Friendly Valley

The day we rode from Daasa’s the sun beat down on us unrelentingly and no shade offered an escape. We rode up over a small hill, looking at a cluster of Gers in the distance, set up along a dry riverbed. Riding towards us was Dashingeorge’s friend we had met the previous day. He rode over, shouting;

″Will you give me Captain James?” He asked one last time and one last time I politely declined.

We rode over ground peppered with dark green and brown scrubby plants and headed towards a river bed detailed on our Russian map. We rode up and over small hills and down and along flat ground repeating this pattern throughout the morning until we came to a large flood plane, almost dry save for a few small puddles that glistened in the sun light. We rode down to the valley floor having spotted a well and as we drew near to the square, white, concrete hut we saw that the door was heavily padlocked with no-one around to unlock it. We kicked the horses on and headed for the flat, far reaching flood planes. We found water and guided the horses to drink, which they all did much to our relief; they had not drunk since yesterday afternoon. We dismounted and rested a while, but the flies, the heat and the horses agitation disrupted our break and we soon started off again.

″Zap! Zap! Zap!”
″Tim!” I shouted, ″Can you hear that? Zap! Zap! Zap!”
″It’s annoying isn’t it?”
″It reminds me of those horrible fly killing machines one often finds in kebab shops. You know the ones that lure the insects in and then electrocutes them in a flash of blue. Zap! Zap! Zap!”

The sound was the noise of crickets zipping out from under our horse’s hooves. Tim came to hate crickets. When we encountered them again in Thailand, after the ride, he simply commented, ″I hate crickets.” In Mongolia we were often surrounded by them, sometimes in their millions making it impossible not to step on them, crunching them noisily underfoot. We pressed on, following the GPS until we reached a valley, parts of it overspread with lush, green grass and a river that snaked around left and right winding its way across the valley floor to the mountains towering high opposite.

″This looks like a nice place to stop Tim.”
″It wasn’t where I planned us to stay but it does look good.”
″What’s the time?” I asked, fully aware that this seemingly simple question required Tim to stop and fiddle with the GPS whilst holding onto Goat and Shar, knowing that Goat would soon become restless and walk off without purpose.
″2 pm.”
″It is early but I have had enough already.”
″Do you want to stop?”
″Let’s cross the planes a bit further and look for a decent camp spot near the river.”
″Okay. I think the grass looks good over there.” I pointed to our right at a patch of bright green grass.
″Looks good to me. We’ll need to cross the river first.”
″No problem.” I unconvincingly said. We rode around but could not see a way over the fast flowing, deep sided river.

A young herder on his horse crossed the river to tend to his goats and sheep and we attempted to follow but the horses would not go no matter how much encouragement we offered. The river was too deep for me to dismount and lead them across; it would have come up to my waist and I did not want to get wet yet. We were nervous having never crossed anything this deep before and hesitated at a number of possible crossings. The herder watched what was happening and came to us from the opposite bank to show a place we could get across safely. Goat refused to go. I led my horses past Tim, slipping down the muddy bank to the water’s edge. Mongol Morris was happy to try crossing but Captain James offered some resistance, the sticky, slippy mud making him loose confidence. I slowly began to cross. I pulled Captain James’ lead rope behind me, hoping to move him forward. I worried that if he pulled back or shot forward and dislodged the luggage that he would scare and run off taking Mongol Morris and me across the Steppe. We made it to the opposite bank, Mongol Morris climbed up the sides and stood waiting for his partner. I held him tight and took in Captain James’ lead rope as he got closer getting ready in case he spooked. Captain James’ lumbered up the bank, the luggage held fast and the clanking sound of the stove wasn’t enough to make them jump as they both breathed deeply after their new encounter. Tim had trouble convincing Goat to move forward. Every time he moved down to the water his legs slipped in the mud that lined the sides of the bank. He would move down, start to slide and back up. Tim calmly and confidently pushed his horse on and he went forward, tried to turn around and ended up in the water. Shar followed obediently behind. Tim got across, tired and hot but with everything intact.

We camped by the river. The grass was soft and abundant and the sound of water flowing down the river was soothing. The horses were unloaded and we sat resting against the luggage, enjoying the view. Our camp site was on a flood plane that would normally be under water but for this year’s drought. Surrounding us in all directions were high hills and enormous mountains. The sky was grey, the air filled with the sound of the river, horses eating, birds calling to each other and the occasional “Zap! Zap! Zap!” We could hear the faint roar of lorries as they drove along a distant, dusty road, clouds of beige dirt trailing behind them. The horses hobbled and tethered kept their heads down and ate. Goat meandered to the river’s bank and drank, kneeling down on his two front legs as if to reassure us we had named him appropriately. Mongol Morris followed, hobbling slowly but determinedly, he was not as agile as Goat but copied him and drank from the river without human intervention. We stood up and led Captain James and Shar to the edge of the water and they also drank. The herder we had seen earlier came over and we chatted awhile, him on horseback us on the ground. He had amazing horse kills, that were demonstrated when the horse he was leading, alongside his riding horse, played up and began dancing, sideways, along the river bank. The herder’s friend arrived on horseback and we chatted with him, offering around our newly gained supplies of boov. This friend’s younger bother joined us and we brewed a pot of coffee and drank and chatted about this and that. Another 19 year old stopped by and more coffee was brewed and our supplies of boov dwindled but the young lads were lovely and we didn’t mind sharing. When they left we put the tent up and moved our kit inside just before the rain came. Later that afternoon the herder’s friend came back on a motorbike and brought us yogurt and a huge bag of arrul, staying only for us to thank him, before racing off with a smile on his face back to his animals.

It started raining heavily and Tim and I stayed inside the tent drinking black Lipton tea. I heard Mongol Morris call out and ignored it. ″Neigh! Neigh!” He continued and eventually I turned to Tim, ″I had better see what he wants.” I peeked my head outside the tent, not wanting to get wet and saw Shar and Captain James at the end of their tethers, heads down waiting for the rain to pass. Goat was a little further away but standing still. Mongol Morris was nowhere to be seen but I could hear him. ″Neigh! Neigh!” I stuck my head out further and looked left around the sides of the tent towards the river and saw Mongol Morris. He was standing, knee deep, in the middle of the river, looking at me, crying out. He was stuck and the water was rising fast. ″Stupid horse.” I said to Tim, ″He’s only stuck in the bloody river!” ″You had better go and sort it out. Here, take my waterproof coat.” Tim passed me his red, mountaineering jacket. I quickly put it on and raced to the riverbank. I had a halter with me and reached out to Mongol Morris’ head to place it over him. Once secured I tugged gently to help him walk up the muddy riverbank, he tried but could not get out. I tugged harder hoping to use my weight to pull him out, but again he didn’t move. I called to Tim, ″I need some help here!” Tim joined me and tried to haul the horse out as the river continued to rise, now reaching Mongol Morris’ shoulders. We stopped and looked at each other knowing what the only option left to us was. ″Do you want to go in or shall I?” I asked. Tim tutted and said ″I had better do it, if anyone comes along it might shock them to see you half naked!” Tim stripped off down to his underpants and jumped in the river. He bent down by Mongol Morris’ legs and feeling under the muddy, fast flowing water found the top of the horse’s hooves and removed his hobbles. I held Mongol Morris tight and got ready to direct the horse away from Tim if he tried to jump out of the river, but true to form Mongol Morris waited patiently until Tim had freed him and climbed safely out of the water. Using the reins attached to the bridle I asked Mongol Morris to come out and he climbed carefully out. Tim and I laughed, relieved to have the horse back on dry ground. ″Trust Mongol Morris to try and drown himself.” Tim ran inside the tent to dry off and warm up. I walked the horse away from the river and to Captain James, who whinnied at Mongol Morris. I placed the hobbles back on and fetched a towel to dry him. When I removed the saddle I was shocked to see his back. The lump that had swollen overnight was infected and the top layer of skin came away, pus oozing out. I cleaned it and placed iodine in the wound. I put the saddle back on gently to protect it from the flies and spayed Deet around the wound. Mongol Morris was shivering due to the cold, I rubbed him all over to warm him up.

We cooked dinner, cleaned up and settled down to two hours of sleep. At 9:10 pm a family arrived on their motorbike; mum, dad and five year old daughter.

″Hello.” Mum and dad said, showing no signs of surprise at us speaking Mongolian.
″Come inside our Ger.” They followed me inside. “Would you like tea?” The adults shook their heads. ″Please eat.” I waved the boov packet under their noses. They declined again. I offered their daughter some boiled sweets and she shyly took one, unwrapped it and moved it about her mouth, clacking the sweet against her teeth.
″We are from England.” Tim said.
″We’re English people.” I said, glad of the opportunity to say my favourite phrase.
″Here. For you.” The woman handed us a large, glass pickle jar of homemade sweetened yogurt, which we devoured after they left, and a large bag of sweet arrul.
″Thank you. Thank you very much!”
″It’s okay.” With that they got up and left, driving off into the fading daylight back to their home.
″What a friendly valley.” I said to Tim.
″I know. Wasn’t everyone so kind.”


A Day with Dasa

I woke up around 7 am and checked on the horses who were lazily nibbling at the ground.  I wandered away from our tent towards the tallest clump of wiry grass I could find to go to the toilet; Daasa’s family not having anything more suitable.  The women were up and had begun the day’s milking.  I filled our water container from the family’s supply kept by the side of their Ger and decided to have a sink wash and to wash my t-shirt as best I could.  The day was already hot, dry and dusty.  The sink wash was lovely, especially after yesterday’s hard ride and my t-shirt looked cleaner after a rinse in cold water even though it immediately turned muddy.  I hung my green t-shirt to dry on the side of the tent and wearing a fleece I walked into Daasa’s Ger. His wife and daughter-in-law were cooking and I sat, watched and drank the bowl of milky, salty tea they gave me.

“What are you making?”  I asked.
“Arrul.”  Bolormaa, Daasa’s wife, replied.  ″Would you like to try?”
“Yes please.”  I jumped off my stool and sat cross legged on the floor by the Ger door while Bolormaa and her daughter-in-law showed me what to do.  One had to take a lump of the curdled yogurt, that had been left in a sack outside in the sun for a few days, and mould it into a shape.  There were different shapes that were considered acceptable and this family favoured rectangles and one that had been squashed into the back of one’s fingers giving it a ruffled look.  It was decided that I was very bad at making the ruffled shape, the daughter-in-law laughed at my attempts and Bolormaa reshaped them.  I was given an enthusiastic ″Good!” with the rectangle shapes and stuck to those.  I was very hungry and occasionally sneaked a lump of curdled yogurt into my mouth.  Tim had now woken and was wandering about outside.  I went to join him.  I’ve been making arrul.  It is one of the things I really wanted to try.”  I told him. ″Oh.  It’s hot today.”  Tim said.  ″At least we will charge the batteries up.”

Daasa appeared on horseback and a truck came tearing up to the Ger, leaving a dust trail behind it.  A rough looking man about thirty got out along with a woman, another man and a group of young children. Daasa’s dogs ran over to the truck, sniffed around the new comers, prompting one of the men to shout and half-heartedly kick at them. The dogs scooted away and sat under the cool of the truck out of the sun.

The people in the truck had come to shear Daasa’s sheep and in return for their help they were to get a huge feast of roasted mutton.  Daasa and his sons stoked a wood burning stove they kept outside in preparation for cooking the meat.  The goat was killed and prepared on site by one of the shearers.  I laid down inside the Ger watching people come and go, drinking tea and chatting, sometimes about us, sometimes about things I could not understand.  Daasa entered the Ger to ask me, ″You will eat with us?”  ″Of course.”  I replied, ″It looks lovely.”  He smiled, left the Ger and continued to cook the meat. I went and got Tim, ″We have been invited to eat horhog with them.” Tim came back to the Ger with me and we sat and waited, lying on the floor.  The smell of the meat roasting was lovely, especially as we had not had much to eat recently and had lost more weight.  Around 1 pm Tim rose to leave the Ger to take up the sides of our tent as the day had gotten extremely hot.  He stood up and Daasa said, ″Sit down!  We will eat in 30 minutes.”  Tim smiled, tried to explain where he was going and left the Ger.  Daasa looked at me, waiting for an explanation.  I did the best I could with the language I had.  ″Tim went to our tent.  Today is very hot.”  I pointed to the bottom of his Ger that had the material lifted up to allow air to circulate and said, ″Our tent, this, needs.”

Tim came back and shortly after the horhog was deemed ready.  The meat was taken out of the fire outside and brought inside in a large metal bowl.  In keeping with the traditional of BBQs the world over, this was clearly not women’s work and Daasa took charge like men often do at a BBQ.  The meat was handed out to the gathered crowd of 14.  There were the shearers, their children, me, Tim and the family.  We were given a small bowl with two hunks of meat, fat and two large bones to chew on.  We gratefully accepted and the roasted meat was a delight to eat.  We finished our bowl and it was swiftly topped up.  Once everyone had eaten their fill we all sat back full and content and rested for an hour.  The men discussed our tack, prompting Tim’s paranoia to grow, thinking they were talking about steeling our horses. I still wasn’t convinced Tim was right about this place as I felt comfortable and thought it odd that before robbing us the family would be so kind.  ″Maybe they want money off us.”  Tim suggested. ″Maybe.”  I said.  ″In which case we should enjoy it.”  One of the shearers said to us, ″You are lucky to know Daasa.  He is a good friend.”  The others all smiled and nodded.  We were asked a lot of questions about our horses and our kit; ″Where did you buy them?”, ″How much did you pay?”, ″Where are your saddles from?” ″How much did they cost you?” ″Can I have them?”  We were told, ″You should sell your horses to this guy and take Daasa’s car to Khuvsgol instead.  It will be easier!”  Everyone roared with laughter.

Earlier that day Daasa had come to our tent and asked Tim, ″Do you still need to go to Dashingillin?” remembering the previous night when we had mentioned it.  ″Yes.”  Tim said, ″I need some boov.”  Daasa smirked, Tim and I looked at each other but thought nothing more of that smirk until we had finished our ride and were recovering in Khovsgol at our friend Serdamba’s house.  One morning we decided to walk to the local shops and asked Serdamba, ″Do you need anything? We need to get some boov.”  Serdamba laughed and said, ″You must never say boov on its own.  You must always add what type of boov it is, like narrin boov.  If you do not say this you are saying something bad.”  He chuckled at the thought of us saying ″something bad”. ″What have we been saying?”  Tim asked, thinking back to Daasa’s smile.  ″Penis.”

Daasa now, as if to prove what a great friend he was, said to Tim, ″I will take you to town then you do not have to ride there tomorrow.  It is no good for the horses.”
“Okay.”  Tim said.  ″Thank you.”
“You will have to pay me.”  Daasa laughed and made a gesture with his right hand, rubbing his fingers together to indicate money was required.  The others in the Ger all laughed.
“How much?”  Tim asked.
Daasa shrugged and said, ″Let’s go.”

Tim followed Daasa outside to his collection of vehicles and it was decided they would go to town on the motorbike.  Daasa asked Tim ″How much fuel will you give me?”  Tim replied, ″I’ll fill the bike up.” Daasa said nothing and they roared off towards Dashingillian.  The shearers left soon afterwards and quiet fell once more upon Daasa’s Ger.

I went to the tent to have a rest but was followed by Bolormaa.  She laid down on Tim’s bed as I stretched out on mine and we chatted. Bolormaa asked me.

″How long have you been married?”
“7 years.  You?”
“25 years.”
“Wow!  That’s a long time.”  I said.
“Do you have children?”
“No.  I do not think we will have any.”
“Err.”  I never knew how to answer this question as to say I did not want children was to potentially insult the women and I did not have the language skills to explain how different things were in my country. ″Can not.”  Was the only thing I mustered.
“Have you seen a doctor?”
“Errr yes.”  I continued to lie hoping this conversation would end soon.
“I am a doctor.”
“Are you.  I did not know that.”  I replied.
“Yes.  Do you still have to go to Dashingillin tomorrow?”
I breathed a sigh of relief at this turn.  ″No.”  I got Batdrack’s letter, explaining our trip, out of my saddle-bag and handed it to Bolormaa. She read it carefully and said, ″I know Batdrack’s friend too. He is out of town.”
“Oh, okay.”
“That means you do not need to go to town tomorrow.”
“No.”  I got the map out and we spent some time looking at the route we had travelled and were to travel.
“Call me when you get to your friend in Khovsgol?”  Bolormaa asked.
“Okay.  What is your number?”  We swapped telephone numbers.
“It is too hot in your tent.”  It was, the afternoon had become unbearably hot, and I was glad to not be riding.  ″Come to my home, it is cooler.”

We left the tent together and entered the Ger.  Bolormaa laid down at the back on the right hand side and I on the left.  Her sons, daughter-in-law and grandson were all laying down already.  The bottom of the Ger canvas covering had been lifted up to let the air circulate and there was an occasional breeze, like a hair-dryer blowing warm air across one’s face, but it was gratefully received by all.  I slept for an hour and it helped prevent a bad headache I had coming on due to dehydration and tiredness.  When I awoke Daasa’s eldest son, Dashingeorge was sleeping between me with his wife and his baby son on his other side. He rolled right onto his side to face me.  I startled as he was very close and I had just woken up.

“What food do you eat?”  He asked.
“Errr meat, spaghetti, boov.”  I replied.
“Is it English food?”
“Yes some is and some is Indian food.”
“Is it nice?”
“It is okay.”
“Is it cold in England?”
“Sometimes.  Not as cold as Mongolia is in winter.”
“Do you have horses?”
“Yes in England.  I do not own a horse.  Too expensive.”
“Errr, food is expensive, horses live inside often in England and that is expensive.  Land is expensive.”
“Are horses expensive?”
“Some are very expensive, some are very cheap, some are free.”
“Like Mongolia?”
“Yes, like Mongolia.”

His wife had by now woken up and was eyeing me suspiciously as her husband lay next to me on the floor propped up by cushions, chatting away.  Dashingeorge picked up my diary I had been writing in before I went to sleep, ″I have bites on my bites.”  He read aloud, then turned to his wife, ″Can you read this?”  She looked at it and read some but could not understand it all.  Dahsingeorge swivelled round back to me, ″Are we in here?”  ″Yes.”  I said.  He smiled and turned the pink notebook over in his hands looking at the floral patterns on it. ″Beautiful!”  He mocked in a camp voice.

Tim finally returned after three hours away with Daasa, I had been getting worried but as it transpired there was no need.  Daasa had taken Tim to visit with his sister and a friend, where Tim had been offered another horhog and when he had declined due to being full from the last one Daasa had said, ″Eat. You are too thin.”  Tim had been taken to various shops, including a food market and the Mongolian countryside equivalent of a tack shop.  Daasa had said to him after their errands, ″Would you like a beer?”  Tim worrying that Daasa wanted to get drunk had politely declined and Daasa had bought a can of beer and shared it with Tim anyway.  Tim felt slightly embarrassed with his thoughts as Daasa had just wanted to have one drink with his new found friend.

On the journey back Daasa had stopped to admire a band of horses and to show Tim a snake, slivering away from their bike.  The afternoon was coming to an end by the time they got home and I was pleased to see Tim.  Not just because I knew he was okay but also he had brought two bags of goodies and a bottle of Sprite.  I sat in our tent, not wanting to share the loot with anyone and drank the whole bottle of Sprite, bar two cups I generously gave to Tim.  My headache ceased with the intake of fluids and sugar.  I had not done anything with the horses all day except occasionally make sure they were still close and not in trouble.  Daasa’s eldest son and his friend offered to help Tim take the horses to water and I was glad I could have a whole day off from the horses.  I made Tim promise to not let the young lads gallop Mongol Morris to give his back a full day’s rest and he agreed but the reality was the young lads galloped and Tim did keep up much to their enjoyment.  Both boys fell in love with Captain James and begged Tim to let them have him.  Tim told them both, ″He is my wife’s horse.  You will have to ask her.”  They did and I declined to part with the magnificent, but annoying, beast.  Dashingeorge pestered Tim about our tack.

“Can I have your bridle.”  He asked of Goat’s well made, copper bit bridle.
“No I need it.”  Tim replied.
“Please.  You can have any of these.”  Dashingeorge unhooked a handful of bridles off a peg inside the Ger and showed them to Tim.
Tim eventually gave in, partly because of the unwavering nagging Dashingeorge bombarded him with and partly because it was a good way for us to say ″Thank you” to the family for their generosity and kindness.  Tim later that night looked at his secondhand, battered bridle and sighed, ″It was a nice bridle wasn’t it?”  ″Yes.  I think it was the best we had.”  I replied.

We decided to eat and go to bed early that night but Daasa had other ideas.  We both left their Ger and were just at the entrance of ours when Daasa’s booming voice cried out, ″Tim!  You are helping with the horses.  Sam!  Make buzt.”  I clicked my heels together and saluted him, making Daasa smile slightly and headed inside the Ger to learn how to make butz.

It was good fun cooking tea with Bolormaa and her daughter in law. The TV was switched on and we watched a Korean soap opera dubbed over in Mongolian.  I was schooled in how to roll our butz pastry and how to fill the parcels with chopped meat, that had been smoked in the Ger earlier that day.  I would line the finished dumplings up and Bolormaa would place them in a large, metal steamer over the wood burning stove.  Once a large bowl of butz was cooked, the men were called in for dinner.  The dumplings tasted great but neither of us could eat many much to Daasa’s amazement.  ″Eat!  Eat!  Eat!” he and his wife called out to us.  We were use to eating small amounts and could not convince our stomachs otherwise.  I also struggled with too much meat after seven years as a veterinarian and would often feel ill when I tried to eat it.  This night was one of those nights.  I started to feel cold and clammy and began sweating.  I thought I would be sick and had to sit very quietly and still for ten minutes.  Tim asked, ″Are you okay?  You look pale.”  ″Meat sweats.”  I replied as if it was a recognised condition.

I handed out a questionnaire as part of the research we agreed to undertake on behalf of The Long Rider’s Guild.  When asked what his job was Daasa replied, ″Malchin Majistraa!”  Which translates to Master Herdsman.  A round of photo taking took place and eventually we were able to leave the Ger and head to bed.  It was a bad night, not because of anything to do with the horses who were all fine, but a dreadful sound rung out and I jumped up wondering what was being murdered. I looked out of the tent but could see nothing, I shone my torch around but still nothing.  The screaming and choking continued and I saw a torch beam come flying out of the Ger.  The light flashed over our tent and seeing me Daasa shouted, ″It’s a wolf!”  I don’t think it was, more likely a dog attacking a young goat.

Packing the next morning broke our record and we managed to get packed, loaded and mounted within two and a half hours.  This victory was dampened by the lump on Mongol Morris’ back.  The flies had bitten it and it looked swollen.  I felt for the poor horse and wished I could retire him to a safe, green, quiet field in the English countryside where the flies would seem tame.  Daasa advised me, ″When you stop tonight, pee on a cloth.”  I assumed this suggestion was made as Daasa knew human urine to have antiseptic properties, luckily we had iodine and with the thought of Mongol Morris’s suffering at the front of my mind we set off.