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Arrival in Tsetserleg (12/7/04)

It’s been a week of ups and downs, from the freedom of the green open steppe to the reality of having horses stolen. Right now I lie by a campfire and listen to the flurry of rapids on a nearby river. The moon is on its way up and stars are blinking on in an incandescent sky. Kathrin is fiddling away in the tent and the horses are resting after a big couple of days of eating. We are camped about four kilometres out of the town of Tseteserleg. It is a beautiful town nestled into some particularly rocky and steep mountains. It has been the Nadaam festival for the last two days. Nadaam is the annual Mongolian celebration of the three manly sports- horse racing, wrestling and archery. All are a throwback to the skills that made the Mongols the most successful nomads in history. Tsetserleg was awash with horses and four wheel drives. Outside the cafes and bars rows and rows of horses could be seen tethered. There was even a make-do cinema to treat the nomads with about 30 horses tied up outside. In total we lost two days due to the horse stealing incident, but eventually we left with new halters and a set of hobbles. I must admit that I haven’t had a decent sleep since then- waking every hour or less with heart beating, head out the tent peering into the darkness. From our camp we headed up into some lofty green mountains breathing in the crisp alpine air. In the evening shadows caressed the curves of the landscape that folded out like a crumpled green blanket as far as the eye could see. Out of sight I could hear the distant drum of hooves and echo of a herders evening singing. The following day we crossed a high pass and descended into a valley that we followed all day. In the late afternoon families dressed in colourful Deles and carrying plentiful fermented mare’s milk came across the land from distant camps for Nadaam. Kids could be seen training for horse racing- galloping, screaming, bolting without saddles at frightening pace. We made camp next to a ger and staked out the horses in the calm of sunset. Herders were rounding up horses and geese and swans were coming and going from a nearby lake. To get to Tstetserleg the following day we covered 35km and for the first time encouraged the horses to trot for a considerable time. We followed a river valley that was lined by rugged mountains, steppe and forest. Numerous times we were invited in for fermented mares milk and vodka…in the late afternoon we gave in and sat about in all this lush green and downed each and every glass that was passed to us. The horses always seem to settle into a calm rhythm when the sun is lower and cooler and so we settled in for a long, sleepy plod into late evening where we crossed a river near Tseteserleg. Since beginning we are both becoming to tune into the horses and the environment around us. I cannot stop marvelling at the experience- six months ago I had almost never been on a horse! Despite being from different herds the horses are forming a close knit group. Even if we take one horse for a drink to the river the others whinny and desperately try to follow despite being hobbled. Its an exhaustive routine, and in some ways these animals are like children- you have to constantly watch and care for them. Getting into town for essentials can be one of the most complicated things. Where to leave the horses? How to get into town? I doubt I will be staying in anything other than a tent for a long, long time. But its all worth it. The feeling of being able to pick a point on the horizon and go for it, the unpredictability, the companionship, the feeling of meeting the locals on a level footing. I just have to constantly pinch myself. This week we will be heading further west through Arkhangai province. Hope all is well wherever you are. Time to sleep.