The next morning came and Tim said to me, ″For the first time ever I feel dread at the thought of riding.”
“Don’t blame you.”  I helpfully replied.  As we pulled the tent pegs out of the dry, hard ground I asked Tim, ″Do you think we could concentrate on and only talk about riding to Khatgal?  I find it overwhelming to think of the whole scope of our project.”
Tim barely took a breath before he answered.  ″Okay.”  That small, casual word had a big, serious affect on me.  The weight of the trip that had laid heavily on me was lifted.  Riding to Khatgal, visiting with our friend Serdamba and his family, was manageable in my head.  Riding to Bayan-Olgii was like trying to imagine being seventy when one is twenty.

A man rode over to our half packed camp on horseback and dismounting he hobbled his horse’s two front legs with the reins.  A skill I never learned and wish I had.  He squatted down, near his horse and took a small pouch of tobacco out from inside his blue, worn del and rolled a cigarette with cut up rectangles of old paper.  He lit the hand-made cigarette and asked us:
“Where are you from?”
“We are from England.”  Tim informed him.
“We’re English people.”  I helpfully added.
″Where are you from now?”
Tim said, ″We are from ″Mongol Else”, Tov Aimag.”  Adding how many kilometres it was from our current position.
The man hummed and nodded again.  ″Are these Mongolian horses?”
“Yes.  The saddles are English and American.”  Tim told him.  The man walked up to the horses and slapped the riding saddle seats enthusiastically, making Mongol Morris jump.  The pack saddles got a sideways glance, nothing more and the man returned to his horse and sat back on his haunches.

An engine could be heard in the distance and coming toward us was a white, rusty car.  The car pulled up to the well and the driver leaned out of the wound down window.  ″Hello,” he greeted the horseman. ″Hello,” the horseman returned.  The car was filled with Mongolians, ranging in age from ten years to mid-thirties and a mix of men and women.  The horseman relayed what he knew about us, all the while the driver and passengers stared at us, curious about the temporary visitors.  ″Hello.”  I waved at the car. ″Hello” came the reply.  ″Where are you from?”  The driver asked and even though the horseman had already told him I shouted back, ″We’re from England.  We’re English people.  Where are you from?”  The driver flung his hand around to a hill behind us.  ″Over there.”  I asked one of the customary questions. ″Where are you going?”  ″Home.  Over there.”  Came the reply.

A friend of the horseman rode up on a small, brown gelding.  He chatted with the car load of people, he also wanted to know where we had come from and were going to.  The new visitor and his friend looked over our saddles.

″How much is one of these?”  The new man asked.
″Very expensive.”  I smiled.  ″They are from England.”
″How many dollars?”  The man asked again and I turned to Tim and in English said, ″What price should we give?”
“Errr, say they are ″$200.”
I explained the pause in replying, switching back to Mongolian.  ″We don’t have dollars in England, we have pounds.  They cost $200 for one.”
″They are good.  They are beautiful.”  He complimented us.

The horseman wanted to help us as we began to mount the horses.  ″I will help.”  He told us.  We let him remove the pack horses’ hobbles and he handed them to us when we were sat comfortably atop our riding horses.  The whole group waved us off.  The second horseman shouted, ″Are you sure of the direction of the road to Bayan-Knuur?” Bayan-Knurr is a town and is over the Tov Aimag border in Bulgan Aimag.  We were excited about leaving Tov Aimag.  It felt a massive achievement.  ″The road is over there.”  Tim pointed to our track ahead.  ″Okay.  Safe journey.”  The horseman shouted and we moved away from the Gers, the well and the black road.

All around us were large groups of goats and sheep and horses.  I counted fifty horses, moving together, staring at our horses, some of them keen to make contact.  The land was being grazed within an inch of its life and there were small streams winding across the otherwise empty landscape.  The sandy, compacted, wide road we were to follow to Bayan-Knuur stretched out in front of us.  We followed this path for five kilometres when Tim’s horses spooked again.  Tim quickly steered them into a circle and they cantered him round and round.  Tim held on to them both but risked falling as Shar’s strength threatened to unseat him.  He stayed put and when the horses stopped we dismounted, hobbled them all and took a rest to let our heart-rates decrease.  The landscape had become desert-like again, the earthy soil changed to yellow sand.  The grass reminded me of the long, wiry blades found nestling in the sand at Winterton-on-Sea, Norfolk.  The wind blew softly and the breeze temporarily cooled our hot bodies.  Tim and I sat, glad to be off the horses and for five minutes we ignored the animals as they shuffled round together, trying to find the right position to stand in, swishing their tails and bobbing their heads.

We mounted and continued along our way.  Two men on a motorbike come up the track and although we were walking on the road side it was not enough distance for the horses and they all shied, moving away from the roar of the bike’s engine.  The two men waved us away from the track and I heard them say ″You, you you you.”  For a second my brain worked only in English and I remarked to myself, ″Have they seen us before?”  I remembered they were not speaking my first language and realised what they had actually said was, ″What?  What?  What?  What?” as a response to the sight of these two foreigners with four horses.  The bike riders’ faces wore an expression we were to become extremely accustomed to during the course of our trip; an expression of astonishment which said, ″Now I’ve seen everything!” They turned around and drove behind us, the horses shot forward slightly in surprise and then calmed down.  One of the men said something to Tim but he could not make it out.  We steered the horses back onto the sandy track and continued to ride northwest towards the border with Bulgan Aimag.

Ten minutes later we saw a large dust cloud ahead of us and could hear faint cries.  Tim turned to me and yelled, ″It’s a horse-race!” We moved off the race track as fast as possible to get away from the racing horses to prevent our equine friends from joining in. We moved just in time to avoid the thundering of horses’ hooves.  We stopped at the side of the track and turned our horses so their backsides faced the race giving us a better chance of stopping them if they decided to join in.  Twenty children galloped down the race-track towards us, dust clouds puffed up into the air.  Proud fathers on motorbikes rode alongside the children and shouted out, ″Faster, faster!”

We stood, heads turned to watch the young jockeys.  The children, distracted by us, briefly slowed down to stare.  As they passed us they remembered the task at hand and raced off, loudly whooping and animatedly whacking their horses, willing them to go faster than the one in front.  From what we saw, the average age was around twelve years old and only one was wearing a riding hat.  The excitement quickly raced past us and the dust settled back to earth.  The road resumed its original purpose and we continued to walk along it, heading towards a well Tim had plotted for tonight’s camp.  Tim navigated us to the supposed spot but no well was there.  A chubby man, in a white t-shirt and jeans, close to us in age was riding nearby and I waved to him, hoping he would come over and direct us to the well.   My plan worked and he rode over to us.

“Saim banuu?”  We greeted him.
“Sain.”  He replied.  ″Do you want to rest?
“Yes.  We want to get water for our horses then put our tent up.”
“You can use my well.  I built it.”  Tim and I checked with the other to ensure we both understood what this friendly man had said and as he rode off, we followed.

He took us to a white concrete hut with a blue roof.  The wood door had a substantial padlock on it and the man instructed us, ″Wait here. I will get the key.”  We dismounted and hobbled the horses and waited, perched on the edge of the grey concrete trough attached to the hut.  After five minutes Tim said, ″Do you think it will be okay to camp here?”  ″I would have thought so.  He didn’t say we couldn’t stay.”  I replied.  ″Let’s unload Shar and Captain James then.  Get the heavy load off their backs.”  Tim said.  We stood up, walked to Shar and while I held his bridle Tim untied and removed the canvas sheet that covered the panyards.  Just as we had finished this the Mongolian returned, horseless in a shiny, new-looking four wheel drive, with the key to the hut.  He unlocked the blue door and we peered inside.  The hut contained a diesel generator attached to a pump.  The herder started the generator and as the engine turned over water began to flow into the trough.  The horses hobbled over to the edge and began drinking.  Two black, fierce looking dogs had followed the man when he returned to the well and sniffed around us.

“Get away!”  He growled at them, both dogs obeying immediately.
“I am frightened of dogs.”  I told him.  ″Are they okay?  Are they safe?”
“No problem.”  He reassured me.

Tim introduced us and asked the herder his name, ″Batdorj” came the reply.  Batdorj dislodged the hose attached to the hut that fed into the trough and flicked it towards Shar.  Tim and I realised what he was doing too late to stop him and Batdorj ‘helpfully’ filled our five litre water container while it was still in the panyard that was still on Shar.  Shar nervously shuffled about and I grabbed his bridle close to the bit to stop him throwing a wobbly.  Tim tried to funnel the fast flowing water into the container rather than flooding the panyard and wetting all our things.  Batdorj said, ″Is that enough water for you?”  Tim answered, quickly, ″Yes.  That is fine.  Errr thank you.”

Tim then asked Badorj, ″Can we camp here for one night?” Batdorj said, ″Put your tent here, near the well.”  He drove off up a small hill to the top where his two Gers were sat.  Tim and I set up camp.  I found it tough to do the simplest things, ″I am so tired and hungry.”  I complained to Tim, ″Me to,” he sighed.  Once our home had been recreated, we sat inside the tent and I boiled up a billy can of water so we could rest over a mug or two of Coffee King.  ″I don’t normally drink coffee.”  I said to Tim, ″but I love Coffee King.  I think its all the sugar they put in in, it makes me feel like I am eating something.” Tim smiled and when the water boiled we drank quietly glad to be resting.

Batdorj returned in his car and Tim went outside to meet him.  ″Hi.  Would you like to come and drink coffee with us?”  Tim asked. Batdorj accepted and sat inside our tent looking around at the contents.  I made him a mug of Coffee King and offered our red, plastic, origami bowl full of sweets.  He took a couple and the three of us sat, drinking and crunching sweets before we spoke any more.

I asked Batdorj, ″Do you have any children?”
He smiled and replied, ″Yes, I have three children.  They are five, seven and four months old.”
“Ahhh,” I sighed, ″A tiny baby.”  Batdorj nodded and smiled again.
He picked up our axe and turning to Tim asked, ″What is it for?”
Tim said, ″I use it to make the ground tethers for the horses and when we get to Khovsgol I will cut wood.”
Batdorj laughed and said, ″You can use it as a weapon against bad people.”  He acted out chopping ″bad people” down.
We all laughed and Tim said, ″This,” he picked up and patted the axe affectionately, ″This is my friend.”
“What price did you pay for the horses?”  Batdorj inquired.
“$400 for one horse.”  Tim lied, telling Batdorj half of what we actually paid.
“That is an okay price.”  He told us.

At 8:30 pm Batdorj left us for the night.  I took our portable sink to the well and filled it up with the remaining water.  I carried it back to the tent, sloshing water over the sides but enough remained for me to have a sink wash.  It felt lovely to wipe away the heat and dust of the day.  I stroked my arms, enjoying the silky, soft feel of clean skin. We maintained our two hour watches although neither of us felt threatened in the night as Batdorj’s large, competent guard dogs patrolled our camp.  I was grateful the horses didn’t require any attention as I did not think I would have had the courage to leave the tent and risk one of the dogs coming to investigate.

The only sounds we heard that night were the enthusiastic sniffing of dogs checking their territory and the reassuring sound of horses grazing.  The sky was a black canvas sprinkled with stars that glittered and twinkled like an expensive diamond when it catches the light.  The moon rose high, shining softly down on our camp emitting enough light to enable us to check on the horses without leaving the comfortably safety of the tent.


Onwards and Upwards

Morning arrived and we were packed up ready to load the horses by 8:30 am.  The sky was dark and grey angry clouds enveloped any blue.  The heavens opened and threw down bucket after bucket of rain.  I had lost my waterproof coat on the first day of our ride and I had to make-do with a jumper for warmth and waterproof trousers to keep dry.  The rain beat down on us like bold wings, forcing us to cover the kit and to leave the horses tied to the high line, ready and saddled.  We walked to Boronbay’s Ger hoping to sit a while, wait out the rain and to dry off.  As we entered the Ger we were met by a hive of activity.  Boronbay and Togso were off to their second home by the Tuul River today and Togso was busy opening drawers, pulling back curtains and shaking and folding clothes, cleaning surfaces and organising piles of things; what was to travel to their summer home and what would stay for their return.  Their granddaughter was causing an unwelcomed distraction by refusing to wear her pink, cowboy boots.  ″I want to wear these” she whined, clutching a pair of pink, heeled sandals, totally unsuitable for the wet weather.  ″Put these on.”  Togso waved the cowboy boots at her and a battle ensued. I joined in.  ″These,” I pointed at the pretty little boots, ″are beautiful. Very beautiful. ” The young girl scowled at me, not willing to take the bait.  ″I want to wear these.”  She cried.  Eventually Togso’s daughter grabbed her and pushed the boots on to much howling and wriggling. Once on, they were swiftly removed.  ″No!”  At this point we gave up and left her to play outside in the rain and get wet feet in the pink, high heeled sandals.

Boronbay had been absent during this battle of feminine wills.  He had been arranging a white truck to pack their home onto.  He ambled into the Ger and asked Togso, ″Are you ready to load yet?”  She stopped what she was doing and left the Ger.  The next door kitchen Ger had been dismantled so all that was left was a crumpled pile of white canvas and wood; the Ger’s skeleton.  This heap was gathered up by Boronbay and his friend the herder and loaded onto the truck. Togso supervised.  ″Don’t forget this part.  Be careful.”  The larger Ger was emptied of all useful and necessary items and left standing; the wooden door padlocked, sealed until their return later that year.  Tim and I sat watching the house move, enjoying the action.  45 minutes passed and Boronbay joked.  ″You have been here so long you are like our family now!”  Tim laughed.  ″We try to leave but we cannot!”  Finally the rain ran dry and we headed over to the high line, the horses and our luggage.  We loaded Shar and Captain James and mounted our riding horses and Boronbay handed us our luggage horses one at a time.

″Thank you.  You are good people.”  We declared to Bornbay and Togso who came to see us off.
″You are welcome.  Stay safe.  Be careful.”  They waved and we rode with our backs to them and their remaining Ger with a heavy hearts, sad to be leaving that comfortable and safe place we had thought of as home for four nights.

We headed further away from Boronbay, Togso and their spring residence riding along a track northwest.  As we lost sight of our new Mongolian friends we saw, on our right and in the distance on our left, two more Gers.  Dogs sat outside each and people moved in and out of their Gers, busy with tasks.  Sometimes one of them would look over to us but nothing more was said or done.  We rode up and over green, grassy hills down into a large, wide open valley.  Two Gers sat erected on either side of the broad, extensive valley otherwise the space was deserted with only the sky and the earth running on into the distance.  There were dark, foggy, undulating shapes crossing our distant line of sight, which as one rode closer formed into rugged mountains.  Two teenage boys were riding ahead of us.  ″Hold on tight Tim!” I warned him as the boys galloped towards us.  Tim’s horses had already spooked within half an hour of leaving Boronbay’s giving credibility to Tim’s concern yesterday that they would be difficult following their extended rest.  Goat was no longer content to calmly walk along on a loose rein and Tim had to hold Goat tight. Mongol Morris and Captain James had not yet presented me with any difficulty and I was grateful.  The two young lads and their horses sprinted towards us and all the horses became skittish, wanting to join in with the race and to take hold of the other horses’ high energy as their own.  We continued to walk but gathered our horses up by shortening the reins and lead ropes.  ″Remember to sit deep.”  Tim reminded me, giving the command our riding teacher, Karin, always gave.  The lads rode past us and our horses shot forward, jolting us at the hips.  The boys laughed as they saw the effect they had had on our horses and rode on, now behind us.  ″Phew that was close.”  I said to Tim, ″Yes.  Bloody kids.”  He muttered.

We walked down the track we had followed from Boronbay’s and rode across the empty valley to a large hill northwest.  As we rode up and over the hill we were presented with an even wider, almost limitless valley.  We were now nine kilometres from Boronbay and Togso’s home and the scenery had changed so much that we felt a world apart from that family and our time with them.  The path we rode along in this valley took us down to a dry riverbed.  Ahead of us on our right were empty residences, only lived in those times of the year when the river ran full.  The valley slowly got narrower making the valley itself more pronounced.  The grass grew longer here and this combined with the steep sides of the valley unsettled the horses.  Their ability to see in the distance became impaired.  These horses had come from country where one could see for miles and they were not use to inching forward taking the landscape as they found it.

My horses felt odd and I mentioned it to Tim, ″My horses feel impatience Tim, like they are itchy.”  There was no reply and I looked up and in front of me, expecting to see Tim and instead saw Tim’s horses cantering, riderless, across the valley.

″Tim! Are you OK?”  I shouted, my heart beating fast as I worried about my husband.
″I’m OK.”  Came the reply from somewhere among the long grass, ″I’m OK.”
″What happened?”  I called out, my voice wobbly with the effort of holding Captain James and Mongol Morris tight as I tried to prevent them joining Shar and Goat in their dash for freedom.
″I got pulled out of the saddle by Shar.  He just shot out to the side.  I held on but he was too strong.”

Tim’s horses had not gone far, the grass being too lush for them to resist and they stopped quickly, putting their heads down and gormandising on the long, plentiful grass.  I dismounted and hobbled Captain James and tied his lead rope back to the pack saddle then left him to take Mongol Morris to Tim’s horses in the hope that they would see a fellow team mate and let us catch them.  ″Are you sure you’re OK?” ″Yes, sure.”

We walked slowly but purposefully over to where the two escaped horses were standing eating.  Goat was easy to catch and Tim hobbled him and left Goat standing to go after Shar.  As Tim approached Shar the horse spun around a few times and walked, slowly away from Tim but it was not long before he was hobbled and standing still aside from the occasional swish of his tail to shoo flies.  Tim and I had a rest, worn out by the stress of his horses’ behaviour.  After twenty minutes we set off again.  Tim consoled us both saying, ″It is only twelve kilometres until we reach our camp.”  The track through the valley took us up a hill and down into another boundless valley, the green steppe stretching dauntingly into the distance as if limitless.  The valley was startlingly green and lush.  The long grass had been left to overgrow and it swished against our horses knees as we rode through it.  Four Gers were set up along the left side of this grassy basin and a couple had been put up on the right side.  The landscape was verdant and we smiled at the beauty of it.  ″This is lovely.”  Tim sighed, turning his head so I could hear him against the wind.  Tim often rode out in front due to Goat having a faster walk than Mongol Morris.  ″It is amazing.  So lovely.”  I responded, enjoying the feeling of having life surround us.

Three kilometres passed with both of us riding in silence enjoying the flourishing scenery.  Suddenly the atmosphere changed and the air was charged with tension.  I sat on Mongol Morris, holding Captain James tightly and watched as Tim’s horses started at something unseen then bolted.  Tim moved them into a tight circle but he was not fast enough to stop them breaking into a gallop.  He was soon being galloped dangerously around at full speed and on more than one occasion he lost his balance, tipping forward then rocking backwards in an attempt to find his seat again.

″Oh no!” I cried out, feeling sick as I watched helpless to do anything. Tim was being pulled off Goat at a full gallop desperately clinging Shar’s lead rope.  Goat tried to run to the right, Shar to the left and Tim played piggie-in-the-middle.  ″Sit tight, hold on!”  I cried out. ″Stay deep!”  I added not knowing if Tim could hear but feeling that this was the only helpful contribution I could offer.  If he comes off he was going to be hurt and I could not think and did not know what to do.  By degrees Tim managed to move the horses around making the circle smaller and smaller.  When it became too tight for the horses to move comfortably they stopped.  Tim used this small window of opportunity to quickly dismount.  I used the time to swing my leg over the saddle and dismounted myself, hobbling Mongol Morris as quickly as I could, scared of what would happen if Tim’s horses re-started their frantic chase.  I checked on Tim and his horses and saw him holding them both still.  I hobbled Captain James and tied the reins back to both my horse’s saddles.  I moved carefully towards Tim not wanting to be the noise that started an avalanche.  Without any obvious warning Shar began to spin round, flicking his back legs up as easily as a child leaps into a run.  This accelerated activity frightened Goat and he started trying to move away from the action.  I could not do anything but watch and wait, my heart in my mouth.  Tim let go of Goat, unable to hold both horses safely and to my amazement Goat stopped, stuck his head in the long grass and ate.  Releasing Goat gave Tim enough space mentally and physically to get control of Shar.  He shortened the lead rope every time Shar showed promise of slowing down and then lengthened the rope to give the horse space when he became agitated.  Eventually Shar ran out of enthusiasm and Tim hobbled the horse, preferring to leave Goat standing free and eating. Tim looked so pale.  ″I just stared death in the face.”  He said.

Tim and I walked towards each other and hugged tightly, relieved that Tim was unhurt and that the drama had ended.  ″I love you.”  We told each other.  We sat quietly for half an hour, letting the adrenalin drain out of our nervous systems.  We re-packed the panyards which had been shaken loose and set off.  We had nine kilometres to go until the next well and our planned camp for the night.  Eventually we saw a black road, or a road as we call them in the UK, appearing in the distance running across our line of sight, left to right.  Cars whizzed past and we felt like we were back in civilisation.  Once we had crossed the road we had two kilometres until we reached the well and our night’s camp.  I fantasized about setting the horses free and hitching a lift back to the city.

Tim’s horses continued spooking and began to scare him.  Each time he would stay on, but the memory of the terrifying gallop was close. Tim kept the horses on a very tight rein as we moved slowly forward. On one particularly fraught moment Tim caught both horses on the verge of yet another bolt and with reins and lead rope held taut and the horses trembling, he kept them motionless unable to stop their veins coursing with adrenaline.  Tim, pale and quaking, stiffly and very carefully dismounted.  ″I’m not riding any more today”.  He said. ″I will walk the rest of the way to camp.  If I have to walk to Khovsgol I will”.  I smiled at his determination, never once doubting the truth of that statement.

A herder, standing outside his wooden, orange painted Ger door on our right, waved us over and as we approached three dogs raced out from behind the Ger, barking, their tails held high with aggression. Tim turned and walked slowly away from the threat, ″I am not going over there. ” Tim nervously said, ″I will get torn to pieces by those dogs.”  The herder called his dogs off and shouted to us.  ″Hello.  Do you want some tea?  Do you need a place to sleep?”  I thanked him and politely declined, ″We are heading to the black road.  We will camp near a well there.”  ″The well is over the other side.”  He offered and turned, heading inside the Ger.  Soon after we passed him, I took a look behind me and the herder had re-emerged with a younger man and a woman holding a young child on her hips.   They stared as we rode towards the black road.   I waved once and turned my attention to the highway in front.

Just before we reached the roadside a man drove over to us on his motorbike and to make conversation I asked him, ″Where is the well?” even though our GPS told us where it was.  He waved us in the general direction across the road and drove off, saying no more.  Tim and I prepared to take the horses across the tarmac.  I rode and Tim walked up to the road’s edge that was littered with empty, plastic ″Goe Tea” bottles.  In accordance with the Green Cross Code we checked left then right and when it was safe to cross we did so.  The horses were well behaved and we reached the other side without a scene.  It was strange to be near a tarmac road and this road was reasonably busy being the main route from this area to Ulaanbaatar.  Cars and lorries whizzed past at least every ten minutes, the hum of their engines as they approached and the vroom as they went past reverberated around the valley.  This side of the road was well lived in. Gers punctuated the landscape and it felt rather built up.  Well travelled tracks criss-crossed the countryside and we chose one of these to walk along while Tim navigated us to the well.  ″Only 2 km until we get to the well.”  Tim said, ″Keep your eyes peeled.”

We reached a well but it was old and clearly no longer in use.  ″Is this the one we were heading for?” I asked Tim.  ″Errr I think our well is further over there.” Tim pointed in front of us and we continued to move away from the road.  The second well was also dry and had been dismantled.  ″What should we do?” I asked Tim.  ″Keep walking ahead.”  He suggested.  We moved in the direction of an enclosure, thinking it would be a third well.  As we drew near we realised it was not a well at all but some kind of feeding pen for cattle.  We stood for a while thinking what to do next.  Tim asked me, ″Can you see from your horse anywhere that might be a well?”  I looked around but could not see anything of use.  ″There has to be something close, look at all these homes.”  I said.  We turned right and moved away from the path we had been following, turning to face the road.  Soon we stumbled upon a bare patch of earth, worn down by regular traffic. There was a well, clearly still in use.  ″Yeah!” I celebrated, ″We found it.”

We took the horses to drink and once they had finished Tim walked to a nearby Ger to ask permission to stay one night.  The owner was outside his home, herding a small group of cows.  He was a small, slight man and was very timid.  Tim returned.   ″I think he is intimidated by me.  I spoke to him using my Mongolian voice.” Mongolian men have a face that is initially impenetrable and a tone of voice that is tough, gruff and seemingly unfriendly.  It was this face that Tim had presented to the nearby herder.  ″I think he said it was OK to camp here.  He kept checking if I was really only staying one night.”  Tim waved his hand over to some reasonable pasture on our left.  The road stretched out in front of us and Gers behind us in all directions.  We normally prefer quiet, empty spaces, feeling relaxed away from obvious signs of civilisation but here, in Mongolia, the empty, desolate areas we were to ride through sometimes felt unsafe, if there were no signs of humans or livestock then there was unlikely to be any water to sustain them.  The flip-side was that where lots of humans gathered the risk of thieves increased.

I dismounted, hobbled my two horses and we unloaded first Shar then Captain James.  I shouted to the nearby herder.  ″Hello.  We are English people.  We’re from England.”  I spoke to reassure him that we were no threat to his family’s territory.  I continued, ″Is it OK to put our tent up here?”  His body softened, his shoulders relaxed and he nodded.  We set up camp, unsaddled the horses and laid down inside the tent for a short rest.  The time was now 9 pm and we were exhausted.

″That was a hard day.”  Tim puffed his breath out and shook his head. ″I am glad to be rid of the horses.”
″I don’t blame you for feeling like that.  Goat and Shar were such a handful today.”  I sympathised.
″I am looking forward to sleep tonight.”  We both laughed knowing we would only get two hours, at most, at any one time.
″Can you imagine what it will be like when we can sleep through a whole night?” I dreamily asked Tim.
″It will be lovely, but there’s no point thinking about it now.  We’ve got months of this ahead of us.”  Tim brought me back to earth with a bump and we sat a while longer in silence.

The herder we had met earlier brought his family to visit us.  There was his wife and their three, young children.  They were simple folk, shy but curious.  Oblivious to our exhaustion they stayed with us for forty minutes.  I brewed tea and handed them sweets and showed them our beds.

″How do you make them?” The man asked.
″This here,”  I pointed to the pump, not knowing the Mongolian word for pump, and mimed pushing.  ″Do this for two minutes.”
″Me, me!”  He excitedly exclaimed.  Our new friend loved pumping the bed up so much that he asked, ″This one,” he pointed to Tim’s bed, ″Can I do?”
I shrugged and replied, ″No problem.”

The family stayed in our tent, watching us, looking at our things and occasionally asked us questions like, ″What is this?”  or ″Do you have children?”  Eventually they left and I breathed a sigh of relief and turned to Tim, ″I am so tired tonight.”  ″Me too.  The problems with the horses has really taken it out of me.”  We boiled water and cooked our tea, eating in weary silence.  Our normal two hour watches continued throughout the night, made easier by the occasional car or truck light shining on us and the horses from the main road.  We slept to the sporadic sounds of vehicles swishing past.

In Sickness and In Health

I awoke first and lifted the tent flap close to my head to see how the horses were.  They were all in view and with this check over I became aware of a penetrating sickness deep in my stomach.  Tim stirred and turned to me ″I feel really ill.  I was sick in the night and I have diarrhoea.”  He could not move, his skin was pale and clammy and the action of lifting his head caused him to groan in pain.  I had not been sick, but the queasiness I had felt since nearly day one, had become worse.  I laid down on my bed for an hour, drifting in and out of sleep, and waited for the illness to pass.  I realised neither of us were fit to go anywhere that day and decided to get up and speak with Togso.  I got dressed, and before I was able to leave the tent Tim cried out ″I’m going to be sick. Now!”  I grabbed our green, plastic camping sink and threw it at him, turning away as he vomited.  ″Tim? I know this isn’t a good time to ask, but what is the Mongolian word for sick?”  ″Ovdoug” he moaned.  ″Thanks.”  I carried the sink outside the tent and sat it down deciding to empty it later.

I walked the short distance to Boronbay and Togso’s Ger.  The low wooden door was open and I could see two extra people inside.  I felt unusually nervous and wished I did not have to ask to stay a third night.  On reflection, I needn’t have felt this way.  Mongolian countryside people never minded how long we stayed.  I entered the Ger and sat down on a small wooden stool.  ″Do you want tea?” Togso asked.  I took a bowl of hot, milky tea, laced with salt and sipped while I arranged the words I wanted to say in my head.  ″We are sick today.  Bad stomach.”  I attempted, clutching my stomach for affect.  Togso and the other ladies looked at me with blank faces and Togso asked, ″Do you have medicine?”  I replied I did.  The Ger’s occupants watched me, waiting for me to speak.  ″We will stay another night.  Is that OK?”  I ventured.  ″OK” came the reply.  I left the Ger, feeling awkward and spaced out.  I felt so tired and looked forward to getting back to the tent and lying down.  On my way back up to the high point on the hillside I glanced over at the horses, hoping they were secure and in no need of assistance.  They were where I expected them to be and appeared perfectly content, heads down low, grazing.  Upon entering the tent I laid down and slept for two hours.

When I woke up the sun had risen high overhead and was beating down on our tent, heating the inside like an unwelcomed sauna.  Tim was still sleeping and I quietly rose, feeling a little queasy but with the worst over.  I stuck my head out of the door and checked on the horses who were standing two abreast, head to tail fanning each other with their tails to keep the flies at bay.  I noticed the earlier discarded sink and remembered I had not emptied it.  I did so now, cleaning it as much as was possible with the small amount of water we had left. I took a five litre container with me and walked down to see Togso.  I stuck my head around the Ger door but found only the eldest daughter in.  I lifted and waggled the plastic water container about asking, ″Can I get some water?”  She nodded and waved me to the side of the Ger where three 50 litre blue water barrels stood.  On top of one was a pink, plastic scoop, shaped like a small saucepan.  I grabbed the handle and ladled water into our container.  The walk back to the tent was hard work.  I felt weak from having eaten nothing that morning and only a couple of mouthfuls the previous night and I trudged back up the gradual slope, alternating the water container from my left hand to my right as each one tired.  Feeling the full weight of responsibility for the horses, with Tim out of action, I scanned the hill where they were stood and found nothing to be concerned about.

Later that afternoon, I laid on top of my bed no longer ill and opened the tent flap to let in some air; dry, dusty, hot air.  I sat, while Tim slept, playing Patience with a pack of cards, decorated with UK themed photos and captions like, ″Tossing the Cabar” and ″The Wet Bobs – Cambridge.”  Togso stuck her head round the open tent door and asked ″Are you OK?”  I welcomed her in, but she choose to sit in the doorway, no doubt worried about the type of lurgy we had.  ″Have you got medicine?” she asked me again.  ″Yes we have” I replied.  Tim stirred, hearing voices and turned his head to see Togso in the entrance and sat up, propping himself up on his elbows.  ″Don’t worry, don’t worry” she reassured him.  ″Have you got meat?” she asked.  ″No. We have these.”  I showed her a packet of the freeze dried food we ate.  She turned it over in her hands, frowning.  ″Do you want meat?” she offered.  ″No.  Thank you.”  Togso got up and left without saying anything further and Tim and I lapsed back into a deep sleep.

I awoke and sat playing cards for an hour or so.  Bored by the game of Patience I decided to sort through all our packets of food and discard any with holes in them.  I sat on the hard, dry ground outside the tent and created two piles; one of food we could eat and one that was to be thrown away.  I was dismayed to see the large mound of freeze dried packets sitting in the discard pile and re-checked them all, hoping I had made a mistake.  I had not and I taped them all into a bag and carried them down to the gully where Boronbay’s family threw their rubbish and went to the toilet.  I peered over the edge of the gully and trying to avoid the two dogs below, scavenging for food and other deposits left by humans, I propelled the bag of redundant food into the depths of the countryside bin.

5 pm arrived along with a new visitor to our tent, Boronbay’s younger sister, Nandia.  She had spent two years living and studying in London and spoke good English.  It was a surprise having someone talk to us in our own language and we enjoyed conversing with her, free to talk without having to think everything through.  She asked:

″Do you need anything?  Togso told me you were sick.”
″Thank you but we are OK.”  I replied.
″What made you sick?  Was it Togso’s food?”
″No!” I exclaimed.  ″Not at all.  It was our own food.”  I showed her a bag of the freeze dried food and explained that if air gets into them they can make a person ill and this is what had happened to us. Nandia nodded and then said, ″I am here to invite you to eat traditional Mongolian food with us.  Today is Togso’s birthday and the official start day of Nadaam.”
Tim, now awake, answered, ″My stomach is still sore so I will not eat anything but we would love to visit with you.”
″When will you come?”
″I will get up now and wash and we will come to the Ger in half an hour.”

Nandia, happy with this, walked back to the Ger leaving us to get ready.  We dressed and washed our face and hands.  I decided to wear my blue silk Del made by Serdamba’s mother on our 2006 visit to Mongolia.  Tim and I walked down to the family’s Ger, but before entering we had to descend into the gully to use the toilet.  We picked our way through the rubbish, avoiding treading on the sheets of partially degraded toilet paper and piles of human waste and went about our business, conscious of the dogs sniffing about and people ambling at the top of the gully.

I put on my Del and we entered the Ger.  It was filled with people, mainly family, and there was a party atmosphere.  Boronbay ordered us to ″Sit Down!” and pointed to the two wooden stools we occupied on the first night.  The party was made up of Boronbay’s sisters and brothers, Togso’s mother and grandparents, a herder and family friend who lived in a nearby Ger and his wife and lots of children and grandchildren.  The strong smell of roasted meat permeated the air. We were offered a large metal bowl containing roasted lamb from Togso.

″Do you know this dish?”  she inquired.
″Yes we do.  It is Horhog.”
″Yes.  It is beautiful isn’t it?”
″Very tasty”  we both agreed and although it looked delicious neither of us could face more than a token amount.

We were handed a bowl of offal.  ″This is good” a guest told us.  ″It is the best part.”  As is traditional in Mongolia offal is given to the guests and Tim thanked them all for this offering adding, ″English people rarely eat this.  It is difficult for us.”  Everyone smiled and nodded, seeming to understand and the offal was handed around the group, each person cutting and savouring pieces of the inside of the sacrificed sheep.  On a wooden table in front of us was a bowl of carrot salad, a jar of pickles and a medium sized mixing bowl with small jacket potatoes. The bowls and cutlery were communal and as soon as a fork was available I relished eating the potatoes with forkfuls of carrot salad.  I ate the potatoes whole and as I was about to pop a third one into my mouth I was nudged by an old man, Togso’s grandfather, on my left. He mimed that I should peel the potatoes first.  I asked him, ″Would like me to do one for you?”  He nodded and I peeled two more mini-baked potatoes and handed one to him, savouring the other myself.

Our sickness was much discussed among the party goers and Tim was ordered to drink a bowl of vodka and a tumbler of beer.  ″It is good for your stomach.”  Boronbay’s eldest brother told him.  ″It will make you better.”  Tim nodded, smiled and took a tiny sip of both drinks.  Cries of ″Drink more!” ″Drink the glass!” ″Finish it!”  were banded about the Ger but Tim could not face drinking the vodka and handed first the bowl, then the tumbler back to Boronaby, each given back using his right hand with his left hand supporting his right elbow.  Both drinks were received in the same way, topped up and handed to another guest.  The party continued, everyone chatting loudly to each other and we felt very included.

I played a game of catch and throw with Boronbay and Togso’s eldest granddaughter who, squealing with excitement, told everyone to much laughter, ″She is my friend!  We are playing!”

A tumbler of dessert wine was added into the mix and passed around the women.  ″Do you like it?” I was asked.  ″Yes, it is good.”  I replied to approving nods.  A small ceremonial silver bowl filled with vodka was passed to Tim.  Boronbay demonstrated the traditional way to drink it.  He dipped the ring finger and thumb of his right hand into the vodka and flicked the dipped fingers to the sky before drinking.  ″This is to give thanks to our ancestors” he explained.  Tim was next to drink and after he flicked his fingers upwards he took a tiny sip and handed Boronbay the bowl.  ″Why did you not drink?” Boronbay teasingly reprimanded Tim.  ″My stomach is bad.” Tim offered as an excuse.  ″This will help your stomach.  Drink it all.”  I begged Tim not to drink it all, fearful of having to clean the sink again.  He declined politely and Boronbay and the other men laughed.

The time passed easily, although both Tim and I felt worn out and weak.  At some point Tim had walked to our tent and returned with the camera and a round of photo taking took place.  ″Take my picture!”  cried the youngest granddaughter, then, ″Take one of all of us!”  Nandia, her husband, Tim and I were gathered together for a photo.  Boronbay brought out his expensive snuff bottle for all to admire and requested a photo.  ″Take a photo of me and Togso with my bottle.”  Tim obliged and then Boronaby handed the bottle to Tim. Turning the silver carved bottle over in his hands as he studied it Tim commented:

″This is beautiful.”
″It is expensive.”  Boronbay proudly relayed.
″Yes, I can see.  What is this?” Tim asked, pointing to the tiny mouse-like creature crouched at the end of the spoon.  Boronbay told us the animal’s name but we had not heard of it before.

Tim, not wanting to disappoint the men, scooped a small pile of snuff from the bottle with the spoon and took a long breath in, coughing in surprise when the snuff hit the back of his nose, much to the amusement of the male guests.  The bottle was handed back to Borobay and he continued to present it to each person in the Ger, some pretending to sniff.  ″Take a photo of me with my big brother.” he requested of Tim.  ″Now another of me and Togso.”

At 6:30 pm we made our excuses to the crowd and got up to leave. Boronbay asked ″Where are you going?” Tim explained, ″To take the horses to the well.”  Boronbay spoke with his youngest son and told us, ″He will help you.”  Walking hurt our stomachs and riding, when the horses jigged down the slope to the ravine, hurt more.  We watered and secured them for the night and re-joined the party.  A celebration cake had been bought and the big, white cardboard box was opened eagerly.  The large white and pink cake was laid out for all to admire with a knife placed beside it so each of us could cut a slice.

″This cake is beautiful isn’t it?”
″Yes, very nice” we replied.

More drinks were poured and shared and more photos taken.  Nandia swapped email addresses with us and implored us, ″Please send me all the photographs you have taken.”  We promised and when we returned to the city at the end of our ride we found an email from Nandia waiting patiently in our inbox.

Togso’s mother, a small, slim woman in her late fifties, with large hair, streaked grey and black like a badger, turned to me, saying, ″You should stay one more day to make sure you are well enough to travel.”  I promised her we would and she smiled, happy we had listened and dictated, ″I will have my photo taken with you both.” Tim got the camera out of its case while Togso’s mother covered her leopard print vest top with a Del and smoothed her wild hair down. Once a satisfactory photograph had been taken she suggested, ″Let’s take one of everyone” and proceeded to organise the entire group outside for a final round of photo taking.

At 9:30 pm we walked the short distance in the dark back to our tent and beds.  My health had improved greatly and although Tim was still sick he was able to move slowly.  Today was a good end to a bad start! We slept very well and did not conduct our normal two hour shifts during the night, sure that no harm would come from other people whilst we were under Boronbay’s protection.

I woke early and upon checking the horses I only saw one.  Panic shot through me like an electric shock and I jumped out of bed to investigate further.  I easily found Shar but could not find Captain James.  I listened for the familiar comforting sound of horses’ teeth chewing on grass and heard something in the ravine.  I walked to the edge and peeked over.  Captain James had come off his tether line. Thankfully he had not gone far with the hobbled Mongol Morris and with him distractedly eating, I was able to catch him.  I returned him to the tether line and realised how lucky we had been.   Tim felt so ill yesterday that he had not properly tied the knot to Captain James’ front hobble ring and I had not checked it. With the mini-drama resolved I went back to sleep for an hour and a half.  Waking up I turned my head to face Tim, who lay next to me, ″Do you think we should throw the bag of tsanii boov out?  It is mouldy.”  ″I think that would best.” Tim sensibly agreed.  We wanted to travel tomorrow so had to be careful what we ate today and we dispensed with lunch, choosing to chew boiled sweets when hunger gnawed at our empty bellies. That night Tim ate nothing for dinner and I had plain spaghetti.  I craved butter, garlic and toast smothered in Marmite.

″Tim, If you could eat anything right now what would it be?”
″Nothing.” came Tim’s curt reply.

The next morning was very wet.  The sky was peppered with charcoal clouds and the rain refused to ease.  We decided to stay one more night and spent the day sat around playing Patience.  Togso came to see us.

″Do you have any meat?” She checked.
″No.” I decided to add, ″before coming to Mongolia I did not eat meat for seven years.”
Togso paused and asked, ″But meat is beautiful right?”
″Yes,” I sighed, ″Mongolian meat is ″roe”.”

In between playing games of Patience, Tim and I would peer out of the open tent door to check on the horses and to watch Boronbay’s youngest daughter exercise his racehorse.  His youngest son was charged with the job but would always coerce his little sister into taking over.  The task would start when the son placed a white, coat over the horse; we assumed to protect it from flies and continued with the walking of the racehorse, round and round in a circle, keeping the horse’s gait slow and steady.  After ten minutes, the girl would shout for her brother, “Come here!  Come here!”  He would, in accordance with elder brother custom, ignore her.  She would continue to walk the racehorse round in calm circles, shouting every two minuets, “Come here! Come here!”  Once half hour, in the hot, dry sun had elasped, her brother would appear, take the racehorse from her and tie him to the high line.  This show was repeated at regular intervals throughout the day with Boronbay occasionally coming to check on the horse at the high line.

The weight of looking after our horses weighed heavily on both of us.  I told myself that if the responsibility could be taken away I think we would be so much happier but then I chuckled realising the irony of that statement.  If that were so then this trip would not be our trip. I worried about Mongol Morris’ weight that was dropping off his already slender frame and the lump on his back that had returned and would not go away with gentle massage or a cold compress.  I un-hobbled him and tied Mongol Morris to the high line and checked the saddle to ensure it was not pressing on the lump. Boronbay was also at the high line, tending to his racehorse and I asked him his opinion.

″Boronbay.  This is bad.”  I pointed to the lump.  ″What do you think it is?”
Boronbay walked over to me and Mongol Morris and looked him over ″Do not worry, I think he will make it to Khovsgol.”

Tim was worried about the horses being loaded up tomorrow after their long rest.  I thought him over cautious.  ″Why would they have an issue with the luggage?” I challenged.  ″They have been at rest for a few days now.  I am not sure they will be relaxed when we load them tomorrow.  We will have to take it slowly and be mindful of their mood.”

In the afternoon the rain subsided and the sun reared its orange and yellow head.  Determined to make its presence felt the sun was so hot that we fell asleep for two hours, weak from a lack of food and too hot to do anything.  Shar broke his back wooden peg on the hobble and Tim fixed it using a spare Batdrack had made and donated to us.  We were a four hour drive from Ulanbataar and I could not help thinking that we could still escape!  To the west and north were horrible looking storm clouds creeping towards us.  A black sky loomed and huge shots of light from electricity in the air threaded through the sky like white veins.  The clouds look muddy and the sky far off was tar-black.  Tim and I expressed hope to each other that the storm would pass by the next morning as we had to leave this place and ride.  A fearsome storm arrived that night.  The tent fabric billowed and snapped like sails in high winds.  The tent sides rubbed my head as I lay in bed, making my hair stick to the material as static built up.  The strong winds threatened to snap the tent and it responded by bending first one way, then the other like a sapling bends when pushed around by wind.  Every few minuets a crash of lightening would illuminate the tent and the sound of thunder would fiercely crackle and roar, shaking the ground.  The rain hammered down, slapping the tent sides.  I worried for the stability of our home and to distract my fears I recalled a tip my father had given me when I was scared of storms as a child; one has to count in between each rumble of thunder, ″One one thousand, two one thousand….” if the numbers get higher then the storm is moving away.  The numbers got lower and I kept counting until sleep found me.


The Land Cruiser I had noticed above us on the hill top had altered its course and driven towards us. A short, lean man, dark skinned from the sun and dressed in a blue and white checked shirt and black trousers had scrambled down the hillside to come to us. Tagging along by his side was his nine year old daughter. This man had come to help us water the horses. He smelt strongly of alcohol but appeared friendly. He strode purposefully over to the well and flung back the wooden cover revealing an old deep well constructed from limestone boulders. Set into the concrete top was a metal peg and tied to this was a stretch of old rope. The rope was frayed and had knots along its length where extra pieces had been added. The man stood astride the well and hauled a black, rubber bucket from its depths. The bucket contained most of the water heaved up with small squirts shooting from tiny holes pitted around the bucket. Once it had reached the top, the bucket was emptied into the attached concrete trough. The horses, upon hearing, seeing and smelling the water, rushed forward to the trough, stamping on our feet and making it hard for us to keep the reins and lead ropes from becoming a tangled mess. The Mongolian continued his job of collecting water, heaving the bucket up and tipping the contents into the trough until it was full. I relayed what was to become my stock phrase when meeting new people:

″We are from England. We are English people.”
″My name is Tim and this is my wife, Sam” Tim added, ″What is your name?”

Boronaby moved off the well and quickly and shore-footedly came to help us with the horses. He took Shar’s lead rope and with a deftness we had yet to acquire, he removed the bit from the horses mouth and led him to the trough’s edge. Shar drank greedily, slurping and swallowing the cool, fresh water. Tim led Goat to the trough, clumsily removed the bit, and Goat bent his head low and began to drink. Captain James had become so annoyed at having to wait he had bulldozed his way through the line of horses to the trough before I had had time to lead him there. In his desperation to drink he had forced the right-hand saddle bag off where it hung, under the back of the saddle on Mongol Morris, so that it lay on the floor in the mud churned by animals’ hooves. Mongol Morris was keen to drink but with an obedience that I later came to rely on and appreciate, he waited until I took his reins, removing his bit awkwardly, knowing that if he had not been so focused on drinking he would have been able to run off as I struggled to re-fit the bridle. Mongol Morris drank until Captain James nudged him with his enormous head signalling that it was time for them to stop drinking and to withdraw from the trough. Captain James would often instruct Mongol Morris, which I found disheartening especially when it came to drinking as Captain James regularly decided when Mongol Morris had finished.

I did my best to hold them both as they moved backwards, turning skillfully like a well rehearsed lorry driver reversing his HGV out of a small country lane. My best was not good enough and Boronbay handed Tim Shar, bit already replaced, and took Captain James’ lead rope from me before I became tangled in it. I was handed the broken saddle-bag by Boronbay’s daughter, who appeared excited by this visit from outsiders, and tucked it awkwardly under my arm. Boronbay observed the gracelessness with which I attempted to mount Mongol Morris with a bag under one arm and offered to take the severed bag from me, explaining he would take it in his car to his Ger. I was grateful for the help and did not think to remove my money and was later chastised by Tim, who exasperatedly said what was to become his stock phrase:

″Always keep your money on you at all times. If you cannot. Give it to me.”

We asked Boronbay if we could put our tent up near his Ger and he agreed. We followed his car to two nearby Gers, one smaller than the other. The horses, lively once more, were tugging at their reins and lead ropes eager to return down the track they had walked up earlier, feeling safe knowing what was in front of them rather than being pushed into unfamiliar territory. We headed away from the track we had followed to the well, turning off onto a smaller path that led up to a hill top. Once at the top we dismounted and hobbled all the horses and tied their reins back to the saddles to prevent them eating. As an added precaution Tim tied Goat to Shar’s neck to keep the horses together. Boronbay and his younger son helped us unload the pack horses. Tim and I walked with our backs to the horses further up the hill to find a flat spot for the tent that was a reasonable distance from the Gers. We begun to set up camp. Boronbay cruised over on his motorbike and invited us to his Ger. At least we think that was what he said; our listening skills still very much under-developed. The tent stood high on the summit of the hill and our bags had been placed inside so we walked down a dusty slope covered with small green plants and grass towards Boronbay’s Gers. The sun had set and the evening light had faded, making it hard to see what was about us.

We reached the lower regions of the slope and walked onto a large flat area where Boronbay’s family had erected two Gers. Just before the larger Ger was a big, dark mass that as we drew nearer evolved into a collection of resting goats and sheep. The smell was overwhelming and we turned our noses away. We picked our way through the milling livestock, squashing animal droppings that liberally littered the ground. We entered the large Ger and my first impression was of a clean, spacious home. We were directed to two small, wooden stools on the far left and Boronbay and his family sat on the right side of the Ger. Boronbay sat on a wooden stool, planted on top of a large rug at the back of the Ger. He sat in front of a wall hanging that depicted Chinggis Khan and his troops. I noticed a severed goat’s head at the end of one of the beds, perched unobtrusively on top of the blankets like a sleeping cat.

The orange, wood framed beds doubled as seats during the day and were situated on the left and right of the orange, wooden chest of drawers that served a dual purpose as the alter and a storage container. The altar was set up with sacred objects and animal images relating to the Mongolian Buddhist religion. The family’s clothes and other personal items were kept inside this Ger and a wooden table near the back, protected by a cream, plastic, wipe clean cover, was used for eating off and had a large glass bowl on top that was kept full with sweets, bread and boov.

Hung around the sides of the large Ger were salmon and white strips of material, decorated with floral designs used to cover the wooden lattice walls of the Ger and lent the Ger a feminine air. The floor was carpeted with large sheets of vinyl and the pattern was reminiscent of the lino one finds in many English kitchens. Boronbay’s family did not have a stove at the centre of their Ger, that was in the kitchen Ger next door.

Boronbay asked, ″Where have you come from?”
″England. We’re English people.” I repeated.
″Where have you come from now?”
Tim answered, ″Arburd Sands, in Tov Aimag, 180 km from Ulaanbataar.”
″Where did your horses come from?”
″Arburd Sands. They are desert horses.”
″Where are you going?”
″To Khovsgol then to Bayan-Olgii” Tim replied to much eyebrow raising.
″Tim, why don’t I get our maps?” I suggested.
″Good idea.”

I left the Ger and returned with our Tov and Bulgan Aimag maps. Boronbay and his wife, Togso, both sat close to each other on the rug and laid the maps out so they covered the rug. Tim and I sat with them and pointed out our route to date and our future route. They spent a long time looking over the maps, commenting now and again on places they knew.

″Oh look, there is Ondershireet!” ″Here is Ulaanbaatar!”

Boronbay told us he had been to the local Nadaam in Ondershireet, which explained the smell of alcohol on his breath. We were introduced to his eldest daughter; the lady on horseback we had first seen at the well and his younger son; the young lad galloping on a horse who had ignored our waving. He looked at us in the dim light provided by a single bulb hanging from the centre of the Ger and said, ″I saw you earlier. You were waving.” He mimed a wave which was handy as neither of us knew the Mongolian word for wave. Later that night Boronbay’s eldest son, wife and baby daughter popped in, curious to see who the new visitors were. They did not talk to us just occasionally stared, reverting their eyes if we looked up and over to them where they were seated on one of the beds.

Boronbay instructed Togso to make us a meal. She asked ″Can you eat Mongolian food?” We replied we could and she said ″What Mongolian food do you like?” I replied ″Hushuur” thinking how lovely it would be to munch on the fried meat pancakes. Togso left the Ger and returned shortly after to report ″I do not have any Hushuur. Can you eat all Mongolian food?” We smiled and said we could. Dinner took a long time to prepare and night had fallen so that it was dark outside before we were served. The horses were standing where we had left them earlier, hobbled and reins tied back to prevent eating driven excursions. Tim decided to tether and hobble the horses for the night while we waited for our host’s food. Dinner arrived and I called Tim back into the Ger. Our meal was a bowl of Grilltai Sholl, a mutton soup with flour noodles that were boiled in hot water with some salt added for ‘spice’. This Mongolian staple was not a favourite of ours but it was welcomed as we were famished. We offered our thanks to Boronbay and Togso and declining second helpings on the basis we were tired, we stood up ready to go bed. Boronbay and Togso jumped up and ushered us into their Land Cruiser waiting outside and drove us the short distance to our tent.

We continued to wake every two hours as normal and the night passed without incident. I awoke at 7 am to check on the horses and found, to my relief, they were still close. Tim awoke and we ate a breakfast of two pieces of moldy tsanii boov and at 7:30 am he stuck his head outside the tent to check on the horses. The sky was blue and in the morning light I was free to look around and see where we had camped. Our tent was pitched on steep, grassy hill high above valleys on all sides. On a nearby hill was another Ger, but otherwise the landscape was empty. As far as the eye could see there were green rolling hills melting into mountains that formed a huge natural fence around us in every direction. I felt comforted with the sight before me after the gobi we had been travelling through for the past few days. The hilly grasslands we were camped in felt paradisaical and bountiful with the possibility of life. Long grasses formed a rich carpet, swaying in the gathering wind, sweeping in from the south but close-to one could tell that the land was suffering from drought. The grass cover was sparse, some areas had been nibbled almost completely away by the livestock and there were bare patches of red sandy soil coated with livestock droppings. From our vantage point atop the hill we could see for many miles. There were thunderheads gathering in the south.

We had tethered Captain James and Goat overnight and they had moved as far as the tether would let them, over and down a slope northeast to graze. Mongol Morris was close to Captain James, their heads down constantly nibbling at what food could be found. Shar had moved away from the group, at the bottom of the ravine to our east but was still in our sights. We packed the tent and luggage ready for loading. Boronbay had a high line just below where our tent was pitched and we tied Captain James, Goat and Mongol Morris to it. The high line, a length of thin rope between two wooden posts hammered into the ground, allowed us to tie the horses using their reins/lead ropes so their heads were connected to the line. The time was 9:30 am. Tim went to get Shar from the ravine, only to find that he had vanished. We searched the local area on foot but could not find him. I walked to Boronbay’s Ger to ask if they had seen the missing horse but no-one was home. The Gers were closed up, both wooden doors padlocked. I sat with the luggage, near the horses while Tim went off on foot to search again. He returned empty handed. Boronbay and Togso reappeared and rode over to us on their motorbike.

″Are you OK?” they asked.
″We cannot find one horse.”
″You should look for him on horseback.” They pointed in the direction they had last seen Shar hobbling towards earlier that morning.

We saddled up Goat and Mongol Morris and rode up and down hills, looking for Shar. Mongol Morris constantly called out to Captain James, not really focusing on the task at hand. At every opportunity he tried to run back to the safety of Captain James. I started to wonder if the missing horse was a scam. We had read about a particular swindle in which the Mongolian family one is staying with turns a horse loose then offers to find the horse for a fee. I turned to Tim and conveyed my suspicions:

″Do you really think this could be a scam?” He replied
″Don’t you?”
″Not sure. I think we should look a little longer.”
″OK” I said, unconvinced that we would find Shar.

We continued our search for the missing horse but to no avail and soon we returned to our luggage and Captain James, who was waiting, immobilised by the high line. Boronaby and his wife had left their home a second time and my mistrust continued to grow. We moved the packed luggage down the hill to the high line, where our three horses were tied. Earlier that morning Boronbay and Togso had not offered us tea or said good morning and this made me more suspicious. My concern heightened as the realisation of the situation dawned on me; we were on our own in a remote location with three horses and no phone signal to call for help. Tim left me sitting with the luggage and horses and walked to the well to fill our water bottles. I felt trapped and fed up that we might have fallen so soon into our long ride.

Boronbay and Togso returned after Tim had come back from the well and was just about to set off on another search for Shar. They drove their motorbike over to us a second time.

″Why are you still here?” They inquired, not unkindly.
″We cannot find Shar, our luggage horse.”
″We saw him earlier this morning, over there.” They pointed up and over to a large mountain east of us.
″We looked over here and over there.” We waved and pointed in the directions we had searched.
″He was further over there.” They tried to explain to us where Shar had last been seen but we found it difficult to understand, partly because we had not studied Mongolian directions as well as we should have and partly because Mongolian directions are hard to understand.

Tim mounted Goat, first trotting then breaking into a canter towards the implicated mountain. Boronbay decided to follow Tim and Togso sat with me while I guarded the luggage. The sky had changed colour and the blue had turned to grey; the clouds swollen with rain. The clouds released their hold on the rain and Togso suggested we wait inside the kitchen Ger. She helped me cover the luggage with a canvas sheet and we carried the saddle bags inside. The sky looked bruised as dark grey and black clouds moved towards us.

The smaller Ger was dark and covered in black soot produced from cooking on a wood burning stove. The Ger housed a collection of bowls, cooking utensils, pots and meat in various stages of preparation. On the floor were bins full with cabbages, onions and carrots. Togso made me a bowl of milk tea and we watched Tim and Boronbay who were tiny dots racing across the mountainsides like ants on a tree branch, unperturbed by anything, focused on their mission. Boronbay returned, rain dripping off his rain coat; a green poncho that all Mongolian countryside men own without deviation from style or colour. He explained they had found Shar and Tim was bringing him back to camp. ″You should stay one more night” Boronbay said looking upwards at the dark clouds. ″We should stay one more night? Is that correct?” I repeated, wanting to check I had heard correctly, worried my listening skills were not up to the job and I would make a decision for us both that was wrong ″Yes, correct. More rain is coming” he confirmed, to my relief.

The three of us stood in the Ger entrance and Boronbay pointed to a neighbouring mountain. Tim, still tiny in the distance, could been seen moving at high speed with two horses and I wondered if my eyes deceived me so surprised was I at his ability to gallop and control two horses. He was also going the wrong way! Boronbay and me shouted, trying to make ourselves heard over the howl of the wind and the roar of the rain. Tim changed course and promptly returned. As his horses danced into camp, he shouted at me to help him. My eyes had not betrayed me and Tim really had galloped with two horses all the way down the mountains and over a number of hills. The horses excited and agitated, continued to prance. I ducked under and around their feet and took a hold of Shar’s lead rope. We tethered Shar and Goat to the high line next to Captain James, Mongol Morris and Boronbay’s gelding.

Shar’s lone adventure had taken him miles away even though his front legs had been tied together, connected to the back right leg by the hobbles. When Tim and I returned to the family’s Ger after tying Goat and Shar to the high line, Boronbay looked irritated, shook his head at Tim and said ″Next time ground tether him.” Boronbay and Togso had somewhere else to be and before they drove off they left their large Ger open for us so we could shelter from the storm. They gave us full use of their home and I felt ashamed I had suspected them of theft.

We re-pitched our tent in the same spot we had slept on last night and moved our things inside out of the rain. We walked down to the horses and Tim, on the walk down, secured two ground tethers for Captain James and Shar. We tied the horses to their respective tethers and released Mongol Morris and Goat so they were free to hobble around searching for what food they could forage. Mongol Morris immediately hobbled to Captain James’ side and Goat followed, shortly afterwards turning and heading part-way down a slope so only his wither was in view. We trudged back to our tent and sat the storm out, dry, warm and relieved to have all our horses together.

The storm eventually passed and in the late afternoon we were visited by a Mongolian delegation consisting of eight people. Boronbay, his friend the herder, whose Ger was on top of a neighbouring hilltop, Boronbay’s big brother, the brother’s wife and daughter and three other people. They all wanted to see what our tent-tipi looked like on the inside and we welcomed them in.

″Your tent is beautiful” All the women said. ″Goe ben.”
″Thank you. Your homes are beautiful” I replied.
They all smiled and one asked, ″How do you cook?”
″We use this small stove. It runs on petrol.”

To demonstrate the stove in action, we boiled water for coffee and filled a bowl with sweets, passing it around. We had stocked up on bags of sweets in the city before starting our ride and it was a pleasure to see them put to the use for which they were intended. The tent filled with people, chatting and excited, was an uplifting moment. While I often found the horses hard to deal with I really enjoyed these occasions.

Early evening arrived and it was time for Tim and I to take the horses to water. They walked at a fast pace into the ravine leading to the well-head then moved into a trot. We would continually rein them in, slowing the pace to a manageable walk until we reached the well. Once they had drunk we returned to camp and put them out to pasture for the night. The storm that had unleashed itself earlier that day had left behind a beautiful evening. The sky, tinted with red and orange, sat over the surrounding mountain ranges like a picture perfect scene. I told Boronbay, ″Your country is beautiful.” He agreed pointing to the emerging sunset on the horizon.

That day was our first rest day since leaving Arburd Sands and although unplanned it was very much appreciated by us and the horses. Dinner, after that day’s excitement, was welcomed but I still felt queasy and had a strange taste in my mouth so I ate only one bowl, giving the remainder to Tim. This did not deter me from a good night’s sleep and feeling protected by Boronbay and his family I laid my head down and drifted off. I dreamt that night of getting to Hatgal and resting. We calculated that it would be at least two and a half weeks before we arrived in Hatgal, Khovsgol Aimag to visit our friend Serdamba and believed it to be two days riding before we left Tov Aimag for Bulgan Aimag.