(Nic) That we had ridden further in one day than any other previous since starting out almost four months ago was hard enough. That over the arid ground we had crossed the horses had not had water since the prior morning was problematic. That there had barely been a blade of edible grass in two days didn't make things any easier and that at sunset on day 98 we finally found ourselves standing at a well should have been cause for relief...had it been operating. Just a few minutes later we were running for our lives impossibly trying to encourage our tired horses to outpace a crazed drunk who despite his apparently semi-conscious state was throwing fist sized rocks at us and doing his best to repeatedly run us down on his motorbike. Proving conclusively Mongolia null devoid of a dull moment whipping our horses into a quick pace was difficult at first but once they realised the severity of the situation, a shot-put connecting with Milky's head our team took flight. Taking off into the descending darkness the moonless night rapidly became our friend as we rode away from our pursuer, a shot of adrenaline cursing through our veins for every time we heard the small engine stall and then be clumsily restarted.
Never quite knowing what is around the next corner, two days later, still in one of our journey's more remote locations to date and freshly hot showered we walked into the luxury, spartan clean dining Ger with adjoining kitchen. Not quite believing our own eyes seeing actual knives, forks and place mats there was a multiple course lunch waiting to be served upon us sitting on actual chairs. Amongst future friends and in a valley filled with the relatives of our hosts, famed horse trainer Batbadrakh and his wife Densmaa we had arrived at Arbud Sands 140km south of Mongolia's capital Ulaanbaatar. 99 nights and 100 days since waving good-bye to the old Kazakh eagle hunter and his family near Sagsai we had now ridden almost exactly 1,000 miles and though pre-arranged with expedition partner Nomadic Journey's prior to us stumbling upon the exclusive camp, we now found ourselves quite unaccustomed to the hospitality and service laid before us. Perched before dunes on the northern tip of the famous Gobi Desert and part occupied by the last stragglers of a busy season we didn't have long to savour the Sands. Just a couple of hours later we had said goodbye to our beloved horses and were bouncing along a track heading to the big smoke, our visa run had begun!
Picked up out of the countryside which has despite many ups and downs become our home and thrown into the mayhem of a chaotic city it was an almost indescribable feeling sitting in the plush leather seats of The Grand Khan Irish bar upon mid night that same evening. Though the lights, sounds and pollution faced us at every turn, the greatest feeling we felt as we sat slowly gathering our senses? Anonymity. No one in the pub looked twice at us, no eyes became fixated upon us, no hands were discovered creeping over us or our belongings, no one wanted to talk to us, ...no, no-one cared. Finally, as if a huge weight had been relieved of our shoulders we were no one, just another expat or backpacking couple enjoying their own-self, their own evening and their own existence. And far out it felt good. The pressure of being foreigners in deep and out of their place in a lawless land and untamed wilderness released we looked at each other and just sighed heavily. It was however a moment we both knew was not to last long as we had just 8 overnight hours in which to book flights, hotels and amongst a detailed itinerary prepare documentation for what we hoped would be a multiple entry visa to that not so small nigh not too distant corner of the world, China.
Standing in line at the busy office we watched the hands on the clock above the embassy clerk tick mercilessly towards the moment we knew the shutters would fall. Growing more impatient at the constant queue jumping in front of us we thought about other such moments in which the whim of an unknown and more than likely uncaring office bearer has wielded so much influence over the path we would soon take. Think; Pakistan, Iran, Bangladesh, Indian Himalaya restricted areas. One of those 'left or right' decisions in life but without the decision. We didn't have long to ponder and suddenly thrust upon the small window the huffing and puffing began, "no copy", "...confirmation..mmm", "why so many time enter", "why go China", "why come back Mongolia". China was never a guarantee especially at such short notice and in the game of visa roulette we came out even. Though we had thankfully been granted the opportunity to add briefly to China's population twice in the next six months we wouldn't be allowed the more permanent multiple entry option allowing us to take on 2 visa runs then exit stage left. And just like the door that now slammed closed behind us, our time in Mongolia was now finite. Donna immediately bawled her eyes out on the pavement outside the embassy. I looked on wondering how she could go through so much fear, physical pain and remembering the incident of just a few days prior, pure terror yet still want to stay here and continue on? "It's the horses", she said "I can't bare the thought of leaving them", "I just love them".
An overnight train, 8 dumplings in China and an overnight train back for 1,500km, a bit of shopping and a very welcome evening spent with other travellers in Ulaanbaatar later we were stood in the next office of gross determination, Mongolia Immigration. Although we had thrown the China dice and successfully performed the rapid re-entry to Mongolia we still had another card up our sleeve...a second extension on our new tourist visa. Although originally we had received a special 3 month tourist visa to Mongolia, we had already exhausted the permitted one month extension in a 6 month period. Travelling on dual passports so long as they didn't cross check identities (plausible) I'd be in for another 2 months. Donna, travelling on the same passport could be an issue and despite being given the all clear minutes before close on the Monday, returning the next day we were given the good and bad news "Big Problem", said the official. Although deflated, Donna and I have become emotional rollercoaster aficionados during our time in Mongolia and we headed back to Arbud Sands that evening in a positive mood, determined to make warm memories out of our expedition's last four weeks despite plummeting temperatures. Another brief and unexpected light was shone on our hopes back at Arbud Sands, who would have thought Batbadrakh's cousin was the Prime Minister's wife or that royalty frequented the camp? Alas, it appears that the once backwater of murky deals and shonky government arrangements, Mongolia is finally cleaning up it's act and special favours don't fly like they used to. Well that can only be a good thing.