the road to Ulan Bator
to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive
Ulan B was where I was supposedly going, in the heady glitter of early retirement, a few extra years before the body became too decrepit to go places and see things, worth any amount of extra money that would accrue by working on to normal retirement age.
What will you do? people asked. You’ll get bored. No, I would not get bored. I would go places and see things and enjoy just floating about with no pressure of time. But where? they asked, wanting some plan.
Overland to Mongolia, perhaps? Down through Englandshire (tedious), across the north of Europe (probably boring), through Russia (possibly scary), to Ulan Bator, where the temperature hits 27oC in summer and -33oC in winter, and where the airport is named for Genghis Khan – a plan whose unlikelihood (too far, too hot, too cold) was surely plain to see.
At least it stopped the questions. And of course I just might go there.
So I had set off south in April, in my yellow Mitsubishi van kitted out for living in: walls and floor insulated with plywood, foam mat, double burner gas stove, plastic water-carrier; plus rucksack and wee tent for accessing interesting off-road possibilities. Private Eye for the cartoons and satire and crossword. A sliding door at each side let a trained sluggard such as myself watch the sunset at the west door and the sunrise at the east door without emerging from the sleeping bag. Bliss.
|Morven from the Thurso river|
The road from Scrabster to Inverness had stirred up the usual emotions: first proper trees, first proper hill, Morven, inland from Dunbeath; amusing bit of steep road at Berriedale plus sharp bend and sand pit for vehicles to crash into when their brakes failed, easy to get stuck there in winter conditions, it all felt like coming home after years in exile, a most comfortable and engaging exile but without the starkness, steepness and stoniness that the soul craved.
Onward south, past Helmsdale, where ancestors of the spouse are buried, past Golspie (ice cream), past Bonar Bridge and over the Struie. And then the brie-and-biscuit stop, the call of the west.
|fine wee waterfall and pool|
Too early for the dreaded midge, but I set fire to a twig of heather in the tent, just for the nostalgic smell of the midge-repellent smoke. That night, too happy (and cold) to sleep. I dozed on and off, and the low burble of the stream turned into voices as though of people in the next room at a party: I couldn’t quite hear the words, only the tone of enjoyment. The American Indians, I had read, avoided camping beside a river, because it would steal your soul away. Well this river could have my soul any time it liked.
|Beinn Eighe and Liathach from Beinn Alligin|
The complete round of Beinn Alligin turned out to be more taxing than I remembered – a wee bit of scrambling at the Horns, where an ageing, unfit person could come unstuck, how had I never noticed it in the olden days? Nearly thirty years ago we had reckoned this an easy day. Now it was an effort and very slow. But the sun shone out of a cloudless sky, and every hill of this part of the country triggered a memory of past days, fine or atrocious, and the folk I’d been with. Back down at the tent, restored by a kipper and soup, I was tired enough to sleep, however lumpy the ground.
|Beinn Eighe, scree run to the right|
Next day wanted to be easy, so along the road to Diabaig, and a bit of plootering about on the rocks by the sea, still with the sun beating down. The day after that, Beinn Eighe, hard snow near the summit ridge, the long scree run for a fast descent, hmm, the knees aren’t as happy as they used to be, these are big hills, such as I haven’t experienced in a long while, and clouds are gathering … it could be time to press on towards Ulan Bator.
I packed up the tent and slept in the van that night, and sure enough the rain started and by morning all the scenery had disappeared into low grey cloud and wetness. So off I went, eastwards.
Inverness, a blink of sun, a quick whirr through M&S to pick up healthy food (bacon. kippers, soup, brie, grape-and-ginger syllabub, chocolate) and away down the A9, headed for Mongolia. (Whatever happened to grape/ginger syllabub? It went away, never to return.)
But south of Inverness the road goes quite high, about 1,300 feet at Slochd, and presently there hove into view big snow-covered summits and a narrow gap between them: Cairngorm, Macdui, Lairig Ghru, Braeriach, 4,000-footers, and sun beating down on them. Seemingly of its own volition the van peeled off to the left at Aviemore and trundled along the road to Loch Morlich, looking for a place to stay. Obviously it wasn’t possible just to cruise on past, no, Ulan B could wait a bit longer.
|between Cairn Gorm and Ben Macdui|
It used to be a long toilsome slog up to the top of Cairn Gorm. No longer. Cruising smoothly up in the chair lift watching the panorama unfold painlessly was pure pleasure, but it did put milling hordes on what used to be a place of isolation and silence but for the wind. Still, the mighty plateau stretched away for miles, and the throng would soon be left behind, so off I toddled across lovely hard-packed snow towards Cairn Lochan and Ben Macdui.
Soon I passed a straggling line of teenagers shambling along, blank-eyed, not really looking anywhere, one of them loudly moaning that he’d left his Walkman down at the campsite, so could he just go back down? Their adult minder, brisk of stride, keenly consulting map and compass, had that look of suffering patience just about to snap that said this was a school trip to expand the awareness of young people. Hah! I cruised on towards Macdui, feeling lucky, and soon they were just tiny inaudible dots in the immensity of the plateau.
A faint feeling of unease nibbled at the lucky feeling, because this was an accident waiting to happen: weather can change very fast; at this time of year; at this altitude, if you find yourself in a white-out, it’s perfectly possible to walk right over the edge of the cliff without seeing it; and unless you have good equipment and knowledge and can somehow shelter until help arrives, a bad sprain can be the end of you – though they do say that hypothermia is one of the pleasanter exits from life. Not that long ago, most of a school party had perished at lower altitude in the Lairig Ghru; some years before that, a group had set off from Glen Clova hostel to walk the six miles over the old drove road to Loch Muick, not far, but much of it over 2,000 feet high over featureless moorland; blizzard enveloped them, and they never arrived.
I wondered whether to go back and see if their leader needed help to round up stragglers? But no, they were on their way back to the chair lift in plenty of time, there was no sign of bad weather approaching, no-one was limping, they were keeping reasonably well together, they’d be fine.
So onward to Macdui, the broad flat summit where more than thirty years ago, thin and hungry, I’d wandered about in the cloud trying to find the cairn and get safely down to Loch Etchachan and back along the track to Inverey fortified by glucose tablets; now I could see for miles, the tummy was well filled with bacon and the rucksack with chocolate biscuits, and it was an easy, if a tad wearisome, trundle down past Coire an Lochain to the giant parking place. So, a perfectly satisfactory day, but lacking the excitement of the first visit. Was it time to be off somewhere new, Mongolia for instance?
That night the rain came and the morning was dreich, though the forecast indicated that it would clear from the west. The van rolled back down the road to Aviemore, where the way to Mongolia lay left, on the A9. I sat and thought. The drive down through Englandshire, so boring. Was I ready for all that suffering? Not yet, I’d take another look at the west coast first.
Almost without further thought I found myself, once more stocked up with goodies from M&S, bowling along the wee road beside Loch Quoich, in Knoydart; through the open window came the addictive scent of bog myrtle. Most of the peaks here I’d sewn up one Easter long ago, but this time I’d go for just one, my favourite, Luinne Bheinn; because not for nothing is this part of the world known as the Rough Bounds, and though the distance from the nearest parking place to LB and back was only about 20 miles, they were pretty rough miles and that would be enough for the aged bones.
|Luinne Bheinn, near the summit|
Good decision. Next morning as I laboured over those rough miles, fortified with coffee and a cheese-and-anchovy-paste sandwich, I remembered that it had been toilsome even when I was a lot younger and fitter. Back then the dam at the east end of the loch was quite new and the loch had not yet finished filling up; the normal path was under water, and as we made our way along the edge of the loch by torchlight it was hard to distinguish dry heather from underwater heather, so still was the water surface. That night I had kept waking up from a nightmare that the rising water was filling up our tent, and the next day had felt a great lack of energy and a worry that when we got back to our tent it might be under water.
So coming back to the present, perhaps the older and unfitter body might find the trek to LB and back quite easy after a good sleep and no worries about flooding? Dream on. It took the full day, a lovely sunny day, splendid vista out west towards Skye … maybe I should go there next, for a look at the Black Cuillin? No, get real, that gabbro ridge is beyond beautiful, but only for a fit person.
Better to stay a day or two in the Rough Bounds, for across the loch, above Arnisdale, lurked Sgriol, as yet unaccountably not sewn up. The map told me there was a track all the way; but there were a lot of streams to cross, and it might be about 12 miles to get there, past the Dubh Lochain and down the River Arnisdale, and these pecked-line tracks on the map were often hard to find in real life … hmm, I’d see what the legs were feeling like in the morning.
|Loch Hourn, looking west. Sgriol is far, far away to the right.|
The morning was cloudless and looked settled, and the legs thought it was worth starting out, because they could always turn back, couldn’t they? But I knew that when it came to the point, turning back just never happened. The legs just carried on, mindless.
|near Sgriol summit, looking back east up Loch Hourn|
Across the streams, past the lochs, up the steep rocky face to the summit at nearly 3,200 feet, out there above the mouth of Loch Hourn, Skye only five or six miles away, yes, it was worth the slog, but it had taken around six hours what with streams to cross and the track mostly invisible, and it was nearly sunset, which would be gorgeous but I couldn’t stay there to watch, because it was a long way back. Luckily the sky was clear, the stars were bright, and the feet, left to themselves, remembered their old skill of walking in the dark so long as their owner didn’t look at the ground. After a lot of hours, those feet got their body back to the van, and the body was glad of the comfort and the treats that lay waiting.
|Ben Mor Coigach from Stac Polly|
|Stac Polly ridge|
Needing food by now, so round to Lochinver for supplies. Suilven is the obvious hill from here, but that was in the bag long ago, whereas Canisp was as yet unbagged, so abandoning the van I toddled up the track that runs east from Glencanisp Lodge, and set up the tent by the stream, between Suilven and Canisp. Back in the day, I had found this to be snake and tick territory, but it was still not hot enough for the snake, and I had a bit of whisky to scunner the tick with, and since it was not yet the season for the midge the door of the tent could stay open and the recumbent body could admire the hulking mass of Suilven and watch the heron fishing in the nearby lochan..
Canisp, it turned out, was a bit boring, and the view of Suilven from nearly 400 feet higher diminished that far more interesting double peak. In disenchantment I thought of turning south and getting on Ulan-wards. Oh, but just a blink farther north lay Quinag, as yet unbagged … so near, must just nip up there.
|above the clouds on Quinag|
The sight of posh people reminded me that I hadn’t had any kind of wash for quite some time but not far from the road was a wee loch, fed by a stream with a fine little waterfall, perfect for a shower. It’s a great feeling, post-waterfall, after a few weeks of festering.
The van seemed to want to keep on northwards, and soon it became clear that it was going to Sandwood Bay, just a few miles south of Cape Wrath. The rough road to Sandwood turned into peaty track just at a little loch, and there the Mitsubishi parked.
Sandwood Bay held memories of the bairns, years ago, swimming in the lagoon, drawing rude pictures in the sand, scrambling on the beautiful gneiss, damming the stream, far more cheerful memories than the ones I’d been living with recently, of mountaineering friends, all now dead.
I wandered along the lagoon; one leg got sucked down into quicksand, and it proved amazingly difficult to get it out again. Online now I see that “to remove a foot from quicksand at a speed of .01 m/s would require the same amount of force as that needed to lift a medium-sized car.” Crivvens. It seemed quite some time before I’d managed to extricate my medium-sized leg, time during which I could reflect at leisure on my solitary state and the unlikelihood of anyone chancing to be passing by that late in the day. Sandwood was a beautiful as ever, but as I limped back to the van, a knee ligament probably stretched, I was thinking how easily the beautiful wilderness can get you if you don’t pay attention.
Such thoughts receded as I tucked into a mushroom omelette and coffee with a more-than-usual sensation of Glenmorangie, snug in the sleeping-bag, pecking away at the crossword. Through the open side door the Cape Wrath light was visible flashing (4 white every 30 seconds, Google tells me) all night, triggering the thought that it had been built by the father of Robert Louis Stevenson, an inveterate traveller whose opinion about travelling being better than arriving is famous.
The Private Eye crossword is always rich in anagrams, and as I wrestled with it, there popped into mind an obvious anagram of Ulan Bator – Lunar Boat. Ho hum. Was the subconscious sending up a message about how crazy it was to keep cruising on? Surely not? But perhaps the basic animal was wanting to be back in its nest?
Home seemed very far away, though the actual crow-flying distance was a lot less than it had been on that first day where I had turned west near Inverness. Almost full circle. I wasn’t going to Ulan Bator, that had only ever been a fantasy. And revisiting the places of one’s youth, what was that all about? Almost everywhere I’d gone had been full of ghosts from the past but without the camaraderie of yore. A verse floated up into memory, by an anonymous Ancient Greek lyric poet, listing the best things – riches and health, both fine things, but best of all is to be young, among one’s friends. Yes.
Robert Louis Stevenson said:
we shall never reach the goal; it is even more than probable that there is no such place … [but] to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.
RLS had maybe been spending too much time alone? As probably had I. It had been fine to be back in the playground of my youth, but it had become clear that a lot of the old pleasure had been the companionship; and that a lot had also been the degree of fitness for using the playground. Neither of these would come back, so what was left was the magnificence of the wilderness and the solitude.
A bit of solitude is fine, too much can unhinge you; Colette wrote:
There are days when solitude is a heady wine that intoxicates you with freedom, others when it is a bitter tonic, and still others when it is a poison that makes you beat your head against the wall.
The time had come to stop slugging down the heady wine, give up on the tonic, avoid becoming a heid-banger, go home.