We had been riding just under one month and after an uneventful night we had a big day ahead of us. Before leaving friendly valley the herder who helped us cross the river came back with his father and sister, who spoke some English.
″Where are you from?” She asked in English.
″England. We’re English people. How long have you been studying English?” I asked.
″You are very good.”
She blushed and said, ″thank you.”
Her father spoke in Mongolian. ″Your horse is sick.” He referred to Mongol Morris. ″You should sell him to me and buy a new horse.”
″Thank you. ″ I said, ″but I will keep him.”
″Where are you going?”
″That is a long way. I can drive you in my car. It will be easier.”
″Thank you but we will ride there on horseback.”
″Why? It is so hard.”
We laughed at this, as there really was no explanation.
We rode along the floor of the flood plane and up a track with our backs to friendly valley. Two young children; a boy and a girl, raced past us competing for who had the fastest horse. We rode up and over a large, gradually ascending hill and soon friendly valley was out of sight. I was given the task of keeping us on track using my compass and we rode along a valley floor past empty Ger spots, the grass worn away and one could often see a large hole filled with rubbish, sometimes reduced to burnt embers sometimes half burnt. We rode for hours along the valley floor. It was quiet, huge in scale and as often was the case surrounded by dark imposing mountains.
″Sam, what direction are we going in?”
″North east. Like you said after looking at the GPS.”
″I didn’t say that. I said north west.”
″No you didn’t. You said north east.”
″I did not say north east!” The row continued for some time. We corrected our course, riding out of the valley over a mountain pass to an adjacent valley, divided by the mountain range. We rode parallel to each other but with a vast space between us, neither talking or looking at the other.
Purple thistles with tiny, white flowers sprinkled the floor. The grass, where it grew, was a vibrant green. As far as the eye could see was empty of other humans. It felt unnaturally quiet. All around us were signs of life; water buckets, a rag doll, odd shoes and discarded, plastic bottles of Goe tea. Wooden corrals had been set up and left empty. We were riding through spring and/or winter residences. The Russian map showed a wealth of water sources; wells high up in the mountain top crevices, springs and rivers. Far in the distance I spotted an enormous herd of deer like creatures. ″Tim!” I broke the silence after our earlier disagreement. ″Look at all those deer things.” Tim looked where I was pointing, as I held both horses in my left hand. ″Oh yeah. What are they? The look like antelopes” ″No idea. They look like deer but small versions.” ″I think they look like antelopes.” I sighed not wanting another argument just yet and suggested, ″ Shall we ride towards them?” ″Okay.” Continuing a rough course of north west we pointed the horses towards the light brown creatures that seemed to belong to the Cervidae family. We were unable to get close enough to study them further. When we got within 800 metres of the herd the creatures would sway like a large flock of birds at sunset looking for somewhere to roost putting another kilometre between us.
All around were steep, tall, rocky mountains. We saw two Gers around 4.30 pm. One looked like a work place so we steered clear only wanting to engage with herders. The second Ger we were not sure of but we needed water for the horses and our drinking bottles. We rode off our track, down the hillside towards the Ger. Six children, ranging in size, came out, mounted a motorbike and rode over to us. ″Hello.” I said but they did not reply and sat on the bike staring. ″We need water. The horses need water. Do you have a well?” The eldest child, a boy, nodded and said ″We have a well.” He started the bike and we followed them to a lone Ger. A blue pick up truck was parked outside and we recognised it as one that stopped earlier in the day to say ″Hi.” Three guys from the truck and another lorry were milling about outside the Ger. Neither of us were sure about this place. There were kids littered about like a collection of motley humans, an old sofa sat outside. One Ger, three truck divers, one man, four women plus an assortment of children did not lend the Ger a homely feel.
A fat, sly looking lorry driver chatted to us inspiring immediate distrust. Tim rode past and on my way past the driver asked, ″Are you thirsty?” ″Yes. Very thirsty.” He smirked and continued, ″Come for tea after you have visited the well.” I gave a non committal wiggle of my head and began to ride past and as I did so the driver made a crass gesture with his hands, laughed and walked inside the Ger. Once back in Ulaanbaatar Tim asked our Mongolian friend, Bayandla, ″Sometimes I noticed people would smile when we said we were thirsty.” Bayandla replied, ″What exactly did you say?” We told him and he laughed. ″You should say your mouth is thirsty. If you say just that you are thirsty it can be slang for I would like sex!” ″Not again.” Tim said and explained about our boov slang mishaps. Bayandla burst out laughing, ″Boov boy and sanga Sam.” Penis boy and sex starved Sam.
We took the horses to the well to let them drink. They were difficult and kept spooking, scattering the gathered crowd of children who offered to help us hold the horses. We filled our water bottles, declined another invitation of tea and moved on. Two and a half hours passed before we reached a spring shown on our map only to find it dry. The map showed a well situated high up in the mountains. We rode to it taking the horses up their first mountain. They were unsure of the height being desert dwellers and froze once we reached the summit. Goat and Captain James were rooted to the spot, staring down the steep sides, clearly suffering from vertigo. We understood exactly how they felt, having spent a lot of time in the mountains and knew the only way to help them was to move to lower ground. I nudged Mongol Morris down, slowly descending the mountain, talking gently all the while. Mongol Morris was great at listening and guided the others down to a high sided valley, still in the mountains but without steep drops. Captain James, Shar and Goat initially relieved became uncomfortable with this high sided valley. All of them crept forward, turning their heads around and their ears pricking up at any sound. We kept moving slowly, surely, through the valley and eventually we stopped at 7 pm. The map showed a well just around the corner from a flattish spot where we decided to camp. We dismounted, unloaded the pack horses, hobbled them all and while Tim went to find the well I stayed, sitting on the rough ground, glad to be off Mongol Morris, him no doubt feeling the same. Tim found the well and its contents; two dead sheep. We ate no hot food that night and had no water save for our plastic bottles we filled up at the well. We ate boov and arrul. ″Tim I am so tired my limbs ache, my muscles ache, my body aches.” ″Oh.” Tim let out a deep sigh, ″Me to.”
We camped high, nestled amongst the mountains, hidden from view of anyone coming along the road we had been following to the west. Beneath us to the east was a road running parallel to the mountain range and occasionally a truck or car would fly past, no bigger than a black beetle. There was a long, wide river winding across the low valley floor but it was dry. Before bed, I cleaned and redressed Mongol Morris’s wound, praying for a speedy recovery. I walked around the camp to check the horse’s shit. The previous day I had found two large, fat, pink grubs in Shar’s droppings. I wondered aloud if Shar ate the grubs deliberately. I wouldn’t have put it past him; Shar was getting fat.