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.