Zzzzzzzip… peeeeeeeeee!

          Jason

It was Dodreg’s fault that we took two days to cover a distance up the Chulutyn valley that should have taken one. 

The big man had elected to say farewell to us at Chuluut. After a week and a half of aimless wandering with us, he’d apparently decided it was time to check in on that wife and little girl of his. We were truly to sorry to see him go. So was Gaaj. So much so that he’d gone on a royal farewell bender with Dodreg the night before he left. Gaaj was not much of a drinker. The result was that our normally-dependable chief guide was a gibbering, swaying mess in the saddle throughout the next day.

Dodreg, who rode with us for the first few km out of Chuluut on a brilliantly sunny morning, seemed immensely tickled by the whole mess. No doubt, he’d rib Gaaj about it for years to come. But I was annoyed – we may as well not have left camp at all with Gaaj in this condition and would barely make 5 km that day. To boot, Gaaj was in such rough shape, he’d probably need another day off just to recover.

Still, our camp beside the Chulutyn Gol was again beautiful. Fat grayling and trout jumped at every bend in the quick-flowing water. Only scattered gers and roaming horse herds interrupted the majestic sweep of the wide, golden valley floor. Rank after rank of steep hills framed the view on either side. We’d soon need to make a decision – cut up and across them to shorten the trip to White Lake, or stay with the river valley and work our way around them.

But these were all considerations for tomorrow. For now, we focussed on rolling Gaaj into a tent, tending to the horses and saying goodbye to the tall, enigmatic man who’d ridden with and entertained us for so many days. We were genuinely sad to see him go and he sensed this, sharing warm handshakes with us before turning with a grin and riding off at a full gallop for Chuluut, his mount, Roy Hellbeast, whinnying furiously under his master’s whip.  Gradually, Dodreg became a small speck of black robes and churning dust on the horizon, before sweeping around a herd of horses and becoming lost to our sight forever.

“He invited us to come back in the winter and go wolf hunting with him,” said Dave smiling, still looking out towards the spot where Dodreg has last been seen.

I couldn’t imagine how Dave had been able to piece together such a concept from Dodreg’s limited language and mime skills.

But it sounded right.

***

Once he recuperated, Gaaj did a 180 degree turn on mountains. Far from being worried about their effect on the horses, he now pushed hard for us to take a short cut through the range that lay northwest between us and White Lake. It was called the Bulaag Tyn Nuruu and Gaaj said that going through it would cut the journey to White Lake by 3 days.

What he said nothing about was the snow, the lack of water or that he didn’t really know the way. Still, it set us up for an adventurous end to our trek.

While fishing in the river the previous day, Janine had met and befriended a local herder, who had insisted on us paying a visit to his family’s camp further up the valley. Since his homestead also happened to lie at the foot of the first pass through the Bulaag, we agreed to stop by on our way through.

We arrived an hour after leaving our camp, greeted as always by a troop of barking dogs and the whinnying of tethered horses. The camp was a collection of 4 gers on a patch of lawn set well back from the river on a patch of grass so immaculate it looked like it was swept daily.

Beside the main ger, the family matriarch, a stocky woman with a stout face that didn’t look like it did a lot of giggling, worked vigorously with her hands in a large tub of sheep entrails.Her husband, a girl and a pregnant young woman worked with her. Behind them, hung the neatly butchered carcasses of 5 sheep, their heads in a pile on the ground nearby.

After a few minutes, we were ushered inside for tea and a meal. It was a classic Mongol ger – family pictures displayed prominently on the tops of gaily coloured chests and dressers at the back, three beds-cum-sofas evenly spaced around the room, cheese products dangling from the ceiling and in the middle of it all a wood stove radiating heat.

The matriarch barked orders at the pregnant daughter, who made milk tea over the stove while the matriarch inflated goat stomachs like balloons for purposes I could only guess (childrens’  toys? Party favours?). As she worked, the husband pounded dried mutton into shards and powder using a hammer and the flat of an axe as his anvil. These pieces were added to a boiling pot of noodles on the woodstove. Once ready the whole fatty mixture was then doled out to the guests.

Meal time brought in the extended family. Young men and old appeared to collect a bowl of noodles and nod politely to the guests.  Company being present, clean jeans and shirts were pulled on and even the odd suit jacket was sighted. The soup really was delicious and the fatty hunks of meat seemed perfect for warming us against the chill wind that whipped around outside.

When we were finished, the guides assembled with the other men outside to pee and discuss the best route through the mountains. Behind the camp the wind pushed up over the bronzed slopes of the Bulag, their upper reaches topped with pine. Among these roamed horses that whinnied and nickered at us (Buttercup returned their greetings vociferously), stallions watching us intently beneath long manes, foals prancing, young geldings racing and wrestling.

We rode for hours in a heat-sucking wind. Every layer clothing we had was put on, but the gusts grew increasingly successful in finding the chinks in our polyfil and nylon armour.  Our hands gradually grew numb from gripping the steel pommels of our old Russian saddles. Frequently, we dismounted and walked beside the horses just to generate warmth from the exercise.

After a couple of hours we crested a pass and looked down into a barren, wide valley, devoid even of gers. Only traces of human inhabitation remained – a withered circle marking the former site of a ger, some scattered lumber, a weathered piece of rope. A small tributary to the Chulutyn Gol river flowed through it all, but it was narrow enough to hop across in most places. Under a cold, grey sky the whole place looked forlorn and abandoned.

We longed to camp, but now faced a new problem. The valley was empty because it had been thoroughly grazed. Everywhere and anywhere near the stream the grass was completely mowed.For Gaaj, this meant pushing on another hour or two until better provender could be found for the horses. But as he himself couldn’t guarantee us that riding on would result in finding better grazing, the rest of us put our collective foot down and called it a day at the first riverside camp that didn’t look quite like a putting green.

As we cooked dinner in our kitchen tent, the wind continuing to blow fiercely, we were paid a visit by two happy go lucky Mongols riding a battered motorcycle and accompanied by a golden mutt. They jabbered away at us amicably and easily accepted a piece or 3 of Val’s beloved Mongol rock cheese, gifting in return several large pieces of dried yak meat such as we’d eaten at the ger camp earlier in the day. It was a generous offer and would go perfectly with the vegetable stew we were preparing. I immediately set about finding two flat, non-horse-poop-encrusted stones to pound the meat into edible slivers.  Gaaj and Torgu watched me approvingly while our visitors sipped tea, smoked and continued to  chat at us like we spoke perfect Mongolian.

It was a true Mongolian moment – pounding meat with stones in a barren river valley. It was also damn tasty.

***

The next morning dawned as grey and cold as any we’d experienced. What warmth there was, was flogged away by a merciless wind that had already completely collapsed our guides’ meagre tent. It was also doing real damage to Dave and Val’s shelter and was bending the fibreglass poles of our kitchen tent in a shifting array of unsustainable gyroscopic arcs. Water left in the dish bucket from the night before was sluggish and ice crystals floated on top of the kettle watter. Ugly cloud banks boiled up over the Bulag on our southern horizon, promising a long, cold and possibly wet day once they caught up with us.

Our horses, always reticent after a night of bad weather, seemed as reluctant to get under way as we were. We at least, had run out of sugar and had that to spur us on. But this was not enough for Val’s trusty steed, Itchy Donkey, who ran away from home and led Gaaj on a merry chase to retrieve him before we could start the day’s ride.

We rode out of the barren river valley, bracing against the wind, up a high winding pass and down into another valley that was nearly as bleak but for a scattering of clapboard houses, gers and a falling down school. It resembled a town enough to ignite hopes of replenishing our sugar supply. But this was not to be. Instead, while Janine chatted up the local kids at the town stupa, Gaaj squatted in the faded grass to chat with some locals about the best route to White Lake. Once he had his information, we remounted and, with a scatter thrown rock from the kids as a goodbye, continued Northwest.

It was a lonely trip. Unable to talk to each other through the copious layers of nylon, we huddled in our individualized gore-tex forts, kept our heads down and willed the miles to go by. Sometimes, to keep warm, we’d walk alongside the horses.

And so the day passed – up a wind-whipped hillside and down into a valley of fading Fall colours that, together with the brooding sky and occasional precipitation, heralded the coming of winter. At each lonely ger camp or tended herd , Gaaj galloped off to chat up the local men for route advice while we wondered increasingly at our guides’ decision to try out this untested route. The mountains meanwhile grew higher until at the head of one valley, where a tiny creek flowed through yellowed grass and stands of autumn larch, an intimidating dark wall of granite loomed.

“Sleeping… here,” said Gaaj dismounting. It was still early in the afternoon. But the weather was not improving, Gaaj and Janine were both nursing bad stomachs, we didn’t know where the next good water might be and this next pass would most certainly need to be scouted. I looked at the ground – one solid mass of undulating hummocks that seemed designed to leave my back looking like an EKG read out. I looked at the high valley walls that promised to funnel the cold air straight down on top of us.

“Okay Gaaj. Sleeping good.”

***

IMG_2789

“Merry Christmas!” I greeted Dave cheerfully the next morning, handing him a cup of gratefully-received sugarless tea. Snow blanketed the ground. Hail lay in piles around our tents where it had run off the night before. Janine had worn  a hat to bed for most nights of the trip, but last night had combo’d this with a full length black balaclava. I felt like I was sleeping with a cross between a ninja and a nun.

We huddled gratefully over tea and pancakes. But after this, there was no reason to linger. Tenjin and Torgu had returned late last evening after a thorough scout to report a passable route around the rockwall. But it wouldn’t be easy.

The thin path that wound through the trees and up the valley was scarcely visible through the snow. So with rapidly numbing toes, we walked our horses to the pass. Two thirds of the way up, a shaft of strong sunlight broke through the clouds, producing the strange sensation of going from shiver to sweat in just a few minutes. Clammy though it was, the warmth was still welcome after what had easily been our chilliest morning.

The sun stayed long enough to make the path on the descending side of the pass a mucky water slide. Again riding was impossible and I led Buttercup as he picked his way daintily through the mire.

The forested slopes thinned and eventually cast us out onto the side of another golden valley. This one was distinguished by the strange rock formations that jutted in haphazard masses from the grass like sunken stone battleships. These we followed up one more high pass at the top of which the wind whistled so fiercely that it lifted the stiff leather flaps beneath Buttercups stirrups like wings. Buttercup didn’t like the idea of being a Pegasus and nearly bolted from my grasp at the peripheral sight of his new limbs. Notwithstanding his skittishness, at the top of the pass I led him around a stone and timber ovoo once in thanks. We were across the Bulag mountains.

Now all we had to do was find something to drink.

***

To be accurate, we weren’t out of water. We were just out of uninhabited water.

The sun was going down as we finally left the Bulag mountains behind. But though there was mongolian steppe in abundance, the cool clear water that usually flowed through it was nowhere to be seen. As we picked our way across a field strewn with ancient volcanic rubble, Gaaj grew increasingly nervous about finding water at all before dark.

Finally, seeing a low hill bordering a forest a kilometer away, Gaaj took off at a gallop to scout for a drinking source one last time. When he reached the top, he let out a whoop of happiness and relief. A small pool of blue was visible within riding distance of a campsite.

While we erected tents and planned what we hoped would be our final meal on the trail, Gaaj collected everything in camp that could hold water and rode for the little pond. 25 minutes later he was back and Janine gratefully accepted our filled jugs from him. We were all dying for a drink and I had just finished chopping up a cabbage for our noodle soup.

“Uh oh,” said Janine as her headlamp beam scored our 5 litre water jug. I looked up from my dicing. The liquid in the jug was the colour of tea and swirled with particulates.

“Gaaj…” said Janine to our guide, “water bad… sick” she mimed rubbing her stomach.

Gaaj winced sympathetically. “Water… little,” he said holding his thumb and forefinger close together. Then, pointing to the fire Torgu had roaring, he indicated that if we boiled the stuff, all would be well.

I sighed, disappointed but still thankful to Gaaj for making the effort. Maybe we could make tea out of the stuff at least and try it out. We poured a pot.

But the bits, as it turned out, were very much alive. Alive and breast stroking by the 100’s in our water. Whether natural aquatic life or refugees from a yak’s ass, it didn’t matter. One look at that seething bowl and I knew I’d be going to bed thirsty and hungry tonight.

“Right,” I said, grabbing a tin of tuna and half a bag of chocolate cookies as I headed for my tent, spirit broken, “see you all in the morning.”

***

The next morning was far from my best. My unbrushed teeth tasted like what you might expect after a dinner of chocolate and tinned fish. And the lack of any kind of breakfast (we only had some pancake batter left) or morning caffeine did not have me in the best of moods with our guides, who had slept in and had a lovely breakfast, Torgu dumping our unused bug juice into the guides’ cookpot with undisguised relish. As they ate, I stood by my packed gear; peevish, tempermental and anxious to go. Dave, in contrast, put me to shame with his patient handling of the whole situation.

After what seemed like ages of hungry pacing, we set off under our first promising sky in days. Men passing by on a motorbike lifted our spirits with the news that Tariat, the small town on the shores of White Lake, was only 25 kilometers away. Northwards, mountains surrounding White Lake were already visible, their tops crusted in white.

Our route took us towards the clean flowing waters of the Nariyn Gielgeng Gol (river) where we hoped to stop and boil up some tea, breakfast and drinking water. But the path the river cut through its valley was a deep rocky canyon that made it practically inaccessible on horseback or foot. Someone, it seemed, was having fun with me.

So instead of stopping for breakfast, we carried on, enduring one last bolt from some of our horses on the way. The only victim of the incident was Val, who had been eating a bloc of her beloved Mongolian cheese at the time and had been forced to drop it in order to rein in a thoroughly startled Itchy Donkey.

Early in the afternoon, we rounded a corner high above the river and spotted a tourist ger camp below us – a large wooden structure  surrounded by several outbuildings and comfortable felt gers for tourists. Though Tariat wasn’t far away now, we descended, crossed the river and sought its hospitality. The staff were closing the camp for the year; collapsing the gers and shutting off the electricity. But in true Mongolian fashion, they welcomed us and promised to find us something to eat for lunch.

Minutes later we were seated in the camp’s restaurant, the first such facility we’d seen since leaving Tsetserleg three weeks before.  We wondered at the white linens, fizzy soft drinks and the proper flushing toilets in the bathroom. When asked by the manager, who spoke English no less, what we’d like to drink, I looked at her shyly.

“Do you have…” I was almost afraid to ask, “coffee?” She nodded, smiling. I was elated but still cautious. “Do you have… sugar?”  “Of course!” she laughed, looking at me like I might have gone a little crazy out there on the plains

Apparently we’d arrived just in time. Another day or two and the camp would have been completely empty. The wealthy Italians, Russians and Americans who frequented it had long called it quits on Mongolia’s brief summer. The manager was about to join them, at least in spirit. “I am going to Ulan Baatar in a few day’s,” she explained, watching us devour the mutton and noodles put before us. “It’s too cold here.” She looked at us a little more quizzically. “Why do you do your horse trek now?” she asked.

Dave didn’t miss a beat. “Because we’re crazy,” he said earnestly.

***

We’d only stayed a couple of hours. But the camp manager and her young pretty assistant treated us like we’d booked in for a week. As we left, they brought out a wooden pail of yak’s milk. A wooden spatula, it’s bottom paddle the shape of a waffle, lay in it. With this device, the young assistant sprinkled milk on our stirrups in a mongol blessing and threw it in the air of our wake as we trotted off.

Only one, last hilly outcrop remained between us and Tariat. We rounded it in short order and there the town lay before us. It was no more than a small collection of a hundred or two homes and gers, most secured behind a rough log wall that was likely designed as a snow break but that gave the whole town the look of an old west fort.

The plain between us and Tariat was broad and flat, rusty green in the bright autumn light. A minivan drove a slow weaving line behind a troop of a dozen yaks, herding them towards a coral. Val, Dave and Janine took advantage of the ground to race their horses one last time. But I refrained, watching instead as Janine and Dave sped away, Val’s horse, Itchy Donkey following rather tamely, reticent to leave the herd.

My momma it turned out, hadn’t let me grow up to be a cowboy. I was indeed, “a lawyer and such”. We had made it to Tariat on the shores of White Lake, we were in good health and we were happy. That was enough for me.

***

Our “hotel” at Tariat had no hot water and I wasn’t sure if it had any bathroom at all. Why had the group sent me to scout it, without the Mongolian phraseback no less? Now, I stood in its hallway with the manager starring at me expectantly as I searched for a way to communicate “Toilet”.

Finally, in a flash of inspiration I mimed opening my pants with a large “zzzzzzip” sound and followed it up with a loud “peeeeeee!” At this, comprehension was immediate and I was instantly told that there was no bathroom, just an outhouse behind the hotel.

It would do. So why, I wondered as I left the hotel to the manager’s poorly suppressed giggles, had I bothered to ask?

***

My stomach was ill prepared for the richness of post-trail food. So I spent most of my night at the hotel heaving up the bowl of mutton noodles a local woman had made us. Still, in the morning I did my best to join the others in downing a celebratory cup of vodka with our guides before they started their journey back to Tsetserleg. We were about to say another round of farewells.

Everyone was in a good mood, Gaaj and the gang having received the bulk of our camping gear in addition to a substantial cash tip. We shared jokes as much as our fractured common languages would allow, took pictures and said farewell to our horses. Despite their psychosis, we had grown to love them.  Except Throwy, of course. Buttercup was too manly and too preoccupied with clipping the hotel’s grass to display too much emotion. But he accepted my last pat with equanimity. And munching.

Finally, Gaaj, Tenjin and Torgu were ready to leave. Seized by a last minute bolt of inspiration, I ran back into the hotel and re-emerged with some milk in our battered cookpot. It was cow milk and powdered to boot, but it would do and the smiles on our guides’ faces were genuine as I sprinkled it on their stirrups.

Then, they left.

***

Turns out, White Lake, Tsaagan Nuur, was worth the ride. Though most of the tourist ger camps were closed for the season, we found one family willing to take us in on the north shore. There we spent one beautiful day, reading, walking and bathing by the lake. Tall hills swept down to the clear blue shores. Tall pines dotted the place and large volcanic rocks were visible everywhere, evidence of the ancient activity of the nearby black cone.

As beautiful as it was, the destination could not hold us. Maybe it was the longing for hot showers and something other than mutton to eat back in Tsetserleg (Sarah would more than oblige us –  preparing genuine Yorkshire pudding). Or maybe the rambling spirit had gotten into our blood. Either way, our jouney felt, and was, over. Any doubts of this were resolved when, one last time, I hauled out the badminton rackets to rally with Janine as the sun set on White Lake.

The wind came up almost immediately, making it impossible to send the shuttle back and forth. We whacked at the feathered birdie a few times and then gave it up for good.

It was time to go home

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