Two weeks ago saw us have one of the most enjoyable days out since arriving here 6 months ago. I had seen on a colleagues Facebook, photos of her dog sledding the previous weekend and asked how to arrange it. 2 days later and 14 of us were on our way. Turns out school should be thankful we all made it back into work on Monday morning!
The few days before it had been more manic than usual with book week to organise and interviews at strange times of day to conduct. By Friday evening I had been half hoping the trip wouldn’t go ahead, I just fancied a day of doing nothing! But no such luck typical Mongolian style the trip was confirmed 8 o’clock Friday evening. After a last minute rush to get our 10 layers of clothing on and pack a days worth of snacks – lunch was included but who knew if the children would eat it – we made it out at half 9. Within 2 minutes of exiting the school gates I knew it was a good idea. All the stresses of the week were to be left behind at school and we were heading out to Terelj National Park. A place we have visited before on our weekend getaway. I was looking forward to the vast openess, and the beauty and tranquility I know this place has to offer.
After about an hours drive, which by Mongolian standards was not too hair raising, our car stopped on a patch of snowy ground just beyond the village of Terelj surrounded by trees on one side and a mountain on the other. It offered no clues of the adventure we were about to embark upon. Until that is , we opened the door, we could then hear the dogs barking and howling and if we looked really closely we could see glimpses of sleds and dogs at the bottom of a very steep slope through the trees.
This was as far as the cars would go so we all began making our way down the steep slope to the sleds. The owner of the dogs has about 70 and was already well underway with the process of moving them from their kennels under the trees to their sleds. We walked through the woods, some people greeting the dogs not yet harnessed and some like me taking a wide berth. Most people who know me know I am not fussed about dogs and here in Mongolia where rabies is wide spread I take even more of a wide berth than usual. We put all of our bags in one of 3 gers and then walked down a precarious slope made of wooden pallets to view the sleds and have a lesson on sledding. The lesson lasted about 10 seconds: if you are the passenger, you zip yourself into the sled and enjoy the ride; if you are the driver, or braker, stand with your feet on the wooden slats at the back, if you want to break you put one foot on a metal lever that pushes down into the ice, if you want to stop you put 2 feet on it. How do you steer? Well, you don’t really, the dogs go where they want but hopefully they follow the lead sled!
By this point Noah was making it pretty clear that he really didn’t want to go, he’d been saying it for the last 2 days on and off and had never been impressed by the idea but when faced with a choice of you come with us or stay in the ger in your own he opted for the first option. He was able to sit in the sled with me- a safe place I thought.
The noise at this point was deafening. There were 8 sleds with 7 dogs harnessed to each one, all howling and barking and occasionally trying to take a bite out of each other. I was trying to take in our surroundings too but it was too noisy, I had to save this for once the ride started and the dogs quietened down. We climbed into our sled and pulled up the zips. Our driver was my colleague Dom who was the one who’d been sledding the previous weekend, the practice paid off.
The dogs actually pull the sleds at quite a speed and as a passenger it wasn’t too bad a ride. The ice isn’t always smooth though, there were several places where it rose and fell like the natural path of the river water that had frozen. There were also snowy patches along the sides that the dogs sometimes pulled you through, that was the only thing that slowed them, or the brake, or finally if your lead dog needed the toilet. This happened on our sled about 5 minutes into the ride. The lead dog – Jenny, they are always girls with English names – stopped, followed 2 seconds later by the other 6 which meant that the sled overtook the dogs and turned. The dogs were disorientated and got tangled in their harnesses. So once the leader had finished how did we get them untangled and back on track? Well we didn’t. The owner of the dogs keeps up with you on a quad bike to help solve any problems so he came and lifted some of the dogs back in the right direction, the others followed suit, by jumping over Noah and myself. On doing so one of the dogs clipped Noah’s eye and he began crying. Typical me I said, “You’ll be fine, be brave,”, “look at those children fishing in the ice” I said, anything to distract him and take his mind off the fact that he never wanted to participate anyway. 5 minutes later we stopped to turn round and I was able to get a proper look at Noah’s eye. Zipped into a sled with so much clothing on meant it had been difficult to move far whilst the sled was sliding over the ice. I realised he was fully justified with his tears and had taken quite a blow to his eyelid. So I said “you’ll be fine,” “be brave,” “it’s just a tiny mark.” Not sure he really took it on board, my little Mr Health and Safety was concerned he had a really big cut that was bleeding lots and hurt lots. Thank goodness for a big group of all his teachers. By the end, we had turned it into a great story that he could share at school. “You fought off a wolf Noah, with big claws and saved everyone,” we said. That and a big bag of sweets from a friend in England saved the day.
The dog sledding, I think he could take it or leave it but I loved it travelling at speed a few centimetres off a frozen river bed in temperatures of -20 is not something this time last year I thought I’d do. Terelj is a beautiful place and it was good to share the experience with colleagues. I didn’t get to be the driver which from the look and sound of it is a tough job. Some people are still suffering from the falls they had – ice isn’t the most forgiving of landing materials but there’s always next year for that. The day didn’t end there though. Next up, an hours horse ride around a wooded area beside the frozen river. The horses were docile, Erin got to do something she’d talked about for months- although now she’s decided she wants a pet horse- and we all got to chill for a bit after the sledding. My horse, no matter how much I called out in Mongolian to it didn’t seem to want to go fast and that suited me.
Following the horse riding we had a quick 5 minutes to warm up in the ger. I had got seriously cold for the first time. Then back in the cars for a 5 minute drive to our lunch destination. We arrived and started walking through some woodland up a hill. I was suspicious – we had been told lunch was a BBQ – where was a potential BBQ and where was the food? Well a few hundred metres up the hill and we stopped and in true Bear Grylls style we all gathered some sticks, put them in a heap and our Mongolian guided started the BBQ! The children gathered logs for us to sit on and out of a rucksack some potatoes were produced, thrown on the fire along with some foil packages which it turns out were some very delicious kebabs. There’s something about being outside in freezing temperatures that meant this food tasted even better than usual. Everyone except Noah agreed – he continued munching his way through a box of oatcakes.
After lunch we were offered the chance for a little walk – Pete, Seb and I joined in and one of our colleagues took Erin and Noah back to the cars and partook in some ‘ice mining.’
It was actually about an hour’s walk that was pretty hard going, through trees, balancing on small snow covered ledges, alongside steep drops but the reward was a spectacular view. Every hill I have climbed so far I have yearned for the everlasting mountainous view from the top that I have viewed from the plane but every hill I have reached the top of so far just has another slightly taller hill behind it. This time I got my view. It was absolutely breathtaking and amazing, no photo – especially one taken on an old iphone – will ever truly give the same feeling as standing on top of that rock. A superb end to a superb day.
Shame about the closed eyes but my iphone gave up after this – too cold!
A truly breathtaking view.