A Concert on Olkhon Island

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The next morning we woke on the train to find we were already at the border with Russia. This border crossing took ten long and dull hours, during which time we barely moved. We spent the day reading, sleeping, drinking lemon tea, playing backgammon and cards, and trying to chat to our travelling companions, one of whom bravely tried to teach me a bit of Russian.

Early the next morning we arrived in Irkutsk, the so-called Paris of Siberia, a grand old town with a surprising number of pizza joints. After a long search for somewhere to have breakfast we went to the Decembrist Museum, and were bossed about by a number of babushkas, one of whom followed us around, muttering, from room to room.

The next day we were on the move again. We went to the central market place to pick up a bus to Olkhon Island, in the middle of Lake Baikal. The trip took all day, squashed into a minibus with our bags strapped to the roof. We met a Belgian lady called Tine, who was on her way east towards China. The distances in Russia are humbling, especially for someone from the UK, our tiny speck of an island. After several hours we arrived on the shore of the lake and transferred to a ferry which took us out to Olkhon Island. Lake Baikal is the world’s oldest, largest and deepest freshwater lake, and contains 20% of the world’s unfrozen fresh water – a mind-boggling statistic. We were staying in Nikita’s Homestead, a backpacking hub in the island’s biggest village, Khuzhir. Tine stayed with us in the yurt we had booked, up the road from Nikita’s, which is a little village-within-a-village, full of wooden huts and a canteen where everyone eats together three times a day. As you can imagine, it’s a real international meeting place, and everyone soon gets chatting to everyone else.

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Chris was happy because he spotted a piano in the canteen. He had been practicing a lot in China and had previously mentioned that he would miss playing while we were on the road, so now he went off to find out whether anyone minded him playing while we were there. He came back shortly afterwards with a stunned look on his face and announced that he would be giving a concert that very evening. Nikolai, the man in charge of musical entertainment at Nikita’s, had somehow talked him into it.

We went to the canteen straight away so Chris could practice. As, somehow, he hadn’t anticipated that he would be giving any concerts while we were travelling, he didn’t have any sheet music with him, so we both racked our brains for things he might be able to play from memory. We came up with some Joplin which he ran through a few times, then Nikolai appeared, playing the accordion, and dragged us off to a little wooden concert hall for the show.

Nikolai warmed things up on the accordion, accompanying two ladies singing Russian folk songs. Then Chris banged out a few Scott Joplin rags, very fast, to rapturous applause. He gave another performance a couple of days later, and played an impressive amount of Beethoven’s Pathetique from memory. His practice sessions in the canteen also reaped some unexpected rewards. The ladies serving food in the canteen were really quite strict about portion control and rarely handed out second helpings, but whenever Chris went up to ask for more he came back with a loaded plate.

We spent a couple of days on Olkhon Island lying on the beach, exploring the island, and generally enjoying the Siberian summer. Chris went off to play football a couple of times – Nikita’s has a regular fixture of travellers versus local schoolboys. A good, quiet, friendly few days. Every time I’ve heard that terribly famous bit of the Beethoven since then I’ve been transported back to that little sawdusty concert room at Nikita’s, in a muddy village in the middle of the lake, under a huge, starlit sky.

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In Which I Almost Fall Off a Horse and Lose Chris

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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.

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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.

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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.

Where Was I?

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Oh yes. Mongolia. Summer 2012. Given that a certain amount of time has passed since my last efforts on this blog I will ease myself back into things by copying from the notebook I kept during the trip.

13/07/12 – Day 23

I’m sitting at the table in an idyllic camping spot by a slow, flat, meandering river on a wide open stretch of the steppe. Blue hills in the background. The sun is setting.

Chris and I woke up early today. Chris went off for a run, and I went for a walk up to the top of the valley, as everyone said it was worth a look. The grass was tall and lush, dotted with beautiful wild flowers – blue spikes, yellow buttercup-like things, tiny white & red flowers. Grasshoppers jumping out of the way as I went. The view from the top of the hill was stunning. Wide open land stretching away as far as you could see, rising and falling in close-cropped green hills without a hint of a road or a house or even another camp site.

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Sinatra

After a leisurely breakfast we set off on horseback again, up and down hills, across gentle valleys. Sinatra, my horse, was reasonably biddable, though he made it plain through snorts, sidelong glances and impatient flicks of his ears that he thought very little of my skills as a rider. Having hardly ever ridden before I was quite happy that Sinatra was on a lead, attached to Bayanmunhbat’s horse who I called Farty for loud and smelly reasons. Sinatra adores Farty and tries to stay in close contact with him as much as possible, which meant my knee was frequently wedged up Farty’s arse. But other than that I felt I was getting the hang of things a bit.

It got hotter and hotter. We rode on across the steppe, hearing no other sounds apart from squeaking saddles, clinking stirrups, and the snorting, clomping horses. You say ‘tchoo!’ to get them to go faster, although Sinatra mainly chose to ignore my feeble urgings.

We had lunch in a wide open valley in the searing heat. Apparently it was nearing forty degrees, but the heat was so dry it wasn’t particularly oppressive, and there was a bit of a breeze. After lunch we got back on the horses. Sinatra was now in a very grumpy and stubborn mood. He kept dropping back, ignoring my tchooings, or else walking so close to Farty my knee was constantly driven into his arse. It was like trying to steer a particularly awful shopping trolley across the steppe. Eventually I gave up and just left him in charge; that way I could concentrate on the scenery.

The hills receded, and we found ourselves crossing a wide, stony plain. I was chatting to Margaret and Amaraa when suddenly Sinatra rocked hard. I stood up in the stirrups automatically, and Margaret told me Sinatra had aimed a kick at her horse Blondie. A little further down the road he tried it again a few times. He was clearly fed up, and it made it difficult to relax, to say the least. In the end Margaret, Ruby and I hitched a ride in the back of the van to our current campsite.

As soon as we had put up the tent and grabbed our bags Chris & I went for a dip in the river. I haven’t had a proper shower since Beijing, three days, one incredibly dusty overnight train and several horse rides ago. It was very shallow, cold and fast moving, but very clear. My enjoyment was only slightly dented when Chris pointed out that there was a small herd of sheep upstream, around a bend in the river. Still, I think I came out marginally cleaner.