(Nic) Life becomes pretty basic when it boils down to a simple search for water and grass, the theme of which would dominate our 240km march across the barren, desert landscape to Songino in the remote Uvs province of Northern Mongolia. Riding out of the small village of Naranbulag on 10 July we had questions of self-sufficiency on our minds with enough food packed for 16 days alone and the challenge of moving ourselves, our equipment and four horses safely across the harsh environment looming on the heat hazed horizon ahead. It is a notion that appeals highly to me but if however we were expecting some sort of adventure on our journey across Mongolia we certainly found it over the next two weeks, the requirement to plan and account for such a long period without being able to restock no less challenging than the need to navigate to water sources without the safety or benefit of roads or tracks long lost in the desert sands. Occasionally following a track, infrequently used as it may be presented a welcome opportunity to at the very least make us feel as though we were going somewhere but otherwise our ride across the open, incredibly hot and windy expanse saw us travel for days without seeing anyone or anything.
A chance meeting with an adventure biker the evening before departing Naranbulag highlighted the challenges ahead but also set me thinking about how the way we travel influences the way we interpret our surroundings. More than just being the first foreigner we had seen since leaving Ulgii 28 days prior, we were eager to impart from DK information about what we could expect ahead of us. After all, shaking the dust of his jacket and nursing a broken windscreen, the South Korean had just covered on his Triumph Tiger in a day the same distance we were estimating would take us a fortnight. "Desert, absolutely nothing for about 250 kilometres" he relayed. "Really?", I queried slightly alarmed but hoping from my map for more than simply nothing. "Ok, maybe that's a slight exaggeration, something for about 50km out of Songino and then nothing for the rest...sort of". This statement struck a chord with me and as I thought about it more over the coming days it began to typify the major differences in travelling as we are. Don't get me wrong, I love travelling by motorbike and still view it has perhaps the ultimate way to cross-country, literally, but there are no maybes to be had with horse travel. Crossing a desert there are no sought of's. You find water and grass for your team or they stop going, or even worse still, die. Given that I have done a bit of travelling by bike, motor and with legs it gave plenty to think about over the coming days. Basically begging DK to camp with us and not continue on for the day our campfire discussion once again highlighted the small world of cross country adventurists. DK had, in Ulaanbaatar run into a couple, one half of which Donna had run into in Albany before leaving. Although they normally live in the Kimberley Patricia and Billy are currently headed our way and we hope to run into them somewhere along the road in Mongolia.
Proof of the saying that you are 'never alone on the steppe' would come a few days later and in one of the more bizarre incidents to be played out on our journey so far, would help us with a problem we had on immediate hand. For over a month Donna had been riding Choco, the temperamental but sure footed and determined senior member of our team. Perhaps a result of removing his saddle too early after travel each day he had, for a week or so been showing signs of swelling on his wither. We woke on the fifth day out of Naranbulag to the ghastly discovery that the skin had perforated opening up a fairly major wound on his back and was oozing puss. We were camped on a small strip of grass near a disused well and hadn't seen another sole for the best part of two days but 10 minutes after our discovery, a man and two sidekicks rocked up in a truck, he spoke the most English of a Mongol we had encountered for a month and just so happened to be a vet. Although many Mongols claim to be "horsemen" and to an often dubious extent they are, there was little doubt this man had medical training, his assistance in helping us invaluable. Although we carry a fully fledged equine first aid kit, the Mongol helped us deliver our first injection in a course of antibiotics and went someway to reassuring us that with the supplies we had we had a chance at rehabilitating our stead. The injury did mean however that we were reduced to foot, both us for 2 days and me (Nic), the rest of the way to Songino, a march of some 170km...fortunately my Rossi boots were made for walking! The long stroll did however afford me insight into another form of overland travel, that provided by our own two legs.
That one is never alone of the steppe did however come to haunt us just a few days later in a incident that would cause us to re-evaluate our vulnerability in such a remote area of the country as if things weren't hard enough for us as they were. We had ridden again for two days without seeing another sole. We were tracking towards a map marked well which had taken us into the mountains. Upon arriving at the well we found it dry with few indications of any surrounding water. It seemed as though this would be one of our first nights without, not a huge problem provided we could find some the next day (the horses drink about 30L - 40L a day in hot conditions). Not long after we began ruminating our predicament two young men arrived on a motorbike and fortunately directed us to a small spring 2 kilometres away. The evening was to be bittersweet however, as after watching us set up camp the two men would rob us in a brazen theft of a backpack containing camera, phone, knife, binoculars, horse whip and cash, disappearing into the night. Donna and I consider ourselves careful travellers and being where we are and carrying survival essentials we need to be. Unfortunately, in Mongolia we receive constant, often negative attention with regard to our belongings, the major item being our saddles, binoculars and knives, in that order, things a Mongolian nomadic horseman can use. On this occasion in an area well over 100 hundred kilometres to a main village the assailants waited until I had hobbled each horse and removed the saddle from my riding horse. They waited again until I was away from our tent (a mere 8 metres) before snatching the backpack from Donna and taking off on their motorbike. There was little we could do and apart from having to simply pick ourselves up and continue on the next day, we were worse concerned with how the incident would affect our view of our host country moving forward. Although we can perhaps understand how our belongings are hot property in a much undeveloped nation it has been sometimes painful for us to experience just how intent the people have been in looking us over and through our things, wanting what we have. This often means people simply opening up our bags or peering closely through the doors of our tent to see what we are up to. Where we have encountered nomads or villagers they simply sit down next to us while we set up camp and stare at us. Perhaps even more disconcerting is when we have been riding through hugely remote areas, nothing marked on the map without seeing anyone for a day only to have a horseman ride down to us from a mountain, look us over and then take off again. We have often wondered where it is these peculiar nomads have come from or where they are going but there is little doubt they know the land like the back of their hand and we are the strangers in it.
The immediate future for us is bright however, we are confident that heading further east onto the steppe proper and the foothills of the mighty Khangi mountain range is going to afford us with a healthy change to increased pasture coverage and availability of water (as I write this has already been the case) as well as more frequent encounter of villages or nomad inhabited areas (for better or worse). We have eased into a gentle rhythm of travel and have started to make efficient use of the long summer days. About 3 weeks ago and upon the advice of the International Long Riders Guild, we started to employ the armed cavalry convention of mounted travel. This means that aside from an early start, we march for 50 minutes and rest for 10 throughout the day. In doing so we complete our days travel earlier (we were stopping longer throughout the day previously) and arrive at our overnight camp with enough time for the horses to properly hydrate and sufficiently graze overnight. Although pasture has been limited up to now we expected that increased coverage and more regular access to water will put a spring in the step of our team and allow us to slightly increase our daily distance of travel. As importantly though we are becoming a close knit, determined team and getting to know our horses, learning their nuances, behavioural quirks and seeing them become the inseparable group they now are is giving us immeasurable joy. We can't move one of the horses without the others neighing incessantly and a recent overnight breakout from the Tudevetey police yard we were staying in (yes, a jailbreak!) had them all cheekily grouped down the stream together.
Despite the hardship of the last few weeks, as I write from Nomrog we have already experienced in the last few days seas of green pasture and have woken to completely still mornings, the sun creeping above forested mountains heralding the start of beautiful blue skied days in which we ride peacefully and ever endlessly east. We have now travelled some 600km by horseback and waking up to living our dream every day fills us with raw energy, often indescribable emotion and a great love for what we are doing. Quite honestly we wouldn't have it any other way....
Nic and Donna