Mongolia Part II: Trail Marathons and back-country camping

August 4, 2015: Toilogt Camp, Mongolia, Ger #1

Rest, rest, and more rest has been the theme for the past week in preparation for the race (gulp) tomorrow. Time has flown by, as it does…

After the reindeer trek we traveled by Russian van (another neck wrenching and back jarring 12 hours… I might do anything to avoid another day of travel like this) to Khatgal, at the southernmost tip of Khatgal Lake. We all felt like we arrived at a palace at the MS Guesthouse, with running water, showers, sit down toilets, wi-fi, and multiple grocery stores. We all gorged on the 7,000 Tureg (~$4cdn) supper of rice and…wait for it… Vegetables! Woohoo, quite the treat.

We spent a couple days in Khatgal exploring the town, (lots of guest gers, Mongolian tourists and one great coffee shop) and recovering/preparing for the next trip. Steve decided to go with our new talkative Japanese friend, Taro, and a broke Spaniard on a six day horse trek to the East side of Khatgal Lake. I’m sure there will be some good stories from them.

Mom and I left for Toilogt (~30km North of Khatgal on the west side of the lake) on August 1. We got an early start since we were going to hitchhike and wanted to give ourselves enough time in case we were slow to get a ride, plus we had no clue where the road leading out of town to the north was (Mongolia is generally lacking in any signage whatsoever), but after 10 minutes of standing on the side of the main road with our packs three different groups had already stopped to help us – just another show of how genuinely kind the people are here. An older couple pulled over, called their daughter who spoke English, and got her to translate for us. Then after grabbing a quick snack at their house, the whole family jumped in the van and they drove us to Toilogt (for approximately the cost of the gas), even though they were not actually heading there anyways. Beats hitchhiking in Canada…

Camping just outside of Khatgal
Camping just outside of Khatgal

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Toilogt – the beautiful lake and mountain scenery
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All of the supplies packed and ready to go the night before that I will be taking on the trail run

And so, the last three days have been extremely lazy at the “Mongolian” camp.  It is extremely beautiful with the pristine lake in front of us (one of the deepest lakes in the world) and the mountains behind us.  However, it definitely has a resorty feeling, and feels isolated from the real Mongolia.  Okay for now, but definitely not my travel style.

And tomorrow is the big run!  I had signed up for the marathon – 42km – which is going to be a big enough challenge, especially with two giant mountains to climb (2255m total elevation gain), but… The stupid competitive part of my brain in combination with the race briefing made me decide to switch to the 100km option. I initially switched just to have the option to push myself a bit further after the marathon in case I have some more juice left – maybe to the 65km aid station. However, as the idea has been festering in my brain over the past couple of days, more and more of me wants to push for the 100km, although I have no training.  Probably stupid, but a small part of me thinks I can do it, so, I will just have to really pace myself and see how I feel throughout the run. It’s gonna be an tough day tomorrow and an interesting post to follow, that is all I know for sure. Now, back to carbo loading and sleeping!

August 13, 2015: Train from Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia to Erenhot, China

Last day in Mongolia today.  Sad, but I know that I will come back as soon as I get the chance. Out of all the places I have traveled yet, I feel that I mesh the best with Mongolia- I love the laid back feel – things do get done, but there isn’t this craziness for perfection; I love the open spaces – land in Mongolia is almost all collectively owned, so, outside of cities there are no fences whatsoever and you can feel free and safe to explore, wander, and set up a tent wherever your adventurous heart desires; I also love the comradarie of the people in general- the folks that I have had the pleasure of meeting while in the country have all been very kind and welcoming, something that is harder to find in the more and more individualistic and tech-driven world I know.  I will definitely miss it!

But, back to where I last wrote, the eve of the big run where I had secret aspirations for doing 58km after finishing the marathon… HA! That didn’t happen!  The race itself was on one of the most beautiful trails (and definitely the most beautiful marathons I have ever run).  We started sharp at 4am in the dark through forest for about 2.5km (dodging rocks in grass and leaping over fallen logs with only the headlamp to guide you) until we came to a dirt road that ran parallel to the lake for 10km.  Then, at 12.5km the uphill of doom begins… Approximately an 800m elevation gain over 5kms. Naturally,very few have the stamina to run this part (myself included) and the run turns into a hiking race of sorts for a bit… it felt weird to be race walking up a mountain during a marathon. It was tough but the view at the top as the sun was rising over the lake as I reached the summit made the climb totally worth it – it makes you feel light as air, even after 17km completed before 7am. The first downhill stretch from km 18 to 25 was easy enough after the uphill (though there were parts so steep and rocky that you also had to walk), and the beautiful scenery made this part of the run fly by as you return to the lake elevation.

Then, after an aid station, the second mountain, smaller than the first but much steeper as we just went straight up the side of a mountain following green paint on the tree trunks rather than following an actual trail or footpath.  For me, the first mountain was tough but manageable, the second mountain- well it got the best of me; by the top I could only walk, hands pushing down on my knees, breathing like I am having an asthma attack, for 20 steps at a time before needing to stop and recover while at the same time questioning my sanity when I decide to sign up for these things.  But, eventually, 20 steps at a time, I made to the glorious top of the pass, circled the ovoo clockwise at the top once for Shaman good luck, and carefully made my way back down the steep slope on wobbly legs.

At this point I was just struggling to keep ahead of the two other women that I had passed on the downhill (hard to not be competitive in a race…) and had no desire to go a step past 42km. So, with that as my motivation, I managed to stay ahead of them, finishing in just under six hours:). Overall it was a very successful race, and I definitely want to do a 100km race in the future, just not when I have the option to stop after 42km..

The race organization was great – great course, well organized, nice accommodation,and very friendly organizers.  The only thing that was sub-par was the food (lack of and type), especially for the vegetarians. Lots of people got sick, (lots of runners ducking into the woods from the runs during the run), and I got sick a day leading up to the race on account of the super oily supper one night.  So, lost some weight because you are in the isolated camp, eating what they serve you, in the week leading up to the race, and was pretty stoked to head back to Khatgal Lake for a giant plate of simple spaghetti at the MS Guesthouse.

We met back up with Steve and Taro, and spent the next day sharing a taxi ride back to the capital, Ulaanbaatar(UB).  Our taxi driver was quite the guy, with very sketchy car passing attempts around corners in a car with no acceleration and lots of shameless belting out of Mongolian tunes for a significant portion of the 12 hour ride. The next day was spent in UB, buying train tickets, stocking up on supplies, and a trip to the National Museum of Mongolian History, which I would highly recommend. Lots of old history in this place and recent changes that we don’t ever learn about in the west.

The following morning we headed out to Ghorki-Terelj National Park, about 40 km NE outside UB, to hike and camp for the rest of our time in Mongolia. We hiked approximately 15-20km each day for 4 days (3 nights), for an out and back route along the river.  Once again, it was so beautiful – with each km that we walked out there were slowly less and less gers, people, animals. It was very hot, but we had a couple of cold river crossings each day so you could always cool down quite nicely. Best part was that the trek was completely free, both money-wise (no park fees here) and location-wise (no trails, just go wherever you want)- pretty swell indeed.

Sadly, the end of this trek meant the end of our time in Mongolia (travel visas only last 30 days), so we caught the train along the Trans- Mongolian Railway to the Chinese border near Erenhot. It’s my first time on a train, and it is just a fine way to travel- so nice to be able to stretch out and sleep overnight (the onboard toilets that are basically an open hole right onto the tracks are a little less pleasant but they work fine enough).  Tomorrow morning we will head over the border to China for our next adventure. So long Mongolia, till next time!

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The front of our train heading out of Mongolia
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Ulaanbaatar’s growing suburbs
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Typical Buddhist and Shaman stuppas found at the top of many passes in Mongolia: circle them 1-3 times for respect and good luck
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Ghorki Terelj National Park, Mongolia – not another person in sight
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Steve in Ghorki Terelj National Park
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wildflowers and mountains
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River crossingto get to Ghorki-Terelj Park – you can see why horses are the ultimate mode of transportation in rural Mongolia

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One thought on “Mongolia Part II: Trail Marathons and back-country camping

  1. You two are amazing……….It is so wonderful to follow your journey from a comfortable chair and an atlas!!!! Love you Hugs MA

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