Morning arrived, much the same as the previous one. Clear blue sky and still air. We awoke at around six, while it was still blessedly cool and began our morning packing routine; taking the saddles and horse tack out of the tent, packing the horse panniers, arranging everything to be packed into manties into little heaps where they would wait until we had taken the two tethered horses off their ground tethers, the ropes did double duty as our mantie ropes. Packing was a delicate balancing act where everything had to be completed in the right sequence. All the while the horses had to be kept calm through the whole process of saddling and loading. When we got it right, they would stand together in a group, barely moving except for the swishing of tails and the nodding of heads. Sometimes though, one of them would decide to hop away and this would shatter the peace and we would spend most of our time running off in all directions to reclaim errant ponies rather than packing and loading. This was one of the reasons that packing up often took us three hours in those early days. The record, set this particular morning, was five hours. Things started well enough. While Tim collapsed the tent, I took the horses to water, leading Captain James and Mongol Morris, while Tim’s riding horse hobbled along in our wake rather than wait his turn. Tim’s pack horse stood apart from the others, apparently happy to wait. When I returned to our camp I remarked to Tim on his riding horse’s agility.
″Did you notice how easily he bounds along with his hobbles? He could go for miles like that I bet. And did you see how how he was managing to drink while still hobbled? It’s funny, he knelt on his front knees to get down to the water. I’ve seen him graze like that too. Just like a goat.”
Tim paused. ″Not a bad name actually.”
″’Yamar?’” I asked, recalling the Mongolian word for goat.
″It will do for the time being. Maybe we’ll think of something better.” Tim said doubtfully.
″What about the other one?” I asked.
″What about Shar?”
″As in the Mongolian word for yellow?”
″Beats ″My luggage horse”.”
We heard the sound of a herder’s motorbike putt-putting towards us and shortly thereafter a slightly chubby, well groomed young man arrived at our camp, his young daughter riding pillion. He was dressed in city clothes rather than the countryside costume of a del and black, Russian riding boots. During a brief chat, comprised of the standard questions, the herder explained he had seen us the previous night but had not wished to disturb us. We thanked him for the use of what were clearly his family’s grazing land and he nodded his head graciously. Tim asked him if he was going to Naadam; today would be the first day of the festival in Ondoshiret, twenty kilometres away. He shook his head. ″Hon”, he explained; the collective term for sheep and goats in Mongolian.
The herder rode off to herd his hon down towards our meadow. Tim and I turned our attention back to the horses. Tim’s newly christened luggage horse, Shar, was proving difficult to catch. Last night’s problems with the horse-bell had upset him to the extent that he now wanted nothing at all to do with us. We ended up circling the horse, halter in hand until he would eventually spin and threaten us with his back legs. He was still hobbled, so couldn’t actually kick properly but he could move quickly enough to escape our grasp. The horse-bell was still strapped around his neck and making its dreadful clanging, upsetting the horse and us. The sun was up now and a battle with a horse was the last thing we wanted. We left Shar to his own devices for a while and readied the other horses but when we attempted to catch him again, Shar foiled our attempts. We were at a bit of a loss. In the other countries we had worked with horses in there was always some sort of barrier, normally a fence, to push a difficult to catch horse up against. Eventually the horse would accept the inevitable and allow itself to be haltered. Shar was under no such illusion and resolutely refused to be captured. We chased him inexpertly around and around, to no avail. Eventually, the herder we had spoken with earlier rode back over to lend us a hand, showing us how to create a human fence on either side of the horse, each party slowly advancing until we got close enough to Shar for the herder to throw a halter around his neck. The herder moved swiftly towards the horse’s head and placed the halter correctly on. The tension went out of Shar’s body and we speedily removed the terrible horse-bell.
I continued to feel queasy and much to Tim’s annoyance I took regular breaks from packing duty, putting my below par health down to anxiety. Packing and loading completed, we left the river and travelled back to the main road. We continued along the road for a few kilometres before leaving the Tuul river late that morning and heading inland still following the same route. Eventually we turned off the track we had been following for the last two days and moved further inland with the Tuul river now behind us. The landscape changed to an arid desert with small, scrub like plants dotted over the hard, rain chocked ground. The blistering heat of the sun beat down on us all making the lack of shade apparent. I started to relax only because I was too hot and too thirsty to worry constantly about the horses. I dared not drink as that would have meant loosening the grip on my horses’ reins/lead rope and running the risk of loosing them. We turned northwest and in the distance in front of us the ground rose to hills turning into jagged, bouldered mountains. A Ger was situated at the bottom of one of the mountain crops. In our immediate view to the west were a couple of medium sized hills with a Ger perched on the top of each and to the north was the road we had travelled on and the Tuul river that had now been obscured by two large hills. We rode past a Ger at the foot of one of these northern facing hills. Six dogs flew after us, running and barking enthusiastically encouraging us to move away. We led the horses west and walked wide of the Ger. The dogs retreated, content that our party were not a threat, until a man living at the Ger sent them after us again. I could only assume he wanted to make sure we did not approach his home. The horses did not appear bothered by the dogs yapping at our heels and kept walking.
The landscape began to yet again change. We had walked towards the mountains in front of us continuing our path of northwest. We headed up and over some small hills, progressing through the wild-west like surroundings. To our right were large rocky outcrops and a pass between two of them beckoned us. We walked through it and down into a valley with a dry river bed running across it and dead, beige coloured trees lining the empty river bank. All the horses spooked as we crossed the dry river bed, frightened by the dead trees, imagining no doubt that the shapes the dead wood formed were bears or wolves come to eat them. We continued northwest up and over a hill and followed a track that had been in existence when the Russian maps we were using on our GPS were plotted in the 1970s.
The only other humans we saw over the next few hours were two young boys who rode past us. They did not stop to talk, just stared and kept going. We turned right to continue northwest and rode along a trail going over a hill. On either side of our path were stone ruins and sheltering from the oppressive heat of the sun were bands of horses. We decided this would make a good place for a rest. We walked our horses down a small track leading away from the sheltering horses and the coolness offered by the ruins. We did not want to disturb the other ponies. Mongolian horses, when loose and approached, will always turn and run from a human. Horses by nature run first and think later. To have advanced on the ‘wild’ equines would have sent them scattering and in turn our horses would have followed suit.
We stopped on our track, dismounted and hobbled the horses. Captain James moved his back left leg every time I attempted to place a back hobble on and both my horses tried to wander off to eat. Tim also had a hard time settling his horses and in frustration shouted loudly ″Arghhhh! I hate having a rest!” We managed to hobble and tie the horses and they stood still, swatting each other with their tails to keep the flies at bay. The rest was not particularly restful. There was no shade from the sun and the temperature was in the high thirties. There was an abundance of flies, some large green bodied ones that bit at random and other smaller varieties that buzzed continually around the face seeking moisture from the dry air.
That day was a long day, twelve hours in total and neither Tim or I drank much water. The horses barely drank from the river in the morning being too nervous to stay for long and I worried about us and them. We finished our rest and remounted the horses, again Tim waiting to hand me Captain James before quickly jumping onto Goat in order to take control of the reins before he turned around and headed in the direction of his last home. We descended off the hill with the stone ruins. The Russian maps showed Gers along our route that had been in place for over 40 years and as we passed them we marvelled on how they were still exactly where the Russians had plotted them. We rode up and over another hill. A road running across our line of sight, situated in the lowest part of the valley, was plotted on the new Mongolian map of Tov Aimag we carried with us and was marked as an “improved road” and was a main road. It was called an improved road because the sand had been compacted. We saw only one SUV speed from right to left during our two hour ride down to the road. We crossed and headed towards a well that was shown on the Russian map only and was currently out of our sight. We hoped it still functioned as daylight had begun to fade and the horses had slowed down with the heat, the lack of water and the effort of carrying their respective loads. Across the road we passed three empty wooden animal shelters that lent the area an empty feel. A place that had been populated once but no longer was. We were to learn later that Mongolia has lots of these settlements that are used as winter and/or spring residences. The water does not flow in the wells, springs and rivers in the general vicinity all year round.
We rode pass these deserted dwellings and I saw a young man galloping his horse parallel to us on the foothills of the adjacent mountain. Where there were people, there were water sources! I waved to him. He stared and kept riding. No-one came to investigate so we rode on down a small but well used track. The horses kept shying as there was rusty, disused machinery in a gully to our left, again conjuring up images of horse-eating monsters in their minds, and the track we rode down became narrow. Eventually the trail led to a well. On either side were steep rocky slopes. The right led to higher hills that turned into even higher mountains. The left led to two Gers settled on top of two separate hills. It was 8:30 pm and we were all tired, hot and thirsty. A woman on horseback was by the well and I asked her if we could use it. She said ″Okay” and moved the horses and cattle that had gathered around the well out of our way. We were relieved to have reached water. The horses sniffed the air, smelling the water nearby.
As we approached the well I noticed a Land Cruiser above us on the hill top driving towards the Ger behind us. I waved in their direction and the car altered its course, driving towards us. A short but slim man around 40 years old and a young girl of 7 or 8 years old appeared from the vehicle and quickly scrambled down the hillside to come to us. This man was called Boronbay and we were about to discover the famous Mongolian hospitality.