04Sep2013

Crossing the Pass — and Mongolian Horses

Zac plays in the snow in the pass from Khovsgol Nuur to the Darkhad Depression.

The mountains that divide Khovsgol Nuur from the Darkhad Depression aren’t terribly mountainous. They’re misty, sure, and a little forbidding, but rather rounded compared to the jagged and snowclad peaks that mark the Russian border to our north.

But it’s a pleasant ride up to the pass, the wildflowers shading as we ascend from bright pinks, yellows and whites to a more muted, pastel palette, motes dancing in the sunlight that filters through the trees. The grass is lush and thick in the absence of herds, and on the slopes above us it seems that larches are giving way to evergreens.

There is evidence of human activity, sure: motorbike tracks in the mud on the path, the odd ancient corral of branches decaying steadily back to the soil from which it grew, the odd tree stump showing marks of an axe, the stone framework of a campfire, fresh wood still piled beside it, and more than the odd discarded vodka bottle, but we do not see another soul.

This rural isolation, this closeness to nature is, honestly, what Mongolia does best.

Zac’s horse, Shorty, seems recovered from his injury and, as we wind up steadily through spindly larch forest, it’s warm enough for us to shed our down jackets. We do this with all due caution, for the rustle of a jacket being removed is one of many noises that can reduce Mongolian horses, the descendants of the cavalry of Chinggis Khan, to a state of quite ludicrous neurosis…

My horse wheels 180° in an instant – incredible horses, these Mongolian creatures, especially if you can ride — and heads back down the narrow trail to Khatgal – six days away – at speed.

The mountains opens up into a broad plain, framed by tree-clad slopes on either side, a vast expanse of pebbled riverbed, the river itself – which clearly runs tens of metres wide and several metres deep in the first fervour of snowmelt – corralled to a medium-sized stream.

And there is ice! In June! A vast slab of compacted snow, so dense that it’s a brilliant turquoise at the base, its surface stained by the passing of humans or animals, forms a natural bridge across the river.

The packhorse steps down onto the sparkling whiteness. And…

BOOM!

The ice splits with a crash that feels louder than thunder; my horse wheels 180° in an instant – incredible creatures, these Mongolian horses, especially, I imagine, if you can ride — and heads back down the narrow trail to Khatgal – six days away – at speed.

I catch a quick glimpse of the packhorse, standing there, stolidly, utterly oblivious to the carnage he has caused, and then I focus on my bastard, bastard steed.

I swear at him vigorously in English, of course, but whether it’s the language, the absence of physical discipline, or just the fact that the bastard horse knows I’m an amateur, he’s not budging.

This narrow, muddy, path, with a steep bank down to a rocky river bed in one direction and an equally vertiginous ascent into forest in the other direction, is not the ideal spot for a battle of wills, not least because, should my bastard horse run either up or down, I put my chances of retaining my seat at very considerably less than 50-50.

I haul on the reins until my biceps ache and the bastard horse is giving off all signs of rearing. When I give him even an inch of rein, he’s off again. When I pull him in tight enough to hold him, he’s rolling his eyes and threatening to rear.

It is not a concern for animal rights but my inability to hold a horse one-handed that saves me from going the full Mongolian, and cuffing my steed savagely around the head while swearing.

I swear at him vigorously in English, of course, but whether it’s the language, the absence of physical discipline, or just the fact that the bastard horse knows I’m an amateur, he’s not budging.

Eventually, by flicking his rump with the lead rein, Mongolian style, and shouting “GO!” in Mongolian, while also kicking the merry shit out of him, I can get the poor creature to trot a few paces forward. Whereupon he wheels and turns back again.

The more often we do this, the more frustrating it becomes.

It’s also, even with a helmet, a little bit scary.

In most of these cases, however, the experience has been closer to “sitting on, with the odd bit of steering” than actually, ya know, riding. We’ve sat on horses while they’ve gone fast. We’ve sat on horses while they’ve gone slowly…

Zac and I are not, exactly, inexperienced riders. Between us, we’ve ridden a variety of steeds, from Egyptian beach horses to British riding school horses, via Guatemalan trekking horses and Chinese mountain horses (not to mention elephants, camels and donkeys). This is, further, our third multi-day horse trek.

In most of these cases, however, the experience has been closer to “sitting on, with the odd bit of steering” than actually, ya know, riding. We’ve sat on horses while they’ve gone fast. We’ve sat on horses while they’ve gone slowly. We have, in fairness, stopped horses when they’ve bolted, and corrected them when they’ve started to snack.

But this is different.

Mongolian horses are not tourist horses. And they’re certainly not beginner horses. Mongolian horses have a killer combination of absolute cussed stubbornness and neurosis, they can wheel on a sixpence, even at the gallop, and they spend most of their time not in a field or a stable, but moving with the whims of their herd across the plains.

Yet again, I get the bastard horse pointing in the right direction. It (or, rather, he: Mongolians favour male horses — stallions in particular — for riding), heads in the right direction, rather sullenly, then does another 180 and breaks into a canter.

I manage to bring him to a stop before we’ve completely retraced our steps, but I calculate that, at this rate of progress, I can expect to cover about 500 metres before nightfall. If that.

Zac and Baatar are out of view, heading over the narrow trail that bypasses the river, which at least spares me an audience for my travails. It’s as embarrassing as that time < a href="http://www.escapeartistes.com/2012/06/11/in-which-we-make-a-dignified-entrance-to-the-historic-city-of-tyre/">I tried to park the hire car in Tyre, and very considerably more dangerous, and, further, there’s no nice gentleman around to say, “Full lock, love!”

Trailing his lead rein, our tarp-clad belongings lurching alarmingly from side to side, he comes gallumphing down from the narrow path over the pass, and Baatar is nowhere in sight. He too, it appears, has decided that he wants to go back to Khatgal.

Aaarrrrggghhh!!!!

What fresh hell is this?! It’s the bloody packhorse!

Trailing his lead rein, our tarp-clad belongings lurching alarmingly from side to side, he comes gallumphing down from the narrow path over the pass, and Baatar is nowhere in sight.

He too, it appears, has decided that he wants to go back to Khatgal.

Oh fuck. Fuck, fuckity fuck, fuckity fuck, fuck, fuck.

We’re going to have a rout!

“GET THE HORSE!” yells Baatar.

Quite what Baatar has seen in my equestrian performance so far to suggest that I’m capable of controlling not one but TWO bastard Mongolian horses, not to mention performing the equestrian ballet required to catch a trailing lead rein on a narrow path, I do not know.

I let the bastard packhorse pass, and focus on stopping my bastard, bastard, bastarding horse from following him. We are, yet again, at an impasse.

Baatar thunders into view, like the Seventh Cavalry in a brown and gold del. He smacks my horse around a bit, swearing vigorously, flicks its rump with the lead rein and tells it “Go!” in Mongolian.

It goes.

As we reach the top of the narrow, muddy goat trail and commence our descent, there’s an exuberant whinny from Shorty.

My steed whinnies back. And Baatar, job done, races off to recapture the packhorse.

As we arrive, Shorty slips his lead-rein in a burst of enthusiasm, but his heart’s not really in escape. I tie him to a more solid branch, and before long, Baatar returns trailing a rather dejected-looking packhorse.

Like a good rural Mongolian, Baatar is utterly mystified by this activity. What the hell do we want with a couple of old tin cans? Glass jars, sure, those have a use – but cans?! There’s bloody miles of land out there.

After all this, lunch is long overdue – especially for poor Baatar, who’s been looking after four horses and two numpty tourists, one female, one a child – and we find a nice sheltered spot below the high bank of the stream.

Zac plays contentedly on the ice, digging holes in the snow-clad surface, chucking rocks at it, trying to work his way through to the waters below.

I grab some firewood and fetch water; Baatar whips a fire out of nowhere, cuts chunks of bread and sausage; I boil water to make tea and coffee, and assemble tinned tuna, tinned sweetcorn, mayonnaise and the pasta I prepared last night into pasta salad.

It’s rather pleasant: sunny and bright, with the larches sweeping down from the crests of the hills and breaking on the open valley, with its whirling riverbed, more and more wildflowers by the day, eagles overhead and nary a sound but the flicker of the fire and the flow of the river.

It is, I think, a shame to leave. But leave we must.

Like good little tourists, Zac and I are pretty punctilious about our waste. We leave vegetable peelings for the animals, but burn all paper waste – yes, even that paper waste – reuse plastic bottles and carry out our cans, glass and plastic.

Like a good rural Mongolian, Baatar is utterly mystified by this activity. What the hell do we want with a couple of old tin cans? Glass jars, sure, those have a use – but cans?! There’s bloody miles of land out there.

Still, he loads our expanding waste bag onto the packhorse, and off we set.

My backside is off the back of the saddle and on my bastard horse’s bony spine, I’m trying to work on what the hell has happened, when – whoomph! — something punches me from behind, knocks the breath out of me, and the trees have changed position.

We have gone perhaps 15 metres when an epic crash shatters the silence.

All of a sudden, the earth moves. My backside is off the back of the saddle and on my bastard horse’s bony spine, I’m trying to work on what the hell has happened, when – whoomph! — something punches me from behind, knocks the breath out of me, and the trees have changed position.

I’m flat on my back on the grass, remembering Ganbaa’s sage words: “In Mongolian, the words for ‘ride a horse’ and ‘fall off a horse’ are the same.”

My horse, meanwhile, is a very few metres from me, cropping the grass. He looks at me with an annoying mix of innocence and accusation, batting his long eyelashes, as if to say, “What? Why are you looking at me like that? What did I do?!”

Zac is, likewise, flat on his back on the grass, and Shorty has already settled in for a good old graze.

It appears our waste bag has fallen from the packhorse, and the rattle of tin cans is another noise that Mongolian horses don’t like. And when Mongolian horses don’t like something, they either bolt or rear. In this instance, they have reared.

It will be 24 hours before I see those tin cans again. In a bush, natch.

Like macho equestrians the world over, Baatar favours evil-tempered stallions. His rears, an oddly graceful move, like something out of a nineteenth century cavalry painting, and holds that classically flawless pose for a couple of beautiful seconds.

A few minutes to gather our composure, and we’re back on the bastard, bastard, bastarding horses, and about to recross the river, a process that feels rather more risky than the last time we crossed it, partly because of the expanse of the pebbles, partly because of the flow of the water, and partly because we’re now aware what it feels like to fall from horse height.

We are up to the horses’ thighs when the bastard, bastard, bastarding packhorse takes umbrage at something and tries to head back the way he came, pulling Baatar’s horse out of line.

“HOLD YOUR HORSE!” I yell to Zac, tightening up my rein.

The last thing we need is a bloody rout down a riverbed.

Like macho equestrians the world over, Baatar favours evil-tempered stallions. His rears, an oddly graceful move, like something out of a nineteenth century cavalry painting, and holds that classically flawless pose for a couple of beautiful seconds.

Baatar’s seat doesn’t shift a millimetre. He is absolutely rock solid. There is perhaps some effortless, natural adjustment around the waist as he grins jovially, checks his horse, cuffs it around the head a few times while swearing less from passion than from habit, and brings the packhorse back into line.

At least for the moment. For the packhorse, who we now christen Satan, with Baatar’s steed as Lucifer, has home on the brain.

“THAT’S what we need to do!” I say to Zac, after some thought as to the miracle that is Baatar’s seat. “Grip really hard with the thighs.”

We want to camp here, out in the beautiful wilderness, in this wilderness where we haven’t seen a soul all day and where I, for one, can actually wash. And, further, we want to stop, NOW.

By 6.30pm, we’re winding down through forest, a lush green landscape of sparkling, deep-bedded streams and sun-dappled wildflower meadows. But the mountain shade is creeping down through the larches, shading them to an inky green, and our centaur shadows are elongating steadily.

My thighs hurt. My arms hurt.

Zac, who has rather less padding in every area than I, is saddlesore.

It is, we decide, time to make camp. There are any number of perfect campsites here: rolling, beautiful alpine meadows with both kindling and firewood aplenty, streams far enough downhill to protect against flash-flooding whatever happens higher up, but close enough for water and washing up to be no chore at all, with plenty of tree cover by way of bathroom facilities.

Further, the streams are shielded by steep banks, so I stand a fighting chance of getting a wash.

“Can we camp here?” I yell to Baatar, as we pass perhaps our fifth dazzlingly beautiful, utterly perfect wilderness campspot.

“No!” he yells back. “We stay in ger.”

“NO GER!” Zac and I yell in unison. We don’t WANT to negotiate the social side of a ger, and sleep on carpets around a stove. We want to camp here, out in the beautiful wilderness, in this wilderness where we haven’t seen a soul all day and where I, for one, can actually wash.

And, further, we want to stop, NOW.

“Yes!” says Baatar, grinning broadly. “Yes, yes, ger!”

Baatar is, of course, keen to get out of this tedious wilderness where he hasn’t seen a soul all day, for the camaraderie and cosy warmth of a ger, ideally a ger equipped with Mongolian youths who will do all the work with the horses and the loading for him in exchange for a brief spin on them, a ready-lit stove with salt tea warming by it, a matey welcome from long-lost friends and a home-cooked Mongolian dinner.

“NO!” yells Zac. “NO ger! CAMP!”

We reach, perhaps, our eighth absolutely splendid wilderness camping spot, the stuff of travellers’ fantasies. “We stop here!” I yell. “Yes, yes, ger!” Baatar yells back.

Mongolians, as I’ve said, are absolutely delightful people. They are also, collectively, at least as stubborn as their horses and have passive aggression down to a fine art.

“You know he’s just pretending he doesn’t understand us?” says Zac, after a few exchanges of this nature (some in pidgin Mongolian that’s not improved by the fact that our phrasebook is somewhere on the packhorse, which is probably fortunate, since Baatar’s responses to Zac sounds suspiciously similar to what he says to the horses).

We reach, perhaps, our eighth absolutely splendid wilderness camp spot, the stuff of travellers’ fantasies.

“We stop here!” I yell.

“Yes, yes, ger!” Baatar yells back.

Fuck this, I think.

It has been the sort of day that frays tempers all round. The sort of day, in fact, that my emergency bottle of vodka was meant for: Ganbaa, god bless him, thought we might need it on the pass.

But I gifted it several gers ago. Damn.

Baatar weakens, and looks back. I don’t budge. Baatar, eventually, faced with a choice between abandoning one of his clients and camping, opts for camping.

I haul my horse to a stop by a promising tree stump, dismount – oh blessed sweet earth under my feet! – and tie the sucker up. Horse safely parked, I adopt a firm stance.

“We stop here,” I say.

Baatar ignores this, and rides on, trailing the packhorse. I stand there, stubbornly.

Zac endeavours to bring Shorty to a stop but manages only to slow him to a sulky, eye-rolling, threatening crawl.

I stand there, stubbornly. “WE CAMP HERE!”

Baatar weakens, and looks back. I don’t budge.

Baatar, eventually, faced with a choice between abandoning one of his clients and camping, opts for camping.

By the time I’m cooking dinner (yak stroganoff, with clotted cream bought from a lady a couple of gers back) we are, all of us, back on friendly terms. It’s also too late and too cold for a wash in the stream to be conceivable.

Without even discussing it, both Zac and I make an extra-special effort to be super-helpful. We gather wood, fetch water, lug bags around, hang the meat out to air, make a start on putting up Baatar’s tent before we start on our own, and even make a feeble attempt at getting the fire going, an activity which further mollifies Baatar by proving once again how very, very rubbish we are and how very, very useful he is.

I get the phrasebook out and try and explain in pidgin Mongolian why I wanted us to stop here.

By the time I’m cooking dinner (yak stroganoff, with clotted cream bought from a lady a couple of gers back) we are, all of us, back on friendly terms.

It’s also too late and too cold for a wash in the stream to be conceivable.

Hey-ho. Onwards and upwards.


You can read the first post in this series on our ride to see the Reindeer People here, and the next one here.

5 Comments

  1. Tai says:

    Hey, thank you very much for such a lovely blog about my favourite country. You did well and you did the right thing, as going on horse across the land is the best way to experience Mongolia. Of course, the horses know you’re an amateur as soon as you jump on it. Or as soon as you start galloping and don’t stand like Mongols do. They are wily beautiful creatures.

    And you have a great talent for story writing!

    • Theodora says:

      Thank you, Tai! They are beautiful, beautiful, incredible creatures, and I just wish I had the skills to appreciate them, enjoy them, and master them, like you guys do at Naadam…

  2. It’s so delightful to read your stories, Theodora! I can’t wait for more, as always!

  3. Nonplussed says:

    This is a wonderful wonderful story. Those bastard horses; I’m so enjoying not being there.

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