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.