With our luggage packed and horses saddled and loaded, we left Batdorj’s house at 11 am and travelled along the road we had followed yesterday towards the border with Bulgan Aimag. The surrounding countryside changed quickly, the flat, grassy earth merged into gentle sand dunes that grew into miniature sandy hills. We rode up, over and down each one. The grass became abundant and growing out of the ground were small, dark green, thorny shrubs. A few trees attempted to form a forest but were so sparse they gave a thin impression of one. It was funny to see trees. I had not noticed their absence until they were back as part of the landscape. Gers in clumps of two and four sat on top of each of the surrounding hills. We rode up, over, down repeating this pattern for a couple of hours. We saw no-one, no people milling about outside the Gers, not even a dog. The sandy track we were following split and one path went high and the other low. Tim took the high ground, I continued along the lower path. We were able to ride beside each other if I kicked Mongol Morris steadily on and Tim held Goat steadily back. The sun sat high above us, sending its blazing, scorching rays down.
We reached a point where we had to descend off the path down into a valley to keep to our route. Tim stopped his horses, turned to me and said, ″See that collection of Gers to our left?” I turned my head left and acknowledged the Gers, ″Yep, I see them.” Tim continued, ″We need to head towards them.” ″Shall we have a rest first?” I asked. Tim blew a frustrated breathe of air knowing that before a rest came a few minutes of struggle during which we had to convince the horses to accept the hobbles. ″Okay.” He sighed, giving in, feeling too tired and hot to argue. We dismounted and hobbled the horses, an activity that led to Captain James head butting me, producing an outburst of swearing and a threat that would unlikely be fulfilled. ″If you do that again I will head butt you!” Mongol Morris stepped on my left foot then twisted his hoof crushing the protective covering of my riding boot down into the delicate bones of my foot. I cried out in pain, ″Ow! I hate these horses!” I turned to my horses, ″I hate you sometimes!” I shouted. Tim slumped down onto the sand and against a clump of wiry grass having hobbled and tied his horses together. The sun was baking everything below it and the flies swarmed around us. The horses were agitated, standing under the glare of the afternoon sun but they eventually stopped shuffling around and trying to lower their heads to eat and stood, nose to tail, fly swatting for their partner, busily nodding their heads all the while to stop the flies heading up into their nostrils.
We rested high up on a sand dune looking down the valley along our chosen route. The clump of Gers we were to head towards was like a tiny village. The sun was too hot for us to sit for long. The rest provided respite to the muscles used when riding. When riding for long periods of time, no matter how comfortable the saddle and our riding saddles were remarkably comfortable, ones posterior became numb but not in pleasant no feeling type of way, more like a pins and needles, can’t get comfortable, restless type of way. There was no shade to hide from the sun and after less than ten minutes the rest stopped being nice, becoming instead a sun-trap. The slight breeze one sometimes felt when riding had gone and all we had were flies and sun, flies and sun. I stood up and removed my water bottle from the saddlebag I repaired after Captain James’ assault on it the evening we reached Boronbay’s home. I squeezed the sides of the plastic bottle, squirting water into my dry mouth. The bottle had an inbuilt filter, which meant one could (and we later did) drink from puddles or water sources contaminated by animals. The nozzle only allowed one to drink small amounts at any one time and when one was thirsty all one wanted to do was to drink glass after glass of cool, refreshing water. On occasion we both threw caution to the wind and removed the top of the bottle and drank greedily. I often choked on these occasions, my throat being so dry that the gush of water I poured down would cause me to splutter. Tim would always laugh, saying ″What is wrong with you?″ as I coughed and spluttered.
Tim and I remounted and continued to ride northwest. We steered the horses down the large sand dune we had sat upon and rode over scrubby, sandy land towards the small collection of Gers. We turned slightly north to avoid riding up to the Gers and then steered back onto our constant northwest course. The track we were following led us up and out of this valley sparsely populated by humans, plants and animals. The new sandy track took us high up above the valley behind us and for half an hour we walked, slowly, baked by the sun and mildly irritated by the flies. Soon we were able to look down to our left and a beautiful, lush, green valley appeared, teeming with life; cows, horses goats, sheep, an occasional dog lying against the cool fabric of a Ger and people, all busy with various tasks. This valley was low beneath us, framed by steep cliffs. A river ran through the middle along the valley floor and was the lifeblood to all. There were more Gers lined up along the river bank than we had seen yet. I turned to Tim, ″Look at all this life. It’s a little oasis along the river. It’s exciting isn’t it?” Tim replied, ″Yes, in the middle of all this desert it’s luxurious. Let’s head down to the water and see if the horses will drink from the river.” We winded down and along our path, descending into the verdant valley.
As we reached the bottom we stopped briefly to chat to a man on a motorbike. ″Hi,” I said, ″We are English people. We’re from England.” Tim rolled his eyes and said to me, ″You don’t have to say both of those sentences.” I smiled and shrugged to show I had listened carefully to his feedback.
The motorbike man asked us. ″Where have you come from?”
Tim answered, ″Mongol Else, Tov Aimag.”
The man nodded and looked impressed. ″Where are you going to?”
″Khovsgol.” I said.
The man smiled and shook his head as if to say ″No you’re not.” Instead he said, ″Where are you going now?”
″We will camp near Bayan-Knurr.” Tim replied.
The man smiled, waved, started his bike’s engine up and roared off back the way we had just ridden. We continued to ride along a clearly defined, well worn track following the river that snaked through this opulent valley. I waved at and shouted ″Saim banuu?” to a young, male teenager riding on a brown and white gelding. He halted his horse and stared, open mouthed, saying nothing. ″How rude!” I commented to Tim, who smiled at me and continued to lead the way forward with Goat and Shar.
We reached a point where the river widened and it had shallow sides, easily accessible for the horses should they wish to drink. Tim suggested, ″Let’s stop here, have a rest and give the horses a chance to drink.” ″Did Goat drink anything this morning?” I asked, knowing that Goat often let his fear of the unknown rule over his need to drink, eat or rest. ″Not much.” Tim said. We dismounted, hobbled the horses and because I had knee length, waterproof boots on, Tim nominated me to take the horses to water. ″Take two at a time. It will be quicker.” Tim said. ″I don’t think so.” I said shooting Tim a look of disbelief. I took first Mongol Morris who sniffed the water, moved the surface with his soft, velvet nose and took two slurps before meandering up the riverbed slurping as he went, dragging me into deeper water revealing my waterproof riding boots to be anything but. Next to drink was Captain James who did the same thing; sniffed, splashed then slurped at the river water. Tim was becoming irritated at the riverbank. ″Hurry up! The horses are all trying to follow Captain James.” Against my better judgement I allowed Tim to talk me into taking both Shar and Goat to the river once Captain James had finished. Initially neither drank, instead splashing and sniffing, walking up the river then down the river and not necessarily together. I allowed my arms to move separately of one another and eventually both horses took some water.
I returned Tim’s horses to him and suggested a break. ″Shall we have a 5 minute sit down?” ″No.” Came the definite reply, ″It’s too much hassle.” A second man on a motorbike appeared, wearing a blue, light cotton breezy-looking shirt and the obligatory countryside Mongolian man’s black, Russian riding boots.
″Hello.” Tim said.
″Hello.” He said back and then turned to me, ″Hello!” With a tone not unlike Lesley Phillips, ″You are very cute!”
Not quite catching what he said at first I replied, ″Hello.”
Tim smiled and in English said, ″He just called you cute.”
I turned the words the Mongolian new arrival had said over in my head and blushed. ″Oh, err, thank you.” The man held his hand out to me and shook it whilst giving me a, ″Well, what do you say you and I head over to that there hill?” kind of look. I smiled awkwardly and looked at Tim pleading for help. Tim continued the conversation. ″We are from England. We have ridden from Mongol Else in Tov Aimag and are riding to Khovsgl.”
″Really!” The man exclaimed. ″Where will you stay tonight?”
Tim replied, ″Not sure. Near Bayan-Knurr maybe.”
″You both speak good Mongolian.” He complimented us.
″Thank you.” We both said.
″Are these Mongolian horses?”
″Yes. They are desert horses.”
″How much did you pay for one horses?”
″$200.” We lied.
He smiled approvingly. ″Where are the saddles from?”
″The riding saddles are from England and the luggage saddles are from America.”
″Really!” He exclaimed again. ″Are you tired?”
″A little bit.” We both replied.
″How old are you?” He asked me first.
″35” I lied, ″My husband is 38.” I said truthfully.
″Do you have children?”
″No we have no children. Do you have children?
″Yes, I have two children. One boy and one girl.”
″How old are you and how old is your wife?” I asked hoping these reminders of his family obligations would stop him eyeing me up.
″I am 36 years old and my wife is 26 years old.”
″Your wife is young. That’s good.” I said. It didn’t do much good and he continued to smile and stare at me.
In English I said to Tim, smiling all the time. ″He seems friendly but I don’t trust him.”
″Me neither.” Tim replied through a fake smile.
″Where have you been?” My admirer asked.
Thankfully this was a genuine Mongolian countryside question rather than the poor English chat-up line that ends, ″…all my life?” Tim answered the man and told me to get the map out.
I walked to Mongol Morris and removed our paper map from one of the saddle bags. I opened the map and the three of us squatted on the ground in front of it and discussed our route and places the man recognised. ″There is where my family lives.” He pointed, ″And there is where my friend lives.” After twenty minutes we decided to leave. The man insisted on helping first Tim by removing Shar’s hobbles and handing him to Tim when he was seated on Goat and then his full attention returned to me. ″I will help you” He shoulder barged me out of the way as I attempted to remove Captain James’ hobbles. I moved round to Mongol Morris’s left side and placed my left foot in the stirrup iron. Our friend helped me up onto my horse but did it using a most unusual technique – he grabbed my right buttock with his hand, squeezed it and pushed me up and into the saddle. With Tim already mounted it was up to me to deliver some form of justice. I shouted at the man, telling him, ″You are a bad person! Very bad! Did you see what he just did?” I called to Tim. ″No, what happened?” He asked. ″He just grabbed my bum.” ″Oi!” Tim scowled at the man, ″What do you think you are doing?” The man smiled, having had his wicked way and held his hand out to me. ″Only joking.” He grimaced, turning to Tim and saying, ″No harm. I was only joking.” We both shook our heads and rode off, hoping to see no more of this person.
We forged ahead, following the river along the valley floor looking for a well so we could set up camp for the night. We found one and asked a nearby man, ″Is that well water clean?” ″No” he replied, ″It is okay for your horses but will hurt your stomachs.” We kept moving along the valley floor, continuing to let the winding river guide us. Eventually we left the river and the valley flattened out, the landscape became broken and marshy. We rode on past the little oasis because the GPS said we would find a well nearby. There was a type of stinging nettle all around us and the horses appeared to dislike this new plant and spooked. Tim and I kept control of them but the atmosphere changed becoming tense. We continued to move northwest. On our left hand-side was a large enclosed space that appeared to be a mini-vegetable farm. The rectangular enclosure was fenced in all around and at one end were three small huts and a large tower we assumed was a water tower. There was no-one working and it looked empty but maintained. The town of Bayan Knurr was in the distance on our right hand-side. It was still far away enough that everything looked small like a Lego town. We hoped to find a well without approaching the town, partly because it was a couple of hours riding away and we were tired and partly because camping near a town could cause problems for us. We noticed three Gers, spaced out along the horizon, maybe twenty or thirty minutes ride away.
″Shall we head to the closest one and see if we can camp near them?” Tim asked me.
“Okay.” I replied and we approached said Ger.
A small, young child in grey ripped trousers and a t-shirt with holes in stood outside the Ger. ″Hold the dogs!” Tim shouted but no dogs came running and barking.
We stayed sitting on top of our horses. ″Hello.” I said to the child. ″Is your father here?” The child turned around, saying nothing and headed inside the Ger.
Shortly after a man appeared and waved at us, ″Hello. It’s me! It’s me!”
It was him, our bum grabbing friend. I fixed a fake smile on my lips and said to Tim in English, ″It’s that bloody man again.”
Tim squinted and a look of recognition spread over his face. ″Oh no.” He groaned. ″Let’s go.”
Our friend walked towards us with his young, attractive, heavily pregnant wife walking behind him, supporting a small child on her right hip. ″Theses are my friends.” He told his wife. ″They are from England.”
She smiled at us both as we waved to her. “Hello.”
″Why have you come to my home?” He asked.
″We are looking for a well.” Tim replied. ″Do you know where the well is?”
We got no sense out of the man as to the well’s location and after ten minutes of trying we left, turning the horses around and riding back the way we had come. He followed soon after we had left, also on horseback leading a young, grey gelding. He rode fast, cantering up behind us and this spooked our horses. I shouted out to him, ″Be careful!” ″You be careful!” He shouted crossly back at me. ″Hold your horses tight.” I tutted to myself and the guy eventually rode away from us. ″Hey Tim, I hope we don’t see him again.” ″Yes, indeed. Let’s hope he doesn’t want to visit us in the night.” We decided to ride back the way we had come, to the end of the valley where the river drained into marsh. We figured that we could use the water from the end of the river to sustain us and the horses for one night. We rode over the sandy soil, our horses watching where they placed their feet as the land was uneven with scrubby tufts of grass. We reached the river end and noticed a dark blue, ridge tent erected. “Let’s stop here.” I asked Tim, tired and weary of the day’s ride. “We can filter this water for us and the horses should drink from the river.” “Okay.” He replied. “This looks like a nice space and there are at least other people camping here.” We stopped near to the tent, dismounted and hobbled all the horses, as always tying the reins and lead ropes back to the saddles to prevent the horses eating and thereby walking away from camp. We unloaded Captain James and Shar to rest their backs and while I sat, leaning against a muddy, cream, canvas parcel, Tim walked up a slight slope to a Ger pitched where the land flattened. He asked the man of the Ger if we could stay for one night and was told it would be okay.
Our fellow campers emerged from their tent and walked over to us. “Hello.” Said the overweight, fifty year old woman with dark, short hair.
″Hello.” We replied, noticing she was wearing a white t-shirt and dark blue slacks; city clothes.
Tim continued, ″We’re from England.”
”We’re English people.” I chipped in, then explained where we had come from that day.
″Are these your horses?” She asked, looking over to where the four had been left to stand while we set up camp.
″Yes. They are Mongolian horses.” I said.
Tim, thinking the older man with short, brown hair, a blue sweater and dark tracksuit bottoms, who had approached with the woman, might be a family member of the Ger he had approached earlier, asked him, ″Is it okay if we camp here for one night?”
The man nodded and the woman smiled and said, ″Yes, of course.”
″Where are you from?” I asked her.
″We live in Dashinjillin about 30 kilometers from here.” The woman explained.
″Is this your family?” Tim asked, pointing to the Ger situated up the gradual slope.
The woman laughed, ″No, we are on holiday.”
″Is this your husband?” I asked pointing to the man.
″Yes.” She replied. ″Is this yours?” She pointed to Tim and I nodded and both of us laughed.
The woman and her quiet husband helped us erect our tent and when it stood tall the woman guided me to her own temporary home. ″You must be tired.” She said. ″I am.” I replied. She directed me to a low camping chair inside her tent and handed me a copper coloured bowl, filled with water. ″This is safe, clean water.” She told me. I drank, grateful to be able to taste more than a tiny squirt of the cool water. ″Do you have drinking water?” She asked. ″No, but we can get it from the river.” ″It is okay for your horses but not safe for you.” She told me and not knowing how to explain about our water-filter without showing her I merely nodded. ″Have this.” She waved her hand over to a ten litre water container. ″We are leaving tomorrow and will not need it.” ″Thank you. Thank you very much.” I said. She took the copper bowl from me and refilled it with water, giving it back to me with a handful of boiled sweets and some mouldy tsanii boov. I felt a pang of guilt that I was sitting, resting whilst Tim was working in the hot, dusty, dry sun, but it passed.
After leaving the camping couple’s tent, I gave the horses a brush and a back massage. Captain James stretched out his neck and wiggled his lips in enjoyment. Captain James was looking sleek, glossy and fantastic, the good pasture we had found so far had clearly invigorated him. Tim wondered aloud, ″Sam. Do you think you should continue brushing CJ? He is looking rather fab. these days and I worry that he might get stolen.″ I laughed and said, ″Maybe we should tether him close to the tent at night.” ″Good idea.” Tim replied and that night and for a few after we tethered him near to the tent. All the horses had improved in condition, even Mongol Morris had put on some weight, but Captain James positively shined. Mongol Morris still had a lump on his back but it had not gotten worse. This night I gently massaged the area around it and the old horse stood still letting me rub his back, not shrinking from pain which was a small relief but the lump still gave us cause for concern.
That night we had eleven people in our tent. The camping woman led the party and brought the women of the nearby Ger to us who in turn brought us a large, glass jar of sweet yogurt that they insisted we ate there and then. ″Is it tasty?” They asked. ″Yes, very nice.” We replied to everyone’s delight.
The rest of the group was made up of two men who were driving past in their white van. ″What’s happening?” They shouted out, pulling up to the side of our tent-tipi. ″A party!” The camping woman said. ″Do you want to come in?” ″Okay.” The truck got parked and the two men entered our tent. We exchanged greetings and the men, excited by this new adventure, picked up and examined our saddles, asking lots of questions; ″Where are these from?”, ″How much did they cost?”, ″Are they comfortable?”, ″Are they safe?” We replied to each question in turn until the men’s curiosity was satisfied. Three young children had come along with the Ger women and although they said nothing they watched the proceedings with wide opened eyes. I offered them regular fixes of boiled sweets and they chewed and stared.
Eventually the party disbanded and Tim and I got some peace and quiet. We ate dinner and prepared for sleep. On my watch I could not find Goat. The night was dark and I had to leave the tent and walk about in the early hours of the morning, rolling my torch light first to the left then to the right. I walked around searching but could not see the brown and white gelding. I thought about waking Tim up to ask for help but knew he would be cross if I had not been thorough. I continued until I saw the familiar outline of a horse kneeling on its front legs, nibbling at the grass. ″Goat!” I exclaimed to myself. I walked over to him, removed the hobbles and led him back close to camp. I turned myself in and slept until the next alarm two hours later. Morning finally arrived and we packed up along with the camping couple, who were returning home that day. I could not help but feel a pang of jealously when I looked over to their camp. They had a four wheel drive and would be returning to a static house, all things known rather than forging ahead into the unknown like us. The plan today was to ride to Bayan-Knurr, a lake we would reach by riding northwest and crossing a black road. We were eager to camp by a lake and talked about how we would have a full body wash and I became animated talking to Tim about how I could wash my hair, which had by now become lank, greasy and stuck to my head like someone had coloured in my scalp with a dark brown felt-tip. We contemplated having a rest day and enjoying the peace and quiet and convenience of the lake.