3rd September 2018
I’ll introduce you to the cast – in order of appearance you might say!
Fella: my young – 4 years old – slightly flouncy, occasionally flighty, and always flatulent horse. The only one of the herd that still had a flowing mane and a long fringe. Had something of the character of a St. Bernard but barely the size.
Buzz, aka pack horse Pete: named firstly for his ginger buzz cut mane and then secondly for his occupation. A blundering horse who would bungle behind us through mires the others would try to pussyfoot around, giving him an affable but slow-witted persona. Grazes like a Hoover but loved affection.
Colonel Denzel Delaware. An old hand. The hardest to name and the hardest to like. But in the end fitted his name the best: Stubborn but steady. In time we appreciated his presence and he perhaps grudgingly respected or tolerated ours.
Dave – my brother and co-venturer
The setting: the vastness of Mongolia.
A different saddle, different muscles, the adventure of nothingness replacing that of a vast populous. 5 days training in a ger camp and just over two weeks alone in the wilds of Mongolia.
Rather than summarise it I will let it build up from extracts from my scribbled diary. Forgive the exhausted hand that wrote them.
Arrived at our training camp. Our ger is about 6m across. Two pillars in the middle holding up a central oculus-ring to the sky above . Slats spoke out to the wall and the whole thing is covered by canvas. A stove sits in the middle – a rusted textured metal. Oddly shaped. A common standard it seems, but more functional than designed.
Galloping across the grasslands is as fun as it sounds. So free and fresh. And exciting riding as part of a herd! Not the straight dull lines of pony trekking but a herd of horses and horseman weaving in and out chatting freely moving on this open grassland and then galloping together with the pound of 48 hooves and 24 hearts!
The riding is great. So quickly you get used to it, which isn’t the same as saying you forget about it; the pleasure just becomes more passive, more foundational. Still like last night on our evening ride the sunset, the crescent moon rising the silhouette of horses on the ridge. Amazing!
So quickly everything else starts to feel far away and a long time ago.
The pack horse experience is quite fun. It is fairly effortless but has the feel of something that will have its moments of unexpected chaos!
My muscles are sore but were more sore earlier. Hopefully that is a trend!
Looking around the scene is calm, seemingly. Rolling hills. You start looking at the world in terms of valleys and passes rather than roads and cities. Occasionally my brainwashed mind sees the crossing of two valleys, a wide space, and imagines a city – so obvious would it be to have one there and yet here there is nothing. The grass is not grass but a dense mat of dozens of plants some of which smell fragrant. A wild sage perhaps and different flowers, daisy or bluebell-like, stick their heads above the pile.
To market today. Our horses have therefore been free to roam for the day as they are every night before the Mongolian guys herd and corral them each morning. I really enjoy the evening when you can take the tack off, bridle and all and let the horse just run off free in any direction to feed in the herd.
Tomorrow we leave by truck to the end of the road. After 5 days of getting the kit and horses together we feel ready to get out there. Both of us had imagined this camp experience as mere prep but in fact with the fascinating people and beautiful setting it has been the perfect base camp.
We finally left and arrived at the end of the road to a deep and fast flowing river. I had expected a bridge but no! 4x4s occasionally churn through, water up past the doors, engine spewing. I don’t think any of us fancied one of the toughest aspects of the ride as a first step.
We quickly decided we had to lessen the load on the pack horse and several trips would be in order. So in we went, my horse leading the way swimming for a little bit, getting my legs drenched as I sat on top leading the pack horse with Dave behind shepherding him. Ben another solo trekker who has joined us for the first few days waited with the rest of our stuff.
The horses were great; after we got them in and had them committed they just wanted to get to the other side. But they each were cajoled into doing several crossings for all the stuff. All in all it took an hour and a half or so to unpack do the many crossings and repack. A baptism of…well water!
We rode for a couple of hours before turning up the most beautiful secluded valley and made camp to a stunning sunset. We cooked some of the fresh food into a decent pasta had some bread and cheese rolls as a starter and then some wild rhubarb we found mixed with dried fruit and nuts for desert. Some fine Fujian black tea and a dram of jura in the dark – toasting adventure. We are straight into it and it feels good. We are already making notes of lessons for next time – don’t let the toilet rolls get soaked!
There aren’t many days that I need to write of in two such distinct parts. The camp feeling: waking up as the tent canvas diffused the rising sun’s rays, dozing back to sleep, opening the tent door to see the perfect valley view stretching down to the meandering river far below, a mist wisping along it…
Perhaps a little late starting and a little slow going but we were making progress. Nearly there. We wandered through a high wooded section before the pass leading to a new valley. My horse had a good walk on and I gave him some rein.
I remember my brain absentmindedly spotting the deer, faster than the horses, as it put it’s head up. But then see it they did, and spooked big time. With lazy seat and lazy reins I had no hope of holding both pack horse and my horse and I found myself on the floor, the horses galloping off at speed. Dave behind, more in control, kept his seat and was no doubt baffled by what had suddenly occurred, turned after the horses. I remember clocking this as I also clocked Ben, off his horse being dragged by a stirrup, dragged at a fast canter.
After an age he was shaken loose. I was sprinting helplessly after him. When I arrived , he was already stoically certain: I’ve broken my arm.
[What ensued was a fairly convoluted operation involving many people, and modes of transport, calls and SOS messages. Finally by 1am we crashed into bed exhausted with Ben in hospital broken but safe and us back together where we left off and with our horses]
We took a calm day today round the ridge to where we were planning to reach yesterday. We are back on track although we still don’t know what that track is, where we want to aim for, whether we have anywhere we want to go or whether we just wander around for a couple of weeks.
Now in camp I am starting to notice the smaller beauties: the sound of the horses munching nearby, our little camp seen from a distance, the makeshift washing line strung up between trees…and the day is starting to cool. Time to light a fire!
Interesting riding today across varied terrain – marsh, hill, forest, broad valley floor. When we were ready to stop we found our beautiful spot to be swarming with mosquitos. We spent another hour and more wandering up and around the hills trying to escape them.
Today I focused more on riding technique not only because it is useful and helps me keep my seat better but also because just riding has stopped hurting so I can now start to make my muscles ache deliberately! And my inner thighs do today – legs long, calf held on against his side like a wet flannel – painful but it feels secure. He bucked yesterday and hopped across a little stream today. You could feel the power in those back legs. Jumping must be cool!
Today was a good day. They are starting to drift into one another. At the end of each day there is that tired feeling of a day’s full exertion. And yet that tiredness is a little meditation. My brain is calm. I can here the crackle of the fire, a slight breeze is keeping the mozzies at bay, the horses are staked and hobbled calmly on the hill behind.
The day started with my horse having slipped his bridle in the night. I woke to find Dave heading down the hill to fetch him.
What else? A few hornets nests we have stirred up in the last few days – I see where the saying comes from. Everyone of us runs out of the area large or small!
Just before lunch we came across a train of ox carts – Mongolians heading down river with their stuff strapped on each cart. We also came across a herd of beautiful horses, seemingly wild – looking so natural in this setting, cantering over to see what was going on.
The valley has a lost world feel the kind of place where you could imagine dinosaurs roaming, mixed trees and marsh at the bottom, some strands of river splitting and rejoining, and valley sides empty and grassy. I have never seen anything like it. Elsewhere it would have been cleared and drained and would now be rectangles of farmland.
Rice is boiling on the fire and Dave is teasing some beef out of a can. Whatever day it is it has been good!