The sun is falling steadily behind the horizon, and the seemingly incessant buzz of flies has given way to the high-pitched wurr of mosquitoes. I hear the steady chomp of molars on grass as my horses satisfy themselves on the sweet vegetation below, and quietly observe the solitary flight of a hawk soaring in the cloudless sky above. Despite all the difficulties and apprehension I have been subjected to on my first solo day, I find myself falling into the meditative rhythm of the Mongolian landscape about me.
This morning I had awoken to painful stomach cramps, and struggled to saddle and pack the horses as I bid a hesitant farewell to my departing companion. Swen would be tracing our route back to Steppe Riders (avoiding, of course, the Endless Forest) and would take my white packhorse, which I had decided to trade for his fat brown mount. As he rode away from camp, he turned to me and waved once, a tall, dark figure against the backdrop of green and blue, and as he disappeared over the far hills he was called after by the expressive neighs of the horse he had left in my care.
Before I set off towards the hills to the north, I had curiously observed an old woman circling my camp. She was muttering under her breath and rubbing the beads on an old pearl necklace between her gnarled fingers and when it came time for me to leave, she shuffled over and shook my hand. I gathered that she had been performing a prayer of good luck and safe travels and although it did little to settle my gurgling stomach, it did manage to still my nerves. I am not a religious person, however the intensity of her wrinkle-framed brown eyes invoked in me a feeling that perhaps I would not be moving alone through the Mongolian wilderness today.
En route to my intended destination, a bridge crossing the river Tuul, I made a quick stop in the town of Harzat. Here, I was able to stock up on a few essentials, although despite the lure of Mongolian sweets I maintained a feeling of uncomfortable bloated fullness and did not eat for the entirety of the day.
In the afternoon, I passed through some spectacular country. Wide-open fields of bright green framed by dark wood and the Tuul River, which snaked lazily to the north. I was tempted once more into thick brush and led my horses, on foot, down a difficult, rocky path by the banks of the river. After battling through the trees, the uneven road causing my burdened packhorse to stumble frequently, we mercifully fell into a clearing where I made camp – quite a distance from my intended destination but a suitable spot none-the-less.
Last night my stomach cramps had worsened and a growing anxiety had developed, as I again began to question my ability to travel solo into this more remote country. However, when I tentatively crept from my sleeping bag this morning I was relieved to find the pain cured, although my hunger had not returned and I was destined to go another day without food. The anxiety of last night had also dissipated, and I spent the morning pondering the curious relationship between physical sickness and mental well-being.
Before getting underway I sat contently by my tent, watching the fat brown horse roll in the grass in an effort to escape the little white insects that drifted lazily about his head. He accepted his saddle and packs as graciously as usual, just as the grey horse accepted his in character – with ears plastered to his skull, teeth bared and one back leg raised with violent intent.
Today I followed the Tuul River, and after escaping the maze of scrub and marshy ground that surrounded our campsite, reached an old over-grown vehicle track, which I traced until it ended just past an isolated collection of gers. I there crossed the Tuul easily, to reach great open fields spotted with cows, horses, goats and little white gers. Two young boys herding goats joined my party for a moment before meandering back to their duties and a few anxious motorbike drivers dressed in traditional deels passed closely by to see what I was about.
Evidence of human habitation slowly started to dwindle and, when I finally reached the bridge, which I had originally intended to camp by the day previous, the landscape was devoid of people – although there were plenty of empty sheds and cabins nestled in amongst the trees (used by the nomadic herders when they move their animals into this area during the winter months). After a few kilometers, the track split and I followed the northern path into a splendid gully, which held the Zuun Bayan River. Pine forests spilled into wide grassy openness and this pleasant visage was coloured by wild flowers and lined by spectacular cliffs and mountains bearing white spots of snow. In total awe of the view, I led my tired horses to the eastern side of the valley and enjoyed a skinny dip while they drunk deeply from the small river and ate the thick grass that grew richly by its banks.
This morning was fantastic. I awoke to a fog rolling out of the valley and to a cacophony of sound, as the birds and bugs went about their morning activities. I loosely followed a warn dirt road today, which split multiple times and brought me to a number of dead ends in thick wood forests. I was beginning to realise that many of these roads lead nowhere and that only one had been marked on my rather primitive tourist map. I found also, however, that the road I had eventually chosen to follow took me a bit further northwest than intended and so to rectify my error, I cut through the forest – off track travel was becoming quite an alarming habit of mine. Steep hills and scrub followed and after almost losing the packsaddle over the head of the fat brown horse, we finally heaved into a clearing, just in time to set camp before huge storm clouds rolled in overhead.
The rain held off for the afternoon and after hitching camp and collecting firewood, I took my grey out to scout ahead. I knew that I was well and truly into the Mongolian wilderness now, completely surrounded by a thicket of pine trees and marsh. As somewhat anticipated the shitty tourist map wasn’t doing me much good in this terrain and the GPS I had purchased ‘just in case’ was also playing up. Thankfully, half an hour of searching revealed a pretty well worn track, which I assumed would get me over the mountains tomorrow. I returned to camp and was greeted by the fat brown horse and a host of insects that resumed their feeding on any exposed skin – horse and human alike.
That night I was woken by a bestial call that emanated from the dark trees. I have never heard anything like it before and it unsettled the horses.
This was not the Mongolia I expected or planned for. Hills covered with pine trees, marshes and scrub. It was not necessarily an unpleasant surprise, just one that I had not necessarily planned for. I spent 3 hours trying to find the start of the path that lead north over the mountains, and into the more remote parts of Terelj. The trail marked on the map was clearly incorrect. I did, however, find an unmarked path leading up towards Altan Olgiy Uul (‘Uul’ is Mongolian for ‘mountain’). I followed it with slight difficulty, as the track continuously split off into other tracks and was pocketed with mud and thick tree roots and stones. I finally make it to the summit of the climb, dragging my horses up – on foot at this point. A great big pile of rocks covered in blue cloth marked the top. I had vainly been hoping for some phone reception (to be fair, I was told that I would get a few bars on the mountains in Terelj), however I was to have no such luck and realised that I would be completely cut off from human contact for at least the next week or so.
The afternoon was long and I pushed my horses well into the evening as we descended the treacherous, steep and rocky slopes of the mountain. Once onto the flat, I again lost the trail and found myself in a boggy, mossy swamp and then in hip high scrub, as the landscape slowly opened up. No grazing or tent set up possible here. At 6pm, I bashed successfully onto a clear grassy track, by a river, which provided just enough space to set up my tent and a little grass for the horses. The site did leave quite a bit to be desired, as my tent was literally floating on mossy grass and mud layered by a thin film of water. The setting sun over a horizon of trees and rocky mountains was, however, quite spectacular and the river water clear and fresh.
Following the length of the previous day, I decided to give the horses a well-earned rest and didn’t break camp until 1 pm. The fat brown was stiff at starting and I was having constant trouble with his packsaddle. Further, the path, although clear of scrub, was a messy bog and the horses loathed to get their feet wet. It took much coaxing to get them to move and the going was painstakingly slow.
The fat brown was becoming more resistant as the day wore on, and after giving him a quick check over, I found that a small sore had opened on his side. In the space of 3 kilometers, the rub spot had formed and the constant friction had broken the skin. We would have to stop. I tended to his wound and spent the remainder of the day repairing clothes and modifying the packsaddle, with the hope that it would not cause further damage tomorrow. As I settled in for the night my mood was bleak; my stomach was still bothering me and I worried constantly about the fitness and well-being of the fat brown horse. It was cold and a midnight bathroom run revealed a frost on the grass. As I paused to gaze at the luminescent moon shining above I felt a pang of loneliness, as I remembered how it had always shone through my bedroom window in Sydney.
The packsaddle caused more problems today but through patient readjustments I prevented further damage to my packhorse. Although we made incredibly slow progress, I found a lovely spot by the river a little before 3 pm. I spent the afternoon bathing in the water and reading. I am racing through books at the moment and their company is invaluable. Today, I am feeling very comfortable with my aloneness, although my horses do provide constant entertainment and social interaction.
I also spotted a canid print by the river today. I couldn’t believe that wolves would be out here. It was something I mused over until the following morning, where a surprise encounter revealed the culprit…