The days were hot as we rode through the Khangai Nuruu National Park, taking us up barren, dry river valleys strewn with fist sized rocks. Despite the boulders we kept a steady pace to stay in front of the evening’s oncoming rain, hoping to set up camp before it hit. The trotting was mesmerising in the heat and I started to hallucinate from the lulling motion and too much sun. I was glad when we eventually pulled up in a side valley to pitch our tent.
At the end of each day while horsetrekking across the Khangai Nuruu National Park, we’d take stock, find a water source and then set up our campsite nearby. Children from the nearby gers would often come over to visit and help put our tent up. Sometimes this was helpful, sometimes it resulted in bending precious pegs.
One group had a girl guide in their number and once our tent was up she proceeded to build and light a campfire. It was expertly done but perilously close to our tent. Come morning we noticed several small burn marks from the sparks.
The adults arrived soon after the kids with a bottle of vodka in hand. Much singing and merry making ensured and when they left we tottered off to sleep with the horses grazing calmly nearby – such a relaxing sound. It was a freezing nite dipping well below zero but we were warm and tired. Next morning as we packed up the families came over and showered us with gifts of hardened cheese and butter for our journey.
Bumbugur was a rundown one-horse town with no trees but plenty of dust and goats and a well patronised pool table on the roadside in the centre of town. I don’t think many tourists passed this way as people were peering around corners at the ‘strangers in town’. Even the dogs barked at us for good measure.
We stocked up at the local shop with sardines, pickled cucumbers, biscuits and water, with the whole bus in tow to see what we bought. Then we sat down to try our luck hitchhiking. But with only the occasional motorbike our choices were limited and the day dragged on through the heat. A couple of people visited us as we sat there including two older herders and a grandson. They told us we could refill our nearly empty water bottles at the pump station in town which was operated by an old fashioned hand pump with deliciously cold water.
We pitched our tent out of town and slept like logs after a basic meal and some cool beers.
Eight hours later we arrived in Bumbugur after only two flat tyres. Mongolian roads test even the toughest vehicles with their potholes and rocks that leave huge holes as if gnawed by giant rats.
The first repair job involved removing two inner tubes, reinserting them, then reinflating them. Theoretically it would take twice as long to deflate if there were two inner tubes. This worked for the first hour until they both deflated again… The second repair job took longer and involved sticking a patch of rubber onto an inner tube with petrol. We spent an hour and a half sitting on the side of the road while this took place, on a dry dusty plain at the edge of the Gobi.
We eventually made it to a ger where one of our passengers got off. The lady (whose baby had been collected later in afternoon) invited us all in, but as we were 10 in total we shared sips and bites of the offered tea and marmot amongst us. The marmot was warm and greasy and delicious and I temporarily forgot that it often carries the plague.
After replenishing our food supplies (rice, pasta, tinned sprats, biscuits, vodka) in Bayankhongor, Jennie and I asked around at the market for furgons heading west towards Altai. Furgons are big Russian vans like kombis on steroids that can handle the toughest wilds of Mongolia. Eventually we found one heading to Bumbugur (Ъөмъөгөр) about 100kms west on the way towards to Altai. Perfect.
Once we’d secured our ride, we waited with the furgon for an hour or two while other travellers showed up. Then, in traditional Mongolian style, we drove around what seemed like the whole of Bayankhongor collecting people and objects from various locations including sacks of rice and babies, neither of which had wanted to sit around in the market all day waiting for the bus to leave. All up 12 people piled in which wasn’t too bad on the squish level.
A bicycle and a carpet were tied on the roof, but after a while the carpet worked itself loose to smack against the window. No one seemed to notice – they were all busy smoking, whether they wanted to or not. I started to turn a shade of green, but two guys managed to sleep through it all huddled on the luggage in the back. Mongolians have a neat trick of being able to fall asleep pretty much anywhere – sitting up in a minivan, laying down on a bed of rocks, or quite possibly even in the saddle. It’s a handy trait to pick up for trips to pass the time.
Amongst the travellers was a rather Russian looking lady, a young lad studying at college in UB, a weathered old man or two, a slick looking fellow returning from the city clad in denim and an older monk with Buddhist beads. Our driver was a scrawny well tanned chap with a perpetual grin whose optimism kept us cheerful despite sitting in the dust while we waited for the tyres to be fixed. We decided that he reminded us of a Mongolian version of Keanu Reeves, somehow. During the course of the trip we both received marriage proposals from Keanu and I was gifted a speck of gold from one of our fellow travellers who had been prospecting for gold.
During the horseride from from Tsetserleg to Bayankhongor, most nights we camped near family gers and often friends of Shijray.
Once the tents were set up the children would often visit with milk jugs containing milk, yoghurt or dried cheeses, and sometimes delicious fried bread. It is traditional to send something back in the vessel when returning it. Usually we sent lollies or dried cheeses collected from previous ger visits. Similarly, when visiting a home or ger it is expected that guests will bring with a token gift for the host.
Our last night after a week of horsetrekking we parted ways with Shijray on the approach to Bayankhongor. It would take him a fraction of the time to return home with the four horses, most likely only a day or two.
Jennie and I camped a bit out of town amongst trees on the banks of the Tuin River. A big celebration was happening in town with fireworks and amplified music which we wanted to avoid in our tired states. Instead we woke next morning feeling refreshed after a night listening to the yaks and horses who visited our campsite, snorting and chewing grass.
One night while horseriding through the Khangai Nuruu National Park we camped near a ger with a family of willowly women, who invited us in and fed us boiled goat bones and a stew made of congealed fat.
After dinner they offered us homemade vodka distilled from the milk of their yak. It came served in a jam jar (way before hipsters got hold of the idea). This super potent homebrew was an even more acquired taste than airag, with the pungent aroma of warm sick … but by the gods it got you pissed! Four jars of the stuff were consumed during the course of the evening, greatly assisting all of us in singing songs from our respective countries. We listened to cassettes of Mongolian pop music, sang along out of tune, took photos and swapped snuff bottles.
Camping next to their ger was peaceful and rich with the sounds of grunting yaks and farting goats, serenading us off to sleep and filling our dreams. Plus, the vodka helped.
After a couple of days looking over horses and negotiating a price, we hired four horses and engaged Dureen’s relative Shijray as our guide. He had helped Dom and I choose horses the previous year and we already had a certain level of understanding and trust.
Jennie and I rode with Shijray for a week from Tsetserleg (Цэцэрлэг) to Bayankhongor (Ваянхонгор) via the Khangai Nuruu National Park. We rode a horse each plus a packhorse between the three of us. It was the season of airag (fermented mare’s milk) and many stops were made along the way at neighbouring gers to sample the local brew. Airag is an acquired taste with a slightly tangy off-milk flavour and is mildy alcoholic at about 3 – 4%.
Horseriding and alcohol are not always the best combination and I remember sliding forward over my saddle at one point going downhill when my horse suddenly stopped to avoid a marmot hole… Luckily it was a soft landing.
A big day of riding was about seven hours in the saddle. At night we collected firewood from nearby hills and cooked a dinner of pasta and tuna which visiting guests from nearby gers weren’t too keen to try.
The minivan from Ulaanbaatar (Улаанбаатар) to Tsetserleg (Цэцэрлэг) took 10.5 hours to cover 460km, nearly four hours faster than the previous year thanks to improved roads.
We stayed with Dureen’s family a few kilometres out of Tsetserleg where Dom and I had bought our horses the summer before. The kids remembered me and still laughed at my hat with the hole cut in it for my ponytail. All the local dogs made friends with me too, including Bankhar and Pannak.
Tsetserleg is the capital of Arkhangai aimag in central Mongolia and is a beautifully lush area with plenty of grass and wildflowers and abundant herds. The nearby Khangai mountains ensured ample rainfall during the warmer months which arrived as thunderous afternoon storms and solid downpours.
That night we shared a meal of innards stew as honoured guests followed by vodka nightcaps with Dureen’s dad before we slept in our tent outside. Being summer it was light until late and the kids were still playing soccer outside at midnight when dark had fallen, only to get up again at 6am to start their chores.
One morning I was taking care of my morning ablutions at the edge of the nearby woods, minding my own business, when a herd of cows passed me heading out of the forest and back to camp to be milked. The head cow was encouraging the stragglers to hurry along, when it stopped next to me squatting behind a tree. I could feel its breath as it glared at me. It thought I was part of the herd and should hurry up and get a wriggle on too!