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Up and into the  Sharga Morityn Nuruu. (More Photos)

 

Gaaj didn’t want to go through the mountains.

“Horses… uhn …” he said every time I traced a path through the Sharga Morityn Nuruu Mountains on our topographic map. These words were usually accompanied by Gaaj’s standard “so-so” hand-gesture. He also began to mime horse hoofs on stones, point to the mountains and say “Rocks… horses … uhn…” or, “Cold … horses … uhn…”

But if you listen to Gaaj long enough you get the impression that there’s not much Mongolian ponies can deal with besides sunshine and grassy pastures. We expected more than this from the beasts that has established the Mongol empire. Besides back in Tsetserleg, Gaaj had promised us that the mountains were doable. Now, here we were on their flanks a day after Blue Lake and he was balking.

We put our collective foot down. We’d take our time on the rocky ground, do short days if necessary and generally do what we could to preserve the horses. I doubted Gaaj’s claims that they were tired in any case. The day before, on the return trip from Blue Lake, realizing that we were finally going in his favourite direction – backwards – Buttercup had trotted briskly on and off for 5 hours. This had earned him the alter ego title, Brown Lightning (incidentally, the same name I gave to a nasty stomach bug I picked up in Cairo).

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Team Meeting at the Map

After much wrangling and finally an expensive sat phone call to Sarah back in Tsetserleg to sort out some translation difficulties, we won the argument and proceeded up and out of the Iloyd Tamir Gol valley along a small tributary stream called the Jargalon Gol. The first foothills rose up green and rocky from the valley floor. But an easily discernable path kept the footing firm. As we walked further into the range, high rounded peaks began to dominate the view, their slopes afire with autumn colours. Further off, a high rampart abruptly terminated the end of one valley. Obviously, we wouldn’t be going that way. We contoured instead into a valley branching the other way. Above us, hawks soared above the grey slopes. Below, the Jargalon Gol glowed silver in the bright sun. It was a beautiful ride.

One thing that is alternately admirable and maddening about Mongolians is that when it comes to campsites, they think like horses. Although we’d passed several good potential stopping points near the end of the day, Gaaj finally stopped us at a sloping, hummocky site that was a solid kilometer away from water. Dave’s excitement at the soft properties of the ground and its implications for his aching back was short lived as he found out that it also had most of the properties of a wet sponge.

But it had good grass.

Overhead, the sky became a riot of alternating conditions as the day waned. Sometimes, rain-filled clouds passed nearby. At other times, patches of clarity prevailed. We went to  bed unsure of what would greet us the next day. But when I crawled out of the tent at dawn, I found only a pale blue sky, pink on one horizon with the rising sun.

I sat on a large rock a little way above camp, enjoying the beauty of the morning with a cup of steaming coffee. Dodreg, first up amoung the guides as usual, soon joined me, silently ambling up to join me on my perch. Once there, he occupied himself with thumbing through my Mongolian travel guide, fascinated with the pictures of those parts of his country he’d never visited. I looked out over our camp below, the pass ahead and the snow-capped mountains that loomed over it all and smiled. Damn, I was lucky.

At least I thought so until, later that day, I was nearly killed again.

***

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It was late in the afternoon. We had crested the main mountain pass of the Sharga Morityn Nuruu, placed a celebratory note signed by our whole gang in the cairn that marked it and then proceded to a pine and larch-covered valley  below. The game trail we followed soon disappeared into thick woods and Dodreg and Gaaj frequently scouted ahead to find our way.

Our horses nimbly picked their way around and over large boulders that were scattered everywhere amongst the dense undergrowth. Buttercup seemed quite sure-footed to me, if a little prone to stopping every few meters for a snack. I was mostly letting him pick his own way until he wandered off trail amonst some particularly large and slippery looking rocks. Just as I started to say “no” and turn him back towards the proper path, he decided to try and correct his trajectory by leaping up on top of one particularly large set of boulders. I could see at once his goal – from these boulders he could hop another over another set of rocks and get back onto the path from which he’d diverged. I would much rather have turned around and retraced our steps to the main trail, but everything happened too fast, with Buttercup deciding, after the briefest hesitation, that he could make the jump.

And he nearly did.

Instead, after hopping to the first set of boulders his front hoofs slipped and skidded forcefully down the other side, throwing me forward onto his neck. Before I could recover my balance, Buttercup lunged forward and upwards in an attempt to correct himself and I was thrown off his right side my foot catching in the stirrup as I went over.

Remember how Mongolian horses don’t like anything coming at them from the right hand side?

Buttercup spooked instinctually and broke into a gallop, dragging me along behind him, dangling by one foot from the stirrup.

I was wearing my backpack and felt it bouncer off one good sized rock, probably saving my spinal cord but knocking the wind out of me all the same. Frantically I kicked to free myself from the stirrup, ground, boulders and tree roots blurring my head in an earthy blur. After what seemed like a damn long time to me, I succeeded came to a rest before a big larch. Buttercup came to a halt shortly after as he ran into the backside of Throwy. The latter had an unusually small desire to run over the unfriendly terrain.

As I sat up on the ground, Janine, Gaaj and the others raced towards me with fear plain on their faces. Evidently, Buttercup had thrown a big 2 hoofed kick trying to get rid of me as he galloped and the whole incident, according to Dave, had looked fairly spectacular and “pretty f*cking scary.”

They were surprised I was okay.  In retrospect, so am I.

Buttercup seemed contrite as I reclaimed him, staring at me quietly with big dog eyes, his great brown head hung a little lower than usual. Besides picking a bad path at the beginning of the whole mess, he’d done nothing that couldn’t be blamed on pure instinct. I told him so genuinely, rubbing his nose and neck. He liked that.

Everyone but Dodreg walked the rest of the way to camp, having had enough of rock hopping and bushwacking (at least on horses) for the day. Finding a camp took longer than expected, with bouts of backtracking and route-finding through the deepening forest soaking up most of the daylight hours. When Gaaj finally called a halt near twilight, we were relieved. Our campsite was again hummocky and again a long trudge from water. But the surrounding woods and grasses were a beautiful assembly of fall colours. The valley heights echoed with the calls of wolves. Most importantly, we could see the trees thinning and finally emptying into a broad gold valley just a few kilometers away.

I didn’t know if we’d proven any of Gaaj’s fears wrong. But we were through the mountains.

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The horses graze after coming through the mountains. We made it just in time too, according to all that fresh snow in the background. It got dumped just after we crossed the final pass.

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