Dog Sledding in Mongolia
By PJ Guest - Peter Rimmer
Dog sledding isn’t the normal Mongolian experience but thanks to the introduction of a couple of packs of huskies, it’s possible to experience it on the frozen River Terelj in the Gorkhi Terelj National Park; less than an hour’s drive from the Mongolian capital, Ulaanbaatar. Joel Rauzy is from Toulouse in south-west France but gave up his job on the aerospace programme to pursue his passion for dog sledding.
It sounds simple but on that first morning there was some apprehension and the adrenaline flowed as we prepared to get under way. The dog teams pulled with all their might – tails up, ears back, tongues out – enjoying their run and chasing the team in front. We sped across the fresh layer of snow – 15/20kms an hour – smooth as silk.
Where the cold winds had cleared the surface snow, leaving a glass finish glistening in the bright sunlight, the dogs slipped and slid on the icy surface. They preferred a layer of snow beneath their paws for grip, and used a snow path whenever the opportunity presented itself.
Wrapped warm against the cold with four layers, two pairs of gloves, two hats and strong sunglasses, only our cheeks were exposed to the icy wind. Everywhere else was toasty warm, and the physical effort required to cross the rough terrain kept the blood flowing fast through our veins.
Away from the valley, we headed across uneven ground again where we were on and off the sledges frequently. Back on the frozen river, we reached speeds of over 20km an hour, the wind whistling by, and barely time to take in the dramatic landscape.
There were tracks everywhere – fox, wolf, deer, mountain hare and bear – but no signs of life beyond the tell-tale trails in the snow, except for a team of horses tended by a herder on horseback crossing our path and disappearing into the woodland like a ghostly spirit, as quickly as they had appeared.
We reached the top of the valley, about 2000m above sea level, as the sun dropped into the western sky. The overnight ger camp appeared in the distance and we followed a small river, now frozen and snow-covered, winding through forest and woodland, across more rough terrain, and passed the horses taking their final grazing before nightfall.
The camp had six gers and pens for camels, horses, goats, sheep and yaks. The head of the household greeted us – a Kazak man from the west with a wonderful set of whiskers and a glint in his eye. The young men were busy rounding up the horses that were proving troublesome in the presence of the dog teams while younger family members helped out with the goats and sheep.
This was an extended family – grandfather, sons, daughters-in-law and grandchildren, aged between two and six years. A lively conversation ensued and there was great interest in our travel adventure and the Angil (Englishman). Our hosts always appreciated a glimpse into our life and were as interested in us as we were in them. ‘Where are you from?’ ‘What do you do?’ ‘How many horses do you have?’ Small talk illuminated by photographs of home.
Away in a manger
The generator slowed down as it ran out of fuel; a sign for bed. We stayed in the ger, which resembled a manger, with the eldest son, his wife and their youngest daughter plus eleven lambs and two baby goats! The fire was warm, the sleeping bags cosy, and we settled down for a good night’s sleep. Nothing stirred, not a sound through the clear, cold night air except the occasional call from the bears and foxes prowling in the hills, and the howling of the wolves.
Next morning Joel prepared the dogs, fed them chunks of frozen meat and packed the sledges. Crossing through the rough terrain beyond the ger camp proved hard work for our dog teams until we hit the frozen river again where they eased across the icy surface. More tracks – bear, wolf, fox, deer and mountain hare – and even more natural beauty at every turn where we met with the occasional herder en route – men on horseback, women on foot with herds of cattle – before we stopped at another ger camp for milk tea and biscuits.
Snow fell on the distant hills to the north but there was endless sunshine in the valley. The river was a perfect highway of ice and snow for the dog teams as we raced on through the sunny afternoon.
Dog sledding over rough terrain was quite physical and hard work at times as you tried to keep in touch with the dog team and propel yourself over the ground in their wake. Over the smooth ice it was a piece of cake and there was time to take in the breathtaking scenery and the natural world all around but when the going got tough it was everything to stay in contact. But what a fantastic experience!
A lifelong ambition fulfilled.