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.
″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.”