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.
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
″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.