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Into the depths of Mongolia (26/7/04)

I awoke in brisk cold and checked my watch- 5.30am. Next I crawled out of my nice warm cocoon and unzipped the tent door. My heart raced as my eyes adjusted to the dim morning light. Eventually, one…… two…..three, ‘phew’ all horses still there. It was the sixth and last time I would get up during the night to check on them. I packed my things and headed up a nearby hill to survey the morning scene. We had camped on the far western shore of Tsaagan Nuur (lake) and an orange glow on the horizon warned of the sun that would eventually breath warmth back into the freezing air. Below our tent was dwarfed by the mountains to the north and the lake that spread out like a sea to the west. Pegged out around our tent were the horses all still munching away steadily at lush grass. The sound of swans and seagulls echoing across the water sounded eerie in this land of dry deserts and open steppe. The horizon was as tempting as ever and I was happy that we would be able to get a good early start before the searing heat of day. As we packed the sun breached the mountains and sent splinters of light across the land. In places it peeled away the shadows to reveal golden tinged grass and rock, and on the lake it sent mist curling towards the sky. By 7.30am we were packing the horses when a couple of herders came into view. With no objects to give a sense of scale, they ‘enlarged’ so to speak until they were true human size to the eye and parked their horses next to us. They both wore blue deles, the traditional coat or dress worn by Mongolians. Slung over their backs were a couple of rifles for hunting marmot and wolf. We had barely greeted them when one of their horses ripped its stake out of the ground and bolted. It ran straight to a nearby herd. One of the men, (later we knew him as Davajargalan) jumped on his horse and galloped off. It was not so simple though. The herd caught wind and stampeded over the hill and out of sight. ‘Nerga’ the younger of the two ran off after them. We were left in silence with just their rifles lying by our camp. Over the next half hour we watched them come in and out of sight, in and out of earshot with no success. We decided to lend Nerga Kathrin’s horse and my climbing rope and off they went again. An hour passed. Nothing. Kathrin climbed to the top of the hill and saw only the open steppe. After and hour and a half I was getting worried, and disappointed that it would not be an early start. I jumped on my horse and cantered off in the vague direction we had last seen them. I found them soon later walking slowly back. I approached with a smile ‘Got him!’ But something was up. They looked down at the ground sheepishly. ‘We do not have your rope.’ In pursuit of the horse Nerga had accidently thrown my rope out into the lake and lost it. Any kind of ‘rope’ in the countryside was extremely rare here, and I wondered how I would peg out our three horses from now on. Not convinced it was a lost cause we all rode back to the approximate place where it had been lost. For Mongolians who are famous for their inability to swim and fear of water, the rope was already a foregone conclusion. We arrived at the sandy peninsula jutting out into the glassy water and Nerga swung his arm out in a big arc ‘somewhere out there’ I assumed he meant. Much to the surprise of the Mongolians I stripped off to my undies and left my clothes in a pile on the pebbles. They all shook their heads, laughed, and sat down to watch the show. It must have been quite a sight- an Aussie with dark tanned arms and face and a milky white body sauntering off into the water as if it was the most normal thing in the world. For the next hour I waded around up to my waist feeling the bottom with my feet and scanning the mud and sand below. The herders smoked cigarettes and threw pebbles out to suspect locations. One moment it was fifteen metres out, the next five metres out and ten metres to the right. A couple of other herders had spotted the fiasco from miles off with their binoculars (or more accurately monoculars) and came to join the fun. I was about to give up and retreat when I caught something in my toe. I pulled it up. There it was! The herders stopped laughing, and their sheepish looks vanished. I dressed, jumped back on my horse and we all trotted back to the camp where Kathrin had been left to wonder what on earth was going on. ‘A good story at least’ I tried to explain to the men. I was happy to have had a wash as well. At camp we communicated for a while- that is long pauses of silence and looks of curiosity, then a few understandable words (and a lot of unintelligible ones as well). Nevertheless we had a good understanding by the time we all headed off. We had only just said goodbye when we looked up to the sky to be met with a wall of black clouds gushing over the mountains and quickly enveloping the view. Thunder sounded and soon a rushing wind came hurtling towards us. We stopped and dressed in Goretex, just in time to turn our backs into a tirade of hail. In the space of a few minutes it went from hot to freezing. I held onto the lead ropes and felt my hands go numb. We had not even had time to hobble the horses and they were threatening to run in this wild weather. For an hour we stood like the horses- looking miserable with our behinds into the wind and rain, hoping and waiting for it to pass. Then pass, it did. The wind halted abruptly and relative silence reigned. The wall of black gave way to blue and before too long we were baking hot and I was searching for the relief that the odd cloud brings. By the time we really got moving it was 2pm. We wound our way around rocky peaks where eagles and falcons circled majestically. In the distance on hillsides the silhouettes of riders could be seen, herding sheep and goats. The animals moved like schools of fish across the ocean-like steppe. Another storm broke the day and we took an invitation to a ger where we welcomed fresh Yak cheese and dried goat’s yoghurt (Aral). The sky cleared and as usual for the end of the day we took the glare of the sun on the face for a few hours until we all felt a bit dizzy and exhausted. A wide open plain ringed by olive-green mountains opened up to our right and even from a distance we could see that the grass was good. We were all looking forward to the end of another day. Unpacking- heaving off the saddles and boxes, letting the blankets dry before the arrival of dew, hobbling the horses and watching them munch greedily. The sun goes down and I lie next to the MSR stove and cook up another enticing meal of dried beef and macaroni. The warmth evaporates and the cold sets in. Staking out the horses, checking the knots, securing the hobbles. It’s the end of another day. There are over 500 days remaining. I feel exhausted, yet again intoxicated by the routines of riding and another horizon elapsing. That day was four days ago. Since then we have made our way up several valleys, and finally we have followed a challenging mountain route. Yesterday we wound our way up a narrow valley reaching higher towards some 3000m peaks. The last ger was in a remote patch of grass in the shadow of the mountains. An old almost toothless herder in a shredded dele warned us of terrain. We spent the afternoon climbing to the saddle where we arrived last night to be met with another even more violent storm. Up here there is a sound in the wind and a feeling to the land that here is quite wild. We are at 2500m and it is more of an arctic landscape. A few trees stand up to the wind, rising from permafrost-like earth. We are camped near a small alpine lake called ‘Davaa Nuur’ and overlook the valley we spent all yesterday meandering through. From here mountain peaks to the south rise up like crests on a stormy sea. The route to the north-west is still veiled in mist and cloud. Today we have not moved, ambushed by the weather. I am curious to know what it will be like over this pass. The next few days will be through relatively remote terrain. No doubt we will descend into yet another different part of Mongolia shortly. Lastly, its seems fitting to put in a quote from Henning Haslund’s book about his extraordinary adventures in Mongolia in the 1920’s. He captured the spirit of Mongolia better than anyone else I have read. I am envious of the land he entered by horse and camel train- before the days of trains and four-wheel drives. Even in Mongolia today if you take a route away from the main roads and tourist destinations, then I think you can still find that spirit; in the people, the land, and the history that is ever present. When I sat outside last night cooking up the dried beef, taking cover from the wind, peering into the depths of the mountains beyond and at the way my horse stood -tail blowing in the wind- I felt that life here is timeless. “Before us now stretched Mongolia with deserts trembling in the mirages, with endless steppes covered with emeral-green grass and multitudes of wild flowers, with nameless snow peaks, limitless forests, thundering rivers and swift mountain streams. The way that we had travelled with such toil had disappeared behind us among gorges and ravines. We could not have dreamed of a more captivating entrance to a new country, and when the sun sank upon that day, we felt as though born into a new life- a life which had the strength of the hills, the depth of the heavens and the beauty of the sunrise.” Henning Haslund