A Narrow Escape – and a River WASH!

As we set out from Tsagaannuur, I mount my horse. Eleven days in, I’ve got the routine down pat. Tight hold on the reins, rein hand on the saddle, whip hand on the lead rein, up and over.

I’m halfway into the saddle, with one foot in a stirrup, when the bastard, bastard horse breaks into a sprint.

My butt slides off the back of the saddle and onto the back of my bastard, bastard, galloping horse.

NOT AGAIN, I think (and, yes, these are the times at which one thinks in CAPSLOCK), as my steed thunders along the path in that horrible, leaping, galloping rhythm that’s kind of fab when you’re expecting it but really not so fab when you’re just getting on the bastarding horse. NOT AGAIN!

I am not going to be dumped on my arse in front of an audience.

Not this time, no sirree.

My horse thunders across the open ground, as I cling on so tightly my thigh and stomach muscles scream in protest. Rage and fear battle for control of my emotions, and rage comes out on top.

Swearing vigorously, I haul back on the reins with one hand, grab the pommel with the other and lever myself back into position, wondering whether this is what a pulled muscle feels like.

Ooh! I’m in the saddle! RESULT! This means, I realise, that I’m not coming off.

Safely settled, I apply both hands to the reins and actually stop the fucker.

It would not entirely surprise me, in fact, if, in the manner of the instructors watching my pitiful attempt at backing a car into an empty bay on my final driving test, they were actually taking bets.

It is at this point that I realise the horsemen have been watching this little drama with high amusement (I’d guess Mongolian children first experience it around age eight) and are now pissing themselves laughing.

It would not entirely surprise me, in fact, if, in the manner of the instructors watching my pitiful attempt at backing a car into an empty bay on my final driving test, they were actually taking bets.

“Go Mama!” says Baatar, giving me a big thumbs-up between belly laughs. “Mama good!”

“Yeah!” says Maahar. “Mama good!”

I want to beat my horse around the head like a proper Mongolian horseperson. But I don’t. The poor thing’s knackered.

And, in fact, his break for the border has exhausted him. He falters four times before we even make it into Tsagganuur, the last time so badly I think he’s going to buckle under me.

There’s no way on earth he’s going to make it to the taiga. And, with all due nodding to animal rights, and all, if he falls under me I’m highly likely to break something.

My nag now looks more like something from an Albrecht Dürer woodcut, or possibly an 80s hair metal band mascot, than anything you’d trust to get you to the taiga.

I have suggested to our various horsemen, at various times, that it might be a good idea for me to change horses. Yet, as when we crossed the pass, I realise that the only way forward is going to be a childish tantrum vocal self-assertion.

“I NEED A NEW HORSE,” I say. My nag now looks more like something from an Albrecht Dürer woodcut, or possibly an 80s hair metal band mascot, than anything you’d trust to get you to the taiga.

“Good horse!” says Baatar. “Horse good!”

I suspect the problem is that I’ve been given a Mongolian lady’s horse when I’m the weight of many Mongolian men: I am, I think, a similar weight to both Maahar and Baatar, which wouldn’t be surprising since I’m taller than both, although, obviously, much less strong. “Horse good! No problem!”

“No problem!” chimes in Maahar.

It is a masterclass in Mongolian passive-aggression.

“MY HORSE HAS FALLEN FOUR TIMES THIS MORNING AND I AM NOT GOING TO CARRY ON WITH THIS HORSE,” I yell say. “I NEED A NEW HORSE.”

Silence. I park my horse, tie the sucker up, and put my hands on my hips.

“Where you GET the horse from?” asks Maahar.

I’m a little pissy about this, given he’s got one riderless horse already. “I don’t know,” I say, seeing his Mongolian passive-aggression and raising him my British passive-aggression, while enunciating so clearly I sound like the Queen. “We can ask around town… It may take us some time. But there are a lot of horses in Tsagaanuur…”

“Maybe you have this one?” suggests Maahar.

I’m not even going to discuss budget.

After some discussion among the non-Mongolians, I race to the shop for a miniature rather than face the inevitable consequences if we open one of the large gifting bottles. It’s Saturday, so it’s legal again.

A lengthy delay as we enjoy a morning meal, and a debate over how best to provide Maahar with vodka to help his castor oil go down. After some discussion among the non-Mongolians, I race to the shop for a miniature rather than face the inevitable consequences if we open one of the large gifting bottles. It’s Saturday, so it’s legal again.

Then there’s more delay for us to do our paperwork, because the reindeer people live within shooting distance of the Russian border, and permits are technically required. Aaron stays well out of the way as he’s somehow managed to get this far sans permit thanks to his angelic face, angelic temperament and way with the horsemen.

And, finally, I am mounted on Maahar’s second packhorse, an absolute behemoth of a creature, the stockiest, strongest, most stubborn Mongolian horse I’ve come across.

He, I will learn, bolts for nothing, which is nice. Instead, he stops stone, cold dead at the drop of a hat, or, rather, the flutter of a bird, and can, like all true heirs of Chinggis Khan’s cavalry, wheel on a sixpence. He also has a new, and special trick, that of shifting a foot to one side without breaking step, or doing anything that would announce this change of direction to a rider at my level (although from the horsemen’s sniggers whenever he does it, it’s easily recognisable to them).

He wants to ride up the arse of the other packhorse from his herd. I want him to hang out with Zac and Baatar, or whoever I’m talking to at that point in time. He, being a horse, is considerably stronger than I am.

Arthur cruises up to me, as we head along the river through the low hills, and asks, with a look of intense concern, “Are you alright?”

I’m not, in fact, as my stirrups are lopsided, and both my arms and my stomach are hurting from moulding the packhorse to my will. (He wants to ride up the arse of the other packhorse from his herd. I want him to hang out with Zac and Baatar, or whoever I’m talking to at that point in time. He, being a horse, is considerably stronger than I am, being human, but I have the advantage of a bit.)

“No!” I say. “I’m NOT OK!”

“OK!” he says, smiling. “OK!”

I try and work out whether Arthur is taking the piss and conclude that, on balance, he isn’t. More from spite than any hope of assistance, I explain in more detail, with pointing. “I’m not OK, because my stirrups are wrong. Look!”

Arthur rides off, barely avoiding tangling me in the lead rein to which another packhorse is attached.

I spit blood, quietly. We are, Zac and I, getting better at riding, just by virtue of being on the bastard horses for such a long time, but it still fails to be relaxing.

And, further, Shorty is twitchy. He’s kicking out at other horses, even more than usually resistant to Zac’s management – but we’re eleven days in now, he’s the smallest of the horses, and there isn’t another obvious choice for Zac to ride.

I dip my legs into the cool, fast-flowing water and… wash! I love a good river wash at the best of times. And, with the sun shining, and eleven days’ dirt to remove, this is the best river wash I’ve ever had.

And then, all of a sudden, soon after we clank and rattle across a floating pontoon bridge, there comes another transformative lunch.

The sun is out. The sky is bright. There’s an absolutely stellar stream running down a flawless valley, lined with larches, the sort of valley you’d pay good money to visit anywhere outside Mongolia, but is hardly a rarity here.

We make a fire, cook up pasta and coffee, Maahar lies in the shade looking green, while Zac, Arthur, Aaron and Matt go down to their undies and splash in the stream.

Holy cow!!!! I can haz wash!

I CAN HAZ WASH!

I head downstream into a cluster of larches, ask the boy to fend off any Mongolians coming my way, dig out my washbag, a towel and clean clothes, and retreat to a handy stone.

I dip my legs into the cool, fast-flowing water and… wash! I love a good river wash at the best of times. And, with the sun shining, and eleven days’ dirt to remove, this is the best river wash I’ve ever had.

I wash my entire body. I remove a fortnight’s worth of fuzz from my underarms (legs, I figure, can wait). I shampoo my hair, and then condition it.

And then I towel dry, moisturise, and change every item of clothing but my jeans. I consider mascara. That would, I conclude, be overkill.

Matt is vegetarian, which is about as easy among rural Mongolians as it would be among the Inuit, though perhaps marginally easier than it would have been in the early Arab armies, whose campaign rations included a tempting-sounding mix of camel blood and camel hair.

The next valley is a shallow patchwork of green and gold, with a gentle, reflective stream meandering lazily through it, and a series of log cabins scattered along the stream. We will, it seems, spend the night at the second, with an absolutely delightful grandmother, a beautiful baby, her charming mother and rounds of delicious, sour, fresh yak cheese to eat on her fresh-baked bread (we buy some to take with us and eat with the onions that grow wild).

It’s splendid. And, because we’re nearing the reindeer people, and it’s a lovely sunny evening, we decide to set up camp by the stream rather than sleep in the cabin.

We build a fire. Yes! We, the tourists, build a fire without assistance from the horsemen. We make a vegetarian pasta (Matt is vegetarian, which is about as easy among Mongolians as it would be among the Inuit, though perhaps marginally easier than it would have been in the early Arab armies, whose campaign rations included a tempting-sounding mix of blood and camel hair).

Matt introduces Zac to the Mongolian Death Worm; Zac gets into his sleeping bag and enacts attacks; and we sit by the fire, Matt, Aaron, Zac and I, eat chocolate, drink tea, and talk late, late into the night.

We reach the reindeer people tomorrow. I’ll be very, very sad to end this journey. Despite – or even because of – the odd frustration, it has been quite dazzlingly wonderful.

And, to be honest, it wouldn’t be a journey in the wilds if everything went right…

2 Responses

  1. I can’t decide if this series of posts on Mongolia make we really want to do this, or NEVER want to do it. Given that I’ve never been atop a horse in my entire life, I’m leaning towards the latter… 🙂

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