Introduction – Badminton Across Mongolia

Sunrise over Arkhangai Province, Mongolia

Sunrise over Arkhangai Province, Mongolia

Dear Reader,

Well, it happened again. A double fizzle-out of our Palm Pilots left us “off the air” during what had to be one of our most exciting adventures yet – a three week, 300+ kilometer horse trek across central Mongolia’s rugged Arkhangai province.

Along the way we traversed open grassland and high mountain passes, barren wastes and frothing rivers. We were treated to warm Mongolian hospitality in remote traditional gers and went days without seeing people at all. We ate mutton stew, roasted giant, freshly-caught trout over the embers of a crackling fire, pounded dried yak meat with stones and consumed more dairy products than can possibly be healthy for a human. The sun cooked us, the rain soaked us and the snow froze us. We were kicked, thrown, bitten and infected. And none of that in a good way.

We had one hell of a good time and resolved never to tell our mothers half of what happened to us. But that wouldn’t make very good reading would it?

So, sit back, put on your favourite country music playlist and read on. Mongolia is the real deal. A place where horse power is still, literally, horse power. A place where you can talk about the big stud you rode yesterday and no one will raise an eyebrow at your expense. A place where The Black Stallion is not a children’s classic but is outside grazing on your front lawn. In essence, Mongolia is the last refuge of the true cowboy.

I fit in here about as well as Ghengis Kahn on a badminton court. But damn it I tried.

Chapter 1 – The Eyes Have It

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.”

Chapter 2 – Supplies

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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.

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

 

Chapter 3 – Throwy

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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.

***

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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.

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

 

Chapter 4 – The Lost Boys

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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.

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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.

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Chapter 5 – Kicky

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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.

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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.

 

Chapter 6 – The Horse With No Name


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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?

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Chapter 7 – Dodreg

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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.

 

Chapter 8: Oh the Weather Outside is Frightful, But….

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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.

***

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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.

***

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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.

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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.

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Cairn on Blue Lake

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