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Tes to Zuungov...sand dunes, sheep stomach, horse trading, wolf ...

We left the village of Tes and headed into pouring rain. The day before it had been in the mid thirties and we had stood in the river cooling off while washing horse blankets. Locals meanwhile were swimming and collecting wood and berries in the forest. Now we rugged up in our coats and shivered, hoping that the sun would again come out. Ahead lay 130km to the next village of Baruunturuun. Our route would take us between the most northern desert in the world, the Borig Del Els, and the Hanhoi Mountain range. Later that evening the clouds peeled back and we found ourselves plodding through sun-burnt grasslands. To our left mountains rose, topped with twisted rock formations. To our right looking south sand dunes were lit up looking like an ocean in mid-storm. Beyond them the Tes river could be seen bordered by a strip of lush Taiga forest. The horizon melted away into endless sand and distant mountains. Russia lay somewhere beyond. We made camp as the light turned golden. The horses grazed in waist-high grass and we climbed a stack of granite nearby and gazed silently for a luxurious hour or so. Birds of prey circled above and as the breeze slowed to nil, there was an abounding silence. I had to look and look again to believe the very contrasts and contradictions we were seeing all at one time. To complete this picture a few specs in the far, far distance caught the light for a few seconds- Gers. Morning came, and with it a searing heat. The sand-dunes were soon wobbling in the liquid-looking mirage. A hard day passed. No sign of Gers, or water apart from a puddle that the horses greedily drank from. We rounded a hill and huge largely abandoned wheat crops came into view extending right up to the border of the sand. A flat plain lay ahead and what seemed like a few hours away was actually a day’s ride away. Plodding, plodding, the sun moving from our backs to our shoulders, then to our eyes in the evening. No matter what time we leave it is a long day. At 4km an hour on average 30km means about 8 hours in the saddle. A longer day for the horses no doubt. Just before we make camp an eagle swoops on us aiming for a bird that our horses have disturbed in the grass. The swishing noise, the chirp as the little bird escapes. He survives. The Eagle returns to is high circling above. Dawn and we are greeted by the deep neighing of the horses. Each morning as soon as there is movement in the tent they talk to us. Sometimes it is because they are out of grass and need to be moved, but usually it just seems like a ‘good morning’ gesture. Another hot day was guaranteed. After an early start we fortunately found a spring and a couple of Gers. The horses drank greedily, but still surprisingly little. It is well known that Mongolian horses are very tough- they are always left to their devices. They always find grass themselves, often drink no more than once a day (especially in desert regions) and in winter do not drink at all and get by digging up grass under the snow with their hooves. Later we reached the next river marked on the map. It was a well hidden stream in a gully surrounded by rocky dry ground. We took advantage and of the shade, grass and water for several hours. Baruunturuun came into view the following afternoon through some rusty old iron arches. ‘Welcome to Baruunturuun.’ The town itself was a collection of gers surrounded by ramshackle fences, a few abandoned factories and an some poorly built wooden homes. There was no electricity and few signs of traffic. It is a strange sensation to travel for four days or so and see no more than one car a day, then arrive in a village. The only sign of contact with the outside world in the village was the local government office. It had several huge solar panels on the roof and a satellite dish. While the horses drank and rested by the local river I wandered into town for shopping. Each ‘Delguur’ (shop) had basically the same standard goods bar a few items. I discovered that one shop had the luxury of bread, another had semolina, and one even had some carab spread and Russian butter! Shop-hopping seemed to be the done thing here. An irritated looking guy in a Russian truck followed me, stopping at each shopfront with the engine going, running in and running out until finally he found what he was looking for. We left Baruunturuun late in the cool of evening and soon it was eclipsed by the horizon. The river we aimed for turned out to be dry, but by then it was getting dark. We headed to the only Ger in view in hope that they knew where the nearest spring was. It was time for a day or two of rest and water was essential. After setting the tent up we were invited into one of the Gers. Inside in the low light a couple of fresh sheep carcasses were gleaming, hung up on the inside wall. Steam flooded the air, thick with the smell of mutton. Eventually a bowl was laid out. Steaming, brown, slippery chunks. Liver, intestines, bones, heart, stomach. Seven children crowded around, armed with three knives between them. “Ma!” said one of the two women in the Ger. It is time to eat. Slurping, cutting, chewing. A five year old boy lies back and stares up at the ceiling of the tent gnawing on a bone that is half the size of his own body. Later the children all lie asleep on the floor looking like dead, but content starfish. Inevitably the smells and taste were with us when we finally retired to the tent. Our hosts, two Gers (two families) had shifted to this dry place down from the mountains several years earlier. They had become frustrated by the constant harassment of wolves and decided that life down in this dry land was better. As it turned out, we were not the only guests. A motorbike turned up with the passengers the next morning rolling drunk, singing endlessly. We watched sheepishly from the tent. The drunks slurred voices rose and fell. They limped from one Ger to another, yelling, demanding. We dared not get involved. After an hour or so our hosts seemed to be trying to get rid of them. One of the drunks tried to grab the motorbike (which was owned by our host) which then fell to the ground. The younger brother of our host swung a punch and soon a fight was on. Soon later the very two people who were fighting got on the motorbike together. We understood that one drunk was being driven home. When all was calm we visited the family again. We were surprised to find one of the drunks lying dead asleep on the floor. Later he awoke and I discovered that he spoke fluent Russian. He was actually a good friend of these families and had just flown in from Ulaan Baatar. The scrawny looking horse tied up outside was his and to our amazement he had paid 1000,000 Tugrik for it ($1000US). It was a race-horse and would earn him a lot of money apparently. He explained to me that the horses in this region were well known to be of good quality. The prices here were higher too because of the demand for contraband trade of horses across the border in Russia. In fact ‘Baaya’’ as we knew him explained that there was a lot of illegal trade across the border and that you could literally walk straight into Russia across the sand-dunes. There were tales of hunters who routinely went on month-long trips as far as Kyzyl in Russia where they had a drink and set off home- all without a passport. As evening set in it occurred to Kathrin and I that if possible, here would be a good place to trade-in ‘Tsaga’ my horse who had the problems with the warble flies on his back. We had not been able to ride him since buying the fourth horse despite 15 days of rest. These families owned 80 horses and after questioning Baaya explained that it would be possible. Morning did not go as planned. I woke feeling as if someone was squeezing my stomach and bowels. Sitting up and I was overcome with nausea- too much meat. The sun came out with a vengeance and the day drifted into a daze. For a few hours I lay in one of the Gers trying not to move. I watched everything from ‘ground level.’ A truck had broken down on the road nearby and an entire family arrived to take cover from the heat. Hours passed in extreme heat, everyone just sitting, barely moving. A glass of vodka passed to me as a treatment and things only get worse. Both families get through the heat by dozing. Through a curtain of dried meat hanging under one of the beds I can see one of the mothers and her child lying in the dirt in the shade of the Ger outside. Little naked children wander in and out. Others lie snoring. Other herders arrive and leave by horse and motorbike, stopping for a cup of salty tea or just to say hello. Beginning to have the feeling that most herders have to play host on a daily basis to whoever drifts in across the steppe. Lying, watching I am also aware more than usual how closely the Mongolians have to live with the rhythms of the weather. There is nothing separating them from the elements apart from felt and a bit of canvas. It is confronting to think that all you see is what they own. There is now winter home to return to, or a garage, full of gear. Basically as nomads they carry what they need. They do not have bank accounts but a herd of horses and sheep and goats. Historically they have been the enemy of settled peoples because they often came to raid them for goods- goods that to the nomads would have seemed like surplus anyway. By late evening it was finally cooling down. I woke from my part-delirium to discover that the broken down truck had moved on, the Russian speaker had disappeared, and everyone was up and working again. The women were milking cows, the boys herding the sheep and goats, the toddlers playing outside. There was no mention of the horse-trading. We understood that it would happen elsewhere. We said goodbye to the family by the flicker of candlelight. We presented them with a boomerang, two koalas, a packet of cigarettes, some AA batteries, and a photo from Australia. We planned to leave at 4am to avoid the heat the following day. Another campsite, another encounter with locals. 30 km further west we reached some gers not far from the village of Zuungov. Here we found six Gers in a row and discovered that there were at least as many people who wanted to help set up the tent and pull apart our gear. One of difficult things about Mongolia for us sometimes is the sense of personal space. At one time we have had up to five people in our two man tent- they all just crawl in after zipping up the door. This can happen at any time. They like to test out our saddles by putting them in the sand or dirt and sitting on them. When we pack, they like to unpack everything and sprawl everything across the steppe. When you need to write diary or write on the computer you will have a crowd around the tent. Hands meanwhile come into the tent and every little minute thing is examined. Sometimes you will have people putting their hands into your pockets and taking everything out just to satisfy curiosity. They want to know the price of everything- even the sweets we bought in the local shop! And whats more they will wake you up at any time, and of course always ask that you give them your saddle, or bridle, or tent, or knife, or shoes to them as a gift, or as a trade with their own. We understand that there is an open hospitable culture. We are welcome at any ger at almost any time and greatly appreciate it. I do my best at trying to view each situation within the context of the Mongolian culture- the very culture we are enjoying and privileged to experience. But sometimes there is a certain fever about the herders, an amazement, astonishment and it can sometimes become intoxicating and turn to greed. And when you are tired and you feel like you are being treated like entertainment 24/7 it can be frustrating to say the least. That said, this particular family were of course extremely friendly and we soon found ourselves in a Ger drinking tea. An old woman as creased and thin as a sheet appeared from a bed and quickly took up the horse-hair violin in her hand. She began to play the long drawn out tones while her husband smoked a long pipe and offered us to sniff his snuff bottle. Beyond him on the wall hung the jaws of a wolf. In Mongolia wolves are seen as very smart and lucky animals. If you see a wolf you are as smart and lucky as a wolf. If you kill a wolf you are smarter and more lucky than a wolf. Some home-made vodka (from fermented yoghurt) was passed around ceremoniously and the conversation started. This old couple had eight children- seven of them boys. Five of these boys lived in this Ger camp each with their own family. They collectively owned 18 camels of which they were very proud, and a large herd of sheep, goats, and of course horses. That evening I checked our horses thoroughly as usual. Poopser, our brilliant packhorse had been developing some kind of soreness on his shoulders since Tes. The hair was rubbing away in some places, and a small scab had developed. We concluded that it must have been due to carrying the load with wet blankets for two days- firstly we hadn’t been able to dry them properly after washing them in Tes, and then there had been the one day of rain. I had always imagined that Poopser would be with me to the end. He was a deep chestnut colour with a quiet and friendly nature. He had never kicked, bitten, or done anything unfriendly to us and worked hard with little complaint despite a heavy load. It was like a bad dream to see these sores now- he had travelled over 40 days with no sign of problems until now. Firstly I did not want to hurt him, and although the sores were not at all bad, they would inevitably get worse if we continued further with him- we did not have the time to spare, or an extra horse for him to recover. In the morning I checked him again. He had been rolling and the scab had come off and with it some hair. I made my decision- despite losing a lot of money we would offer both Tsaga (my white horse) and Poopser to this family in return for one tame, fresh horse. Soon later I was on the phone to Gansukh, my Mongolian friend in Ulaan Baatar. He had personally chosen and found my horses originally and had a deep interest and care in the fate of them. I put him on the phone to one of the men so he could explain in detail where the horses were from, and why I wanted to trade. One man eyes lit up at the idea and he suggested to Gansukh that he liked our horses and had a horse he could give us. Gansukh was excited. I was extremely sad and in disbelief that our companions were on the verge of being handed over. ‘I am happy Tim. And I will tell you the reason later’ said Gansukh before I ended the call. Our buyer was one of the seven sons of the elderly couple and he was soon boasting about the idea to his brothers. He sent is son off to fetch a few horses from the herd and we spent the next few hours choosing horses. The first one was tame- they put six kids on its back and it didn’t move but they discovered it had an injured leg. The second horse bolted when I tried to check its back. The third horse looked wild, and definitely Mongoolian. It had dredlocks in its mane, an untamed look in its eyes and sturdy little legs. It was however a very tame and quiet horse who let me touch and check it all over. Despite being small, its back fitted my saddle better than most Mongolian horses, and soon I was riding him, cantering over the hill, remembering the great feeling of being able to ride without baggage. He was no doubt not worth as much as either of our horses, which were from a famous race-horse breeding area called Badingol. I had come to understand that our horses were indeed rare in Mongolia. Their colours, shape, and nature was the envy of many nomads we had met. This family was getting the deal of their life, and despite losing out financially, we could rest in the knowledge that the horses had gone to a nice family. We would not have to worry about hurting them, and they would be together- important since they were originally from the same herd. The deal was done. After spending the afternoon saying goodbye to our friends and filming and photographing them their halters were taken off and Mongolian bridles put on. We pulled some hair out of their tails and manes and several members of the family took some hair out of our new horse as well. I shook hands and he explained that the name of this new horse was ‘Bokus.’ The fact that this family took this so seriously seemed positive to me- perhaps we did have a good horse at least. I went to sleep with the image of the horses on my mind. I had woken with them for over fifty days and they had become an integral part of the journey. Their presence had crept up on me and now I looked ahead with a sense of sadness. It wouldn’t be the same without our herd from Badingol. Our third horse originally from that area, Schneke, neighed desperately for a couple of hours into the night and eventually fell silent. The bond between the horses had become so strong that even if you took one to the water the others would follow desperately unwilling to be separated. It was dark when we awoke and set about packing the horses. One of the men came to us with his little boy by the hand. They visited the horse and he explained to him why the horse was going. It was the boy’s horse of course and he probably had a stronger bond with it than we had with our own horses. He sat on it for one last time looking confused on my strange Australian saddle. Then without words the father unravelled a small bone to me and tied it around my wrist. It was the ankle bone of a wolf. After some hot milk in the Ger, it was time to say goodbye. Tsaga and Poopser already seemed at home here, making the most of their new found freedom, eating grass heartily. We had made the right decision. The little boy cried as we rode off, but by the time we crossed the nearby river they were already just getting back into the routine of another day on the steppe. The camels were released and a little boy chased them on his horse. A woman was wandering down to collect water and a sheep was being slaughtered in the morning cool. With a herd that no longer felt like ours we rode off into another day. Late in the evening I called Gansukh. I was curious as to why he was so happy that the horses were sold. “Tim, I have spoken at length with Damba about the horses (Damba was the herdsman who had guided me at the start and who had sold us the last remaining horse- Schneke). We are very happy that you have taken great care of them. We are happy that you have trade those two horses now. In Bayan Olgiy it is very, very likely that if you sell the horses there they will be eaten as meat this winter. The Kazakhs have different traditions to our own……and no matter what, if any of the horses survive the winter they will escape and run home in Spring.” He went on to say that Dama was proud that Schneke was the last remaining horse but sad that his horse was so far away. Now I sit in the tent just 30km away from the family where we traded the horses. How quickly things change. From here we have a tough route- 100km of semi desert without water. We will try to cover it in two days by travelling at night to avoid the heat. Gansukh has warned us about wolves. Then within another day or so we will arrive in Ulaangom, the capital of Uvs Aimag. We will have covered more than 1000km, and it will be time for another big change……Kathrin will be leaving and I will be dealing with everything on my own. I wonder what state of mind I will be in next time I write. Tim. (PS Unfortunately there are no new photos at the moment because I did not realize that you cannot buy good AA batteries in any town apart from Ulaan Baatar. The cheap AA batteries here are not even powerful enough to turn the camera on. Apologies.) PPS Tent suffered first major damage. A goat put its head through the door (when it wasn’t open)! Plus, seen our first nomads on the move- an entire Ger being moved by camel train. PPPS Thanks to the students at Mill Park Secondary college in Melbourne and Guildford Grammar in Perth for asking me such interesting questions over the Iridium satellite phone. It’s a fantastic experience to be able to talk straight from the experience here.