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Latest news from Kharkorin, Mongolia (4/7/04)

I sit in the midst of a thunderstorm in a ger. Outside hail falls like small golf balls. Preceding the storm was the ever-present dust clouds filling the sky and turning it a murky brown. I am actually in Kharkorin, the ancient capital of the Mongol empire. Ghengis Khan himself chose to move the capital here. Building began after his death by his son. This was once a bustling place with diplomats, traders, and different herders from places stretching the breadth of the Mongol empire and further. Today it is a village of about 12,000. The only real remnants of its glorious past today are a few stone turtles- that fittingly represent eternity. Last Saturday morning I set off from Ulaan Baatar with all of my gear jammed into the back of a Russian 4WD van. As I left the apartment where I had been staying, Agaa, the babushka filled me with confidence: ‘Tim! You need a camel for your gear, not a horse!” Outside I turned to see her throw milk from a cup from the third story – a gesture of good luck. Gansukh, who I had met earlier at the UK embassy had offered to help me find good ‘hero’s’ horses so that I would have the best chance at getting off to a good start. Gansukh was also passionate about Mongolian history and culture- particularly horses. He had grown up in the city but had come to appreciate the nomad way of life. At 26 years of age he had become a revered guide, and set up his own company offering unique tours. We got on well together and I felt lucky to have met him- I understood that having personal connections, and being able to communicate were just as important as riding a horse if I was ever going to get this trip off the ground. The van bucked and swayed its way south west of Ulaan Baatar, much like a yacht on the high seas. Eventually a dry valley bordered by sands dunes and sharp, rocky mountains drifted into view. The herder couple that were in the van with us pointed out the window with a look of excitement. “Look, that is our home!” A couple of white specs could be seen in the all-consuming space before us. In fact ‘Damba’ and ‘Saraa’ and their son would be my hosts for the next week. Soon after arrival I was sitting in a Ger (the mobile tent home of the Mongolians) marvelling at the colour and space inside, and chewing on a healthy piece of dried yoghurt. A few hours later, the elder of the camp rounded up some horses and came galloping back in cloud of dust. I watched from the sand dunes, overlooking this valley and the endless rolling mountains and steppe beyond. The sight of horses at once made me feel on edge, frightened, and quietly excited. After 12 months of preparation, it all came down to these next crucial few days. Watching the mastery of the elder on his horse made me feel somewhat uneasy- did they know that I was still a beginner? The extended family and neighbouring nomads all came out to check my gear and try it out. My lessons in ‘introduce a horse slowly and carefully to new things’ went out the door. Two guys held onto the horse, attached my saddle, and then someone jumped off and galloped away. Everyone took turns, all agreeing that it was a very comfortable seat. Despite being quite positive about my saddle there was a general feeling that a ‘white man’ didn’t have much of a chance at such a journey. And to be honest, watching these masters work with the horses I wasn’t so sure I was up to it either. Gansukh was having trouble convincing them that I was serious, let alone capable. The head of the camp, and elder herder ‘Ochirbat’ called a kind of conference- all the local herders slouched over my saddle in the dust. Orchibat was a large guy with a broad, kind face that showed as many ripples and lines as the steppe itself. ‘And so how far do you want to travel per day?’ ‘Why don’t you take a camel?’ ‘What about wolves?’ ‘Do you have a gun?’ ‘What will you do in the rain?’ ‘What if someone steals your horses?’ After each answer was translated all men turned and eyed me in poised silence. Amazingly there was a general positive nodding after my every answer. I had at least passed the first test. ‘Now it time to drink tea!’ Orchibat eventually commanded. We retired to a Ger where we all sat back, each finding a comfortable position- whether it be against the wall of the tent, a piece of furniture, or just the floor. A cup of vodka was passed around, and again through Gansukh I began to ask and answer questions. Then I went outside where I was invited to wrestle with ‘Damba’ my host herder. I almost had him over until he lifted me off the ground and threatened to pummel me into the sand. The vodka hadn’t helped my efforts. As the sun set and the goats were herded in close to the gers I set about opening a kind of local cinema. Gansukh was very keen for the herders to see my cycling documentary. Eventually about 20 people crowded into the tent, and for one hour sat glued to the computer screen. By the end they at least understood that this was a ‘white man’ who had been in very difficult weather. Many were a bit confused about why you would take off on such a trip, but it didn’t really matter. The next day things got underway, that is after the rain stopped. It had been a drought in this area for a long time and so the herders believed that I was a guest that had brought good luck. It was also a good sign for the horses-more grass for them to eat along the way! A few herders crowded into a ger where a large manual sewing machine was set up. My Australian bridles were worked on first- they took off half of the straps until it resembled the basic Mongolian model. My halters were ruled out and so they stitched up some new ones. Mongolian horses are so used to being approached from the left that even the halters have the lead rope clip on the left side of the face. Hobbles were made by stitching up some material that I had bought at the market and attaching pieces of wood to create basic locks for tying three legs. At night it is very important for me to tether and hobble the horses so that they don’t run away. Meanwhile Saraa worked on pulverising some dried beef. Gansukh had been adamant that I take this dried beef, just like the Mongols during Ghengis Khan’s time. The atmosphere in Mongolia is so dry that everything can easily be dried, and this was one of the many secrets that lead to the Mongolian empire success. You only need about half a handful for a very tasty meal. The Mongolians could even live for a week without food- just by drawing a few cups of blood from the neck vein of a horse and sewing it up each time. They also had no need to take food for the horses meaning they travelled a lot faster and light weight than any other army at the time. The day was broken by a trip into the local village for voting- it was the national election day. Despite voting being voluntary there is a 95 percent turn out in the countryside- for herders it is a chance to dress up and ride their best horses into town and meet with others. Gansukh’s idea was to announce to the herders at the polling booth that he was interested in buying horses. Initially the herder’s near us had been reluctant to give horses or good prices when they discovered that I was a foreigner. Gansukh did not return until late evening- it turned out he had visited six different families to inspect the horses. They had found at least two that were quiet in nature, and the right character for my kind of trip. Some herders 40km away would be riding them to our camp the next day for negotiations of price. The next day was scorching hot and so most people in the camp snoozed the day away in their ger tents. Late in the afternoon Damba took out his binoculars and said that the herders had arrived with the horses. Gansukh left for a few hours with Damba and returned finally with a deal. He had agreed to buy two horses for about 150,000 tugrik each (about $140). There was no time to waste and so we jumped in Gansukh’s van and hurtled across the steppe to the ger camp in the distance where the horses were waiting. Along the way we made a detour to a ger where we purchased a bottle of vodka. We pulled up at the ger where our two horses were tied up- a relatively large white gelding that had been a racehorse at some point in its life, and a dark brown gelding. The large white one was for me, whilst the dark brown was to be the packhorse. Inside the tent Gansukh presented the vodka and payment ceremonially. The two herders parked on stools had dark weathered faces that were as rough as the desert-steppe outside. After a while the atmosphere relaxed and vodka was passed around in a communal cup. The herders were keen to know what I thought about their horses and conditions in Australia. I could tell that this was a very serious sale for the herders. It was a lot of money for them and they were some of their better horses. For them Gansukh explained, selling good horses was like selling their favourite pet dog. It was important for them to know that the horses were going to a good owner. Eventually the deal was approved and our meeting was over. In the evening the son of the herders brought the horses down to our ger where everyone took turns testing them out. Ochirbat came out to watch. ‘Yes, it’s a great horse! Look at the walk on it. That gait means that your horse will not depreciate in value!’ A rather large herder from a nearby camp jumped on and said that ‘oh yes, this must be my saddle and my horse.’ Eventually they willed me on to have a go. Taking a big breath I jumped on. I was unsteady at first until I found my feet in the stirrups. When I looked up again I was motoring out into the steppe, the horses’ feet and legs pounding away beneath me. Amazingly, it was not only comfortable but I held on without any problems as the pace raised to a canter. When I turned back to the group of herders all looking on in curiosity I could not hide the grin that split across my face. Somehow, things were working. With evening came a scarlet sunset that merged with the sea of brown and green. The sound of children playing in a nearby stream floated on the breeze and a hundred goats’ feet pattered the earth as they made their way back to camp for the night. Gansukh and I rode the horses bareback down to a lush patch of green where we tied them up with my metal stakes and ropes. I wandered back feeling light and dreamy. The months and months of stressful preparation in Melbourne were beginning to wash away revealing the fresh sweet taste of living a dream. In the morning it was time to say goodbye to Gansukh and Bayara. They had both helped me immeasurably and in return I could only offer my gratitude. They had given me the best start I could imagine. Now it was up to me. I waved goodbye realising that I would have to get by from now on with my poor Mongolian. I spent the day with Damba herding his goats and horses. It was a clear summer’s day and we lay in meadows with the horse lead ropes loosely in our hands, the horses munching the grass around our feet, our skin warmed by the sun. A couple of storms later rushed across the steppe and we took shelter in gers to drink tea. I went to bed with images of horses galloping across plains and the sense of freedom that this wide, open land gives you. In the morning the expedition was to begin. By midday we were packed. I bought a third horse from Damba’s herd- for Kathrin who would join me for two months. Damba would guide me for the next three days 80km to Kharkorin where he would return home and I would meet with Kathrin. With a ladle of mare’s milk thrown into the air by Saraa for good luck we mounted and began to move forward. The first few steps were confusing for the horse. I had my video camera out and accidently pulled the reins to one side. The first few metres of the expedition were going around in tight circles. The locals were amused as they wished us the best of luck. Then we lumbered off towards the sand dunes and the ger camp was soon out of sight. Everything moved slowly for me as I tried to take it all in. These were the first incremental metres of a journey that would end 10,000km away in a land that I couldn’t comprehend. We made a path along the sand dunes and then over to some grassy plains. Behind us rocky peaks rose with jagged edges into the sky. In front of me Damba ‘towed’ the packhorse towards green hills on the horizon. The going was slow for the first few hours and we were constantly stopping to adjust the pack-horse. I was very aware that injuring the pack-horse early on would be a disaster. By late afternoon we reached a pass in the hills from where we overlooked a valley that would mark our path for the rest of the day. A cold wind brought rain and it set in for most of the afternoon. Late in the evening we made camp having covered about 35km and sat back to watch the last hues of the sky fade out as the dried meat cooked over my MSR. Damba refused to sleep in the tent and instead slept outside on his coat. During the night he woke several times to check on the horses. Having the horses escape or being stolen would be one of my biggest risks according to all back at his home. The following day revealed a wide blue sky and we made easy progress over the hills. We rode to a high peak for lunch where Damba overdosed on cigarettes and sleep in the shade of my pack boxes. We had a funny way of communicating- he would speak in Mongolian, and I would speak mainly Russian and English. Neither of us understood the words but we always seemed to come to an understanding. If in doubt, Damba would just smile, roll another ‘Tabak’ and keep going. After lunch we passed by a herd of camels and by late afternoon were rising to a high saddle where we overlooked the wide plains. Far in the distance glinting in the evening sun was Kharkorin- this town that was once capital to the largest land empire that has ever been. It was the last night I would spend with Damba and I spent most of the time learning as many knots as possible. The Mongolians tend to be experts dealing with loose rope because buckles and the like are few and far between. Eventually Damba pointed to the clear sky ‘it will rain tonight. I will sleep in tent.’ Morning went just as smoothly as the last two days and we trotted across the plains to Kharkorin, a ramshackle looking village with forested mountains rising sharply on the southern side. Erdene Zuu was our first stop. This was Mongolia’s first Buddhist monastery and built with the remnants of materials left from Kharkorin’s glory days. Here I felt as if my journey was to truly begin. A bit later this morning Damba left to return home and I came to stay at a ger in wait for Kathrin. She is due to arrive within an hour or two. Then we will take the horses to graze inside the monastery where the grass is getting a bit long- that is according to the curator. Lets see how things go without a guide from here on in.