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Khovd River- Tsengel(Among Kazaks in Bayan Olgiy, end of the ...

(Click here to view the complete list of diary entries) (posted 9/10/04) This following entry follows the entry posted on the 8/10/04 entitled "Kharkirra – Bayan Olgiy Province. "Down from the mtns, across the Khovd river. a new land." This entry was written in a great hurry Ust-Kamenogorsk, Kazakhstan, so apologies for errors and poor writing! "A new day, a new country, a lot to learn. I knew a little about horseshoeing, but nothing could have prepared me for the Kazak style of farrier work. For starters, the horseshoes were nothing more than concrete reinforcement rods banged and cut into shape. The nails fitted approximately, but at the end of the day the heads of the nails stuck out at least a centimetre, leaving the horses with what looked like crampons on their hooves. To put the shoes on in the first place my new Kazak friend (apologies, I have forgotten his name- wrote it in my diary which I have since sent to Australia) bound all four of Rusty’s legs together - Rusty being my biggest horse originally bought at Telmen Nuur. Rusty struggled to break free while we then tried to push him over. After some time he went down with a heavy thud. Once on the ground he was rolled onto his back while two children kneeled on his neck. With all four legs bound together and sticking vertically up, the Kazak brought out an axe and a hammer and began to bash the nails in. Several times Rusty tried to break free, throwing the two kids to the ground and sending nails flying. Everyone just laughed and went on with the job. Poor Rusty was an old horse, about 16, and he had certainly never come across horseshoes during his years. I was sure he would never walk again, or at worst have a heart attack before this whole process was over Amazingly, the last nail was whacked in, the rope was untied, and Rusty just stood up and began to eat grass. He seemed a bit unsure about what the hell had just happened but apart from that he was just fine. The same process went ahead for Bokus. All said and done it took about an hour before the Kazak put his thumb up in the air and grinned: “That will last you at least 500km. You can walk on any rocks you like now!” I paid him the standard fee of $1.80US per horse and that was that, my horses were as good as new. I spent the rest of the morning with the Kazak family, eating, showing them photographs, and asking about all the different decorations in the ger. None of the women or children spoke Mongolian and so the farrier had to translate everything I said- or at least try to interpret what I was trying to say. Meanwhile I was astonished to watch the way that the farrier’s wife ordered him around. He actually did much of the cooking, peeled the onions, and washed some potatoes. It was one of the first times I had seen a male cooking at all in any ger. A big change for me was also the mere presence of vegetables. Here they ate a lot of onions, carrots, potatoes and even turnip. I found it interesting to learn that these Kazaks spent their summer high up in the mountains on this side of the river. Like the Khotont people, they drifted down to the Khovd river valley for Autum. That meant that it was only at this time of year that they lived in such close contact with the Khotont and Mongol people. The river was truly a dividing border- it would have been near impossible to ever get a ger across the river. In the early afternoon all the local families assembled to say goodbye. As I had become accustomed to everyone pointed in a different direction when I asked where I should be going. I picked the mean-average of all the arm-swinging, jumped on my horse and set off. It was a relief to be out on my own again. Soon the gers had disappeared beyond the horizon and the lush forest had become empty desert sand. Ahead I aimed for some desert hills and rock that rose abruptly from the flats. Every now and then I turned around to see the distant ice-capped peaks of the Kharkhiraa. I wondered how Dashnim was getting on- whether his food rations had lasted, what condition the camel was in, and if he had made it home yet. Earlier that morning the peaks had been shrouded in storm clouds. Mostly my thoughts were fairly blank though. For a few hours I just fell into a muse, lulled by the steady rhythm of the horses. They were obviously suffering sore feet from yesterday’s trauma but seemed to be getting on ok. I was grateful for the shoes because the sand below was littered with rocks, and the landscape ahead only looked worse. Gone were those dreamy, green, ocean-like expanses of steppe. The thoughts that did come to me in the saddle revolved around these people, and their way of life. In many parts of the world this empty, rugged, dry land before me would be considered an intimidating wilderness. But here, it was merely the back yard of the nomads. They lived out here, survived with and by this nature. I recalled the day we had driven out of Ulaan Baatar with Gansukh to find my horses. I was shocked by the dryness, the open expanse, the confusing tangle of hills. Where the hell would I find water? How could I orientate myself out here? Where would I find grass for the horses? And yet now I felt comfortable and in my element. Although there were no gers in sight, and no water, I knew the horse’s limits, and that eventually I would round the mountains and scan the landscape for a ger, a good route, and water. And, it would be there. I pressed on for a good six hours until the sun was threatening to sink away all together. I rounded the high point of the hills and one single ger came into sight. The valley below was hidden behind yet more hills. I decided to make camp, and went to bed with the image of a starlit sky on the back of my eyelids, and the sound of the wind whistling through the desert grass. I knew something was wrong with Bokus, even in the darkness of pre-dawn. I put on my down jacket and hobbled over to where I had staked him out. I found him lying almost on his back, unmoving. For a moment I even thought he might be dead. As I took a closer look I understood what had happened. Poor Bokus had tried to scratch his face with his back hoof, but the end of the horseshoe had become caught in his halter. The more he kicked and struggled the more the halter became wedged between the horsehoe and hoof. The horseshoe was no doubt fairly poorly fitting. So Bokus had been trapped, his back leg permanently attached to his face. It must have been incredibly uncomfortable, especially since all horses are claustrophobics. I managed to rip it free eventually and Bokus stood up out of the sand and began to eat again. I hoped he hadn’t been stuck for too long or he would be hungry all day. I decided to cook breakfast and prepare for an early start. All said and done it still took three hours before I was ready to go. Since Kathrin left I had still not worked out a smooth routine of packing up. Saddling and packing the horses in particular took much longer without her help. Eventually we were moving. It was not pleasant though. A freezing wind had surfaced, blowing clouds of sand and dust across the land. After a couple of hours I found water, rounded some hills and headed for the next village on the map- Tsaagantungi. All day the sand blew into my face. For minutes at a time I would just cover my eyes with my hat. It was so strong that when the packhorse turned side on he would momentarily loose his footing. The horses’ natural instinct was just to turn their tails to the wind, but we had to keep moving if we were to find decent grass and water by evening. The horizon came into focus incredibly slowly, but gradually we climbed up to the rocky mountain pass that had been in view all day. There at the top I was almost blown off the horse by the wind. Down below was the Khovd Gol yet again (I had basically cut across a huge arm of the river), and beyond it Tsaast Uul, rising into snow looked even more impressive than two days earlier when I had first seen it. An hour or two later just before sunset I descended to this valley that was a relative paradise. I dropped from the barren rock and sand into waist-high grass. The horses sped up immediately. Up the valley clusters of gers, all puffing out smoke hugged the bends of the river. Horsemen tended to their herds, goats were being rounded up for milking, and some older men just sat in pairs chatting in the evening light. As I drew closer to the gers it struck me that I didn’t really know what to expect from these Kazaks. For starters, unlike the Mongols no one had come rushing up to me, or spied me through their monocular. What were the customs and traditions here? Would I be invited in or not? I decided to make my way to the river to water the horses, and along the way a young man came bounding over on his horse. He wore a black vest over a checked shirt, baggy cotton pants, and a funny looking hat. His face was far longer and flatter than his Mongolian counterpart, and his nose less flush with his cheeks. He was my age, and like the other Kazaks I had met he seemed to have a very soft voice. He spoke some Mongolian and soon he had invited me to stay. (sorry have to hurry with the writing now, computer battery is dying) This was just the beginning of two days with his extended family. The food was especially different to the Mongols. A huge communal plate would be served up with potato, meat, and carrot. Their meat eating habits were a little different too- they would not eat blood (being muslims), but everyone sucked out the marrow from the bones, and horse-meat was served up at almost every meal. I will never forget the image of their one-year old baby chewing on a bone that was half the size of herself. They tended to eat late too, and rise much later than the Mongols. Their main feast seemed to be at about 11pm, and they would not surface until about nine. I was shocked to hear how much this one family consumed in one year- 35-40 sheep and goats, two cows or yaks, one horse, and perhaps one camel. No wonder it was such a devastating problem when a particularly cold winter killed off their herds (like the winter of 1999-2000.) Many of the men wore the Kazak skullcap that looked particularly central-asian, and I realised that almost none of them spoke about Ulaan Baatar. When I offered them to use my phone they took the opportunity to ring long lost relatives in Kazakhstan. A huge number of Mongol Kazaks immigrated to Kazakhstan after the break up of the Soviet Union, and many still commute back and forth. I later met many Kazaks who spoke Russian since they had lived in Kazakhstan. And in fact from Olgiy, there were more cars and jeeps going across the border through Russia to Kazakhstan than there were to Ulaan Baatar!! I could only wonder what it must have been like for the Kazakhs as a people, who, since the 1930’s have been split between Russia, Mongolia, China, and Kazakhstan. From this valley it was a two day ride into Olgiy, the town which had forever seemed like a distant, almost impossible destination. It struck me as different to any place I had been in Mongolia. The little huts, Muslim Mosques, and even the Kazak body language spoke of a different culture. Olgiy was also the first big town that I would have to take the horses through since I needed to cross the bridge in the middle of town. It did not begin well. A little boy who had helped me across a shallow arm of the river invited me in for tea. He lived in a little impoverished hut that gave me a bad feeling. I left quickly but soon realized something was wrong…..my GPS was gone. I couldn’t believe it. It had been strapped to my backpack, and I had only taken my backpack off for a few minutes in the hut. I went racing back, but as I did the boy’s father came galloping home as well. He was wildly drunk. He wore huge soviet glasses and had foul yellow teeth. Even before he spoke I knew he was just plain mad. I followed the boy into the home asking him if he had seen the GPS. Soon the father was raving, yelling wildly in Russian: “You! I will bloody shoot you! You are terrorist! You are Stasi! Where is your bomb? You came across that river didn’t you? That is forbidden! What kind of a person are you! If you are good I will kiss you, if you are bad I will kill you!” I tried to explain to this man what I was looking for but I knew it was useless. Nothing was penetrating his deluded brain. Still, the value of that GPS was worth hanging around for, at least for a while. After an hour the man was threatening to get violent though and there was still no sign of the GPS. I asked the boy repeatedly but he just looked up innocently. Eventually I went to get on my horse when the old man yelled something vaguely comprehensible: “How much will you give me if I find it?” We settled on 10,000 Tugrik (about 8-9 dollars). Then the little kid went around the back of the house and came back with my device. I couldn’t believe it. What’s more I was stupid enough to pay them. I rode off swearing back loudly in Russian. I still had the major part of the town ahead of me. The bridge was busy with afternoon traffic and hordes of pedestrians. I felt totally out of place, and just as frightened as the animals. Eventually I dragged the two horses up onto the side-walk of the bridge and lead them across. Cars and truck flew past and at the end I had to cross over the road. Rusty and Bokus chose a good time to freeze, and only with the help of some locals did we avoid a nasty collision. After a quick stop at a petrol station for fuel I raced away, forcing the animals to canter until the town was safely behind me. I was desperate for the familiarity of the ger, and open spaces once more. My aim was the village of Tsengel, one of the most westerly villages on the map. To go much further beyond Tsengel would require a border permit, which I didn’t have. I liked the idea of selling the horses in a region with many herders, and not too close to the border where the culture is often corrupted and it might be hard to find a buyer. I travelled about 12 kilometres out of Olgiy before I was waved over to a lone ger. I was a little suspicious at first after the experiences earlier in the day, but soon felt I could trust this family. I began to set my tent up as I always did when the young father of the family stopped me. “Would you like to sleep in our ger?” I was astonished. For the entire journey since Kharkorin I had not actually been invited in to sleep, and much of the time it was easier just to set up camp. On this occasion though I couldn’t have been more appreciative. My face lit up. “If its OK, I would love to…thankyou!” I fell to sleep in a cocoon of warmth. The wind was barely audible through the thick felt, and the decorations around me gave me a sense of homeliness. Two young families lived in this ger with young babies that were rocked back and forth in hand made wooden cribs. The grandmother of the family that she herself had 13 children. Large families in these communities are the norm, and sometimes I was surprised to find that the three year old was actually not a grandson/daughter but the son/daughter. I left in the morning feeling much better and made for the empty hills. The further I went the more rugged and rocky it became until it felt like I was travelling through enormous mountains made of gravel. Nothing but camels and birds of prey cast shadows onto the land in the light of day. As usual I came across many carcasses of horses and yaks. Some had been slaughtered but many had simply died. I made camp alone, and started early, passing through the tiny village of Ulaan Khuus. Here I met once again the Khovd river and this time I decided to cross it on my own. I chose a point that looked shallow and went for it, the horses struggling against the current, pushing on, the water up above my boots. But then we climbed up the other side…..and into the next channel. Eventually I came through the other side proud and excited. I had certainly come a long way since getting on the horses- I was no longer frightened of them, and understood far better what I could and couldn’t do. All day I rose up, and up, passing a few lone herders coming down with camels packed with supplies. Every now and then a Russian truck would also come flying over the rocky steppe with all their possessions (and family) on the back. Usually they had at least one sheep tied down as well- probably to be sold or slaughtered that evening. This was the modern Mongol/Kazak nomad that largely done away with using camels. As I reached the top of the pass I decided to aim for a high peak instead. I urged the horses up, and up, their hooves slipping, the air getting cooler. Eventually we rose to the top and I stopped, the horses panting heavily. Here among the rocks lay sand that had come in the winds. Below me the land gave way to a myriad of valleys, and mountains and hills. Standing out like a surreal paper cut out was Tsengel Uul, rising to about 4000m. On the far west horizon was Tavanbogd, the mountain where the borders of China, Russia, and Mongolia meet. It was an uplifting view, and a special moment. Here I was looking ahead into the countries that the Kazaks had been free to roam into. Beyond Tavanbogd lay Kazakstan, only 40km over the top- my next destination. There was something about the unknown that beckoned and filled me up. I had no bloody idea what would happen over the next 8000km or so. I had the feeling that it was right to end the trip now, on a high note. This was it. In the morning I descended to discover that I was one day ahead of schedule- I had already reached Tsengel. A horrible day of selling ensued. I discovered that the kazaks in the village only looked at my horses in terms of kilograms of meat. After some strife with one of them who seemed bent on buying them for a terrible price just to eat them over winter, I headed off up the valley. Eventually I found a Tuvan who was interested and deep into the night we negotiated. Then at the terrible price of 155,000 tugrik (Ihad bought them each for 150,000 originally!) I sold them both. At least they went to a nice owner, and they wouldn’t be eaten…this winter at least. By the time the deal was done it was too late to return to the village where I had left my gear. So I slept in his ger, for the first time horse-less in 77 days. I went through each day of the trip since day one in my head before falling deep into sleep. The next week is full of unpleasantness for me- returning to ulaan Baatar by a jam-paked van, being stuck in Olgiy, the feeling of having no horses. But I liked to remember that last evening when I gazed down feeling part of everything around me, and feeling as if the horses were with me in spirit. There is one thing that I concluded on that last night too- the Mongols, no matter how hard their lives were, simply never complained…..so maybe I would try to hold to the same attitude over the next 15 months or so." (Click here to view the complete list of diary entries)