We rode away from the river we had camped by last night and followed a sandy track that led into the town of Bayan-Knurr, occasionally steering the horses off the track onto its sides to let a motorbike pass. We turned off the road before reaching the town and rode with our backs to it. ″Hey Tim!” I called. ″I wished we could have visited Bayan-Knurr. We could have gone to the shops and got food.” I said dreamily. That morning we had to ration breakfast to two pieces of tsanni-boov as we were running low. I turned to Tim saying, ″Mmmmmm, can you imagine how nice a Twix would taste right now?” Tim smiled and kept riding across the pathless, shrubby ground we were using as a path to reach the lake named Sagaan Knurr.
We rode cross country not passing any people or Gers, eventually coming to a large patch of grass-less and shrub-less earth. There were signs that a salt lake was sometimes in residence but the water had dried up and all we could see was the residue. A large bull was herding nearby and I shouted to Tim. ″Can you see that bull?” ″Don’t worry.” He said too late as I was already worried. The bull changed direction, stood still staring at us and I stared back. Tim led us along the outskirts of the dried up lake towards a black road and the bull went back to charging at goats and sheep.
We reached and crossed the black road and headed up a very steep, rocky hill, expecting to find the lake at the top. Half way up was a herder on horseback, watching his goats and sheep. We waved, shouted “Hi” and continued riding up the hill. Finally, we reached the top but there was no sign of the lake. We dismounted, hobbled the horses and while Tim stood with them I walked over the lip of the hill hoping to find the lake. ″Tim. It isn’t here.” I reported back. ″We must have got lost somewhere.” Tim said and picked the GPS up from where it was hanging around his neck, tied onto a piece of green paracord. I took the paper map out and examined it. We laughed out loud. ″We have gone passed it. It is below us and we have ridden too far.” We looked around about us and saw, by the side of the black road we had crossed earlier, the lake, shimmering as the sun beat down on its surface.
The horses were being driven mad by the flies, which were buzzing around us in vast quantities. All the horses spooked and I struggled to hold my two and had to engage my core muscles to stop me letting go. I grabbed the bridle tightly close to both my horses’ bits and held on telling myself, ″Don’t let go. Don’t let go.” I managed to keep them both tight and together thus preventing any space that would have allowed them to buck or run. Tim brought Shar under control but was exhausted in the hot sun, having had no food for hours and very little water. Tim let go of Goat who stopped close by. Shar exploded again and tried to gallop off to get away from the flies. Tim stood his ground and moved Shar round in a circle until Shar had exhausted his energy and stopped. Tim and I were stressed, angry, hot, sweaty and being bitten to death. The flies were, under any other circumstances, quite amazing. There were yellow bodied flies, green bodied ones, large specimens, medium sized ones, small ones and mosquitoes. Some bit at random, favouring neither human or horse, instead just biting the first piece of flesh their teeth came into contact with, and other, smaller varieties generally annoyed one by buzzing around the eyes and mouth trying to get at any moisture in an attempt to survive the parched, arid atmosphere. The mosquitoes launched themselves at us all in large groups and bit, and bit and bit. ″We have to get off this hill.” Tim desperately pleaded with me. ″I agree. Are your horses okay to go?” I asked. ″I think so.” He sighed. We re-mounted and rode the horses back down the hill we had ridden up, changing course slightly to reach the lake where we hoped to spend at least one night. Our ride took us down over scrubby ground. The horses would not settle and the atmosphere felt unusual; a little creepy. We soon realised we were riding though a cemetery. There were stone memorials left for the remembrance of the dead. We navigated ourselves away from the graves and tried to move quickly off this hill as Mongolians use sacred land for the burial of their loved ones and we did not wish to be disrespectful.
We reached Saggan Nurr, the white lake, by early evening. The path off the main track to the lake’s shore was infested with large, yellow mosquitoes. ″I have bites on my bites.” I moaned to Tim. ″I will never, ever again complain about a few bites.” He replied, and upon reaching Thailand months later neither of us did complain about a few mosquito bites. Mongol Morris and Goat seemed to be suffering the brunt of the mosquitoe attacks. Both had lumps over their bodies and Goat’s right eye was swollen almost shut where he had been bitten. Tim and I rationalised that we could deal mentally with the insects but the horses would not know why they were being asked to stay in the situation and with that thought in mind we used our insect repellent on them instead of on our own skin.
We rode as close to the water’s edge as was possible, dismounted, hobbled and unloaded the pack horses. The actual lake was some distance away and Tim went first, wading through tall reeds, that swallowed him the further he went towards the water. I started to unpack our loads and unravel the tent ready to pitch it. I was so tried, so hot and dehydrated that I refused to see the obvious problems with this site and kept the flame of hope alive in my mind that we would be stopping for a night here. Tim returned saying, ″It is impossible to reach the water. We will have to re-load the horses and move on.” ″Are you sure?” I questioned him. ″Yes.” ″I want to try. Do you mind?” I asked, ″Go ahead. Good luck.” Tim said. I attempted to wade through the head height reeds and soon they absorbed me. What Tim had not mentioned was the boggy, marshy edges that came to meet one. The reeds by now were higher than me and I could not see anything in front. The boggy ground grew deeper and the muddy water was too high for me to continue safely. The flies and mosquitoes had doubled in numbers and I was now accompanied in all directions by thick, black, swarming clouds of insects that bit and whined constantly. I stood on tip toes and could see the shore still far away, so far away that the flame of hope extinguished. I heard the muffled hum of a motorbike. I stood again on my toes and could see a bike driving past where Tim and the horses were, on the dusty track just above them. I waved and shouted. ″Tim! Tim! There’s a bike coming! Stop them! Ask for water!” Tim did nothing, the bike passed and I quietly but determinedly raged internally; that could have been our last chance to get water tonight. The thought of having to repack and ride again crushed my spirit. My diary says, ″Today was a shit day.” and it was. I returned, hopeless, tired, muddy and with wet feet, to Tim and the horses having not been successful at getting us water. Tim shouted at me. ″Why did you start unpacking! We might have to move on again.” I slumped down to the ground against a rock and sighed. ″I know, I know.” I said. Tim attempted one further mission to the lake’s shore but was unsuccessful and when he returned he said. ″Come on, let’s get packed up, loaded and find somewhere to stay near a well.” ″We have about two hours of light left.” I reasoned, neither of us much energised by this spoken thought.
We rode the horses away from the lake but the flies and mosquitoes continued to bite and sting. The horses were extremely irritated by these insects that clung to their sides in large clusters and it was hard work motivating them all to move forward not backwards, sideways or diagonally. We finally left the worst of the insects and found a compacted road. We followed it to the base of a small hill with a single Ger on top. ″Come on,” I rallied Tim, ″Let’s ask there if we can stay the night and if they have any water.” We rode up the hill and approached the Ger. Tim called out, ″Hold the dogs!” A child, maybe ten years old, came outside and stood by the Ger door. ″Is your father here?” Tim asked him. The lad said nothing and re-entered the Ger. Soon after four dogs appeared and chased us away, barking and snapping at the horses’ legs and at our feet that dangled low in the stirrup irons. I turned my head, surprised by this unfriendly act and saw a paunchy man wearing an old, ripped, white t-shirt, turned grey with age and black trousers stumble out of the Ger. He stared after us, making no attempt to call off his dogs. One tenacious beast would not give up its chase and continued after us, yapping and jumping up at us and our horses. Tim and I kicked the horses on and shouted at the dog. A bike, I recognised from being parked outside the Ger, now mounted by its driver, raced ahead of us towards a small wooden hut on our right that we were going to try next. I said to Tim, ″Do you think we have entered unfriendly territory?” ″I don’t know. I hope not.” He replied. ″That’s two houses down, three more to go.” I said, referring to the three Gers we could see on the horizon.
The day was getting late and the sun had begun to set. The sky-line was ablaze with all the wonderful colours a sunset sometimes offers; red, orange, yellow. It was a beautiful sight and was a small nourishment to our fading motivation. The ground was bare, with sparse pasture of a poor quality. Weaving across the land were small streams of dirty, polluted water. We took the horses to the edges of random streams but each time they sniffed the water, tried to force themselves to drink it but could not. We push on to a lone Ger, the nearest to us out of the three visible. Mongol Morris, tired, thirsty and old, walked slowly. I murmured to him, ″I could crawl faster than you walk.” But I did not really mind as I sympathised with him, feeling exhausted too. I briefly tested a technique I had been taught in Australia to get a horse walking faster. I kicked with my right leg then my left, alternating to mimic a faster walk pattern. It worked and Mongol Morris sped up with Captain James trailing along but I soon become tired and cross with the effort and when the kicking stopped, Mongol Morris slowed down.
Tim was by now fast fading into the sunset and he reached the Ger first. A large, strong-looking man shouted at Tim. ″Stop! Do not move! Stay where you are!”. This dominate male was inside a handmade, wooden corral with 15 horses, a young lad and a woman. Tim drew closer and could see that the woman was milking a mare. He brought his horses to a standstill and shouted. “Can we put our tent up next to your Ger?” ″No problem.” Came the reply. I had now caught up and both of us began our normal routine of dismounting, hobbling and unloading Shar and Captain James.
The family’s Ger was on a large patch of bare, dry, hard, light brown earth carpeted with goat and sheep shit. The non-fragrant smell of the animals predominated the air and Tim and I turned our noses up. The grazing at this camp-site was not great for the horses and we could see no obvious sign of water nearby. The man who had shouted earlier walked over to us. He was in his early forties, stocky with large muscular forearms. He was wearing a blue del with an orange sash, worn low on the hips as is traditional for Mongolian men. The del was well worn, dusty and spotted with animal hair of one kind or another.
″Hello.” Tim said.
″Hello.” The slightly intimating man replied.
″We’re from England. We are riding to Khovsgol.” Tim offered. The man smiled and said nothing.
″Can we put our tent up here?” I asked, unaware that Tim had already asked.
″Yes. Put it there.” The man pointed to a spot of bare earth right beside his home.
″Okay.” We said. ″We have no water. Can you help us?”
″No problem.” He replied.
″My name is Tim and this my wife Sam.”
″Sam, like the Mongolian word.” I said, miming the action of using a comb. My name meaning comb in Mongolian.
The man smiled and the two young men who had joined him laughed.
″I am Daasa.” He proudly told us.
″Are these your sons?” I asked, pointing to the two young men. He nodded.
The young lads, one in his mid-teens and the other his early twenties stripped our horses of all their tack, roughly throwing our saddles onto the dirt floor. ″Wait!” I cried as they went to take Mongol Morris’ saddle off. ″He has a bad back. Leave the saddle for later when the flies are gone.” The men all turned to look at me and then resumed their task of throwing our things around. ″Put your tent there.” Daasa pointed again to the patch of earth next door to his home. We set up our tent and Tim asked Daasa, ″Where can we put the horses for tonight?” Daasa beckoned Tim to follow him. We removed Mongol Morris’s saddle, now the flies had abated in the cool of the late evening, and followed with all four horses in tow. He lead us to a patch of scrubby land covered with the potent smelling plant Wormwood, some distance away from our tent and Tim set up two tethers, walking the distance between each one to ensure the horses’ ropes would not get tangled up. We put Captain James and Shar on the ground tethers and left the already hobbled Mongol Morris and Goat nearby.
We walked back to our tent-tipi and ducked inside, Daasa followed and sat down. We had placed the four saddles inside the tent on the left and Daasa picked them up, studying each one. He told us. ″You are tired. You should rest tomorrow. You can stay here.” Tim and I smiled but felt too tired and dazed to make a decision one way or the other. We followed Daasa when he left the tent and while he went off to tend to some of his animals we entered the family’s Ger. Lying on the bed pushed up against the left hand side of the Ger wall was a lady in her early forties who was Daasa’s wife.
″Sorry.” I said to her, after sitting down on a low, three legged, wooden stool, close to the wood burning stove in the center of the Ger. ″You are sick.”
″No, not sick.” She replied, lifting her head from the pillow. ″Tired. I am very tired.” She smiled at us.
″Okay.” I said awkwardly.
″Get some food and some tea for our guests.” She instructed the young girl who I found out later was her daughter-in-law.
The young woman lifted a cloth to reveal a wooden shelf by the Ger entrance and sitting on it were bowls, plates and bags of biscuits. ″Do you want hot or cold tea?” She asked.
″Cold tea is fine.” I said. She poured us a bowl of tea from a large metal teapot, brewed earlier that day and left to cool, and handed us a bowl each. ″Thank you.” We both said. We drank the tea and ate some biscuits that were placed in front of us on a wooden table and left the Ger.
Daasa was riding his horse and in front of him was a large herd of goats and sheep he had driven in for the night. Daasa and his sons were herding the animals into the corral they had had the horses in when we arrived. The two sons; 15 years old and twenty years old were wearing black trousers, t-shirts and the same black, Russian riding boots that most Mongolian countryside men wear. The youngest son was slim and looked younger than his years and the eldest son was developing the thickset, strong look his dad had perfected. The young woman in her late teens who had served us tea, followed us outside the Ger and trailing behind her was a very cute, chubby, baby boy.
″Is this your son?” I asked her.
″How old is he?”
″Oh!” I exclaimed, ″he is so young.”
She smiled and followed the toddling toddler with her eyes. ″What is his name?” I asked.
″Chuluun.” She said.
Chuluun was excited to receive visitors and walked about, unsteadily on his feet, occasionally tipping backwards and sitting with a thump on the dirt. He would look around, catch someone’s eye and smile a huge grin. He wandered in and out of our tent, regularly appearing with handfuls of boiled sweets that had to be wrestled from him. It was clear that all adored him and we quickly grew to feel the same.
With the horses unpacked, tethered and the tent set up Tim and I retired to cook dinner and sleep after our hard day. Our hands, legs and faces were slightly swollen, red and had raised bumps where the giant, yellow mosquitoes had feasted on us earlier that day. I had a jar of nappy rash cream for minor irritations we or the horses might get and we liberally smothered this on top of the bites to cool them and prevent us itching. Daasa appeared in the tent door and sat on one of our beds, that I had blown up earlier. He gave a large hunk of dried beef to Tim.
″Here,” he said. ″Have this for your dinner.”
His youngest son had followed in him to the tent and also sat down. ″You need to cook it.” The son said. ″Maybe for 5 minutes.”
″Thank you.” Tim replied.
″You look tired.” Daasa stared hard at us both. ″You must rest here tomorrow.”
″Maybe.” We both muttered, not sure if we could trust this family despite their initial friendliness towards us.
Father and son left us to cook and sleep and putting the dried beef to one side we made our regular meal of spaghetti and a packet of Indian, freeze dried dahl. ″The GPS is dead.” Tim said. ″We need a day to charge the batteries.” He picked up the blue, solar panel charger we had purchased before leaving England. ″Why don’t we rest here tomorrow then?” I asked. ″Okay.” Tim wearily agreed and we cleaned up our dinner things, piling them high into the middle of the tent. We set the alarm for one and a half hours time and still wearing our dirty clothes we climbed into our sleeping bags and slept.