You are currently browsing jaymu’s articles.

IMG_7221

The pristine shores of Khoton Nuur (more photos).

Onorbek said we couldn’t camp at the lake.

It looked like an absolutely beautiful site. A perfect, blue green circle, several km in diameter set amidst a backdrop of white-clad mountains. The waters gleamed in the brilliant early afternoon sunshine and lapped calmly against the stony shore. Herds of yaks and horses wandered along the water line, walking ahead of their Kazakh owners. These, in turn, brought all of their worldly goods with them in a swaying train of Bactrian camels, heading for their winter camps.

It was idyllic. But it was also cold.

As we stood outside the jeep taking pictures, even the light wind skipping across the chilly water was enough to have us pulling tuques down over our ears and hugging ourselves for warmth. So, instead of camping we drove on, up over the pass overlooking the lake and snowy Mt. Tsengel and on towards the Altai Mountains.

On the way, we passed a snug looking one room Kazakh house. It was made of roughly squared logs chinked with earth. Its roof was flat and a plume of smoke emanated from its chimney, a grey ink stain on the blue sky. The house was attached to a long barn and the whole complex was surrounded by a wall made of piled stones, surmounted with a layer of dried dung paddies almost two feet tall.

At the top of the pass, we looked out over a varied landscape of arid hills, river valleys and snowy mountains. It was part desert, part Arkhangai, part Rocky Mountains. Onorbek put the jeep in neutral and we rolled down the pass into one of the river valleys, driving for another half hour or so before coming to a stop at a beautiful shoreline campsite. We set up our tent on a flat patch of coppered grass and relaxed in what remained of the yellow sunshine. Rough, dark mountains loomed on either side of the river. The jeep track we were following went straight between them, then disappeared in a bend, heading for the Altai Mountains.

***

The jeep rolled to a stop outside a solitary ger as the thick snow flurries intensified. Onorbek left the jeep to go and talk with the inhabitants for some unknown purpose while Janine and I stayed inside and surveyed the scene through the increasingly white windshield.

Commonly for Mongolia, a large dog paced about 20 feet from the ger. Uncommonly for Mongolia, this dog was tied with a 5 foot length of chain to a stake in the ground. We stared curiously for a moment before Janine gasped in recognition.

It was a wolf.

Suddenly oblivious to the wet snow, we got out of the jeep to investigate. The wolf, obviously distressed, had worn a small circle in the ground around the stake. As we approached, it tucked its tail between its legs and lay down. But it quickly bared its teeth when I held my hand out to see if I could touch its beautiful white, black and grey coat. Mongolians and Kazakhs hunt wolves and sell the pelts to foreign buyers. This one had been caught as a pup and was now being raised until old enough to be killed and skinned. When we drove away, I felt sad to see the wolf resume its frantic pacing in the miserable snow, its life destined to be short and unpleasant.  At the same time, I could tell from the state of the ger that this family was far from wealthy and that this pelt would probably do much to see them through this region’s harsh winter.

And it did seem harsh today. The morning had begun clearly enough at our riverside campsite, but had quickly clouded over as we drove away from it. Within an hour, we were introduced to the less friendly side of autumn in Western Mongolia, and Onorbek had to focus determinedly to keep the jeep steady on the slickening track.

In this weather we reached the next major stop on our Western Mongolia road trip – the twin lakes of the country’s famous Altai Mountains. Unfortunately, with the deteriorating weather, we had to take it on faith that the lakes, the mountains and in fact anything beyond the two slushy ruts immediately in front of the jeep were there at all.

It wasn’t shaping up to be a pleasant sightseeing day. So when we pulled up to a family’s ger camp near the military checkpost where we had to have our border area permit verified, and the family offered to put us up in its spare ger for the night at a reasonable price, it didn’t take much soul searching to agree.

The ger was drafty and bare except for a rusty wood stove in its center. But it was mostly dry and, once we had a few felt blankets rolled out over the dirt floor and a kettle boiling it felt downright cozy. The Kazakhs, curious about their visitors stopped by our ger regularly throughout the day to stare and laugh at us. Given the weather, they were probably justified in doing so. We spent the afternoon trying to make our little felt fort as comfortable as possible. Our main enemies were the leaks that kept appearing in the felt roof as the wet snow melted upon it.

Just before sunset, though, the snow ceased, and not long after that the air grew perceptibly brighter. Cautiously, I got up from under the mountain of blankets and sleeping bags we’d piled on top of ourselves and opened up the door of the ger. Outside, everything from the jeep to the other gers to the old dog that had stayed still too long in the squall was covered in a deep mantle of white. But overhead, as if God had suddenly pressed the reset button on his sky remote (I assume God has such a remote, along with his kick ass digital cable package), the air was devoid of cloud.

It was as if a white curtain had been lifted on a natural masterpiece. Before us sat Khoton Nuur, a long turqoise alpine lake. On its west side soared the 3500 meter peaks of the Altai range, glimmering from their cloudy heads to their larch covered feet with fresh snow. To the north and east, the land rolled steadily upwards in a series of barren, rocky hills – a forbidding preview of Siberia.

It was easily one of the most beautiful alpine lakes we’d ever seen. It was a postcard, or better yet, a Christmas card. If Khoton Nuur were anywhere less remote than Western Mongolia (and that means, just about anywhere), it would undoubtedly be a tourist epicenter, a Winter Olympics site, a retreat of the wealthy and the ski-bunnies.

But here, besides the a few scattered gers and yaks, we had it to ourselves.

*** 

We prayed for the good weather to hold through the night and awoke the next morning to more clear blue sky and brilliant sunshine. Down at the stream pouring out of Khoton Nuur and past our ger, Onorbek and half a dozen Mongolian army officers were enjoying a Saturday morning fishing derby, pulling grayling after grayling out of the frigid waters.

As tempting as the fishing was however, Janine and I could hardly wait to start exploring. After paying and saying good bye to our host family, we drove down the eastern shore of the lake, still marvelling at its scenic mountain backdrop, brilliant in the morning sun. Onorbek soon steered the jeep down to the shore and a perfect campsite beneath a golden larch tree at water’s edge. There, we passed a magical afternoon, hiking to the top of a large rounded hill that gave us a magnificent panoram of the whole lake, the mountains and the rolling barren lands. We collected drift wood on our way back to camp and built a campfire big enough to ward off even the chill of a Western Mongolia fall evening. When we went to bed, we felt content and excited to be headed for the very pinnacle of the Altai the next day – the lofty peaks of Tavan Bogd, Mongolia’s highest mountains. 

 

IMG_7547

First glimpses of the Altai Tavan Bogd (more photos).

IMG_6721

First views of Western Mongolia (More Pictures)
 
It was an obscenely early flight. What our brother in law in the military calls “O-dark-stupid”.

I dealt with this by rising at the appointed silly hour, showering, stumbling to our waiting taxi cab and shuffling through the pre-boarding  procedures at Chinggis Khan International airport in Ulaan Baatar with the same mental attitude as you have when  going to the bathroom in the middle of the night. I wasn’t really here,  I told myself, I was certainly not going to wake up and I would soon be slumbering peacefully again.

And with the aid of my sleeping mask, I was proven right. Within minutes of take off from Chinggis Khan International airport in Ulaan Baatar I was drooling happily on Janine’s shoulder, bound for western Mongolia.

I didn’t stir for three hours. Then Janine shook me and with an excited whisper announced that I had to look out the window. I obliged and took off the mask, immediately blinding myself with the white glare pouring through the portal. As I regained sight, I noticed two things. First, our stewardess had repossessed my breakfast sandwich. Surely, I thought, this violated several rules of proper airline conduct and general civility. Second, the white glare was not sun streaming through cloud, but sun reflecting off high, snowy mountains, higher than any we’d seen since leaving the Himalaya. The landscape below was a starkly contrasting mix of barren, treeless plains and soaring white peaks. It was dramatic, severe, beautiful and a jolting reminder that we’d be spending the next two weeks in a very different part of Mongolia.

***

Twenty minutes later, our twin engine Fokker 55 touched down on a gravel runway at Olgi Airport. With the other 25 passengers, we milled about on the tarmac behind the terminal for a few minutes until a battered flatbed truck pulled up with our luggage. Two workers hopped in the back and began to hand down bags to the passengers, who, as they received them, walked into the back entrance of the terminal, through its single arrival/departure/ticket purchase/general hangout room and then out the front entrance.

Strangely, although the airport runway is not paved, the road to the airport itself sports the nicest blacktop in the province. I appreciated this fact as I took in the confines of our aging Russian jeep on the smooth ride into Olgi. Foreswearing capitalist luxury, soviet jeep makers had obviously decided that communist passengers should be as uncomfortable as possible. The floor was lined with faux-wooden linoleum, through a rough hole in which sprouted the bare metal gear shifts. Our driver, Onorbek, honked at the various cattle that blocked our progress by hotwiring the horn. This didn’t seem remarkable on a dashboard that was mostly a flat panel of grey metal. Seatbelts either hadn’t been in vogue at the time of manufacture or had simply disappeared over the intervening years. I meditated on this last point with particular interest the first time I sat in the front seat, contemplating the round iron grip bar that was positioned where the airbag would be in a more modern vehicle. I’m hoping, in the event of an accident to go straight through the windshield. That is, unless I can manage to somehow impact instead on the roof. This is lined with cushy white leather that looks like the apholstry on a hotel lobby sofa.

I won’t say much about the 7km to the litre gas consumption rate. But I will say this (mainly to assuage my mother, who I imagine by now is having minor heart palpatations). Old, ugly and uncomfortable as the jeep is, it looks and feels as sturdy as a tank. So, after a stop in Olgi to buy groceries for our nine day safari into the extreme west of the country, we wrapped a sweater around that grip bar, angled open our windows (they don’t roll down – too bourgeois) and hit the road.

IMG_7479

***

We weren’t long out of Olgi when we saw our first eagle hunter.

The big draw of Western Mongolia was the famous Olgi Eagle Festival. This was an event designed to showcase the skills of the famous Kazakh hunters who ride through the snowclad mountains and valleys in the winter, their eagles perched on their forearms, hunting for foxes and other fur bearing animals.

We had planned our trip’s end to coincide with the festival in Olgi, so we were pleasantly surprised when Onorbek pulled over on a winding gravel jeep track half an hour outside Olgi, pointed to a rider
galloping towards us and said “eagle”.

The rider reined in his huffing black gelding at the jeep to chat with our driver. He was dressed in Kazakh style with black trousers, a wool sweater and suit jacket. He was friendly enough but unsmiling, his eyes shaded by the peaked brim of a leather cap. A rifle was slung casually over his back. On his right hand he wore a large rough sheepskin mitt that looked much like an oven mitt.

On the mitt perched a full grown golden eagle, cocking its head beneath a form fitting leather hood and emitting questioning cries at the sounds of our oohs and ahs. I marvelled at the bird’s size and beauty, but mostly I marvelled at the training and horsemanship that was on display here. I hadn’t been able to keep Throwy under control after flashing a badminton racket near his face. I shuddered to think what he would have done had I tried to ride him with a 5-foot-wingspan raptor on my arm.

Obviously having someone or something to kill, the rider soon resumed his gallop. Janine and I got back in the jeep still chattering with excitement. Onorbek, pleased with how happy we were, soon diverted from the track again, driving up a shallow valley to the camp of two herders.

They stood outside a small felt tent expertly butchering a freshly killed sheep. A herd of a hundred more sheep and goats grazed around them, watched carefully by a furry border collie and seemingly oblivious to the fate of their colleague. The herders greeted us with warm smiles and handshakes and immediately took us around the tent to have a look at the camp’s pride – another gorgeous golden eagle. But this time, we’d get to do more than just snap pictures. While his partner continued work on the sheep, the other herder removed the hood from the eagle’s eyes placed the sheepskin mitt on me and holding a bloody, meat-flecked mutton bone, induced the eagle to hop up onto my forearm.

Meeting the stare of such an incredible creature was mezmerizing. I know she was probably only wondering how one of my eyeballs would taste, but I could live with that. Not a bad way to lose an eye really. I could see the young lawyers at the firm whispering in my wake years from now.

“How’d old man Murphy lose his eye anyway?” And then, some old geezer in a rocking chair behind them would smack his gums and say, “Yip. Eagle pecked it out. Nigh on 40 years ago now.” I’m not sure what the old man would be doing at our firm, but I’ll work that out in the second draft.

Janine and I each took a turn holding the big girl (most hunting eagles are females because they are the bigger gender of the species). Then, with heartfelt thanks to the herdsmen, we left them to their work and resumed our journey.

“I think we’re really going to like it here,” said Janine grinning like a kid at Christmas. She says this at the beginning of every trip, but this time, she had my wholehearted agreement.

***

Like Ladakh, western Mongolia is a high, mountainous, arid landscape. The tall peaks are separated from one another by broad, treeless valleys where often the only life seen is a line of furry, two humped camels plodding serenely against the severe backdrop of dry plain and jagged hill.

The lateness of the season added to the sense of desolation. Snow lay on most of the mountains and even in shallow banks on the valley floors. Small streams and rivers were already frozen; larger ones flowed sluggishly, their winter stasis not far off. Most families were moving or preparing to move to lower, warmer areas. We drove past several caravans of such people, their gers and belongings piled on the backs of camels or on the roof of a large, puttering Russian truck, often followed by a herd of horses, yaks and the ever-present border collies.

A month ago and the whole province would probably have looked green, lively and inviting. Now it was yellow, cold and a little intimidating. But it was also gorgeous in its largness and severity. We had our warmest clothing, plenty of food and a vehicle that looked like it could survive armaggedon to jump into if necessary.

We were eager to explore.

***

“Maybe an hour was a little optimistic,” Janine allowed.

We were on our first day hike of the trip, climbing a ridge to get a better look at the brilliant white peak called Mount Tsengel. Onorbek had driven us as far up the valley towards the ridge as possible. There we’d left him with instructions to meet us on the other side of the ridge in what we confidently said would be an hour or so.

With these instructions, we made several stupid assumptions. First, we assumed that we had an idea of the scale of west mongolia’s landscape. That was stupid because, being so large and being mostly devoid of human sized landmarks, western mongolia’s landscape can play tricks on the eye. Therefore, a ridge that looks like it’s say, 45 minutes walk away, can easily be at least double that.

Still, we already had the feeling that Onorbek was a steady hand and wouldn’t panic at us being a little late. So we enjoyed the climb up the valley to the ridge top and there marvelled at the grandeur of a truly spectacular mountain panoram. On our left, Tsengel rose like a smooth white bowl against the deep blue sky. Immediately next to it towered another peak, as jaggged as its neighbour was smooth, the light wind tearing plumes of snow from its corniced top. Far beyond these two giants, the horizon was lined with similar peaks, all glistening under a cloak of shimmering white. These were the Altai Mountains and knowing that they were our next destination only enhanced the thrill we felt as we enjoyed the view.

We savoured the skyline for a while and then began our hike down the other side of the ridge. We weren’t descending for long before we realized our second error. The other side of the ridge, far from sloping down into one valley, sent off several branches and further ridgelines, creating a number of valleys into which our guide could have driven to await us. None of these valleys were small, and trying to pick out a small grey jeep from amongst the pathes of snow and ice on their floors was next to impossible.

Perhaps a map would have been a good idea.

We took our best guess as to where Onorbek would have parked and made our way down. Of course, he wasn’t there. Thus ensued an additional hour of hiking, scanning, fretting and cheerfully telling ourselves there was nothing to fret about until the little Russian jeep finally appeared, Onorbek making a careful search of the valleys for us after we’d failed to turn up at the one he’d thought we sent him to. All in all, it was a bit more of an adventure than we had thought it would be. But the views had still been worth it.

 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

IMG_2631

Yak caravan across the Chulutyn Gol river (more photos)

Jesus. That beats my ass bruise.

– Dave

Dave tells me that back in his younger days in England, he once joined some friends at Oxford for the May Day tradition of jumping from the college’s famous Magdalen Bridge  into the Cherwell River. This tradition has no logical foundation and is fairly dangerous, hence its popularity among University students.

Unfortunately for Dave and his friends, the water in the river was at an all-time low that year. Or rather, unfortunately for Dave and his friends, no one present seemed at all bothered by the many signs around the bridge that said the water in the river was at an all-time low that year, the security guards patrolling the bridge that said the water in the river was at an all-time low that year or the barricades put up to block access to the bridge due to water levels being at an all-time low that year.

They jumped 25  feet into 2 and half feet of water.

The drop left most of Dave’s friends  at the hospital in leg casts and left Dave with what he claims was one of the more spectacular ass bruises of all time. Dave took pictures of his ass bruise, showed it to his friends and generally thought quite highly of it. Once he could sit of course.

So it says something that when he saw the purple and blue dinner-plate-sized contusion on the back of Janine’s upper leg, Dave was impressed. “Jesus. That beats my ass bruise,” he said. Janine’s ankle was also scratched and swollen and the hoof shaped scrape mark on her boot supported our conclusion that she’d only just missed having that bone smashed by her horse as well. But it was ass bruise that really grabbed your attention. I felt queasy every time I glanced at the thing, pulsing malevolently like one of those pictures NASA occassionally releases of the latest nebula or super-nova photographed by the Hubble telescope.  It was very hard to believe nothing was broken underneath all that traumatized skin and muscle.

It was equally hard to believe that Janine being her feisty self, was eager to get back on her horse and continue our  journey.  But one look at that bruise and the way she hobbled around the camp the next morning, told us all that this would be a day to rest and be grateful no one was in a wheelchair.

So we rested. I drank tea, Janine slept prodigiously and Dave and Val went into town for a much needed resupply of coffee and Russian junk food. Despite the stable weather and our proximity to the town of Chuluut, our camp on the banks of the Chulutyn River attracted almost no visitors. The only exception was Dodreg. The big man shuttled back and forth between town and camp throughout the day on a fiery red motorcycle. He’d picked it up in Chulutt, which was home to several of his family members. If Dodreg enjoyed riding a horse, he was a kid at Christmas on a bike, blowing across the valley floor in a whirlwind of dust, gravel and scattered livestock; plowing through the river and up its muddy banks before coming to a stop in front of our dining tent, motor reving and back firing, grinning like a saucy Mongolian Brando.

While Dodreg ferried the guides back and forth to town to enjoy some hospitality, the rest of  us sat in the dining tent to discuss our next move. We were all shaken by the bolting and Janine’s injury. I could easily have been persuaded to quit the trip then and there. But Janine, Dave and Val remained committed. We were only a few days from trip’s end at White Lake and to complete the journey in a jeep seemed like an expensive cop-out after coming this far on horseback.  After a long discussion, we elected to continue.

We relayed the news to Gaaj, who squatted down on the ground outside the dining tent patiently awaiting our decision. Looking at Janine, his damaged right eye disappeared into the folds of his face as he smiled and gave her the nicest compliment she could have received in this country.

“Good… Mongolian woman,” he said.

As if in further benediction of our decision, a convoy of half a dozen yak-drawn wooden carts made its way down from the forested hills we’d left behind the day before. Each cart was piled high with freshly cut larch timbers. A single family oversaw the caravan, father riding a horse at the front of the group, mother tugging the lead yak forward with the aid of a rawhide string tied through its nose, a small boy riding happily atop a stack of logs near the centre.  Dogs patrolled the edges of the group like a fighter plane escort.

It was a timeless picture – how many dozens of generations 0f their family had gone into those hills to bring out the timber that would see them through the winter? More had changed in our world in the last ten years than had changed here in 500. As the carts were eased slowly down into the river, wooden wheels and axels creaking, father shouting single syllable commands to the yaks, dogs yipping urgently, we savoured the scenic and compelling reminder of why we’d come to Mongolia in the first place.

 

IMG_6184

IMG_2562

A Mongolian Greeting Party (More Photos)

I have created a Mongolian Riding Club with varying tiers of membership.

1.  Bronze Level – you’ve successfully gotten on and off a Mongolian horse. Whoop dee doo. No one likes bronze anyway.

2.  Silver Level – your horse has bolted into a sustained gallop at least once and you’ve reined it in. You shat yourself of course. But you lived.

3.  Gold Level – now we’re getting serious. A throw is necessary, after which you have gotten back on the horse. Should have at least one good bruise. You’re not that crazy about horses anymore.

4.  Platinum level – the ultimate. Throwing is standard for you. Piece of cake. You also need a solid kick and hopefully a dragging incident. You should have scary dreams about horses.

Of course, I’ve arranged the club so that I have the top level membership. If you find this unfair, you can write a letter of complaint to the club president, me. Anyway, it’s my club and we’re building a club house and everything. The clubhouse will be wheelchair accessible for the convenience of most of our hobbling members, who will wheel about, sharing injury stories , talking through little speakers in their necks and pissing blood for the rest of their lives. We’ll also have WiFi.

Anyway, Janine is now a platinum club member. But more about that later.

***

We rode out of our forested valley campsite and emerged on a golden-shouldered slope. It looked out over a broad amber plain flanked by forested hills. A road cut through its middle and telephone polles displayed the first vestiges of modern civilization we’d seen in several days.

As we rode on a large herd of horses and yaks made their way towards us, herded by a stout mongol in traditional dress of robes and a brightly coloured stupa-shaped hat . He and Gaaj greeted each other warmly before sitting down on the ground for a smoke and a chat, each one keeping a hold to the reins of his horse with one hand while he dragged on his smoke with the other. In the meantime, the stallions of the herd eyed us curiously and trotted up towards us. Buttercup whinnied to them all, probably inviting them to come closer. But I was nervous of getting caught up in a stampede and made the appropriate “hooge” noises to rescind the offer.

Gaaj’s conference with the local had produced intelligence on a short cut, across the amber plain, over the hills and then down into the next river valley. There was the next town of Chuluut, our vague destination for the evening. Following the herder’s directions, we were soon ascending a steep pass from where we could see the Chulutyn River flowing in braids down the valley floor. We needed only to contour the ridge crest of the hills for an hour or two before we would see Chuluut itself and could begin to make our way down to camp for the night.

It was on the descent that Janine earned her platinum membership. We’ll never know why – a bird, a snake, a shadow – but in the midst of a perfectly calm, sunny afternoon, her horse bolted violently. With a startled cry, Janine was thrown to the ground and for good measure, stomped, before her mount took off at a dead run, startling the other horses to do the same.

I had heard that Buttercup was a Nadaam racing horse in his youth, but hadn’t fully believed that until now, as he ran at a nearly uncontrollable gallop that took ages to end. When it did, I dismounted and ran back at full speed to Janine, who lay in a frightening crumple on the ground, not moving. Dave stood over her, worried. He’d also been thrown, but had not been badly hurt.

Janine’s foot had obviously taken a kick as was evidenced by some scrapes and a nasty bruise. She also complained of pain on her back thigh. Later, we’d see a frightening bruise there as well. But miraculously, nothing seemed broken. After a few minutes, she was able to get to her feet and hobble around painfully. She was badly shaken, but willing and able to push on to camp.  I put her on Buttercup and led him down the rest of the 1 and a half hour walk to our campsite on the Chulutyn River.  Under any other circumstances, it would have been a perfect campsite. The river flowed cleanly past our tents, situated on gravel bars across from some high bluffs. On the other side of the river, the lights of Chuluut began to twinkle in the evening light. We were just far enough away to avoid too many visits from the town drunks and just close enough to feel safe again after an adventurous couple of days.

We’d made it. But the cost, as with entry to the Mongolian Horseriding Club, felt high. And slightly bruisey.

IMG_2600

Sunset on the Chulutyn River

 
IMG_2443
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).

 IMG_5520

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.

***

IMG_2502

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.

IMG_2552

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.

IMG_5791

Just how tall is Dodreg you ask?…

It’s hard to have fun when you’re cold.

– Val

The weather had truly turned crummy.

Mongolia is often called the land of the eternal blue sky. But after more than a week on the trail, we’d seen little of that. A scattered patch of azure here and there, throwing gold light on the undulating hills, often near the end of the day, was about it. Otherwise, we started and ended most days dressed in every layer of closthing we had, grateful for both them and the $8 poly-fill comforters we’d bought at the Tsetserleg market just before leaving town. As the days of scattered rain and sleet and the morngings of frost continued, it became difficult to rev ourselves up each morning for the long day in the saddle ahead.

The land, at least, did its part to compensate for the sky. As we continued to ride alongside and up the Iloyd Tamir Gol River, its valley narrowed and its mountainous sides became steeper, occassionally carpeted with pine and larch forest. On some hills in the distance, white snow gleamed. On others, rich autumn tones of amber and scarlet prevailed.

Buttercup munched happily on assorted thistles, shrubberies and wild wheat, but ignored the brilliant red fireweed that grew so profusely and reminded Janine so much of our beloved Yukon. We forded streams that, eventhough we were in cattle country, looked clear and pure enough to drink unfiltered. Every rise and fall in the landscape seemed to bring  some wonderful new Mongolian vista. It was a great, rugged landscape, empty but for a the occasional herd of yaks or horses, wandering near a couple of gers or a coral made of rough timbers.

The word “epic” kept coming to mind. But so too did the words, “windy” and “freezing”.  Val put it best one morning, shivering over her cup of mitten-cradled coffee. “It’s hard to have fun when you’re cold.”

And so that night, huddled over the fire and the remains of a pasta stew filled with chunks of freshly caught grayling, we had a team meeting to discuss our future. We were 2 days from Blue Lake, the bottom corner of our big triangular trip across the Arkhangai province. From our current campsite, we’d have to climb constantly and steadily to reach our objective. The heights ahead looked colder and more snow bound than ever. We could ride on from this camp and take three more days to visit and return from the Lake. Or, we could turn from here now and head for the final corner of the triangle at White Lake, which Gaaj told us would be warm and snow free (though given his growing desire to get home and start preparing for winter, I took his suggestion that we cut the trip short with a large grain of salt).

We hemmed and hawed, but went to bed leaning towards leaving Blue Lake unseen.

Maybe the sky gods heard us and felt a little jerkish about their behaviour.

***

IMG_2009

The next morning, I emerged from our tent at dawn to find our riverside camp covered in another light frost. From the door of the guides’ little blue tent, the feet of Gaaj, Tenjin and Torgu stuck out in a haphazard, sleepy row. 

At the firepit, Dodreg cradled a handful of white-rimed  grass in his hand together with a lit match. Somehow, patiently, he managed to coax the little bundle to burn. Adding it to a carefully selected batch of kindling, he soon had a fire blazing. This achieved he turned to me with a big smile. We each placed a kettle over the flickering flames and then sat back, contented.

From the folds of his robe, Dodreg took out the guides’ battered copy of a Lonely Planet Mongolian-English phrasebook, thumbed through it until he found the “Family” section and then showed me the words for “wife” and “daughter”, pointing to each word and then back to himself with a grin. He showed me 1 finger to represent the age of his little girl and then held his hand about 2 and a half feet off the ground. I mimed the action of walking with two of my fingers and his grin widened even further as he nodded.

I wasn’t entirely sure how I felt about this convincing proof of Dodreg’s humanity, but couldn’t help but grin back at him and say “Good!” thinking that it was good, somehow, that the Dark Knight had a wife and a baby back at the Bat Ger. Dodreg nodded contentedly at my smile and then went back to staring at the fire and thumbing through the phrasebook.

I took in the sky. Despite the cold, it wasn’t entirely disheartening. Ragged patches of blue already showed through the clouds. Over breakfast, we again discussed our options as a group. Blue Lake was so close and we’d worked so hard to reach this point that it seemed like a shame to let it go now.  After another intense examination of the sky, we decided that (a) the bad weather would probably be just as bad at White Lake and (b) it had to change for the better at some point anyway, right?

We decided to ride for Blue Lake.

***

IMG_2099

On approach to Blue Lake 

We set out upcountry. The hills ahead of us were still blanketed in white from the past days’ precipitation. As we went, small herds of horses ran out to inspect us, long-maned stallions in front, all colours of the earth spectrum from white to grey to brown to black. The weather improved steadily through the day, and by the time we stopped for lunch we’d started to shed layers and apply sunscreen beneath the increasingly warm sun.

After eating, the guides staged an impromptu wrestling competition for us. Tenjin and Torgu grappled to a pants-tearing draw amidst whoops of encouragement from Gaaj and Dodreg and the purring of Janine’s and Dave’s cameras. Gaaj, despite a dislocated finger courtesy of one of Throwy’s outbursts, could not resist joining in and even one-handed was able to hold his own against the two younger men. Dodreg observed all, smilling and occasionally catcalling, puffing on a cigarette. Dave and I each tried to goad the other into taking him on, since we were the only men present even remotely close to his size. But, neither one of us feeling particularly stupid that afternoon, we each refused the bait.

We passed an isolated ger. Here, a wrinkled woman replenished our ailing supplies of sugar and plied us with hot milk tea and assorted cheeses, some soft, some crumbling, some the consistency of granite. Inside the ger, hunks of drying dairy dangled from the ceiling and an old man lay on a creaking bed with his back to us, coughing wetly . Outside, a captured young eagle was being bred for hunting, one leg crippled. The usual assortment of growling dogs patrolled the area.

The afternoon grew old as we pushed higher up into the hills. For the first time in a week, we left the Illoyd Tamir Gol River. The tops of the rounded mountains seemed closer than ever. We passed a large herd of horses and an even larger herd of yaks before finally settling down between a pine forest and a rocky riverbed for the night. We’d base camp it here for two nights, making a day trip to the lake tomorrow.

 IMG_5960

The air was crisp, but delightfully dry and without hint of rain, sleet or snow. As evening fell, we saw the stars clearly for the first time in days and slept beneath a gleaming milky way knowing we’d made the right call in deciding to push on.

***

In some countries, Blue Lake might not be remakable. A couple of km long and wide, it’s the shape of  a kidney bean, nestled into bare, round-topped mountains. But to us, after 9 days of travel through river valleys, its sapphire waters rippling gently under a breezy blue sky were magical and other-worldly. We posed for pictures on the shore, drank a celebratory shot of vodka with the guides and napped contentedly on an embankment of green grass overlooking the water while the horses grazed nearby. Before leaving, Gaaj gestured that we should build a cairn on the beach. Dodreg started the process with a stone only slightly smaller than Roy Hellbeast and with Dave, Gaaj and I helping, we soon had a respectable pile built up.

As we rode away a little while later, I looked back at the cairn wistfully. We’d been thrown, kicked, bolted and rained upon in a fairly continuous stream over the past few days. But still we’d managed to have a good time and to become thoroughly infatuated with the land and its people. Now, the weather seemed to be on the mend and a whole second half of the journey awaited. We liked our guides, we liked each others’ company, and I had even come to like (one of) these half-crazy Mongolian horses. The whole land and our simple trek across it had the feel of something truly adventurous – a raw, exhilerating, probably unsafe feeling that I’d experienced in few other places. It made my guts swirl  sometimes but I still loved it.

Passing a log and stone ovoo overlooking the valley in which we were camped, I smiled and kicked Buttercup into a trot towards the next half of our journey.

IMG_2119

Cairn on Blue Lake

IMG_1609

Dear Reader,

After a lengthy sojourn, I happily take you back to the tales of our Badminton Across Mongolia (“B.A.M.”) adventure! The crazy horses, the quirky local guides and yes, of course, the eye lice.  They’re all back baby! Now, you can pick up the tale exactly where it left off by reading the post below. Or, if you’ve forgotten what the hell Mongolia was all about, you can start the story right at the beginning and catch up to the current posting by going to our dedicated BAM page right here. Enjoy! And sorry about the 6 month delay, by the way. You’re not sore about that, right?

IMG_1966

And not a bad badminton player either.

Guys. Dodreg is fishing from his horse.

Jason

No one is certain where Dodreg came from or why, though I suspect the answers may be, respectively, “Krypton” and “for similar motives.”

We rode beneath a cement coloured sky, the big brown I’d borrowed from Torgu strolled contentedly, stopping to munch on yellow flowered shrubs that bloomed prolifically along the faint jeep track we followed. So far, eating seemed to be his chief love. He’d shown hardly any interest in following Throwy on one of his daily bolts when the white horse had tried to launch into one earlier that day. It soon became obvious that Buttercup, as I started to call him, was more inclined to take Throwy’s tantrums as an excuse to drop his head into the veritable salad bar over which we rode. That arrangement worked fine with me and I even began steering him through deeper grasses as both an incentive and an additional sort of insurance policy.

While we rode, Torgu and I engaged in our daily version of language lessons. Ostensibly this involved him teaching me a word in Mongolian and I teaching him the same word in English. In reality it was a morning comedy of errors which typically resulted in Torgu smiling vacantly and me riding off in a flurry of cursing and flushed cheeks.

“Goat,” I said to him, as I pointed to a herd of the passing wooly animals. A group of young boys, riding bareback, whistling and shouting to the animals and themselves, steered the flock to a nearby river.

“Goat!” smiled Torgu amiably.

“Good!” I said enthusiastically, bracing to enter the tricky part of the dialogue. Pointing again to the herd I asked, “Mongol?”

“Mongol!” repeated Torgu

“Oh! No, no! Goat in Mongol?” I tried again.

“Onono! Goadin Mongol!” smiled Torgu again.

“No no.” I said, trying a different tack. I pointed to my guide’s horse. “English, horse. Mongol muur. ” ”

“Mongol muur!” smiled Torgu.

“Yes!” I said encouragingly. “Yes!” repeated my guide.

“So,” I closed the loop, “English, goat, Mongol….?”

“Soenglishgoat Mongol!” smiled Torgu, satisfied.

“AHHH!!!” I said.

“AHHH!!!” he said happily.

Bloodshed was averted by the approach of a galloping black stallion bearing a lanky, ink-robed rider, his legs dangling to within a couple of feet above the ground. As the new arrival slowed to a trot beside Gaaj and Tenjin, riding near the front of our party with the pack horses, I saw handshakes and friendly greetings exchanged from the saddles and the dark stranger fell in with our group.  An hour went by, then two, and it soon became apparent that the rider would likely be sticking around for at least the night. As we approached our camp, crossing a lovely stream en route to a sheltering copse of towering pines, the rider slowed his snorting stallion until Torgu and I drew close to him. The stranger extended a large hand in my direction. Torgu nodded at our new companion. “Dodreg,” he introduced, grnning.

“Dodreg,” I repeated, gripping the hand.

“Dodreg,” repeated Torgu.

“Dodreg,” said Dodreg in a quiet, deep voice from under a short shock of jet black hair. His white, underbiting teeth were crowded into a tiny smiling mouth, tucked into the bottom of a wedge shaped chin and bordered with the trace of a mustache. It was a mouth that tended to twitch towards smirking, but not in a bad way. Combined with twinkling eyes and eyebrows that arched like gothic church windows, it was the face of a loveable-rogue mixed with a cheesy movie villain.

Then there was his height. “Heez like a giant,” marvelled Val as we watched Dodreg dismount at camp and stand next to other guides. He easily stood over Gaaj and positively towered over Torgu and Tenjin.  But amongst these men, this was either of no consequence or old hat, and camp was quickly set up in a grassy clearing amongst the trees. Soon the crackle of a campfire joined the thrashing sounds of the nearby rocky stream and Gaaj’s battered black pot was set to boil over the flames while the rest of us erected tents, dug out food for dinner and collected firewood. The horses rolled and grazed gratefully in the field for an hour, whinnying and snuffling at each other socially, before Tenjin began tethering them securely to trees bordering the edges of camp.

Our home for the night had just been established, when Gaaj and Dodreg approached us smiling. Gaaj pointed back towards the stream.

“Fish,” he said, holding his hands far apart. “Big.”

From the folds of his robe, Dodreg produced a 6 inch block of wood around which was coiled about 30 feet of fishing line. Near the end of the line was tied a small piece of styrofoam; then a little further on, a rock; and finally, a foot again after, a large grasshopper writhing on ahook. It was a simple but ingenious little hand fishing device.

I still had some camp chores to finish, but I motioned to Gaaj and Dodreg encouragingly to go down to the river and get started without me. Followed by Janine, Val and Dave, the two Mongols excitedly jogged away like kids headed for the fair with their dad’s wallet. Within a few minutes, I could hear whoops and whistles of joy emanating from the banks as Dodreg began reeling them in, literally, hand over fist.

He didn’t stop until he had 6 fat, red trout wriggling on the bank. Faster than Janine and Val could clean one, Dodreg thunked another down before them with a mischevious smile. As the grey sky faded to black, we salted, oiled and spiced the fish in a variety of improvised marinades, before wrapping each one in foil and roasting it on the red hot embers of our fire until the white-pink meat fell from the bones. They were simply too big cook all at once. So while the second batch sizzled on the coals, the first were passed around the fire on a big platter to be picked at by increasingly sticky fingers.

We ate our fill and then pitched our largest logs on the fire for the entertainment portion of the evening.  All Mongolian men can sing, it seems. And our guides are no exception. Gaaj and Torgu have a song for everything, most of them dealing with tea, mother, women and horses and everyone of them ending with a laugh about whether there’s another verse and who should sing it.  Dodreg prefers to whistle along at these times, and has an amazing, bird-like ability to trill out loud, pitch perfect tunes from between his teeth. But it’s quiet Tenjin who steals the show. In the last songs of the evening, the other guides fall silent and Gaaj’s brother sends eerie songs into the crisp Arkhangai night in a sorrowful tenor wail. I never did find out what they were about. By the time their spell broke, we were all already wandering towards the shadows of our tents, bellies and ears and hearts full.

***

So Dodreg falls in with us over the next few days, becoming in some hazy way, a member of our party. Sometimes, he leads a pack horse (usually the most troublesome one). Other times he simply rides beside the other guides, seated as casually on his black stallion as we might slouch in an easy chair; crouched over one side of his saddle, with almost his entire weight supported on one leg, the other leg bent at the knee holding up, in order, Dodreg’s crooked arm, chin and head.  Once in a while he’ll sit behind the saddle altogether, his legs stretched straight over it like its a coffee table. These casual feats of horsemanship are often done while whistling, tooth picking or cooly smoking a hand-rolled cigarette.

Dodreg has trouble riding placidly for long. Every once in a while, he’ll utter a quick word to Gaaj and suddenly take off at a blistering gallop across the plain. We begin ascribing all sorts of adventures to these sojourns, most of them involving either blood feuds, captive maidens or lost calfs. But day after day, he eventually rides back into our midst, typically at a full gallop; black robes, rawhide ropes and dust swirling behind him, the black stallion snorting and whinnying furiously under his master’s leather whip. Val begins to call him “Thee Dark Knight” and there’s no denying that the guy has a real bad-ass/cool thing going on that is quite entertaining. On his next side trip, we amuse ourselves by constructing various creation myths for our new hero:

The Legend of Dodreg:

– Some say Dodreg was born on a galloping horse. Others say Dodreg was born of a galloping horse.

– Dodreg was born the same size he is today; carrying a whip.

– Dodreg’s mother was the river goddess and his father was the atomic bomb.

– Dodreg’s pubic hair has the tensile strength of steel wire. He’ll often use it to leave outlaws bound for the authorities.

– Dodreg made his current horse by carving it from a block of wood. He threw the wood into the fire and when it glowed like a red hot ember he took it from the flames with his bare hands and breathed life into it. The horse’s name is Roy Hellbeast.

– When Dodreg sneezes, the locals call it a Mongolian Tornado. When he hiccups, the elders say someone dies.

– Dodreg has lived many lives and has been known by many names, including Zorro, Robin Hood and, according to Janine, Magneto.

You get the point.

***

Dodreg has a number of special skills. One day at our lunch break. Dave and I set up a cairn of stones, walk backwards about 25 paces, and start hurling rocks at it. Gaaj soon joins in, then Torgu and soon even quiet Tenjin is hurling away. We hit the cairn every dozen throws or so and spend the rest of the time laughing and making fun of each others’ efforts.

Dodreg watches all this for a few minutes, resting casually on his side, smoking a cigarette. Then he gets up, walks over to us and picks up a rock. His first throw is straight as a gunshot, obliterating the cairn.  Dave trots over to the wreckage and quickly rebuilds it. But before he’s back, Dodreg has knocked it down again. A third throw is nearly as good, barely missing the top stone. “Fucking hell,” mutters Dave, suitably impressed.  Dodreg, though his grasp of English is even more minimal than Torgu, grins appreciatively at the compliment.

When bored, Dodreg likes to pitch his whip, or some other small item a few feet ahead of his horse. Then, whipping Roy Hellbeast into a rearing gallop, he’ll charge forward, leaning steeply out of his saddle to snatch the item from the ground. He encourages me to replicate him, but even on the amiable Buttercup I can’t get up the nerve.

So through the first few days of our acquaintance, we watch this mysterious stranger perform a variety of little miracles and Marlborough Man moments. He finds a hidden creek on a seemingly barren plain. He corals a wayward and ornery bull yak. He picks up a large, live snake from the ground with a tree branch while still in his own saddle, then pitches the ahead of Roy Hellbeast and repeats the process again and again in a reptilian version of his fetch game. We called this last trick Dodreg Snake Polo, and if I didn’t have the pictures to prove it, I’d completely understand if you didn’t believe me.

But I think Dodreg’s most impressive feat comes a few mornings later. Buttercup and I are moseying beside a beautiful stream, fringed on one side by autumn-coloured grasses and leaf-shedding trees and on the other by sheer walls of sparkling black granite. We are well behind the rest of the group, having found a patch of purple-flowered thistles that had required a second breakfast for my four-legged friend.  As we pass a deep pool of water on the river bank, I hear Roy Hellbeast’s hoofs splash. Astride him, Dodreg sits fishing with his hand line, lassoing the lure into the water with one hand and holding the reins with the other. When the lure is cast, he trolls upstream on horseback, slouched over the saddle, smoking a cigarette and carefully watching the wodden bobber for the smallest wobble. The effortless multi-tasking, the graceful simultaneous handling of horse and line is an amazing demonstration of horsemanship, as beautiful as it is impressive.

We’re not certain how long Dodreg will ride with us. It’s one of those complex questions that our phrasebook Mongolian can’t quite get across to the guides. But we all come to agree that maybe it’s better that way; that some morning we’ll wake up and he’ll just be gone; off to help and regale some other bunch of greenhorn travellers badmintoning their way across Mongolia.

Like we typically did at the end of a hike, we gorged on city life.

The sultry streets of Kathmandu were a sweaty contrast to the cool alpine trails of the Khumbu region. We walked the narrow busy streets of the Thamel Market in shirtsleeves, shouldering past the throngs of trinket sellers and drug pushers, dodging the innumerable bicycle rickshaws and motorbikes that drove where they could as fast as they could.  We drank good coffee and ate passable breakfasts on sunny terraces of cafes tucked just off the road, just beyond the madness. We read the papers, bought books, rented a dvd player and watched bootleg movies.  At night, we met up with Gianni and Isabelle for dinners where yak featured nowhere on the menu.  We e-mailed, we blogged, we shopped and life seemed pretty good.

We also grew indecisive. Our calendar and bank account were telling us in no uncertain terms that the trip was nearing its end. The Annapurna circuit and a final hike beckoned, yet we felt our energy and our drive ebbing, as thoughts turned increasingly towards home. Janine had warmed up her job search network before leaving for the Everest trip, resulting in an interview request for a promising position. A discouraging attempt to organize a telephone interview from Kathmandu heightened the debate over our next move.

With a recession looming and 98% of the trip completed anyway, it seemed like the wise play was to skip the final hike in the Annapurna region and go home now, nail down that second income and start the next phase in our great adventure – real life.

***

The next few days were a flurry of old flight changes, old flight cancellations and new flight bookings. The last bit was the toughest. We were smack in the middle of prime trekking season in Nepal and were told more than once that there was not a flight to be had out of the country anytime soon.  But one agent promised that he had connections (I’m guessing this means bribe money) and a few days later we had a ticket on a Royal Nepal Airlines flight to Delhi. The “Royal” in the title was now hastily whited out wherever it appeared in the country as Nepal moved hastily forward to a republican future. 

At the red-brick Kathmandu airport, we watched from the restaurant window as turbo props and twin otters took off for the mountains from which we’d just returned. Our time in Nepal had been as wonderful as it had been brief. We were excited to return home but hoped anxiously that we had made the right decision in cutting the trip a few weeks short.

An hour later, Janine and I gazed out the window of our plane as the ground blurred beneath us from black asphalt to the rich greens of the fertile Nepali lowlands. We’d be in Delhi in an hour. On a plane bound for Canada a few days after that.

We held hands more firmly than usual on our shared arm rest. The Tundra to Steppe adventure was at an end.

We were going home.

PAY ME MY F*CKING MONEY! I WILL F*CKING KILL YOU!

– Lakpa

I know that I can be a little persnickety at times; a little uptight.  My Aunt Barb once told me, with typical Newfoundland candour, that I had “starched drawers”. Janine will also admit that, at times, she’s not the most easy going person around.

So, when we discovered that our Sherpa was an alcoholic, we tried to play it cool.

After all, drinking was a common past time in Nepal, amongst tourists, porters and guides alike. Long days and heavy loads, combined with tedious nights in drafty lodges, far from the comforts and supervision of home make ideal conditions for it. A beer or a glass of the local homebrew is the perfect complement to the telling of a story from the day’s trek or for the gentle easing of aching backs and shoulders.

Lakpa’s drinking started off innocuously enough. And at first, we did the typical second guessing as to whether he was actually over-drinking at all. Not wanting to be slave drivers, we wrote off his diminished motor and vocabulary skills as the result of fatigue and an extra end-of-day beer. But as the trek became a few days older, it soon became clear that our guide’s drinking would be a problem.

The problem manifested most overtly at dinners. In Everest lodges, porters and guides typically assist the kitchen staff at dinner time with the processing and delivering of orders. By the time we reached Namche Bazaar, Lakpa was noticeably drunk in the dining room, alcohol wafting from his breath, his eyes glazed over, speech slurred.  Other trekkers and guides began to notice and we began to get embarassed. More importantly, we worried. What if this guy became unreliable at high altitude? What if he couldn’t help us (or himself) in the event of a crisis?

An intervention was in order.  Before climbing above Namche Bazaar, we had a frank chat with our Sherpa. We liked him, we wanted to continue with him, but the drinking had to stop. Lakpa seemed chastened, and agreed. 

For a couple of days, the agreement held. But as we gained altitude and put more distance between us and Namche Bazaar (the last good place to hire reasonably-priced porters), Lakpa’s behaviour deteriorated once again. By the time we reached Gokyo, his evening staggerings were a nightly feature and we began taking care of ourselves in the dining room, avoiding confrontation and fabricating reasons to excuse him from waiter duties.  We knew this would result in him stumbling off to party, but it was better than having him stare at us slack-jawed while we ingested the latest Nepali attempt at spaghetti bolognaise. 

Meeting Gianni and Isabelle helped keep us in good humour about the situation. Our Australian friends supported our efforts to maintain perspective. They agreed that, despite the high annoyance factor, so far Lakpa’s drinking hadn’t effected his personality. He remained cheerful and hardworking, even volunteering to reserve an extra room for Gianni and Isabelle whenever we sent him ahead to the next settlement. Every day he got us and our gear from point A to point B. And although his choice of lodging was often suspect (and, we thought, highly influenced by which inn offered porters the most free beer for bringing in trekkers) he never complained if we selected a place different than the one he recommended. As the trip neared its end, we figured we’d deal with the over-drinking with an adjustment to the tip, but didn’t foresee any reason not to pay the 1/3 of Lakpa’s wages we’d held onto pending completion of the trek.

And then came Dingboche.

It was the second last stop on the trip before returning to our starting point at Lukla and everything leading up to it was perfect. Descending from the pinnacle of the trail at Gorak Shep to the slummy hamlet of Lobuche, we said a temporary good bye to Gianni and Isabelle. They intended to bag one more great view of Everest and Ama Dablam at the Kongma La pass and then meet us in Dingboche at the end of the day.

 Janine and I wished them luck, promised to do our best to find a lodge with good beds and a functioning shower, and continued down the more direct route to town.  Along the way, we savoured the blue skies, sunshine and the sensation of walking downhill. Prayer flags snapped fussily from the cairns and stupas that marked each vantage point looking down into the valley through which we would walk for the remainder of this day and the next. After a little searching in Dingboche, a fair-sized town tucked into the leaside of a massive ancient glacial moraine, we found a tidy lodge run by a friendly family and settled in for a relaxing night of good food and more importantly, hot water boiled and dumped into a shower tank by the family matriarch. There was almost enough to let Janine get all the soap out of her hair. When Gianni and Isabelle showed up a few hours later, tired but exhilerated from the scenery of their detour, they barely recognized us in our  scrubbed and polished state.

Lakpa joined us in the dining room soon after, obviously well into party mode. It was a festival day, he declared, and then launched into a concerted effort to have Gianni join him for a few rounds at one of the local pubs. Gianni good-naturedly took a pass, simply too winded from his extended hike to hit the bar. We sent Lakpa off to have his fun and crossed our fingers with little confidence that tomorrow wouldn’t be too bad.

***

“I have not been sleeping!” Lakpa stated proudly, supporting himself a little unsteadily on the breakfast table.

“Oh, boy,” I muttered to Janine. But then with an attempt to keep the mood light, I enquired if our guide had enjoyed himself last night.

“Oh yes! We are drinking! We are making a big party! Here it is a festival today! The last festival of the year!”

Sunlight streamed through the window of the dining room gleaming against the polished wood timbers of the floors and tables. The weather was cool and clear – perfect for hiking. We hoped Lakpa would be up for it and asked him directly if he felt up for the walk back to Namche Bazaar.

“Oh no problem!” he grinned sloppily. “I am fine! Let’s go.”

He wasn’t fine. Sherpa’s are some of the world’s toughest mountaineers. But even for them, carrying a full rucksack with no sleep and coming off a toxic bender is a little much. Shortly into the hike, Lakpa began to crash. Hard.

His strategy to cope with this was not encouraging. Waving us ahead of him at each village or inn along the trail, he’d catch up with us shortly thereafter, the smell of alcohol from his breath growing stronger each time. Rather than dealing with the roaring hangover that was undoubtedly bearing down on him, Lakpa was choosing to delay payment by continuing to hit the booze.

We began to wait with him during his rest breaks, worrying that we might lose track of him altogether if he passed out at some hole-in-the-wall lodge farther back on the trail. But this tactic only made matters worse.  Lakpa didn’t like the connotation of distrust that he felt the new arrangement implied, and this prompted him to unleash a barrage of pent-up grievances that had been held back until now. His pay was too low. He should charge us two day’s rates for walking from Dingboche to Namche Bazaar as it was a long trek (forget that we were following his itinerary). Our staying at lodges of our own choosing cost him money (read, beer). And worst of all, we had the temerity to tell him he shouldn’t drink so much.

As the morning got old, the tirade became more venemous. “I can’t wait till I I am finished this f*cking trek!” he’d shout periodically, swaying all over the trail. Gianni and I tried to keep things friendly, but Lakpa looked at us with hazy suspicion and a growing malice. “You stay where you like,” he nearly spat at me on one rest break.  Even Gianni, with whom Lakpa had bantered amicably up until now, was turned against. Lakpa started to take the Australian’s good natured cajoling as an invitation to fight and Gianni started to hike further ahead on the trail to avoid inadvertently provoking the Sherpa.

Lakpa’s gait grew steadily unsteadier. As the afternoon began, a previously unseen dark side of his personality came to the fore. As I walked slightly ahead of him, ignoring his grousings, he began to taunt me with the idea of us not getting to Namche Bazaar. His stops became more frequent and he began to wink at me as he would disappear into a lodge or hit up a passing porter for another drink. “We go to Namche Bazaar?” he’d smirk, dropping the rucksack.  I played on his pride, responding that we’d only go if he weren’t too tired. “No no. Not too tired. For me it is easy. We go where you like. We stay where you like. I don’t care.”  He’d take up the pack again and we’d repeat this game 5 or 10 minutes later.

Progress became painfully slow. Finally, after consulting with the rest of our trekking group, I put an ultimatum to Lakpa – either he stopped the stopping or I’d carry the bag myself the rest of the way to Lukla, settling up his wages with him there. By now, the Sherpa was so drunk his eyes moved independently of each other.  With a sly grin, he ditched the rucksack at the next lodge and disappeared inside.

It was a cunning place to call my bluff. The lodge was conveniently located at the beginning of a steep, switch-backing ascent that even pack-less trekkers were puffing up.  But I’d had enough.

“Right. Okay Lakpa,” I called after him as I shouldered the bag. “You’re fired.”

For a couple of minutes nothing happened and I focussed on labouring up the trail, Gianni walking beside me and offering constant encouragement. But then, Lakpa ran up the trail and planted himself in front of me.

“Okay. I will take the bag.”

I trudged by him, gasping as succinctly as I could in the thin air that that ship had sailed. “I’ll talk to you in Lukla Lakpa,” I huffed.

“Good man Jase,” said Gianni approvingly. I didn’t tell him how tempted I was to turn over the rucksack. Though I routinely carried more that this at normal altitude, the bloody thing was killing me up here.

Lakpa remained back on the trail for a minute, struggling, no doubt, to process his position and come up with a response. When he did, he came  directly to the point, crouching in to speak almost right into my ear.

“Pay me my money,” he demanded. The reek of the local brew streamed from his mouth into my face. It wasn’t the wind I was looking for.

“Money in Lukla tomorrow, as agreed, Lakpa,” I replied not breaking my pace.

“No! I will go home tonight. Pay me my money.”

As gently but firmly as I could manage, I repeated our position. The holdback would be paid in Lukla, as we’d all agreed at the beginning of the trip.

Lakpa got more agressive, which in his deteriorating state essentially meant that he blubbered more loudly than before. His nose was running, his hair was dishevelled and he really looked like he could use to sleep for about 5 days.  He continued to rant for his wages, leaning over me as I laboured up the hill.

Finally, Gianni had enough. He’d been watching Lakpa closely and felt like the Sherpa might up and punch me at any second, so erratic were his movements and behaviour. Stepping between me and Lakpa, he gave our guide a solid shove and sent him packing up the trail. “Enough mate! He’s told you he’ll pay you in Lukla. Now go sleep it off and meet us there tomorrow!”

For a minute, I thought it would work. Lakpa, looked shocked, then chastened and lumbered up the trail and around a corner. In the meantime, a small group of Nepali- guides and porters had begun to walk with us, obviously embarassed over their countryman’s behaviour and giving us looks of condolence.

We rounded a bend in the trail, Gianni walking ahead of me with Janine. There, they were confronted by Lakpa, standing slightly higher than Gianni and Janine on the incline. As they approached, Lakpa suddenly lurched forward, picked up an jagged 5 pound stone and held it unsteadily over the heads of my wife and my friend.

“PAY ME MY F*CKING MONEY! I WILL F*CKING KILL YOU!”

We all froze, speechless, except for the other Nepalis, who began to talk urgently in low tones to Lakpa. I felt a sucking sensation in my stomach, like this sudden crisis was exerting a sudden and strong gravitational pull on my guts, pulling me, hard, into a situation that was going to end very, very badly. In a heartbeat, I thought a dozen bad thoughts of how this might all end. I saw Gianni bracing to try and jump Lakpa before he could throw. I saw the other Nepalis gently approaching the Sherpa, their arms raised, their words soothing.

And right then and there I learned the lesson that there is very little negotiating to be done at the end of a gun. So I surrendered.

“Here Lakpa,” I said, unshouldering the backpack and letting it drop to the ground. “Take the bag. Take us to Lukla.”

***

When I’d left it behind two weeks before, I knew I’d be happy to see Namche Bazaar again towards the end of our trip. But I had no idea that I’d greet it with the deep and heartfelt relief I did that evening.

Lakpa had been talked out of homicide and had taken the backpack once again. But the confrontation had finished him off emotionally and physically. Sitting frequently beside the trail, he cried and blubbered inconsolably, now blaming poor Gianni for all his troubles; swearing revenge against the Australian for perceived slights and promising that they would have a reckoning in Lukla. For his part, Gianni wisely decided to carry on ahead of us to Namche Bazaar with Isabelle, secure the four of us rooms for the night and avoid any further contact with Lakpa in his highly unpredictable state.

We consoled Lakpa as best we could and tried to keep him moving. But his body was succumbing to the alcohol and he finally had to give our pack to a friend he’d met up with earlier in the day. The friend, a soft-spoken and friendly porter, was returning to his home below Lukla after delivering a load of goods to one of the villages near Dingboche. Unflinchingly, he hefted our pack onto his slight shoulders and handed his empty wicker basket to Lakpa. Thus, unencumbered, Lakpa was far more mobile, though I kept Janine from walking beside him as he continued to weave unsteadily all over the trail, which hugged the steep-sided valley wall snugly.

It was Friday night in Namche Bazaar and the town virtually hummed with the buzz of trekkers fresh back from successful trips and fresh trekkers about to undertake new ones. Busy tourist shops sold everything from books, to yak fridge magnets to delicacies like fresh bananas and oranges. In the small clearing around which the village curves like an amphitheatre, long-haired Tibetan merchants were unloading their caravans and preparing  to sell their cheap Chinese running shoes, clothes and appliances at the next day’s weekly market. The restuarants were full, the bakeries doing a brisk business and the sound of dance music and partying wafted from several lodges.

We gratefully paid Lakpa’s friend wages for his impromptu service and went into town to look for Gianni and Isabelle. But first we parted with Lakpa for the night, with instructions to get a good rest and to meet us early tomorrow for the final day’s walk to Lukla. Lakpa’s friend promised to stow him somewhere safely for the evening, and Janine and I left Lakpa with the hope that the next day would find him somewhat sober.

Finding a hotel wasn’t easy. But Gianni and Isabelle secured us a 4 person dorm room at a lodge whose food they’d tried when they’d first passed through Namche Bazaar and now swore by. When our bags were stowed, we retired to the dining room. It looked warm and inviting, not least in part due to the wine rack prominently displayed at the bar.

I nodded to the barman, picked out a bottle and brought it to our table, where Gianni, Isabelle and Janine were already retelling their “OH MY GOD!” moments from the day’s trip. “Seeing as how it was my Sherpa that nearly maimed you for life Gian, I think I’ll buy the first bottle tonight. ”

***

When we met him the next morning, Lakpa already had a haircut and a fresh buzz on. But he was coherent, cheerful and generally much improved over the previous day’s shuffling disaster. Despite the fact that he’d already been drinking, he looked his “standard drunk” and therefore easily capable of carrying our pack. To avoid any unpleasantness between him and the rest of our group, we sent him ahead of us to Lukla with instructions to secure us seats on a flight back to Kathmandu for the next day. We then enjoyed a pleasant, sunny walk  back to the town from which we’d began our trip so many weeks ago, arriving just as the setting sun cloaked the Lukla valley in gentle shadow; the mountains, still basking in the sunshine higher above, glowing like brilliant white buoys on deep blue seas.

Lakpa met us at the edge of town, asking for a quick payoff of the holdback money so that he could return to his village that night. But I had no intention of letting him off so easily. His constant lack of sobriety on the job had been one thing. But the previous day’s events had taken things to another level. This man wasn’t just a potential nuisance to other travellers. He was a potential menace. I was going to take this up with his boss.

Jimba Sherpa, who had vouched for and hired Lakpa on our behalf, agreed immediately to a private sit down with us in his lodge’s dining room. As Lakpa sat morosely in the kitchen, doubtlessly knowing why we wanted to speak with his boss so urgently, we laid out the whole story up to the rock incident.

Jimba shook his head sadly, genuinely remorseful. “He told me he wouldn’t drink this time,” he said, his voice low, almost in shock.

“It gets worse Jimba,” I said, laying  a rock on the dining room table similar in size and weight to the one Lakpa had threatened Janine and Gianni with. “Tell me – how much money would you pay someone who had threatened to kill your wife with this?”

***

I leaned forward in my seat, looking over the pilot’s shoulder and down Lukla’s steeply descending runway. As I had the first time I’d seen it, I decided that it was far too short for a safe take off. Undoubtedly,the sheer cliff face that marked its end would also mark ours.  Before Lakpa’s meltdown, I was anticipating this moment as the most dangerous of the trip. Now it merely appeared to be the second most dangerous. Strangely, that gave me some comfort as the turbo prop engines roared to full throttle and we careened down the minute strip of asphalt, our planes wheels leaving the ground smoothly a solid several inches before the pavement cut out and the void began. In moments, we were cruising serenely beside the Himalayas once more, the green Nepali lowlands spreading far beneath us in a progression of tumbling rivers and terraced fields.

It hadn’t been the end we’d envisioned to our Everest Base Camp trek. Lakpa hated us for ratting him out to Jimba and had left Lukla late the night before, frustrated, out some wages for his behaviour and no doubt wondering how he’d spin all this to his wife.  I’d slept lightly, half worried that he’d be kicking the door of our hotel room down, rock in hand, demanding retribution. In the middle of the night, a loud commotion right outside our window brought me to my feet instantly. But it was just some rowdy Europeans who’d enjoyed themselves a little too heartily at the pub across the street.  In the morning, a truly embarassed Jimba personally escorted us to the airport, apologizing all the way there for Lakpa’s behaviour and promising that he would deal with the situation to make sure Lakpa wasn’t left alone with clients in the future. I still felt inclined to report our problem’s to the police, but in the end elected to respect Jimba’s reassurances and to let the tight-knit Sherpa community deal with Lakpa on its own terms. I had a feeling that their justice would be more effective than anything meted out by a cop from Kathmandu.

So ended our trek to Everest Base Camp. We’d crossed glaciers and rocky passes. We’d endured cold weather, thin air and truly egregious snoring. We’d walked over gut wrenching heights, eaten gut wrenching food and survived the world’s trickiest airstrip twice. But the only true danger we’d faced was from the hands of a fellow human being. For all the exotic means of doom you could encounter in a place like this, it turned out to be  a single moment of madness that could have erased the experience of a lifetime.

Once again, Lakpa had secured us rooms in the first lodge he’d come to.

But in welcome contrast to the Rockbottom Lodge at Lobuche the night before, the Himalayan Lodge of Gorak Shep, though simple, was clean, bright and lacking in the health hazards of our previous evening’s accomodation. Our room didn’t have a window. But it had a reasonably opaque skylight and a coat hook (no extra charge for this!). The wood paneling in the restaurant/common room gleamed warmly in early morning sunlight that streamed through large windows. The kitchen had a lightbulb and the cooks had haircuts.

“We’ll take it,” I told our sherpa with a smile.

***

Gorak Shep is the last stop on the trail before the lonely tent pads of Everest Base Camp. Like seemingly everywhere else in the Khumbu, it’s a collection of tidy little lodges; this bunch set out on a sandy plain beside the great Khumbu Glacier. The rock and ice of that landmark separate the town from the feet of Mt. Nuptse, which dominates the skyline with its elegant hook-beaked 7800m summit. Equally beautiful, Mount Pumori makes a tight and elegant 7100 m arc over the northern horizon. Half a dozen lesser peaks crowd in between and somewhere, behind them all, lurks the one that draws all the crowds.

We’d seen Everest several times already – from Namche Bazaar and, even more spectacularly, from the Gokyo region. But its pull was as strong as ever. The lure of a new view was something like the attraction a new climbing route must pose to climbers. The interesting angle, the lesser known perspective, the prospect of some over-excited Swede saying to you back in Kathmandu “Did you see the mountain from that hill above X-ville? Wow, wasn’t it mind-blowing!? Oh. You didn’t see it from there? Oh… Ahem. Excuse me.”

That shit always drags you out of bed and draws you on.

The most famous viewing point in the region, the high hill known as Kala Patar, was literally steps from our front door. So, after a quick cup of something hot, Gianni, Isabelle, Janine and I grabbed some Snickers bars and hit the trail again.

Of course, Kala Patar is only a “hill” by Himalayan standards. But at 5600 meters, its summit is just a hair’s breadth beneath Mt. Kilimanjaro’s. This means climbing it, like climbing Kili, only looks easy. I was reminded of this as I tramped up its series of false tops and ridgelines, the views growing more impressive as my breath grew shorter. I felt a strange disconnect grow within my body. My lungs were heaving, but none of the oxygen seemed to be reaching my legs, each of which felt like it was wrapped in a cement cast. On top of this, my stomach rolled with increasing frequency as an unwelcome hanger-on from the Rockbottom Lodge’s kitchen made itself at home in my intestines. I’d walk a half dozen steps up the dusty trail and then lean forward on my trekking poles, sucking wind, cursing the Rockbottom Lodge and generally feeling sorry for myself. Meanwhile, the age of people passing me with pitying looks was going up as steadily as the trail itself. One guy had an actual cane.

But we kept moving. Soon, the now-familiar black pyramid of Everest began to peak out from behind Nupste’s massif. The winds were harsh this year and had scoured the world’s highest mountain clean of much of its snow, allowing it to stand in even greater contrast to its many white neighbours. At the top of Kala Patar, a pile of large black rocks was bedecked with prayer flags and equally colourful trekkers savouring the view. Here, Pumori’s intimidating south face felt close enough to touch and avalanches could be clearly seen and heard racing down off the sheer sides of Nupste. But it was Everest that drew the eye. From here, the staggering southwest face dominated the eye and the history buff could trace the ridgeline that had defeated heroic Mallory and young Irvine. The Khumbu Icefall, as dangerous as the mountain itself, poured down from Everest’s heights in a frozen rapid of building-sized ice-towers. Avalanches poured onto Khumbu’s sides, bottomless crevasses tore through its middle. Not for a million dollars would you get me to climb that thing. It looked like what it was – a beautiful merciless killer.

We shared the memorable scene with perhaps twenty other travellers – Israelis, Aussies, Americans, French, Russians and Germans. But the scale of the land makes such numbers irrelevant. We felt as alone and small and awed here as we had standing alone before any of the marvels yet encountered on our travels. It was the moment that the whole trip had been leading towards. At Base Camp itself, you couldn’t see the mountain because of the towering presences of the Icefall and the surrounding peaks. This would be our most up-close encounter with the roof of the world.

“So,” I said cheerfully to Janine, who looked at me straightfaced, as if she knew what was coming, “I guess a view this good means we don’t really need to trek to Base Camp tomorrow, right?”

***

We headed to basecamp first thing the next morning. The food at the Himalaya Lodge was excellent and Gianni and I moved slowly at first under the weight of last night’s quickly-consumed minced yak steaks.

Our first destination was a tour of the many memorials to dead climbers that dot the outskirts of town. Tops on my list was finding the marker for New Zealand guide Rob Hall and his clients, who were killed on the mountain in 1996, a tragedy famously documented in Jon Krakauer’s bestselling book, “Into Thin Air”. As we searched the cairns and stupas, however, I was struck once more by the sheer number of lives these mountains had claimed. It seemed no country had emerged unscathed from its encounters with the Himalayas. We eventually found the marker for Hall and his clients – two elegant stupas situated next to one another, a line of tattered prayer flags tying their tops together. Hall’s memorial was plastered white with a brass plaque. His clients’ was made from local stone with carved stone tablets commemorating their names. We attached a fresh line of flags between them and moved on soberly to the portion of our walk that took us to and over the Khumbu Glacier.

Gianni had gotten separated from us during the inspection of the memorials and we wouldn’t be able to catch up with him until base camp itself. So for the next 2.5 hours, Janine and Isabelle and I hiked over the rolling moraines and onto the rock-covered ice of the glacier by ourselves. Nupste and Pumori still glistened beautifully under yet another brilliant azure sky. The glacier entertained constantly. Strange ice formations and brilliantly coloured lakes and rivers would appear around an innocuous looking bend. Car-sized boulders perched on improbably small frozen pillars, looking like giant stone golf balls teed up by the local gods.

But despite the beauty, it was hard to stay excited over this hike. Unlike the easy downhill return trip from Kala Patar, we knew that every wavey, rubble-lined step of this trip would have to be retraced to Gorak Shep at the end of the day. My bum knee burned with the technical, slippery footing. The Rockbottom Lodge’s going away present gurgled loudly in my stomach and I longed to stop. How much better would the view get anyway? But Janine was as firm as the mountain itself and her dedication to reaching the penultimate goal of the trip kept me limping along too.

The view at base camp wasn’t that much better. But it was base camp. A few yellow tents among the rocks and ice housed a failed Korean climbing expedition. Beside them, we sat before the Khumbu Icefall and looked up its massive white belly. A few blackbirds hopped around us, looking for handouts. Gianni happily flipped them the last half of a soggy egg sandwich brought from the lodge, despite the delicacy costing $5 at this elevation. Prayer flags shuffled in the slight breeze. The odd bark of laughter and the sounds of packing came from the Korean camp. A porter passed us by with a grunt, carrying no less than six long, steel ladders on his back, used by climbers for bridging the crevasses on the Icefall. An occassional deep cracking sound would issue beneath us as a reminder that we were sitting on a improbably deep sheet of ice. Otherwise, the place was utterly devoid of fanfare.

We had truly reached the furthest point of our Everest hike. Beyond here, you needed to fork over $30,000 to the Nepali government for a climbing permit to even set foot on the Icefall (let’s not get into the cost of actually climbing). This didn’t stop a few tourists from sneaking onto the vast ridges of ice – the young and the crazy who’d probably have their own memorial cairns and stupas soon enough.

Hiking all this way to a spot where you couldn’t even see the mountain seemed a little silly at first; a little anti-climactic. But it also made a certain amount of sense. All our walking, all our little aches and pains and crappy lodges and bad food, and laughs and gains and setbacks. All those things had only brought us to the toenails of Earth’s largest lump. It enhanced our respect for those climbers who dare to challenge the mountain itself. Where our adventure ended, their’s only began.

But it also gave us perspective. It made us a little more glad to be here; together; happy for this little moment in this very big place.

And besides, our adventure wasn’t really over.

Somewhere back in Gorak Shep, our sherpa was getting drunk and preparing a truly hair-raising end to our Everest travels.

We trudged into the little hamlet of Lobuche in the waning hours of a blue Himalayan afternoon.  It had been a long, difficult day of climbing and then descending the Cho La pass, continuing on past the first overbooked set of lodges at its back feet and then walking another 2 hours to reach this small collection of guesthouses.

But our real travails were only beginning.

We had sent our guide, Lakpa, ahead of us to reserve accomodations in the town, which was known to be too small for the number of trekkers that passed through there on the way to Everest Base Camp.  As we walked into Lobuche, we scanned the lodges scattered along its 50 meters of frontage on the trail, all facing the hook-beaked 7800m summit of Mt. Nupste, coloured rose by the setting sun.

They all looked fine – your standard Khumbu valley collection of tidy, stone-and-mortar buildings, puffing dung fire fumes from tin chimmneys as low evening temperatures began to arrive. All except one. The first lodge on the trail seemed entirely composed of peeling white clapboard, chicken wire and prayers for its structural integrity. It leaned slightly forward and to the left, as if it had gotten drunk once, nearly collapsed into a smoky, tetnus-filled rubble, but recovered at the last minute, and was now lumbering onwards through a brutal hangover.

“It looks like something out of a World Vision commercial,” I muttered, pitying the poor buggers who got stuck in that thing tonight.

Then Lakpa walked out of its front door and waved us over.

***

The inn’s actual name was the Kala Pattar. But we soon came to call it the Rockbottom Lodge.  Its common room/dining hall was low, gloomy and reminiscint of the bar where Han Solo and Chewbacca hang out in Star Wars. A spate of dirty, single-pane windows at the front of the room let in more cold air than light. Cracks in the glass were patched together with packing tape and stickers that advertised bygone trekking expeditions and long closed outdoor gear shops. The dung stove chimmney leaked profusely and amidst the acrid smoke, we could see the faces of fellow travellers – many huddled in their sleeping bags for warmth – silently miserable, sharing  in low tones with their colleagues their story of how they ended up on what seemed like the set of a film about a Siberian forced-labour camp.

The corridor leading to our sleeping chamber was an amalgam of bare, single-sheet plywood and corrugated tin.  The wood and metal tunnel was only wide enough for one person at a time, so when another inmate leaving his room approached us from the opposite direction, we all had to back up and return to the dining room to let him by.  On attempt #2 we got all the way down the hall to our room as Lakpa explained how lucky we were to have a place to stay tonight at all, every other lodge in town being overloaded with trekkers.

The locking clasp on the clapboard door to our room was attached with a small, rusty finishing nail that looked like it would fall out on its own if you stared at it long enough. We removed the tiny padlock (its key was something of a formality) and kicked our way into the chamber, the door being jammed on its off-kilter hinges. Inside, we were greeted by two plywood cots about as wide as your average 1950’s era television screen. Each was topped with a two-inch thick mattress, decorated with mysterious looking stains and containing all the insulative and comfort value of a sack of gravel.

Between the “beds”, the bare dirt floor was covered with a straw matt that had long assumed the colour of what it presumed to mask. Beneath them, sat an assortment of moulding cardboard boxes and, in my case, a jerry can of gas. “Just what this tinderbox needs,” I thought. “Cans of accellerant placed under the beds of the clients!” A sudden breeze blew briskly through the large gap between the window and its frame. The wall facing the hallway didn’t quite reach all the way to its perpendicular neighbour, rendering my earlier misgivings about the strength of our door rather moot. If you were thin enough, you could squeeze into our sleeping chamber through the space between the two walls.

It was all pretty dire. But after 10 hours of walking, we were too tired to put up much of a protest. Numbly, we dropped our bags and made our way back to the common room to order dinner. I asked a young Austrian how the food was. Trying to smile gamely, he said it was fine. But then added that he’d only had the courage to order the soup. I couldn’t blame him. What we could see of the kitchen appeared medieval and most patrons seemed glad that the poor lighting limited what they could see of their plates. Periodically, the hotel matriarch emerged holding a platter, looking pissed with whoever had ordered what was on it. “Room 20 Fried Riiiice!!” she barked, glowering over the assembly.

Several meals went unclaimed.

Before bed, I visited the restroom and replenished my supply of nightmares for many nights to come. A small squat toilet situated in the packed earth floor confronted the entryway menacingly. The low, sloping tin roof overhead ensured that even a boy standing up would have to stoop and get intimately acquainted with the previous occupants’ gastroenterological problems. A bucket of water on the floor served as both flushing mechanism and sink. Various misadventures with this had created a small ice-rink around the toilet that made crampons a necessity for avoiding a truly unpleasant slip and fall. I decided that, if I did go down, I’d try and aim for the large pile of dried yak dung that was stacked on the right had side of the room, rather than the open garbage pail of used tissue paper on the left hand side. Either way, I rated my chances of contracting a communicable disease as “promising.”

Once in bed, Janine and I compared notes. My cot was directly beneath the gap in the window and I was already losing sensation in my toes. Her’s sloped sideways at a 20 degree angle. Our headboards consisted of the single sheet of plywood that separated our room from the dining room. Janine’s portion had a long horizontal fault line running through it that ensured whenever someone made themselves more comfortable at table 6, she got their ass planted in the back of her head.

We both agreed that this was easily the shittiest place we’d ever stayed in all the developing world. Though to call the Rockbottom Lodge a development might be a slander to the developing world.

***

The next day, we awoke and packed in the pre-dawn hours, and were first to emerge into the common room. It was filled with the snores and sleeping bodies of porters and guides, who on their best days, often fare more harshly than us spoiled trekkers. The matriarch took my breakfast order with a grunt and soon emerged with a flask of something that tasted like coffee and two eggs fried to the consistency of cold snot.

An urge was building. An urge to run, not hike, to the next town. I suddenly had this scary feeling that I might not be able to leave the Rockbottom Lodge. That if I stayed for much longer, I’d be too cold and weak from hunger to get out the drafty front door. I’d die here, my body joining those of the other unfortunate hikers, likely buried beneath the dung pile by the toilet.

“Let’s go,” I said, dropping my cutlery onto my eggs with a wet splash. Janine, Gianni and Isabelle quickly agreed.

The bill came. The room charge was nearly triple that of any other lodge we’d stayed in to date. I was too anxious to get out to argue it properly. Here, Janine stepped in, and the matriarch and her cronies soon found out they weren’t the only hardasses in this sorry town.

Outside, we breathed huge lungfulls of crisp Himalayan air. The whole night seemed some kind of joke now and I almost expected the Candid Camera crew to step out from behind one of the scattered sleeping yaks to pop the gag on me to the delight of a live national audience.

But it was quiet. Serene. The emerging sun was searing the sky the lightest shade of blue. A cool morning wind blew off the glaciers and snowfields of the mountains ahead and above us. The trail to Everest beckoned. Horking a farewell spit onto the ground before the Rockbottom Lodge, we shouldered our packs, turned our backs and got the hell out of Lobuche.

This won’t be my best blog post. I’m positively knackered. I promise to try and do today justice at a later time. Maybe in the book. Although just thinking of writing a book right now is making me even more knackered.

Today, we hiked 20 km to and from Gokyo over rolling moraines to the 5th lake in Gokyo Valley, named Ngozumpa for its neighboring glacier (which I told you about yesterday). We were accompanied by our two new friends from Australia, Gianni and Isabella, and we passed the morning chatting amiably as we walked, stopping only to savour the views.

And what views.

After two hours, we reached a section on the moraines where we were granted an incredible, unobstructed view of Everest, including nearly the entirety of its southeast face. Also in plain sight were its neighbours, Lhoste and Nupste, as well as several Matterhornesque peaks of 6000+ meters. On our left, Cho Oyo rose into the sky like it had no intention of stopping, and the head of the mighty glacier was clearly visible on its flanks. With the glacier itself as the foreground, and the green Gokyo lakes glittering in the background, this image is one that will stay with me for a very, very long time.

It was still early in the day when we reached our viewing point. And since everyone felt in such high spirits, we all decided hike further up the valley for a visit to Cho Oyo base camp.

Wow. (How’s that for descriptive writing?)

Whereas at Everest Base Camp your view of Everest itself is largely obscured by the Khumbu Icefall, at Cho Oyu, you come around the side of a small neighbouring hill and are suddenly confronted with the full immensity of an 8000 meter mountain. It was simply awe inspiring. The face of the giant stretched 3 km above us, from the massive icefield at its toes to the snow blown cornices at its summit. Cho Oyo is supposed to be one of the easier 8000 meter summits to climb. But standing before it, I could fathom no one scaling its incredible hanging glaciers, ice towers or sheer black rock faces. I learned later that my instincts weren’t far off. Most climbers take on the mountain from the Tibetan side and steer clear of its Nepali face.

There are a number of translations for the name Cho Oyu. But the nicest one is Goddess of Turquoise, named for the colour the mountain turns at sunset on the Tibetan side. On our visit, only the sky approached that colour. The Goddess herself was dressed simply in a glowing mantle of white.

But she is a Goddess though. No question about that.

Jason


RIMG0750
 

Well I haven’t named him yet. I’m waiting to see how he injures me.

Jason

As far as me and horses go, the third time was the charm.

We awoke to find ourselves joined by a young new guide named Torgu. He was small even by Mongolian standards, but he had a huge smile that frequently cracked his broad, rosy-cheeked face. Though not a great singer, Tsorga felt that music should accompany pretty much every camp chore and he seemed to have a different hum or ballad for everything he did, from lighting the fire to saddling the horses.

Torgu had ridden in from his nearby camp on a large 12 year old charcoal brown gelding. With Pompadour acting a little off (electing at one point on the previous day’s ride to lie down and take a nap while I was still riding him), Gaaj arranged for Torgu to ride my horse in exchange for his own.

I mounted the new horse a little nervously. I had been contemplating walking today, just to have a day off from the seemingly constant troubles I’d had so far on the trip.

“What have you named him?” Val asked me, looking at our new companion as we left camp.

“Well I haven’t named him yet. I’m waiting to see how he injures me.” I was sincere.

But the big brown seemed relatively gentle and sane for our first few hours together. The good weather that had produced last night’s beautiful sunset had persisted. We rode out of the wooded river valley where we had camped. On the way, we passed several groups of gers and horse herds, my new horse whinnying socially at every one. Despite his good behaviour, I kept the reins tight, burying them and my gripping hand in his broad, boot-brush mane.

We rode over a shallow saddle at the end of the valley and the land opened before us again – broad and green, bordered by high hills on the right and a clear branch of the Tamir Gol river on the left. Over it all, the sky was a rich blue. The nice weather had brought out the horse flies in abundance and our mounts snorted loudly every few steps and shook their heads vigorously. The big brown had walked half sideways for most of the morning, looking constantly back over his right shoulder as if committing the way home to memory. But now, the insects gave him something else to think about and he tossed his head as impatiently as the other horses, itching to trot or gallop away from the clouds of bugs that harrassed his eyes and snout.

The new valley stretched on as only Mongolian valleys can, taking a couple of hours to traverse. Finally, we crested another saddle at its end, marked with a log ovoo cairn decked out in blue scarves. We circled the ovoo for good luck and then descended to yet another broad valley of the Tamir Gol river system, this time crossing the river and camping near the banks.

I dismounted my new horse gratefully but with a slight air of disbelief. It had been an incident-free day. No bolting, no load throwing, no kicking and no throwing. It had just been a pleasant ride.

I looked hard at the big brown as Torgu took his reins from my hands and started to remove his saddle. Could he be simply buttering me up? Lulling me into a false sense of confidence so that I’d be a more easy throw when he finally decided to head home? I searched his face for any sign of duplicity. The brown looked back at me with all the evil intent of your average jersey cow.

This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

***

Our guides quickly made a fire, over which they placed their sooty pot of rice. Gaaj didn’t wait to eat, riding instead back to a nearby settlemetn to buy some more food for the guides and to visit some family. While our chief guide was away, we were visited by some classic Mongolian drunks.

Vodka is drunk as casually around here as sodawatered-down vodka is offered to visitors at a ger as a matter of course, no matter the time of day. Visible drunkeness is not widespread. But every settlement seems to have one or two guys who go too far or can’t hold their liquor. They’re usually a harmless annoyance. But sometimes their antics are a serious pain. While Tenjin and Torgu stirred their boiling pot of water, already chatting with two harmless drunks who’d wandered in, another nuisance trotted his horse right into our camp and straight into the middle of the campfire, scattering wood, pot and guides everywhere in the wake of his clearly frightened mount. Torgu contained the damage by quickly leaping to his feat and grabbing the animal’s bridle, leading it away from the flames. At this, the inebriated rider immediately grew angry and began to shout down a torrent of abuse at our young guide, who stood his ground resolutely.

The confrontation didn’t last long. Within a few minutes the young man had dismounted from his horse and joined the campfire circle, laughing and joking like nothing had happened. Our guides were remarkably even tempered about the whole incident. Even Tenjin, who I could sense wanted to deliver a serious pummelling to the drunk, kept his cool, stalking off quietly to gather more wood. We had watched the whole thing from our dining tent and were amazed that no punches had been thrown.

With the drama seemingly over, we enjoyed the rest of our evening at yet another perfect campsite. In the twilight, young mongol boys galloped bareback across the valley, whooping and calling to each other as they chased sheep and cattle. Their ease on the running ponies was inspiring. I could see their brilliant white grins, fostered by years on a nearly exclusive dairy diet, from literally a mile away. The plains Indians no longer roamed the North American grasslands. Where else in the world could one hope to see young people ride so naturally, gracefully and freely?

IMG_5430

IMG_1965

Playing through the pain (more photos)

Janine? Can we please play some friggin’ badminton?

Jason

Mongolian horses don’t wear shoes. I’m intensely grateful for that.

The mixed weather of our rest day turned full on terrible the next day. A leaden sky greated us outside the tent. Shortly after breakfast, a sullen rain began to fall and we hurriedly finished packing just before it turned to a driving sleet.

Until now, the chestnut pack horse that I’d led had been the most docile of our bunch. So I didn’t pay much attention to him or his hindquarters as  I loaded his white colleague with Tenjin that morning. Little did I know that on the list of “things that generally piss off Mongolian horses”, sleet featured prominently.  Before I could say, “hey, why’s the brown turning his back legs toward me so quickly?”, the brown turned his legs towards me quickly and delivered a swift kick that landed with a dull thwack just above my knee cap.

The best thing to do in these situations is to hop up and down and dig out every curse combo you’ve ever heard on HBO. It really helps with the searing pain and quick-rising hematoma. Still I was lucky – a little lower and my world trip would have ended courtesy of a leg cast. A little higher and it would have put a real and literal dent in my sex life.

Did I mention that today was my birthday?

This little incident both arned the chestnut brown the name “Kicky” earned him what we’d come to call a “Mongolian Nose Job.” This involved Tenjin grabbing a big handful of Kicky’s snout, pulling it out from upper lip and then wrapping a rawhide cord around it’s base, much like one would wrap the stems of a big bunch of flowers. The wrap was knotted with a hand sized loop that was designed to grab while loading the suddenly rambunctious gelding.

It looked painful and cruel.

But Kicky was all of a sudden a much better-behaved horse.

We were all shivering and cold when we finally proceeded. But Kicky having been subdued, Throwy decided it was his turn to be something of a jerk. With no warning, he bolted, sending most of the horses, including mine into a bounding stride across the river valley that took too many heart pounding moments to halt. When all control was regained Tenjin and Gaaj backtracked a couple of miles to recapture Throwy, who had come to a pounding halt at a ger camp.

This was enough for me. The first throw, the lost horses, the kicking, the bolting.

We were having pony issues.

Striving to regain our composure, we walked to the nearest ger camp on our route. There, I called Sarah back in Tsetserleg on our satellite phone and used her as a translator to talk frankly with Gaaj about what seemed like a pretty unruly bunch of horses. According to Gaaj, the problem was Kicky and that he didn’t like me leading him on Pompadour. Gaaj suggested a third guide as the best way to solve the problem.

I found it hard to believe that Throwy wasn’t the main source of trouble. He’d instigated most of the bolts so far and seemed bound and determined to raise hell whenever possible. Even Gaaj seemed to have trouble controlling him and I was continually surprised that he’d started me out on a horse that really didn’t seem suited to tourists. If I’d been in charge, he’d have been traded for anything alternate on four legs that was still breathing; dogs, goats and marmots included. But Gaaj seemed to have a proud attachment to the surly white and was obviously intent on keeping him in the group.   So, since our group wanted to press on, if a third guide is what it took to do that, so friggin’ be it.

In addition to settling upon a new strategy for dealing with our troublesome mounts, the stop at the ger was useful for re-engergizing us for the ride to our evening camp. While Gaaj and I talked to Sarah on the satellite phone, cup after cup of hot, salted Mongolian milk tea was handed around to our group by the inhabitants of the ger. In true Mongolian style, they’d taken us into their home without question and with the utmost hospitality, stoking their woodstove and feeding us on copious amounts of dairy products while the weathered camp elders stared and laughed at us curiously. Whenever we left the ger to talk in private or answer the call of nature (it was a lot of tea), the matriarch of the clan sent a little boy with us to watch over the dogs that prowled and guarded the camp.

Finally, we left the ger and headed out on the trail again. Two young men from the host family accompanied us for two hours, until we reached a green field surrounded by sweeping birch and willow trees near a clear branch of the river by which we’d camped the day before. As we set up camp, the grey skies cleared  and the sun turned the remaining clouds mind bending shades of purple and indigo as it set behind the valley’s western ridge.

 IMG_1904

Uneasy skies on day 5 of our journey

Dave, Val and Janine were feeling positive with the turn in weather and the news that more guide help was on the way. After reaching the camp, they even took their horses out for a brief gallop before unsaddling them for the evening. But I was down. So far in Mongolia, I’d been kicked, thrown and infected by the horses I’d so looked forward to riding. This wasn’t at all like the Louis L’Amour books had promised.

I was feeling a little sorry for myself. And so I turned to the one thing I knew might pick me up a bit on what had been, and I’m sorry about this Mr. Beautiful Sunset, a pretty shitty day.

“Janine? Can we please play some friggin’ badminton?” I asked in my best, sad birthday boy voice.

Janine agreed.

Gaaj had galloped off to find us a third guide, leaving Tenjin to sing and tend a small campfire in the dying light of the evening. While he cooked his and his brother’s standard pot of noodles and beef, he watched Janine and I bat the feathered birdie back and forth, laughing a little more as the minutes went on. Finally, Dave got in on the fun and if Tenjin wouldn’t join us, at least we coaxed a little grin from his normally stoic face.

Probably because he thought we were idiots. But that’s okay.

For some strange reason, I really did feel better after badminton. And I stayed on a roll after we finished; enjoying our dinner around the campfire and then retiring to our tent to call my mom on the sat phone and hear her annual rendition of the story of my incredibly painful birth.  Finally, I called my sister and brother-in-law. I wanted to end the day with their birthday wishes and I also wanted the opinion of my sister (who is also our expedition doctor) on the weird eye bugs I’d caught from the horses a few days before.

Melanie was extremely helpful, drawing on years of medical school and practice to form an instant diagnosis of my infestation. “Oh Jay!” she said as she audibly recoiled on the other end of the phone, thousands of miles away. “I’ve never heard of that before! That’s really gross!”

Then, silence. Then, I heard her conferring with my brother-in-law for a minute. Then, she returned to the phone and delivered some further assistance.

“Al says if you’d stop having sex with horses this wouldn’t happen,”  she suggested, unsuccessfully suppressing a snigger.

Grateful for the support, intellect and obvious love of my family members, I hung up the phone and went to sleep. My leg hurt again.

IMG_1751

Bad ponies! No homesickness allowed on this adventure! (more photos)

Horses… gone.

Gaaj

Janine and I had just woken up and started to break up our little nylon bedroom when Gaaj tapped on our front door an stuck his head in. His face was weary.

“Horses… gone.”  he said pointing back the way we’d come yesterday. Sure enough 4 of our mounts had fled the scene, including Pompadour.

It took Gaaj and Tenjin the whole morning and a good chunk of the afternoon to find the awol members of our expedition. Perhaps in something of a verdict on our trip plans, they’d trotted home during the night. When Tenjin finally rode into caring with the deserters at heel, they bore the look of naughty (or as Val says, “nottee”) school children. They also looked tired, having covered 70 km in the past 16 hours.

We wouldn’t be going anywhere today.

So instead, we fished, read, drank tea, took pictures, drew and cooked a lovely pasta dinner, featuring red peppers roasted over a very smokey campfire at great personal cost to me and Val (well, to Val anyway). Dave, Val and Janine visited a nearby ger camp and worked on adjusting their tastebuds to Mongolian dairy.

 IMG_1791

Mongolian ger hospitality

Throughout the day, the weather varied between cloud and sun. On some of the high hills in the far distance, snow was speckled on the summits. When the sun set, the sky turned deep shades of red and purple, putting a beautiful cap on a restful day.

Well, restful for us anyway.

IMG_1733

IMG_2090

He looks so innocent here… (more photos)

Well. That can’t have been good for the eggs.

Dave

All the guide books tell you that Mongolian horse are half wild. What they don’t tell you is that the other half is equal parts crazy and paranoid. I found this out, literally, the hard way.

By the time we left Gaaj’s ger camp on a brilliant, windy afternoon, I had a developed a to-do list and a not-to-do list relating to the stocky mongol ponies. Never approach a Mongolian horse quickly. Never appraoch a Mongolian horse from its right hand side, or from behind. Don’t wear riding clothes that flap in the wind or that krinkle loudly. Don’t make sudden moves, shout, or whistle sharply. Basically, as you’re approaching a Mongolian horse, whatever you’re thinking about doing, you probably shouldn’t.

And may I now specifically include on this list “don’t wave a badminton racket in a Mongolian horse’s face.”

***

Somehow Gaaj and his quiet brother Tenjin had managed to load all of our gear onto only 3 pack horses. We therefore rode out of his camp totalling 6 riders and 9 ponies. Our chagrin at the size of our loads only grew when we saw that Gaaj and Tenjin didn’t even need a pack horse for their own small camping kit, but simply slung it over the back of their saddles.

I was mounted on a big white gelding who had a strong trot; liked to lead the other horses, but was otherwise undistinguishable. Like all geldings, his mane was shorn short, leaving him looking like he had a long boot brush growing from the back of his neck. I was still trying to think of a name for him 15 minutes out of camp. Our group ambled along the broad, wide valley in which Gaaj’s camp was situated, crossing a series of shallow, dry river gullies. The first couple of gullies were rocky, the next few were lined with soft grass.

On my back, I carried a small day pack, out of the top of which protruded our fishing rod and the case holding our badminton rackets. The rod and rackets were wrapped in a little plastic sheath which flapped noisily in the strong headwind. Thinking of my aforementioned lists, I worried about the effect of the flapping on my horses psyche. To rectify the situation, I then did something completely idiotic.

Still sitting astride my horse, and with all the brainpower of your average Mongolian horsefly, I casually slung the back pack down off my right shoulder to tuck in the plastic. As I did so, the badminton racket handles passed right over the peripheral vision of my horse’s right eye.

I now feel lucky that this didn’t cost me my life.

My horse immediately whinnied, jumped to its left and then bolted into a full gallop, sending the rest of the horses into a similar frenzy. At Steppe Riders I had let my horse break into something just over a trot for a minute or two. But otherwise, I’d never been on a truly galloping horse before. Now, the real power of these animals was on full, frightening display beneath me.

I had had the reins gripped relatively loosely in my left hand when the bolt ocurred. Now, as the horse pounded away beneath me, I willed my right hand to release its reflexive grip on the pommel and help me to choke up further on the reins. I pulled with all I could, but the big white was truly spooked and was charging headlong for home – and right for the dry river gullies we’d just crossed.

The first gully, he took in one leap, shaking me badly as we hit the other side of the shallow trench. In my peripheral vision, I could see its grassy bottom rushing by below me in a green blur. The second grassy gully was wider – this one he took in two bounds. But as we emerged on the other side, I could feel the old wooden and leather saddle loosening underneath me. I could see the next gully coming on fast.

Unlike the first two, it was full of rocks.

My horse was not stopping, my saddle was not staying on and I did not want to fall on those stones at 40 km/h. As the saddle came looser under me, I jumped.

The saddle broke apart at the same time and came off the horse’s back shortly thereafter in a cloud of dust. I hit the turf on my back (I’d dropped my back pack just before the horse had bolted) and skidded a dozen feet or so before coming to a quiet, breathless halt.

Some people like to imagine that they have a guardian angel. I know I do, because after a quick mental check, I realized that, besides an aching back that would make the next few night’s sleeping on the ground a truely sadistic pleasure, I was okay. I got up slowly and could see my horse was already back at Gaaj’s ger camp, with the pack horse carrying my and Janine’s backpacks close behind. I scanned the horizon from back the way I’d just galloped and could see Janine’s red coat in the distance. Thankfully, she and it sat atop a relatively placid looking horse. Beside her, Dave’s white 16 year old gelding circled anxiously. About 500 m further off, I could see Val slowly leading her 4 year old grey back towards them. I leanred later that all of them had bolted, Val’s most aggressively. Janine had been able to rein hers in after turning it sharply. Dave had a similar story. But Val’s young male had taken her on a pounding ride that she had only barely been able to stop after a full minute of running. Thankfully, no one besides me had had to pay a physical price for my foolishness.

Our shedule was shot to hell though. Saddles were broken, two of the packhorses had thrown their luggage, scattering it all over the plain, and our guides were now galloping off to round up our thoroughly spooked mounts.

Some of living in the UK must have rubbed off on Dave, a South African by birth. As he stood looking at one of our tossed grocery bags, a wry smile came over his face. In a dry, understated tone characteristic of the English, he drawled, “Well. That can’t have been good for the eggs.”

My upper back throbbed, but I laughed, partly at the joke but mostly in relief. I was glad no one was hurt.

***

2 hours later, we resumed our trip. I literally got back on the horse, though not the one that threw me. The newly minted “Throwy” was instead ridden by Gaaj, who held the reins so tight and close that his fist was invisible, buried in Throwy’s mane. Notwithstanding having an expert rider for the rest of the day, Throwy did his best to unseat Gaaj as well, evidently deciding that no one should ride him.

We rode for 3 hours more, gradually leaving the broad valley and climbing into pine-forested hills. At the top of a low pass, we circled a traditional log cairn, or “ovoo”, bedecked with deep blue scarves. It was a moment of calm and magic after a day of excitement and no small amount of fear.

Descending the pass, we camped in a forested valley among giant pines. Tejin and Gaaj cooked up rice over an open fire while we set up our camp and tried to figure out which vegetables were our bulkiest and would therefore be eaten first (cabbage easily won – 4 heads!? what were we thinking). After dinner and dishes, finished hurriedly in the twilight, I eased into my sleeping bag gingerly, my back cringing with every unfamiliar movement and strange lump in the ground.

It had been a hell of a first day.

***

IMG_1693

Morning, day 2. Seemed nice enough to me. What could possibly go wrong?

The sun shone brightly through the pines the next morning. I was grateful – my back was stiff but not completely seized.

We rode up and out of the forested valley and onto a high ridge overlooking it. The grasses were a warm gold in the slanting light of early morning. We’d just gained the top of the ridge and were feeling in good spirits when Throwy reared surprisingly and for no apparent reason, causing the whole herd to bolt once more. My new mount, a young fluffy headed brown I’d called Pompadour, headed straight for a copse of pines with low hanging branches.

I managed to push through the arms of the first tree and keep a hold of Pompadour’s reins. But as I emerged from it, I saw that the branches of the upcoming one were even sturdier. I shifted all my weight behind the saddle and pulled the reins hard to the right. Pompadour stopped, huffing and snorting, just in time.

I looked back. Everyone had their riding horses under control, but one pack horse had thrown his load and bolted to God only knew where. We tied our horses up while Gaaj and Tenjin took off after him.

It took anothe 1.5 hours to get everything back on the rails. Once we were moving, Gaaj set a steady pace for several hours, down off the ridge and into a broad river valley specled with gers, horses, cattle and goats. Despite our delays, we’d managed about 20 km and now had a little time to enjoy camp – perfectly situated on a level green embankment beside the main river.

As we dismounted, I heard dave say resignedly to Val’s offer to trade saddles with him the next day, “No, the other saddle hurts my balls just as badly.”

I started to laugh, but instead broke into a gasp when my feet hit the ground. My legs cramped so badly they wouldn’t hold my weight. I sank to the ground and lay there laughing. Janine had managed to grab onto her dappled white’s saddle to avoid a similar fate. Dave and Val were wincing similarly.

It seemed that even staying in the saddle on these horses came at a price.

IMG_1702

Riverside camp for days 2 and 3. But that’s another story…

IMG_1599

And this doesn’t even include the badminton rackets (more photos)

Oh my.

– Sarah

Supplies for our horse trekking trip quickly got out of control.

First came the decision that we wanted to cook for ourselves, instead of relying on the hospitality of Mongolian gers. This came after sampling Mongolian cuisine, which seemed to varied from bland breads, rice and meat to fermented mare’s milk and cheese strong enough to make even a good French gal like Val cringe after a single nibble. So, we said we’d plan to cook for ourselves every 2 days out of 3. This would also give us the freedom to be by ourselves and away from ger hospitality if we wanted a little private space or time.

Things blossomed rapidly from there. Food meant dishes, cutlery, cutting boards, cups. It also meant receptacles for our vegetables, snacks, rice, pasta, tea, coffee, sugar and eggs (you must have eggs for pancakes, which we all agreed, in the comfort of our hotel room in Ulaan Baatar, were an obvious must). Receptacles meant buying 25 lt barrelsand 40 lt maize bags to saddle our pack horses with.

If we’d be cooking for ourselves we might as well also prepare to camp on our own. Dave and Val would therefore need a tent. If we were camping, how about a dining tent to get out of the wind, congregate in and store our gear at night? Brilliant! And hey! As long as we’re getting a dining tent, why not some folding camp chairs to ease our bruised and battered rumps into each evening? Excellent idea! Don’t forget gas cannisters for the stove either. Oh and gifts for our hosts for when we do stay in gers. Something for the kids too, eh? Why not? The pack horses will carry it all anyway, right?

It took us 2 days to do our shopping and outfitting in Ulaan Baatar after getting back from Steppe Riders / Eye Bug camp. The biggest exercise was our trip to UB’s incredible black market (though no longer “black” per se, following the fall of communism). Spreading for acres under an innumerable number of stall tarps, it seemed you could find anything in this sprawling bazaar. Dave tried on jeans in his underwear in the middle of one set of clothing related stalls, Val searched for sandles in another and Janine replaced a bra in still another section. We wandered and gawked through areas of the market devoted to everything from motor vehicl parts, to saddles, to counterfeit DVDs (the latest “Batmansky” film anyone?), groceries, tents and fishing rods.

I think we bought a little bit of everything. When not at the market, we could be found at that other bastion of UB commercialism, the State Department Store. Another relic of the communist era, it was now essentially, just like Sears, with all the latest styles, fragrances and electronics spread throughout its 6-story premises in the heart of the city. What made this complex of primary interest was its grocery store, which we pillaged for things we thought might be hard to come across in the countryside – good coffee, cereal, oatmeal, jam, peanut butter, honey, powdered milk, dried fruit, nuts, cookies, and, of course, pancake mix.

By the time we left UB aboard a bus bound for the central Mongolian town of Tsetserleg in the province of Arkhangai, we looked like a group headed on a long trip to, well, central Mongolia I guess. In addition to our large backpacks, we also loaded the bus with 2 large canvas flour bags filled with camping gear and 3 sizeable boxes of non-perishable food. Vegetables, rice, noodles and other perishables would be bought in Tsetserleg.

“I think we may need 3 pack horses,” I said, eyeing our still-to-grow pile doubtfully. Before shopping, we’d wondered if we’d only need 2. But inwardly, I now thought we might need double that.

***

“Oh my,” said Sarah, looking at our pile of gear two days later.

Sarah, was the lovely manager of the Fairfield Guesthouse in Tsetserleg. Her mother was convinced she was too fat, but we found her smiling cherub face, helpful attitude and strong English skills utterly charming. In addition to lining up our accomodation in Tsetserleg, she had also contacted a local family from whom we could rent horses and the services of a guide.

Now, looking at our gear, she and our guide, Gaaj, a stout, quiet and professional man with a face slightly squished by a recent car accident, agreed on one thing. We’d need at least 3 pack horses. Gaaj would also need to take along one of his many brothers as a second hand for the high overall number of horses. we’d soon be grateful for this. but at the time of the announcement we sighed at the additional expense.

Still, excitement  over our great adventure was mountin. Poring over a 1:500,000 map with Sarah and Gaaj, we settled on a triangular route in the southwestern portion of Arkhangai. It would take us south and west out of Tsetserleg, down to the scenic Blue Lake. Then we would cut northwards, through a rugged and mountainous region, heading for White Lake at the opposite tip of the provinc. Travelling constantly, the whole route would take between 16 and 21 days.

But  it looked like we’d be heavy. And our previous travels had proved us to be less than speedy.

We had spent 2 days in Tsetserleg finalizing our travel details and, of course, shopping. By the time we left for Gaaj’s family ger camp, 12 km out of town, our kit had grown again. Two 25 lt barrels of fresh vegetables and 2 more barrels of snack foods now sat next to the large pile we’d hauled from UB. The coldness of the nights at Arkhangai’s slightly higher elevation had startled us. So we also bought a couple of quilts to supplement our sleeping bags.

But I really knew that it was time to shop the shopping frenzy when I convinced myself to buy a pair of dusty badminton rackets from the Tsetserleg grocery store. In my consuming haze, I figured they might relieve tedious afternoons at the idyllic steppe camps I had conjured up so glowingly in my mind. If worse came to worse, I fancied I could give them away to kids we’d meet along the way.

But the main point is, I bought badminton rackets for my horse trek in Mongolia. Let your insults fly. Have fun. Be creative.

***

We drove out to Gaaj’s camp in along a dirt road in 2 taxi’s hired by Sarah, who also accompanied us to help settle us in. Along the way, she patiently answered our countless questions about Monolian life. Our favourite discussion was about the role of vegetables in rural Mongolia. “The countryside people don’t like them!” Sarah said, laughing. “Sometimes, if you offer countryside people a vegetable, they will say ‘I’m not a goat!’ ”

The trip to Gaaj’s was also a brief introduction to the land with which we were to become so familiar over the next 3 weeks. A broad, shallow valley stretched 10 km wide, bisected by clear, braided streams running amongst the waving grassland. Cattle, horses, goats and sheep grazed freely. No fences. White, round gers dotted the landscape and trees hugged the stream banks, silhouetted in the evening sun.

Sitting in our campchairs, eating a stew of rice and milk served by Gaaj’s friendly wife, we smiled at each other excitedly. For the first time in five days, our minds weren’t focussed to some degree on the small mountain of stuff we had accumulated.

We were here. And we were ready to go.

IMG_1620

One of Gaaj’s younger brothers joyfully breaks in a romping 3 year old filly the evening before we leave for our trek.

I've narrowed the list of suspects down to these bastards

I've narrowed the list of suspects down to one of these bastards

 

 

 

Yessssss!

– Mindy’s Wife

It felt like a big hair had gotten caught under my right eyelid. But it was more. Oh, so much more.

 We were enjoying our first day of horse training at the Steppe Riders Ger Camp, preparing for our great Mongolian adventure – a three week ride across the central province of Arkhangai on the country’s famous ponies. After bonding through shared duress and Olympic spirit in Beijing with our new friends Dave and Val, the four of us had elected to team up for the big trip. Over bottles of wine at our rented flat in a Soviet era apartment building in Ulaan Baatar, we dreamed of buying horses and roaming the country-side, experiencing Mongolia’s intoxicating blend of wilderness and down home hospitality.

The only problem was, none of us knew a thing about horses.

So before we wandered off into the sunset, we headed for Steppe Riders, a well-known trainer of greenhorn tourists who want to be cowboys. Located just 40 minutes away from UB, Steppe Riders still managed to feel a world away from the capital’s bustling, westernized streets. Herds of goats and half-wild horses wandered the buckled and ger-flecked green hills. With Steppe Riders’ owner, Mindy, we spent a warm day learning to saddle, bridle, tether and hobble horses. I also learned that I didn’t enjoy any of these activities and quietly resolved to hire a guide and horse man for our trip.

After an afternoon’s solid work, we hit the trail for a short ride to test our new skills. We galloped and trotted to a small watering station, where our mounts slaked their thirst in the sweltering heat, ceasing to drink only to vigorously shake their heads up and down to ward off the relentless flies.

We’d just gotten back to the Mindy’s camp when I felt the discomfort set in. I dismounted my horse and rubbed my suddenly-burning eye to induce tearing. Nothing. I blinked rapidly. Nada. Obviously, I thought, the day’s dryness and dustiness were to blame. So I headed back to our ger and doused myself with eye drops in order to flush out the irritant.

Still, I was irritated.

So, I took a nap. In retrospect, it was one of the worst things I could have done. When I woke up, I found the problem was only worse.

“I think I’m going to need your help getting this hair out of my eye Janine.” I was looking in the mirror and thought I could see it – a small clear string just a millimeter long or so. But everytime I blinked, the darn thing was in a different position or had disappeared altogether.  I put my head in my wife’s lap and stared up at her nose (very fetching by the way), while she held back my eyelid.

“I see it!” Janine said with the excitement that only Janine could muster staring at a red-streaked irritated eyeball.

Then silence.

Then, “hrmmm…” Then silence again.

Then, “Honey, I don’t know how to tell you this. But, it’s moving.”

I got up and ran back over to the mirror. Peeling my eyelid back again, I stared at my eyeball – there was the hair.

And sure as shit stinks, as I watched it, the little bugger (which may very well be its proper scientific name) moved.

Even better, it crawled across my pupil to greet another little bugger. I imagined their conversation.

Tom! Great to see you! 

Same here Lisa! Say! This sure isn’t like any horse eye we’ve devoured in the past! 

Nope, that’s for certain. Still, pretty tasty eh?

You bet! I’m nearly stuffed! Hey, let’s check out the bloodstream!

And then they crawled away.

One feels many urges when one first discovers insect larvae living in one’s eye. The first, of course, is to run around in circles shaking one’s head furiously and shouting “Get it out! Get it out! Get it out!” Second, is the urge to immediately board a plane (or buy a plane if necessary) and fly home to a country where eye infestations are uncommon; seen only on t.v.; say on a show about some place incredibly far away that only crazy people travel to. Pick your country.

Then, a feeling of calm sets in. Strange, preternatural calm. “Okay,” I said flatly. “Let’s talk to Mindy’s wife and see what to do here.” Mindy’s wife was a vet. And to be totally acurate here, I said this dripping wet after unsuccessfully resisting the third urge – to dump a litre and a half of bottled water on my face in an effort to flush the little buggers out.

That hadn’t worked either.

Thus began an interesting new portion of my day, wherein I saw the world through the perspective of someone staring out their apartment door’s peep hole. A succession of people came to look at my eye bugs. First, Mindy’s wife peered in and after a hissing, excited “yessss!”, announced in Mongolian to her translating husband that she was familiar with this type of infestation and that the larvae (which came from horses) could be wiped out of the eye with the aid of a clean tampon.

That really got everyone interested. Soon Dave, Val, Mindy and even our new camp-mate George was stopping by to stare at my cornea.

“Ummm, I don’t want to sound prissy here,” I said prissily. “But do you have anything other than a tampon?”

Janine had already been rummaging through our supplies for a suitable substitute to a feminine hygiene product and now emerged triumphantly holding a small plastic rod about 4 cm long with a spongy tissue-like substance attached to its end. It was a device designed for cleaning the sensor on her digital camera. The whole thing looked like a cross between a miniature mop and a tiny squeegee. “How about this?” she said excitedly.

Hell, even if I’d preferred the tampon, I wasn’t going to be the one to take that innocently happy look from her face. 

The entire camp, including Mindy’s brother, neighbor, 3 children and 3 children’s friends assembled to watch the procedure. Once again, I laid my head back in Janine’s lap. It was a lovely evening. Blue skies and golden sunlight. Perfect for larvae removal.

We started with some bad news. Apparently, during my nap, Tom and Lisa had decided to procreate. In fact, they’d held a full-on orgy. When Janine looked in my eye, she beheld, not a couple, but a small party of parasites.

“Oh my,” she said.

The face of Mindy’s wife immediately came into my field of vision again, staring with barely-hidden excitement down into my eye. “Yesssss!” she hissed. Apparently, this was the extent of her English.

Janine began the painstaking process of tracking and squeegeeing each clear little worm as it crawled around my eyeball. From my perspective, all I could see was her face, hovering large above mine, focussing intensely on the hunt. Each time she saw a bug, she would exclaim “There’s one!” and then carefully scrape it off my eye with the squeegee. Then her face would be replaced by that of Mindy’s wife, who would inspect her work and exclaim an ever-helpful “Yessss!” before the process began anew.

We did this about a dozen times. By then, my eyeball looked and felt as if I’d just dipped it in a lovely rasberry vinagrette.

Finally, it was over. Or so I thought until, just to be safe, I told Janine to check my other eye. For a long moment there was simply silence and staring. Then:

“There’s one!” she said, reaching for the squeegee again.

I think one of the children clapped.

“Yesssss!” said Mindy’s wife.

“Can we ask Mindy’s wife to go away now?” I asked.

“I still can’t see them,” muttered Dave walking away, disappointed after watching the surgery curiously.

It took roughly 20 more minutes to clean the other eye. By this time, I dreamt of cool dark caves where eyes were superfluous, of cucumbers placed by little angels on my twitching eyelids, and of never, ever, touching my eyes with my hands again.

I put half a litre of antibiotic drips in my eyes and went to bed. My fourth day in Mongolia was complete. I had learned a little about horses, a little about ocular parasites and considered it all a success.

Everyone had been very kind during the whole little crisis. Apparently, once it was over I was fair game.

Valerie looked at me sympathetically for a moment as I lay in my cot, then said with a little grin in her light Parisian accent, “I hope none of thee bugs went to your brain and laid eggs.”

“That would be great for the blog,” Janine laughed.

“Thank you all,” I said to my alleged friends, turning over and closing my eyes. “But I think I’ve got a decent enough post already.”

Where are we now?

Home, Sweet Home

a