(Nic) Squinting through tired eyes I set the torch to and scan the near horizon. As I pierce the darkness outside our tent relieved to still count 4 horses I let my thoughts wander and for a moment consider the ancient Roman punishment for falling asleep on watch, death. Fortunately for Donna and I the continued fear of again losing one or all of our horses to theft is more than enough motivation to keep us awake through often cold nights and our now regular regime of an overnight watch. On this particular evening it is hovering around zero degrees and although snow gently falls on our tent outside I return to my book. Detailing Scott's expedition to Antarctica and the use of horses on the ill fated first attempt to the pole I comfort myself with the thought that things could be worse.
Four days out of Ih-Uul during a spate of bad weather that briefly hampered our progress we managed to buy ourselves a new horse to replace the sad loss of our stolen pack horse and friend Choco. It has been just over three weeks since we picked ourselves up out of that rut and marched on across the Arkangi Aymag of central Mongolia and we now find ourselves hundreds of kilometres on and rolling full hoof ahead. As I write here on a beautiful autumn day we are less than 200km south west of Mongolia's capital Ulaanbaatar and one of our so called "rest days" (find feed for horses, move horses, feed horses, groom horses, feed horses again, do washing, research route, program way points, buy food) presents a fantastic opportunity to not only reflect on the ups and downs of the last month but also consider now detailed plans for the coming weeks.
Although initially marred by sour experience and hostile encounters our time spent crossing central Mongolia just north of the Khangai mountain range has seen us pass by an almost unbelievable diversity of natural landscape and simply stunning geography. Across snow capped mountain passes, through towering forests and across lush grasslands we and our now beloved horses have trundled along gorges, past extinct volcano and even transversed the famed sand dunes of the Mongol Els. In Arkhangi, we (the horses) have walked through increasingly populated areas and we have had our first significant contact with other tourists. Yes, we weren't alone after all and can now count on two hands the number of other western travellers we have met in almost four months! More than anything we have perhaps been witness to visitor ideals of Mongolia, encouraging us at times to both emotionally and outwardly distance ourselves from our warts and all experience. To encourage our safety, each night we try to stay near gers which has been made possible by the more populated valleys we have been travelling though. Although this doesn't always work well for us the experience of late has generally been positive and we have been fortunate enough to once again be extended the sort of hospitality for which we can only be thankful for. This including staying in the yards of police stations!
Though being somewhat forced into a situation that makes an overnight watch necessary for safety our days remain much the same though carried out later due to morning sleep during day light hours. As it turns out our getting up at 8am is more in keeping with a Mongolian way of life and though previously retiring at around 4pm we now generally arrive at a ger in the early evening just as the men are having tea before heading out to muster. Our days of late have been typified and in my experience usually at this stage of an expedition by routine and intuition. It still takes us about 3 hours to go from waking and checking the barometer on my watch (steady at 948 hPa, another simply glorious day on the steppe) to four horses, two people ready to roll though we are now, I must say a particularly streamlined operation.
Tracking either increasingly bituminised roads or following the compass on shortcuts sometimes days or a week long we ride 1 hour rotations throughout the day, 50 mins work, 10 mins rest, giving the horses sufficient time to take their minds off the job and grab a quick feed. Horses well ready for knock off time we wrap up around 6 or 7pm for our approximately 25km and try to find a ger or group of to stay near. Our personal safety and that of our horses somewhat assured and with traditional formalities like chai over we work to quickly strike camp before dusk, usually with a now accrued audience. We try to have horses staked in their first overnight position close to the tent and our dinner dusted by 9pm giving us opportunity for 2 hours sleep before watch starts. This interim time is in which our staying near gers provides us cover as there is generally family activity (muster, milking, dinner, long drop visits etc.) all the way up until about 11 or 12pm, coinciding with our up time. One of us gets to sleep on while the other sets about our nocturnal duties, often beginning with moving the horses to a new position, something that may be done a few times by us throughout the night while we take turns to sleep until day break at 6am when we both turn in for 2 hours. It has been during these long nights that intuition takes over and it perhaps works well that as a couple we seem to know how much sleep each of us needs as we cover the overnight shift (sometimes 1 hour on/off but usually a variety of combinations). I have actually been incredibly surprised at just how much I can get done during the night; reading, writing and navigating while still managing to be coherent and functioning throughout an often tough day (if only I had known this while at Uni!) If anything we both now have at least a faint idea of what to expect as prospective parents and what the unbroken sleep of early parenthood must be like.
Just like that we are now over 1,400 km down on our journey across Mongolia. We are currently in the village of Erdenesant in Tov, or central Aymag the majority of which sits south of the capital UB. We have 140km straight line to cover across open terrain to the south east where we hope to arrive at the community run camp of expedition partner Nomadic Journey's on the evening of the 17th. It is at Arburd Sands on the northern edge of the Gobi Desert and close to the tiny town of Bayan-Onjuul that our horses will be looked after while we take the necessary gauntlet of a visa run. Waiting there for us that evening will be a "Land Cruiser with wings" that will whisk us away to Ulaanbaatar where the very next morning we will front at the Chinese Embassy to plead our case for a multiple re-entry visa allowing us to, within hours jump on a train, shoot down to the border and be back to our horses within a few days. Should we be successful in obtaining a re-entry visa this process will be repeated further on down our track in another month's time. That is all going to plan! China visas routinely attract complications and given we have just two working days to sort everything out before we become illegal in Mongolia we'll be counting on every one of our lucky stars. If worse comes to worse we'll be on a hastily organised and particularly expensive flight out of the country to visa-free South Korea.
All going to plan, our road ahead is likely to be characterised by a marked change in conditions. Winter is coming. Already our south easterly path has delivered us into marginal country typified by reduced pasture and shrinking natural water supplies, this will be further compounded by the end of summer in Mongolia. We have already started to feel the pinch of the cold and yet we have a long way to ride through weather that Mongolian nomads have spent the best part of the last 4 months meticulously preparing for. We both fear for our horses ability to find enough food particularly under a foot of snow. How we self-proclaimed "summer people" that haven't seen a winter in years will deal with temperatures known to drop to 40 below but routinely hang around neg 20 remains to be seen but then again readers of this blog will be the first to know!
Thanks for reading.