A beginner’s guide to Mongolia
22 November 2023
Tourism is a funny old business. You don’t come home with any physical product, you return only with memories. That makes it a unique industry – we’re all in the business of buying and selling memories. And some memories are so outstanding, so valuable, that the photos you have taken don’t do it justice, you can’t find adequate words to describe what you saw and, frustratingly, nobody quite believes you anyway!
The best example in my dinner party repertoire is the helicopter ride I took from Karkara Base Camp (on the border of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan), to the South Inylchek Base Camp on the Inylchek Glacier itself. Inylchek is one of the world’s largest non-polar glaciers, visible from space, and a gigantic lesson in geology. It carves its way through the Tien Shan mountains, flanked to the south by Pik Pobedy (7,439m), and to the north by Khan Tengri – “Blood Peak” (7,010m, if you believe the Kazakhs), spilling into a meltwater lake every summer.
The flight itself didn’t promise much. I was staying at Karkara with a bunch of experienced mountaineers, which was interesting but potentially risky, and the general facilities were like a rundown British campsite. The clouds even rolled in the night before I was scheduled to fly. Imagine my surprise – or was it trepidation? – when I woke up to see an amazingly clear sunrise and the camp commander in military fatigues standing over me saying brusquely “Fife minoot. We leaf in fife minoot.”
Shortly afterwards we were airborne, and headed southeast across brown whale-back foothills. It was a haunting landscape, austere in a way only Central Asia can be. But we hadn’t gone up all that much. The chopper – an Mi-8 MTB on loan from the Kyrgyz Army – seemed to rise quite suddenly and quite fast. And then my focus sharpened and I took in the view – more than 70km from one end to the other, an enormous panorama of the Tien Shan. The helicopter must have risen to above 5,000m in order to descend on to the glacier. I had never been that high before, and popped the window open to take pictures. Lots of them. Literally hundreds.
We landed right on the glacier itself. The commander said I had “fife minoot, fife minoot only” – must have had a stopwatch – so I got out and started snapping away. This was a one-off, most visitors stay on the glacier for a couple of nights. But “fife minoot” was enough to take in the incredible mountain scenery. Groups of climbers were heading off, one group of Austrians and a lone Japanese for Pik Pobedy, and some Russians for Khan Tengri.
When my time was up I found myself sharing a flight back with a group of Australian trekkers – they hadn’t yet seen the glacier from the air. Some of them had looks of utter amazement at the view from the chopper. How could they not?
On landing at the base camp I dusted myself off, grabbed my bags, and headed back to Almaty in a mountaineering truck with some Russian climbing guides – all ex-military and full of stories. Truly one of the most outstanding memories of 12 years of travel in Central Asia.