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 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.”

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

Then, they left.

***

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

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

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

It was time to go home

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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.

 

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

 

Gaaj didn’t want to go through the mountains.

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

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

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

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Team Meeting at the Map

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

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

But it had good grass.

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

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

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

***

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

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

And he nearly did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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.

Where are we now?

Home, Sweet Home

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