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A new horse, heading west, 750km down.... (13/8/04)

We were watering the horses down by the lake. Clouds were rolling in over the mountains and a herd of bactrian (two-humped) camels watched on in interest. We were due to leave in the morning but the more I thought about it, the more I worried. We were barely half way across Mongolia, and the swelling on my horse’s back was still sensitive. My decision had been brewing for weeks, but it was time. ‘Kathrin, we will have to buy a fourth horse, and get it here.” It made sense- it meant that we could always rest a horse and rotate duties and still keep moving. There was the problems involved though- could we really handle four horses? How could we be assured of not being ripped off? Our Mongolian was poor to say the least. Still, we had been staying with a family for a day and had come to know them well. This was our chance. What’s more, they had a large herd and made most of there money in the summer by selling airag (fermented mare’s milk). After plucking up a bit of courage we entered one of the three gers in the camp and asked whether they had a tame, quiet horse available for sale. ‘So, how much?’ the family eventually asked. I gave them a range between 100-150,000 Tugrik ($100-150) which is the going rate for good horses in Mongolia. Bata, the man we had come to know best smiled and went silent. For about ten minutes nothing was said. He flicked the crappy little television on (powered by 12V car battery) and became entranced by a long-haired Mongolian pop-star singing about Ghengis Khan. The woman in the Ger continued boiling Yak milk. I wasn’t sure if they had understood me at all. At some indeterminable point he spun around, a grin splitting across his weathered face. ‘Do you drink Vodka!…..We do have a horse.’ There was a sense of celebration among the Gers. Although there was three families, the horses were owned collectively and so everyone would benefit. With all the men dressed in there Dele’s in the evening cold we wandered over to a large, sedate looking horse with rusty red markings on its legs, ears, and rump. They gave it a few whacks on the behind, and the kid demonstrated that it was indeed a gelding by grabbing its penis. The horse barely moved. As a ‘Taivan, Nomkhon’ horse (quiet, tame) it was used by the young children, and for us this was important- most Mongolian horses are terrified of everything foreign- saddles, clothes, people, even bridles. The sun was setting but they were sure we had a deal. We would test it out in the morning. Early the next morning I spoke with Sheila, an Equine vet based in Margaret River (Western Australia). She was visiting the Watsons, who had helped me considerable before departing Australia with the basics of horsemanship. She was her normal chirpy, positive self and had determined that the most likely cause of the swelling on my horses back of the warble fly- a parasite that travels through the body from the legs and eventually rises beneath the skin on the spine. Then the skin breaks open and the flies exit. This explained the sudden swelling, and the fact that the swelling was not actually under the saddle or anything else that could have caused such a problem. In terms of treatment, the best thing was to keep the horse’s back free from anything for a week. Buying the fourth horse was the perfect solution for us. As it turned out, our morning test turned into a midday horse-test. Bata’s family was actually moving six kilometres to a spot under some mountains in the distance. In the space of about three hours their Ger was packed away into the back of a Russian truck/utility and the departed, leaving just a ring of dead grass where their home had just been. I was amazed by their efficiency. Here they were moving their home in a few hours when it was taking us 2-3 hours just to get moving each morning! The horse was much bigger than ours and in comparison it felt like I was sitting on a truck. He was neighing and whinnying towards his herd and wanted desperately to ignore my attempts at riding. We tested our all of our gear, including a crupper (around the tail- never used in Mongolia!) and the pack saddle and boxes. To our amazement it barely moved. Not only did we have an extra riding horse, but a second pack-horse as well! He was not perfect. Like most Mongolian horses his back sloped down towards the shoulders and he had a few fairly fresh wounds from fights with other horses. But he was tame, and the next Ger was a tiny spec on the horizon. Our afternoon departure was delayed until morning by the time we had tried everything. In the evening we were served with bowls and bowls of sweet yoghurt and invited into the two remaining gers for double rounds of everything. Late into the night one of the herders made a pair of hobbles for us, making the locking pieces from sawn off goats horns. As a last gesture before we paid, he plucked a handful of hair out of the horse’s tail and mane and hung it on a rope dangling from the circular opening inside his Ger. Every Ger has this and you find everything from horse manure to hair tied to it. All things horse are good luck, especially a good long serving horse that has just been sold. We thanked them for the horse, and they thanked us- it was very rare to make such a sale and the money would go a long way. The next morning we set off. It took a couple of hours to stop the new horse from turning its head back to its herd, but by late afternoon we had our first trot. It took a few frustrating tries, but eventually there were six of us, rushing, flying, floating over the grass and open steppe. I felt as if we were complete, and lucky. We camped on the remote western edge of Telmen lake and watched white swans in the distance and let the horses munch into some healthy grass. Before we went to sleep, Kathrin had decided on the name for the new member of the team- ‘rusty.’ From the lake we left the security of water and headed into a dry valley past a large collection of Kurgans- circular piles of rocks, bordered by stones pointing to the north, south, east and west. These are the ancient graves of the early nomads of the steppe, several of thousands of years old. Horses were buried along with the dead. Today you see them with goats climbing all over, or right next to a Ger, or even in a town centre. The village of Nomrog was the next stop. A tiny place where the shops sold sweets, biscuits, cigarettes……and polish-made hair dye. Sheila had given us a handy tip the morning earlier. To prevent horse-stealing we could dye the horses with a ridiculous colour to make them look conspicuous and a little ridiculous. The following morning I was putting hobbles on Rusty when he went crazy. He tried to kick them off, and then fell to the ground, giving up. When I rushed over to take the hobbles of I discovered that the hobbles had cut into his skin giving a bad rope burn. I swore. I couldn’t believe it. He might have been a tame horse, but he certainly had not been trained to use hobbles. Why hadn’t the family told us this! All horses I had come across in Mongolia were accustomed to hobbles, and whats more they had even given us hobbles for him. As I would later discover, Rusty was not the perfect 12-year old horse either- the nomad at the next ger estimated that he was about 16- a grandpa! Nevertheless he is a strong horse, and has since been travelling extremely well. I was onto Sheila the next morning and treated him with anti-inflammatory, anti-biotic cream, and half an hour standing in a cold stream. I rested him for a day and rode the other horse and things have been looking up. We don’t put hobbles on him now though and so the risk of him breaking free at night is very high. Quickly now (battery is almost dead). We have spent time with more families- watched and experienced how they cook and eat the feet, head, intestines, and lips of goats- and experienced our first major frosts. It has been dropping down to minus five or ten at night and the green grass is quickly turning brown. We have been through scorched desert valleys, lush larch forest, and some extremely dry terrain. Our last day we travelled 40km without water, the last few kilometres at a canter to reach the river. We are camped near the town of Tes, 45km from the border with Russia. We have done about 750km or more, and with the changing of seasons it becomes more important to make distance. The winter in Kazakstan is not waiting for anyone. Loving it. Every day is vivid and striking, a new challenge. Have learnt a lot. It’s the kind of experience where it is hard to plan past lunchtime- each day is so surprising.