The day started badly, I woke up at 6 am, snoozed twice but eventually got up feeling tired and suffering from stomach cramps. I turned to Tim, still nestled deep inside his sleeping bag. ″I feel ill. I wonder if it was the arrul last night.” ″Maybe. We can’t rest here though, there’s no water.” I sighed, ″I know.” We packed up the tent, each of us immersed in our daily role; I always packed up the beds, Tim saddled the pack horses. The wide, expansive sky showed a storm coming. The clouds were bunched tightly together and were an ominous charcoal colour. The wind would pick up, bringing light drops of the forthcoming downpour to us, then the howling would subside. The storm was definitely heading towards us and we would have to ride towards it. ″Oh why did I have to loose my waterproof jacket?” I moaned to Tim as I looked at the blackness slowly creeping forward. I put my waterproof trousers on, tucked my shower proof jumper into them and crossed my fingers.
We looked at the map and the GPS and made the decision to walk the horses around the mountain rather than attempt to climb up and over again. This meant we had to back track slightly but the ground was easier for the horses and less rocky on their unshod hooves. We crossed hilly, rocky terrain towards the road we were to follow today. The plan was to head towards Heeshig Ondoor. We rode for hours along the valley floor that was empty of human life, narrowly missing the storm. My stomach continued to send cramps in regular waves through me, making me double up in pain and I hoped Captain James and Mongol Morris would remain calm and collected.
We began to leave behind the winter/spring residences and the empty, isolated feel that clung to them. In distance were small, white marshmallows lightly sprinkled about the steppe and Mal (livestock). Where’s there’s mal there’s Malchin and where there’s Malchin there’s water! The valley we were now riding through had seven Gers on either side of the road we followed. A man on his motorbike came from a Ger on our right and stopped for a brief chat.
″We’re English people, we are travelling to Khovsgol on horseback.” We announced.
″That’s a long way. Khovsgol is 1500 kilometres!”
We smiled at his vastly over estimated distance and replied, ″Maybe.”
He smiled, ″Have a safe journey.”
We replied in the customary way, ″Safe staying.”
He opened the bike’s throttle and drove off to a Ger on our left. Tim and I continued to follow the sandy but compacted road, riding high over the valley with the road cutting though two mountains until we descended into another vast valley. On our right was a handmade sign, ″Heeshing Ondoor Cym,” made out of metal. We turned left off this road heading west and followed our new route for 5 km. I began to feel very ill with the cramping pain interspersed with nausea and every few minutes I would let out a small groan. ″Tim, I feel really rough. How much further until we can stop?” Tim picked up the GPS, hanging around his neck on a length of green para-cord, studied it intently for a few seconds and replied, ″Not long now. At the end of the road is a river. I think that will be a good place to stop.”
One would think that after weeks of daily riding the body would be battle hardened against the aches, pains and niggles horse riding can thrown ones’ way but it isn’t true. My knees would squeal at the end of every day when I hopped down from Mongol Morris’ back. My inner thigh muscles ached and crossing one’s legs would be a very difficult and uncomfortable act and as for my backside, well, people would often say to me after the trip had concluded, ″You must have an arse made of leather!” If only. My arse was one giant heat rash. My seat bones on some days felt like sharp, pointy sticks needling their way into me. The shoulder blade muscles would burn some days and my left shoulder and Tim’s hurt to the point that we sought respite from the pain and discomfort, with prescription strength Codine. We soon began to look forward to our daily medication.
We stopped, dismounted and begin to set up camp. Tim rode over to nearest Ger, where a man in his early thirties was busy herding and therefore not very interested in engaging with us. Tim shouted to him a brief synopsis of who we were and that we would be staying just one night. The guy acknowledged him with a head tip and continued his work.
My cramps were bad and I struggled to hobble the horses, stopping regularly to give in to pain. A silver car drove over the bumpy, grassy ground towards us, but instead of coming directly to our camp the car stopped to one side of us, the door slid back and revealed a woman in her mid fifties, smartly dressed in a shirt and blue slacks covered over with a green silk del, a man in his late fifties with wavy dark hair and a blue del and who I presume was their son, a man in his early twenties, dressed in a t-shirt and black trousers. The family left their car, spread a blanket down on top of the earth and sat waiting. I looked around but could not immediately see what or whom they were waiting for. A weathered, tanned man, in his early fifties, of a slim build with a shaven head rode over to our camp on his compact, light brown gelding. Staying seated atop his horse, he asked us where we were from and heading to. I asked him, ″Where do you live?” He pointed south to a lone Ger. ″Do you have children?” ″No.” He replied. I let my imagination run wide wondering what his story was being that it was unusual for an older man to remain single and childless in the Mongolian countryside. I turned to face the earlier parked car and the seated family. ″Hi.” ″Hi.” I offered them the same information I had offered the horse man; where we are going, where we are from only for the new rider to dismount, hobbling his horse’s two front legs with the reins and to repeat everything!
Tim and I finished setting up camp. We tethered and hobbled our horses, removing the saddles, stashing them inside the tent out of sight of prying eyes. The horse man gave the young car travelling man a head and back massage. “I think he might be a Bone Setter.” Tim mused aloud. “Oh look, he is treating the mother now.” I commented. “Let’s invite them in for tea when they’re finished.” We duly did so and to our delight they accepted, curious of what our tall, tipi looked like on the inside. “Would you like tea?” I asked. “No thank you.” Mum and dad declined, polity taking only one sweet each from the full bowl offered to them. The Bone Setter accepted a cup of black, Lipton tea and the family soon left the three of us alone. The healer rather observantly noticed I was in pain as I doubled over with the cramps, trying to hide it but failing miserably. He took a large, unopened bottle of vodka from his del sleeve and poured the contents into the bowl he had drunk tea from. The father of the family reappeared in the tent door with a big smile and said, “Don’t worry,” gesturing to the vodka, ″He’s not a drunk but a holy man.” He then decided to stay for the first ‘offering.’
The first bowl of the bottle was thrown outside to the spirits. The second bowl was poured and handed to father who took a small sip and handed the bowl back to the bone setter. The bowl was topped up and passed to Tim. Tim took a small sip and again passed the bowl back to the bone setter to be refilled. My turn was next and the bone setter told me, ″This is good for your stomach, you should drink it all.” I could not face water let alone a bowl of 40% proof vodka. I took a tiny sip and apologised for not drinking more, passing the bowl back. The three men smiled and the bone setter filled the bowl once more to the top with vodka. The father left, and we heard the car drive away. The bone setter downed the vodka and offered me further advice on my worsening stomach pains, ″Rub your stomach when it hurts. The heat will help.” Adding insistently, ″Drink a whole bowl of vodka that will cure you.” A new bowl was filled and offered to Tim, who declined and then offered to me. I tried to decline but the setter insisted, “It will help your pain.” He pushed the bowl towards me, nodding at it. I accepted and pretended to drink. The bone setter once more filled and emptied the bowl of vodka and set up a new bowl straight after. A motorbike was heard coming towards us. The bone setter placed the vodka bottle back into his del, pushing it up his right sleeve. He told us, ″Do not sleep all night. Check always on your horses. There are bad people about.” ″Thank you, we do.” He took a long drink from the bowl, emptied what was left outside and sat looking shifty, leading us to wonder aloud to each other, “Do you think he knows who’s coming?” A huge walrus of a man appeared, swaying, in the tipi entrance. His meaty plates hung from his arms as he wafted the smell of a thousand unwashed into the tent.