Morning came and after watering the horses, packing up camp and loading Captain James and Shar we set off into the mountains. The track we followed ran alongside a stream on our right. Mountains loomed over us on our left, their tops covered with trees. Nearer to us were green rolling hills and an abundance of pastel coloured wild flowers. At one point the path was covered with thousands of butterflies which, as we approached, took flight, swirling around us for two magical seconds. Goat and Mongol Morris shied as the butterflies rose up out of the mud on the track and Goat refused to stay in front frightened by the amount of these winged insects. We continued on the track for seven kilomotres until it turned left away from the stream. We followed it as it led us up a steep logger’s track. The graduation increased, leading us steeply uphill and we had to stop before reaching the top.
“Tim!” I shouted ahead.
“We need to stop, my luggage pack has slipped.”
“Oh bloody hell, are you sure?” Tim was annoyed at having to stop on the steep, inconvenient track that was swarming with huge flies. “I really need to sort it out. I do not fancy dealing with a Captain James’ buck in this environment.” To my left the track fell away to steep wooded sides. We stopped and hobbled the horses with great difficulty. The flies descended in their hundreds and feasted on us all, making the horses irritable at this unexplained rest. After much swearing, sweating and swatting the pack was adjusted and re-balanced.
We decided to check our bearings before mounting and realised this was not our track. ″Fuck sake!” I muttered under my breath as we rode the horses down the steep track, back the way we had come, grateful only for the dwindling number of flies as we emerged from the trees. “Tim, can you check the GPS.”
“Already doing it.” I turned to see Tim studying the GPS, holding it attached to the para cord he had used to tie it around his neck. ″In the 1970’s there was definitely a route up and over the trees but I couldn’t see anything other than the path we just tried.”
“Me neither, I did check going up and down. The Mongolians we spoke with yesterday all confirmed we could get to Orkon this way.”
“I know, we must have missed something.”
We followed the track all the way back to where we had turned left away from the stream. We turned left, right would have taken us back to our camp, and soon began climbing up the foothills of the mountain range ahead of us. The climb was steep and Captain James made his frustrations known by clamping his teeth onto the muscle above my right knee and squeezing hard. ″Fuck!” I slapped Captain James’ face away, tears welling up in my eyes ″Fucking horse just bit me.” I rubbed the muscle trying to breathe through the pain and loosing sympathy for Captain James’ struggle lugging 60 kilograms of our stuff up a mountain. Later that night I checked my knee for damage. Captain James had been clever. There was no open wound but a huge bruise that delivered pain for days.
The climb to the top was an amazing feat of the Mongolian horses’ endurance. I took the lead moving Mongol Morris over large logs, through trees and up and around rocky outcrops until we finally reached the top. The horses would not move further so I dismounted; Tim’s horses were not easily led so he followed still sitting. I attempted to lead us down the other side, through thick trees. I noticed some large, circular flattened sections of grass but said nothing. The ground underfoot fell away steeply and I slipped a number of times, quickly jerking my horses to prevent them shying and taking flight. I shouted back to Tim, ″This is too dangerous to continue with especially with two horses each in tow.”
“Okay, let’s go back and have a re-think.”
We climbed back up, Tim still mounted and me walking alongside Captain James and Mongol Morris, trying to steer them around obstacles as they insisted on walking side-by-side. The luggage would get stuck, wedged against a tree or a large boulder and I had to be tough with the horses to get them to stand still whilst I untangled the luggage and re-balanced the load. Eventually we got back to the top and stopped, dismounted and took a rest on a flattish, grassy section. The ground was covered with wild flowers and the air thick with flies. Tim left the horses under my care, climbing higher to see how the land lay. I walked a short distance away from the horses to get away from the flies and also to escape the horses’ agitation. I noticed a large patch of flattened grass, similar to how I imagined a bear’s bed would look and exactly the same as the ones I had seen when we tried to walk down the other side of the mountain. Initially I assumed it belonged to a horse as the size was about right and there was dried horse droppings littered about. I continued to investigate and the lack of fresh horse poo led me to believe that this patch must be the bed of something else. Wolves? I noticed another one, then another and soon my eyes picked up on eight of these beds.
“What are you looking at?” Tim had returned, puffing and sweating after his climb higher.
“Look at these patches of grass.” I pointed a few out to Tim, ″What do you think made them?”
“No idea but they look big.”
“That’s what I thought. Probably best we don’t spend the night up here. How did you get on?”
“I can’t see any way through, it’s too steep. I think our best option is to head over that mountain.” Tim pointed to another mountain west of our location.
I sighed deeply, ″Right, let’s go then.”
“Hang on, I want a rest first.” Tim’s rest was short lived. The number of flies were overwhelming and the horses were becoming increasingly annoyed with them.
The next part of our day was tough, mentally and physically, on all of us. Tim and I still think back to this day and breath a sigh of relief that it ended as well as it did. We did not come close to loosing our lives this day but I nearly lost Captain James when he slipped on a rock climbing up the mountain and fell to lower ground. We spent many hours trying to climb up and over these mountains to reach Orxhon. We saw the valley we wanted to be in many times from above but frustratingly we were never able to get to it no matter how many descents we attempted. The hours passed and my frustration turned to anger and I shouted at the horses and at Tim. The horses became less compliant, more tired and much harder work.
Eventually we conceded defeat, made difficult by the sight of the Orxhon valley, and made our way back towards the camp we had left that morning. That morning now seemed like months behind us instead of hours. On the way back Shar collapsed in exhaustion, his legs buckling under him. Tim got the tired, yellow horse going again. I led with Mongol Morris, showing what felt like very little compassion to my horses, in order to drive us all down and off the mountain before dark. All of us, horse and human, had sweat dripping from each pore. The horses’ legs were shaking with the strain of the day’s work. I still think back to that day and have feelings of sadness for how hard we pushed those horses. I often ask myself “Would I do the same again?” but I cannot answer.
As we descended I realised I had led us off and down the wrong mountain side and we were heading into a thicket of trees. Steep sides stopped us from crossing over to where we needed to be and we continued to descend. A way was found and I led Mongol Morris and The Captain across the many logs that covered the ground. Mongol Morris’ face was crawling with flies and every now and then I would lean over his ears and sweep my hands across. Captain James refused to move over a course of five logs and in order to move forward I needed to turn around, go right then left to cross just one log. Goat and Shar were blocking our way and they refused to move. Tim kept up the pressure on Goat but all the time spent standing meant we were being eaten alive by the files. An hour and a half later and we were down. Each horse increased his speed once he realised where he was and that we were heading back to camp. We found a flat, grassy spot next to the stream and decided to camp there rather than go the few kilometeres back to last night’s spot. Mongol Morris’ back had suffered from today and all the horses were glad to have a back massage and a drink. Tim and I set up camp and collapsed, my body feeling the effects of the day on top of my cold.