Bayankhongor – end of the trail

We woke feeling a bit seedy after the vodka of the night before, but a breakfast of yummy cheese at Sukhi’s ger made us better. We took photos of the family all dressed up and then rode the remaining 5 km into town very slowly to savour the last of our horsetrek and nurse our heads.

After a week riding through the Khangai Nuruu National Park, Bayankhongor was a shock. It was busy with people dressed in their best ‘going-to-town’ clothes and lots of cars tooting as they drove past.

We parted company with Shijray after a meal of fried noodles in a roadside guanz and headed to the river to set up camp where the sounds from town included a factory, fireworks, music and mosquitoes. The week-long horsetrek had cost us about 90,000T, plus food, and was the most expensive part of our hitchhiking trip.

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Kelly, Shijray and Jennie – June 2004

Erdenetsogt, Mongolia

We stopped in the tiny village of Erdenetsogt where a cat ran up a pole to escape a dog, then a crow swooped on it. It felt like a metaphor for life.

Erdenetsogt is home to one of Mongolia’s few remaining Buddhist temples. It survived the Soviet era purges when a local man called Chulaanbat fought off the Communists who had come to destroy it. He was jailed for ten years but the temple still stands today. Somehow I forgot to take a photo.

The landscape surrounding Erdenetsogt was parched with no suitable grass or water for the horses. We trotted for hours and hours in search of either until we found a trickling stream where we watered the horses while our guide asked about grass in a local ger.

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Sukhi and the gaggle of kids  [Image: Jennie S]
As we waited a denim-clad young man from the nearby ger came over to practice his English. His name was Sukhi and he was joined by a gaggle of younger kids who collected dung for a fire. Later they brought us yak milk, goat yoghurt and boiled cheese. Even later, Sukhi returned with vodka which we drank out of a light cover from his jeep while we sat around the fire. It was a funny night!

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Helpful dung collectors  [Image: Jennie S]

Horsetrek wanderings

As we rode along we were joined intermittently by local herders who chatted with our guide and then went on their way. One of them had a fabulous black leather hat with turned up sides and was riding bare back with his legs sticking out for balance. He told us about a sacred rock nearby that had been special to him since childhood. We turned up a wide grassy valley and clambered up a hillside and settled in for lunch, after we had offered vodka and food to the sky and earth, and to the spirits of the place.

Other herders we passed were taming a wild horse. It was pulling at the bit and spitting froth, with a wild look in its eye and its mane flying out behind. The herder riding with us peeled off to help, only to be replaced by another helpful herder who joined us – this one uglier but sporting a new hat, a new del and shiny boots.

As we rode on, six local lads preparing for the local Naadam horse race tore past with their mounts all wrapped up like medieval knights. This helps the horses sweat and gets them in the right condition for competition. The sweat is scraped off the horses afterwards with a special wooden paddle. The horses were tied together in twos and were being led along like a bunch of horse-sized balloons. When a wild white stallion challenged them they bolted off up the valley and out of sight.

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Hallucinating

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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.

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Campsite visitors

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.

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Happy camp visitors  [Image: Jennie S]
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.

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Our helpful helpers  [Image: Jennie S]
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.

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Watch out tent!  [Image: Jennie S]

Getting supplies

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Horses outside a shop (image: Jennie S)

Before we set off on our ride through the Khangai Nuruu National Park, we stopped at a local shop (delguur) to buy basic supplies – noodles, rice, biscuits, tinned fish, kraut, matches, tissues, juice. There weren’t going to be any shops where we were going.

Our supplies were supplemented by dairy and meat from local gers along the way, with families often visiting our campsite and bringing a metal jug of milk with them as a gift.

The shop keeper laughed and shook his head when he saw what we intended to feed ourselves and our guide for the trip. You could see him thinking, ‘Where is the meat? The poor man will starve!’ He did not.

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The local shop

Meeting the locals

During the horseride from from Tsetserleg to Bayankhongor, most nights we camped near family gers and often friends of Shijray.

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One of the families we met along the way  [Image: Jennie S]
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.

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Offering herders dried cheese (in the plastic bag)

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.

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One of our earlier campsites in the Khangai Nuruu National Park

The vodka of yaks

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.

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Our hosts for the evening

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.

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The youngest member of the family sizing us up

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Not long before the singing began  [Image: Jennie S]
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.

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A peaceful spot on the steppe, with goats and yaks

Horseriding from Tsetserleg

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.

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The horses grazing during a rest stop

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%.

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Those tiny white specs at the base of the mountain are a cluster of gers

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.

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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.

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Shijray at the cooking fire  [Image: Jennie S]

blister hike

After three weeks cooling our heels in Ulaanbaatar waiting for visa extensions, Dom and I decided to get away and head to Terelj National Park for some hiking.

The third biggest protected area in Mongolia, Terelj is 80km from UB and full of wildflower meadows in summer, against brilliant backdrops of pine trees, mountains and glittering streams.

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We hitched from UB, hiked for five hours and set up camp near a tinkling stream surrounded by lush, green Siberian Taiga forest. It was bliss after the city.

Three Mongolian herders and their kids joined our campfire and we mimed and chatted using our dictionary. Later I realised they may have been seeking safety in numbers.

Kell on blister hike

Next morning revealed nasty blisters from my hiking boots which I patched up with plasters before we headed for a nearby mountain where we scrambled upwards for two hours, like manic goats. I’m not a fan of heights and wobbling on piles of vertical scree with a backpack pulling me off balance was nerve racking!

As we neared the top, thunder grumbled overhead in dark clouds close enough to touch. There was no rain or lightening, just the air bulging with moisture and electricity. We didn’t hang around.

The other side was just as steep but appeared more inviting with its Taiga forest and trees for balancing against. But appearances can be deceiving.

Bees, flies, mosquitoes, bumble bees, and unnameable biting things swarmed, seethed and wriggled into our eyes, ears, noses, and open mouths. Breathing became an unwanted feast of wings where stopping even for a moment was out of the question.

We literally ran down the side of that mountain – crashing into branches and flying over holes as insects blinded us – miraculously avoiding broken limbs. We caught fleeting glimpses of chipmunks flying past in trees and grassy areas squashed by sleeping deer. When we stumbled on a big hole – possibly dug by a bear – we increased our pace.

On and on, downhill we ran, until we found a flat spot to camp away from the trees. After a nine hour day we were bone tired and dehydrated. Dom cooked tea in a sea of mosquitoes while I tried to make sense of things in the tent. I was delirious and struggling to see through a migraine. We were asleep before dark.

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That night I heard four-legged things scruffling around the tent. Was that a horse?

In the morning I struggled putting on my boots – the blisters were now huge and throbbing. Why was I so stubborn?

Instead of walking, we found a local herder who was happy to hire out his horses and act as a guide back to Terelj. This was more like it – back in the saddle and riding across the steppe!

The rescue party

I asked the herder about barking we could hear in the nearby hills, that I’d also heard just before dawn. Our answer came just over the rise.

A wolf had attacked one of his horses and fifteen huge black vultures were now crouched around the carcass, like mothers at a tea party. They were powerful birds with legs as thick as my forearm – it was fascinating and sickening watching them feed as we passed close by. Little wonder the horses shied away from their dead comrade – it could have been any one of them.

Vultures eating horse

And those noises I’d heard in the night? Most likely wolves. Yikes!

The rest of the ride passed peacefully through flocks of sheep, goats, horned cows and oxen. The scariest animals we met were dogs with moulting winter coats hanging off them like extra limbs. The dogs not only looked deranged, they also lunged fang-first at our stirruped feet before the herders called them off.

Cows crossing river

When we stopped at gers children laughed as I limped along. Silly tourist! How to explain it was from hiking blisters, not from riding? I laughed along too and drank my salty milk tea, daydreaming about eating on our upcoming trip all the edible plants we’d been riding past – spring onions, garlic, dandelions, strawberries, and wild rhubarb.

After six hours we arrived in Terelj and hitchhiked back to UB. Our driver was an off-duty policeman who smoked and drank and wove his way all over the road, overtaking trucks on tiny gravel roads and getting his mate to change gears while he lit a smoke. We were glad to get out.

Ulaanbaatar greeted us with a magnificent thunderstorm that cleansed the city and washed away the dust. We felt refreshed and renewed – ready to tackle our visas and get on the road to Tsetserleg where we would begin our big journey westward.

(June 2003)