Shishged-Tengis loop in Mongolia

Just back from three weeks in northern Mongolia. Scott Wood, Nick Setrakian, myself, and our Mongolian guide/interpreter “Tudevee” spent 8 days on a packraft loop from the confluence of the Shishged and Tengis rivers, down the Shishged, up Jivleg valley, over the divide to Joshem Lake, and then down the Joshem, Hultus Joshem, and Tengis rivers back to the confluence (map below). Unless you speak Mongolian, having a Mongolian guide like Tudevee is key to the success of a trip like this. Tudevee was able to negotiate on our behalf on several occasions, which prevented our trip from coming to a quick end. Tudevee is likely the only guide in Mongolia (or one of a very few) who have the skills and experience to carry out a serious packraft trip. Since our itinerary was bringing us close to the Russian border, he also arranged our mandatory border permit in Ulaanbataar weeks ahead of our trip. His email is:

Our team flew from New York, San Francisco, and Jackson, WY to Ulaanbataar, the burgeoning capital of Mongolia, with 1.5 million people and growing fast. The rest of the country, which is over half the size of the USA, has only another 1 million people, making it one of the least densely populated countries in the world. This was plainly apparent as we looked out the window of our plane during the flight from Ulaanbataar (UB for short) to our gateway city of 42,000, Murun. The landscape is a jumble of rolling green mountains, gently coursing rivers, and high mountain ranges…all of which are sparsely dotted with the white ger camps and dung-stained grounds of the nation’s many nomadic people. Nomadic families move camp 3-4 times each year depending on pasture, water, and snow conditions. Most families have trucks, motorcycles, and horses for transport. Many ger camps are complete with satellite TV and generator-powered washer/dryer sets.

In UB, we were able to buy last minute items like a petrol camp stove at The Seven Summits Shop. We siphoned gas from our Russian army van into our two small fuel cans. We only ended using the stove while car camping, and used only wood fires for cooking in the backcountry. We did however use some petrol to start our camp fires on rainy mornings. We had prepared most of our food in the USA and waltzed through customs with barely a glance from the half-dozen bored customs agents. So we didn’t need to do any shopping in UB, but there appears to be good options for buying campfood there. For restaurants, check out Hazara for Indian, and SuRa for Korean. In Murun, we met our guide Tudevee, and bought a few things like cheese, sausage, and bread.

Around noon on August 21, we left Murun with our Tsagaanuuran driver Chukka in his Russian army van. We followed the paved road toward Lake Khovsgol for about 20 miles, and then turned west onto a lonely two-track for another 170 km of exhausting bumpy roads across the Mongolian steppe. It was a spectacular experience driving a two-track across country the size and feel of Wyoming with only a few settlements and nomad camps along the way. At the crossing of the Beltes River, we stopped at a cantina for bowl of delicious Mongolian noodle and mutton stew. Then in Ulaan Uul, we checked in with the border guards, who signed off on our permit, and went through the National Park gate where we purchased our Park entry tickets at 10,000 togrogs each. A few miles north of Ulaan Uul, we camped along the banks of a river. The next morning, we drove another 130km, over two low passes, and arrived in Tsagaanuur, the northernmost town in Mongolia, at around noon. Here, we checked in again with the border guards, had a nice lunch at Chukka’s house, and then drove another 3 hours north across the Shishged River on a floating bridge (6,000 togrogs) and west to the confluence of the Shishged and Tengis rivers. We set up a nice camp among the cow pies about a mile up the Tengis, where the lone Park ranger came for a visit that evening. Tudevee explained our plans to him, but apparently the guy misunderstood, because in the morning, as we floated past his outpost, he came running out and called us to the bank. Suddenly, the ranger explained that floating the Shishged River was against Park regulations instituted recently because of two boating accidents that happened in the same rapid about 10 miles downriver, resulting in costly rescues. One party was a packrafting party in which a packrafter was severely injured. The other was a large raft flip. If anyone has any information about this packraft accident, I would love to hear more.

Thankfully, Tudevee cunningly negotiated for two hours with the ranger, who said his hands were tied. Apparently, the ranger before him had taken a bribe by some other packrafters and was fired as a result. Tudevee waited to get on the phone to get special permission from Park headquarters, but apparently the Superintendent was in a long meeting. Eventually, the ranger relented, and gave us permission to float the Shishged, but only down to Jivleg valley, not as far as our intended route up a valley on the east side of Agia North. Apparently, the tricky rapid lies below the Jivleg. Fishing outfitters have special permission to float as far as Jivleg, and then must horsepack or motorboat their rigs back up river to the plush fishing lodges at the confluence. Needless to say, we got some pretty interesting looks from the fishermen, who obviously thought the Shishged was their personal private playground, as we floated blissfully by.

The Shishged is a wide and powerful river with many big boulders. When we took out at Jivleg, it looked as though the river was steepening and narrowing downstream. I wish we could have kept going, but hiking up Jivleg was awesome. Jivleg is a very wide dry-ish valley with a creek in the bottom. A good trail comes from upstream on the north side of the Shishged, crosses Jivleg Creek, and then leads up along the west side of Jivleg valley. With our 50+ pound packs, it tooks us three days to hike to the head of this 20-mile-long valley. The second day was cut short because of afternoon thunderstorms. There is plenty of firewood and good access to water. We considered climbing over the range to the northeast to reach Jeshim Lake, but decided against. We also considered climbing some of the gentler mountains in the vicinity, but our time was limited, and frankly the call to the heights wasn’t quite strong enough to pull us off the comfort of the trail.

Our original plan was to float the Shishged for about 20 miles, and then hike up the valley just east of Agia North Mountain and make an attempt to climb the highest peak in this spectacular compact range. However, not only were we prohibited from floating that far on the Shishged, we also had learned in Tsagaanuur that Agia North is the most sacred holy mountain of the Tsaatan reindeer people, and that it would be uncouth to make the attempt.

On the 2-mile-long pass at the head of Jivleg, we saw some big brown bear tracks and scat, but no other wildlife. The place is quite stark. Tudevee says Mongolian wildlife is very shy. The ranger at the confluence told us the story of how his face got completely mangled by a brown bear during his service on the border patrol in this same area. Although the mountains were generally clean, campsites were strewn with refuse, including old clothes, trash, and empty liquor bottles from border guards, poachers, and Tsaatan camps.

Our fourth camp was in the head of the eastern arm of the big drainage that flows along the west side of Agia North. That night we got slammed by massive thunderstorms and lots of rain. Our Hyperlite Mountain Gear Ultamid held up well. Tudevee and Nick slept outside the whole trip. Tudevee used his boat as a tent and Nick had a bivy sack. They both got pretty wet that night.

The next morning, we hiked north over a pass into the head of Jeshim River, passing through endless fields of perfectly plump and ripe low-bush blueberries. We feasted until full, and then filled up a couple ziplocs for later consumption. This pass afforded great views back to the south of Agia North, which was some consolation for not having gotten to climb it or skirt its base in that other drainage. What a gorgeous mountain!

Dropping into Joshem River, we had some confusion about the route as the trail is marked incorrectly on the old Russian army map we had purchased at The Seven Summits Shop in UB, but we eventually found the trail as it led all the way down to the river. Unfortunately, the Jeshim was not runnable at this point, though it would probably be runnable in earlier season. Once in the valley, we took an incorrect trail fork, which led us into 2-3 miles of near-Alaskan bushwhacking through muskeg to a beautiful camp in a Taimen-infested slough. The correct fork goes left over a mid-valley moraine and crosses the Joshem to a good trail that skirts the north side of the valley.

In the morning, we found the trail on the north side of the river, and hiked it down valley for a few miles to Joshem Lake. Tudevee and I launched our boats about a mile above the lake on the Joshem River, which was a beautiful slow float on a deep spring creek teeming with fish. We paddled through scenic sloughs and were greeted on Joshem Lake by a family of swans. The cob flew over our heads and tried to distract us from his swanlings. We took his bait and chased him to the shore where Scott and Nick awaited.

From there, we hiked to the east end of the lake and found a good camp on a grassy moraine overlooking the lake. It would have been a perfect camp except that water was a bit of hike through muskeg and difficult to reach. I found a Tsaatan teepee pole and used it to reach our cookpot out into a small pond for the cleanest water. The banks of the ponds and lake were swamp and quicksand.

On the morning of day 7, we launched our packrafts on Joshem Lake and paddled the slow outlet stream, portaging through several shallow riffles, for about 2 miles until we had had enough. There just wasn’t enough water. So we got out, found the trail on the north side of the river, and hiked it down for another 4-5 miles to the confluence with the Hultus Joshem River, which was very braided. We forded that river, and then walked down river about a mile to where the braids visibly started to channelize and relaunched.

That afternoon was some of the funnest paddling I’ve done in a long time. We paddled for about 4-5 hours covering about 5-6 miles down to the confluence with the Tengis River. The Hultus Joshem was slow and steady class 2 and 3 creeking with near constant boulder slalom and several really nice channelized rapids. At higher water, this river would be a classic Class 4 run. The Tengis is a big spectacular river running about 1,500 to 2,000 cfs. We ran it for a quarter mile and set up camp on the east side of the river on a nice gravel beach.

Our plan for the next day was to hike about 5 miles up into a basin on the east side of the Tengis to a Tsaatan reindeer camp, spend the night up there, and then return the next morning to the Tengis and begin our float back south to the confluence with the Shishged. However, in the morning of day 8, it was overcast and raining steadily. We snoozed in the tent for about 4 hours and then decided to bag the outing to the reindeer camp, and shove off down the Tengis. The Tengis is a classic beautiful class 2 river with good current and many fun rapids. Some of these rapids might be pushing Class 3 in higher water, as there were many boulders. We put in around 1pm and floated about 20 miles until dusk when we arrived at our campsite from day 1 about a mile above the Shishged confluence.

Another night of rain canceled our attempts to dry our stuff, so we packed up wet gear in the morning of day 8, called Chukka with our satellite phone, and arranged to meet him about six miles back along the road to Tsagaanuur, at the base of a very steep hill that almost rolled the van on our way in. After a good hike, we laid out in the meadow at the base of the hill and waited a few minutes for Chukka, who took us back to a guest house in Tsagaanuur, where we spread out our gear to dry and had dinner. That evening, Tudevee got on the phone with Hunnu Air to see about moving our flights ahead two days. Originally, we planned on flying back to UB on Sept 3, and it was now only August 31. What he learned was that we could wait in Murun and catch our booked flights on Sept 3, or jump in the van now at 10:30pm, and drive 11 hours to Murun to catch the 11am flight on Sept 1. After little debate, we decided to go for the early flight, packed up our stuff, jumped back in the van, and Tudevee and Chukka split the driving through the night to Murun. We stopped at the cantina on the Beltes River for a rest and plate of nasty dry noodles and mutton, which I could barely keep down afterwards in the bumpy van. We made it on time for the flight, but of course it was delayed due to rain and thunderstorms until about 2:30. But eventually made it back to UB where we stayed at the Kelso Best Western. These folks are super helpful. They have several people that speak English, and they arranged a driver to take us around UB. If foreigners are even allowed to rent vehicles (I don’t think you can), I would not recommend attempting to drive yourself in UB. The traffic is gridlock.

Amazing trip. Great crew. Fantastic country. I can’t wait to go back.