The morning after our first night alone, the father of the two boys whose Ger we had camped near rode over to say hello. He asked us where we were from, where we were going and where our car was. We answered accordingly. Satisfied with our responses he asked to see our riding saddles. He told us the saddles were beautiful and spent some time inspecting them. He asked where the saddles had come from. ″England”, we were pleased to report. He explained he had herding to do but that he would be back and he would ride with us to the road. He cantered off towards the river to move his sheep and goats to higher ground.
We continued the long and arduous job of packing and loading the horses. The canvas and brown leather pack panyards (horse-packing panniers) used on Tim’s riding horse were easy to use. Once the panyards were packed I held the horse to ensure he stayed in place while Tim lifted and hooked each bag onto the pack saddle.
The canvas parcels or “manties” which Captain James carried were much more difficult to prepare and balance. First of all, one had to lay the canvas out flat on the ground. Next, items of a similar shape and weight had to be arranged on the sheets, then we had to wrap the canvas around the luggage in the manner of a Christmas present. Finally, we secured the load, very tightly with a rope; no easy task and one that often left Tim dripping in sweat. Eventually, we were left with two canvas bundles (the “m
manties”) about the same size and shape as a hay-bale. This done, each mantie had to be secured to the pack saddle using a sling-like knot called a basket hitch. The horse was then led around in walk and trot and taken over uneven ground to settle the manties and to see if they would stay sitting evenly. Sometimes they did not, necessitating a re-balance or even frustratingly on occasion, a re-pack.
Our new friend, the herder, returned as promised, just as we had gotten the manties settled. He studied them for a short while, leapt off his horse, quickly tying the reins around the horse’s front legs as a makeshift hobble and told us we were doing it all wrong. This became, we later discovered, a standard thing for a Mongolian horseman to do. Without any prior knowledge of one’s packing methods or saddle they would insist they knew best. The method we favoured (described in Smoke Elser and Bill Brown’s “Packin’ In On Mules And Horses”) had the manties loaded so that they stuck up in the air and jiggled about when the horse moved. This allows the luggage to shift and helps balance the load but is in direct opposition to one of the prime tenets of Mongolian horsemanship, which is that anything that looks remotely loose must be tied down immediately and forcefully. A favourite word of the Mongolian countryman is ″Changga” meaning ‘Strong!’, ‘Tight!’ or ‘Hard!’. Our friend grabbed a coil of spare rope from the ground and tied the two manties tightly together at the top, then tied them again back to the pack cinch.
″Changga!” our friend announced, looking pleased with himself.
To be fair to the Mongolian horseman, many horse-packers apparently do the same in the USA, unable to accept that the apparently precipitously balanced loads can possibly be safe but tying the load so it cannot move actually de-stabilises it and makes it more likely that the pack horse will sustain injuries to his girth.
Tim looked dejected. He had spent hours tying the manties correctly and this guy had undone his hard work in a few seconds. Before we set off Tim handed the man some spare rope we did not need as a parting gift. He accepted it in the typical Mongol way, nodding his head briefly. Mongols are not effusive when they accept gifts.
I mounted Mongol Morris and Tim passed Captain James’ lead rope to me. Tim then mounted his riding horse. As always, the riding horse refused to wait until Tim was seated, preferring to walk hastily off in the most inconvenient direction, leaving Tim to sort through a mess of reins and lead rope, quickly switching the lead rope behind his back to avoid strangling himself. We headed off towards the road we had travelled along the previous day, the herder leading the way. As we walked our companion asked us lots of questions about livestock in Britain.
″Do you have sheep in your country?”
″Yes”, we replied, ″lots of sheep.”
″Do you have goats in your country?”
″Yes, some goats but more sheep.”
″Do you have camels in your country?”
″Very few camels.”
Whilst mobile phones have made it to the Mongolian countryside, and even in some areas a mobile phone signal, data services and therefore the internet, have not. Herders are thus deprived of much information about outside places. There are few books in the countryside, so people have to refer to their memories, what they learned while at school and university and received wisdom.
We asked the herder whether he was planning to go to the local Nadaam in Ondoshiiret. Naadam, the Mongolian summer festival, is much like an English village fate but with vodka instead of beer, horse racing instead of splat-the-rat and wrestling instead of a tug-of-war. Our friend told us that he would be attending and proceeded to talk about the racehorse he had been training. Most Mongolian countryside men have at least one racehorse and we found that this subject was often an interesting way to engage them in conversation. After an hour or so our companion left us and we continued riding along the dirt road that passed for the main highway in these parts.
My nerves had eased somewhat after a little chatting and I began to enjoy the scenery. On either side of the road everything looked much the same as the previous day; Gers stippled the Tuul river flood planes on our right side, north, while to the south, brown, dusty hills rolled on and on until the eye could see no further, the occasional Ger breaking the monotony. After some time our route moved away from the road, towards the south and we lost sight of the river. All sides were now dusty, semi-desert, little in the way of pasture, no trees, no water. We both felt nervous in this environment, away from water and pasture. Horse-flies continued to bite indiscriminately and incessantly. Sometimes a cricket, startled by a horse’s foot-step would spring away making a whirring sound, loud in the silence, it’s vestigial wings struggling to power it away from the perceived threat. Once or twice a horseman stopped to chat. One of the desert plants had a cloying, menthol odour, pleasing to begin with but soon over-powering and unpleasant. The sun hammered down on us.
Eventually, late in the afternoon, the Tuul river appeared in the distance. We both heaved a sigh of relief and headed towards a patch of emerald green near to that night’s camp. The horses had become sluggish in their walks during the day and suddenly perked up once they caught the scent of water. We had to hold them tight as we descended via a large sandy hill onto the green grass of the Tuul flood-plains once more.
Our camp-site that evening was situated near to a small patch of bright green pasture next to the Tuul on what was almost an island, nestled in the curve of a meander in the river’s course. Our camp was shielded by a large row of tall Poplar tress growing on the opposite bank of the river to the north, while to the south, was the steep, not-quite-a-hill, not-quite-a-sandbank we had walked down earlier. We felt very safe on our little camp-site, shielded as it was in all directions. A large Red Kite stood motionless on a small boulder on the riverbank. As we approached the bird took flight, joining three others that flew overhead before perching in the trees opposite us. We dismounted, hobbled the horses and unloaded the pack animals. We sat for half an hour worn out and thirsty, then steeled ourselves to make that night’s camp.
We unpacked the manties and panyards, pitched the tent and set up camp while the horses stood huddled in a group, nodding their heads and flicking their tails to avoid the flies. We followed Mongolian custom and left the horses saddled until they were cool and the sweat on their coats had dried. This dissuades insects and prevents them from cooling too quickly and catching a chill. After we had set-up camp, we unsaddled the horses. Tim stowed their saddles in the tent while I took them to the river to drink. The horses, having never seen a sizeable river before, were very unsure about the prospect of drinking from the Tuul and despite their thirst I had to coax them towards the water, one at a time while they snorted and rolled their eyes. When I took only one horse to the river they were keen to get back to the group and took only the minimum water necessary despite having walked all day in the pounding heat. When I took two at a time one would spook and pull back from the water inciting excitement in the other. None of the horses drank enough water.
Tim set about locating two good spots for placing picket pins; steel spikes around a foot and a half long, around which a length of rope would be secured, then tied to a horse’s hobble. With the horses watered, Tim secured Captain James and his luggage horse to the ground tethers and I hobbled Mongol Morris and Tim’s riding horse for the night, switching the back hobble from their left hind leg to their right one in accordance with (central) Mongolian tradition. We cooked the same meal we were to have for umpteen nights; spaghetti and two packets of freeze dried, Indian vegetarian meals. We had been eating two small bowls each but on this night I felt queasy after my first and handed Tim my second bowl to finish.
The previous night we had fastened a horse bell around Mongol Morris’s neck which proved reassuring while at the same time irritating. Mongol Morris never strayed far from Captain James so we decided to dispense with the bell on him and switched it to Tim’s luggage horse as he often wandered off, making the night-time shifts even more irksome than they were otherwise. That night we slept for two hour shifts rather than hourly, as we had previously. Tim’s luggage horse headed off away from the group a few times and the dull clanking of the bell guided us towards the horse. Unfortunately, the horse himself became very irritated by the sound of the bell. When the horse tried to avoid being caught and led back to the group by Tim during the 3am watch this set off a furious round of clanging, which in turn got the horse more frightened and worked up, which then made him even harder to catch. Tim spent nearly an hour trying to catch the horse and became lost and disorientated again during the struggle. After that episode we dispensed with the bell altogether.
The night sky was a magnificent sight due to the absolute lack of light pollution. More stars were visible than most of us in the developed nations have seen in many a year. The Milky Way was clear to the naked eye; very beautiful and whilst I would have preferred to have slept, the stars made the night watch easier to cope with.