(Nic) Rolling out of our shared single bed, sans mattress and stepping out of the mud brick Hasha I feel the warmth of the mid morning sun radiate onto my face. Daylight has been present since four and despite best intentions for getting up early we are both still getting adjusted to a sun that sets after 10.00pm with light still remaining at midnight. Never to mind, nothing happens in Ulgii until at least midday giving me at least another few hours to start my day by which time Donna will be up also. My day starts out like any other this week, collect water from the communal well, brave the precipice of the disturbingly nearby drop loo and if I am lucky and the power is on, brew some instant coffee. Donna and I then both give water, feed grain, muck out, feed hay, brush, pick out hooves and more generally care for four horses, our small caravan that will hopefully carry us across the country, first to it's capital 2, 000km west then everything going to plan all the way to Mongolia's border with China in the far east.
Descending the rocky path into Ulgii almost three weeks ago we were momentarily captivated by mountains glistening with snow rising high on all fours sides above the small city. That life exists here at all however becomes difficult to fathom, there being barely any green pasture or vegetation to speak of, the city reluctantly sprawled out amongst the Martian landscape that is the Khovd Valley. This view was reinforced a few days after our arrival when I took a seven hour bash 220km south east to Khovd to collect our horse tack and other expedition equipment. More than once on that horrid trip I stood frigid in the high altitude cold, staring bleakly out at nothing more than towering snow swept mountains or bare rock valleys wondering how it was that we were somehow going to travel alone with horses across the same barren landscape, and well, make it.
Situated at 1,500m in the Altai Mountain range, Ulgii, the 28,000 strong capital of the furthest west province (aymag) is closer to Astana than Mongolia's capital Ulaanbaatar. This perhaps goes someway to explaining why in the city and the surrounding area there lives a majority Kazakh population. Separated by mountains, desert or otherwise harsh landscape and preferring their own religion, language and customs has ensured that the people here have remained an enigma to the rest of Mongolia, sprawled out to the East. Although there exists the first inklings of a tourism industry, the city could best be described as off the beaten track and what Ulgii lacks in running water, rubbish disposal, a sewage system, roads and reliable electricity it more than makes up for in the smiles and friendly faces of a unquestionably tough bunch of residents. Up to now we can count the number of other tourists we have met on one hand and it still amazes us when walking through town that every child under 15 says "Hello", supposedly the only English word they know.
On Tuesday 2 June, after days of extended local enquiries and negations to secure a translator, Russian 4WD van and driver we departed relative comfort for the mountains to the north west. We took off at around 11am my suggestion of an early start, at say 8am being met by shock and the sincere concern of our fixer. What they do here in summer however is work late, often we have been phoned or dropped in on after 10pm at night and as it turned out that first day of horse hunting would be no different. We would eventually lay camp and crawl into bed at 2am the next morning. Our search for horses started ominously. Not long after making a pitch to our first potential seller on open steppe 10km out of Sagsay I was thrown off a bolting horse and dragged through mud before a horrified Donna and a casually indifferent audience of nomads. Riding an unknown quantity I called for the lead rope of another horse to test its mantle but myself making the rookie error of wrapping the rope around the legs then tail of the horse I was riding. As time would tell, the gut wrenching helplessness of seeing the other fall would be replayed a few days later alas in reverse.
One of the biggest factors against us and that we were fully aware of before coming to Mongolia is that after a long and (very) cold winter in which no horses are stabled and all but very few are even fed is that we would struggle to find horses with enough meat on them to safely undertake a long journey. Tough but currently weak. This was becoming apparent in the horses offered to us being all but skin and bones, their ribs disturbingly obvious. Our next stop however was about 20km away and just outside the village of Ullanhus is where we found our first two horses. We got our own saddles out at this stop, our Wintec supplied Proc CS Australian Stock Saddles, and well that certainly raised a few eyebrows amongst the gathered crowd. We weren't sure how our saddles would fit or even be accepted by Mongol Horses accustomed to a rudimentary saddle with a simple tree comprising two short planks. Pleasantly surprised with both fit and the reaction of the horses we entered earnestly into negotiations with who could best be described as the union leader, a local nomad and eagle hunter. We arranged for the horses to be ridden to our camp, near the first nomads just out of Sagsay and all of a sudden we had our first two horses. "Unnamed white horse" which stole an affiliation with Donna and although a bit flighty (as we would work out the next day) easily the most healthy of our group, a clear leader. The other quickly named "Milky" for obvious reasons (photos to follow), a highly affectionate though skinny mount destined to be one of our pack horses. Both are geldings.
After sealing the deal with family chai in Ullaanhus we headed up high into the mountains, reaching over 2,000km in the late afternoon. This 110km round trip to visit nomads in the midst of preparing to move to their summer camp appeared to be fruitless when the horses we came to see took off down the valley and into the distance. Not long after however a neighbour appeared and although it was getting dark he claimed to have some horses he could sell. We drove to his place and waited, and waited and as it was almost dark with a long drive back to where we had decided to camp we eventually told our driver to get going. As we glanced up one last time we saw two horses appear over the horizon. We had found our second two mounts. The deal was done as darkness descended and a full moon rose over the mountain on the other side of the valley. Again, an arrangement for the horses to be ridden to our camp was made and with that we took off, arriving at camp well after midnight.
Waking up the next morning to the comparably green surrounds of the Sagsay Valley and camped near nomads it was decided that we would make this our base for the better part of the coming week. Staying near nomads and with the relaxed company of Hemmo, a Finnish artist we met in Ulgii, we could start the process of fattening up the horses on fresh pasture, have access to river water and give ourselves time to learn the ways of the steppe and pick up further horse skills from the nomads. Our week staying on the grass near Sagsay went quickly, suddenly with four horses to care for in between games with the nomad children, chai with the family and learning to pack our horses it was soon time to make a move. The horses we had decided to use for packing our equipment took to the task much easier than expected and we quickly picked up the local method of hobbling horses with rope (or leather as they do) and securing the load on the horses back also with rope.
Before long the day had come, the first day of our eastward travel and the "start" of Blue Sky Walkabout. After five long hours breaking camp and preparing our horses for travel we were ready to depart. Our destination was a return to Ulgii, two days ride away and we would be accompanied by a local guide, Ashlibek, a member of the family we were staying near and despite not speaking a work of English, our emergency back stop should something go horribly wrong in our first precious hours. As it turned out our first day went relatively smoothly until late afternoon when Donna, slightly misjudging a loose girth strap, went over while mounting. The horse reared up and in a cloud of dust was trampled on by our largest horse. From 20m away I looked on horrified picturing broken bones at the least. Shaken and obviously to be badly bruised, Donna shook herself off and got on with it. We rode another kay or so then set up camp for the evening, Donna cooking as we watched the sun set over the Sagsay Valley in the distance from where we had come, satisfying indeed. Our life on the steppe had begun.
The following day we rode back into Ulgii. Calling a local contact I was able to arrange a compound on the relative outskirts of the city which would not only accommodate ourselves but the new additions to our team. Riding back to the city was slightly deflating, rubbish strewn, busy and noisy, we would also have to cross the main bridge in the centre of town and the main highway. As the bridge neared we settled our nerves and tried to calm the horses but leading our crew across the bridge with cars banked up, trucks honking and spectators cheering would be one of our highlights so far. And so here we are. We have been here 7 days now and through careful feeding including with grain our horses are slowly starting to look in better shape. We have also spent the week researching our next leg from maps and satellite images of expected pasture and water. We expect to be leaving in Ulgii in the next few days with the next leg to the small village of Hovd to the north east expected to take around a week.