I awoke to a perfect egg-yoke sun and blue skies to infinity. The mist was falling back across the far hills and a fine dew decorated the grass, which was spread across the valley like a brilliant emerald carpet. We were an easy 20 km from the entrance to Terelj National Park, and therefore from phone reception, food and fuel supplies. It had been 17 days since I was able to update anyone from home with my location or condition, and I was well aware that a few people would be anxious to know that I was still alive and well.
Our route followed the Tereljiyn River, which had become brown and swollen after the steady rains. Twice throughout the day we were forced to detour up scree slopes to avoid the torrents of water that cascaded over the banks of the fast-flowing river. The going was incredibly slow and Odin struggled on the cliffs due to his recent injury, but it was Number six who nearly fell over the edge when a large chunk of rock detached under his weight. A few desperate moments of scrambling saw us all safely out of danger, and as the adrenaline pumped through my veins and I struggled to catch my breath, the horses, apparently indifferent to our recent peril, began munching at a patch of grass below. This was just a day in the life of a Mongolian pony.
Later that day, I was surprised by the sudden appearance of a red deer fawn, which sprung out of the long grass beneath my feet and bounded off into the trees to my right. Like Przewalski’s horse and the Gobi bear, this ungulate is classed as “critically endangered” in Mongolia. Antler velvet, along with several other resources collected from the carcass of this animal, is highly valued for traditional medicines. Consequently, illegal and unsustainable hunting has led to a 92% decline of red deer populations in Mongolia, over the past 18 years.
Before we reached the human populous resident in the park, one final adventure was to be had. Swimming my horses across a wide, but relatively slower-flowing section of the flooded river, Number six became trapped by some underwater-debris. The water only just reached past his belly, and it was not a life-threatening situation, but it still took some time to free him from the loose rocks and fragmented tree branches. Glad to be drying on the other side, we continued along an old dirt vehicle track, until, like giant white mushrooms, the familiar “ger” tents rose once more from the valley floor.
That evening, I prepared my food on a dung-fueled fire, in the company of a quiet but inquisitive family. The pleasantness of the night was, however, quickly diminished as they communicated to me that my intended path over the river, and the only viable route back to Steppe Riders, was uncrossable due to the high waters.
I set off early, on foot, to scope out the river level and to determine whether I could coax my horses safely across. Although white peaks formed in the rapidly moving water, the river was no longer brown and a helpful woman sitting by its banks informed me that I could carry my packs over a small log footbridge downstream, and then swim my horses through the shallowest section of the river.
When I returned to the water’s edge with Odin and Number six, I attracted the attention of three (slightly?) intoxicated men, who took it upon themselves to help me cross the river. Although hesitant to accept their help, they insisted and two of the men carried my packs over the footbridge, while I rode with the other through the river. Thankfully, Mongolians are excellent riders even when drunk, and we made it to the other side with little trouble. After swindling some money out of me, and a small flask of vodka that I had bought to share with hosts, they handed over my gear and helped me pack Number six. From here, I set off towards to small town of Terelj where I stocked up at a minimart, and then spent the rest of the day following the winding road through the tourist section of Terelj.
I felt quite uncomfortable with the sudden increase in people, cars and noise and as a solo white woman on a white horse, I got a lot of attention from passing motorists. I was incredibly thankful that both horses didn’t react to blaring horns and shouts. By 4pm, I was on the lookout for a place to set up camp. I didn’t want to stop at a tourist ger camp, or set up my tent in the open, and in the end I found and stayed with a lovely family who lived by the Tuul River. They were incredibly hospitable and looked after me as if I were their own.
That evening, I finally got to stretch Odin’s legs, which appeared to have made a full recovery. We galloped bareback across to the river and Number six, halterless, trailed several meters behind. Upon returning to camp, I encountered my first Mongolian wolf, the “Woolly wolf” – named as such due to its incredibly dense undercoat. A herder had caught the animal (with a lasso!), as it attempted to capture and kill his sheep and goats, the night previous. It was a small but lean creature, weighing under 45kg, and it sat patiently at the end of its makeshift leash, watching curious bystanders with intelligent amber eyes.
I spent another lovely day with the family down by the Tuul. My horses enjoyed a well-deserved rest while I spent several hours making repairs to equipment. I replaced several frayed girth straps and in an effort to prevent further leg rubbing on Number six, I raised the packs on the saddle with a needle and thread.
Later that day I rode a yak. These animals are just as ridiculous to ride, as they are to look at. Much like camels, you lead a yak using a nose peg and that afternoon, while I watched the young boys sell homemade yoghurt, I led tourists about on the back of this giant odd-looking beast. Surprisingly, the majority of tourists were Mongolian, visiting from nearby Ulaanbaatar.
Before dinner, under the instruction of a young herdsman, Boyna, I moved the family’s yak and sheep herds back towards their night feeding grounds. I also learnt that Boyna wanted to visit Australia and thus spent the evening conveying stories and answering his questions as best I could with my limited Mongolian. Australia would be his first and only holiday, before he came back to his country to look after his inherited herd. His younger brother, on the other hand, wanted to become a professional computer gamer. It was a real meeting between the modern and traditional Mongolia, within one family unit.
Yesterday, a local horseman gifted Boyna with a 2-year old unbroken horse. Today, we woke up to discover that the animal had broken free of his hobbles and had taken off across the steppe. An hour of searching and a bit of intelligent maneuvering by the young Mongolian man, and the horse was back in his halter, trotting obediently behind us.
I departed to gifts of fresh aaruul, sweets, biscuits and a hastily prepared meal of meat and milk tea soup. The rain had started up again, just in time, but it was light and I was in excellent spirits. We crossed a huge bridge over the Tuul, after encountering a few camels that were not received well by Odin. The white horse snorted madly as the humped beasts approached, and he yanked the reins from my hands to make a wild bolt in the opposite direction.
I made a poor decision to take a short cut through the edge of the industrial section of Nalayh. Here, several open cut mines were active and I thought it a horrid place, with rubbish thick on the ground and the acrid smell of chemicals and burning plastic thick in the air. Woman collected water from green, slimy pools and children observed me warily from playfully stacked waste containers, which leaked foul smelling liquid. These harsh landscapes continued for a while and as it got late, a growing sense of uneasiness built up in me and I didn’t feel right to camp out in the open, alone. Soon, however, the rain became heavy and so when I spotted some white gers on the horizon, I set a good pace towards them. Halfway there, little pellets of hail started to descend from the sky. Horses hate moving in hail and heavy rain but there is no protection on the open steppe. I therefore had little choice but speed up our pace and settle for the nearest ger, hoping that its inhabitants would accept me.
Welcomed into the tent, I observed a group of five men and boys all huddled in the small and dirty confines, surrounding a little gas grill. They were an incredibly rough group, composed of two horse trainers and their jockeys (the young boys), but provided great hospitality and I soon was warming myself by the small flame. They were happy to receive me and communicated that it was considered good luck to bring a horseman (or woman, I guessed) in from the rain.
That evening, after the weather cleared, the boys took me outside to show me their mounts, which would be running in the upcoming Naadam festivals. I watched the young jockeys race these brilliant long-legged Mongolian horses around the fields until sunset, when they shuffled back into their ger to sleep.
The young jockeys, who were ever eager to help, packed my horses and I set off towards Zuunmod by about 10 am. I made excellent time, trotting my horses by a newly paved road. Just before entering the town, I was called into the ger of a herder family for lunch and milk tea. Then, without delay, I was mounted and riding cautiously through the busy back streets of Zuunmod. I got a fair few strange looks and murmurs of “gantsaaraa?” (alone?). Much to my delight, I exited the bustling town with no trouble from the usually flighty Odin, and quickly found myself on the familiar road back to Steppe Riders. Even having been away for a little under a month, I noticed many differences in the landscape. Mines had opened or expanded, fences and other constructions had sprung up and countless new gers now spotted the valleys and mountainsides.
Not 1 hour from Steppe Riders, clouds bruised black and purple rolled in from the mountains to the west and it was a race to avoid the most ominous-looking storm yet. We braved the icy rain, but as hail started to fall and thunder reverberated about the landscape, it was time to look for a temporary shelter. Odin reared wildly under the lightening, and the hail, caught on the strong winds, cracked against human and horseflesh like tiny bullets. Huddling together under a open wooden barn, we waited out the weather and, when storm subsided, were left unharmed but thoroughly chilled.
A few clicks later, and I was surrounded by the friendly guides, volunteers and tourists, as they welcomed me back to the Steppe Rider’s camp. After first tending to Number six and Odin, releasing them to the wild neighs of their kin spotting the surrounding hills, I headed towards the big main ger to warm my sodden clothes by the fire and catch up on the goings-on of the camp. As I entered the confines of the white felt tent, a sudden feeling of unrealness came over me. It was as if I had just woken from a dream, or had sat through an incredibly long and detailed film that told a story of another woman traveling through a place that I had never been. Communicating my story at that time seemed impossible and, truthfully, if it had not been for the diary I kept throughout my time alone on the steppe, I would not have believed that I had experienced it myself.
Despite the dissociation I was experiencing, one thought was firmly cemented in my mind. In a couple of weeks, I would be back out there on a very different but equally educational trek. And I could hardly wait.