Khatgal. 323 kilometers as the crow flies. We rode today through beautiful countryside. One valley, around five kilometers from where we camped yesterday was stunning. One could imagine wooden chalets peppered about, waiting on the holiday makers that swooped in every summer. Instead I counted 11 Gers and we saw trees. Not just one or two excuses for trees but actual trees, lots of them. A clean, fast running stream flowed down the middle of the valley and all the horses drank from it except Goat who got nervous and spent his time sniffing the water and snorting in uncertainty. The ground was covered with wild flowers; blue, pink, yellow and orange.
We climbed up a mountain pass and walked along a track nestled high in the mountains. A man on a motorbike rode towards us and stopped to say ″Hi.” We returned his ″Hi” and added, “We are English people. We are riding to Khovsgol.” He turned the bike’s engine off, swung his leg over the seat and burst out laughing, ″I have seen it all now!” His open, wide grin showed his front teeth as absent. We chatted a while.
″Where are you from?”
“Where are you going?”
“Do you have meat?”
“Err yes thank you.” He pulled a packet of cigarettes out of his shirt pocket, lit one and offered a puff to Tim, ″Thank you but I do not smoke.” The guy smiled his toothy grin, started the bike up and drove away. As we moved further from our starting point we noticed not just the changes in topography but in people’s questions. Bulgan Aimag residents often asked “Do you have meat?”
Tim and I had begun to lie about our ages and we were currently down from 38 years old to 35 years old with plans to lower further. When asked the inevitable question, ″Do you have children?” and we replied ″No.” The next question was always ″How old are you?” This would be followed by a look of pity when we revealed our ages as we were considered past it by most Mongolian people.
We continued along our track until we emerged at the top of a path leading down to the valley floor. In front of us was a huge, snaking river that we had seen on the map and had hoped would be full. It was dry. We decided to head down and look for a stream. After hours of riding in the sun, up and down some of the most beautiful mountains and valleys we had seen so far, we reached a huge plain. At each end were Gers but all were too far for us to think about approaching them today and we relished the idea of some time alone. Three Gers north, one south and three seven kilometers away. The campsite was lovely, we had a stream running past us and we pitched up alongside it. The grass was good and the horses soon settled down to eating as much as they could.
We received no visitors during the late afternoon and evening but I dutifully filled a bowl with sweets and brewed tea. Tim last washed six days ago, me four days ago but I had not washed my hair for three weeks. Tim could not stand on his left leg today as it was too sore from riding. My seat bones ached, I could not get comfortable in the saddle and sitting down was painful. My stomach was still unsettled and an occasional cramp would flare up. The Orxhon river was a couple of days ride away and I often thought about how it would feel to reach it. I had spent so long looking at the large river on the map that it had become a milestone created only in my mind. Mongol Morris drank from a puddle yesterday, maybe his survival instinct was finally kicking in.
I washed by the stream we had set the tent next to. The water, heated by the sun, felt refreshing like a warm bath. I washed my socks, knickers, bra and t-shirt and draped them against the tent to dry. I wore my fleece while my t-shirt dried and wandered over to the horses. I cleaned and re-dressed Mongol Morris’ wound. The sun was drying it out and it was beginning to look healthier.
I walked back to the stream and I washed my hair. It felt like real hair again after a three week break! Crickets pinged about us, butterflies fluttered around, flies in large groups buzzed constantly about the horses and the sinister cockchavers milled about in the grass. Two heron-like birds flew down to drink from the stream a short distance away and far off we could see the shapes of livestock. A big road ran along the valley floor and it was far enough away from us for us to not give it much thought. A few motorbikes and a couple of lorries drove along, leaving clouds of dust behind them and all slowed down a little to stare but no-one approached. I had a peaceful night but Tim had little sleep as he was worried about the horses. Instead he slept late into the following morning with only one disturbance at 7 am.
At 6.30 am my stomach gave one last explosion and I jogged away from our tent, down the slight bank of the nearby stream, hopped over the stream and found some tall blades of grass, reasonably close together, that would serve as a perceived shield and went to the loo one last time that morning. I had finished my business and washed my hands in our portable sink using the cool stream water when a small, white van pulled suddenly off the main road in the distance and, dragging a cloud of dust behind it, made a beeline for us.
It skidded slightly on the hard, dry ground and as its trailing dust cloud settled to earth lying dormant until it was time to fly again, a man jumped out of the driver’s side. ″Hey, it’s me! It’s me!” He cried, walking towards me, grinning and heading straight inside the tent. A young boy, around nine, quietly slid out of the passenger side and followed the man and I followed to. As I entered the tent I realised it was the man we had seen yesterday who offered Tim a smoke and had been amazed when we told him our story, shaking his head and smiling to himself.
“Hey, it’s me, we met yesterday.”
“Hello. I remember.” I said. He bounced down on the end of Tim’s sleeping mat, pinging Tim’s still sleeping head into the air. Tim groaned and woke up.
″Hello.” The man said. ″We met yesterday.”
“Hello.” Tim muttered. ″How are you?”
“This is my son.” He gestured to the young boy.
“How old is he?” I asked.
“Eleven.” Turning to his son he said, ″I met these English people yesterday.” I offered them both tea but it was declined with a wave of the hand. The man picked up the empty bowl I normally reserved for sweets, ″Have you got any sweets?” I pulled an unopened bag of fruity chews from the panyard, ″Oh you have! You Have!” He cried, delighted when I filled the bowl up and handed it to him and his son. ″Take some sweets son.” He grabbed a large handful, encouraging his son to do the same, ″Goodbye” he said and as quickly as he arrived he, his son and the dust cloud sped off across the steppe to join the road at the far end of the valley.
The day heated up and after I had taken the horses to the stream to drink Goat laid down on his side resting. Mongol Morris’s back wound had dried out further and I cleaned it, put some cream on and left it open to the air for the morning. The swelling had started to recede and it no longer felt hot and inflamed. He sat down with his legs curled up under him and rested his large head on the ground. I patted his neck and walked back inside the tent.
Tim and I drifted in and out of sleep. We brewed and drank black tea in our billy can to stave off hunger and when it got too much we would chew on a sweet. A man on a motorbike herding a large group of horses arrived. The horses came over to investigate our four, sniffing each other, squealing in greeting and some settled down around ours to nibble at the grass. The man, carrying a long, stout stick and a gun drove over to the tent.
“Hi.” We greeted him.
“Hello.” He returned.
“Please come in.” I brewed tea and Tim offered sweets. He asked what we thought of as the normal set of questions and then asked us, ″How many kilometres do you ride in one day?”
“Sometimes 15 km, sometimes 30 km.”
He smiled. ″I can do 60 km on one horse in one day.”
“Oh.” I said, ″Amazing. We rode 15 km one day because I was sick.”
“Are you sick now? Do you have vodka?”
“I am okay now.”
He smiled, displaying a large gap at the front of his mouth where teeth should have been. ″Have you got any meat?”
“Do you eat meat?
“Come to my house for sheep meat.”
Tim asked him, ″Tomorrow?”
″I cannot leave my tent and my horses.”
“Do not worry, there are no thieves here. I will go home and come back and pick you up in my car.”
“No really, I cannot leave my tent and my horses.”
The man laughed, ″Okay” and he laughed some more.
“This is why we are thin.” Tim said.
I added, ″Last week I was like this” I puffed my cheeks out to signify a chubby face, ″Now, this,” I sucked my cheeks in.
The man laughed out loud. ″It is a long was to Khovsgol. You should trot.”
“We hoped to but my horse,” Tim pointed to Goat, ″shies a lot so we do not want to loose him.”
The man left our tent, picked his gun up from the side of his bike and pointed it south ″Pop! Pop!” he pretended to fire, chuckled and left. Half an hour later another bike approached. I ducked inside the tent to quickly fill up the sweet bowl and put a new billy can of tea on to brew. The bike arrived and a very chatty man came into our tent to share tea and sweets.
“Where have you come from? Where are you going?” “How many horses do you have?” etc. We laid our map of the region out on the tent floor and discussed our route up to Orkhon. ″I know some of this the lake you will go to is big, beautiful and you can get lots of water there.”
“Can we cross it?”
“Yes, you can cross there. No problems crossing. Cars go across.” He pointed on the map to where we could cross, which was at the same place our Russian maps showed as suitable. “My friend went to England in 1971 but I do not know anything about your country.” He then asked us, ″Are you on your own or do you have a Mongolian person?”
“We are on our own but we have many, many Mongolian friends.” I pulled Batdracks’s letter from my saddle bags and showed it to him. He read it intensively, as did most Mongolians, not having much reading material to hand. ″I know some of these people,” he said looking at the references Batdrack had listed, ″this man is my friend.”
Tim pointed to an area on the map asking, ″This area has lots of trees. Does Bulgan aimag have wolves?”
“Yes,” he replied, ″but do not worry they will not eat you.”
“What about my horses?”
The man chuckled, ″No they will not eat your horses either. Do you have a gun?”
“No we do not have one.”
“Use this.” We all fell about laughing as he picked up our water filter and sprayed a pretend wolf. ″I have two children. One is a student and the other…I forget.”
“Do you have many horses?” I asked.
“I have 100 horses, 700 sheep and goats.”
“Wow!” I exclaimed. The man was sweating heavily as the day’s sun heated up the inside of our tent, ″It is too hot in here.” He moved outside with a huge sigh as the wind picked up cooling us slightly. He stood up, ″Safe journey.”
“Safe sitting.” We replied and he was gone, driving off on his bike, towards his home 10 km away to the north, taking his large family of horses with him.
Tim collected and burnt animal dung to get rid of the huge groups of flies. I was not sure what was worse; being plagued by flies or covered in dung scented heavy smoke, I concluded that neither was particularly desirable. Captain James had now joined Goat and both laid down, resting in the blazing heat. It was now 4.30 pm and we spent the rest of the afternoon sleeping, lying down and drinking black tea.