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Horsing about on the Mongolian steppes

Buying a horse involved being put in touch with my cousin’s Mongolian friend’s nephew’s friend Puujee. I cycled the 50 miles from Ulaan Baatar to the village of Bayanchandmani where I met Puujee and was quickly whisked away into the hills in his van with his two giggling daughters. His herder friend lived in an isolated ger (traditional circular felt tent) and had three horses for sale.

My previous equine experience consisted of a three day trek with guides in Mongolia three years earlier and once falling, near-naked and beyond intoxicated, off an English horse after a terrifying twelve yard bareback bolt. However, my resolve to go on a solo horse trek formed on my last visit to Mongolia and had since fermented and solidified into an unavoidable certainty. A huge, fenceless country with a still-existent nomadic, horseman culture was simply too tempting.

With a small crowd of amused onlookers, I test rode each horse and did my best to appear in the know by checking teeth, hooves, body fat, infected wounds, demeanour and spines. I didn’t know exactly what to look for in each of these areas but I gave knowing grunts, nods and sighs when examining each. At length I settled on a small, fat, bay gelding. He was relatively calm (despite kicking me once during inspection) and seemed sturdy despite his diminutive size. The price was laboriously hammered out that night over liberal vodka, snuff, airag (fermented mare’s milk) and mutton soup; each administered with a great deal of ceremony. A deal was struck and a couple of days later I found myself mounted and directing my new steed, Nicky, away from the village and testing how he coped with the combined weight of me and my loaded saddlebags.

I was genuinely daunted. Except for observing Puujee saddle the horse, I knew next to nothing. What if Nicky escapes? What if he throws me off and I break a bone miles from help? What if I can’t look after him and he suffers, or even dies? What if he’s stolen? It was going to be a steep learning curve. Temporarily shelving my fears, I allowed Mongolia’s seemingly boundless greenness to swallow me whole. I was soon deep in a grassy valley with no traces of humanity in sight. Following a west northwest compass bearing I rode steadily on; dismounting for the steeper climbs.

I pushed the horse hard hoping a baptism of fire would most effectively show me his capabilities and establish my dominance. It was a hot day and I prevented my mount from grazing as we went to set a precedent. He had been left free for some time (his rotund belly affirming this) and resented being deprived of grass. Suddenly angry, he violently bucked with no forewarning. The saddle bags were thrown off and a glass jar of pasta sauce within was smashed. He then refused my bribes (of carrots, sugar lumps and perppermints) I tried to calm him with. It was a messy start to our partnership.

Camping that evening brought new responsibilities and new challenges: finding ample grazing, tethering and hobbling Nicky. I had a hatchet and a sturdy stake so tethering was simple but kneeling down by his front legs was the last place I wanted to be while I fumbled with the lockable, metal hobbles (effectively handcuffs to hinder fast flight in case of theft). I slept nearby in a bivvy bag having foregone my tent in favour of travelling light. It had been an exhausting first day and I soon fell asleep; staring at the stars and being lulled by the gentle clink-clank of the hobbles. It was a new experience to have another being to look after before myself.

The next morning marked the two-year anniversary of my setting off from home; a fresh-faced, shaven-headed cyclist. I was now an aching horseman, sweating profusely in the already-intense morning sunshine. I saddled up and we bagan to climb a steep, overgrown slope with no tracks to follow. The rocky hilltop revealed a wide valley on the otherside, dotted with scruffy brown herds and gers; glaring white in the sun. We made the tricky descent and I was soon invited into a ger by a bustling mother figure. Here began the rough routine for the next week or so. Evertime I passed near a ger I was enthusiastically waved in and offered a meal of the summer diet of ‘white food’: milk tea, butter, curd, cheese, yoghurt, airag and bread. I communicated to my always-friendly hosts with either their smattering of English, my spattering of Russian or simple sign language. The nights always provided excellent camping spots without looking further than 200 yards. I soon learnt the basics of dealing with a horse and observed a new trick or technique from everybody who wanted to take a look at Nicky: tying different knots; loosening his stomach strap to allow him to drink more water; whistling softly to encourage him to drink still more water; temporarily hobbling him using his lead rope; calming him when distressed etc.

Nicky behaved well on the whole excepting the occasional small tantrum. Mongolian horses are left wild for the majority of the year (only being rounded up when required) and so can resent being made to work. Apart from his aversion to me loading the saddlebags and him sometimes simply sitting down and refusing to continue, Nicky and I cooperated increasingly well. I walked perhaps 25% of the time at first but his grew to 50% over the first week as I saw the signs of overworking and wanted to conserve his strength. Except for a short gallop without the bags in the morning and evening, we went at a walk or a gentle trot and covered 20-25 miles daily.

Depending on his behaviour, I tried different ways of viewing Nicky. He was simultanously an incredible product of nature and evolutionary design, a wild animal, a dumb beast of burden, an investment, a mode of transport, a pet, a companion and a nemesis.

The landscapes were stereotypically vast, beautiful and Mongolian. Wide blue skies; rolling grass hills; small clumps of trees (increasingly as I moved north towards Siberia); glittering streams; and a warm golden glow at each end of the day.

My life as a nomadic horseman soon became easy and uncomplicated. When not on the move I was constantly busied with cooking, eating, sleeping or dealing with Nicky. I found no time for reading but plenty of time for reflection or simply staring at my surroundings when riding or walking. Mongolia is an ancient country with less inhabitants than Scotland but more land than Germany, Spain and France combined. People live pretty much as their ancestors did 500 or even 1,000 years ago. They maintain flocks from horseback, wear the traditional del (long-sleeved robes belted with a length of orange silk), eat the same food as Genghis Khan, live in the same tents and adhere to many of the same customs. I felt I’d slipped through time and it felt good.

Constant concerned warning about the country’s burgeoning wolf population (which was managed under the Soviets but a annual minimum hunting quota of two wolves per grown man) were surprisingly easy to ignore and I never needed to worry about food. In fact, although I only set off with four days of supplies, I didn’t open my wallet for the first ten days. Such was the exhaustive generosity of the many who invited me into their homes.

Herders would sometimes forsake their animals to ride with me for a while; theirs is a lonely lifestyle lived by young boys and sun-dried old men alike. On a few occasions I saw boys of no more than five hauling themselves with difficulty up a rope to the giddy height of their horse’s back before charging away with a thunder of hooves and a cloud of dust.

The land was riotously alive. Each footstep would disturb literally 20-30 grasshoppers; some as large as the final joint of my index finger. Marmots bounded over the grass and Siberian chipmunks scurried through it. Butterflies flapped clumsily around small wildflowers and a cloud of flies constantly swarmed around Nicky and I; with sometimes over 50 sunbathing harmlessly on my shoulders.

The perfect sunshine eventually broke as I was wrenched from my slumber early one morning by the threatening crack of nearby thunder. Two minutes later I was wet through (my aged bivvy bag turning out to be not as waterproof as I’d hoped) and trying to pack up in a heavy downpour. The rain lasted 10 hours and I plodded through the mud to keep warm while Nicky disconsolately but obediently trudged along behind me. Early evening saw the sun chase the weather away and reveal the unusual spectacle of wheat fields. Despite the abundance of fertile land, very little is grown in Mongolia and the majority of the population has an aversion to vegetables (which explains the incredible stoutness of many older people). However, the demand for vodka (and, to a lesser extent, bread) is ever-growing and so some agriculture has begun, albeit at a crawl.

The following day I had lunch with a family while my kit dried in the sun. The mutton soup tasted strongly past its prime but, not wanting to offend, I wolfed it down regardless. As I pushed on that afternoon my churning stomach started rebelling and I could tell an uprising was brewing. A telltale glinting on the far side of a windswept, open plain told me I was approaching the village of Zaamar and I decided to try and reach it that day. The plain looked roughly 4 miles wide but Mongolia’s enormity can be deceptive and it was an exhaustive 10 miles before I traipsed into the village under an angry, dark sky with sharp flashes of lightning splintering down on all points of the compass.

The wind was steadily strengthening and I knew a tremendous storm was very imminent. Some workers waved me over and started asking questions. I struggled to both answer and keep my lunch down so mostly nodded and tried to smile. Very suddenly the wind whipped up ferociously and the rain sheeted in horizontally. One man gestured shelter; grabbing my arm and pulling me along an alley. I in turn coaxed Nicky along at a jog and we headed for the worker’s home. Rounding a corner exposed us to the full and frightening force of the wind which instantly whisked my cowboy hat away. I turned and saw it for an instant, already 30 yards away and 10 yards off the ground. Chase would have been futile. Tying Nicky to a fence and pulling off the saddle and bags was a struggle with rain slapping my face but we soon got inside and began wringing out our clothes.

However, all the running around had performed the final stages of the non-digestive process happening in my digestive system and I very soon had to lurch towards the door. With a mouth already bulging at the seams with regurgitated lunch, and knowing that more was on its way, I reached the door and wrestled with the fiddly lock for a few seconds. All my mind was focused on getting the door open and delivering my load the tempest outdoors. I didn’t register the frantic knocking coming form the other side. Finally, fit to burst, I defeated the lock, wrenched the door open and rushed forwards just at the small, elderly woman on the other side did the same. Her rotund torso impacted with my stomach and sent a two yard spout of perfect whiteness spewing from my mouth and over her head. I caught her terrified eyes for a second before shoving her aside and executing a few more glorious heaves which the wind caught and carried wonderfully. This done, I felt much relieved and went inside to apologise. She looked shaken but sympathetic.

An hour later I took advantage of a lull in the storm to rush outside and take Nicky to some good grass where I could tether him for the night. I knocked the stake in with my axe and then rushed back to the workers building. Just outside the door one of my flip flops got stuck in a puddle of mud (and quite possible vomit). And so, I was hopping up and down on one foot with an axe raised above my head for balance just when two other things happened simultaneously: a brilliant flash of lightning strobed across the sky and the little old woman opened the door. Terrified, she fled into the night. She’ll probably be telling the story of the projectile-vomiting, axe-wielding white man in the storm for years to come.

We continued on our way and soon entered mosquito territory. Seeing the little bastards sucking away, unhindered on Nicky’s belly, sometimes hundreds at a time, was difficult. It was both an irritation for my companion and a diminishing of my investment as each individual bloodsucker flew heavily away with a couple of drops of blood. There was a dry, desert-like area to cross and plenty more wet and spectacular weather to endure. In fact, for the next month, although it didn’t rain everyday, there was no more than a handful of days where I didn’t encounter thunder and lightning. Burned-out, lightning-struck trees – bare and blackened – became commonplace. At night I would fall asleep hoping it would be a dry night and trying to ignore the sound of many mosquitoes swarming around my exposed face; a sound similar to the whine of a distant Formula1 race.

And so my journey continued. It felt good to ease back into another routine of simplicity and exercise after my extended winter in Beijing. The joy of being outdoors tickled me daily. One particular morning I was treated to a moving display of natural splendour that has no equal in my recollection. I woke just after sunrise and lifted my head to survey my surroundings. Before me, arching over my feet, was a shining double rainbow. A full 180° of spectacular beauty; stretching from the earth, plunging into the sky and arcing gracefully back down to the luminescently glowing grass. Everything was glowing. Literally every colour under the sun shone before me. I stared at it for as long as it lasted. For fifteen minutes I gaped while the rain that facilitated the glory before me steadily approached. I didn’t move when it swept over me and soaked me. It was an unaccountably special moment for me. I had never seen the like of it before. But, selfishly, it was not just that I was seeing this perfect rainbow, it was that this was my perfect rainbow. There were no other humans for at least five miles around me. It was about 5.30 in the morning and nobody else would be awake, let alone outside, staring at the sky. I am not a spiritual person but if I was I would attribute what I saw that morning to a powerful bearded fiction or some shadowy ‘prime-mover’. This realisation led me further in my thoughts: if this unique moment couldn’t push me towards spirituality and belief in the devine then it must certainly push me irrevocably off the agnostic fence (from which I’ve been sliding for years) into the self-assured field of atheism. The landing was soft and I sat happily on the greener grass gazing at this chance spectacle of physics and nature.

Later that day, while a herder rode alongside me, a black shadow skulked across the valley 100 yards ahead. Its movements were simultaneously confident and wary. It stopped and stared at us. The man explained that it was a wolf. I took my axe from my bag and we rode on. The lupine loner soon disappeared among some trees and I finally took the warnings I’d received a little more seriously.

Just outside the provincial capital town of Bulgan I met the aptly-named Miles. An Alaskan cycle tourist, he’s been on the road for 3 years and had a thick bushy beard to testify to this. We entered the town together (the first mildly built up place I’d visited since Ulaan Baatar) and chuckled at the stares we got. Two dishevelled white men with a horse and an absurdly heavily-laden bicycle. We brought an ample stock of food and beer before climbing to the top of a grassy hill overlooking the town and cooking a feast while the sun sank. The next morning was the first day of Naadam; the annual festival of the “Three Manly Sports”: wrestling, horseracing and archery.

We rose early and took our places in the tiny grandstand overlooking the overgrown wrestling arena and watched the people slowly drift in from the surrounding countryside. The elderly wore beautifully-worked silk dels while the younger generation opted for denim, t-shirts and (to my eyes) scandalously short skirts, dresses and hot pants. Children ran around, excitedly shooting each other with their new AK47 toy guns imported from Russia and a holiday atmosphere prevailed. As festivals go, the proceedings were relaxed and disorganised to the point of hilarity. The opening procession had several drunk, uninvolved men (at 11am) stumbling through it, scratching their bare bellies, and teenagers knocking volleyballs around; generally getting in the way. The performers in traditional costumes of Buddhist demons got too hot so took of their masks and sprawled lazily on the grass. The man on the PA system sounded more than tipsy and the dancers were charmingly out of time. I thoroughly enjoyed the whole atmosphere.

The wrestling was the first event to get underway. Most of the men could be described as portly rather than muscular. A couple were plain obese and some were beanpole teenagers. They wore small embroidered pants, knee-high boots and tight sleeves that joined across their backs and were tied across their chests. Four fightshappened at any given moment. Each fight consisted of one round and involved forcing the opponent off his feet. Some bouts lasted for less than a minute and some lasted 40 minutes. The draw was random so men of at least 18 stone were sometimes inevitably facing up against boys of less than half that. The audience seemed little interested and only the odd cheer or clap was sounded. Most people chatted happily among themselves and seemed more interested in the home-brewed contents of plastic bottles they brought with them.

The afternoon held the archery outside the ‘stadium’ where men and women fired arrows from wooden bows at a target about 70 yards away. Their accuracy was impressive and their costumes beautiful. The event was, however, over quickly and didn’t draw half the crowd that the wrestling did; possibly because of the absence of seating. The horseracing followed and I watched with admiration as about 50 boys aged 5-12 sped off bouncing up and down (some bareback) on the biggest, fastest, strongest horses in the province. After a full speed gallop of around 12 miles an approaching dust cloud heralded their return.The leading boys blazed across the line and were met with a rapturous applause, particularly from the owners who won large cash prizes.

The day’s events were over by mid-afternoon and the haphazard crowds descended upon the town for a heavy, loud night of revelry. Miles continued on his ride and I climbed the hill once more to camp. The next day the town was still silent and deserted at 10am which was a testament to the quantities of alcohol consumed the night before. The second day saw the anklebone tossing competition (held on the grass at the centre of a tight ring of elderly men), the wrestling finals (which drew a large and unusually lively crowd) and the prize giving for all the events. Another night of heavy drinking followed and I chose to avoid it and continually check on Nicky where I had tethered him outside the town.

Heading out of Bulgan, I followed a main “road” (a series of intersecting tire tracks scuffing across the grasslands) for half a day before turning off for my next detour. I had seen a 100-mile ‘short cut’ on the map which ran along a river. Surely that would be simple enough…

The next four days were a paradox: the joy of incredibly pristine wilderness and the torture of tenacious, DEET-defying, 24-hour mosquitoes. The narrow overgrown valley was deserted with only a handful of dilapidated sheds wallowing in waist-high grass. Herders winter their animals here but stay away in summer due to the insects. Nicky was plagued day and night by biting flies and grew more agitated and shaky each morning. I chose not to ride as he was jumpy and physically exhausted from blood loss. The rough track I followed often cut across the knee-deep river and so I walked mostly barefoot, glad for the cushioning of lush grass. Despite the trials of this wild valley, it was an unkempt paradise. Vivid wildflowers of red, blue, purple, yellow and white; two screeching birds of prey fighting overhead; clumps of birch trees (another sign of nearing Siberia); warm sunshine punctuated with short, aggressive storms that could turn the sky from clear blue to vengeful blackness in under 15 minutes.

Despite this beauty, I was relieved to exit the valley and reach the small town of Khutag-Ondor. I had arranged to meet Sancho here the following day and we were going to continue the journey northwestwards using Nicky as a packhorse. I met Spanish Sancho in the visa queue at the Mongolian embassy in Beijing and we had kept in touch about maybe joining forces.

I tied Nicky to a thick wooden post outside the town’s sole food shop and went into buy supplies. A man suddenly ran inside frantically shouting “horse, horse” and pointing at the window. I just caught a glimpse of Nicky speeding off down the road, having already thrown off the saddlebags and dragging the uprooted post behind him. I set off in pursuit and after, 20 minutes of cat and mouse over a large distance and with the help of some amused men on motorcycles, was able to get hold of the lead rope and calm my furious horse. Their seemed no explanation for his flight (which left him snorting and limping from where the bouncing post had clattered his legs) so I quickly brought food and led Nicky away from the town to camp by the riverside. He seemed calm and grazed happily while I watched with a blissfully emptied mind. Late the next morning I returned to the town to await Sancho. It was then that I worked out what had frightened my horse. The inevitable cluster of feckless drunk men were already deep in their cups and began taunting Nicky as soon as we arrived. One threw a beer can and others went near him waving their arms and shouting, evidently aiming for a repeat of the previous afternoon. Sure enough, within a few minutes Nicky had wrenched another, stronger post from the dirt and I was once more sprinting along behind. Needless to say, I was very relieved when Sancho arrived and we quickly walked out of town.

From now on we would be simply walking with Nicky to bear the burden of our bags. It felt a little like walking a dog in a park except the dog was chest high and the park the size of East Africa. It was good to have talking company on the journey and we made good progress following a small track, leaving the main road far behind. Each night we camped by trees and made a smoky fire with sappy pine branches to keep the insects off. Each morning we rekindled the fire and cooked toast, usually with a stunning panoramic wilderness spread before us. We saw almost no people and stopped hobbling Nicky at night, leaving him to graze more comfortably. On the map we had spied a long winding path that followed a wide river, avoiding any habitations for at least a week of walking. We had just about enough food and so confidently plunged into this new off-road adventure. We soon discovered that the path was likely a winter route that was simply the frozen river. We were left to battle through dense undergrowth alongside the seasonally unfrozen river and spent the next few days being liberally bitten by mosquitoes, circumnavigating vast, lightning-felled trees and coaxing Nicky along precarious rocky paths climbing along the steep mountainside towering over the river. There was even more wildlife and we saw bear paw prints as well as three snakes and a wild gazelle.

We pulled long days and began to run low on food. Thankfully we stumbled upon a group of Geologists on a prospecting expedition and they invited us to join them for dinner and the night. We arrived having just waded across a fast-flowing, 30m wide, waist-deep tributary and were just in time to help them construct their four gers as they had also just arrived. They were very friendly and treated us well but one of them (for reasons unknown to me) untied Nicky in the night. I found him 500m away in the morning. It was a stroke of luck that he hadn’t strayed further as there was nothing stopping him. I had a few incidents of this sort with Mongolian men which seemed to suggest that they resent a foreigner owning one of ‘their’ horses. There is a strange but prevalent dislike of foreigners among many of the men of this country. I have many theories for why but most of them boil down to boredom after becoming disenfranchised now that modernity has replaced many traditional jobs and women make up the majority of the country’s white collar force. Alcohol surely plays its part too.

Our food situation was becoming desperate and we were down to half rations of plain pasta by the time we reached the first village after several days of hard slog in swamps and forest. Zerleg turned out to be little more than 10 or 12 cabins with sleepy inhabitants and no shop. Thankfully we were taken in by a small family who fed us and sold us enough food to make it to the next town. A couple of small, foxlike dogs followed us from the village and quickly became absorbed into our gang. When we reached the town of Tsaagan Uur we found a cafe and feasted on heaped plates of plain Mongolian food that had never tasted better.

It was when we were leaving Tsaagan Uur and just re-entering the forest that a soldier sped up to us on a motorbike and demanded to see our passports. He made me mount the back of his bike and I was taken to a rundown military post. A man explained curtly in Russian that we had strayed into a restricted military zone and must pay for our sins. I pointed out that no signs or personnel had announced the edge of the zone but he was adamant. I was equally adamant not to pay a sum of cash into his pocket. At length, Sancho was fetched and ‘the Director’ was called. He arrived on a motorbike with a thick, shaved head; a cigarette in his mouth and avarice in his eyes. We remonstrated and bluntly refused to pay, especially after we were shown the marked zone on a map and realised that we were caught a maximum of 300 meters inside it (they had no way of knowing we’d passed the last three days in the forbidden area). The Director wanted cash and we didn’t want to give it to him. It became a battle of wills and, as evening came, our passports were locked up and we were told we must stay in the post overnight.

After brief and churlish calls to uninterested embassies in the morning we gave in, paid up and set off into the sweet smelling pine forest. One of the dogs stayed behind but the snow-white bitch we had named Albi continued with us and was to be our companion for two weeks, sleeping by my side, hunting grasshoppers while we walked, and running pathetically away from the larger, aggressive dogs we encountered. We were now on a little used dirt road, but a road nonetheless. Nicky had become a calm, obedient horse who understood his role in our roadshow. We had a slick routine and both Sancho and I felt pleasure in the lifestyle we were living. We camped on hilltops where wind would lessen the biting insects and we shouted maniacally from our hilltops in the morning knowing that the only ears hearing our cries where our own when the hillsides threw our diminished voices back at us. We drank river water. We ate plain bread.

It was a hazy afternoon when we finally copped our first view of Khovsgul Lake: a 100-mile long freshwater jewel in the crown of forest that sits atop the northern fringe of Mongolia’s grasslands. We walked around the southern shore and into Katgal town; a dowdy tourist hub from where people set out on organised horse treks. We ate and rested for a couple of days and found a buyer for Nicky but decided to walk for another few days along the lakeside before returning and selling the horse. Packing light, we began taking turns to ride and I had my first and only fall when a bagless Nicky was galloping like the wind. A man stepped out from behind a wooden fence and Nicky deftly sidestepped but continued at speed resulting in me being dragged for a terrifying 10 yards with one foot stuck in a stirrup and two hooves dangerously pounding the earth just inches from my chest and head.

On our last night before returning to Khatgal we camped in the forest near to a little guesthouse. We sat by the fire until midnight and I hobbled and locked Nicky before crawling into my sleeping bag under a full moon. The horse was about 7 yards from me and my mind was at ease. Sancho woke me at 1am saying simply “Nicky’s gone”. His tether rope was untied. We both sprung into action, hurtling off in different directions to scour the area. Sancho took north and I went south. After two hours of creeping/running around the dark forest with my knife drawn and Albi by my side, I returned to the fireside and we made the unpleasant realisation that Nicky had been rustled by a talented, stealthy, lock-picking thief. It was hard to swallow this blow literally hours from the end of our journey but I soon came to see it as merely a financial loss. Nicky would soon have had a new owner regardless and I couldn’t complain about the wonderful and varied experience I’d had with him. It had been great to be a short-term horseman. Mongolia’s boundless wilderness had swallowed and partially digested me for several weeks. It now unceremoniously spat me out: bitten, beaten and worn but hopefully wiser and certainly happy.

It was time to remount my bicycle.

Much more by Charlie Walker on his very excellent blog, or donate to his chosen charities here.

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