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Mountains, wolves, blisters, yak butter and map-stealing…Davaa Nuur ...

Somehow we had to get out of this campsite. For two days heavy rain and hail had lashed our tent and shrouded our intended mountain pass in cloud. Diesel for the stove was almost finished, food supplies were low, and the horses looked miserable standing for hours with their tails into the wind. The only other people we had seen were a couple of wandering herders searching for 150 missing yaks. They had sheltered in our tiny tent during one of many hailstorms and took some persuading not to light their cigarettes. At 5am the air bit hard into my fingers as we began to pack. By 7am the sun was filtering through thick cloud and bringing some relief. We mounted the horses and pressed forward- a huge relief just to move. From the campsite we passed an alpine lake ‘Davaa Nuur’ and then began to ascend to the hidden mountain pass. The landscape reminded me of Arctic Tundra. The surface was boggy due to permafrost below and riddled with tough bushes such as willow and birch. We had left summer behind in the valley. My toes were numb in the stirrups and Kathrin was rugged up in her warmest clothes with the hood drawn tightly shut. After an hour or so we came to a halt. My horse had just panicked after sinking into bog up to its knees. “Is this really going to be possible?” I said, turning to Kathrin. The boggy permafrost continued for at least another 8km to the mountain pass that was still beyond view. The alternative was a three or four day ride back down to the valley and around. I surveyed the view again. To my right mist curled of the back of some menacing cliffs. A chill of excitement and fear rushed through me. “We will just have to try walking I guess.” The process of walking, stumbling, sinking up to the knees, doubling back, dragging the reluctant horses began. For six hours we trudged on stopping only once to boost sugar levels. The air cooled and every now and then we bowed our heads into sleet and hail. Then as if in an unlikely dream the silhouette of an ovoo came into sight. It was the pass! An ovoo looks rather like a cairn from a distance. They are made of rocks or branches or both and always bear a silky blue sash. They are offering to the gods as per shamanistic beliefs and the blue sash represents ‘Tengerin’ the god of the sky. We approached with heavy feet and broad grins, and just as we came to a halt it began to snow. We circled the ovoo and offered a few pebbles ourselves. There were a couple of offerings on this ovoo apart from rock- a crushed tea thermos and a broken vodka bottle. Despite it being a lonely and rarely visited ovoo it brought us great comfort as if someone or something was watching over our journey. The ovoo also marked the end of permafrost and the first piece of sturdy ground all day. As often happens in crossing mountain ranges you descend into a different world. A valley snaked its way down through the mist shouldered by heavy forest. A fire had swept through sometime recently and left only blackened remains. Fireweed had been the first plant to grow back and its vibrant purple colours stood out against the soot and were far brighter than the sky. We lost altitude quickly and soon found ourselves well below the chilling clouds and protected from the high raking winds. I decided to keep on walking and took pleasure in the smell of the plants and the trickle of the stream as it gathered momentum on its downward path. Marmots scurried away from us constantly and the horses took every advantage to snap up a bit of long seeding grass. After a few hours the valley widened and flattened and I got back on the horse. The sun came out and we fell into a rhythm letting the horse choose the path at times, and marvelling at the sense of calm and silence. There were no gers around the next corner or riders on the horizon. The length of the grass alone was a sign that no one had been here for a long time. Perhaps this place had not been re-visited since the fire? I imagined that this was the kind of place where people had come to hide and eek out a living through hunting and fishing- much like Ghengis Khan had done several times during his youth. Eventually the sun was beginning to scrape the edges of the blackened forest on the high ridges and we made camp next to the stream that was by now ten metres wide with clear fast running water and smooth round pebbles. We had just finished setting up camp and I was preparing to collapse. I noticed the horses at first- ears twitching, eyes suddenly trained to the south of us. A high pitch howling echoed up the valley. Before we could say anything it became a chorus. My eyes searched desperately, up and down the ridges, into the burnt out forest- nothing. Then came silence. It was wolves, and many of them. I had always laughed at Mongolian warnings ‘watch out for wolves….do you have a gun?’ I knew that wolves very rarely attacked humans, but alone in this valley I didn’t want to wait to find out if it was true or not. What really scared me was the potential for the wolves to scare the horses, or worse still attack. The horses would break loose and run, and we would be left, stranded in this place far away from help. There was no time to loose. Two hours later I lay exhausted, and covered in black soot from head to toe. We now had a healthy heap of firewood that I hoped would see us through the night. The horses were staked close to the tent and we had both seen to urinating nearby as an extra precaution in warding off any hungry wolves. Our weapons of last resort were an axe and a couple of hiking poles. Kathrin took her shift at night watch first. I fell into a deep sleep feeling as if we had entered the set of Henning Haslund’s grand adventures in Mongolia in the 1920’s. He wrote very much about encounters with wolves and the importance of keeping a fire going at night. He had always had a gun though! ‘Tim, wake up, its your turn.’ I woke with a start. ‘Are the horses OK?’ ‘Yeah, no problems. No wolves, but its extremely cold. You will need your down jacket for sure.’ I crawled out reluctantly and once out of the tent darted over to the warmth of the fire. It was just after 3am and the clouds had drifted away to reveal a sky lit up by an almost full moon and a million stars. The wolves had obviously been scared off by our efforts. I stoked the fire, checked the horses, then hunched up next to the warming coals and shut my eyes. I don’t know how many minutes passed but I know that I found myself on my feet and with eyes wide open within a skeric of a second. A deep thumping in my chest made it hard to train my hearing into the murky nothingness before me. It came again. A deep, throaty howl cutting through the freezing air like a knife. And it was only one or two hundred metres away! The horses stopped eating, poised. ‘Kathrin, did you hear that!’ It sounded again, and suddenly there were more coming from the other side of the campsite down the valley. It was like a domino effect. The howls went on for a minute or so until it felt that we were completely surrounded. Then came that deathly silence again. Nothing. No sounds, no eyes, just the still silhouettes of burnt trees in the moonlight and the rustle of the river. I checked my watch: 3.30. There was still another three hours before the sun took away the mystery and cover of night. I looked at our meagre remains of firewood and just hoped that I could make it last that long. For the next few hours I lay in a trance- captured by the fire, alert to any noise, watching as gradually the moon set over the ridge and the black sky turned a dark blue with the sun inching its way back to us. I moved closer and closer to the fire and realised that everything was now covered in icy frost. Our water supplies had frozen. I never heard the wolves again. When the sun came up I shook the ice crystals off our tent door and slipped inside. ‘Time to get up Kathrin.’ Three hours later I woke up from a slumber in the tent fully clothed. The tent was like a sauna in the glaring sun and I was sweating profusely. It was time for another day. The valley continued to surprise us. It varied from wide, flat sections to narrow gorges where we followed traces of an abandoned track up steep rocky hillsides. The forest did not change a great deal though- all blackened and burnt with purple fireweed. Just near our camp were reminders of the previous nights adventure- many fresh wolf tracks. We saw other tracks too- of some kind of deer, and also hare. It was as if they had all vanished with the night though. The forest appeared eerily silent and empty. It was hard to imagine how it must have been before the guttered everything. By late afternoon the river had widened to fifty metres of split channels and we rounded a bend to see the valley open out into a true plain of golden grass. Compared with the permafrost of the day before this was a relative savannah. In the distance there were signs of ‘civilisation’ too. Some boxed shaped winter log huts and animal shelters were built into the hillside. The ground was even and we began to trot. I felt as if the horses were enjoying the opportunity to move freely as well. The sun plodded down and we passed in the shade of some enormous larch trees, preserved from the fire by their close proximity to the river. Through gaps in the foliage I caught the first glimpse of a ger that we had had in days. Next to it was a log house with a tendril of smoke wafting out of the chimney. Kathrin mentioned that it reminded her of something out of the Canadian Rockies. We had reached a bend in the valley where it turned north and headed towards the town of Tosontsengel. I felt at ease, and excited to be revisiting a place where people lived. It meant that wolves wouldn’t be a problem, the temperature would be warmer, and I looked forward to meeting the locals who lived in such an isolated region. The need to cover distance had also been worrying me and I presumed that we could now cover our aim of 25-30km a day. By late evening we had passed a herd of Yaks and made camp by the river within a couple of hundred metres of a ger. The moon rose and I made a fire thinking to myself how perfect the world was. The local herder had just come to watch me cook dinner when the headlights of a Russian van came motoring towards us. ‘Kathrin, make sure he doesn’t hit the horses!’ She ran to hold the horses as I lifted the boiling pot of water off the fire and turned into the lights. The van came to an abrupt halt just two or three metres from me. From beyond the glare of the lights a man stumbled into view. He grabbed me and I got a whiff of the rich vodka on his breath. ‘Where! Where! Where!’ he screamed in bad Russian. I refused to understand his question- he was obviously trying to ask where I was from. He started in Mongolian. ‘Do you have whiskey? Vodka? Airag?’ ‘No, sorry, I don’t.’ His aggression came across as strong as his alcohol and amplified by his drunkenness. He wore jeans, a cowboy-type hat and a shirt like someone from the town. His mood sloshed around. ‘Hey you! River! Me! You! Come here with me!’ He grabbed my arm and suggested that he wanted to dunk me in the river and give me a good bashing. I resisted, and did not respond to his finger that was digging into my chest and then my face. I didn’t understand what he was on about, and either did Kathrin. ‘I take two of your horses now! They are now mine!’ I pretended not to understand. I looked to the herder who just seemed to be giggling and amused. This went on for half an hour or so, his aggression coming in illogical and unpredictable waves. He spied my knife which I quickly hid in my jacket. He grabbed me and foraged around in my pocket to find my map. ‘Hey you! This map is mine! You give me your knife! I give you your map!’ He ushered me to the car but I resisted. He became more enraged and feigned a punch into my face and chest. I stood still. I knew from experience that reacting would just give him some kind of deluded legitimacy to start a real fight. Finally he jumped in the van and refused to give the map back. He left me with a throbbing backside, booting me as a last lovely gesture. Then his van jerked forward. We all went running out of the way, herder included, and the lights meandered out of sight. We were left trembling a little, exhausted. There was silence until the herder mentioned that the man would come back tonight to carry out his threats. It was time to move. I tipped out the dinner water, and we packed with adrenaline and the herder urging us on. The poor horses had only been free for a few hours. We left in the darkness and followed the herder over the river to his ger where dogs barked relentlessly. There we staked out the horses and moved our gear into his ger. It was 1am, and we lay down, shaken, and exhausted. I was dreaming of the wilderness, wolves or no wolves. We were not out of the woods yet though. I was woken by the thundering of hooves, then the door swinging open in the darkness. Three bodies stumbled in talking loudly, obviously drunk. They almost tripped over Kathrin before I turned my torch on. It was the owners of the ger, and our herder friend refused to wake up and explain how we had come to sleeping on their floor. It was 5.30am before we put head to rest again, and at 6.30am heads were rising with hangovers to prepare for milking the yaks. We were still struggling to explain our situation. I stumbled out eventually with Kathrin to check the horses. As if it were a bad joke I noticed at once a large swelling at the rear of my horse’s back. I had checked his back every day and night and this was the first sign of anything. It was swollen at a place where he had one of several bad scars from the previous owner. I could not ride him today. By 2pm we were well and truly ready to leave. We could not afford to take my planned route without a map and would have to take the main valley to Tosontsengel. We were about to set off when two guys suggested that they could get our map back. It had mysteriously ended up at the doctor’s place in a tiny village 10km away. We set off and promised to meet the two guys who would return on horse with our map. Walking was hard. With a 20kg backpack I lead my horse, motivated by the urge to get as far away as possible from these people. Even the herder who had taken us in was quite strange. He never said a word to us in the morning and hid behind the ger when we left. An hour or two later the two riders appeared. We all sat on the ground, but I could not see our map. ‘We give you map, and you give us money.’ I knew it would be a problem. We only had a 10,000 tugrik ($10US) note left with no smaller change. The two men asserted that they had no money with them. When they eyed the money it was all over. ’10,000 will be OK. If not we take your map and go now.’ We pleaded with them but in the end it was either 10,000 or nothing and no map. I gave in and parted with enough money to travel about 600km by local transport in Mongolia. We left at a faster pace, convinced that we had just entered a valley where the people were only interested in our money or equipment. Over the next few hours many people approached on horse and motorbike and without exception they wanted something- either my saddle or money for something. Every herder eyeing us was another potential horse rustler, saddle-stealer, drunken thug. Crossing over the mountains had given us a deceptive sense of remoteness- we had simply re-entered civilisation. I tried to work out how and why our luck had changed and peered longingly up into the mountains. Then I remembered a tiny little ovoo that we had passed by in the valley the previous afternoon on that big savannah-like plain. It was a tiny ovoo with a few sticks thrown together and a bit of frayed blue sash. It had occurred to me as a funny little gesture in a tame landscape. We had passed on the right hand side without making an offering or even circling it clockwise as tradition dictates. I now recalled that not stopping at an ovoo, or not taking them seriously would bring misfortune. Myth or not, I was not about to make the same mistake if an ovoo stood on our path again. I walked for about seven hours until our accessible drinking water had finished and both Kathrin and I were complaining about dry, sticky mouthes. My right foot had become wet early on during a river crossing and it was now riddled with blisters. We had covered 30km and finally entered a part of the valley with less gers. I had my eye on a couple of gers in the distance when a sharp pain shot up from my heel. A particularly large blister had finally burst. Kathrin had been eyeing up a camp of five gers to our right where the locals were busily milking yaks. She had a good feeling about the place, so we turned and hoped for the best. I arrived hobbling, dry-mouthed, and probably not looking terribly savoury. A couple of elderly women stopped milking and some children rushed over. We stopped within a few metres and finally spoke. ‘I am Australian, and she is a German. We are riding horses to Bayan Olgiy……..’ The old lady looked like a Babushka with large rosy cheeks and built like a tractor. Her large features seemed to ooze with friendliness. We were grinning from ear to ear. I handed over a slip of paper with an important sentence in Mongolian: ‘can we please camp near your ger.’ This was our strategy for avoiding night-time raids and horse rustlers. ‘Of course!’ Then suddenly children were leading our horses to a patch of green. There was good grass, a golden sun, our friend the river, and a few minutes later…a pot of drought-breaking Mongolian tea and even some fresh yoghurt!!! The tent was set up in a daze with many helping hands and smiles that were lit up in the last rays of the setting sun. We drank so much yoghurt and tea that it felt as if I could never be thirsty again and eventually collapsed into bed falling into the deep grip of sleep. How things could turn around. Even before we had discussed it Kathrin and I decided that this place would be ideal for our two rest days. The horses needed to rest and eat, and our bodies needed some time for sleep and general recuperation. The next day I got a lift into the town of Tosontsengel by motorbike and replenished our food supplies. Unfortunately though the town was out of diesel and unleaded fuel so we would have to go without our stove for the next week or so. I wanted to charge the phone batteries as well but discovered that Tosontsengel only had electricity for three hours a day- between 8pm and 11pm. I returned to our mini paradise where Kathrin was basically being force fed with yak butter and intestines filled with meat and blood. Over the next day or so we were constantly warmed and fascinated by these families. During the day the many children- about 15- played about whilst the mothers, fathers, and older brothers and sisters worked on and off. There was fish to be caught, leather to be made, wood to be chopped, sheep to be slaughtered, yaks to be milked, and sheep stomachs to be cleaned and filled with yak butter for the winter. Every couple of hours a grinning face would come to us and ask questioningly: ‘Drink milk? Drink Yoghurt? Eat butter? Have Aral (dried yoghurt)?’ There was always a pot of salty Mongolian tea nearby and someone genuinely interested in us and what we were doing- not our gear or money. The grandfather of one family, a 78 year old man wandered out very now and then to carry out a Buddhist ceremony of some kind. Laughter abounded between work, and every now and then people would break into rounds of singing. The network of people between the five gers was confusing and took us several hours of questioning to work out. The little baby for example wrapped in a ‘baby dele’ was passed around constantly from little girl to old grandmother, to younger brother so that it was impossible to work out who the mother was and which ger she lived in. We visited most of the five gers and there was always people coming and going. The old Babushka was married to a man with gold-rimmed glasses (noticeable because he was the first herder we had seen with glasses!), and together they had had eight children. Three of them now lived within this ger camp, two girls and a boy. They all had children of their own, accounting for some of the many little faces. A man that we came to refer to between us as ‘Russian speaking, no teeth’ was the brother of the woman who had married the Babushka’s son. And so on, and so on we eventually understood the tangle of people. The way that everyone came and went, that there were always people around to help gave the camp an air of friendliness and support that I had rarely encountered. During summer it must be a paradise for children to have so many other children around. Playing by the river, with the horses, with old wagons, or with nothing at all was more addictive than video games could ever be. The rest of the year must have been different though. ‘Russian, no teeth’ explained to us that the children went away to town for school for two-three months at a time, often only returning for weekends, and every now and then two week breaks. During winter the river would be frozen, and the families would move to another location and hope that most of their livestock would see it through the bitter cold. It was with a pinch of sadness that we eventually left, but once again a relief to feel movement. Over the last three days we have left our river all together and crossed into some semi-desert. We camped on a wide plain far from any gers and made our way eventually to the shores of Telmen Nuur (lake) where the horses drank greedily. We have been walking at least 12 km each day to rest the horses a little and carrying backpacks to keep as much weight off them as possible. I am worried about my horse. He has always had terribly scarring on his back and the swelling that came up is probably an indicator of how sensitive those areas of his skin are. I have treated it and the swelling has gone down, but it is still sore. Luckily though it is in a place that is not actually touching the saddle- it’s further to the rear. One option now to save our legs and my horse would be to get a fourth ‘spare’ horse. Not sure what we will do at this stage, see how things go over the next couple of days. By GPS we have now covered about 570km (probably well over 600km in reality when you take into consideration all the meandering). There is almost the same distance to Ulaangom where Kathrin will have to leave back to Germany. From there another 300km or so to Olgiy where the Mongolian leg will finish. It all seems a long, long way ahead. Tim.