Miles with horse: 565
Buying a horse involved being put in touch with my cousin's Mongolian friend's nephew's friend Puujee. I cycled the 50 miles from Ulaan Baatar to the village of Bayanchandmani where I met Puujee and was quickly whisked away into the hills in his van with his two giggling daughters. His herder friend lived in an isolated ger (traditional circular felt tent) and had three horses for sale.
With a small crowd of amused onlookers, I test rode each horse and did my best to appear in the know by checking teeth, hooves, body fat, infected wounds, demeanour and spines. I didn't know exactly what to look for in each of these areas but I gave knowing grunts, nods and sighs when examining each. At length I settled on a small, fat, bay gelding. He was relatively calm (despite kicking me once during inspection) and seemed sturdy despite his diminutive size. The price was laboriously hammered out that night over liberal vodka, snuff, airag (fermented mare's milk) and mutton soup; each administered with a great deal of ceremony. A deal was struck and a couple of days later I found myself mounted and directing my new steed, Nicky, away from the village and testing how he coped with the combined weight of me and my loaded saddlebags.
I pushed the horse hard hoping a baptism of fire would most effectively show me his capabilities and establish my dominance. It was a hot day and I prevented my mount from grazing as we went to set a precedent. He had been left free for some time (his rotund belly affirming this) and resented being deprived of grass. Suddenly angry, he violently bucked with no forewarning. The saddle bags were thrown off and a glass jar of pasta sauce within was smashed. He then refused my bribes (of carrots, sugar lumps and perppermints) I tried to calm him with. It was a messy start to our partnership.
Depending on his behaviour, I tried different ways of viewing Nicky. He was simultanously an incredible product of nature and evolutionary design, a wild animal, a dumb beast of burden, an investment, a mode of transport, a pet, a companion and a nemesis.
The landscapes were stereotypically vast, beautiful and Mongolian. Wide blue skies; rolling grass hills; small clumps of trees (increasingly as I moved north towards Siberia); glittering streams; and a warm golden glow at each end of the day.
Constant concerned warning about the country's burgeoning wolf population (which was managed under the Soviets but a annual minimum hunting quota of two wolves per grown man) were surprisingly easy to ignore and I never needed to worry about food. In fact, although I only set off with four days of supplies, I didn't open my wallet for the first ten days. Such was the exhaustive generosity of the many who invited me into their homes.
The land was riotously alive. Each footstep would disturb literally 20-30 grasshoppers; some as large as the final joint of my index finger. Marmots bounded over the grass and Siberian chipmunks scurried through it. Butterflies flapped clumsily around small wildflowers and a cloud of flies constantly swarmed around Nicky and I; with sometimes over 50 sunbathing harmlessly on my shoulders.
The following day I had lunch with a family while my kit dried in the sun. The mutton soup tasted strongly past its prime but, not wanting to offend, I wolfed it down regardless. As I pushed on that afternoon my churning stomach started rebelling and I could tell an uprising was brewing. A telltale glinting on the far side of a windswept, open plain told me I was approaching the village of Zaamar and I decided to try and reach it that day. The plain looked roughly 4 miles wide but Mongolia's enormity can be deceptive and it was an exhaustive 10 miles before I traipsed into the village under an angry, dark sky with sharp flashes of lightning splintering down on all points of the compass.
We continued on our way and soon entered mosquito territory. Seeing the little bastards sucking away, unhindered on Nicky's belly, sometimes hundreds at a time, was difficult. It was both an irritation for my companion and a diminishing of my investment as each individual bloodsucker flew heavily away with a couple of drops of blood. There was a dry, desert-like area to cross and plenty more wet and spectacular weather to endure. In fact, for the next month, although it didn't rain everyday, there was no more than a handful of days where I didn't encounter thunder and lightning. Burned-out, lightning-struck trees - bare and blackened - became commonplace. At night I would fall asleep hoping it would be a dry night and trying to ignore the sound of many mosquitoes swarming around my exposed face; a sound similar to the whine of a distant Formula1 race.
Just outside the provincial capital town of Bulgan I met the aptly-named Miles. An Alaskan cycle tourist, he's been on the road for 3 years and had a thick bushy beard to testify to this. We entered the town together (the first mildly built up place I'd visited since Ulaan Baatar) and chuckled at the stares we got. Two dishevelled white men with a horse and an absurdly heavily-laden bicycle. We brought an ample stock of food and beer before climbing to the top of a grassy hill overlooking the town and cooking a feast while the sun sank. The next morning was the first day of Naadam; the annual festival of the "Three Manly Sports": wrestling, horseracing and archery.
The wrestling was the first event to get underway. Most of the men could be described as portly rather than muscular. A couple were plain obese and some were beanpole teenagers. They wore small embroidered pants, knee-high boots and tight sleeves that joined across their backs and were tied across their chests. Four fightshappened at any given moment. Each fight consisted of one round and involved forcing the opponent off his feet. Some bouts lasted for less than a minute and some lasted 40 minutes. The draw was random so men of at least 18 stone were sometimes inevitably facing up against boys of less than half that. The audience seemed little interested and only the odd cheer or clap was sounded. Most people chatted happily among themselves and seemed more interested in the home-brewed contents of plastic bottles they brought with them.
The day's events were over by mid-afternoon and the haphazard crowds descended upon the town for a heavy, loud night of revelry. Miles continued on his ride and I climbed the hill once more to camp. The next day the town was still silent and deserted at 10am which was a testament to the quantities of alcohol consumed the night before. The second day saw the anklebone tossing competition (held on the grass at the centre of a tight ring of elderly men), the wrestling finals (which drew a large and unusually lively crowd) and the prize giving for all the events. Another night of heavy drinking followed and I chose to avoid it and continually check on Nicky where I had tethered him outside the town.
The next four days were a paradox: the joy of incredibly pristine wilderness and the torture of tenacious, DEET-defying, 24-hour mosquitoes. The narrow overgrown valley was deserted with only a handful of dilapidated sheds wallowing in waist-high grass. Herders winter their animals here but stay away in summer due to the insects. Nicky was plagued day and night by biting flies and grew more agitated and shaky each morning. I chose not to ride as he was jumpy and physically exhausted from blood loss. The rough track I followed often cut across the knee-deep river and so I walked mostly barefoot, glad for the cushioning of lush grass. Despite the trials of this wild valley, it was an unkempt paradise. Vivid wildflowers of red, blue, purple, yellow and white; two screeching birds of prey fighting overhead; clumps of birch trees (another sign of nearing Siberia); warm sunshine punctuated with short, aggressive storms that could turn the sky from clear blue to vengeful blackness in under 15 minutes.
Despite this beauty, I was relieved to exit the valley and reach the small town of Khutag-Ondor. I had arranged to meet Sancho here the following day and we were going to continue the journey northwestwards using Nicky as a packhorse. I met Spanish Sancho in the visa queue at the Mongolian embassy in Beijing and we had kept in touch about maybe joining forces.
We pulled long days and began to run low on food. Thankfully we stumbled upon a group of Geologists on a prospecting expedition and they invited us to join them for dinner and the night. We arrived having just waded across a fast-flowing, 30m wide, waist-deep tributary and were just in time to help them construct their four gers as they had also just arrived. They were very friendly and treated us well but one of them (for reasons unknown to me) untied Nicky in the night. I found him 500m away in the morning. It was a stroke of luck that he hadn't strayed further as there was nothing stopping him. I had a few incidents of this sort with Mongolian men which seemed to suggest that they resent a foreigner owning one of 'their' horses. There is a strange but prevalent dislike of foreigners among many of the men of this country. I have many theories for why but most of them boil down to boredom after becoming disenfranchised now that modernity has replaced many traditional jobs and women make up the majority of the country's white collar force. Alcohol surely plays its part too.
It was when we were leaving Tsaagan Uur and just re-entering the forest that a soldier sped up to us on a motorbike and demanded to see our passports. He made me mount the back of his bike and I was taken to a rundown military post. A man explained curtly in Russian that we had strayed into a restricted military zone and must pay for our sins. I pointed out that no signs or personnel had announced the edge of the zone but he was adamant. I was equally adamant not to pay a sum of cash into his pocket. At length, Sancho was fetched and 'the Director' was called. He arrived on a motorbike with a thick, shaved head; a cigarette in his mouth and avarice in his eyes. We remonstrated and bluntly refused to pay, especially after we were shown the marked zone on a map and realised that we were caught a maximum of 300 meters inside it (they had no way of knowing we'd passed the last three days in the forbidden area). The Director wanted cash and we didn't want to give it to him. It became a battle of wills and, as evening came, our passports were locked up and we were told we must stay in the post overnight.
It was a hazy afternoon when we finally copped our first view of Khovsgul Lake: a 100-mile long freshwater jewel in the crown of forest that sits atop the northern fringe of Mongolia's grasslands. We walked around the southern shore and into Katgal town; a dowdy tourist hub from where people set out on organised horse treks. We ate and rested for a couple of days and found a buyer for Nicky but decided to walk for another few days along the lakeside before returning and selling the horse. Packing light, we began taking turns to ride and I had my first and only fall when a bagless Nicky was galloping like the wind. A man stepped out from behind a wooden fence and Nicky deftly sidestepped but continued at speed resulting in me being dragged for a terrifying 10 yards with one foot stuck in a stirrup and two hooves dangerously pounding the earth just inches from my chest and head.
It was time to remount my bicycle.
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