This on Facebook, 7 August:
As if someone has flicked a switch, things seem to have become almost too easy for us here in Mongolia! Having put for now some of the more challenging elements of our crossing behind us, our days consist of meandering along seas of green pasture under beautiful blue skies in the shadows of forested mountains. Waking to stunning sunrises on crisp cool mornings, taking lunch-break and afternoon swims in crystal clear rivers, camping amongst pine trees and enjoying evening log fires under the most spectacularly starred night skies we have ever seen. Come join us, I think we have the hang of it! Gain insight into horseback travel in our next blog "A Day on the Steppe with the Blue Sky Walkabout Caravan".
Just several hours later:
That is until one of the horses gets stolen... just hours after our last happy post we woke to incessant neighing from the other horses at 2am this morning to discover Choco, Nic's pack horse taken, perhaps merely minutes prior. Hours of frantic searching in the dark revealed nothing as did more looking this morning when light broke. If you asked me 2 months ago I'd probably have said I was angry about losing our money, now I'd say that we are devastated to have stolen from us a living, breathing part of our team. Fortunately and unusually for us we were camped 5km from a village (and near gers so should have been safe) that also has an open police station so we have been able to make it back in to sort things out. Choco was double tied, staked to the ground, hobbled and PADLOCKED just 12m from our tent. We were warned repeatedly of horse theft before coming to Mongolia from a number of different sources, just never thought it would happen to us particularly with all the precautions we take. Needless to say we have been stopped dead in our tracks and everything is uncertain at this point. We are hoping for the best but perhaps expecting the worst. Hopefully more to follow...
(Nic) So the night before last, some 19 hours after the theft of our horse while we slept at 2am in the morning, we finally managed to convince the local policeman to help us. His reluctance seemed valid, mentioning that it would take exactly 15 days to conduct an investigation into the matter. When I agreed and said that we would stay that long it became 19 days, "OK" then it became 21 days "OK" then a month. I could see it going nowhere so he eventually agreed to help upon threat of my calling the Australian embassy in Ulaanbaatar (there isn't one). He would provide Ih-Uul's only other officer for a day and when our search didn't turn up anything he would provide me with a police report so long as I agreed in writing that I didn't want Police help and that we 'lost' the horse. We were aided in this conversation by one of four limited English speakers from the village of Ih-Uul, a dire place which should have been a fleeting fragment in our memories but of which we now reluctantly found ourselves back in. From the old man we learnt the story of 2 German girls 2 years ago that had had all of their horses stolen in the same area. Considering this and since reflecting in a less sleep depraved state on our night time raid it appears that we were likely very lucky to have been left with our remaining three horses. The thief(s) were probably not expecting padlocked western style hobbles nor perhaps our other horses to make such a commotion. Our slight delay (mere minutes) in reacting to their cries cost us Choco but likely spared them. Either-way the bright side is that we still have three healthy horses, not enough to continue riding but we can continue on foot for the time being. We are trying to think like a Mongol and not bring emotion into it, "it's just a horse" they will say despite both the large cost to us and the obvious attachment we Westerners consider important. Also gleaned from the English speaker was the method of choice for horse theft in the area. One simply steals horse from its owner while they sleep, takes it up to the surrounding mountains, ties it up to a tree (with no water or grass) for as long as it takes for things down in the village to blow over and the owner to leave. Once we leave the horse (Choco) will be collected and sold (usually) for meat. Charming.
So at 11am the next day (yesterday) a rented motorbike turned up and I spent the rest of the day perched precariously behind a young officer both of us without helmets pelting along dirt roads searching without success for my pack horse. The same horse we nursed back from severe injury and certain lameness weeks ago, Choco was starting to put on weight and for ever since we started our journey 2 months ago has continually impressed us both with his tenacity and determination. That the seemingly amateur thief stole our weakest, thinnest and still slightly injured horse didn't go far to appeasing our sorrow at having had a living, breathing member of our team taken from us in such horrible circumstances. By the end of the yesterday however I was sick of being laughed at by the 20 or so families of the gers we visited and just wanted to get back to the love and understanding of Donna. Searching until early evening did allow my thoughts to stray however and despite our immediate problems I was reminded of a similar moment of mirth I had almost exactly three years ago. I had been riding my motorbike through rebel-held territory in Baluchistan, Pakistan and the two AK-47 wielding guards assigned for my protection had just left me in the middle of the desert due to a rising dust storm. After battling off the road to perform an autopsy of my air-filter I dropped, just slightly, the bike against the wall of the abandoned mud hut I found cover in. The resulting tiny scratch on the windshield of my bike sent me into an immediate funk/rage/homesickness/anger until I realised that at about the same time back home people would be getting up early to go and sit in traffic to get them to a desk they will sit at for the rest of the day. There has to be something said for living your dreams, taking the path less travelled, accepting challenge despite the hardship and there I was, in a mud hut, in a dust storm, in Pakistan. And here I am, with Donna, in Mongolia, life continues and dreams live on.
More than just being an irritation or a cultural misunderstanding, Mongolian people are starting to wear us thin and douse our futility to continue on. We have in our journey so far had the natural environment thrown at us in spades and have come out on top. We have had to learn totally new skills and become accomplished horse people with no outside assistance and yet problems with people continue to be more of a problem than we could ever of anticipated even though we were prior warned. That the country is spectacularly beautiful yet the people so constantly and tiringly challenging makes our experience here such a crying shame. We can almost understand the constant being told we won't get to the next village let alone the other end of the country (even though we have already travelled for 2 months and near on 1,000kms) but ridicule, complete lack of compassion in the face of adversity all the way through to open hostility is hard to take. Yet the now handful of foreign tourists we've met have expressed identical feelings and experienced similar problems. That these tourists are out in the countryside, not on packaged tours from the capital means they have seen things for what they are worth and I think that qualifies them to their opinions. However it remains fact that these tourists have mainly been on motorcycles or in vehicles and we have met one couple cycling. The problem we are finding is that our chosen method of travel is so slow and cumbersome, if we have an incident or problem we still need to spend 3+ hours packing up, readying our horses then moving off at walking pace, not your average quick get away for us. It is the picking ourselves up and dusting ourselves off and continuing on that is becoming increasingly difficult, and yet things were becoming so streamlined for us the last week and a bit, so enjoyable. The fact that we have been away from people for this same period has not gone unrecognised. Although it is easy to think of Mongolia and it's nomads as romantically from another era, it appears that the sudden and haphazard fusion of modernity has exploded in the country and the fallout has been significant. Vile greed, a misunderstanding of Western values and a severe resentment of foreign wealth and opportunity seems to have instilled a troubling mentality in the majority of Mongolians we have come across. That they are hostile and steal from each other while living already difficult lives, desecrating their most beautiful natural environment though relying on it for their well-being makes them a difficult bunch to relate to. Though we never expected it we have sadly grown no love for this country (yet) and our remaining in it is simply to see our goal realised.
So our immediate future is somewhat unknown, what is certain is that for the second time on this journey we will be reduced to walking. Of more pressing concern is that of the safety of our expedition and we are currently considering a few different options including a plan to shift the bulk of our movements to the cover of darkness so as to prevent a repeat horse theft. Of course travelling by night in a foreign country where you are constantly being watched anyway, in a landscape you have never laid eyes on does have it's obvious pitfalls. Our only other potentially viable option is to set up an hourly watch meaning that we would be sleeping one hour on, one hour off every night for the remainder of our time in the country or at least until we feel safe again. But we felt safe here! Near a village, camped near a collection of gers and as close to other people's horses as we were to ours. That our basic human need for sleep makes us so defenceless against the theft of our horses makes me sad yet angry, frustrated yet determined but most of all powerless in a way that is difficult to describe. In an uncanny way I am almost excited by the challenge of finding another horse and incorporating it into our existing team but the thought of another night time raid horrifies me. Time will tell.
There is a silver lining to this story (there needs to be), last night we had our first shower since leaving Ulgii over 50 days ago. I do a lot of thinking in the shower and it was a weird feeling to think of all that had happened since I last enjoyed the simple pleasure of falling hot water. I thought back to a time when the mission was priority, the objective was to cross the country and the horses were a means to an end. That they mean so much more to us now, that without them we are nothing, that the loss of one of them is so heartbreaking are thoughts that we are trying to block out. Think like a Mongol I keep saying to myself as I reflect on advice from a horse buying contact we had in Ulgii, never refer to a horse in Mongolia as "My horse", you never know how long you'll have it for so just call it "The Horse".