Big Batdrack

We rode for three days with Big Batdrack. On the first day he took Captain James easily coping with his regular attempts to shoot off and his riding horse’s attempts to ditch Captain James. I rode Mongol Morris and led a spare unsaddled horse that Big Batdrack would use to gallop home. I had fallen out of love with my horses and renamed them my riding horse and my luggage horse.

We rode with no incidents to the town of Bayan Onjull. I was amazed there were no incidents as Big Batdrack had started drinking bowels of vodka at 9am that morning – at least that’s the first time I saw him drink and yes, you read correctly, not a glass but a bowel of vodka. We stopped at a wall on the town’s outskirts. Big Batdrack explained he was going to the shop and left us to look after the six horses. We dismounted, hobbled the horses, tied them to each other to stop them wondering off and sat by the wall waiting for Big Batdrack. He was gone ages. Turning to Tim I said ″I bet he’s gone to get drunk.”

When Big Batdrack returned he had brought some goi tea (a very sugary, popular brand of soft drink that one sees the empty bottles of strewn across the countryside), bread and a tin of pilchards. He offered to share this with us and I felt guilty assuming he had been getting drunk. We ate and drank together then Big Batdrack asked ″How much money will you pay me?” I felt this was a man-to-man chat and stared at the ground. Tim replied ″60,000 tugruk. Densmaa said this was OK.” Big Batdrack thought for a moment and then called Densmaa. She asked to speak with us, asking Tim ″Are you OK?” I think she could tell Big Batdrack had been drinking ″No problem” Tim said and she asked that we call her the next day to check in.

With the money sorted out Big Batdrack turned to me saying ″Sam noiling saas bain uu?” I replied ″Bagga” and handed him the toilet paper. He walked 100 metres in front of us, turned his back, pulled his pants down and had a pooh. Looking at Tim I chuckled at the unorthodox behaviour and noticed the bag of toilet paper on the ground. Nice.

Once Big Batrdack had finished his business, before returning to us and the horses, he cut the bottom off the goi tea plastic bottle and poured half a bottle of vodka into the newly formed bowl, drinking it down in one go.

We removed the hobbles, untied the horses and remounted with Tim taking Captain James. Less than 5 minutes later Captain James was cantering off towards the centre of town, Tim saying ″I couldn’t hold him” and Big Batdrack shaking his head. Captain James stopped near a truck of his fellow Mongolians and Big Batdrack went and got him. I am not sure if this made me feel better or worse. It was reassuring that Tim couldn’t hold on to my pack horse but in a day and half we would be on our own.

We rode for 10 more minutes until Big Batrdack pointed to the horse racing that was taking part around the edge of the town and said ″We will camp here” meaning the outskirts of town. Reasoning that the local trouble maker was our guide we agreed. We set up camp, hobbled and tethered the horses according to Big Batdrack’s recommendations. Our two riding horses were tethered and the remainder were hobbled. Tethering involves hammering a metal stake into the ground, tying the mantie rope to the stake and using a bowline knot on the metal loop between the front hobble to secure the horse.

Big Batdrack explained ″I am going to the horse racing over there. I have a horse racing. I will send water to you.” Sure enough two guys turned up 30 minuets later on a motorbike with a large water container that we decanted into our two 10 litre containers. We assumed Big Batdrack would not be back for the evening and cooked dinner. We kept an eye on the horses and regularly fetched Captain James and Big Batdrack’s horse back to camp instead of letting them hobble home. After the sixth return we resolved to change the order round. We tethered Captain James. Mongol Morris and the horse I had been leading all day were emphatic about getting home and our vigil continued well into the night.

Eventually we slipped into our sleeping bags and set the alarm for an hour later. We did not have to wait an hour to awake because Big Batdrack returned. He saw the problems we were having with the horses desperate to flee to the comfort of home and he put the bridle back on the hobbled horses tying the reins around their front legs. Basically a stress position. This made it difficult for them to move quickly but solved the problem.

Whilst this was happening Tim was with Big Batdrack but I was in my sleeping bag, minus my trousers, for comfort. Night had bedded in and inside the tent it was dark. Tim and Big Batdrack returned and Big Batdrack insisted on having a cup of coffee, Tim obliged. Big Batdrack by now was thoroughly pickled. ″I am a bad person” he slurred in Mongolian ″Why?” I asked ″Because I drank vodka. Please don’t tell Densmaa” he pleaded. ″Don’t worry we will not” we both replied. Tim switched on his torch to light the stove and leering over me was Big Batdrack ″I’m a wolf” he drooled ″Really” I said ″You are a wolf?” He laughed and then apologised. I turned to Tim saying ″I think I had better put my trousers back on” ″I would if I were you” he advised.

The next morning Big Batdrack had the hangover of all hangovers but we managed to pack up and load the horses in 3 hours. Before we left camp he asked me “Sam noiling saas bain uu?”  and wondered off to a more respectful distance than the previous day.

Big Batdrack took Captain James or my luggage horse as he was now known and I continued to lead the spare horse. We rode with the sky grey with impending rain and the wind blowing in our faces. We made one stop to let the horses drink at a stream. This day was our last full day with Big Batdrack and he would be riding only for a couple of hours with us tomorrow. I was apprehensive about taking both my horses again. I sat by the stream whilst Tim and Big Batdrack slept for 40 minutes listening to the birds, the wind blowing and the snort of horses in the distance. We had covered 20km so far and planned to cover another 15km.

Near to our designated camp the skies opened and the rain poured down. As I had no rain coat we stopped and put up the tent. The horses were unloaded but left hobbled and tied to each other. The rain stopped quickly and Big Batdrack suggested we pack up and carry on moving. We were only 3km from our planned stop so Tim told him that we would sleep here. A truck came over and in it were Big Batdrack’s friends. They went away and came back with water for us and asked Big Batdrack lots of questions about us, laughing when he told them our plan. He turned to the loudest laugh-er saying ″Be careful they speak Mongolian.”

The rain eased off and I went to check on the horses whilst Tim and Big Batdrack set up the ground tethers. Mongol Morris had a lump on his back that felt hot to the touch. Using my flannel and some of our drinking water I made cold compress for his back and alternated this with gentle massaging. We took turns waking in the night to check on the horses and at 6am the following day we got up and begin packing and loading the horses.

As soon as I woke up I exited the tent to check on Mongol Morris’ back. The lump had gone down and his back looked and felt healthy. What a relief. Then it struck me. I had dreaded the day Big Batdrack would leave us and I would be in charge of my horses. That day of course had arrived today.

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Inauspicious Beginnings

Wednesday 3rd July. The day Tim and I set off alone with four under trained horses. We had some concerns. Tim’s riding horse was already unsure about the whole situation and this uncertainty was passed to his pack horse. Tim had to devote all his energy to keeping his two horses under control.

We left Arburds Sands, not before Densmaa waived the cost of our room and food and Batdrack wrote a letter explaining what we we doing, that the horses were ours and for people to help us find water and good pasture for the horses. He put the names, addresses and telephone numbers of some high ranking government friends of his across Tov and Bulgan Aimag in case we got in trouble. Densmaa called her friends who lived near to our first night’s camp and they agreed to come and check on us. Their generosity made me smile as the guy I hired a car from to get us here told me he knew Densmma and Batdrack and that ″They are bad people.” I thought to myself if these are bad people I look forward to meeting good ones.

By the end of the day I wished I had never thought of this trip. When I told Tim this he said ″We cannot give up now. After all we’ve waited seven years for this. We always knew it was going to be tough.” That was the problem though. I told people it would be tough but I never really knew what that would feel like emotionally until it actually happened. I wanted to be heroic about the trip but here I was crying in a toilet after my first hard day wishing I was at home feeling content with life.

What had brought this on? Two hours into the trip my pack saddle and mongolised luggage had slipped resulting in Captain James bucking, sending luggage flying everywhere. Thankfully he did not hurt himself and once the luggage has been dislodged he trotted off to the nearest ger where the occupants caught him and tied him to a high line.

I calmed Mongol Morris down enough to dismount and collected up the strewn kit. Mongol Morris was not keen on going near any of it and would pull back on the reins, snorting with uncertainty. Tim hobbled his horses, fetched Captain James and after some groundwork he was happy to be reloaded – Captain James that is not Tim. Mongol Morris was now scared of the luggage. After 10 minutes of walking him around he would put his head near the loaded packs but refused to have it near his back end. Slightly inconvenient as I cannot ride leading a pack horse back to front. More impromptu training took place and after an hour we restarted the ride.

At the well Densmaa, Batdrack, Big Batdrack and some of the younger guys from camp turned up in a car and a truck. The occupants of the ger Captain James had sought solace from knew Densmaa and had called her to say what had happened. They had come to check we were OK.

We watered the horses and rode for two hours with no drama. Suddenly Captain James’ head shot up and he tore off to my right at a full gallop, tearing the lead rope out of my hand. I sat watching him and our luggage fade into the distance. Tim was way ahead and I shouted to him to wait, feeling totally stunned. The shock passed and I loosed my grip on Mongol Morris and he tore off with me on him after his companion until we caught him up.

A badly tied luggage rope had come loose and frightened Captain James. The rope was trailing on his right side along the ground. We galloped for a few kilometres with me trying to grab the offending rope but every time I got near Mongol Morris would shy. I moved around to the left side and tried to grab him but again every time we got near Mongol Morris shied. Eventually Captain James slowed to a trot and I asked Mongol Morris to walk in the hope Captain James would follow. He did and I hopped off my horse and tried to catch him. This made him break into a canter so I jumped back on Mongol Morris and followed for a short while until Captain James stopped to scratch his front leg with his teeth.

This afforded me the opportunity of catching him and after sorting out the offending rope I went to mount Mongol Morris. Unfortunately for me I forgot one of the golden rules of horsemanship; after a horse has had a fright one needs to give them time to calm down. Both spooked just as I was getting back onto Mongol Morris, sending me flying and to my horror my horses galloped off over a hill out of sight. I had not only just lost both my horses but my money, passport, bank cards and half the luggage. I stood for a while trying to process what had happened. I started the long walk back to where Tim was waiting and explained the situation. Tim shouted at me to calm down, I was in tears by now, as his horses were finding the high energy unsettling and were threatening to bolt. During my race across the steppe Tim had been thrown twice from his horse. In retrospect this was a good thing as one of the throws provided a free chiropractic treatment to Tim’s bad back although this was not reflected upon until much later in the journey. Tim was having difficulty holding on to them both.

We walked back the way we’d ridden keeping an eye out for my horses and hoping that Captain James’ luggage and pack would hold as neither of us wanted to kill a horse, especially on the first day. Although Tim’s horses were difficult during the walk back to Arburd Sands, he still found the energy to lecture me about storing my valuables on a horse.

Nearer to home Big Batdrack rode over on a motorbike. I explained in Mongolian that I did not have either of my horses. He told me he had Mongol Morris and asked for hobbles then explained he would find my pack horse. Tim and I carried on walking until we found Mongol Morris hobbled, standing staring at us as we approached. He was OK. The saddle bags were still attached with my passport in but my rain coat, containing my wallet, money, ATM cards, had fallen off. To spare Tim any more stress (me another lecture) I decided to wait until the morning to tell him.

I rode Mongol Morris home and to my delight Captain James was there. The luggage Tim had packed was still attached. I was impressed at Tim’s ability to load a pack that could survive two extended gallops. Not bad for a first attempt!

This is why I ended up in a toilet crying. To ease my increasing panic Tim called Densmaa and asked if we could use Big Batdrack as a guide for the first three days of our ride. She agreed and we were to set off again on Friday. I spent Thursday struggling to cope with waves of fear that kept washing over me. ″Feel the fear and do it anyway” part of me flippantly said and the other part of me said ″I cannot do this.” I tried to rationalise what I was frightened of. My horses were not dangerous, well no more than any horse, and lost luggage could be replaced. Looking back I think the culture shock had kicked in and the reality of what we were doing had become clear. Riding with two horses was not going to be easy.

This was the first time either of us had ridden whilst leading a horse and the first time the horses had ridden whilst carrying luggage and leading a pack horse. All of us were nervous at points and this would feed into the rest of the group. Our journey ahead was going to be one enormous learning curve for both human and horse.

Mongolisation

On June 28th we left the city squeezing our riding and camping equipment into a too small hire car. Ignoring the driver’s comments about the poor horses who had to carry all this kit we set off for Arburd Sands in Mongol Ils where our horses awaited us.

On arrival Densmaa told us that most of the regions we would be riding through were dry. She promised to keep us abreast of the water situation before we left. This of course worried us but not enough to deter us.

At the camp, enjoying the last of their summer vacation, was Densmaa’s nine year old son and his eight year old friend. They overheard Tim speaking Mongolian with Densmaa and were amazed that a gaddad hoon (literally meaning outside person) was talking their language. Tim was presented with a comic book and asked to read from various pages. They then realised I could also speak the language and asked question after question about us. The rest of Friday afternoon was spent playing card and war games with the two young lads.

We had not met the horses and were looking forward to doing so. The plan was to practise packing and loading in the hope we could refine our skills before starting the ride.

Four days were given over to training the horses to load luggage. This was done the Mongolian way. During our time in Mongolia we and our non-Mongolian friends often referred to things being mongolised. There is actually a word for this.

The loading of the pack horses was mongolised. This involved hobbling the pack horse, putting the pack saddle on and standing back. We had hoped to practise our chosen method of packing/loading learnt via a book from two well respected American packers. The Mongolians we were working with decided this way was no good and insisted on making something up on the spot. We vowed to keep quiet and wait until we were on our own before reverting back to the way we wanted to pack.

We met two of the horses on Saturday. They were both bays and looked like they had western blood in them. One had been trained by Batdrack’s father for two years and the other was from another brother. The two horses were clearly companions. We tried our English endurance saddles on them and they fitted and although the weather was very windy we went out for a couple of two hour rides. When we returned it was decided that the hobbles we had shipped in from the UK needed mongolising. The two sets of hobbles we had brought used to hobbled the front two legs of a horse had a back hobble added and the two single leg hobbles were joined together and supplemented with a back hobble.

Two hobbles aren’t enough for your average Mongolian horse. Due to the lack of enclosures they spend a large part of their working life hobbled. Some horses are extremely agile in hobbles and Tim’s riding horse was a great example. He would easily hobble around the countryside, covering a good distance before returning to camp, he would kneel to drink in his hobbles and one day I watched in astonishment as he jumped a stream.

It is traditional for the back hobble to go on the left hind leg in the day and at night the mantra ″right is night” applies. I asked why but could never get any answer bar ″That’s what they’re trained to.” During the course of the trip I swapped my back hobble from left to right during the day as once my horses realised ″right is night” they offered me their right hind legs, night-time meant a rest, and resisted when I asked for their left hind legs. Captain James was particularly stubborn with this.

Later that night we conversed with, for the sake of convenience and because I am terrible at remembering names, Karl a German tourist. A very interesting man, as often one stumbles across when travelling, he was in Mongolia as an election observer and had travelled to a variety of countries with this role to keep his retirement interesting and allow cheap travel. Turns out Karl is a base jumper. A 74 year old base jumper. He had recently had a stop put on his base jumping activities as his new wife wasn’t keen on the safety aspects. Karl thought our trip was amazing and we chatted about horses over dinner.

My pack horse was accepting of the pack saddle and we loaded him the same day with the two panyards, which he immediately agreed to. At this point I have to insert the comment that due to Tim’s continued and annoying nagging that I use the name panyard instead of bag during the entire trip I will, for a peaceful life, continue to use the correct term. For those not in the know a panyard is a canvas bag. My riding horse was standing nearby and when both were left to stand he hobbled over to the pack horse and the two stood nose to tail reassuring us all that we would have no problems with them.

Tim was introduced to his two horses. One was a small bay with white legs and the other a dun. There are a large number of the dun horses in Mongolia. They have zebra like stripes along their backs and legs and look similar to the Przewalski horse. They are stocky in build. The dun would be Tim’s pack horse and he trembled with fear as the pack saddle was placed on him. After a couple of hours left standing in hobbles he had overcome some of his fear. Two panyards were loaded on to him and he began to buck. Eventually another man named Batdrack, the acknowledged horseman on site and known as Big Batdrack, twitched the horse, which is not something we have seen used in the UK only by a professional horse trainer in Australia. Once the horse calmed down the twitch was removed and the dun was left standing loaded until 11pm when the luggage and saddle were removed.

The use of twitches is a controversial subject in the west. There are some who believe it has a place and others who insist they should never be used. I have an open mind about them and I encourage you to form your own educated opinion.

We were told to be up at 6am when we would reload the new pack horse. At 10.30am we set off on an overnight practice ride with Big Batdrack. We were to ride for 4 hours each way, hobble and tether the horses overnight and ride back the following morning. Big Batdrack felt we should not make this trip alone so decided to join us. In fact what he said was, and it is things like this that make me wish I didn’t understand the language, ″They are like children with the horses.”

My horses proved to be quite content with the whole situation but Tim’s horses regularly spooked. His pack horse bucked, throwing badly packed luggage all over the steppe, and tore away from Tim and Big Batdrack on a few occasions. Big Batdrack’s solution was to reload the dun and twitch him for three hours. Whilst not our preferred method of training it served to calm the horse and when the twitch was removed the bucking ceased for that day and the return trip the following morning. When trying to catch the bucking dun Tim received a kicked to his leg by his riding horse.

The return journey the following morning was hot, hot, hot. We were so thirsty. The drinking water we had access to was via a spring that was used by horses, goats and sheep. The horses were fine but goats and sheep peed and pooed in the water. Some of our horses refused to drink. We filtered the water and put iodine in it but still it tasted of piss. We did start to wonder what we had let ourselves in for.

Tim’s riding horse gave us cause for concern. He was a very lively horse and didn’t take easily to leading a pack horse. I loved my two horses; the two bays we rode on Saturday and named them. My riding horse was called Mongol Muirris. A play on words. Mongol is the Mongolian for Mongolian and Muir is the word for horse. It sounded very like Mongol Morris. My pack horse was named after a dear friend (or he was until he reads this); Captain James. Named so because he was tall, lean and would drink anything.

We returned from our practice run on Tuesday and agreed to strike out alone the following day.

We have read and been asked by other travellers to Mongolia about the physical characteristics of the Mongolian horse. A commonly held opinion is that all Mongolian horses are short backed, narrow, have a thick neck and coarse head. All of our animals were indeed possessed of a coarse head and a thick neck. Some were uglier than others but none were beauties. None of them were narrow though and all were long backed and we saw many more like this during our ride.

Another belief is that the Mongolian horse rises no higher than 13 hands. Captain James was 15 hands and the smallest, Tim’s riding horse, was 14 hands.