Our last couple of days in Mongolia were by far our most eventful. After passing a fairly noisy night by the river, trying to the sleep to a chorus of sheep, goats, rain, barking dogs and whining mosquitoes, we saddled up the horses again and set off. Our first challenge was to get across the river, and then across another one after that. The first crossing easy enough, and the horses made it through with very little protest, although they made sure we all knew they would have preferred to stay away. But the second crossing was a far more complicated affair. The river was deeper, with a faster current, and it was hard to tell where the deep bits were going to be.
We had been camping within sight of a group of gers, and one man from that family came along to help us cross the river. Our new friend borrowed Chris’s horse Wolfgang and crossed the river easily enough, as Wolfgang didn’t seem to mind getting wet. Together they found a path for us to take.
Then it was our turn. Sinatra was none too pleased with the idea of crossing the river and made sure I was aware of his opinion. I could hardly blame him – at one point he was up to his chest in the water. Once we got to the opposite side I had to stop and pour the water out of my boots. My trousers and chaps were soaked through, although they dried quickly enough as the day progressed.
From that point on, however, Sinatra was in a filthy temper. The flies and bees were tormenting the horses and it was hard work getting them to go anywhere, even though we were trying to get away from the river, where there would be fewer insects. Sinatra was constantly kicking and shaking himself, all the while aiming snorty horse-curses in my direction. We got to another river, too wide and deep to cross, and rode down it for a while looking for a bridge. The horses hated the idea of a bridge even more than they’d hated wading through the water – in the end we all had to dismount and lead them over a few at a time.
On the other side all the horses were quite twitchy, biting at flies and skipping about a bit. Suddenly, without any warning, Sinatra lost his cool completely. He skittered around then sank to his knees, preparing to roll over. His wild thrashing threw me out of the saddle, and I slid straight down his neck until he froze, as if suddenly remembering I was on his back. There was a moment of terrible confusion when I thought he was going to roll over completely, crushing me underneath, and then Bayanmunhbat hopped over and helped me down to the ground.
After that I decided to walk for a bit. Ruby, who was suffering with a cold and a bad back, walked along with me: I was very grateful as I’d gone a bit trembly, and it was good to have her company. We met the others in a beautiful glade with trees and had lunch in the shade. A man called Eagle came to meet us in a car, and brought beer and chocolate, but took Ruby back to UB with him. We were sad to say goodbye. Margaret decided not to ride in the afternoon, so I took her horse, Blondie, as Sinatra and I were still not on speaking terms.
Riding Blondie was a completely different experience. He was the most placid and laid back creature you could imagine, who only complained when we went uphill. We even managed a short trot together before he decided it wasn’t worth the effort, and we slipped back into an easy walk. That evening we had our first campfire, and sat around chatting and melting the soles of our shoes.
The next day was our last day of wild camping. We woke up early and Chris went off for a run again, warning me that he might be a while. He took my watch and compass with him. I went back to sleep for a bit, then woke again and got up to chat to Margaret and Richard. Chris had been gone for at least an hour, but he said he wanted to go for a decent run so I wasn’t worried. After a while Chris still hadn’t reappeared so we decided to go ahead with breakfast. I began to feel a little nervous as the hours passed. Most of the horses were missing too, as they had been loosely hobbled overnight and had wandered off, so Bayanmunhbat went off to find them. Amaraa decided to round up Chris at the same time. I was a little worried that he’d injured himself, but oddly not too worried – I knew that if he had been hurt we would find him, or else someone else would, and he would be okay in the end. Someone would take care of him. Things seem to get lost in the steppe quite often, and looking for them is a part of life. On our second morning in Mongolia we met two men in a 4×4 who were looking for some horses, and Amaraa told us about a cousin who went off in search of some camels, spending days travelling across the steppe and into the desert, staying with whoever he came across along the way until he tracked the camels down again.
Amaraa saddled up Ruby’s horse, Rowdy, and went off in the direction we thought Chris had taken. The rest of us decided to have another coffee. I was vaguely wondering what I’d say to Chris’s parents and his sister, who we were due to meet in Moscow, if I had actually mislaid him on the steppe. I thought it might make for an awkward conversation.
After half and hour or so, to my relief, Amaraa rode back into sight with Chris jogging alongside him. Amaraa had assumed that Chris was running along a ridge that stretched away from where we had been camping, and set out riding fast down the ridge to catch up. After a while Rowdy’s ear started to fix on something to the right of them. Shortly after, the whole horse started to pull in that direction. Amaraa looked over and sure enough, there was Chris in the distance: the horse was the one to find him.
So, reunited, we all set off for our last day on horseback. Chris rode on his new friend Rowdy and I had Blondie – Margaret had decided to go in the van. It was a blissful ride, mounting higher and higher up the hills until we had a spectacular view over the steppe below. We came across a family in a ger and they invited us in for a bowl of airag, the fermented mare’s milk which is the traditional drink of Mongolia. It is very mildly alcoholic, and tastes like thin, fizzy yoghurt. I’s a bit of an acquired taste. Luckily Richard loved the stuff, and he ended up knocking back several bowls of the stuff as we all tasted it then passed the remainder of our cups to him. We went outside to see the family’s herd of horses, and watched as they milked one of the mares, and tried to put a one-year-old horse in hobbles for the first time.
Then we set off for a challenging ride up through mountainous hills, up and down rocky inclines, through silver-green grasses and shimmering lilac hills. Hearing the thump and clink of the horses, their hooves kicking up the scent of crushed wild herbs. And then, too soon, it was time to stop for lunch.
To be honest, I had mixed feelings. Part of me wanted to go on for days, riding on into this seemingly endless stretch of open space, enjoying the simplicity of a life containing nothing other than sleep, food and horses. But another part of me wanted a shower, a clean set of clothes, and a mode of transport that didn’t come with a such a strong personality. We had lunch on a high hillside, then said goodbye to Bayanmunhbat and the horses, and watched as they rode off towards UB. Then we packed ourselves into the van and set off in his wake. Often the road was so bad we drove parallel to it, or cut a path zigzagging towards the city, on and off the official road and approaching the city in eccentric circles to avoid the muddiest and most flooded routes in. At one point we reached a bit of road so submerged underwater we couldn’t tell whether we could drive through it until Richard volunteered to test it out on foot.
Eventually we made it to the ger camp where we spent our last night. Chris and I stuffed nearly all our clothes in the laundry. We went around our ger exclaiming at the luxuries it contained: Real beds! Pillows! A dustbin! A door! Then went for a shower and there, in an extremely basic cubicle in a campsite shower block, I had something approaching a religious experience. Considering it’s such an ordinary, everyday thing to do, it’s difficult to describe how blissfully brilliant a warm shower is when the closest you’ve come for a week is an antibacterial wipe and a dip in a river with a herd of sheep in it.
When I reappeared, a changed woman, I found Richard and Margaret stationed on the terrace with some beer and a bottle of Mongolian vodka. Chris and I joined them and we drank a toast to the horses.
The next day was largely a case of killing time before we caught our train. We said goodbye to Richard and Margaret and drove back to UB, visited an internet cafe, a supermarket and the National Museum with Amaraa and Eagle, then went back to the station to catch our train on to Russia.
Mongolia is like no other country in the world, and I hope it retains its unique charms. There’s no other place where you can skirt so close to the capital city without seeing a single house, road or even a car for hours or days on end. Its openness extends to its people, who have a calm, generous friendliness I think can only come from having access to such wide, free, abundant and beautiful space.