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Tim Reaches the far west! Horses Sold! Zuungov - Tsengel (21/9/04)

(Click here to view the complete list of diary entries) For the first time in about 75 days I woke this morning without the horses. At first I jumped up to make sure that Rusty and Bokus hadn’t been stolen. My heart raced. What were the sounds outside? Was that a car coming to my tent? My knee crashed into the corner of the toilet in my hotel room before I remembered. I am in Olgiy, the capital of Bayan Olgiy province in far western Mongolia. It is a small Muslim orientated town of about 50,000. I can hardly believe it, but the Mongolian leg of the journey is over. Two days ago I reached the village of Tsengel and spent a day selling the horses. The price was bad, at almost half what I paid, but I didn’t have time to search for another buyer. Tsengel is just about the most western village in Mongolia, squeezed into a valley of the Altai mountains near the borders of Russia, China, and Kazakstan. I decided to end the leg of the trip there, in the heart of Kazak country, rather than at a border town. Border towns are generally seedy, and their culture corrupted, and I didn’t like the idea of selling the horses there. What’s more it is likely that I will not be able to pass through any borders here anyway. So, 1400km from the start in Kharkorin it all came to an end. Here is Bayan Olgiy province the population is 90 percent Kazak, and their culture here is far more in tact than in Russified Kazakhstan. Until the 1930s Kazaks used to freely travel between Bayan Olgiy, Xingjang in China, and Kazakstan until the borders were drawn up. Today Kazaks travel by plane, or car through Russia to get to their ‘motherland.’ The borders have done a good job of disunifying the kazaks (split between four countries!) and also making my journey difficult. I now have to return to Ulaan Baatar- a 1650km trek by jeep (three or four days). The ridiculous thing is that I have to get an ‘exit’ visa from the foreign ministry because I have a press/media visa. I also need a Russian visa. Technically there is really only one border open to real foreigners like me- in the north by train to Irkutsk. I will try to get special permission to cross from Bayan Olgiy into either Russia or China and travel to Kazakstan. I was only about 150km or so from the border of Kazakstan when I ended but I may have to make a two our three thousand kilometre detour to get there! Due to battery problems I haven’t been able to update the website for about three weeks or more. Apologies. Here in Olgiy there is electricity for two hours or so a day so that has enabled me to charge the computer up. The problem in the countryside is that there are few herders that own 12 volt batteries, and usually the video camera batteries or phone batteries are the first priority……and whats more, one charge of my external computer battery seems to totally flatten any 12 volt battery leaving the poor herders with no power! Lets hope I will be more successful in Kazakstan. So, to start where I left off from my last entry, Kathrin and I were just about to head across a very dry region towards Uvs lake with possibly two days with no water. Our plan was to try and cover about 55km a day by riding right through the night………………. 24/8/04 – 30/8/04 Zuungov – Ulaangom ‘‘S**t! Kathrin! Help!’ I screamed. In the torchlight I watched in horror as Rusty, our big packhorse laiden with gear jumped across the stream into the swamp. He sank immediately up to his chest in mud, the heavy load pushing him down further. He had a wild look in his eyes, his nose dilated. He jumped up. Mud went flying, and he went down again. It was 12.30pm and pitch black. Stupidly we had tried to navigate through the marshlands to the river one last time before starting our long, dry night trek. Now we were lost and I wondered if this was it. I had heard many stories of horses sinking and dying in mud. I pulled the lead rope and screamed at the horse who seemed to be resigning himself to an untimely end. Then one last time he tried to move. His front legs came bounding out and I jumped out of the way. The next thing I knew he was standing next to me, trembling, covered in mud up to his neck. Our trek to Uvs lake had not begun well. ‘Lets just get out of here.’ I had looked forward to the idea of riding at night, but I soon discovered that the feeling of riding in the cold with no moonlight under heavy cloud just made me feel nauseas and extremely tired. We found a couple of wheel tracks that seemed to be going in the right direction and decided to get off and walk. The next six or seven hours of walking are a blur. Kathrin was beginning to hallucinate and at one stage I lost my compass and spent an hour or two searching for it. The chinese batteries in my GPS died in the cold and we ended up having no real idea where we were. All in all we had probably only covered a handful of kilometres. I felt like I had made more mistakes in the space of one night than in the past month or so. With the coming of the sun on the horizon I began to wake up. There was just the sound of the wind in the grass, my footsteps, the horses plodding along, poor Kathrin behind me looking like she was sleep walking. Ahead a dark lonely plain stretched into a blur of sky and clouds. Unexpectedly there were mountains rising up to the south of us. We had obviously come a lot further south than planned. Gradually the black faded and gave way to visible shapes and detail. It seemed to be colder than before sunrise. The mountains were decapitated by wind-whipped clouds. Mist had gathered on the plain where we walked and the moisture added to the feeling of cold. We decided to start riding again, and soon discovered that you can indeed ride while sleeping. Again and again I would wake myself up and point the horse in the right direction. Sometimes I would look around and see Kathrin drifting off as well. Gradually the eyes would close, the soft rocking, movement of the horse inducing a sense of warm and calm. Then, bang, you head would rise and you would remember where you were. As a result I didn’t so much watch the landscape go by, but saw everything in short glimpses between short sleeps and long stretches of time when I would hide my nose below my collar and just stare blankly down at the reins. It was bloody cold, and distance passed excruciatingly slowly. We were both forced to wake up at about 10am when a couple of riders came bounding over dressed in their winter deles. I looked around me without sleep in my eyes and it seemed we had reached a totally new world. The mountains to our left (to the south) stretched westwardly as far as the eye could see. Snow had fallen overnight and their peaks were painted a dusty, fresh white. Far to the north east of us we could make out Uvs lake, an enormous body of salt water home to an astounding number of migrating birds. After a chat, the riders galloped off proudly shrinking in the enormity of the landscape. We had lunch at about 11pm in a dry gully to escape the wind, then continued our plod. By afternoon we were both tired and frustrated. It was too hot to wear a jacket when the sun was out, but when a cloud came it was too cold to go without. We perfected the art of sleep riding and continued along this endless flat until about 7pm when finally we made camp about 12 km from the edge of the lake. We had covered a mere 50km despite such a long trek. It seemed ridiculous that there was all this water close by, and yet it was undrinkable salt water. We had asked all herders along the way, even the two who we had seen earlier in the morning and they were all adamant that there was no drinkable water for the horses until about 18km out of Ulaangom. There was another 60km to go before the next drink. We collapsed into sleep at 10 or 11pm. We had not slept in over 36 hours, and our plan was to get up at 1am and keep going. That didn’t happen. We were both too exhausted and didn’t rise until six or seven o’clock. It didn’t seem to matter anyway because it seemed to be cold during the night and day here- we would be doing no service to the horses to ride through the night again. With the coming of the sun we realised that far in the distance there were gers along the edge of the lake. Where there were gers, there surely had to be drinkable water? Time and time again I had been frustrated by the lack of knowledge of herders beyond their immediate area, but this was ridiculous. As we made our way to the lake it seemed that there were many families living here, yet all herders, told us there were no gers and no water. After a long trek we arrived and were pointed to a small pond separate to the lake. It was still salty but obviously drinkable. We decided to rest the horses and start again the next day. In the morning our confusion was compounded when we discovered that the locals all had fresh water wells from which they fed their animals, yet we had been directed to the salty pond. When we were finally offered some water from a well we were asked to pay for it. I became angry, just shook the man’s hand and we rode off. Of course he came bounding over asking me if I could give him my saddle, or bridle, or rope, or book, or knife, or tent, or horse as a gift. Some things in Mongolia were hard to understand, and this sequence of events was just one of hundreds. We rode close to the lake shore, the sound of the ripples lapping the waters edge, the smell of salt in the air, the sound of birds. The earth was sandy, yet to our south the mountains rose to brilliant white snow. Another day took us to a family of herders who owned an astounding 1000 goats and sheep, one hundred horses, and god only knew how many cows and camels. Our night stay there was interrupted however by a drunk who wanted my horse. He refused to leave and pretended to pass out next to our tent. Kathrin fetched our friend from the ger and eventually we dragged the man away through the grass, and sat him on his horse. It turned out that he lived here in a neighbouring ger despite telling us that he had to sleep at our tent because his home was 50km away. Another sleep deprived night passed and we pressed onward towards Ulaangom. In the depression next to the lake we passed through a strange marshy land of salt encrusted earth fresh water springs, and swampy land lush with tall grass. This was being harvested by the locals. We passed by men and women out with their scythes working away at the grass and loading it onto trailers behind tractors. It was a strange meeting point of dry, wet, and mountain environment. As a result you could see herds of horses, camels, yaks, cows, sheep and goats all mingling and grazing together. This place had a totally different feel about it, and it soon became clear that we had crossed into an ethnically quite different region. A man came rushing over on his horse, as usual suggesting he would like to swap horses or saddles. His words went straight past me as I was totally captured by his face. He had blue eyes, a large European nose, and a strange beard growing down under his chin. At the same time his eyes were slanted and his cheeks were round and large. He spoke a strange sounding Mongolian and unlike most Mongols had terrible, Russian-type teeth. His body language and mentality was clearly Mongol, as was his dress and saddle. A few you boys joined us too. They all had pale skin, fair hair, and yet very Mongolian faces. Soon later we passed two women herding goats on horses. This was extremely rare, in fact we had only seen women herding on horses a few times throughout the entire trip. They had large faces, meaty bodies, and wore colourful scarves and large dangling earrings. They came over to us to take a look, then went galloping back to their herds. They looked somehow more southern, central Asian, yet Russian, Mongolian, and even a tad Gypsy. We stopped at a ger about 25km from Ulaangom as night drew near. Women draped in scarves with pale brown eyes and light brown hair greeted us. Inside the ger we were offered salty tea alongside a bowl of flour. In this region they would put a few spoonfuls of flour in with the tea to drink. There was a beautiful picture on the wall of an elderly couple with strange triangular looking silk hats. The man had a grey beard flowing down from under his chin and blue eyes. The woman had a long narrow face and almond eyes. Behind them in the painting were horses tied up to a line, and snowcapped mountains. It took me some time to realise that the woman in the painting was the elderly woman lying down in the bed. She lay there breathing heavily and looking very unwell. Eventually the family presented me a bottle of natural oils. The instructions were written in English and Russian. It was a herbal medicine for treating cancer of the lungs and throat. The family waited for my translation which was poor to say the least in Mongolian. They clearly believed that after six weeks of this medicine she would be better again. It seemed to me that she was dying, and I felt that there was a certain look in her eyes that she knew it well. We camped next to their ger and had our horses almost run over by the tractor coming back in the evening with hay. In the morning I spoke to my friend Gansukh in Ulaan Baatar on the phone and learnt that in fact this region was populated by Oirats. These are a fascinating tribe of Mongols who were at one stage deeply opposed to Ghengis Khaan’s tribes until they were badly beaten. At some point they all decided to leave Mongolia and settle around the Black Sea in the Ukraine, then relatively recently (this century) they all moved back again. Some settled here next to Uvs lake, while others ended up in Xinjang province in China. It was no wonder that their faces told such a story. That evening we climbed over some mountains to see the buildings of Ulaangom glittering in the last rays of light. Ulaangom had been a distant, almost impossible destination, and suddenly there it was. Just on dark we were invited to stay by a family of Oirat herders, and we fell to sleep exhausted knowing that finally we could give ourselves and the horses a rest. At the same time there was a strange feeling of completion and disorientation. It was from here that Kathrin would fly out and leave me. It seemed fitting that we had basically reached the edge of Mongolia. Ahead of me lay Bayan Olgiy, 90 percent Kazak, and the Kharkiraa Mountains with the small minority group of Khotont people. Things were about to change. (Next update: Ulaangom – Khovd Sum through the Kharkiraa mountains with a camel coming soon). (Click here to view the complete list of diary entries)