All Alone

Today was the day Big Batdrack left us and we tried once more to start our long ride alone.  We packed up, brought the horses in and started to saddle them.  As Mongol Morris got close to Captain James, he took one look at the pack saddle and pulled back quickly, trying to move away from the saddle.  His lead rope slipped through my hands to the end and I grabbed it quickly.  Mongol Morris started to twist and turn trying to get free.  I dropped my riding saddle and hung on to the lead rope with both hands.  Working my way up to the halter, I grabbed it near the bit and tugged sharply to bring him under control.  He was terrified of the luggage, given all that had happened in the past few days and stood there trembling.  I felt stressed and tears threatened to brim over my eyes.  I blinked them away, took a number of deep breaths and focused on saddling Mongol Morris.

Tim and Batdrack loaded the luggage horses and Batdrack suggested I mount Mongol Morris then he would hand me Captain James’s lead rope.  It took a few attempts before Mongol Morris stood still enough for me to take the lead rope; as soon as I did, Mongol Morris started bucking.  Worried I was going to loose the horses or get thrown off, Big Batdrack shouted ″Start walking! Start walking!” I moved the horses into a walk and Mongol Morris started to calm down.  Tim and Batdrack mounted their horses.

Mongol Morris had (and probably still has) the slowest walk known to man. I think I could crawl over rocks faster than he walked so it was not long before Tim and Batdrack caught us up. Tim’s riding horse had calmed down and Tim had begun to enjoy riding. I, on the other hand, felt constantly anxious.

We headed to a nearby well to water the horses and both Tim and I tensed up.  As always, visiting the well was a painful experience. One had to dismount and immediately hobble the horses.  This may sound easy enough but consider that the horses were normally extremely thirsty and therefore extremely eager to get to the well, making hobbling awfully difficult, as the horse is always trying to step away from one and towards the well.  Watering time is one of those occasions when horses’ pecking order comes into play and the horses often became aggressive towards each other and us.  Add to this several million years of evolution informing the horses’ hind-brains that watering holes are dangerous places and you have a high energy, bothersome situation.  If you are a European horse-person you may ask yourself why we needed to hobble the horses at all.  Consider that Mongolia is a land almost entirely bereft of fences or land boundaries of any sort.  At this point in our trip and for some time afterwards if we had let go of our horses they would have run towards home.  For us, hobbling was the only way to make sure they stayed with us.  Later in trip we could let the horses wander around free for short periods of time but not yet.

As we approached the well, Captain James shied at an imaginary wolf and bolted, again.  I lost hold of the rope, again.  Batdrack caught my horse before he got too far but this did nothing to settle my nerves.

While the horses drank, I took more deep breaths and looked around me.  The area was vast.  We were surrounded by high mountains on all sides and beyond those mountain tops were more black and grey rocky peeks peering over and beyond them still more mountains.  The ground beneath us was sandy, desert like, with tufts of grass growing sparsely.  In the distance were an abundance of horses, cows, goats and sheep. Dotted about, some close, some far off, were round, white, marshmallow like tents.  The Nomad’s homes.

Once the horses finished drinking we mounted again and walked away from the well, northeast towards the Tuul river.  Two hours or so later the time came for Batdrack to take his leave.  Batdrack left us with some inspirational parting words.  To me; ″Sam, hold on to your horse.” To Tim; ″If anyone threatens you, show them your knife.”  He turned his two horses around and galloped off, quickly moving out of our sight.  Tim and I continued on alone, across the sandy, Gobi-like pasture lands.  The ground started to change and the grass became knee high clumps, more abundant than before. Soon, we were moving through waist high, reed-like grass.  The horses became jittery, fearful of predators hiding in grass and irritated by the swarms of horseflies. In the distance we could see the Tuul river flood planes, alive with hundreds of livestock and glittering with tiny pools of water. Towering black rocky mountains leapt out of the ground framing the landscape to the north and east.

Shortly thereafter the horses started to become very jumpy and energised, ready for flight.  Tim and I looked around to discover that the source of this nervous energy was an enormous bull to the west. The bull was charging around moving other cows, goats and sheep in the same way a shark might herd a school of fish, sending them scattering outwards in all directions.  He appeared to be heading our way.  We moved to the east over a small collection of sand dunes on to higher ground.   The bull decided not to confront us and turned his attention back to the other livestock.

Once over the dunes we found the road we had been heading for; in reality a sandy track, barely visible and rarely travelled.   We followed the road east through a small settlement consisting of a few gers. Outside each ger was a motorbike, a wooden post for tying horses to and freshly washed clothes drying.  To the north the landscape sloped down and away to immense flood planes that eventually led to the winding, snake-like Tuul river, the desert gradually giving way to rich green, emerald pasture for a couple of hundred yards either side of the Tuul.  The first trees we had seen since our trip began lined the Tuul’s banks.  The heart literally ached to look down on this scene from the hair-dryer hot, fly-blown vantage point of the desert road. The “Tuul Gol” as it is known in Mongolian snakes for 704km through the harsh and arid central Mongolian countryside.  Tuul means ″to wade through” in Mongolian and this river is considered scared by the local people.  Beyond and across the river were mountain ranges that towered above everything else.

As we plodded through the little village, my horses took exception to something or other and spooked again. I fought to hold onto them but then they shied again and Captain James tore off.  I hung on for dear life. The horses cantered around at high speed in a small, tight circle and for all our sake’s I eventually let go of Captain James’ lead rope. He galloped off down the road in the direction we had come from. Fortunately, a man three or four hundred yards down the road had just left his ger and climbed onto his motorbike.  Without much fuss he manage to halt the horse and caught him.  It took some time to convince Mongol Morris to get close to the luggage again but eventually I managed to mount and the three of us walked back down the track to where Tim was waiting.

We continued riding along the sandy track occasionally passing a lone ger or three, all sporting the obligatory barking dog, or four.  Five eagles flew overhead, throwing enormous shadows on the ground, making the horses even more jittery.  The view to the south consisted of gentle green rolling hills.  The grass looked lush until one got close and saw it was dry and scant.  The occasional vodka bottle sparkled in the searing sun.  Horse flies pecked at us and the horses.

After a few hours the road drifted towards the river and we decided to stop for a rest and water the horses. A boy of sixteen or thereabouts arrived on his horse, no doubt curious about the strangers.  He helped us hobble our horses and remove their bits so they could drink.  Mongols always remove a horse’s bit before allowing it to drink, a terrifying maneuver for the inexperienced as it necessitates removing the bridle then swiftly replacing it.  When nobody was watching we tended to let the horses drink with their bits in place but a Mongol horseman regards this sort of behavior as disgraceful. The boy chatted with us for a while and we sat on the river bank letting Mongol Morris graze on the tiny meadow of lush grass while the other horses stood hobbled, flicking flies with their tails and nodding their head.

After half an hour we moved on. My horses shied again several times that day but I managed to hang on. My hands were so sore and regularly went numb but I dared not loosen my grip, even to brush biting horse flies from my skin. I still experience pins and needles in my hands, even now the trip has ended.

The road meandered away from the river and then back again and we found our first solo campsite on the flood planes near the Tuul river. As we descended onto the choice but heavily grazed pasture we passed an “Ail” of Gers, (a group of homes clustered together, normally housing members of the same extended family), and rode a respectable distance from them to a flat piece of land a hundred yards or so from the Tuul river proper but surrounded by pools of water left behind by floods earlier in the year.  We dismounted and hobbled the horses. Tim rode over to the Ail to let the people there know who we were. Ten minutes later he returned with the message that we were okay to stop for a night here. Soon after Tim returned two boys rode over. They were from the ger Tim approached and their father had sent them to help us unload. One boy was 15 years old and the other was 5. We chatted to the older boy who asked us ″Where are you from? Where are you going?” and ″Where is your car?” We were able to understand and respond in Mongolian and felt pleased that we had studied the language or this simple but pleasant exchange could not have occurred.  Countryside people rarely speak or understand English. During this blog, unless stated otherwise one can assume all conversations took place in Mongolian. In answer to his question about our car the young man was amazed when we replied ″We do not have a car. We are travelling on horseback.” He continued with his questions, ″Do you have hobbles? Do you have a ground tether?” We explained what we had and he was pleased we understood what to use. If we did not have hobbles etc he would have lent us some. He helped us unload the horses while his 5 year old brother sat open mouthed, staring at us. Once the horses were unloaded the brothers rode off and Tim and I set up camp. We were extremely tired and I felt mentally fatigued. I could not help but feel dread for the following day in case I yet again lost my horses or worse. We tethered Captain James and Tim’s riding horse to the ground stakes recycling the ropes used to tie the Manties. Mongol Morris and Tim’s luggage horse were hobbled. After we had eaten we set the alarm clock for an hour in the future and settled down to sleep, taking turns to check on the horses every hour throughout the night. On one of my shifts and on one of Tim’s we had to wonder about in the dark to find and bring back the hobbled horses who had wandered off across the flood plane towards the river.  At one point I woke up to the sound of Tim shouting my name.  I awoke with a start thinking something terrible had happened but when I replied to his shout Tim eventually returned to the tent and confessed that he had lost his way in the dark and had been unable to find his way back.

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