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.