The next morning we rose early and were kitted out with our horse riding accessories. We had been told it would be extremely cold and so all wore several layers, including thermals. Our calves were protected by leather gaiters, and we were all very excited to find that we were going to be wearing traditional Mongolian overcoats. These were very warm and long – the length was mid-calf, and the style was such that the material wrapped right around you, with the right side fully overlapping the left to fasten at the neck and the hip with pretty beads. You then fastened a sash around the waist to complete the look. The men wore browns and beiges, but Sally and I had fancier varieties. Hers was a fetching chartreuse green with purple trim; mine was a regal purple colour, somewhat faded, with an orange sash. Baggi fastened me into my overcoat and pulled the sash super tight around my waist, so I felt like I was being sawed in half! I had to loosen it later on for comfort. Thus kitted out like Michelin men, we mounted our trusty steeds. Mongolian horses would probably be called ponies in England – they are quite small with short, sturdy legs and are very hardy. The horses didn’t have names, so we gave them our own. Mine was a chestnut with a red mane, so I rather pretentiously decided to call it after the Mongolian word for autumn (which I promptly forgot). Later on, after I had learnt a little more about his personality (a bottom biter – pity the horses in front of me), I privately christened him Terrence the Terrible. We were introduced to Dash, who was to be our guide for the journey along with Bilguun. Baggi was to stay behind and have a well-earned rest.
We set off on our two day journey to the eight lakes. We found that our many layers were not necessary as it was very sunny, and we were soon sweltering. It is worth noting here that our horse riding equipment did not include a helmet, but once we got going, we stopped worrying about this so much. It was wonderful seeing the Mongolian countryside from horseback and we gradually grew in confidence as the hours wore on. To get the horses to go faster, you had to shout ‘choo!’ or something that sounded a bit like that…however, Luke and I found it hard to get the right response from our horses – perhaps we didn’t have the right tone of authority, or perhaps they could just sense we were push overs. The horses certainly responded to Bilguun and Dash though, for after several minutes of futile ‘chooing’ from us, one ‘choo’ from them and our horses would be galloping across the plains with us bumping about on their backs and clinging on for dear life. Once we got used to the motion, we became a fraction more elegant and really started to enjoy ourselves, especially when we were close enough to listen to Dash singing Mongolian songs – he had such a gorgeous singing voice. We stopped for lunch at our halfway point for the day, which Bilguun cooked on a camp stove. All our bags and food were being carried by one horse with saddlebags over its back that was being led by Dash behind his horse. It was a stoic little black horse, and so strong! I had to keep reminding myself that a lot of the bundles were sleeping bags, but it must have been really heavy nonetheless.
In the afternoon we reached our first ger camp. There were two little boys who looked to be about 3-4 years old; they were real rough and tumble little individuals; very cute and mischievous with rosy red cheeks. We had great fun playing with them and the littlest one had a go with my watercolour paints. He had very good manners and would pass me back the brush after he had gently used it when he felt it was my turn to draw something. I enjoyed drawing animals, so he could shout out their Mongolian names for me.
Dash and Bilguun then had a series of wrestling matches. Bilguun put up a pretty good fight, but Dash was better. Wrestling is a national sport in Mongolia. Jeff, Daniel and Luke all had a go at wrestling the pair of them, but none of them stood a chance! After dinner, we played pontoon with Daniel’s vitamin pills for gambling chips and I was very jammy and won. Luckily I didn’t have to take all the vitamin pills!
That night we were woken by the howling of the dogs and some other howling from further away. I wondered if they were wolves. Bilguun told us the next day that they were, but that the family weren’t concerned as they could tell by the sound that they were only young wolves. It certainly made it more exciting going to the toilet late at night!
The next day was more of an arduous ride. We left the plains and headed into the forest, where the path was rocky and began to climb steeply. To add to the fear factor, there was a good covering of ice on and around the rocks, which the horses had to pick their way through carefully. The steep woodland trail was pretty long and slow going and somewhat nail biting. At one point, Daniel’s horse slipped and fell sideways – he came off and landed with a thump, but luckily both he and the horse were unscathed. My horse had been behind him and got skittish and decided to wander off the path and into the trees, where I couldn’t get him to turn around. Bilguun had to come to my rescue, and soon we were back on the trail, though we were all feeling a little more nervous, especially poor Daniel, whose horse was a bit wilful. After our lunch stop, the path started to go downhill, and after going through some marshy land, which Dash tested out first so we could follow in his footsteps, we reached easier ground again.
We reached the ger camp in early afternoon. It was in a wonderful location, in front of one of the lakes known as ‘bellybutton lake’ because of its shape. There was a little lamb tied to a post outside our ger – I presume its mother had died and it was being bottle fed – it was very cute! There were two very friendly dogs, who were both really soppy, one like a small German shepherd, and one larger stocky dog with silky black fur and chestnut markings around the face and legs – a breed we had seen a lot on the camps, though I don’t know what it was. Later that evening the goats and sheep came in from the hills and I swear I saw an adult sheep run up and suckle a female goat!
We went for a ride that evening to visit a few of the lakes in the surrounding area – we saw three of the eight lakes in total. After a rest, and perhaps because of the cooler air, the horses really seemed to enjoy the trip and our chooing worked to great effect for a change! We had a wonderful time cantering through the grasslands, and got back just as dusk was falling. We were accompanied all the way by the larger of the two dogs. When we went through another family’s land, their dogs all came out to chase us, but our dog stayed behind and fought them all off! When we got back we treated him like a bit of a hero, which he loved.
That night I barely slept – I seemed to ache all over. I couldn’t tell if it was stomach ache, back ache or something else and I felt awfully full and faintly nauseous. Images of goat and noodle soup kept floating up before my eyes and I found myself longing for daylight so I could stop worrying about tossing and turning and disturbing people. When morning eventually did arrive, I was feeling truly dreadful. Unfortunately, we had quite a long ride planned for that day, back along the route we had come to our first ger camp of the trip. I climbed up onto my horse, utterly exhausted and feeling like I couldn’t trust my stomach. I was alternately shivering and sweating as I sat passively on the horse and plodded along behind the others, with Luke nearby to keep an eye on me. The morning was very cold and there was a lot of ice on the ground. I was finding it difficult to concentrate and keep a watch on where we were going, and every time my horse slipped slightly I would jerk out of my stupor and wail pathetically! It wasn’t long before I said I had to get down and Bilguun kindly led both of our horses, while we meandered slowly with frequent toilet stops. It was a long walk and luckily for everyone else, they didn’t have to ride down the steep section either, instead leading their horses as the ice made it too dangerous. As we walked, I gradually started to feel less feverish and more human, and I reminded myself of the trials the Chinese women in Wild Swans had been through to put things into perspective. I had prepared myself for another couple of hours of walking, when who should we see, but Baggi, with the beloved Pergon van! I was so relieved! I flopped down on the grass whilst the horses were passed on for their trek back.
The dog that had joined us on our trip the previous evening had followed us all the way with the horses. At this point, we thought he would turn around and follow the horses back, but instead he ran after the van for miles and miles, tail wagging happily all the way! Once he crossed another dog’s territory, but he was bigger and unfazed by the chasing and lolloped through without a problem. He was very persistent and seemingly tireless, but eventually we lost him after we drove through a river. We thought he would have been good on a Duracell advert.
Later that day, after a little rest, we took a short walk to the Red Waterfall, the biggest waterfall in Mongolia. The pool the water cascaded into is 15ft deep. It isn’t a Niagara Falls, but good to see all the same. The others all climbed down the rocks to the water’s edge, but I was content relaxing in the sun at the top.
I didn’t eat much that night, sticking to rice and vegetables, which was a shame as it was barbecue night, and any other day I think I would really have enjoyed it! I went to bed very early and slept like a log.