A Mountainous Day

Morning came and after watering the horses, packing up camp and loading Captain James and Shar we set off into the mountains. The track we followed ran alongside a stream on our right. Mountains loomed over us on our left, their tops covered with trees. Nearer to us were green rolling hills and an abundance of pastel coloured wild flowers. At one point the path was covered with thousands of butterflies which, as we approached, took flight, swirling around us for two magical seconds. Goat and Mongol Morris shied as the butterflies rose up out of the mud on the track and Goat refused to stay in front frightened by the amount of these winged insects. We continued on the track for seven kilomotres until it turned left away from the stream. We followed it as it led us up a steep logger’s track. The graduation increased, leading us steeply uphill and we had to stop before reaching the top.
“Tim!” I shouted ahead.
“What?”
“We need to stop, my luggage pack has slipped.”
“Oh bloody hell, are you sure?” Tim was annoyed at having to stop on the steep, inconvenient track that was swarming with huge flies. “I really need to sort it out. I do not fancy dealing with a Captain James’ buck in this environment.” To my left the track fell away to steep wooded sides. We stopped and hobbled the horses with great difficulty. The flies descended in their hundreds and feasted on us all, making the horses irritable at this unexplained rest. After much swearing, sweating and swatting the pack was adjusted and re-balanced.

We decided to check our bearings before mounting and realised this was not our track. ″Fuck sake!” I muttered under my breath as we rode the horses down the steep track, back the way we had come, grateful only for the dwindling number of flies as we emerged from the trees. “Tim, can you check the GPS.”
“Already doing it.” I turned to see Tim studying the GPS, holding it attached to the para cord he had used to tie it around his neck. ″In the 1970’s there was definitely a route up and over the trees but I couldn’t see anything other than the path we just tried.”
“Me neither, I did check going up and down. The Mongolians we spoke with yesterday all confirmed we could get to Orkon this way.”
“I know, we must have missed something.”

We followed the track all the way back to where we had turned left away from the stream. We turned left, right would have taken us back to our camp, and soon began climbing up the foothills of the mountain range ahead of us. The climb was steep and Captain James made his frustrations known by clamping his teeth onto the muscle above my right knee and squeezing hard. ″Fuck!” I slapped Captain James’ face away, tears welling up in my eyes ″Fucking horse just bit me.” I rubbed the muscle trying to breathe through the pain and loosing sympathy for Captain James’ struggle lugging 60 kilograms of our stuff up a mountain. Later that night I checked my knee for damage. Captain James had been clever. There was no open wound but a huge bruise that delivered pain for days.

The climb to the top was an amazing feat of the Mongolian horses’ endurance. I took the lead moving Mongol Morris over large logs, through trees and up and around rocky outcrops until we finally reached the top. The horses would not move further so I dismounted; Tim’s horses were not easily led so he followed still sitting. I attempted to lead us down the other side, through thick trees. I noticed some large, circular flattened sections of grass but said nothing. The ground underfoot fell away steeply and I slipped a number of times, quickly jerking my horses to prevent them shying and taking flight. I shouted back to Tim, ″This is too dangerous to continue with especially with two horses each in tow.”
“Okay, let’s go back and have a re-think.”

We climbed back up, Tim still mounted and me walking alongside Captain James and Mongol Morris, trying to steer them around obstacles as they insisted on walking side-by-side. The luggage would get stuck, wedged against a tree or a large boulder and I had to be tough with the horses to get them to stand still whilst I untangled the luggage and re-balanced the load. Eventually we got back to the top and stopped, dismounted and took a rest on a flattish, grassy section. The ground was covered with wild flowers and the air thick with flies. Tim left the horses under my care, climbing higher to see how the land lay. I walked a short distance away from the horses to get away from the flies and also to escape the horses’ agitation. I noticed a large patch of flattened grass, similar to how I imagined a bear’s bed would look and exactly the same as the ones I had seen when we tried to walk down the other side of the mountain. Initially I assumed it belonged to a horse as the size was about right and there was dried horse droppings littered about. I continued to investigate and the lack of fresh horse poo led me to believe that this patch must be the bed of something else. Wolves? I noticed another one, then another and soon my eyes picked up on eight of these beds.

“What are you looking at?” Tim had returned, puffing and sweating after his climb higher.
“Look at these patches of grass.” I pointed a few out to Tim, ″What do you think made them?”
“No idea but they look big.”
“That’s what I thought. Probably best we don’t spend the night up here. How did you get on?”
“I can’t see any way through, it’s too steep. I think our best option is to head over that mountain.” Tim pointed to another mountain west of our location.
I sighed deeply, ″Right, let’s go then.”
“Hang on, I want a rest first.” Tim’s rest was short lived. The number of flies were overwhelming and the horses were becoming increasingly annoyed with them.

The next part of our day was tough, mentally and physically, on all of us. Tim and I still think back to this day and breath a sigh of relief that it ended as well as it did. We did not come close to loosing our lives this day but I nearly lost Captain James when he slipped on a rock climbing up the mountain and fell to lower ground. We spent many hours trying to climb up and over these mountains to reach Orxhon. We saw the valley we wanted to be in many times from above but frustratingly we were never able to get to it no matter how many descents we attempted. The hours passed and my frustration turned to anger and I shouted at the horses and at Tim. The horses became less compliant, more tired and much harder work.

Eventually we conceded defeat, made difficult by the sight of the Orxhon valley, and made our way back towards the camp we had left that morning. That morning now seemed like months behind us instead of hours. On the way back Shar collapsed in exhaustion, his legs buckling under him. Tim got the tired, yellow horse going again. I led with Mongol Morris, showing what felt like very little compassion to my horses, in order to drive us all down and off the mountain before dark. All of us, horse and human, had sweat dripping from each pore. The horses’ legs were shaking with the strain of the day’s work. I still think back to that day and have feelings of sadness for how hard we pushed those horses. I often ask myself “Would I do the same again?” but I cannot answer.

As we descended I realised I had led us off and down the wrong mountain side and we were heading into a thicket of trees. Steep sides stopped us from crossing over to where we needed to be and we continued to descend. A way was found and I led Mongol Morris and The Captain across the many logs that covered the ground. Mongol Morris’ face was crawling with flies and every now and then I would lean over his ears and sweep my hands across. Captain James refused to move over a course of five logs and in order to move forward I needed to turn around, go right then left to cross just one log. Goat and Shar were blocking our way and they refused to move. Tim kept up the pressure on Goat but all the time spent standing meant we were being eaten alive by the files. An hour and a half later and we were down. Each horse increased his speed once he realised where he was and that we were heading back to camp. We found a flat, grassy spot next to the stream and decided to camp there rather than go the few kilometeres back to last night’s spot. Mongol Morris’ back had suffered from today and all the horses were glad to have a back massage and a drink. Tim and I set up camp and collapsed, my body feeling the effects of the day on top of my cold.

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?”
″Sometimes.”
″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.”
″Goodbye.”

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.

″Tim?”
″Yes.”
″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.”

A Chatty Man

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?”
“England.”
“Where are you going?”
“Khovsgol.”
“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?”
“No.”
“Do you eat meat?
“Yes”
“Come to my house for sheep meat.”
Tim asked him, ″Tomorrow?”
“No today!”
″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.

The Arickchin

The man’s bulk was only over-shadowed by his bouquet. He staggered, swayed, wafted. Alcohol and unwashed human perfumed the tent. The man muttered to himself at times raising the volume to mutter at us. This was our first up close meeting with the Mongolian Arickchin. In Mongolian one can add the word “Chin” to the end of certain other words, changing the meaning to signify one’s occupation. For example, “Mal” means livestock, “Malchin” means herder. “Arick” is the word for alcohol, add “Chin” and you have a drunk. This man was obviously very good at his job. In fact if the Guinness Book of Records held a ″How much vodka can you drink?” competition this guy would win for sure.

A loud ″Oi!” rang out across the valley. ″Oi!” The Arickchin cried, suddenly grabbing Tim, who had stood up and gone to the tent entrance with the Bone Setter. The Arickchin grasped Tim’s shoulders and planted a wet, sloppy, drunken kiss on his left cheek, breathing vodka fumes into his face. Tim shuddered and the Arickchin staggered off his motorbike.  ″How the heck did he even manage to ride it here?” Tim wondered aloud. The Arickchin wobbled his way nearer to the inside of the tent and fell over, righting himself to a sitting position. He was so drunk we could not understand a lot of what he was saying.

″Come my house. Meat. Eat meat.”
Tim replied, so as not to be rude, ″Okay. Tomorrow.”
″Come today. Meat. Eat meat.”
″Tomorrow.”

The Arickchin moved abruptly, lunging for the Bone Setter’s head with his dirty paws and stared into his eyes. ″Stop.” The Bone Setter asked. The Arickchin did and proceeded to ask us question after question, all undecipherable. To prevent frustration building up by both parties the Bone Setter placed himself behind the drunk and mimed what he was asking so we could attempt to answer or answered for us.

The Bone Setter suggested to the drunk, ″Let us go outside” noticing that my cramps had increased in severity with the stress of the new arrival.
″No.”
″Come on. We can talk outside.”
″No. Come to my house and eat meat.”
The Bone Setter turned to me, ″Rub your hands together quickly and place them on your stomach when they are warm.” I did so but the pain continued.
Tim turned to me and said, ″Stop acting up.” Thinking it was a ploy to get rid of the drunk.

The Bone Setter got up and moved to the tent entrance, sitting outside the tent hoping to lure the drunk away from us. The drunk fell forward onto his hands and knees and crawled, giggling to himself, out of the tent a little towards the Bone Setter. ″Oi!” He cried out to no-one in particular. ″Let us go to your house.” The Bone Setter said. The Bone Setter walked over to his horse and mounted the gelding as the drunk found his balance and stood up. He staggered first left, then right eventually finding his motorbike and dragging his left leg over the bike stabilizing it between his legs. He tried to start it but it would not jump into life. ″Good, come on let’s go to your house.” The Bone Setter threw encouragement the Arickchin’s way, turning his horse around and riding, in a walk, off towards his Ger. As the Bone Setter left us and our hopes of the Arickchin going left with him, another horse and rider approached. A young man in his thirties from the nearby Ger Tim had approached when we first got here stopped and dismounted his horse.

″Hello.”
″Hello.” We replied.
″Hello.” He said to the drunk.
″Oi!” He replied.
The young herder briefly chatted to Tim and then turned his attention to the drunk. ″Is there a problem?”
″The bike won’t start.” Tim supplied. He tried to get the bike going as did Tim, all of us keen to move the drunk on but no-one could do it.
The Arickhin clumsily tipped his bike and fell to the ground with one leg under the bike and the other flaying about like a maggot warmed by the sun. ″English people.” He mumbled, ″My house, eat meat.” Everyone attempted to suppress a giggle, failing badly. Tim and the herder picked up the motorbike and offered a hand to the Arickchin. He waved them away, happy wallowing in the muddy grass.
The herder told him, “Take my horse home.”
″No! No! I want my horse.”
″This horse is good. Take him.” Still no joy. ″I have many horses at my home. I will get you another.”
″No! No! I want my horse.”

The Arickchin, content rolling about outside our tent, continued to mutter and lounge about in the mud. The young herder rode off leaving the three of us alone. Tim walked to the riverbank and filled a bucket, taking one to each of the four horses for them to drink. Mongol Morris snorted loudly, spinning away scared of the red bucket. Tim left it near him and the horse tentatively sniffed it but declined to drink from it. I walked to Mongol Morris and took off the wound dressing from his cut. It was still infected so I cleaned it gently and dropped iodine into it. The flies had receded into the night so I left the wound open to the air.

The Arickchin had passed out flat on the ground, his loud snores punctuated by drunken rumblings, ″English people,” ″Khovsgol,” ″Horses.” I felt too ill to eat and went to bed on an empty stomach. Tim ate arrul and boov not wanting to cook in case the Arickchin awoke. Eventually Tim and I slept for an hour but woke up about 3 am as the Arickchin rose up and started lumbering about, his huge shadow visible though the tent wall. ″Where’s my bike?” he called. ″English people! My house, eat meat!” We held our breath and stayed still, ready to pounce if the tent zip was touched. Earlier that night Tim had worked out why the motorbike would not start; it was in gear. Tim had taken it out of gear and moved the bike away from our tent, facing towards the Arickchin’s Ger. ″Bike!” He roared, more coherent than when we first met but still with the sound of alcohol on the breath. ″Tim.” I whispered, ″You should go and show him where his bike is and that it works. He might come in here otherwise.” Tim breathed deeply, ″Okay, give me a moment.” A large shadow loomed at the door of our tent and veered off to the right. We heard the motorbike being started but the Arickchin was too drunk to get it working. The Arickchin faintly grumbled but we could not make out what he said as his voice faded away from us moving towards the riverbank. Without warning the looming Arickchin shadow reappeared by the side of our tent. ″Can ride horse. English people have horse.” The tent zip began to open prompting a still fully clothed Tim to leap from his sleeping bag to the door. Tim opened the tent and stepped outside, closing it behind him.

″Hello.”
″Hello, English friend.” The Arickchin had sobered up enough for us to understand most of what he said. ″Can you help me with my bike?”
″Of course.”
″It will not work.”
″I can help. It is okay.” Tim led them both away from the tent to the bike and started it first time. ″Yes!” I whispered under my breath and as suddenly as he swooped on us, the Arickchin was gone.

The Bone Setter

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.

″Hello.”
″Hello.”
″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.

Water, water everywhere – You know the rest

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.
″2 years.”
″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?”
″Khovsgol.”
″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.”
″What?!”
″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.

Friendly Valley

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;

″Hello!”
″Hello.”
″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.
″2 pm.”
″It is early but I have had enough already.”
″Do you want to stop?”
″Yes!”
″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.”
″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.”