A Day with Dasa

I woke up around 7 am and checked on the horses who were lazily nibbling at the ground.  I wandered away from our tent towards the tallest clump of wiry grass I could find to go to the toilet; Daasa’s family not having anything more suitable.  The women were up and had begun the day’s milking.  I filled our water container from the family’s supply kept by the side of their Ger and decided to have a sink wash and to wash my t-shirt as best I could.  The day was already hot, dry and dusty.  The sink wash was lovely, especially after yesterday’s hard ride and my t-shirt looked cleaner after a rinse in cold water even though it immediately turned muddy.  I hung my green t-shirt to dry on the side of the tent and wearing a fleece I walked into Daasa’s Ger. His wife and daughter-in-law were cooking and I sat, watched and drank the bowl of milky, salty tea they gave me.

“What are you making?”  I asked.
“Arrul.”  Bolormaa, Daasa’s wife, replied.  ″Would you like to try?”
“Yes please.”  I jumped off my stool and sat cross legged on the floor by the Ger door while Bolormaa and her daughter-in-law showed me what to do.  One had to take a lump of the curdled yogurt, that had been left in a sack outside in the sun for a few days, and mould it into a shape.  There were different shapes that were considered acceptable and this family favoured rectangles and one that had been squashed into the back of one’s fingers giving it a ruffled look.  It was decided that I was very bad at making the ruffled shape, the daughter-in-law laughed at my attempts and Bolormaa reshaped them.  I was given an enthusiastic ″Good!” with the rectangle shapes and stuck to those.  I was very hungry and occasionally sneaked a lump of curdled yogurt into my mouth.  Tim had now woken and was wandering about outside.  I went to join him.  I’ve been making arrul.  It is one of the things I really wanted to try.”  I told him. ″Oh.  It’s hot today.”  Tim said.  ″At least we will charge the batteries up.”

Daasa appeared on horseback and a truck came tearing up to the Ger, leaving a dust trail behind it.  A rough looking man about thirty got out along with a woman, another man and a group of young children. Daasa’s dogs ran over to the truck, sniffed around the new comers, prompting one of the men to shout and half-heartedly kick at them. The dogs scooted away and sat under the cool of the truck out of the sun.

The people in the truck had come to shear Daasa’s sheep and in return for their help they were to get a huge feast of roasted mutton.  Daasa and his sons stoked a wood burning stove they kept outside in preparation for cooking the meat.  The goat was killed and prepared on site by one of the shearers.  I laid down inside the Ger watching people come and go, drinking tea and chatting, sometimes about us, sometimes about things I could not understand.  Daasa entered the Ger to ask me, ″You will eat with us?”  ″Of course.”  I replied, ″It looks lovely.”  He smiled, left the Ger and continued to cook the meat. I went and got Tim, ″We have been invited to eat horhog with them.” Tim came back to the Ger with me and we sat and waited, lying on the floor.  The smell of the meat roasting was lovely, especially as we had not had much to eat recently and had lost more weight.  Around 1 pm Tim rose to leave the Ger to take up the sides of our tent as the day had gotten extremely hot.  He stood up and Daasa said, ″Sit down!  We will eat in 30 minutes.”  Tim smiled, tried to explain where he was going and left the Ger.  Daasa looked at me, waiting for an explanation.  I did the best I could with the language I had.  ″Tim went to our tent.  Today is very hot.”  I pointed to the bottom of his Ger that had the material lifted up to allow air to circulate and said, ″Our tent, this, needs.”

Tim came back and shortly after the horhog was deemed ready.  The meat was taken out of the fire outside and brought inside in a large metal bowl.  In keeping with the traditional of BBQs the world over, this was clearly not women’s work and Daasa took charge like men often do at a BBQ.  The meat was handed out to the gathered crowd of 14.  There were the shearers, their children, me, Tim and the family.  We were given a small bowl with two hunks of meat, fat and two large bones to chew on.  We gratefully accepted and the roasted meat was a delight to eat.  We finished our bowl and it was swiftly topped up.  Once everyone had eaten their fill we all sat back full and content and rested for an hour.  The men discussed our tack, prompting Tim’s paranoia to grow, thinking they were talking about steeling our horses. I still wasn’t convinced Tim was right about this place as I felt comfortable and thought it odd that before robbing us the family would be so kind.  ″Maybe they want money off us.”  Tim suggested. ″Maybe.”  I said.  ″In which case we should enjoy it.”  One of the shearers said to us, ″You are lucky to know Daasa.  He is a good friend.”  The others all smiled and nodded.  We were asked a lot of questions about our horses and our kit; ″Where did you buy them?”, ″How much did you pay?”, ″Where are your saddles from?” ″How much did they cost you?” ″Can I have them?”  We were told, ″You should sell your horses to this guy and take Daasa’s car to Khuvsgol instead.  It will be easier!”  Everyone roared with laughter.

Earlier that day Daasa had come to our tent and asked Tim, ″Do you still need to go to Dashingillin?” remembering the previous night when we had mentioned it.  ″Yes.”  Tim said, ″I need some boov.”  Daasa smirked, Tim and I looked at each other but thought nothing more of that smirk until we had finished our ride and were recovering in Khovsgol at our friend Serdamba’s house.  One morning we decided to walk to the local shops and asked Serdamba, ″Do you need anything? We need to get some boov.”  Serdamba laughed and said, ″You must never say boov on its own.  You must always add what type of boov it is, like narrin boov.  If you do not say this you are saying something bad.”  He chuckled at the thought of us saying ″something bad”. ″What have we been saying?”  Tim asked, thinking back to Daasa’s smile.  ″Penis.”

Daasa now, as if to prove what a great friend he was, said to Tim, ″I will take you to town then you do not have to ride there tomorrow.  It is no good for the horses.”
“Okay.”  Tim said.  ″Thank you.”
“You will have to pay me.”  Daasa laughed and made a gesture with his right hand, rubbing his fingers together to indicate money was required.  The others in the Ger all laughed.
“How much?”  Tim asked.
Daasa shrugged and said, ″Let’s go.”

Tim followed Daasa outside to his collection of vehicles and it was decided they would go to town on the motorbike.  Daasa asked Tim ″How much fuel will you give me?”  Tim replied, ″I’ll fill the bike up.” Daasa said nothing and they roared off towards Dashingillian.  The shearers left soon afterwards and quiet fell once more upon Daasa’s Ger.

I went to the tent to have a rest but was followed by Bolormaa.  She laid down on Tim’s bed as I stretched out on mine and we chatted. Bolormaa asked me.

″How long have you been married?”
“7 years.  You?”
“25 years.”
“Wow!  That’s a long time.”  I said.
“Do you have children?”
“No.  I do not think we will have any.”
“Why?”
“Err.”  I never knew how to answer this question as to say I did not want children was to potentially insult the women and I did not have the language skills to explain how different things were in my country. ″Can not.”  Was the only thing I mustered.
“Have you seen a doctor?”
“Errr yes.”  I continued to lie hoping this conversation would end soon.
“I am a doctor.”
“Are you.  I did not know that.”  I replied.
“Yes.  Do you still have to go to Dashingillin tomorrow?”
I breathed a sigh of relief at this turn.  ″No.”  I got Batdrack’s letter, explaining our trip, out of my saddle-bag and handed it to Bolormaa. She read it carefully and said, ″I know Batdrack’s friend too. He is out of town.”
“Oh, okay.”
“That means you do not need to go to town tomorrow.”
“No.”  I got the map out and we spent some time looking at the route we had travelled and were to travel.
“Call me when you get to your friend in Khovsgol?”  Bolormaa asked.
“Okay.  What is your number?”  We swapped telephone numbers.
“It is too hot in your tent.”  It was, the afternoon had become unbearably hot, and I was glad to not be riding.  ″Come to my home, it is cooler.”

We left the tent together and entered the Ger.  Bolormaa laid down at the back on the right hand side and I on the left.  Her sons, daughter-in-law and grandson were all laying down already.  The bottom of the Ger canvas covering had been lifted up to let the air circulate and there was an occasional breeze, like a hair-dryer blowing warm air across one’s face, but it was gratefully received by all.  I slept for an hour and it helped prevent a bad headache I had coming on due to dehydration and tiredness.  When I awoke Daasa’s eldest son, Dashingeorge was sleeping between me with his wife and his baby son on his other side. He rolled right onto his side to face me.  I startled as he was very close and I had just woken up.

“What food do you eat?”  He asked.
“Errr meat, spaghetti, boov.”  I replied.
“Is it English food?”
“Yes some is and some is Indian food.”
“Is it nice?”
“It is okay.”
“Is it cold in England?”
“Sometimes.  Not as cold as Mongolia is in winter.”
“Do you have horses?”
“Yes in England.  I do not own a horse.  Too expensive.”
“Why?”
“Errr, food is expensive, horses live inside often in England and that is expensive.  Land is expensive.”
“Are horses expensive?”
“Some are very expensive, some are very cheap, some are free.”
“Like Mongolia?”
“Yes, like Mongolia.”

His wife had by now woken up and was eyeing me suspiciously as her husband lay next to me on the floor propped up by cushions, chatting away.  Dashingeorge picked up my diary I had been writing in before I went to sleep, ″I have bites on my bites.”  He read aloud, then turned to his wife, ″Can you read this?”  She looked at it and read some but could not understand it all.  Dahsingeorge swivelled round back to me, ″Are we in here?”  ″Yes.”  I said.  He smiled and turned the pink notebook over in his hands looking at the floral patterns on it. ″Beautiful!”  He mocked in a camp voice.

Tim finally returned after three hours away with Daasa, I had been getting worried but as it transpired there was no need.  Daasa had taken Tim to visit with his sister and a friend, where Tim had been offered another horhog and when he had declined due to being full from the last one Daasa had said, ″Eat. You are too thin.”  Tim had been taken to various shops, including a food market and the Mongolian countryside equivalent of a tack shop.  Daasa had said to him after their errands, ″Would you like a beer?”  Tim worrying that Daasa wanted to get drunk had politely declined and Daasa had bought a can of beer and shared it with Tim anyway.  Tim felt slightly embarrassed with his thoughts as Daasa had just wanted to have one drink with his new found friend.

On the journey back Daasa had stopped to admire a band of horses and to show Tim a snake, slivering away from their bike.  The afternoon was coming to an end by the time they got home and I was pleased to see Tim.  Not just because I knew he was okay but also he had brought two bags of goodies and a bottle of Sprite.  I sat in our tent, not wanting to share the loot with anyone and drank the whole bottle of Sprite, bar two cups I generously gave to Tim.  My headache ceased with the intake of fluids and sugar.  I had not done anything with the horses all day except occasionally make sure they were still close and not in trouble.  Daasa’s eldest son and his friend offered to help Tim take the horses to water and I was glad I could have a whole day off from the horses.  I made Tim promise to not let the young lads gallop Mongol Morris to give his back a full day’s rest and he agreed but the reality was the young lads galloped and Tim did keep up much to their enjoyment.  Both boys fell in love with Captain James and begged Tim to let them have him.  Tim told them both, ″He is my wife’s horse.  You will have to ask her.”  They did and I declined to part with the magnificent, but annoying, beast.  Dashingeorge pestered Tim about our tack.

“Can I have your bridle.”  He asked of Goat’s well made, copper bit bridle.
“No I need it.”  Tim replied.
“Please.  You can have any of these.”  Dashingeorge unhooked a handful of bridles off a peg inside the Ger and showed them to Tim.
Tim eventually gave in, partly because of the unwavering nagging Dashingeorge bombarded him with and partly because it was a good way for us to say ″Thank you” to the family for their generosity and kindness.  Tim later that night looked at his secondhand, battered bridle and sighed, ″It was a nice bridle wasn’t it?”  ″Yes.  I think it was the best we had.”  I replied.

We decided to eat and go to bed early that night but Daasa had other ideas.  We both left their Ger and were just at the entrance of ours when Daasa’s booming voice cried out, ″Tim!  You are helping with the horses.  Sam!  Make buzt.”  I clicked my heels together and saluted him, making Daasa smile slightly and headed inside the Ger to learn how to make butz.

It was good fun cooking tea with Bolormaa and her daughter in law. The TV was switched on and we watched a Korean soap opera dubbed over in Mongolian.  I was schooled in how to roll our butz pastry and how to fill the parcels with chopped meat, that had been smoked in the Ger earlier that day.  I would line the finished dumplings up and Bolormaa would place them in a large, metal steamer over the wood burning stove.  Once a large bowl of butz was cooked, the men were called in for dinner.  The dumplings tasted great but neither of us could eat many much to Daasa’s amazement.  ″Eat!  Eat!  Eat!” he and his wife called out to us.  We were use to eating small amounts and could not convince our stomachs otherwise.  I also struggled with too much meat after seven years as a veterinarian and would often feel ill when I tried to eat it.  This night was one of those nights.  I started to feel cold and clammy and began sweating.  I thought I would be sick and had to sit very quietly and still for ten minutes.  Tim asked, ″Are you okay?  You look pale.”  ″Meat sweats.”  I replied as if it was a recognised condition.

I handed out a questionnaire as part of the research we agreed to undertake on behalf of The Long Rider’s Guild.  When asked what his job was Daasa replied, ″Malchin Majistraa!”  Which translates to Master Herdsman.  A round of photo taking took place and eventually we were able to leave the Ger and head to bed.  It was a bad night, not because of anything to do with the horses who were all fine, but a dreadful sound rung out and I jumped up wondering what was being murdered. I looked out of the tent but could see nothing, I shone my torch around but still nothing.  The screaming and choking continued and I saw a torch beam come flying out of the Ger.  The light flashed over our tent and seeing me Daasa shouted, ″It’s a wolf!”  I don’t think it was, more likely a dog attacking a young goat.

Packing the next morning broke our record and we managed to get packed, loaded and mounted within two and a half hours.  This victory was dampened by the lump on Mongol Morris’ back.  The flies had bitten it and it looked swollen.  I felt for the poor horse and wished I could retire him to a safe, green, quiet field in the English countryside where the flies would seem tame.  Daasa advised me, ″When you stop tonight, pee on a cloth.”  I assumed this suggestion was made as Daasa knew human urine to have antiseptic properties, luckily we had iodine and with the thought of Mongol Morris’s suffering at the front of my mind we set off.

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The Ride to Daasa’s

We rode away from the river we had camped by last night and followed a sandy track that led into the town of Bayan-Knurr, occasionally steering the horses off the track onto its sides to let a motorbike pass.  We turned off the road before reaching the town and rode with our backs to it.  ″Hey Tim!”  I called.  ″I wished we could have visited Bayan-Knurr.  We could have gone to the shops and got food.”  I said dreamily.  That morning we had to ration breakfast to two pieces of tsanni-boov as we were running low.  I turned to Tim saying, ″Mmmmmm, can you imagine how nice a Twix would taste right now?”  Tim smiled and kept riding across the pathless, shrubby ground we were using as a path to reach the lake named Sagaan Knurr.

We rode cross country not passing any people or Gers, eventually coming to a large patch of grass-less and shrub-less earth.  There were signs that a salt lake was sometimes in residence but the water had dried up and all we could see was the residue.  A large bull was herding nearby and I shouted to Tim.  ″Can you see that bull?”  ″Don’t worry.”  He said too late as I was already worried.  The bull changed direction, stood still staring at us and I stared back.  Tim led us along the outskirts of the dried up lake towards a black road and the bull went back to charging at goats and sheep.

We reached and crossed the black road and headed up a very steep, rocky hill, expecting to find the lake at the top.  Half way up was a herder on horseback, watching his goats and sheep.  We waved, shouted “Hi” and continued riding up the hill.  Finally, we reached the top but there was no sign of the lake.  We dismounted, hobbled the horses and while Tim stood with them I walked over the lip of the hill hoping to find the lake.  ″Tim.  It isn’t here.”  I reported back.  ″We must have got lost somewhere.”  Tim said and picked the GPS up from where it was hanging around his neck, tied onto a piece of green paracord.  I took the paper map out and examined it.  We laughed out loud.  ″We have gone passed it.  It is below us and we have ridden too far.”  We looked around about us and saw, by the side of the black road we had crossed earlier, the lake, shimmering as the sun beat down on its surface.

The horses were being driven mad by the flies, which were buzzing around us in vast quantities.  All the horses spooked and I struggled to hold my two and had to engage my core muscles to stop me letting go.  I grabbed the bridle tightly close to both my horses’ bits and held on telling myself, ″Don’t let go.  Don’t let go.”  I managed to keep them both tight and together thus preventing any space that would have allowed them to buck or run.  Tim brought Shar under control but was exhausted in the hot sun, having had no food for hours and very little water.  Tim let go of Goat who stopped close by.  Shar exploded again and tried to gallop off to get away from the flies.  Tim stood his ground and moved Shar round in a circle until Shar had exhausted his energy and stopped.  Tim and I were stressed, angry, hot, sweaty and being bitten to death.  The flies were, under any other circumstances, quite amazing.  There were yellow bodied flies, green bodied ones, large specimens, medium sized ones, small ones and mosquitoes.  Some bit at random, favouring neither human or horse, instead just biting the first piece of flesh their teeth came into contact with, and other, smaller varieties generally annoyed one by buzzing around the eyes and mouth trying to get at any moisture in an attempt to survive the parched, arid atmosphere.  The mosquitoes launched themselves at us all in large groups and bit, and bit and bit.  ″We have to get off this hill.”  Tim desperately pleaded with me.  ″I agree.  Are your horses okay to go?”  I asked.  ″I think so.”  He sighed.  We re-mounted and rode the horses back down the hill we had ridden up, changing course slightly to reach the lake where we hoped to spend at least one night.  Our ride took us down over scrubby ground.  The horses would not settle and the atmosphere felt unusual; a little creepy. We soon realised we were riding though a cemetery.  There were stone memorials left for the remembrance of the dead.  We navigated ourselves away from the graves and tried to move quickly off this hill as Mongolians use sacred land for the burial of their loved ones and we did not wish to be disrespectful.

We reached Saggan Nurr, the white lake, by early evening.  The path off the main track to the lake’s shore was infested with large, yellow mosquitoes.  ″I have bites on my bites.”  I moaned to Tim.  ″I will never, ever again complain about a few bites.”  He replied, and upon reaching Thailand months later neither of us did complain about a few mosquito bites.  Mongol Morris and Goat seemed to be suffering the brunt of the mosquitoe attacks.  Both had lumps over their bodies and Goat’s right eye was swollen almost shut where he had been bitten.  Tim and I rationalised that we could deal mentally with the insects but the horses would not know why they were being asked to stay in the situation and with that thought in mind we used our insect repellent on them instead of on our own skin.

We rode as close to the water’s edge as was possible, dismounted, hobbled and unloaded the pack horses.  The actual lake was some distance away and Tim went first, wading through tall reeds, that swallowed him the further he went towards the water.  I started to unpack our loads and unravel the tent ready to pitch it.  I was so tried, so hot and dehydrated that I refused to see the obvious problems with this site and kept the flame of hope alive in my mind that we would be stopping for a night here.  Tim returned saying, ″It is impossible to reach the water.  We will have to re-load the horses and move on.” ″Are you sure?” I questioned him.  ″Yes.”  ″I want to try.  Do you mind?” I asked, ″Go ahead.  Good luck.”  Tim said.  I attempted to wade through the head height reeds and soon they absorbed me.  What Tim had not mentioned was the boggy, marshy edges that came to meet one.  The reeds by now were higher than me and I could not see anything in front.  The boggy ground grew deeper and the muddy water was too high for me to continue safely.  The flies and mosquitoes had doubled in numbers and I was now accompanied in all directions by thick, black, swarming clouds of insects that bit and whined constantly.  I stood on tip toes and could see the shore still far away, so far away that the flame of hope extinguished.  I heard the muffled hum of a motorbike.  I stood again on my toes and could see a bike driving past where Tim and the horses were, on the dusty track just above them.  I waved and shouted.  ″Tim!  Tim! There’s a bike coming!  Stop them!  Ask for water!”  Tim did nothing, the bike passed and I quietly but determinedly raged internally; that could have been our last chance to get water tonight.  The thought of having to repack and ride again crushed my spirit.  My diary says, ″Today was a shit day.”  and it was.  I returned, hopeless, tired, muddy and with wet feet, to Tim and the horses having not been successful at getting us water.  Tim shouted at me.  ″Why did you start unpacking! We might have to move on again.”  I slumped down to the ground against a rock and sighed.  ″I know, I know.”  I said.  Tim attempted one further mission to the lake’s shore but was unsuccessful and when he returned he said.  ″Come on, let’s get packed up, loaded and find somewhere to stay near a well.”  ″We have about two hours of light left.”  I reasoned, neither of us much energised by this spoken thought.

We rode the horses away from the lake but the flies and mosquitoes continued to bite and sting.  The horses were extremely irritated by these insects that clung to their sides in large clusters and it was hard work motivating them all to move forward not backwards, sideways or diagonally.  We finally left the worst of the insects and found a compacted road.  We followed it to the base of a small hill with a single Ger on top.  ″Come on,” I rallied Tim, ″Let’s ask there if we can stay the night and if they have any water.” We rode up the hill and approached the Ger.  Tim called out, ″Hold the dogs!”  A child, maybe ten years old, came outside and stood by the Ger door.  ″Is your father here?”  Tim asked him.  The lad said nothing and re-entered the Ger.  Soon after four dogs appeared and chased us away, barking and snapping at the horses’ legs and at our feet that dangled low in the stirrup irons.  I turned my head, surprised by this unfriendly act and saw a paunchy man wearing an old, ripped, white t-shirt, turned grey with age and black trousers stumble out of the Ger.  He stared after us, making no attempt to call off his dogs. One tenacious beast would not give up its chase and continued after us, yapping and jumping up at us and our horses.  Tim and I kicked the horses on and shouted at the dog.  A bike, I recognised from being parked outside the Ger, now mounted by its driver, raced ahead of us towards a small wooden hut on our right that we were going to try next.  I said to Tim, ″Do you think we have entered unfriendly territory?” ″I don’t know.  I hope not.”  He replied.  ″That’s two houses down, three more to go.”  I said, referring to the three Gers we could see on the horizon.

The day was getting late and the sun had begun to set.  The sky-line was ablaze with all the wonderful colours a sunset sometimes offers; red, orange, yellow.  It was a beautiful sight and was a small nourishment to our fading motivation.  The ground was bare, with sparse pasture of a poor quality.  Weaving across the land were small streams of dirty, polluted water.  We took the horses to the edges of random streams but each time they sniffed the water, tried to force themselves to drink it but could not.  We push on to a lone Ger, the nearest to us out of the three visible.  Mongol Morris, tired, thirsty and old, walked slowly.  I murmured to him, ″I could crawl faster than you walk.”  But I did not really mind as I sympathised with him, feeling exhausted too.  I briefly tested a technique I had been taught in Australia to get a horse walking faster.  I kicked with my right leg then my left, alternating to mimic a faster walk pattern.  It worked and Mongol Morris sped up with Captain James trailing along but I soon become tired and cross with the effort and when the kicking stopped, Mongol Morris slowed down.

Tim was by now fast fading into the sunset and he reached the Ger first.  A large, strong-looking man shouted at Tim.  ″Stop!  Do not move!  Stay where you are!”.  This dominate male was inside a handmade, wooden corral with 15 horses, a young lad and a woman. Tim drew closer and could see that the woman was milking a mare. He brought his horses to a standstill and shouted.  “Can we put our tent up next to your Ger?”  ″No problem.”  Came the reply.  I had now caught up and both of us began our normal routine of dismounting, hobbling and unloading Shar and Captain James.

The family’s Ger was on a large patch of bare, dry, hard, light brown earth carpeted with goat and sheep shit.  The non-fragrant smell of the animals predominated the air and Tim and I turned our noses up.  The grazing at this camp-site was not great for the horses and we could see no obvious sign of water nearby.  The man who had shouted earlier walked over to us.  He was in his early forties, stocky with large muscular forearms.  He was wearing a blue del with an orange sash, worn low on the hips as is traditional for Mongolian men.  The del was well worn, dusty and spotted with animal hair of one kind or another.

″Hello.”  Tim said.
″Hello.”  The slightly intimating man replied.
″We’re from England.  We are riding to Khovsgol.”  Tim offered.  The man smiled and said nothing.
″Can we put our tent up here?”  I asked, unaware that Tim had already asked.
″Yes.  Put it there.”  The man pointed to a spot of bare earth right beside his home.
″Okay.”  We said.  ″We have no water.  Can you help us?”
″No problem.”  He replied.
″My name is Tim and this my wife Sam.”
″Sam, like the Mongolian word.”  I said, miming the action of using a comb.  My name meaning comb in Mongolian.
The man smiled and the two young men who had joined him laughed.
″I am Daasa.”  He proudly told us.
″Are these your sons?” I asked, pointing to the two young men.  He nodded.

The young lads, one in his mid-teens and the other his early twenties stripped our horses of all their tack, roughly throwing our saddles onto the dirt floor.  ″Wait!”  I cried as they went to take Mongol Morris’ saddle off.  ″He has a bad back.  Leave the saddle for later when the flies are gone.”  The men all turned to look at me and then resumed their task of throwing our things around.  ″Put your tent there.”  Daasa pointed again to the patch of earth next door to his home.  We set up our tent and Tim asked Daasa, ″Where can we put the horses for tonight?” Daasa beckoned Tim to follow him.  We removed Mongol Morris’s saddle, now the flies had abated in the cool of the late evening, and followed with all four horses in tow.  He lead us to a patch of scrubby land covered with the potent smelling plant Wormwood, some distance away from our tent and Tim set up two tethers, walking the distance between each one to ensure the horses’ ropes would not get tangled up.  We put Captain James and Shar on the ground tethers and left the already hobbled Mongol Morris and Goat nearby.

We walked back to our tent-tipi and ducked inside, Daasa followed and sat down.  We had placed the four saddles inside the tent on the left and Daasa picked them up, studying each one.  He told us.  ″You are tired.  You should rest tomorrow.  You can stay here.”  Tim and I smiled but felt too tired and dazed to make a decision one way or the other.  We followed Daasa when he left the tent and while he went off to tend to some of his animals we entered the family’s Ger.  Lying on the bed pushed up against the left hand side of the Ger wall was a lady in her early forties who was Daasa’s wife.

″Sorry.”  I said to her, after sitting down on a low, three legged, wooden stool, close to the wood burning stove in the center of the Ger. ″You are sick.”
″No, not sick.”  She replied, lifting her head from the pillow.  ″Tired.  I am very tired.”  She smiled at us.
″Okay.”  I said awkwardly.
″Get some food and some tea for our guests.”  She instructed the young girl who I found out later was her daughter-in-law.
The young woman lifted a cloth to reveal a wooden shelf by the Ger entrance and sitting on it were bowls, plates and bags of biscuits.  ″Do you want hot or cold tea?” She asked.
″Cold tea is fine.”  I said.  She poured us a bowl of tea from a large metal teapot, brewed earlier that day and left to cool, and handed us a bowl each.  ″Thank you.”  We both said.  We drank the tea and ate some biscuits that were placed in front of us on a wooden table and left the Ger.

Daasa was riding his horse and in front of him was a large herd of goats and sheep he had driven in for the night.  Daasa and his sons were herding the animals into the corral they had had the horses in when we arrived.  The two sons; 15 years old and twenty years old were wearing black trousers, t-shirts and the same black, Russian riding boots that most Mongolian countryside men wear.  The youngest son was slim and looked younger than his years and the eldest son was developing the thickset, strong look his dad had perfected.  The young woman in her late teens who had served us tea, followed us outside the Ger and trailing behind her was a very cute, chubby, baby boy.

″Is this your son?” I asked her.
″Yes.”
″How old is he?”
″18 months.”
″Oh!”  I exclaimed, ″he is so young.”
She smiled and followed the toddling toddler with her eyes.  ″What is his name?”  I asked.
″Chuluun.”  She said.

Chuluun was excited to receive visitors and walked about, unsteadily on his feet, occasionally tipping backwards and sitting with a thump on the dirt.  He would look around, catch someone’s eye and smile a huge grin.  He wandered in and out of our tent, regularly appearing with handfuls of boiled sweets that had to be wrestled from him.  It was clear that all adored him and we quickly grew to feel the same.

With the horses unpacked, tethered and the tent set up Tim and I retired to cook dinner and sleep after our hard day.  Our hands, legs and faces were slightly swollen, red and had raised bumps where the giant, yellow mosquitoes had feasted on us earlier that day.  I had a jar of nappy rash cream for minor irritations we or the horses might get and we liberally smothered this on top of the bites to cool them and prevent us itching.  Daasa appeared in the tent door and sat on one of our beds, that I had blown up earlier.  He gave a large hunk of dried beef to Tim.

″Here,” he said.  ″Have this for your dinner.”
His youngest son had followed in him to the tent and also sat down. ″You need to cook it.”  The son said.  ″Maybe for 5 minutes.”
″Thank you.”  Tim replied.
″You look tired.”  Daasa stared hard at us both.  ″You must rest here tomorrow.”
″Maybe.”  We both muttered, not sure if we could trust this family despite their initial friendliness towards us.

Father and son left us to cook and sleep and putting the dried beef to one side we made our regular meal of spaghetti and a packet of Indian, freeze dried dahl.  ″The GPS is dead.”  Tim said. ″We need a day to charge the batteries.”  He picked up the blue, solar panel charger we had purchased before leaving England.  ″Why don’t we rest here tomorrow then?”  I asked. ″Okay.”  Tim wearily agreed and we cleaned up our dinner things, piling them high into the middle of the tent.  We set the alarm for one and a half hours time and still wearing our dirty clothes we climbed into our sleeping bags and slept.

Hello!

With our luggage packed and horses saddled and loaded, we left Batdorj’s house at 11 am and travelled along the road we had followed yesterday towards the border with Bulgan Aimag. The surrounding countryside changed quickly, the flat, grassy earth merged into gentle sand dunes that grew into miniature sandy hills. We rode up, over and down each one. The grass became abundant and growing out of the ground were small, dark green, thorny shrubs. A few trees attempted to form a forest but were so sparse they gave a thin impression of one. It was funny to see trees. I had not noticed their absence until they were back as part of the landscape. Gers in clumps of two and four sat on top of each of the surrounding hills. We rode up, over, down repeating this pattern for a couple of hours. We saw no-one, no people milling about outside the Gers, not even a dog. The sandy track we were following split and one path went high and the other low. Tim took the high ground, I continued along the lower path. We were able to ride beside each other if I kicked Mongol Morris steadily on and Tim held Goat steadily back. The sun sat high above us, sending its blazing, scorching rays down.

We reached a point where we had to descend off the path down into a valley to keep to our route. Tim stopped his horses, turned to me and said, ″See that collection of Gers to our left?” I turned my head left and acknowledged the Gers, ″Yep, I see them.” Tim continued, ″We need to head towards them.” ″Shall we have a rest first?” I asked. Tim blew a frustrated breathe of air knowing that before a rest came a few minutes of struggle during which we had to convince the horses to accept the hobbles. ″Okay.” He sighed, giving in, feeling too tired and hot to argue. We dismounted and hobbled the horses, an activity that led to Captain James head butting me, producing an outburst of swearing and a threat that would unlikely be fulfilled. ″If you do that again I will head butt you!” Mongol Morris stepped on my left foot then twisted his hoof crushing the protective covering of my riding boot down into the delicate bones of my foot. I cried out in pain, ″Ow! I hate these horses!” I turned to my horses, ″I hate you sometimes!” I shouted. Tim slumped down onto the sand and against a clump of wiry grass having hobbled and tied his horses together. The sun was baking everything below it and the flies swarmed around us. The horses were agitated, standing under the glare of the afternoon sun but they eventually stopped shuffling around and trying to lower their heads to eat and stood, nose to tail, fly swatting for their partner, busily nodding their heads all the while to stop the flies heading up into their nostrils.

We rested high up on a sand dune looking down the valley along our chosen route. The clump of Gers we were to head towards was like a tiny village. The sun was too hot for us to sit for long. The rest provided respite to the muscles used when riding. When riding for long periods of time, no matter how comfortable the saddle and our riding saddles were remarkably comfortable, ones posterior became numb but not in pleasant no feeling type of way, more like a pins and needles, can’t get comfortable, restless type of way. There was no shade to hide from the sun and after less than ten minutes the rest stopped being nice, becoming instead a sun-trap. The slight breeze one sometimes felt when riding had gone and all we had were flies and sun, flies and sun. I stood up and removed my water bottle from the saddlebag I repaired after Captain James’ assault on it the evening we reached Boronbay’s home. I squeezed the sides of the plastic bottle, squirting water into my dry mouth. The bottle had an inbuilt filter, which meant one could (and we later did) drink from puddles or water sources contaminated by animals. The nozzle only allowed one to drink small amounts at any one time and when one was thirsty all one wanted to do was to drink glass after glass of cool, refreshing water. On occasion we both threw caution to the wind and removed the top of the bottle and drank greedily. I often choked on these occasions, my throat being so dry that the gush of water I poured down would cause me to splutter. Tim would always laugh, saying ″What is wrong with you?″ as I coughed and spluttered.

Tim and I remounted and continued to ride northwest. We steered the horses down the large sand dune we had sat upon and rode over scrubby, sandy land towards the small collection of Gers. We turned slightly north to avoid riding up to the Gers and then steered back onto our constant northwest course. The track we were following led us up and out of this valley sparsely populated by humans, plants and animals. The new sandy track took us high up above the valley behind us and for half an hour we walked, slowly, baked by the sun and mildly irritated by the flies. Soon we were able to look down to our left and a beautiful, lush, green valley appeared, teeming with life; cows, horses goats, sheep, an occasional dog lying against the cool fabric of a Ger and people, all busy with various tasks. This valley was low beneath us, framed by steep cliffs. A river ran through the middle along the valley floor and was the lifeblood to all. There were more Gers lined up along the river bank than we had seen yet. I turned to Tim, ″Look at all this life. It’s a little oasis along the river. It’s exciting isn’t it?” Tim replied, ″Yes, in the middle of all this desert it’s luxurious. Let’s head down to the water and see if the horses will drink from the river.” We winded down and along our path, descending into the verdant valley.

As we reached the bottom we stopped briefly to chat to a man on a motorbike. ″Hi,” I said, ″We are English people. We’re from England.” Tim rolled his eyes and said to me, ″You don’t have to say both of those sentences.” I smiled and shrugged to show I had listened carefully to his feedback.
The motorbike man asked us. ″Where have you come from?”
Tim answered, ″Mongol Else, Tov Aimag.”
The man nodded and looked impressed. ″Where are you going to?”
″Khovsgol.” I said.
The man smiled and shook his head as if to say ″No you’re not.” Instead he said, ″Where are you going now?”
″We will camp near Bayan-Knurr.” Tim replied.

The man smiled, waved, started his bike’s engine up and roared off back the way we had just ridden. We continued to ride along a clearly defined, well worn track following the river that snaked through this opulent valley. I waved at and shouted ″Saim banuu?” to a young, male teenager riding on a brown and white gelding. He halted his horse and stared, open mouthed, saying nothing. ″How rude!” I commented to Tim, who smiled at me and continued to lead the way forward with Goat and Shar.

We reached a point where the river widened and it had shallow sides, easily accessible for the horses should they wish to drink. Tim suggested, ″Let’s stop here, have a rest and give the horses a chance to drink.” ″Did Goat drink anything this morning?” I asked, knowing that Goat often let his fear of the unknown rule over his need to drink, eat or rest. ″Not much.” Tim said. We dismounted, hobbled the horses and because I had knee length, waterproof boots on, Tim nominated me to take the horses to water. ″Take two at a time. It will be quicker.” Tim said. ″I don’t think so.” I said shooting Tim a look of disbelief. I took first Mongol Morris who sniffed the water, moved the surface with his soft, velvet nose and took two slurps before meandering up the riverbed slurping as he went, dragging me into deeper water revealing my waterproof riding boots to be anything but. Next to drink was Captain James who did the same thing; sniffed, splashed then slurped at the river water. Tim was becoming irritated at the riverbank. ″Hurry up! The horses are all trying to follow Captain James.” Against my better judgement I allowed Tim to talk me into taking both Shar and Goat to the river once Captain James had finished. Initially neither drank, instead splashing and sniffing, walking up the river then down the river and not necessarily together. I allowed my arms to move separately of one another and eventually both horses took some water.

I returned Tim’s horses to him and suggested a break. ″Shall we have a 5 minute sit down?” ″No.” Came the definite reply, ″It’s too much hassle.” A second man on a motorbike appeared, wearing a blue, light cotton breezy-looking shirt and the obligatory countryside Mongolian man’s black, Russian riding boots.

″Hello.” Tim said.
″Hello.” He said back and then turned to me, ″Hello!” With a tone not unlike Lesley Phillips, ″You are very cute!”
Not quite catching what he said at first I replied, ″Hello.”
Tim smiled and in English said, ″He just called you cute.”
I turned the words the Mongolian new arrival had said over in my head and blushed. ″Oh, err, thank you.” The man held his hand out to me and shook it whilst giving me a, ″Well, what do you say you and I head over to that there hill?” kind of look. I smiled awkwardly and looked at Tim pleading for help. Tim continued the conversation. ″We are from England. We have ridden from Mongol Else in Tov Aimag and are riding to Khovsgl.”
″Really!” The man exclaimed. ″Where will you stay tonight?”
Tim replied, ″Not sure. Near Bayan-Knurr maybe.”
″You both speak good Mongolian.” He complimented us.
″Thank you.” We both said.
″Are these Mongolian horses?”
″Yes. They are desert horses.”
″How much did you pay for one horses?”
″$200.” We lied.
He smiled approvingly. ″Where are the saddles from?”
″The riding saddles are from England and the luggage saddles are from America.”
″Really!” He exclaimed again. ″Are you tired?”
″A little bit.” We both replied.
″How old are you?” He asked me first.
″35” I lied, ″My husband is 38.” I said truthfully.
″Do you have children?”
″No we have no children. Do you have children?
″Yes, I have two children. One boy and one girl.”
″How old are you and how old is your wife?” I asked hoping these reminders of his family obligations would stop him eyeing me up.
″I am 36 years old and my wife is 26 years old.”
″Your wife is young. That’s good.” I said. It didn’t do much good and he continued to smile and stare at me.
In English I said to Tim, smiling all the time. ″He seems friendly but I don’t trust him.”
″Me neither.” Tim replied through a fake smile.
″Where have you been?” My admirer asked.
Thankfully this was a genuine Mongolian countryside question rather than the poor English chat-up line that ends, ″…all my life?” Tim answered the man and told me to get the map out.

I walked to Mongol Morris and removed our paper map from one of the saddle bags. I opened the map and the three of us squatted on the ground in front of it and discussed our route and places the man recognised. ″There is where my family lives.” He pointed, ″And there is where my friend lives.” After twenty minutes we decided to leave. The man insisted on helping first Tim by removing Shar’s hobbles and handing him to Tim when he was seated on Goat and then his full attention returned to me. ″I will help you” He shoulder barged me out of the way as I attempted to remove Captain James’ hobbles. I moved round to Mongol Morris’s left side and placed my left foot in the stirrup iron. Our friend helped me up onto my horse but did it using a most unusual technique – he grabbed my right buttock with his hand, squeezed it and pushed me up and into the saddle. With Tim already mounted it was up to me to deliver some form of justice. I shouted at the man, telling him, ″You are a bad person! Very bad! Did you see what he just did?” I called to Tim. ″No, what happened?” He asked. ″He just grabbed my bum.” ″Oi!” Tim scowled at the man, ″What do you think you are doing?” The man smiled, having had his wicked way and held his hand out to me. ″Only joking.” He grimaced, turning to Tim and saying, ″No harm. I was only joking.” We both shook our heads and rode off, hoping to see no more of this person.

We forged ahead, following the river along the valley floor looking for a well so we could set up camp for the night. We found one and asked a nearby man, ″Is that well water clean?” ″No” he replied, ″It is okay for your horses but will hurt your stomachs.” We kept moving along the valley floor, continuing to let the winding river guide us. Eventually we left the river and the valley flattened out, the landscape became broken and marshy. We rode on past the little oasis because the GPS said we would find a well nearby. There was a type of stinging nettle all around us and the horses appeared to dislike this new plant and spooked. Tim and I kept control of them but the atmosphere changed becoming tense. We continued to move northwest. On our left hand-side was a large enclosed space that appeared to be a mini-vegetable farm. The rectangular enclosure was fenced in all around and at one end were three small huts and a large tower we assumed was a water tower. There was no-one working and it looked empty but maintained. The town of Bayan Knurr was in the distance on our right hand-side. It was still far away enough that everything looked small like a Lego town. We hoped to find a well without approaching the town, partly because it was a couple of hours riding away and we were tired and partly because camping near a town could cause problems for us. We noticed three Gers, spaced out along the horizon, maybe twenty or thirty minutes ride away.

″Shall we head to the closest one and see if we can camp near them?” Tim asked me.
“Okay.” I replied and we approached said Ger.
A small, young child in grey ripped trousers and a t-shirt with holes in stood outside the Ger. ″Hold the dogs!” Tim shouted but no dogs came running and barking.
We stayed sitting on top of our horses. ″Hello.” I said to the child. ″Is your father here?” The child turned around, saying nothing and headed inside the Ger.
Shortly after a man appeared and waved at us, ″Hello. It’s me! It’s me!”
It was him, our bum grabbing friend. I fixed a fake smile on my lips and said to Tim in English, ″It’s that bloody man again.”
Tim squinted and a look of recognition spread over his face. ″Oh no.” He groaned. ″Let’s go.”
Our friend walked towards us with his young, attractive, heavily pregnant wife walking behind him, supporting a small child on her right hip. ″Theses are my friends.” He told his wife. ″They are from England.”
She smiled at us both as we waved to her. “Hello.”
″Why have you come to my home?” He asked.
″We are looking for a well.” Tim replied. ″Do you know where the well is?”

We got no sense out of the man as to the well’s location and after ten minutes of trying we left, turning the horses around and riding back the way we had come. He followed soon after we had left, also on horseback leading a young, grey gelding. He rode fast, cantering up behind us and this spooked our horses. I shouted out to him, ″Be careful!” ″You be careful!” He shouted crossly back at me. ″Hold your horses tight.” I tutted to myself and the guy eventually rode away from us. ″Hey Tim, I hope we don’t see him again.” ″Yes, indeed. Let’s hope he doesn’t want to visit us in the night.” We decided to ride back the way we had come, to the end of the valley where the river drained into marsh. We figured that we could use the water from the end of the river to sustain us and the horses for one night. We rode over the sandy soil, our horses watching where they placed their feet as the land was uneven with scrubby tufts of grass. We reached the river end and noticed a dark blue, ridge tent erected. “Let’s stop here.” I asked Tim, tired and weary of the day’s ride. “We can filter this water for us and the horses should drink from the river.” “Okay.” He replied. “This looks like a nice space and there are at least other people camping here.” We stopped near to the tent, dismounted and hobbled all the horses, as always tying the reins and lead ropes back to the saddles to prevent the horses eating and thereby walking away from camp. We unloaded Captain James and Shar to rest their backs and while I sat, leaning against a muddy, cream, canvas parcel, Tim walked up a slight slope to a Ger pitched where the land flattened. He asked the man of the Ger if we could stay for one night and was told it would be okay.

Our fellow campers emerged from their tent and walked over to us. “Hello.” Said the overweight, fifty year old woman with dark, short hair.
″Hello.” We replied, noticing she was wearing a white t-shirt and dark blue slacks; city clothes.
Tim continued, ″We’re from England.”
”We’re English people.” I chipped in, then explained where we had come from that day.
″Are these your horses?” She asked, looking over to where the four had been left to stand while we set up camp.
″Yes. They are Mongolian horses.” I said.
Tim, thinking the older man with short, brown hair, a blue sweater and dark tracksuit bottoms, who had approached with the woman, might be a family member of the Ger he had approached earlier, asked him, ″Is it okay if we camp here for one night?”
The man nodded and the woman smiled and said, ″Yes, of course.”
″Where are you from?” I asked her.
″We live in Dashinjillin about 30 kilometers from here.” The woman explained.
″Is this your family?” Tim asked, pointing to the Ger situated up the gradual slope.
The woman laughed, ″No, we are on holiday.”
″Is this your husband?” I asked pointing to the man.
″Yes.” She replied. ″Is this yours?” She pointed to Tim and I nodded and both of us laughed.

The woman and her quiet husband helped us erect our tent and when it stood tall the woman guided me to her own temporary home. ″You must be tired.” She said. ″I am.” I replied. She directed me to a low camping chair inside her tent and handed me a copper coloured bowl, filled with water. ″This is safe, clean water.” She told me. I drank, grateful to be able to taste more than a tiny squirt of the cool water. ″Do you have drinking water?” She asked. ″No, but we can get it from the river.” ″It is okay for your horses but not safe for you.” She told me and not knowing how to explain about our water-filter without showing her I merely nodded. ″Have this.” She waved her hand over to a ten litre water container. ″We are leaving tomorrow and will not need it.” ″Thank you. Thank you very much.” I said. She took the copper bowl from me and refilled it with water, giving it back to me with a handful of boiled sweets and some mouldy tsanii boov. I felt a pang of guilt that I was sitting, resting whilst Tim was working in the hot, dusty, dry sun, but it passed.

After leaving the camping couple’s tent, I gave the horses a brush and a back massage. Captain James stretched out his neck and wiggled his lips in enjoyment. Captain James was looking sleek, glossy and fantastic, the good pasture we had found so far had clearly invigorated him. Tim wondered aloud, ″Sam. Do you think you should continue brushing CJ? He is looking rather fab. these days and I worry that he might get stolen.″ I laughed and said, ″Maybe we should tether him close to the tent at night.” ″Good idea.” Tim replied and that night and for a few after we tethered him near to the tent. All the horses had improved in condition, even Mongol Morris had put on some weight, but Captain James positively shined. Mongol Morris still had a lump on his back but it had not gotten worse. This night I gently massaged the area around it and the old horse stood still letting me rub his back, not shrinking from pain which was a small relief but the lump still gave us cause for concern.

That night we had eleven people in our tent. The camping woman led the party and brought the women of the nearby Ger to us who in turn brought us a large, glass jar of sweet yogurt that they insisted we ate there and then. ″Is it tasty?” They asked. ″Yes, very nice.” We replied to everyone’s delight.

The rest of the group was made up of two men who were driving past in their white van. ″What’s happening?” They shouted out, pulling up to the side of our tent-tipi. ″A party!” The camping woman said. ″Do you want to come in?” ″Okay.” The truck got parked and the two men entered our tent. We exchanged greetings and the men, excited by this new adventure, picked up and examined our saddles, asking lots of questions; ″Where are these from?”, ″How much did they cost?”, ″Are they comfortable?”, ″Are they safe?” We replied to each question in turn until the men’s curiosity was satisfied. Three young children had come along with the Ger women and although they said nothing they watched the proceedings with wide opened eyes. I offered them regular fixes of boiled sweets and they chewed and stared.

Eventually the party disbanded and Tim and I got some peace and quiet. We ate dinner and prepared for sleep. On my watch I could not find Goat. The night was dark and I had to leave the tent and walk about in the early hours of the morning, rolling my torch light first to the left then to the right. I walked around searching but could not see the brown and white gelding. I thought about waking Tim up to ask for help but knew he would be cross if I had not been thorough. I continued until I saw the familiar outline of a horse kneeling on its front legs, nibbling at the grass. ″Goat!” I exclaimed to myself. I walked over to him, removed the hobbles and led him back close to camp. I turned myself in and slept until the next alarm two hours later. Morning finally arrived and we packed up along with the camping couple, who were returning home that day. I could not help but feel a pang of jealously when I looked over to their camp. They had a four wheel drive and would be returning to a static house, all things known rather than forging ahead into the unknown like us. The plan today was to ride to Bayan-Knurr, a lake we would reach by riding northwest and crossing a black road. We were eager to camp by a lake and talked about how we would have a full body wash and I became animated talking to Tim about how I could wash my hair, which had by now become lank, greasy and stuck to my head like someone had coloured in my scalp with a dark brown felt-tip. We contemplated having a rest day and enjoying the peace and quiet and convenience of the lake.

Privatisation

The next morning came and Tim said to me, ″For the first time ever I feel dread at the thought of riding.”
“Don’t blame you.”  I helpfully replied.  As we pulled the tent pegs out of the dry, hard ground I asked Tim, ″Do you think we could concentrate on and only talk about riding to Khatgal?  I find it overwhelming to think of the whole scope of our project.”
Tim barely took a breath before he answered.  ″Okay.”  That small, casual word had a big, serious affect on me.  The weight of the trip that had laid heavily on me was lifted.  Riding to Khatgal, visiting with our friend Serdamba and his family, was manageable in my head.  Riding to Bayan-Olgii was like trying to imagine being seventy when one is twenty.

A man rode over to our half packed camp on horseback and dismounting he hobbled his horse’s two front legs with the reins.  A skill I never learned and wish I had.  He squatted down, near his horse and took a small pouch of tobacco out from inside his blue, worn del and rolled a cigarette with cut up rectangles of old paper.  He lit the hand-made cigarette and asked us:
“Where are you from?”
“We are from England.”  Tim informed him.
“We’re English people.”  I helpfully added.
″Where are you from now?”
Tim said, ″We are from ″Mongol Else”, Tov Aimag.”  Adding how many kilometres it was from our current position.
The man hummed and nodded again.  ″Are these Mongolian horses?”
“Yes.  The saddles are English and American.”  Tim told him.  The man walked up to the horses and slapped the riding saddle seats enthusiastically, making Mongol Morris jump.  The pack saddles got a sideways glance, nothing more and the man returned to his horse and sat back on his haunches.

An engine could be heard in the distance and coming toward us was a white, rusty car.  The car pulled up to the well and the driver leaned out of the wound down window.  ″Hello,” he greeted the horseman. ″Hello,” the horseman returned.  The car was filled with Mongolians, ranging in age from ten years to mid-thirties and a mix of men and women.  The horseman relayed what he knew about us, all the while the driver and passengers stared at us, curious about the temporary visitors.  ″Hello.”  I waved at the car. ″Hello” came the reply.  ″Where are you from?”  The driver asked and even though the horseman had already told him I shouted back, ″We’re from England.  We’re English people.  Where are you from?”  The driver flung his hand around to a hill behind us.  ″Over there.”  I asked one of the customary questions. ″Where are you going?”  ″Home.  Over there.”  Came the reply.

A friend of the horseman rode up on a small, brown gelding.  He chatted with the car load of people, he also wanted to know where we had come from and were going to.  The new visitor and his friend looked over our saddles.

″How much is one of these?”  The new man asked.
″Very expensive.”  I smiled.  ″They are from England.”
″How many dollars?”  The man asked again and I turned to Tim and in English said, ″What price should we give?”
“Errr, say they are ″$200.”
I explained the pause in replying, switching back to Mongolian.  ″We don’t have dollars in England, we have pounds.  They cost $200 for one.”
″They are good.  They are beautiful.”  He complimented us.

The horseman wanted to help us as we began to mount the horses.  ″I will help.”  He told us.  We let him remove the pack horses’ hobbles and he handed them to us when we were sat comfortably atop our riding horses.  The whole group waved us off.  The second horseman shouted, ″Are you sure of the direction of the road to Bayan-Knuur?” Bayan-Knurr is a town and is over the Tov Aimag border in Bulgan Aimag.  We were excited about leaving Tov Aimag.  It felt a massive achievement.  ″The road is over there.”  Tim pointed to our track ahead.  ″Okay.  Safe journey.”  The horseman shouted and we moved away from the Gers, the well and the black road.

All around us were large groups of goats and sheep and horses.  I counted fifty horses, moving together, staring at our horses, some of them keen to make contact.  The land was being grazed within an inch of its life and there were small streams winding across the otherwise empty landscape.  The sandy, compacted, wide road we were to follow to Bayan-Knuur stretched out in front of us.  We followed this path for five kilometres when Tim’s horses spooked again.  Tim quickly steered them into a circle and they cantered him round and round.  Tim held on to them both but risked falling as Shar’s strength threatened to unseat him.  He stayed put and when the horses stopped we dismounted, hobbled them all and took a rest to let our heart-rates decrease.  The landscape had become desert-like again, the earthy soil changed to yellow sand.  The grass reminded me of the long, wiry blades found nestling in the sand at Winterton-on-Sea, Norfolk.  The wind blew softly and the breeze temporarily cooled our hot bodies.  Tim and I sat, glad to be off the horses and for five minutes we ignored the animals as they shuffled round together, trying to find the right position to stand in, swishing their tails and bobbing their heads.

We mounted and continued along our way.  Two men on a motorbike come up the track and although we were walking on the road side it was not enough distance for the horses and they all shied, moving away from the roar of the bike’s engine.  The two men waved us away from the track and I heard them say ″You, you you you.”  For a second my brain worked only in English and I remarked to myself, ″Have they seen us before?”  I remembered they were not speaking my first language and realised what they had actually said was, ″What?  What?  What?  What?” as a response to the sight of these two foreigners with four horses.  The bike riders’ faces wore an expression we were to become extremely accustomed to during the course of our trip; an expression of astonishment which said, ″Now I’ve seen everything!” They turned around and drove behind us, the horses shot forward slightly in surprise and then calmed down.  One of the men said something to Tim but he could not make it out.  We steered the horses back onto the sandy track and continued to ride northwest towards the border with Bulgan Aimag.

Ten minutes later we saw a large dust cloud ahead of us and could hear faint cries.  Tim turned to me and yelled, ″It’s a horse-race!” We moved off the race track as fast as possible to get away from the racing horses to prevent our equine friends from joining in. We moved just in time to avoid the thundering of horses’ hooves.  We stopped at the side of the track and turned our horses so their backsides faced the race giving us a better chance of stopping them if they decided to join in.  Twenty children galloped down the race-track towards us, dust clouds puffed up into the air.  Proud fathers on motorbikes rode alongside the children and shouted out, ″Faster, faster!”

We stood, heads turned to watch the young jockeys.  The children, distracted by us, briefly slowed down to stare.  As they passed us they remembered the task at hand and raced off, loudly whooping and animatedly whacking their horses, willing them to go faster than the one in front.  From what we saw, the average age was around twelve years old and only one was wearing a riding hat.  The excitement quickly raced past us and the dust settled back to earth.  The road resumed its original purpose and we continued to walk along it, heading towards a well Tim had plotted for tonight’s camp.  Tim navigated us to the supposed spot but no well was there.  A chubby man, in a white t-shirt and jeans, close to us in age was riding nearby and I waved to him, hoping he would come over and direct us to the well.   My plan worked and he rode over to us.

“Saim banuu?”  We greeted him.
“Sain.”  He replied.  ″Do you want to rest?
“Yes.  We want to get water for our horses then put our tent up.”
“You can use my well.  I built it.”  Tim and I checked with the other to ensure we both understood what this friendly man had said and as he rode off, we followed.

He took us to a white concrete hut with a blue roof.  The wood door had a substantial padlock on it and the man instructed us, ″Wait here. I will get the key.”  We dismounted and hobbled the horses and waited, perched on the edge of the grey concrete trough attached to the hut.  After five minutes Tim said, ″Do you think it will be okay to camp here?”  ″I would have thought so.  He didn’t say we couldn’t stay.”  I replied.  ″Let’s unload Shar and Captain James then.  Get the heavy load off their backs.”  Tim said.  We stood up, walked to Shar and while I held his bridle Tim untied and removed the canvas sheet that covered the panyards.  Just as we had finished this the Mongolian returned, horseless in a shiny, new-looking four wheel drive, with the key to the hut.  He unlocked the blue door and we peered inside.  The hut contained a diesel generator attached to a pump.  The herder started the generator and as the engine turned over water began to flow into the trough.  The horses hobbled over to the edge and began drinking.  Two black, fierce looking dogs had followed the man when he returned to the well and sniffed around us.

“Get away!”  He growled at them, both dogs obeying immediately.
“I am frightened of dogs.”  I told him.  ″Are they okay?  Are they safe?”
“No problem.”  He reassured me.

Tim introduced us and asked the herder his name, ″Batdorj” came the reply.  Batdorj dislodged the hose attached to the hut that fed into the trough and flicked it towards Shar.  Tim and I realised what he was doing too late to stop him and Batdorj ‘helpfully’ filled our five litre water container while it was still in the panyard that was still on Shar.  Shar nervously shuffled about and I grabbed his bridle close to the bit to stop him throwing a wobbly.  Tim tried to funnel the fast flowing water into the container rather than flooding the panyard and wetting all our things.  Batdorj said, ″Is that enough water for you?”  Tim answered, quickly, ″Yes.  That is fine.  Errr thank you.”

Tim then asked Badorj, ″Can we camp here for one night?” Batdorj said, ″Put your tent here, near the well.”  He drove off up a small hill to the top where his two Gers were sat.  Tim and I set up camp.  I found it tough to do the simplest things, ″I am so tired and hungry.”  I complained to Tim, ″Me to,” he sighed.  Once our home had been recreated, we sat inside the tent and I boiled up a billy can of water so we could rest over a mug or two of Coffee King.  ″I don’t normally drink coffee.”  I said to Tim, ″but I love Coffee King.  I think its all the sugar they put in in, it makes me feel like I am eating something.” Tim smiled and when the water boiled we drank quietly glad to be resting.

Batdorj returned in his car and Tim went outside to meet him.  ″Hi.  Would you like to come and drink coffee with us?”  Tim asked. Batdorj accepted and sat inside our tent looking around at the contents.  I made him a mug of Coffee King and offered our red, plastic, origami bowl full of sweets.  He took a couple and the three of us sat, drinking and crunching sweets before we spoke any more.

I asked Batdorj, ″Do you have any children?”
He smiled and replied, ″Yes, I have three children.  They are five, seven and four months old.”
“Ahhh,” I sighed, ″A tiny baby.”  Batdorj nodded and smiled again.
He picked up our axe and turning to Tim asked, ″What is it for?”
Tim said, ″I use it to make the ground tethers for the horses and when we get to Khovsgol I will cut wood.”
Batdorj laughed and said, ″You can use it as a weapon against bad people.”  He acted out chopping ″bad people” down.
We all laughed and Tim said, ″This,” he picked up and patted the axe affectionately, ″This is my friend.”
“What price did you pay for the horses?”  Batdorj inquired.
“$400 for one horse.”  Tim lied, telling Batdorj half of what we actually paid.
“That is an okay price.”  He told us.

At 8:30 pm Batdorj left us for the night.  I took our portable sink to the well and filled it up with the remaining water.  I carried it back to the tent, sloshing water over the sides but enough remained for me to have a sink wash.  It felt lovely to wipe away the heat and dust of the day.  I stroked my arms, enjoying the silky, soft feel of clean skin. We maintained our two hour watches although neither of us felt threatened in the night as Batdorj’s large, competent guard dogs patrolled our camp.  I was grateful the horses didn’t require any attention as I did not think I would have had the courage to leave the tent and risk one of the dogs coming to investigate.

The only sounds we heard that night were the enthusiastic sniffing of dogs checking their territory and the reassuring sound of horses grazing.  The sky was a black canvas sprinkled with stars that glittered and twinkled like an expensive diamond when it catches the light.  The moon rose high, shining softly down on our camp emitting enough light to enable us to check on the horses without leaving the comfortably safety of the tent.

Onwards and Upwards

Morning arrived and we were packed up ready to load the horses by 8:30 am.  The sky was dark and grey angry clouds enveloped any blue.  The heavens opened and threw down bucket after bucket of rain.  I had lost my waterproof coat on the first day of our ride and I had to make-do with a jumper for warmth and waterproof trousers to keep dry.  The rain beat down on us like bold wings, forcing us to cover the kit and to leave the horses tied to the high line, ready and saddled.  We walked to Boronbay’s Ger hoping to sit a while, wait out the rain and to dry off.  As we entered the Ger we were met by a hive of activity.  Boronbay and Togso were off to their second home by the Tuul River today and Togso was busy opening drawers, pulling back curtains and shaking and folding clothes, cleaning surfaces and organising piles of things; what was to travel to their summer home and what would stay for their return.  Their granddaughter was causing an unwelcomed distraction by refusing to wear her pink, cowboy boots.  ″I want to wear these” she whined, clutching a pair of pink, heeled sandals, totally unsuitable for the wet weather.  ″Put these on.”  Togso waved the cowboy boots at her and a battle ensued. I joined in.  ″These,” I pointed at the pretty little boots, ″are beautiful. Very beautiful. ” The young girl scowled at me, not willing to take the bait.  ″I want to wear these.”  She cried.  Eventually Togso’s daughter grabbed her and pushed the boots on to much howling and wriggling. Once on, they were swiftly removed.  ″No!”  At this point we gave up and left her to play outside in the rain and get wet feet in the pink, high heeled sandals.

Boronbay had been absent during this battle of feminine wills.  He had been arranging a white truck to pack their home onto.  He ambled into the Ger and asked Togso, ″Are you ready to load yet?”  She stopped what she was doing and left the Ger.  The next door kitchen Ger had been dismantled so all that was left was a crumpled pile of white canvas and wood; the Ger’s skeleton.  This heap was gathered up by Boronbay and his friend the herder and loaded onto the truck. Togso supervised.  ″Don’t forget this part.  Be careful.”  The larger Ger was emptied of all useful and necessary items and left standing; the wooden door padlocked, sealed until their return later that year.  Tim and I sat watching the house move, enjoying the action.  45 minutes passed and Boronbay joked.  ″You have been here so long you are like our family now!”  Tim laughed.  ″We try to leave but we cannot!”  Finally the rain ran dry and we headed over to the high line, the horses and our luggage.  We loaded Shar and Captain James and mounted our riding horses and Boronbay handed us our luggage horses one at a time.

″Thank you.  You are good people.”  We declared to Bornbay and Togso who came to see us off.
″You are welcome.  Stay safe.  Be careful.”  They waved and we rode with our backs to them and their remaining Ger with a heavy hearts, sad to be leaving that comfortable and safe place we had thought of as home for four nights.

We headed further away from Boronbay, Togso and their spring residence riding along a track northwest.  As we lost sight of our new Mongolian friends we saw, on our right and in the distance on our left, two more Gers.  Dogs sat outside each and people moved in and out of their Gers, busy with tasks.  Sometimes one of them would look over to us but nothing more was said or done.  We rode up and over green, grassy hills down into a large, wide open valley.  Two Gers sat erected on either side of the broad, extensive valley otherwise the space was deserted with only the sky and the earth running on into the distance.  There were dark, foggy, undulating shapes crossing our distant line of sight, which as one rode closer formed into rugged mountains.  Two teenage boys were riding ahead of us.  ″Hold on tight Tim!” I warned him as the boys galloped towards us.  Tim’s horses had already spooked within half an hour of leaving Boronbay’s giving credibility to Tim’s concern yesterday that they would be difficult following their extended rest.  Goat was no longer content to calmly walk along on a loose rein and Tim had to hold Goat tight. Mongol Morris and Captain James had not yet presented me with any difficulty and I was grateful.  The two young lads and their horses sprinted towards us and all the horses became skittish, wanting to join in with the race and to take hold of the other horses’ high energy as their own.  We continued to walk but gathered our horses up by shortening the reins and lead ropes.  ″Remember to sit deep.”  Tim reminded me, giving the command our riding teacher, Karin, always gave.  The lads rode past us and our horses shot forward, jolting us at the hips.  The boys laughed as they saw the effect they had had on our horses and rode on, now behind us.  ″Phew that was close.”  I said to Tim, ″Yes.  Bloody kids.”  He muttered.

We walked down the track we had followed from Boronbay’s and rode across the empty valley to a large hill northwest.  As we rode up and over the hill we were presented with an even wider, almost limitless valley.  We were now nine kilometres from Boronbay and Togso’s home and the scenery had changed so much that we felt a world apart from that family and our time with them.  The path we rode along in this valley took us down to a dry riverbed.  Ahead of us on our right were empty residences, only lived in those times of the year when the river ran full.  The valley slowly got narrower making the valley itself more pronounced.  The grass grew longer here and this combined with the steep sides of the valley unsettled the horses.  Their ability to see in the distance became impaired.  These horses had come from country where one could see for miles and they were not use to inching forward taking the landscape as they found it.

My horses felt odd and I mentioned it to Tim, ″My horses feel impatience Tim, like they are itchy.”  There was no reply and I looked up and in front of me, expecting to see Tim and instead saw Tim’s horses cantering, riderless, across the valley.

″Tim! Are you OK?”  I shouted, my heart beating fast as I worried about my husband.
″I’m OK.”  Came the reply from somewhere among the long grass, ″I’m OK.”
″What happened?”  I called out, my voice wobbly with the effort of holding Captain James and Mongol Morris tight as I tried to prevent them joining Shar and Goat in their dash for freedom.
″I got pulled out of the saddle by Shar.  He just shot out to the side.  I held on but he was too strong.”

Tim’s horses had not gone far, the grass being too lush for them to resist and they stopped quickly, putting their heads down and gormandising on the long, plentiful grass.  I dismounted and hobbled Captain James and tied his lead rope back to the pack saddle then left him to take Mongol Morris to Tim’s horses in the hope that they would see a fellow team mate and let us catch them.  ″Are you sure you’re OK?” ″Yes, sure.”

We walked slowly but purposefully over to where the two escaped horses were standing eating.  Goat was easy to catch and Tim hobbled him and left Goat standing to go after Shar.  As Tim approached Shar the horse spun around a few times and walked, slowly away from Tim but it was not long before he was hobbled and standing still aside from the occasional swish of his tail to shoo flies.  Tim and I had a rest, worn out by the stress of his horses’ behaviour.  After twenty minutes we set off again.  Tim consoled us both saying, ″It is only twelve kilometres until we reach our camp.”  The track through the valley took us up a hill and down into another boundless valley, the green steppe stretching dauntingly into the distance as if limitless.  The valley was startlingly green and lush.  The long grass had been left to overgrow and it swished against our horses knees as we rode through it.  Four Gers were set up along the left side of this grassy basin and a couple had been put up on the right side.  The landscape was verdant and we smiled at the beauty of it.  ″This is lovely.”  Tim sighed, turning his head so I could hear him against the wind.  Tim often rode out in front due to Goat having a faster walk than Mongol Morris.  ″It is amazing.  So lovely.”  I responded, enjoying the feeling of having life surround us.

Three kilometres passed with both of us riding in silence enjoying the flourishing scenery.  Suddenly the atmosphere changed and the air was charged with tension.  I sat on Mongol Morris, holding Captain James tightly and watched as Tim’s horses started at something unseen then bolted.  Tim moved them into a tight circle but he was not fast enough to stop them breaking into a gallop.  He was soon being galloped dangerously around at full speed and on more than one occasion he lost his balance, tipping forward then rocking backwards in an attempt to find his seat again.

″Oh no!” I cried out, feeling sick as I watched helpless to do anything. Tim was being pulled off Goat at a full gallop desperately clinging Shar’s lead rope.  Goat tried to run to the right, Shar to the left and Tim played piggie-in-the-middle.  ″Sit tight, hold on!”  I cried out. ″Stay deep!”  I added not knowing if Tim could hear but feeling that this was the only helpful contribution I could offer.  If he comes off he was going to be hurt and I could not think and did not know what to do.  By degrees Tim managed to move the horses around making the circle smaller and smaller.  When it became too tight for the horses to move comfortably they stopped.  Tim used this small window of opportunity to quickly dismount.  I used the time to swing my leg over the saddle and dismounted myself, hobbling Mongol Morris as quickly as I could, scared of what would happen if Tim’s horses re-started their frantic chase.  I checked on Tim and his horses and saw him holding them both still.  I hobbled Captain James and tied the reins back to both my horse’s saddles.  I moved carefully towards Tim not wanting to be the noise that started an avalanche.  Without any obvious warning Shar began to spin round, flicking his back legs up as easily as a child leaps into a run.  This accelerated activity frightened Goat and he started trying to move away from the action.  I could not do anything but watch and wait, my heart in my mouth.  Tim let go of Goat, unable to hold both horses safely and to my amazement Goat stopped, stuck his head in the long grass and ate.  Releasing Goat gave Tim enough space mentally and physically to get control of Shar.  He shortened the lead rope every time Shar showed promise of slowing down and then lengthened the rope to give the horse space when he became agitated.  Eventually Shar ran out of enthusiasm and Tim hobbled the horse, preferring to leave Goat standing free and eating. Tim looked so pale.  ″I just stared death in the face.”  He said.

Tim and I walked towards each other and hugged tightly, relieved that Tim was unhurt and that the drama had ended.  ″I love you.”  We told each other.  We sat quietly for half an hour, letting the adrenalin drain out of our nervous systems.  We re-packed the panyards which had been shaken loose and set off.  We had nine kilometres to go until the next well and our planned camp for the night.  Eventually we saw a black road, or a road as we call them in the UK, appearing in the distance running across our line of sight, left to right.  Cars whizzed past and we felt like we were back in civilisation.  Once we had crossed the road we had two kilometres until we reached the well and our night’s camp.  I fantasized about setting the horses free and hitching a lift back to the city.

Tim’s horses continued spooking and began to scare him.  Each time he would stay on, but the memory of the terrifying gallop was close. Tim kept the horses on a very tight rein as we moved slowly forward. On one particularly fraught moment Tim caught both horses on the verge of yet another bolt and with reins and lead rope held taut and the horses trembling, he kept them motionless unable to stop their veins coursing with adrenaline.  Tim, pale and quaking, stiffly and very carefully dismounted.  ″I’m not riding any more today”.  He said. ″I will walk the rest of the way to camp.  If I have to walk to Khovsgol I will”.  I smiled at his determination, never once doubting the truth of that statement.

A herder, standing outside his wooden, orange painted Ger door on our right, waved us over and as we approached three dogs raced out from behind the Ger, barking, their tails held high with aggression. Tim turned and walked slowly away from the threat, ″I am not going over there. ” Tim nervously said, ″I will get torn to pieces by those dogs.”  The herder called his dogs off and shouted to us.  ″Hello.  Do you want some tea?  Do you need a place to sleep?”  I thanked him and politely declined, ″We are heading to the black road.  We will camp near a well there.”  ″The well is over the other side.”  He offered and turned, heading inside the Ger.  Soon after we passed him, I took a look behind me and the herder had re-emerged with a younger man and a woman holding a young child on her hips.   They stared as we rode towards the black road.   I waved once and turned my attention to the highway in front.

Just before we reached the roadside a man drove over to us on his motorbike and to make conversation I asked him, ″Where is the well?” even though our GPS told us where it was.  He waved us in the general direction across the road and drove off, saying no more.  Tim and I prepared to take the horses across the tarmac.  I rode and Tim walked up to the road’s edge that was littered with empty, plastic ″Goe Tea” bottles.  In accordance with the Green Cross Code we checked left then right and when it was safe to cross we did so.  The horses were well behaved and we reached the other side without a scene.  It was strange to be near a tarmac road and this road was reasonably busy being the main route from this area to Ulaanbaatar.  Cars and lorries whizzed past at least every ten minutes, the hum of their engines as they approached and the vroom as they went past reverberated around the valley.  This side of the road was well lived in. Gers punctuated the landscape and it felt rather built up.  Well travelled tracks criss-crossed the countryside and we chose one of these to walk along while Tim navigated us to the well.  ″Only 2 km until we get to the well.”  Tim said, ″Keep your eyes peeled.”

We reached a well but it was old and clearly no longer in use.  ″Is this the one we were heading for?” I asked Tim.  ″Errr I think our well is further over there.” Tim pointed in front of us and we continued to move away from the road.  The second well was also dry and had been dismantled.  ″What should we do?” I asked Tim.  ″Keep walking ahead.”  He suggested.  We moved in the direction of an enclosure, thinking it would be a third well.  As we drew near we realised it was not a well at all but some kind of feeding pen for cattle.  We stood for a while thinking what to do next.  Tim asked me, ″Can you see from your horse anywhere that might be a well?”  I looked around but could not see anything of use.  ″There has to be something close, look at all these homes.”  I said.  We turned right and moved away from the path we had been following, turning to face the road.  Soon we stumbled upon a bare patch of earth, worn down by regular traffic. There was a well, clearly still in use.  ″Yeah!” I celebrated, ″We found it.”

We took the horses to drink and once they had finished Tim walked to a nearby Ger to ask permission to stay one night.  The owner was outside his home, herding a small group of cows.  He was a small, slight man and was very timid.  Tim returned.   ″I think he is intimidated by me.  I spoke to him using my Mongolian voice.” Mongolian men have a face that is initially impenetrable and a tone of voice that is tough, gruff and seemingly unfriendly.  It was this face that Tim had presented to the nearby herder.  ″I think he said it was OK to camp here.  He kept checking if I was really only staying one night.”  Tim waved his hand over to some reasonable pasture on our left.  The road stretched out in front of us and Gers behind us in all directions.  We normally prefer quiet, empty spaces, feeling relaxed away from obvious signs of civilisation but here, in Mongolia, the empty, desolate areas we were to ride through sometimes felt unsafe, if there were no signs of humans or livestock then there was unlikely to be any water to sustain them.  The flip-side was that where lots of humans gathered the risk of thieves increased.

I dismounted, hobbled my two horses and we unloaded first Shar then Captain James.  I shouted to the nearby herder.  ″Hello.  We are English people.  We’re from England.”  I spoke to reassure him that we were no threat to his family’s territory.  I continued, ″Is it OK to put our tent up here?”  His body softened, his shoulders relaxed and he nodded.  We set up camp, unsaddled the horses and laid down inside the tent for a short rest.  The time was now 9 pm and we were exhausted.

″That was a hard day.”  Tim puffed his breath out and shook his head. ″I am glad to be rid of the horses.”
″I don’t blame you for feeling like that.  Goat and Shar were such a handful today.”  I sympathised.
″I am looking forward to sleep tonight.”  We both laughed knowing we would only get two hours, at most, at any one time.
″Can you imagine what it will be like when we can sleep through a whole night?” I dreamily asked Tim.
″It will be lovely, but there’s no point thinking about it now.  We’ve got months of this ahead of us.”  Tim brought me back to earth with a bump and we sat a while longer in silence.

The herder we had met earlier brought his family to visit us.  There was his wife and their three, young children.  They were simple folk, shy but curious.  Oblivious to our exhaustion they stayed with us for forty minutes.  I brewed tea and handed them sweets and showed them our beds.

″How do you make them?” The man asked.
″This here,”  I pointed to the pump, not knowing the Mongolian word for pump, and mimed pushing.  ″Do this for two minutes.”
″Me, me!”  He excitedly exclaimed.  Our new friend loved pumping the bed up so much that he asked, ″This one,” he pointed to Tim’s bed, ″Can I do?”
I shrugged and replied, ″No problem.”

The family stayed in our tent, watching us, looking at our things and occasionally asked us questions like, ″What is this?”  or ″Do you have children?”  Eventually they left and I breathed a sigh of relief and turned to Tim, ″I am so tired tonight.”  ″Me too.  The problems with the horses has really taken it out of me.”  We boiled water and cooked our tea, eating in weary silence.  Our normal two hour watches continued throughout the night, made easier by the occasional car or truck light shining on us and the horses from the main road.  We slept to the sporadic sounds of vehicles swishing past.

In Sickness and In Health

I awoke first and lifted the tent flap close to my head to see how the horses were.  They were all in view and with this check over I became aware of a penetrating sickness deep in my stomach.  Tim stirred and turned to me ″I feel really ill.  I was sick in the night and I have diarrhoea.”  He could not move, his skin was pale and clammy and the action of lifting his head caused him to groan in pain.  I had not been sick, but the queasiness I had felt since nearly day one, had become worse.  I laid down on my bed for an hour, drifting in and out of sleep, and waited for the illness to pass.  I realised neither of us were fit to go anywhere that day and decided to get up and speak with Togso.  I got dressed, and before I was able to leave the tent Tim cried out ″I’m going to be sick. Now!”  I grabbed our green, plastic camping sink and threw it at him, turning away as he vomited.  ″Tim? I know this isn’t a good time to ask, but what is the Mongolian word for sick?”  ″Ovdoug” he moaned.  ″Thanks.”  I carried the sink outside the tent and sat it down deciding to empty it later.

I walked the short distance to Boronbay and Togso’s Ger.  The low wooden door was open and I could see two extra people inside.  I felt unusually nervous and wished I did not have to ask to stay a third night.  On reflection, I needn’t have felt this way.  Mongolian countryside people never minded how long we stayed.  I entered the Ger and sat down on a small wooden stool.  ″Do you want tea?” Togso asked.  I took a bowl of hot, milky tea, laced with salt and sipped while I arranged the words I wanted to say in my head.  ″We are sick today.  Bad stomach.”  I attempted, clutching my stomach for affect.  Togso and the other ladies looked at me with blank faces and Togso asked, ″Do you have medicine?”  I replied I did.  The Ger’s occupants watched me, waiting for me to speak.  ″We will stay another night.  Is that OK?”  I ventured.  ″OK” came the reply.  I left the Ger, feeling awkward and spaced out.  I felt so tired and looked forward to getting back to the tent and lying down.  On my way back up to the high point on the hillside I glanced over at the horses, hoping they were secure and in no need of assistance.  They were where I expected them to be and appeared perfectly content, heads down low, grazing.  Upon entering the tent I laid down and slept for two hours.

When I woke up the sun had risen high overhead and was beating down on our tent, heating the inside like an unwelcomed sauna.  Tim was still sleeping and I quietly rose, feeling a little queasy but with the worst over.  I stuck my head out of the door and checked on the horses who were standing two abreast, head to tail fanning each other with their tails to keep the flies at bay.  I noticed the earlier discarded sink and remembered I had not emptied it.  I did so now, cleaning it as much as was possible with the small amount of water we had left. I took a five litre container with me and walked down to see Togso.  I stuck my head around the Ger door but found only the eldest daughter in.  I lifted and waggled the plastic water container about asking, ″Can I get some water?”  She nodded and waved me to the side of the Ger where three 50 litre blue water barrels stood.  On top of one was a pink, plastic scoop, shaped like a small saucepan.  I grabbed the handle and ladled water into our container.  The walk back to the tent was hard work.  I felt weak from having eaten nothing that morning and only a couple of mouthfuls the previous night and I trudged back up the gradual slope, alternating the water container from my left hand to my right as each one tired.  Feeling the full weight of responsibility for the horses, with Tim out of action, I scanned the hill where they were stood and found nothing to be concerned about.

Later that afternoon, I laid on top of my bed no longer ill and opened the tent flap to let in some air; dry, dusty, hot air.  I sat, while Tim slept, playing Patience with a pack of cards, decorated with UK themed photos and captions like, ″Tossing the Cabar” and ″The Wet Bobs – Cambridge.”  Togso stuck her head round the open tent door and asked ″Are you OK?”  I welcomed her in, but she choose to sit in the doorway, no doubt worried about the type of lurgy we had.  ″Have you got medicine?” she asked me again.  ″Yes we have” I replied.  Tim stirred, hearing voices and turned his head to see Togso in the entrance and sat up, propping himself up on his elbows.  ″Don’t worry, don’t worry” she reassured him.  ″Have you got meat?” she asked.  ″No. We have these.”  I showed her a packet of the freeze dried food we ate.  She turned it over in her hands, frowning.  ″Do you want meat?” she offered.  ″No.  Thank you.”  Togso got up and left without saying anything further and Tim and I lapsed back into a deep sleep.

I awoke and sat playing cards for an hour or so.  Bored by the game of Patience I decided to sort through all our packets of food and discard any with holes in them.  I sat on the hard, dry ground outside the tent and created two piles; one of food we could eat and one that was to be thrown away.  I was dismayed to see the large mound of freeze dried packets sitting in the discard pile and re-checked them all, hoping I had made a mistake.  I had not and I taped them all into a bag and carried them down to the gully where Boronbay’s family threw their rubbish and went to the toilet.  I peered over the edge of the gully and trying to avoid the two dogs below, scavenging for food and other deposits left by humans, I propelled the bag of redundant food into the depths of the countryside bin.

5 pm arrived along with a new visitor to our tent, Boronbay’s younger sister, Nandia.  She had spent two years living and studying in London and spoke good English.  It was a surprise having someone talk to us in our own language and we enjoyed conversing with her, free to talk without having to think everything through.  She asked:

″Do you need anything?  Togso told me you were sick.”
″Thank you but we are OK.”  I replied.
″What made you sick?  Was it Togso’s food?”
″No!” I exclaimed.  ″Not at all.  It was our own food.”  I showed her a bag of the freeze dried food and explained that if air gets into them they can make a person ill and this is what had happened to us. Nandia nodded and then said, ″I am here to invite you to eat traditional Mongolian food with us.  Today is Togso’s birthday and the official start day of Nadaam.”
Tim, now awake, answered, ″My stomach is still sore so I will not eat anything but we would love to visit with you.”
″When will you come?”
″I will get up now and wash and we will come to the Ger in half an hour.”

Nandia, happy with this, walked back to the Ger leaving us to get ready.  We dressed and washed our face and hands.  I decided to wear my blue silk Del made by Serdamba’s mother on our 2006 visit to Mongolia.  Tim and I walked down to the family’s Ger, but before entering we had to descend into the gully to use the toilet.  We picked our way through the rubbish, avoiding treading on the sheets of partially degraded toilet paper and piles of human waste and went about our business, conscious of the dogs sniffing about and people ambling at the top of the gully.

I put on my Del and we entered the Ger.  It was filled with people, mainly family, and there was a party atmosphere.  Boronbay ordered us to ″Sit Down!” and pointed to the two wooden stools we occupied on the first night.  The party was made up of Boronbay’s sisters and brothers, Togso’s mother and grandparents, a herder and family friend who lived in a nearby Ger and his wife and lots of children and grandchildren.  The strong smell of roasted meat permeated the air. We were offered a large metal bowl containing roasted lamb from Togso.

″Do you know this dish?”  she inquired.
″Yes we do.  It is Horhog.”
″Yes.  It is beautiful isn’t it?”
″Very tasty”  we both agreed and although it looked delicious neither of us could face more than a token amount.

We were handed a bowl of offal.  ″This is good” a guest told us.  ″It is the best part.”  As is traditional in Mongolia offal is given to the guests and Tim thanked them all for this offering adding, ″English people rarely eat this.  It is difficult for us.”  Everyone smiled and nodded, seeming to understand and the offal was handed around the group, each person cutting and savouring pieces of the inside of the sacrificed sheep.  On a wooden table in front of us was a bowl of carrot salad, a jar of pickles and a medium sized mixing bowl with small jacket potatoes. The bowls and cutlery were communal and as soon as a fork was available I relished eating the potatoes with forkfuls of carrot salad.  I ate the potatoes whole and as I was about to pop a third one into my mouth I was nudged by an old man, Togso’s grandfather, on my left. He mimed that I should peel the potatoes first.  I asked him, ″Would like me to do one for you?”  He nodded and I peeled two more mini-baked potatoes and handed one to him, savouring the other myself.

Our sickness was much discussed among the party goers and Tim was ordered to drink a bowl of vodka and a tumbler of beer.  ″It is good for your stomach.”  Boronbay’s eldest brother told him.  ″It will make you better.”  Tim nodded, smiled and took a tiny sip of both drinks.  Cries of ″Drink more!” ″Drink the glass!” ″Finish it!”  were banded about the Ger but Tim could not face drinking the vodka and handed first the bowl, then the tumbler back to Boronaby, each given back using his right hand with his left hand supporting his right elbow.  Both drinks were received in the same way, topped up and handed to another guest.  The party continued, everyone chatting loudly to each other and we felt very included.

I played a game of catch and throw with Boronbay and Togso’s eldest granddaughter who, squealing with excitement, told everyone to much laughter, ″She is my friend!  We are playing!”

A tumbler of dessert wine was added into the mix and passed around the women.  ″Do you like it?” I was asked.  ″Yes, it is good.”  I replied to approving nods.  A small ceremonial silver bowl filled with vodka was passed to Tim.  Boronbay demonstrated the traditional way to drink it.  He dipped the ring finger and thumb of his right hand into the vodka and flicked the dipped fingers to the sky before drinking.  ″This is to give thanks to our ancestors” he explained.  Tim was next to drink and after he flicked his fingers upwards he took a tiny sip and handed Boronbay the bowl.  ″Why did you not drink?” Boronbay teasingly reprimanded Tim.  ″My stomach is bad.” Tim offered as an excuse.  ″This will help your stomach.  Drink it all.”  I begged Tim not to drink it all, fearful of having to clean the sink again.  He declined politely and Boronbay and the other men laughed.

The time passed easily, although both Tim and I felt worn out and weak.  At some point Tim had walked to our tent and returned with the camera and a round of photo taking took place.  ″Take my picture!”  cried the youngest granddaughter, then, ″Take one of all of us!”  Nandia, her husband, Tim and I were gathered together for a photo.  Boronbay brought out his expensive snuff bottle for all to admire and requested a photo.  ″Take a photo of me and Togso with my bottle.”  Tim obliged and then Boronaby handed the bottle to Tim. Turning the silver carved bottle over in his hands as he studied it Tim commented:

″This is beautiful.”
″It is expensive.”  Boronbay proudly relayed.
″Yes, I can see.  What is this?” Tim asked, pointing to the tiny mouse-like creature crouched at the end of the spoon.  Boronbay told us the animal’s name but we had not heard of it before.

Tim, not wanting to disappoint the men, scooped a small pile of snuff from the bottle with the spoon and took a long breath in, coughing in surprise when the snuff hit the back of his nose, much to the amusement of the male guests.  The bottle was handed back to Borobay and he continued to present it to each person in the Ger, some pretending to sniff.  ″Take a photo of me with my big brother.” he requested of Tim.  ″Now another of me and Togso.”

At 6:30 pm we made our excuses to the crowd and got up to leave. Boronbay asked ″Where are you going?” Tim explained, ″To take the horses to the well.”  Boronbay spoke with his youngest son and told us, ″He will help you.”  Walking hurt our stomachs and riding, when the horses jigged down the slope to the ravine, hurt more.  We watered and secured them for the night and re-joined the party.  A celebration cake had been bought and the big, white cardboard box was opened eagerly.  The large white and pink cake was laid out for all to admire with a knife placed beside it so each of us could cut a slice.

″This cake is beautiful isn’t it?”
″Yes, very nice” we replied.

More drinks were poured and shared and more photos taken.  Nandia swapped email addresses with us and implored us, ″Please send me all the photographs you have taken.”  We promised and when we returned to the city at the end of our ride we found an email from Nandia waiting patiently in our inbox.

Togso’s mother, a small, slim woman in her late fifties, with large hair, streaked grey and black like a badger, turned to me, saying, ″You should stay one more day to make sure you are well enough to travel.”  I promised her we would and she smiled, happy we had listened and dictated, ″I will have my photo taken with you both.” Tim got the camera out of its case while Togso’s mother covered her leopard print vest top with a Del and smoothed her wild hair down. Once a satisfactory photograph had been taken she suggested, ″Let’s take one of everyone” and proceeded to organise the entire group outside for a final round of photo taking.

At 9:30 pm we walked the short distance in the dark back to our tent and beds.  My health had improved greatly and although Tim was still sick he was able to move slowly.  Today was a good end to a bad start! We slept very well and did not conduct our normal two hour shifts during the night, sure that no harm would come from other people whilst we were under Boronbay’s protection.

I woke early and upon checking the horses I only saw one.  Panic shot through me like an electric shock and I jumped out of bed to investigate further.  I easily found Shar but could not find Captain James.  I listened for the familiar comforting sound of horses’ teeth chewing on grass and heard something in the ravine.  I walked to the edge and peeked over.  Captain James had come off his tether line. Thankfully he had not gone far with the hobbled Mongol Morris and with him distractedly eating, I was able to catch him.  I returned him to the tether line and realised how lucky we had been.   Tim felt so ill yesterday that he had not properly tied the knot to Captain James’ front hobble ring and I had not checked it. With the mini-drama resolved I went back to sleep for an hour and a half.  Waking up I turned my head to face Tim, who lay next to me, ″Do you think we should throw the bag of tsanii boov out?  It is mouldy.”  ″I think that would best.” Tim sensibly agreed.  We wanted to travel tomorrow so had to be careful what we ate today and we dispensed with lunch, choosing to chew boiled sweets when hunger gnawed at our empty bellies. That night Tim ate nothing for dinner and I had plain spaghetti.  I craved butter, garlic and toast smothered in Marmite.

″Tim, If you could eat anything right now what would it be?”
″Nothing.” came Tim’s curt reply.

The next morning was very wet.  The sky was peppered with charcoal clouds and the rain refused to ease.  We decided to stay one more night and spent the day sat around playing Patience.  Togso came to see us.

″Do you have any meat?” She checked.
″No.” I decided to add, ″before coming to Mongolia I did not eat meat for seven years.”
Togso paused and asked, ″But meat is beautiful right?”
″Yes,” I sighed, ″Mongolian meat is ″roe”.”

In between playing games of Patience, Tim and I would peer out of the open tent door to check on the horses and to watch Boronbay’s youngest daughter exercise his racehorse.  His youngest son was charged with the job but would always coerce his little sister into taking over.  The task would start when the son placed a white, coat over the horse; we assumed to protect it from flies and continued with the walking of the racehorse, round and round in a circle, keeping the horse’s gait slow and steady.  After ten minutes, the girl would shout for her brother, “Come here!  Come here!”  He would, in accordance with elder brother custom, ignore her.  She would continue to walk the racehorse round in calm circles, shouting every two minuets, “Come here! Come here!”  Once half hour, in the hot, dry sun had elasped, her brother would appear, take the racehorse from her and tie him to the high line.  This show was repeated at regular intervals throughout the day with Boronbay occasionally coming to check on the horse at the high line.

The weight of looking after our horses weighed heavily on both of us.  I told myself that if the responsibility could be taken away I think we would be so much happier but then I chuckled realising the irony of that statement.  If that were so then this trip would not be our trip. I worried about Mongol Morris’ weight that was dropping off his already slender frame and the lump on his back that had returned and would not go away with gentle massage or a cold compress.  I un-hobbled him and tied Mongol Morris to the high line and checked the saddle to ensure it was not pressing on the lump. Boronbay was also at the high line, tending to his racehorse and I asked him his opinion.

″Boronbay.  This is bad.”  I pointed to the lump.  ″What do you think it is?”
Boronbay walked over to me and Mongol Morris and looked him over ″Do not worry, I think he will make it to Khovsgol.”

Tim was worried about the horses being loaded up tomorrow after their long rest.  I thought him over cautious.  ″Why would they have an issue with the luggage?” I challenged.  ″They have been at rest for a few days now.  I am not sure they will be relaxed when we load them tomorrow.  We will have to take it slowly and be mindful of their mood.”

In the afternoon the rain subsided and the sun reared its orange and yellow head.  Determined to make its presence felt the sun was so hot that we fell asleep for two hours, weak from a lack of food and too hot to do anything.  Shar broke his back wooden peg on the hobble and Tim fixed it using a spare Batdrack had made and donated to us.  We were a four hour drive from Ulanbataar and I could not help thinking that we could still escape!  To the west and north were horrible looking storm clouds creeping towards us.  A black sky loomed and huge shots of light from electricity in the air threaded through the sky like white veins.  The clouds look muddy and the sky far off was tar-black.  Tim and I expressed hope to each other that the storm would pass by the next morning as we had to leave this place and ride.  A fearsome storm arrived that night.  The tent fabric billowed and snapped like sails in high winds.  The tent sides rubbed my head as I lay in bed, making my hair stick to the material as static built up.  The strong winds threatened to snap the tent and it responded by bending first one way, then the other like a sapling bends when pushed around by wind.  Every few minuets a crash of lightening would illuminate the tent and the sound of thunder would fiercely crackle and roar, shaking the ground.  The rain hammered down, slapping the tent sides.  I worried for the stability of our home and to distract my fears I recalled a tip my father had given me when I was scared of storms as a child; one has to count in between each rumble of thunder, ″One one thousand, two one thousand….” if the numbers get higher then the storm is moving away.  The numbers got lower and I kept counting until sleep found me.

Boronbay

The Land Cruiser I had noticed above us on the hill top had altered its course and driven towards us. A short, lean man, dark skinned from the sun and dressed in a blue and white checked shirt and black trousers had scrambled down the hillside to come to us. Tagging along by his side was his nine year old daughter. This man had come to help us water the horses. He smelt strongly of alcohol but appeared friendly. He strode purposefully over to the well and flung back the wooden cover revealing an old deep well constructed from limestone boulders. Set into the concrete top was a metal peg and tied to this was a stretch of old rope. The rope was frayed and had knots along its length where extra pieces had been added. The man stood astride the well and hauled a black, rubber bucket from its depths. The bucket contained most of the water heaved up with small squirts shooting from tiny holes pitted around the bucket. Once it had reached the top, the bucket was emptied into the attached concrete trough. The horses, upon hearing, seeing and smelling the water, rushed forward to the trough, stamping on our feet and making it hard for us to keep the reins and lead ropes from becoming a tangled mess. The Mongolian continued his job of collecting water, heaving the bucket up and tipping the contents into the trough until it was full. I relayed what was to become my stock phrase when meeting new people:

″We are from England. We are English people.”
″My name is Tim and this is my wife, Sam” Tim added, ″What is your name?”
″Boronbay.”

Boronaby moved off the well and quickly and shore-footedly came to help us with the horses. He took Shar’s lead rope and with a deftness we had yet to acquire, he removed the bit from the horses mouth and led him to the trough’s edge. Shar drank greedily, slurping and swallowing the cool, fresh water. Tim led Goat to the trough, clumsily removed the bit, and Goat bent his head low and began to drink. Captain James had become so annoyed at having to wait he had bulldozed his way through the line of horses to the trough before I had had time to lead him there. In his desperation to drink he had forced the right-hand saddle bag off where it hung, under the back of the saddle on Mongol Morris, so that it lay on the floor in the mud churned by animals’ hooves. Mongol Morris was keen to drink but with an obedience that I later came to rely on and appreciate, he waited until I took his reins, removing his bit awkwardly, knowing that if he had not been so focused on drinking he would have been able to run off as I struggled to re-fit the bridle. Mongol Morris drank until Captain James nudged him with his enormous head signalling that it was time for them to stop drinking and to withdraw from the trough. Captain James would often instruct Mongol Morris, which I found disheartening especially when it came to drinking as Captain James regularly decided when Mongol Morris had finished.

I did my best to hold them both as they moved backwards, turning skillfully like a well rehearsed lorry driver reversing his HGV out of a small country lane. My best was not good enough and Boronbay handed Tim Shar, bit already replaced, and took Captain James’ lead rope from me before I became tangled in it. I was handed the broken saddle-bag by Boronbay’s daughter, who appeared excited by this visit from outsiders, and tucked it awkwardly under my arm. Boronbay observed the gracelessness with which I attempted to mount Mongol Morris with a bag under one arm and offered to take the severed bag from me, explaining he would take it in his car to his Ger. I was grateful for the help and did not think to remove my money and was later chastised by Tim, who exasperatedly said what was to become his stock phrase:

″Always keep your money on you at all times. If you cannot. Give it to me.”

We asked Boronbay if we could put our tent up near his Ger and he agreed. We followed his car to two nearby Gers, one smaller than the other. The horses, lively once more, were tugging at their reins and lead ropes eager to return down the track they had walked up earlier, feeling safe knowing what was in front of them rather than being pushed into unfamiliar territory. We headed away from the track we had followed to the well, turning off onto a smaller path that led up to a hill top. Once at the top we dismounted and hobbled all the horses and tied their reins back to the saddles to prevent them eating. As an added precaution Tim tied Goat to Shar’s neck to keep the horses together. Boronbay and his younger son helped us unload the pack horses. Tim and I walked with our backs to the horses further up the hill to find a flat spot for the tent that was a reasonable distance from the Gers. We begun to set up camp. Boronbay cruised over on his motorbike and invited us to his Ger. At least we think that was what he said; our listening skills still very much under-developed. The tent stood high on the summit of the hill and our bags had been placed inside so we walked down a dusty slope covered with small green plants and grass towards Boronbay’s Gers. The sun had set and the evening light had faded, making it hard to see what was about us.

We reached the lower regions of the slope and walked onto a large flat area where Boronbay’s family had erected two Gers. Just before the larger Ger was a big, dark mass that as we drew nearer evolved into a collection of resting goats and sheep. The smell was overwhelming and we turned our noses away. We picked our way through the milling livestock, squashing animal droppings that liberally littered the ground. We entered the large Ger and my first impression was of a clean, spacious home. We were directed to two small, wooden stools on the far left and Boronbay and his family sat on the right side of the Ger. Boronbay sat on a wooden stool, planted on top of a large rug at the back of the Ger. He sat in front of a wall hanging that depicted Chinggis Khan and his troops. I noticed a severed goat’s head at the end of one of the beds, perched unobtrusively on top of the blankets like a sleeping cat.

The orange, wood framed beds doubled as seats during the day and were situated on the left and right of the orange, wooden chest of drawers that served a dual purpose as the alter and a storage container. The altar was set up with sacred objects and animal images relating to the Mongolian Buddhist religion. The family’s clothes and other personal items were kept inside this Ger and a wooden table near the back, protected by a cream, plastic, wipe clean cover, was used for eating off and had a large glass bowl on top that was kept full with sweets, bread and boov.

Hung around the sides of the large Ger were salmon and white strips of material, decorated with floral designs used to cover the wooden lattice walls of the Ger and lent the Ger a feminine air. The floor was carpeted with large sheets of vinyl and the pattern was reminiscent of the lino one finds in many English kitchens. Boronbay’s family did not have a stove at the centre of their Ger, that was in the kitchen Ger next door.

Boronbay asked, ″Where have you come from?”
″England. We’re English people.” I repeated.
″Where have you come from now?”
Tim answered, ″Arburd Sands, in Tov Aimag, 180 km from Ulaanbataar.”
″Where did your horses come from?”
″Arburd Sands. They are desert horses.”
″Where are you going?”
″To Khovsgol then to Bayan-Olgii” Tim replied to much eyebrow raising.
″Tim, why don’t I get our maps?” I suggested.
″Good idea.”

I left the Ger and returned with our Tov and Bulgan Aimag maps. Boronbay and his wife, Togso, both sat close to each other on the rug and laid the maps out so they covered the rug. Tim and I sat with them and pointed out our route to date and our future route. They spent a long time looking over the maps, commenting now and again on places they knew.

″Oh look, there is Ondershireet!” ″Here is Ulaanbaatar!”

Boronbay told us he had been to the local Nadaam in Ondershireet, which explained the smell of alcohol on his breath. We were introduced to his eldest daughter; the lady on horseback we had first seen at the well and his younger son; the young lad galloping on a horse who had ignored our waving. He looked at us in the dim light provided by a single bulb hanging from the centre of the Ger and said, ″I saw you earlier. You were waving.” He mimed a wave which was handy as neither of us knew the Mongolian word for wave. Later that night Boronbay’s eldest son, wife and baby daughter popped in, curious to see who the new visitors were. They did not talk to us just occasionally stared, reverting their eyes if we looked up and over to them where they were seated on one of the beds.

Boronbay instructed Togso to make us a meal. She asked ″Can you eat Mongolian food?” We replied we could and she said ″What Mongolian food do you like?” I replied ″Hushuur” thinking how lovely it would be to munch on the fried meat pancakes. Togso left the Ger and returned shortly after to report ″I do not have any Hushuur. Can you eat all Mongolian food?” We smiled and said we could. Dinner took a long time to prepare and night had fallen so that it was dark outside before we were served. The horses were standing where we had left them earlier, hobbled and reins tied back to prevent eating driven excursions. Tim decided to tether and hobble the horses for the night while we waited for our host’s food. Dinner arrived and I called Tim back into the Ger. Our meal was a bowl of Grilltai Sholl, a mutton soup with flour noodles that were boiled in hot water with some salt added for ‘spice’. This Mongolian staple was not a favourite of ours but it was welcomed as we were famished. We offered our thanks to Boronbay and Togso and declining second helpings on the basis we were tired, we stood up ready to go bed. Boronbay and Togso jumped up and ushered us into their Land Cruiser waiting outside and drove us the short distance to our tent.

We continued to wake every two hours as normal and the night passed without incident. I awoke at 7 am to check on the horses and found, to my relief, they were still close. Tim awoke and we ate a breakfast of two pieces of moldy tsanii boov and at 7:30 am he stuck his head outside the tent to check on the horses. The sky was blue and in the morning light I was free to look around and see where we had camped. Our tent was pitched on steep, grassy hill high above valleys on all sides. On a nearby hill was another Ger, but otherwise the landscape was empty. As far as the eye could see there were green rolling hills melting into mountains that formed a huge natural fence around us in every direction. I felt comforted with the sight before me after the gobi we had been travelling through for the past few days. The hilly grasslands we were camped in felt paradisaical and bountiful with the possibility of life. Long grasses formed a rich carpet, swaying in the gathering wind, sweeping in from the south but close-to one could tell that the land was suffering from drought. The grass cover was sparse, some areas had been nibbled almost completely away by the livestock and there were bare patches of red sandy soil coated with livestock droppings. From our vantage point atop the hill we could see for many miles. There were thunderheads gathering in the south.

We had tethered Captain James and Goat overnight and they had moved as far as the tether would let them, over and down a slope northeast to graze. Mongol Morris was close to Captain James, their heads down constantly nibbling at what food could be found. Shar had moved away from the group, at the bottom of the ravine to our east but was still in our sights. We packed the tent and luggage ready for loading. Boronbay had a high line just below where our tent was pitched and we tied Captain James, Goat and Mongol Morris to it. The high line, a length of thin rope between two wooden posts hammered into the ground, allowed us to tie the horses using their reins/lead ropes so their heads were connected to the line. The time was 9:30 am. Tim went to get Shar from the ravine, only to find that he had vanished. We searched the local area on foot but could not find him. I walked to Boronbay’s Ger to ask if they had seen the missing horse but no-one was home. The Gers were closed up, both wooden doors padlocked. I sat with the luggage, near the horses while Tim went off on foot to search again. He returned empty handed. Boronbay and Togso reappeared and rode over to us on their motorbike.

″Are you OK?” they asked.
″We cannot find one horse.”
″You should look for him on horseback.” They pointed in the direction they had last seen Shar hobbling towards earlier that morning.

We saddled up Goat and Mongol Morris and rode up and down hills, looking for Shar. Mongol Morris constantly called out to Captain James, not really focusing on the task at hand. At every opportunity he tried to run back to the safety of Captain James. I started to wonder if the missing horse was a scam. We had read about a particular swindle in which the Mongolian family one is staying with turns a horse loose then offers to find the horse for a fee. I turned to Tim and conveyed my suspicions:

″Do you really think this could be a scam?” He replied
″Don’t you?”
″Not sure. I think we should look a little longer.”
″OK” I said, unconvinced that we would find Shar.

We continued our search for the missing horse but to no avail and soon we returned to our luggage and Captain James, who was waiting, immobilised by the high line. Boronaby and his wife had left their home a second time and my mistrust continued to grow. We moved the packed luggage down the hill to the high line, where our three horses were tied. Earlier that morning Boronbay and Togso had not offered us tea or said good morning and this made me more suspicious. My concern heightened as the realisation of the situation dawned on me; we were on our own in a remote location with three horses and no phone signal to call for help. Tim left me sitting with the luggage and horses and walked to the well to fill our water bottles. I felt trapped and fed up that we might have fallen so soon into our long ride.

Boronbay and Togso returned after Tim had come back from the well and was just about to set off on another search for Shar. They drove their motorbike over to us a second time.

″Why are you still here?” They inquired, not unkindly.
″We cannot find Shar, our luggage horse.”
″We saw him earlier this morning, over there.” They pointed up and over to a large mountain east of us.
″We looked over here and over there.” We waved and pointed in the directions we had searched.
″He was further over there.” They tried to explain to us where Shar had last been seen but we found it difficult to understand, partly because we had not studied Mongolian directions as well as we should have and partly because Mongolian directions are hard to understand.

Tim mounted Goat, first trotting then breaking into a canter towards the implicated mountain. Boronbay decided to follow Tim and Togso sat with me while I guarded the luggage. The sky had changed colour and the blue had turned to grey; the clouds swollen with rain. The clouds released their hold on the rain and Togso suggested we wait inside the kitchen Ger. She helped me cover the luggage with a canvas sheet and we carried the saddle bags inside. The sky looked bruised as dark grey and black clouds moved towards us.

The smaller Ger was dark and covered in black soot produced from cooking on a wood burning stove. The Ger housed a collection of bowls, cooking utensils, pots and meat in various stages of preparation. On the floor were bins full with cabbages, onions and carrots. Togso made me a bowl of milk tea and we watched Tim and Boronbay who were tiny dots racing across the mountainsides like ants on a tree branch, unperturbed by anything, focused on their mission. Boronbay returned, rain dripping off his rain coat; a green poncho that all Mongolian countryside men own without deviation from style or colour. He explained they had found Shar and Tim was bringing him back to camp. ″You should stay one more night” Boronbay said looking upwards at the dark clouds. ″We should stay one more night? Is that correct?” I repeated, wanting to check I had heard correctly, worried my listening skills were not up to the job and I would make a decision for us both that was wrong ″Yes, correct. More rain is coming” he confirmed, to my relief.

The three of us stood in the Ger entrance and Boronbay pointed to a neighbouring mountain. Tim, still tiny in the distance, could been seen moving at high speed with two horses and I wondered if my eyes deceived me so surprised was I at his ability to gallop and control two horses. He was also going the wrong way! Boronbay and me shouted, trying to make ourselves heard over the howl of the wind and the roar of the rain. Tim changed course and promptly returned. As his horses danced into camp, he shouted at me to help him. My eyes had not betrayed me and Tim really had galloped with two horses all the way down the mountains and over a number of hills. The horses excited and agitated, continued to prance. I ducked under and around their feet and took a hold of Shar’s lead rope. We tethered Shar and Goat to the high line next to Captain James, Mongol Morris and Boronbay’s gelding.

Shar’s lone adventure had taken him miles away even though his front legs had been tied together, connected to the back right leg by the hobbles. When Tim and I returned to the family’s Ger after tying Goat and Shar to the high line, Boronbay looked irritated, shook his head at Tim and said ″Next time ground tether him.” Boronbay and Togso had somewhere else to be and before they drove off they left their large Ger open for us so we could shelter from the storm. They gave us full use of their home and I felt ashamed I had suspected them of theft.

We re-pitched our tent in the same spot we had slept on last night and moved our things inside out of the rain. We walked down to the horses and Tim, on the walk down, secured two ground tethers for Captain James and Shar. We tied the horses to their respective tethers and released Mongol Morris and Goat so they were free to hobble around searching for what food they could forage. Mongol Morris immediately hobbled to Captain James’ side and Goat followed, shortly afterwards turning and heading part-way down a slope so only his wither was in view. We trudged back to our tent and sat the storm out, dry, warm and relieved to have all our horses together.

The storm eventually passed and in the late afternoon we were visited by a Mongolian delegation consisting of eight people. Boronbay, his friend the herder, whose Ger was on top of a neighbouring hilltop, Boronbay’s big brother, the brother’s wife and daughter and three other people. They all wanted to see what our tent-tipi looked like on the inside and we welcomed them in.

″Your tent is beautiful” All the women said. ″Goe ben.”
″Thank you. Your homes are beautiful” I replied.
They all smiled and one asked, ″How do you cook?”
″We use this small stove. It runs on petrol.”

To demonstrate the stove in action, we boiled water for coffee and filled a bowl with sweets, passing it around. We had stocked up on bags of sweets in the city before starting our ride and it was a pleasure to see them put to the use for which they were intended. The tent filled with people, chatting and excited, was an uplifting moment. While I often found the horses hard to deal with I really enjoyed these occasions.

Early evening arrived and it was time for Tim and I to take the horses to water. They walked at a fast pace into the ravine leading to the well-head then moved into a trot. We would continually rein them in, slowing the pace to a manageable walk until we reached the well. Once they had drunk we returned to camp and put them out to pasture for the night. The storm that had unleashed itself earlier that day had left behind a beautiful evening. The sky, tinted with red and orange, sat over the surrounding mountain ranges like a picture perfect scene. I told Boronbay, ″Your country is beautiful.” He agreed pointing to the emerging sunset on the horizon.

That day was our first rest day since leaving Arburd Sands and although unplanned it was very much appreciated by us and the horses. Dinner, after that day’s excitement, was welcomed but I still felt queasy and had a strange taste in my mouth so I ate only one bowl, giving the remainder to Tim. This did not deter me from a good night’s sleep and feeling protected by Boronbay and his family I laid my head down and drifted off. I dreamt that night of getting to Hatgal and resting. We calculated that it would be at least two and a half weeks before we arrived in Hatgal, Khovsgol Aimag to visit our friend Serdamba and believed it to be two days riding before we left Tov Aimag for Bulgan Aimag.