Crossing the Orkhon

A man in his early twenties, riding a motorbike and herding thirty horses, came over and stopped on the opposite side of the stream.

“Hi.” I shouted over.
″Hi.” He shouted back.
″We’re English people, from England. My name is Sam, like the Mongolian word; comb! My husband is called Tim. What is your name?”
″Gallaa.” He replied.

I left the stream, unhobbled Captain James and led him down to drink. Goat and Mongol Morris followed, hobbling quickly behind, finding their own way down to the water’s edge. Mongol Morris sat down in the cool water resting his legs under him and cooling his belly. Goat drank, moved across the stream to a lush patch of grass on Gallaa’s side and Mongol Morris, whinnying pulled himself up and followed Goat. I took Captain James back to his tether, Goat and Mongol Morris raised their heads and crossed back over the stream following us, wanting to stay close to the Captain. I untied Shar and led him to the water where he drank greedily.

Galla was a friendly young man and crossed the stream to inspect all four of our horses. ″Where are you going to?”
″Khovsgol first then west.”
″It is a long way.”
″Yes, very long.”
″Which way will you go?” I fetched the map from inside the tent and handed it to Tim who talked Gallaa through our route. Galla chatted to us about horses in general before asking, ″Do you drink vodka?”
″Shall I get some and we can have a drink?”
″No that’s OK, I will get a headache tomorrow!” Tim told him.
″Are you sure?”
″Yes thank you.”
″Okay nice to meet with you.”

Goat had relaxed and like a lot of male horses had let his penis drop. I laughed and pointed it out to Tim, ″Hey, do you remember when he dropped it down and you were putting the hobbles on?”
″Yes, I remember.” Tim had not noticed Goat’s penis until it knocked against his shoulder and I burst into laughter as Tim had looked around to see what was tapping him and came face to face with Goat’s member exclaiming ″Good God!”

It rained heavily during the night clearing by early morning leaving the air humid and the sky filled with clouds. Today was the 24th July 2013. We rode through some amazing countryside. ″Tim, I bet when I tell my dad about the amazing scenery he’ll say, ″Well you could have taken a photo of it.””
″Yeah, knowing him he will. Some people will just not get what we’re doing, like when they use to say to us, ″Enjoy your holiday.” as if we were going to Spain.”

We rode along high hills looking over canyons that hung above rivers running down the middle of the ground far beneath. Gers, in clumps of two and three, sat on either side of the hill tops. We found a potential spot for a campsite and rode the steep, stony track down to a flattish piece of ground with a river running nearby. The opposite side of the river towered above the water. The steep rock provided hidden spots for nests of the birds of prey that circled above us. Heavy rain began to fall and we quickly unloaded and hobbled the horses. Tim and I rushed around to get the tent up so we could move our kit inside out of the rain. We sat in the entrance watching and listening to the rain fall. ″I hope the river won’t flood.” I said, thinking about our location on the canyon floor. ″I’m going to have to go and investigate.” I put my waterproofs back on, stepped outside of the tent and took a walk to and along the river, surveying the height and speed of the water and the bank. I wondered about the Orkhon river as it was only 1.5 kilometres away and was a huge river. I hoped it wouldn’t overflow into our river and flood. Deciding I couldn’t really do anything, other than move camp, which I didn’t feel like doing, I walked back to the tent reassured that we were on slightly raised ground. Tim cooked dinner and we went to the riverside together to wash up. The rain had stopped for the time being and the water levels were nowhere near high enough for flooding. On our way back to the tent we noticed two men walking along the river further up from our camp.

″Have you seen those two men?” I asked Tim.
″Where?” He said.
″Over there.” I pointed to them and said, ″What do you think they’re up to?”
″Don’t know. No-one walks in the countryside though and I cannot see any horses or a car.”
″Good point. Let’s stalk them.”

Keeping our distance and trying to remain out of sight we followed the two men. They walked back to a tent at the base of the steep rocky sides along from the track we had used to get down. Their tent was placed under a tree in the hope it would protect them from the rain. ″I reckon we should go over and see what we think of them?”
″Okay.” Tim agreed.

We wandered over to the tent and as we drew near saw the men were young and there was a women in the tent, sheltering from the rain that had started up again. The two men were trying to get a fire lit and failing due to the wet wood they had collected, undeterred they continued and in true Mongol style they eventually succeeded in getting a small flame to appear. They seemed harmless and as we approached looked up.

″Hi, we’re English people. Our camp and horses are over there.” Tim waved his hand behind him. The two men stared and gave a slight nod of their heads to acknowledge our greeting. The woman sat up inside the tent but gave us nothing more. ″We have a fire inside our tent.” Tim continued, ″You can come and get dry and we have tea.”
″We have black tea,” I interrupted, ″but no milk. You are welcome to come for black tea.”
They smiled and thanked us, politly declining our offer. One of the men asked, ″Do you have a Mongolian person with you?”
I replied, ″No. Do you have an English person with you?” He laughed, shook his head and continued to work on keeping the fire alive as the rain stopped drizzling and began again to pour down.

I was tired and went to bed around 8.30pm, my last thought being how peaceful the campsite was and how nice it felt to lie down. At 9pm I heard a motorbike approach. I listened but did nothing more as Tim was still awake and went outside to greet whoever was coming. It was the three campers from earlier.

″Hello.” Tim greeted them, ″Please come inside.” They all ducked their heads and sat down inside the tent. I remained, eyes closed, inside my sleeping bag, listening.
″Oh thank you, thank you very much.” Tim said. ″Would you like some tea?”
″No.” and they all left, without any further comment which is normal in Mongolia.
″What were you thanking them for?” I opened my eyes and sat up.
″They brought us 2.5 litres of fresh milk” I saw the plastic beer bottle sitting in the centre of the tent, ″airag in a 5 litre engine bottle and a bag of arrul.”
″Oh my! That is so nice. They must have thought we needed looking after. I feel bad for thinking they might be a threat.”
″Me too. All the Mongolians we’ve met so far have been lovely and so hospitable, you’d think we’d learn.”
″I know.” I laughed, ″Mmmmm just think, we can have hot milk for breakfast.” My stomach rumbled in joy and I went back to sleep, waking up two hours later to check on the horses.

My first job in the morning was to check all the horses where okay and still outside. Captain James and Mongol Morris were, as always, together, Shar was a short distance away, but I could not see Goat from the tent entrance. I put my trousers and boots on and left the tent to find him. He was easily seen but had jumped the narrow river sill hobbled and was eating the grass on the other side. I crossed the water, took Goat’s hobbles off and spent a few minutes getting his halter on. Goat had a habit of spinning one way then the other, flicking his back legs up to kick if one tried to get close when he was not ready. I had found the safest way for me was to move with him, changing direction as he did and eventually I could get close enough that the halter could be put on. I led Goat over the river and back to the others. He whinnied when he got close and once hobbled, walked over to the Captain and Mongol Morris.

Breakfast was boiled milk and milky tea. What a treat! Tim drank five mugs of the sour, yeasty airag hoping the fermented unpasteurised milk drink would cure his four day old constipation. It did not.

We packed up, loaded Captain James and Shar aednd after looking at the map and the GPS decided to try a potential river crossing. We rode along a well used track through a steeply sided canyon. I had to take the lead as Mongol Morris would, with encouragement, move forward. Goat was too scared to do anything but follow. Tim said, ″Goat is only happy if he can see 100 miles in all directions.” We came to a shallow off shoot from the Orkhon river and Mongol Morris crossed without a fuss doing the same across a deeper, knee height, section. Goat was spooky but Tim managed him and Shar. We were pleased with their behaviour considering they were desert horses and had not encountered much water during their lives. Our horses were not just experiencing water crossings for the first time but seeing large logs, of which they snorted at, shied from and refused to go near, sticks, which, even in England, can be a horse’s enemy and steep sided canyons. The grazing recently had been great and Mongol Morris’s overall condition had improved and his open wound had started to heal. Tim and I chatted to distract ourselves from Goat’s misbehaving.

″You know Tim, I think they sold us Mongol Morris knowing he would drop condition and had a bad back.”
″Yeah, I wondered about that. I think they must have known his back was poor.”
″Annoying but nothing we can do now. Bloody Shar has started nipping when the girth is done up.”
″I don’t believe it.” Tim refused for the majority of the trip to believe in Shar’s violent tendencies and loved him like a true friend. ″It’s true. He bit my bum this morning. It didn’t hurt but it didn’t half make me jump!”

My stomach was finally recovering and the tenderness and pain had subsided only to be replaced with a sore throat, a dry, throaty cough and a mild fever. ″My body cannot seem to recover properly. I need a holiday.” I said to Tim. ″Are you okay to travel?”
″Yes, I’ll be all right I’ll just moan a lot.”
″No change there then.”
″Ha ha.”

We continued to ride towards the Orkhon river until the track fizzled out and we could no longer move forward due to the trees. We followed a couple more tracks but neither led anywhere. We were left with no option but to track back to our camp. The horses were better on the way back than the way forward, having seen most of the scary sights once already. We needed to ride up and out of the valley we had camped in and try another river crossing we had seen on the map. We took the horses back up the steep rocky track we had used to come down the previous night. Captain James protested at the steepness of the track and the weight of his load by clamping his teeth onto my leg, just above the knee, and squeezing hard. ″Ow! Captain James is not happy about this slope.” ″We’re nearly there, we can have a rest at the top.” Thankfully Captain James didn’t clamp his teeth onto my leg a second time and we reached the top.

The next river crossing was a no go. The water was too deep and too fast for us to safely make it across. Fed up at the thought of having to back track I said to Tim, ″Shall we camp here?” It was a beautiful spot on the river’s edge. ″We’ve only been going half a day.” ″I guess that means no then.”

We rode back covering 10 kilometres of our tracks from yesterday then headed south east. We were looking for a mountain pass visible on the Russian map. The plan was to head up and over a huge mountain range standing between us and Orkhon. At Orkhon there was a bridge that would lead us across the river and we hoped to find a shop.

″I counted our pasta supplies this morning,” I said to Tim, ″we only have six days of meals left.” I gasped, ″Maybe the shop in Orkhon will sell Twix.”
″Let’s wait until we’re there.” Tim sensibly, if not rather boringly, suggested.
″I’m going to attempt to eat a saag paneer meal tonight.” The last time we had done this we got sick. ″We’ve got loads left so they have to be eaten at some point. I doubt we could give them away. I can’t see Mongolians wanting to trade their food with some freeze dried spinach and Indian cheese can you?”
″I doubt it.”

We asked a couple of herders along the way if they knew of the road we were looking for. They confirmed its existence and that it would take us to Orkhon. Our camp for the night was due east by a mountain stream. It was breathtakingly lovely and it was wonderful to rest and wash in the cool stream as the temperature had been in the high thirties all day. The horses all drank from the stream and settled down to enjoy an evening of rest. We had a tough day ahead of us. The pass would take us through trees and the horses had not done anything like this that we knew of.

Today had been an exciting day for wildlife. We had seen seven vultures, three kites, a million plus insects and a handful of small, weasel-like rodents scampering across the ground. Sometimes, when we unpacked the tent, we would find the previous night’s insects collected in the tent folds. Today we had crickets, some had died and some were still alive and took their chance of freedom by pinging enthusiastically up and out of the tent.

″I was thinking.”
″Dangerous activity.”
″Maybe, but anyway, I was thinking that there were so many crickets around last night that the horses must have eaten quite a few.”
″Probably, there are rumours of horses eating meat in Mongolia although I’m not sure the protein was cricket.”