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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.