(Donna) It is with a heavy heart and teary eyes that I type one the final updates of our 2,000km expedition. Months back I secretly dreamt of this day, wondered what it would feel like to have achieved what many doubted that we could and how nice it would be to be able to sleep through the night without a constant watch on our horses. Today, however, and for recent weeks as the end drew nearer it merged into the opposite. The yearning for it never to end, the heartache of eventually leaving them and the sad reality of life away from Mongolia. For so long now this expedition has been so much more to us than a simple crossing from A to B; As we spent more and more time riding, packing, unpacking, hobbling, staking, nursing, caring and ultimately falling in love with our companions, the trip became more about life with them and less about the end result. To put it simply, it was about the journey in between and the destination became irrelevant.
After returning from our visa run to China a few weeks back, we were reunited with our very fluffy and if not slightly fat horses that had been cared for and well fed at Arbud Sands tourist camp during our absence. With the weather turning, snow falling all around and with an end date in mind due to my visa extension refusal we departed for the final leg followed by a healthy looking stray dog who quickly became a loyal friend for our final days. With about 250 kms to cover we slowed down and reduced our daily kays to enjoy each moment and draw it out as best we could. The days had become very short with the sun rising at 7.30am and setting as early as 6.30pm it was becoming difficult to cover much more than 18kms per day but that suited us well. I think it took us leaving Mongolia, even if it was only for a day trip to China to really appreciate just how much we have grown to love this country. After 5 months here we are now comfortably at that stage where everything just becomes so much easier. We have attended multiple types of ceremonies, we know the nomadic traditions well enough to join in without explanation and my knowledge and grasp of the language has really peaked. Much of the past two weeks has been sparsely populated enough for us to enjoy some beautiful camp spots with the safety of our new protector sleeping right outside our tent and barking whenever he hears the rumble of a Mongol motorbike approaching. Luckily for us the nights that we were alone were over the full moon period so we could sleep with the tent doors open and see our horses clearly as they ate their way through the night before us under a night's sky so bright that it illuminates our faces as the galaxy begins its nightly display of shooting stars and glistening effects. A land mass without light pollution is truly fascinating after the sun has set and Mongolia's nocturnal entertainment is one that is hard to beat.
For as long as I can remember we have been laughed at as we told herders and nomads where we had come from and how far we planned to travel that it became an almost natural sound. We learned not to get offended when they tell us in as many ways as they can that our horses will not make it, that we should swap them for a motorbike and that we would fail miserably within the next few days. As time ticked on and our kilometres racked up it made little difference to their response, even when we were over the halfway point. In the past two weeks to our surprise the odd herder here and there looked at our maps, double checked with me how far we had ridden, wedged their cigarette between their teeth and swiftly shot out their hand towards Nic with a nod of congratulation. The first time that it happened I had to consult the phrase book to double check what they had meant, I have to admit that having a nomad congratulate you feels pretty special. Horseman to horseman. We looked at each other and for the first time acknowledged our own accomplishment. Ger after ger it became more frequent but the feeling didn't dull, I was quietly proud of myself; prior to this trip I had never ridden a horse or had the opportunity to love an animal, it goes to show what you can achieve if you put your mind to it.
Our final week had some of our most memorable stays, perhaps because we were a little more relaxed knowing that it was drawing to a close and also in the knowledge that our dog sat firmly in front of our tent when we were inside the ger. By now we were old hat with entertaining our hosts, we would pull out maps, show them pictures of Australian horses, let them try out our saddles and tell them stories of our adventure. Alas, as hard as we tried there's only so much that one can do to drag out the remaining travel, especially when governed by reaching water sources at the end of each day and so we rode into Baganuur our final destination and were swiftly taken in by the petrol pump attendant when I explained that we were in need. Quite possibly the best thing about this country is the hospitality, it's outstanding. We've been taken in, fed, watered and our horses cared for so many times that I've lost count. It's one thing to take in two people off the street but another when those two people have four horses and a dog in tow. They don't even bat an eyelid as our horses eat their entire gardens and leave only their excrement as a sign of their appreciation.
For weeks now we have agonised over how we would sell our horses in a way that would see them live on, the Mongolian summer is over and the preferred meat option for winter is, you guessed it... With this tearing at our heart strings and frantically calling on all of our contacts for this not to be the fate of our horses we finally got a response from Steppe Riders. "You realise that it is the start of Winter don't you?" their director jibed us over the phone. "I will have to feed them, it will cost me in hay and grain", "no one buys horses at the start of Winter...". These were the words that we were reluctant to hear, we knew the realities. Owning animals over Winter in Mongolia is a burden. Thick snow and ice cover the land where grass once grew and the owner has to fund their livestock's survival by providing hay at a cost to them. Livestock trading is the most common form of business in this country and as much as they love their horses, they will always ultimately be food. The director of Steppe Riders, Mendee, spoke great English and after a long conversation with Nic he agreed to drive out to us and take a look at our boys. He arrived within a few hours (Mongol's don't mess about) was impressed with their well trained, loveable personalities and saw a future with them at his tourist camp. We made a deal and he arranged for them to be picked up later that night.
Saying goodbye was incredibly emotional and I don't think either of us were prepared for how we would feel when they were driven off away from us. I felt as though my heart had been torn from my chest and I wailed with pain as Nic bundled me up in his arms. With my face red from tears we concluded that we did our best by them and that they would be looked after well in their new home, they are after all, quite possibly the most well travelled horses in the country.