Charon the Ferryman and Tsagaannuur

In news from the department of the bleeding obvious, drinking horse dung juice, even mixed with vodka, has not improved Maahar’s tummy. He heads back to Renchilkhumbe to visit both a shaman and a doctor.

This means poor Baatar is now in charge of five tourists (one a child), one teenage trainee guide, three packhorses and a spare horse, or a grand total of six people and eleven horses. He isn’t getting paid extra for the increased responsibility, although Aaron, the strongest non-Mongolian rider, helps out as best he can.

The sun is beating down on the steppes as we ride out. Our poor horses last drank yesterday morning, while it’s unlikely the grazing they found last night provided enough calories to replace the reserves spent getting to it.

Even Zac’s horse is beginning to look bony. Mine, which is sized for a Mongolian woman, despite the fact that I weigh as much as many Mongolian men, is looking more like a harbinger of the apocalypse. I suggest to Baatar that perhaps I could change horses when we reach Tsagaannuur.

No dice. “Horse good! Very good!”

After three hours riding, we reach a lake where the horses can drink safely. Shortly after this, a packhorse makes a bid for freedom, dragging Aaron out of the saddle in his wake. In Mongolian, I remember, the phrase for “ride a horse” and “fall off a horse” are the same.

Once I’ve established Aaron’s fine, I’m uncharitably extremely pleased that it’s not just me and Zac who are falling off horses.

Charon begins to wind his raft back towards the bank from whence we came. It is hot. We are thirsty. The sun is beating down. And Mongolians are as stubborn as their horses, which is, frankly, saying something.

A pause for Aaron to recover, and we arrive at a narrow, dark winding river that’s too deep to wade, where an evil-tempered Mongolian gentleman of approximately Zac’s height and Baatar’s girth has put together a log raft on a wire that functions as a crude, and achingly slow, cable ferry.

Baatar, Zac and I corral our protesting horses onto the raft. We are halfway across the river when Charon the ferryman announces his pricing.

The 5-minute river crossing will cost me and Zac the equivalent of twenty quid, a frankly insane sum in these parts. (Baatar, who is a licensed guide, three horses and a tent are costing us a little more than double that each day.)

Worse yet, the others are expected to pay not only for themselves and the packhorses but the spare horse and Arthur.

Frustrations spill over. Words are exchanged. Voices are raised.

I endeavour to mediate, proposing a less extortionate but still face-savingly high price of £12 for me, Zac and our horses.

Farcically, Charon begins to wind his raft back towards the bank from whence we came.

It is hot. We are thirsty. The sun is beating down. And Mongolians are as stubborn as their horses, which is, frankly, saying something.

Baatar works out a better deal with Charon in the end, but it is, nonetheless, extremely bad-tempered group who slump crossly beside another bend in the river to begin our lunch, a gourmet confection of pasta in tomato sauce.

The baking heat becomes a thing of joy. The gloomy river becomes a playground. The repetitive trees become a verdant shade. The sweeping plains are, once again, a thing of beauty.

And then, amazingly, everything turns around.

There’s a little log pontoon, for swimming off, loosely anchored by a bend in the river. Zac and the younger chaps strip down to their undies and jump in.

Deferring to local conventions of modesty, I go for a quick dip fully clothed.

The baking heat becomes a thing of joy. The gloomy river becomes a playground. The repetitive trees become a verdant shade. The sweeping plains are, once again, a thing of beauty.

It is transformational, utterly splendid. We take longer than we should do over lunch, drink plenty of tea and coffee, and sit in the brilliant sunlight enjoying the landscape.

I wonder, idly, how Victorian explorers, the type who’d have to travel as a group with guides through utterly remote spots for months or years on end, managed it without resorting to murder.

Rural Mongolians find this Western obsession as hard to comprehend as my grandparents would have in their youth: paying to buy water? In a bottle?! Are you MAD?!

It’s a long ride up to Tsagaannuur, the jumping-off point for the taiga and the reindeer people, through a winding low pass, past teens riding bareback and herds of fat-tailed sheep, up into larch forest, and down a slope that’s steep enough to walk the horses to spare their knees, into a smooth, shallow valley where a slowly winding stream meanders in its green hollow past stranded pools and brilliant oxbow lakes.

Zac and Bill stay behind at the tents. Matt, Aaron and I walk into town, in search of a shower, water that’s not river water (rural Mongolians find this Western obsession as hard to comprehend as my grandparents would have in their youth: paying to buy water? In a bottle?! Are you MAD?!) and possibly luxuries such as meat, beer, or, in the case of the optimistic Aaron, a chance to check his emails.

It’s a longer walk than we’d anticipated. We’d figured on two or three kilometres, but in fact it’s closer to five.

Tsagaannuur itself, a metropolis by the standards of these parts, is the usual mystifying array of log cabins, most of them boarded up as their inhabitants tend their summer pastures: in Mongolia, as in Harbin, temperatures of -30°C (-22°F) are not uncommon in winter, so most nomadic herders now retreat to villages for the season.

There are a couple of enormous government buildings, and a tonne of little shops, laid out along grassy thoroughfares with sheep and goats still grazing in them, but not a whisper of either restaurant or (obviously) internet.

We try a ger by a lake. Wrong ger, wrong lake. We try another ger, by another lake. Wrong ger. Eventually, we conclude that, since it would be embarrassing to bounce around further, this one MUST be the right lake.

We do, however, find a guesthouse, populated by a couple of horse-riding casualties who have injured themselves within hours of departing Tsagaannuur, but sleeping arrangements are on the communal side and nobody, including the owner, seems particularly clear on whether there is a shower, or how it works.

Folk seem fairly definite there isn’t any internet in town. But there are plenty of shops.

Cigarettes, in an echo of UB, have to be bought under the counter, since everywhere in Tsagaannuur is too close to a government building to legally sell them. So does the gifting vodka for the reindeer people since, despite what the steady stream of locals leaving with clinking carrier bags suggest, it is technically illegal to buy vodka in Tsagaannuur on Fridays.

I load up on Mongolian fruit drinks for Zac, sweeties, apples, raisins, water and a beer.

We settle down, classily, in the lee of a woodpile to consume our beers under the curious gaze of a stray dog and a goat, then negotiate a ride to the ger from the chap who owns the guesthouse, because, quite frankly, after six hours riding and a 5k walk, none of us fancy walking home in the dark.

As we bounce around the valley in near-total darkness, Tsagaannuur retreating to a dim glow in the far distance, we realise that not one of us knows our hosts’ names, and, further, that Baatar’s phone is off. We try a ger by a lake. Wrong ger, wrong lake. We try another ger, by another lake. Wrong ger.

Eventually, we conclude that, since it would be embarrassing to bounce around further, this one MUST be the right lake. Our ride roars off, headlights retreating into the dark. This is, I realise with a sinking feeling, rather a large valley in which to find an unlit ger in the dark.

And are those two slowly moving lights out in the distance people looking for us or folk riding motorbikes into Tsagaannuur?

One of the joys of a third world phone – I bought my Nokia for $15 in Borneo over three years ago and it was on the basic side even then – is that it comes with a torch. As, for that matter, do many cigarette lighters.

I equip Matt and Aaron with a cigarette lighter each and spark up my trusty Nokia. They debate exactly which point in the treeline on the darkened hillside is the gap through which we descended to the valley with a leisurely, almost academic and thoroughly masculine interest.

And, further, which is the lake that we walked past? There are, irritatingly, rather a lot of lakes in this particular stretch of valley.

And are those two slowly moving lights out in the distance people looking for us or folk riding motorbikes into Tsagaannuur?

Having no sense of direction whatsoever, I largely stay out of these discussions, confining myself to making optimistic circles with my phone-torch (another great thing about third world phones? They have no functionality, so the battery life is stellar) and chivvying Aaron to stay within visual range lest we get separated.

Just as I am beginning to contemplate spending the night in the open, perhaps under a shelter built of branches, and singing a small hallelujah chorus that it’s neither raining nor cold, a torch flashes back at us: a steady, deliberate, one, two, three pulse! It’s Baatar! Result!

Two more nights, and we’ll reach the reindeer people! And, maybe, there’ll be a shower on the way back….


This series on horseback trekking in Mongolia starts here. You can use the “next” and “previous” buttons to navigate through it.

Tentacles in the Dark image by Nic McPhee.

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