoes. then it started to rain. rain pretty much made the rock slick and our feet useless, didn't trust them at all. luckily the terrain was easy and there were plenty of hand holds. ended up summitting to amazing views of the surrounding valleys and peaks, with fog, sun, rainbows all around. probably one of the most spectacular summits i've been on, just because of the view then. peak arshan, ~2511 m, from igor's house to the peak, 6 1/2 hours, which he says is his summer record.

then came the descent. that was just painful and long. first it was about 2 hours of downclimbing 3rd and 4th class slick rock. very slick, and pretty much straight down with big drop-offs. fun. we ended up mainly trying to go down the ridge. after 2 hours, the trail turned much better and it was okay for a bit. then straight down in the forest, lots of elevation to lose. we finally made it to the river and after a tea break (igor thoughfully brought a stove with him) we hiked out. unfortunately, the last part of the trail, which is along waterfalls, involves lots of scrambling and boulder hopping, which is not what i needed at the end of the day. after a brief stop at the mineral springs (taps have mineral water (naturally carbonated) of different temperatures coming out of it, we made it back to igor's place a bit after 7 pm.

so in total, about 5300 ft of vertical gain (and loss), time to peak, 6 1/2 hours, time to descend, 6 1/2 hours, 2 peaks summited, russian grade II.

even though we're still in pain and sore, with the long descent, and virtually no technical rock climbing (no one placed any gear), we both really enjoyed the trip. we were extremely lucky with the weather as well. it rained a little bit on the way to the summit, a little foggy, but overall okay. on the way down it didn't start pouring rain and thundering until after we'd made it down the scariest part and were on easy terrain. otherwise it would've been much worse...

another fun thing we did in arshan was stay in someone's rented room. they had a separate shack they rented out, two (old) beds, stove, fridge. the house had an outhouse and faucet for water (standard in the town). an interesting experience. the bus ride from arshan to ulan-ude yeseterday was another adventure, just long (7 1/2 hours) and cramped (erick and i shared 1 1/2 seats in the back of the mini-van) with a screaming kid and damp (kind of smelly) van the whole way. but we survived and it's just something else to remember.

two more days left in russia, then the mongolia fun begins...

Monday, August 03, 2009

climbing near lake baikal

after the trek was over (see previous post) anton (owner of the guiding company) picked all of us up. erick and i were dropped off with him on the way back, about and hour outside of irkutsk for some climbing.

our first clue that it'd be interesting (besides us being completely trashed and tired from the trek) was the amount of food anton brought for us for 1-day. about 30 lbs of food! we hiked into farron rock and cleopatra rock (next to each other) and set up camp.

the area is granite with routes about 10 - 15 m high. very well bolted (better than gym bolting!), most routes very overhung with some jugs, very gym-like. not having climbed in 2 months, we couldn't manage to do much. didn't help that all the routes were very pumpy and the easiest routes started at 6a. erick did lead one route that was really fun, because it was crack the whole way. we sought out the crack, anton avoided it unless he had to use it.

tried about 5 -6 routes and most of them were just too reachy (russian climbers must all be pretty tall) or pumpy or strenuous (heel hook over the head) for us in non-climbing shape.

still it was lots of fun and great to get out on the rock again climbing, even if it is sport climbing. will post pictures soon...

next up, we'll head to arshan, in the sayan mountains a few hours SW of irkutsk for about 5 days. if things go well, we'll be able to climb some of the splitter cracks we've seen, otherwise it looks like an amazing area to hike around in (high mountains, lakes, big peaks, etc).

4-day trek to lake heart (near lake baikal)

this trip would be more appropriately named "experience life as a siberian exile".

we just got back from a 4-day trek (and also one day of climbing which i'll write a separate post about) in the hamar-daban mountains south east of irkutsk (about 5 km south of sludyanka). we had very little expectations before we set out, signed up for the trek because it fit well with our schedules and we wanted to get outside and do something active. little did we know that it'd be one of the hardest backpacking trips that either one of us had ever done.

first day involved hiking along an old road for a good portion of the day, visiting a lazurite mine, and then slogging for 2 hours uphill through a mosquito infested bog/swamp to find a campsite that our guide had never been to. almost lost my shoe twice to the bog. oh and it rained for a good portion of the day. let's say bog walking with packs (or in general) is not fun. camped in the only non-swamp area we could find on not so flat ground (we were supposed to camp about 5-10 minutes further in a meadow).

second day we bushwhacked through wet shrubbery on uneven ground (swarming with mosquitos) uphill in rain for an hour, before rejoining the trail that we set out on in the morning. ended up on top of cherkogo peak (2090 m) in fog and occasional rain, with about 30 feet visibility. had a fun, exposed hike down and spent the night near a small hut, which had a great wood stove to dry our shoes.

third day we day hiked up to a pass then up two peaks. it was a beautiful clear day and we actually got to see lake baikal. our guide victor suggested we take the "direct" route back to the hut to pick up our packs. turns out he assumed a trail existed that led from a ridge down to the hut. it involved going up two more peaks, then down a loose, steep (3rd class) gully and bushwhacking because no trail actually exists. ended up moving camp down near some waterfalls (trail passed 7 waterfalls) which were really beautiful but we were all exhausted from the day hike. at the end we got to downclimb a 20 minute section of 3rd class boulders in the rain.

fourth (last) day started by hiking down a slippery trail then straight up a rocky gully (very, very steep) and then about 16 km down a nice trail and rocky road back to the trail head.

we had two days of rain, two days of sun with a bit of rain. 4 days of wet shoes and socks, 4 days of wet packs, 4 days of swarming mosquitos, and 4 exhausting and physically challenging days.

all that said, now that we're dry, back at the hostel, things are drying and we're washing our clothes, we had a great time on the trek. not something we'd voluntarily do again, but all the hassle and adventure is what makes in memorable. victor was a good guide (except for not knowing a couple trails/directions/campsites and understating distances by as much as an order of magnitude), we had good company (our two fellow trekkers Julie and Graham from the UK were fun to be with and had great attitudes) and we did enjoy the suffering and crazy things we went through now that it's all over...

will post pictures sometime...