Finding Nemo

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Fear and Back Again: A Horse’s Tail

Interactive Map of Fear and Back Again:

View Khatgal Trek in a larger map

Departing for Moron, Mongolia to find my kind of people

Day 1: Khatgal to Camp of Humility


My toes were numb and I kept thinking every sound I heard was a bear.  The huge Russian / Mongolian brown bears in this area are something that you most definitely do not want to run into.  I shivered away the endless dark minutes in my paper-thin sleeping bag.  The Clown Fish was not happy.  Not happy at all.

I reflected back on my first day.  It had been face-slap of humble pie.  Here I had thought that when I got to Mongolia I might just buy my own horse and “set off into the wild,” whatever that meant.  But the reality of horse-trekking is very different from the visions I had galloping across the Mongolian steppe last year back in my cubicle.  I suppose fear played a part, but I didn’t have the balls to just do it.  So I had hired a guide and flown up into Moron.  (Aptly named--you land on the dirt and then taxi across a perfectly good asphalt runway.  Moron-ians don’t quite yet trust asphalt.)  Next was a 3-hour “bus” into Khatgal, sitting on a coke bottle, Mongolian women falling asleep on me with their babies on my lap, and sweating out Chinggis.  My first step on Mongolian Steppe resulted in puke ejecting out of my mouth onto a field of horse manure.  Mongolia had been baptized by the Church of the Captain.

The next day we set off, my spirits high.  But the first few hours we were riding along a real gravel road, the bane of trekking anywhere and a bizarre sight outside of UB.  Mercifully we turned into a valley and the nightmare headed off east, presumably to Khovsgol Lake for the weekend campers.  (Which is another interesting story involving Mongolian disco, vodka, and people passed out in interesting positions all day long… )  We were headed up through the mountains on a shortcut in order to get to the local Nadaam festival in Renchilkhumbe.  Don’t try to pronounce it, you won’t be able to.  I still can’t after weeks of practice.  But if you want, maybe try ‘wrench-nll-thoompah’.  The –th of thoomp is made by spitting up a loogie.  The bigger the loogie, the closer you will be.
Fear and Back Again
A few more hours found us alone in a lush green valley, covered in a technicolor carpet of summer flowers.  It was spectacular, and the gnawing worry that my 7-year old guidebook had led me astray began to fade.  This would be real horse-trekking after all.

"I'm just an old cowhand ...."
But something also was becoming abundantly clear.  My horse was a beater; slow, with a rattling transmission and puffing out stinky smoke.  The parking brake seemed to be stuck on; it was a chore to get him to trot.  And even if I could get him to run, I couldn’t for very long anyway.  Because my guide, Toroo, was pulling a fully loaded pack-horse.  If I galloped off into the hills, I would have to sit and wait for Dumpy Grumpy to catch up.  The realization that my 2-1/2 week trek would be on Giddy-Up Glue, bouncing along at 2 mph every day, all day, dawned me like a nuclear winter.   The camping gear and food required a pack-horse, and a pack-horse meant we had one speed.  Slooooooooow, Wilbur.

The Grandmongol

Grand-mongol surveys her Ger kingdom
For lunch we stopped in Toroo’s family ger.  The filthy cute rosy-cheeked kids gathered around, I sat in the place of honor at the top left.  An ancient gnarled grandmongol woman with sparkling eyes eyed me with interest.  She slurred something, then laughed hysterically as her toothless gums wiggled.  Miraculously, her hand-rolled cigarette remained glued to her lower lip as it flapped up and down.  Her laugh collapsed into a fit of coughing.  When that subsided, she immediately re-lit her cigarette and took a huge puff, only to resume coughing up a few lungs.  Her age was impossible to guess, but as smoke curled out of her nose I tried to assess it.  The face was so lined she could have been 100, but I subtracted 30 years for the chain-smoking and another 10 for rural living in an already poor country.  So I put her at 60.
Her eyes though were full of life and they twinkled as she stirred up some milky witches’ brew in the ger’s central cauldron.  As a guest, I knew I would have to eat it, whatever it was.  Then, she pulled out an old potato sack and emptied the contents on the dirty floor.  It contained leg-bones covered in bits of dried brown meat, part of what looked like vertebrae, and other UBO’s (Unidentified Boney Objects) I couldn’t place.  She proceeded to cut pieces from one and tossed them into the cauldron.  Flies settled on the remaining parts.  My initial disgust strangely turned to homesickness; after all, I had grown up on a farm covered in flies myself.

While we waited for this delicacy to boil (it turned out to be yak), I was offered a bowl of steaming yellow liquid.  It looked vaguely like the horrible butter “tea” I’d had in Tibet, which I promised I would never drink again.  But this was Mongolia, it had to be different.  It would be rude not to drink, so I really had no choice and slurped away.  As grandmongol, father, and kids waited expectantly, my taste buds announced that I was indeed drinking a vile cup of pure melted yak butter.  I forced my lips into a smile and said “sain!” (good!)  They all smiled back and grandma resumed puffing away as she stirred the boiling brown goo.  I couldn’t wait.

Yak milk: buttery fatty goodness
The Meanie

The afternoon was an even bigger ball of delights.  Toroo didn’t trust me one inch with anything, which I suppose is understandable.  And the language barrier made things even worse.  He couldn’t teach me how to tie the ropes or put on the saddle, which was one of the whole points of the trek for me.  Instead, if I touched anything or tried to gather wood or cook or scratched the wrong buttock, he yelled the one word of English he knew: “No no no no no no!!!”  So I sat there like a lump, learned nothing, and listened to the sound of my brain cells rotting.

Toroo held the reins when I mounted and dismounted like I was a toddler.  As I got on, I said “goo goo goo! Ga ga!” and smiled stupidly.  Toroo stared at me with concern and gripped the reins a little tighter.

Later, Toroo learned a new word.  It was Mee-nee.  Over the next two weeks, I patiently repeated over and over that my name was not Mee-nee, it was Neeee-moooo.  But it turns out that in Mongolian they have something called “vowel harmony,” which means that certain vowels are not allowed to appear together in the same word.  Apparently ‘eee’ and ‘ohh’ together in a name were illegal.  So Toroo scratched his head, twisted his tongue, tried mo-mo, gee-gee, doo-doo, and a few more variations that had me questioning my bowel movements.  But in the end I was Mee-nee, and that was that.  I felt bad about being a Meanie, I mean after all I feel like I am a pretty nice guy.

Horses and Humility

Pack horse in paradise
Loading the pack-horse is a little bit like moving out of your apartment.  No one wants to help even if you buy them a steak dinner, and when it’s finally over you just want to sit down on the couch and watch a little Jersey Shore to decompress.  I learned later some guides use this thing called a pack saddle-bag.  These are pretty sweet.  You just throw your crap in these bags and then chuck them on the horse, and tie a rope to secure it.
My guide had a little different approach.  He pulled out some ratty old blankets from his shed.  We put our crap on these blankets.  Next, he took a long length of rope and started to tie it around the blanket.  I tried to help but apparently I grazed the wrong blade of grass with my toe and got “Meanie!! Nononononono!!”  

After a few months, he finished both blankets.  Next was the fun part.  I hefted one of the heavy blanket-packs onto one side of Grumpy Dumpy.  Toroo then lifted the other blanket-pack on the other side.  As we grunted, he threw a rope to me and after 5 minutes I realized from his frantic hand motions that I was supposed to pull on the rope.  We both pulled, this was supposed to tighten it around Grumpy.  But the first time I tried this, Grumpy got spooked, bucked, and ran off.  As the rope ripped out of my grip I lost the fingerprints on half of my hand.  The pain was similar to putting your hand into a burning flame while listening to William Shatner sing some Metallica.

After that, Toroo got his pre-school daughter to help instead.  I had been fired.  She expertly helped Toroo tie all the appropriate knots, and as she went back to yak-milking with her grandmother she threw me a “God, you are so pathetic” look.  I had just been schooled by a 4-year old girl.

Removing the "saddle": basically a pad on a metal bar
We trekked through the rest of the day, and then it was time for camp.  We had been riding along a rocky riverbed that was dry as a bone.  Which was not good, we were supposed to take this “river” most of the way to [loogie]-thoomp, which was still 4 days away.  We pushed on, the sun began to set behind the mountains, and we searched again, me rather half-heartedly.  There was no water here.  Then Toroo shouted.  I ran up and he pointed.  In a deep bend a pool of fresh water lay hidden among the rocks.  We were safe, the horses would drink and we would eat.  And I contemplated what I would have done if Toroo had not been there.  I never would have found this secret water pool.  What had I been thinking with that hair-brained solo horse trekking idea?!  I probably would have died in 48 hours, or been forced to eat my horse Bear Grylls style.  Or more likely, it would have eaten me.

Setting up camp is time-consuming for just humans.  But with horses it takes longer than wet underwear to dry in a rain-storm.  Which I will get to in a bit.  First, the horses must be hitched to trees.  Then the pack-horse must be unloaded.  After setting up tents, the horses must be broken down (tack removed) and led to water.  When their tanks are full, it’s time to stake them to out in the field to let them eat.  Toroo, master of planning, didn’t have any horse stakes.  So he cut down a pine branch and chopped it into 3 pieces.  Then he sharpened each end, and put a notch into the other.  In all of 20 minutes he had whipped up 3 nice looking horse stakes.  Later, I tried and after 30 minutes, arm too tired to lift the hatchet anymore, I had succeeded in carving only a few hot dog sticks.  Well played, Toroo.

By this point it was pitch black and freezing cold.  Finally, horses put to bed, it was our turn to eat.  Toroo grabbed some large stones out of the riverbed and together we carried them up to camp.  He arranged them in a triangle.  In my spare moments I had gathered some firewood.  Toroo looked at my collection and shook his head and walked away.  In Mongolia there is the Nomad way or the “I see you were dropped on your head as a child” way.  He returned a bit later carrying his own wood.  He collected only the lowest dead branches from pine trees.  Which actually made a lot of sense… these branches were dry, off the wet ground, and sheltered by the higher reaches of the tree.  And pine burns very easily.  My feeling of being a helpless stupid tourist forced me to snap my fingers and sing a song.  Perhaps I could lift our spirits with a tuneless rendering of Britney Spears’ “Toxic.”  After the first few notes, Toroo narrowed his eyes and frowned.  I shut up and returned to my usual position of “lump.”

Toroo broke off very small pieces of wood and put them in the middle of the rocks.  Then he took out a match and tried to light the wood directly.  To my surprise, it lit up with the first attempt.  He coaxed it into a proper cooking fire, adding more twigs and little branches.  Then, he took out an old battered blackened cooking pot from a burlap bag.  He balanced it atop the 3 rocks, which turned out to form a perfect natural tripod: ahhh, secret revealed.  The cooking fire below happily warmed the pot.

I proudly pulled out my pasta and tomato sauce.  Toroo smiled and from an old potato sack produced something dry, brown, and stringy.  It was the mummified yak from lunch.  He cut it up into pieces in the bowl, and after a minute I realized with horror that he was cutting off much more than he could eat: this was a meal for two.  I smiled at him as I thought of various ways to end my life.  Oil and globs of fat melted off into the dirty water from the pool.  I sadly put away my pasta sauce, and as I awaited my fate mixed greens tossed with balsamic dressing danced above my head.  When you hallucinate about salad, perhaps it’s time to take a Vitamin C pill.  Getting scurvy could be cool, though, maybe it would give me discounts on peg-legs and eye-patches.

Actually it turned out OK.  I did make the mistake though of turning on my head-lamp once for a better look.  I’m never doing that again.

Day 2: Camp of Humility to Happy Ger Valley

Poop Toe

As feeling drained from my numb toes halfway through the night, the wind buffeted the little tent.  I curled tighter into a fetal position, but it was no use.  I was too cold to sleep.  My watch said 3am, the sun wouldn’t arrive for a long time.  I tried to picture my happy place.  For some reason, all I could picture was Pamela Anderson’s boobs clobbering Tokyo.  But at least it was weird enough for me to temporarily forget the pain.
Yesterday in Khatgal I had refused to buy a thick warm deel (pronounced dell, sort of), the traditional Mongolian coat.  On that hot summer afternoon, when I said it was too thick, the men stared and laughed at me.  At the time I assumed it was because my beard was still full of lunch-time ketchup.

It gets cold at night in the mountains of Mongolia.  Damn cold.  I knew I was in for it when I started seeing my breath.  But when I unfurled my “summer” sleeping bag, which turned out to be just a synthetic sheet with a zipper, my doom was sealed.

There is a sound that accompanies one as they wander the Mongolian countryside.  It is reminiscent of the quiet roar of distant surf, ebbing and flowing but always there.  The Mongol name is “salikh” (the “-kh” again pronounced like a loogie).  It is the never-ending wind.  And even if it is a hot July day in town, the salikh that drives down into the Mongolian steppe from Siberia is always cold.

Finally, the sky began to lighten.  Oddly it was only 4am.  Dark hadn’t truly occurred until 11pm, the nights were only 5 hours for some reason.  Were we really that far north?  I was desperate to get some blood back into my toes because I have Raynaud’s phenomenon.  I didn’t want to get any more capillary damage to the piggies.  So I went outside, and in the faint few sunbeams on the grass did some sit-ups, push-ups, and tried a new yoga pose: sleepy-tree-falling-into-horse-poop.  That last one had some success: my toes went from milky white to brown-ish white.  But that was it … I would just have to wait.  Hours later the tent warmed and I finally dozed.  It was so ironic that just last week I was wearing sweat for clothing in Beijing, praying to Buddha that Mongolia would be a bit colder.

Butt Blisters

After the usual few decades of horse wrangling, it was our turn to eat.  Toroo cooked up more yak-special.  I managed to communicate a question: “Toroo, what is favorite food, you?”  He pointed at the pot and smiled happily.  I realized asking that question of a Mongolian is like asking which side of a circle you like best.  When there are only 3 choices, every day, all year long, if you don’t learn to like them you’ll be between a rock and … another rock.

Finally we were on our way.  I did a little math in my head.  We were spending on average 3 hours a day dealing with the horses, only to go just slightly faster than someone walking with a backpack.  It called into question the whole idea of horse-trekking.  What was the point?  Only much later did I run into theses amazing things called “organized horse treks.”  On these luxury treks they actually had good horses, pack-horses to spare that could trot with their packs, and a team to set up and break down the horses in only 45 minutes.  Meanwhile, their guests enjoyed their morning coffee, a stroll to the lake, and finger-painting.   The horses might actually be mounted with proper saddles that didn’t crush your balls into condensed milk.  This type of horse-trekking did make sense; if you wanted you could gallop off with the guide while the wranglers stayed with the pack horses.

But at the time, all I knew was that horse-trekking seemed pointless unless your idea of fun was to see how fast blisters on your ass could merge into one mega-blister that tried to compensate for the metal bar under your butt the guide called a saddle.

Today the clouds had cleared and that bluest of blue skies Mongolia is famous for soared above dewy green hills.  Again the dazzling carpet of unknown orange, yellow, white, pink, blue, red, and violet blooms lay before us.  We rode through a painted sea.  Toroo seemed to purposely take us off the path as if even he too could not resist swimming through the rainbow fields.

Painted fields
I had made myself a little switch from a bush last night and with a lot of “Choooo!” (Mongolian horse for go) and a few whips Giddy-Up Glue actually began to trot fast.  With only a little more prodding he took off into a run.  Yes!  Finally, I was running across the fields of Mongolia.  But no sooner had a grin appeared on my face Toroo yelled his favorite words, “No Meanie!”  Babysitters don’t like it when their charges wander too far.  So after only a short distance, I reluctantly pulled on the brakes and put on the hazards to wait.
It was a start at least.

Toroo's son joins us
Dances with Sheep

We pulled up only a few short hours later at a set of gers.  After the long hard yesterday I expected to only stop for a quick bite.  The woman of the ger poured us some butter tea (which actually had real tea amongst the butter!) and bread with fresh home-made yogurt.  It was actually quite good, even if my body was starting to spasm from the lack of vitamins.

Hmm.... Goat?  Sheep?  Deer?
The highlight lay on the opposite side of the ger where a furry head lay on the floor.  The sheep stared up at me as I studied its teeth.  It seemed to say with its eyes, “Excuse me, I seem to be missing my body.  Would you mind having a look around?”

After lunch, Toroo seemed to be in no hurry.  I was actually looking forward to getting to camp and explaining that I would cook tonight!  But slowly it became clear we weren’t leaving.  I got out the phrasebook and tried to ask about getting on to camp.  The boy in the ger spotted a word.  “Aav!” he exclaimed as he pointed to Toroo.  It was the word for father.  This was interesting.  We had just been at Toroo’s family ger last night, yet apparently his son was here with a strange woman.  Perhaps Toroo was a player?  I don’t hate the player, I just hate the game so I didn’t ask any questions.

At any rate, at least in a cozy ger I wouldn’t be doing sit-ups at 3am tonight battling frost-bite, so I relaxed and reflected back on the last two days.  It was becoming painstakingly clear how completely idiotic my original plan had been to buy my own horse.  If I hadn’t frozen to death, my horses and I would probably have died from thirst.  That is, if they hadn’t walked off in the night as I bungled the stakes.  Which wouldn’t anyway matter if Grumpy Dumpy had run off while I was loading the packs.  All of which was beside the point since I had no idea how to put on and off the tack, or even tie the friggin’ horse to the tree.  I sat back, humbled, feeling stupider than usual on this year away which was quite a feat.

Then it occurred to me what that sheep’s head was doing in the corner.  It seemed to wink in my direction, and it dawned on me what was for dinner.

Day 3: Happy Ger Valley to Mount Doom

Now that is fresh yogurt!
There are three food groups in Mongolia: 1) Yak, 2) Butter, and 3) Fried Dough.  This buffet of delights is always washed down with buttery-delicious melted butter.  (aka butter “tea”)  And the sensual kaleidoscope that is the Mongol menu is repeated every day for every meal, all year long.  It almost makes me miss Snake Blood.

(This morning my pee started to smell like butter.  I’m not sure if that’s cause for alarm.)

The Tale of the Sheep

Goodnight sheep
I woke up and wandered over to the family ger to find a sheep laying on its back separated from its skin.  Woah.  Were they slaughtering a sheep in my honor?  That would be so cool.

The way the sheep is killed is very interesting: the mongolians will make a very small incision in the live sheep.  From people I've met who have witnessed it, somehow the sheep isn't too bothered by this incision.  Then, the mongolian will reachI in with their fingers and feel their way around until they find the aorta.  Then, they simply pinch it until the sheep painlessly goes to sleep.  Everyone looks away during this step, apparently it is inappropriate to watch the sheep's moment of death.  It is probably one of the most humane ways of killing an animal I have heard of, and I'd guess it has something to do with the Shamanistic belief in the sacredness of nature.  It gives the sheep a level of respect that is missing in the Western industrial food chain.

Removing the heart

Some girls have barbies
I watched in fascination as Toroo opened the belly and emptied the stomach and intestines into a bowl.  Then he opened the chest cavity and pulled out the lungs.  The heart was put into a separate bowl, and then with a ladle he scooped out all the blood that had collected in the bottom of the body.  This liquid went into the same pot as the heart, and would be made into zaidas, or blood sausage.

The esophagus was cut from the neck and put into the “meat” bowl.  Toroo then went to work slicing up the ribs and legs.  Meanwhile his sister (I hope) and the two little girls went to town on the tripe.  They squeezed the partially digested grass like toothpaste from a tube and then poured water through it to rinse it out.  As I watched the 4-year old enthusiastically massage the sheep intestines, I realized this little girl had definitely never played with Barbies and probably thought spiders were cool.

The best came last.  After everything, and I mean everything (including the penis), had been cut and sorted, all that remained was the head.  Turo slid the knife into the cheek and gave the sheep a Joker smile.  Then he placed his hands on the top and bottom jaw and pushed.  The sound of cracking bone and sinew popped in the air as the jaw came away from the skull.  The sheep’s tongue waggled as it said its last goodbye.  The head was brought inside the ger and hung on a hook.  It had an appointment with that Nomad’s Delight: Sheep’s Head Stew.

Cracking open the skull

Toroo's son borrowing my guitar
It seemed we were in no hurry so I played with Toroo’s 15 year-old son a bit.  We climbed a little mountain, chucked rocks, and watched the little girls make a game of chasing the baby yaks around.  Tall hills surrounded the green valley; in the distance horses swished their tails, yaks did their yak version of moo and wood smoked out of the ger’s chimney.  It was a scene of rural bliss, and I was content to sit and watch the world go by from my little Mongolian perch.

March to Mount Doom

Too soon it was time to pack up and move along.  Toroo had his brother-in-law to help this time and they quickly had the pack horse locked down in 15 minutes.  Against Toroo’s “No no no!” I jumped on my horse without his help.  Sometimes you have to push a little to get your way, after all this was my trek and it was my money he was earning.  We said our “Bayartai’s” and the kids and woman waved goodbye as we rode off.  It felt a bit like a Western.

We rode up and over a small ridge, the painted fields enveloping our horses.  Mountains, uul, rose up to the sky around us as we crested the pass and began our descent into a large river valley.  But it was dry as the Gobi and only a boneyard of rounded stones remained, a horse’s worst enemy.

Putting on full combat gear
Ever so slowly we crossed, hooves slipping and sliding, and when the river rounded a bend we gingerly re-crossed.  Toroo spotted a valley heading north and left the trail to enter.  As soon as we left the valley the salikh turned into a cold jet engine blasting into our faces.  The small valley surrounded by high mountain walls funneled and amplified the wind into a low roar.  We stopped and put on our deels.  But after 30 minutes, Toroo said “Ugui! Ugui!” (No! No!)

He had gone up the wrong valley, which was interesting because clearly the path had gone straight and he had turned off it for no apparent reason.  It wouldn’t be the first of my guide’s interesting decisions.  After wasting that hour we finally took the path up the correct valley.  Again the piercing wind howled at us as we turned north.  It was getting late, Toroo’s decision to leave his family in the afternoon wasn’t looking so smart, and we and the horses were tired.  “Ugui! Ugui! Oos! No!”  There was no water anywhere.

Inexplicably, Toroo motioned for us to set up camp right here, exposed to the wind and rain, despite there being no water.  We could have camped up in the trees or gone back down around the bend.  But I wasn’t the guide.  No sooner had we set up the tents than a freezing rain was upon us.  We quickly put everything away inside, but I noticed Toroo’s “tent” didn’t look very seaworthy.  It was a thread-bare contraption that was more duct tape than canvas.  The poles were broken and taped and bent.

The light rain turned into a downpour, the salikh began to groan louder and louder, and my little tent shook like it was in the teeth of a huge bear.  But I sat back contentedly; we would be OK, if cold.  We had beaten the storm.  Pounding heavy drops began to fall, smacking into the tent like artillery shells.  And then, like an evil omen, I felt a drop hit my head.  There is a scene in every horror movie, where the victim, right before they are eaten or killed by the monster, hears a noise and slowly turns around.  In Alien, it’s the part where the drool hits their forehead and they tentatively look up.

I looked up.  A ribbon of drops were hanging from the seam across the tent top.  They were evil Alien eggs about to hatch.  I was defenseless.  And then, one by one, they began to fall.  It was raining inside my tent.  I exhaled, my breath crystallized from the cold, and that is when I started to feel a little afraid.

A few days ago I had called Ganba, my trek organizer, from UB and asked if I needed a tent.  He assured me I didn’t, he had one.  In Mongolia, I have learned an important lesson.  When asking when something will happen, you must insist on an exact time or the answer will always be “5 minute.”  When asking for a horse, you must ask exactly how difficult it is to make it run, or the answer will always be “fast horse.”  And when asking for a tent, you must insist on asking exactly how waterproof it is, or the answer will always be “good tent.”

As the drops fell, I looked down and realized my situation was about to get much worse.  The bottom of the tent was still very waterproof.  The freezing water began to collect and soon I found myself sitting on Nemo Island in Tent Lake.  I scrambled frantically to rescue what I could from the rising flood.  But the lakes were growing in number and depth.  Soon there was only a tiny place to put all my gear stacked up like a set of Jenga.  I watched helplessly as my boxes of food got soaked, then my shoes, socks, sleeping bag, and backpack.  All I could save were my electronics: cell phone and camera, sitting on top of the pile of ruin.  I grabbed a large rock from outside so at least I could sit above the water.  I sat, shivering, wet, a little bit desperate, as the gusts of wind tried to rip the tent apart.

An hour passed.  The feeling had long drained from my toes and fingers, they were that blue-ish white you read about in first aid classes, and it said: "you need to get inside immediately."  I rubbed my hands together, I could feel nothing.  They might as well have been blocks of wood on the ends of my arms.  Hypothermia was not the worry anymore; frostbite was.

Time seemed to stop.  I breathed, checked my watch, listened to the howling wind and whipping of the tent.  Sitting, hunched over on my little rock, feet in the glacial melt, I thought about prayer.  Certain situations will turn even a hard agnostic like me into a seeker of God’s aid.  Then, somehow, as my happy place (hint: it involves Pam Anderson’s boobs crushing Tokyo) failed to materialize, Someone heard me.  Just as the last light was fading, the rain slowed to a light mist and the wind ceased.  I jumped out of the tent, emptied all the contents onto the ground, and did a damage assessment.

(*OK: disclaimer... I'm NOT a fan of Pamela Anderson or her comical bolt-on ICBMs.  But for some reason, the idea of her as Godzilla makes me smile)

One box of food fell apart and spilled everywhere.  Everything else was soaked.  I pulled up the tent and found Toroo had set up camp in a riverbed: a stream was now running under both our sites.  I lifted the tent on its end, drained the contents, and yelled at Toroo to see if he was OK.  His tent had collapsed onto itself.  A lump under the canvas yelled “Sain!” (Good!) “Ta sain bain uu?” How on earth could he possibly be OK?!

My respect for Nomad hardiness could not be higher.  I replied “Sain.”

The riverbank had a nice slope to it and I climbed up and restaked the death-trap Ganba had called a tent.  Hopefully if the rain came back it would drain to the bottom and my stuff would survive.  No sooner had I reloaded the tent when I felt a cold wind hit my face.  I looked up, in the dim light I saw something black and ominous approaching quickly.  I jumped inside and a few seconds later the rain and wind returned in force, pounding the tent mercilessly.

There was a time in Africa when I was sleeping in a flimsy tent in the Serengeti.  I had bargained hard and gotten a great price.  Too good of a price, as it turned out.  In the middle of the night, some large animals, and to this day I’m not sure if they were lion or hyena, grabbed the tent and shook it like a rag.  I thought I was dead.  For reasons unknown, they gave up and left me alive just when the tent was sure to rip.  At this moment, the tent was flapping so hard I had to get out of my sleeping bag and push against the fabric with both hands to stop it from collapsing.  Flashbacks to Africa came and I sat there for hours, pushing, hoping it would hold and my strength wouldn't give out.

At one point I put my head outside and felt the wind and rain tear into me.  I have a little experience with strong wind from kiteboarding, and to me this felt like it was averaging 35 and gusting over 50 mph (80 kmh).  It’s not the average wind speed that will cause damage—it is the relative size of the lull to the gusts that rips apart fabric and snaps lines.  The wind this night was flipping from 0 to 50 mph like a light switch.

I curled into a fetal position, wondering what life would be like with amputated fingers, and waited.  After an eternity, I checked my watch.  5 minutes had passed.  I began watching the seconds tick by.  It was torture.  

As the tent snapped and I awaited catastrophe, a song came into my head.

“The sun’ll come out, tomorrow, bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow, there’ll be sun…”

I suppose when Annie hits the brain things are at their lowest low.

Day 4: Mount Doom to the Valley of Peace

Escape from Darkness

Around 2am, I turned on a light and pinched my fingers and toes.  Nothing.  The color was hard to tell from the LED but they looked gray.  Things couldn’t get any worse, I thought.

Somehow time did pass.  At 4am, as it must, the sky began to lighten.  I checked the thermometer: -5 deg C.  I unzipped the tent and peered out; the dirt clods hitting the tent turned out to be giant wet snowflakes.  The mountains above were white and I realized the snowline was reaching our tents.  My watch said it was July 9, but Mongolia didn’t care.  Impossibly, things had actually gotten worse.

Soaked, scared, frozen, starting to snow at 4am

At 5am I couldn’t take it anymore.  I ran outside and started doing drop-downs, push-ups and sit-ups in the snow.  I did them until I couldn’t do anymore, but as soon as I stopped the wind tore through my wet clothes and I was immediately frozen again.  I gave up and went back to the tent.

I have been cold many times before.  I’ve been very cold, cold to where I was worried about hypothermia or frost-bite.  But I’d never experienced this feeling before, and it was a feeling I will never forget.  It was a dark and desperate feeling, as if my soul itself had turned to ice.  I was no longer shivering; perhaps my body was too tired.  I contemplated just giving in and relaxing, and as I did I suddenly felt a bit warmer.  It was the Devil's Blanket.  Just as these thoughts began to close in and envelope me, something changed.  The noise had vanished, it was oddly quiet.  I checked my watch, it said 6am.  I listened and even the distant roar of the mountain wind had ceased.  Could it be?

I jumped outside and called to Toroo.  What if he hadn’t made it?  There was no response.  The lump that I presumed was him lay under the broken tent: the new stream ran under half of it.  I called again: “Toroo!”

Then, voice-cracking: “Sain bain aa.  Ta sain bain uu?”

“Sain!!”  He was a hardened nomad with a deep tanned sunburnt face, tough living was burned into his bones.  But this morning, as he crawled out of his tent, he looked shaken.  His eyes had deep wells under them, the skin was almost pale.  He managed a weak smile.

Snow on hills, struggling to get warm
I laughed, perhaps a bit hysterically.  Because we were alive.  And though I wouldn’t be able to feel them for a few more hours, when I pressed my fingertips they were still soft.

By 9am we were on our way and the clouds began to lift a little.  By noon, patches of blue appeared, and at 1pm, we crested a ridge and Toroo called: “Nar!”  Sun.  He smiled.  “Nar!” I replied, my smile even bigger.

Before us, a huge beautiful green valley appeared.  Tall granite peaks thrust above us on all sides, pine forests covered the slopes.  Suddenly, we were in Switzerland on a beautiful sunny afternoon.

Annie was right.

Splash of orange poppies in Mongolian's switzerland
Even though I was still shivering I gawked at the surroundings.  Who knew Mongolia was hiding a jewel like this?  A large grassy plain lay ahead, for once firm footing for a horse.  “Choo!” I cried and cracked my switch.  Giddy-up Glue took off; we galloped across the open field, under the peaks and blue sky.  The breeze took my hair and whipped my beard and I laughed out loud.  This time, it was from pure joy.  I hadn’t felt so alive in a long time.
Ovoo atop the pass

We climbed and climbed and just as it appeared we were heading straight into the face of a mountain, a pass appeared.  At the top, blue flags fluttering above a pile of rocks, lay a huge ovoo (pronounced uh-wah).  Toroo signaled for us to stop.  We dismounted and hitched the horses.  Toroo walked up to the pile and solemnly put his hands together in prayer.  He bowed his head for a long moment, muttering some words.  I bowed my head as well, and without being sure to whom I was speaking, I whispered simply, "Thank you."

Then, he slowly began walking clockwise around the ovoo.  After 3 circles, he faced the pile again and pulled out a small piece of paper, read it, and then put it carefully on the rocks.

I looked at the pile more carefully.  Eerie yak and horse skulls peered down at us from the top.  All sorts of other offerings littered the pile, from bottles of sacred vodka to crutches from what I presumed were disabled family members.  Shamanism is alive and well in Mongolia.

Bridge to another world
And it struck me how this pagan religion was in many ways the same as Christianity, Tibetan Buddhism, or Islam.  It was all about asking a higher power for help and, as Freud once remarked, for protection against the overwhelming power of nature.  In places such as these, where mankind hasn't yet twisted the world into a comfortable concrete jungle, nature doesn't seem to care if we live or die.  I reflected on the previous night.  How helpless I had felt against the mountain storm, how in the darkest hour I had felt the overwhelming need to pray.

We are all the same really, us humans.  The differences are just ripples on the surface.

The Plague of Pharaoh

Yosemite in Mongolia
The moment we crossed the pass and started our descent the weather changed dramatically.  The cold salikh vanished and suddenly the sun was pleasantly warm on our backs.  We passed a crystal clear mountain stream gushing straight out of the peak above us.  This was truly clean water, untainted by any animal.  We descended through pine and around a bend appeared a dramatic sight.  A row of huge toothy peaks grinned down from above over a wide valley.

We had passed from Switzerland into Yosemite.  At the valley floor, on the green grass beneath the pines, we made an afternoon camp.  We quickly unpacked and tossed everything onto the bushes to dry.  I changed into shorts and a T-shirt and sat in the grass barefoot, soaking up the delicious heat.  Slowly the blood returned to my fingers and toes, and after some hot coffee even that dark freeze in my bones began to thaw.  I wiggled my toes in the grass, lay back, and snoozed.

In a bit I was actually hot, and wandered over to the same spring we’d followed down from the pass.  I took a nomad shower and scrubbed my face in the translucent water, letting it soak into my hair and beard.  Then, I stuck in my head and took a long drink.  If purity could be a flavor, this was its taste.

Some horsemen with extra horses came down during our lunch, and later Toroo told me “Nadaam.”  These riders were on their way to the festival in Khumbe as well, and were bringing along their finest race-horses.  

After lunch we packed up and set off down the gorgeous valley.  But as I was quickly learning, like everything in Mongolia, there is nothing beautiful or good that doesn’t require a price.

A few flies appeared, then a few more, and before I knew it we were riding through a cloud of blood-thirsty little demon-spawn.  They swarmed and buzzed in my ears and face, and even managed to bite through my 2 layers of clothes.  But it was nothing compared to the agony of the horses.  The mini-monsters attacked them relentlessly and held a raging frat-party atop the rear, blood flowing like wine, where the swishing tail could not reach.

There are 4 types of horse attack aircraft.  The most numerous are the tie-fighters, which don’t bite and whose purpose seemed only to annoy.  Then there are the Vader-class tie-fighters (mosquitos), which don’t seem too threatening until the little bastards land and insert their hypodermic through all your layers of clothes with surgical precision.  The next class is the Imperial Bombers, large squat horseflies which dive-bomb in, bite, and fly away before you can swat them.

But by far the most impressive are the Star Destroyers, ridiculously large horseflies which buzz in with an ominous bass sound, land, and proceed to insert their cannon-sized straws into the horse.  When the first wave of Star Destroyers appeared, I had thought we’d stumbled into a nest of Africanized Honey Bees, their yellow and black bands angrily buzzing all around us.

I studied one as it started to suck on my horse’s rump.  And then the purpose of the toothless tie-fighters became clear.  Once a hole was opened they poured in by the dozen on the Star Destroyer until it was literally shoved out of the way!  The mosh pit turned into a piranha-like feeding frenzy over access to the red gold.

But the Star Destroyer wasn’t too bothered, it just stumbled a few steps away and blasted open a new hole.
When Moses rang up God to bring forth the plagues upon Pharaoh, God didn’t need to create the plagues from scratch.  He simply had to ship them over from his warehouse in northern Mongolia.

We wandered down the valley and for long stretches we had the pleasure of riding through forested meadows along the riverbanks.  The dappled sun cast rays upon the carpet of grass and lowers, clouds of dandelion-like spores drifted by, ablaze from the sun, butterflies danced in the air.

But the agitated horses didn’t care a whit about this alpine beauty, they trotted quickly along without any prodding, anxious to get away from their torturers.

Late in the day a gorgeous campsite appeared in a sunny meadow next to the riverbed.  It looked warm and inviting.  But Toroo passed it up, and around the next bend we stopped in a cold shady mosquito-infested den.  Once again, his superior logic was beyond my simple mind.

Pure Water, Pure Land

That night I demanded to cook.  After frying some potatoes I tossed in some onions, peppers, and spice.  Toroo added his dried yak and soon we had a proper stir-fry, Team Finding Mongolia had come through with a real meal!  And I have to say, it was the best feed I’ve had yet in this country.  I cracked open the bottle of Chinggis and stayed up late that night, playing guitar alone in the dark forest.

It is hard to explain how I felt that night.  Here in this remote place in Mongolia, by a campfire, I was singing only to myself.  Perhaps the best word is that it felt true.  My life back home, working at a corporation, was an old skin that was long gone.

It was a moment I’d only dreamed about in that faraway California cubicle.  But now it was flipped, and it was home that was the fading dream.  I finally felt awake, the real life was happening here, now, at this very heartbeat.

Each cold breath was lonely happiness.

Khovsgol Day 5: The Swamp of Mordor

It was a standard breakfast, instant coffee and ramen.  Then we followed a rocky riverbed down and out of the mountains.  Far off in the distance, past what looked like taiga (Siberian forest), a few green hills beckoned.  That must be near our destination.

We entered the sparse pine and bush-filled forest, and after some nice easy riding we hit some shavaa (pronounced ‘shower’).  The patches grew in size and frequency until I realized we were surrounded on all sides by an endless swamp.

Endless Swamp of Mordor

Navigating a horse through swamp requires constant vigilance.  Like a car, if you hit quicksand or deep mud your vehicle might get stuck.  I didn't want to contemplate that scenario.  There was only muck for miles in every direction, we were swarmed by thirsty blood-suckers, and there was no way out.  Walking the bog looked impossible; with only 2 legs you would be sure to get trapped.  The horses sometimes would sink up to their thigh!  Then they would panic and buck and jump until they scrambled out.  Each time this happened it was a struggle to stay in the saddle and remain tranquilo.

After an hour in the Swamp of Mordor I was drained.  We were constantly pulling on the brakes and making long detours around nasty-looking tar-pits.  The cloud of flies sucked blood from the horses with a vengeance.  In the dark swamp the sun above started to look more and more like the Eye of Sauron, gazing down at us and longing for our precious, our precious blood.  I found myself squinting and shutting my mouth to prevent inhaling flying protein for lunch.  Every once in a while the little demons managed to bite through all my clothes.  As I slapped the bastards into bloody oblivion, I did it with a healthy dose of R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

Star Destroyers and Tie Fighters

Hours dragged by, the hills only seemed to grow imperceptibly closer, the swamp only seemed to grow more dark and evil.  We had to stop for a bite.  There was no time for a fire, the moment we dismounted the satanic storm smelled weakness and buzzed into my nose, ears, up my legs, and down my pants.  I don’t know about you, but when you feel insects crawling around your butt and biting your junk, it’s hard not to freak out.  I gave sign language to Toroo indicating my predicament, but I have a feeling he either thought I was attempting a shaman dance or trying to pleasure myself, or perhaps both at the same time.

I opened a tin of smoked sardines and broke off a hunk of bread: this was lunch.  It was impossible not to eat a few flies; I only hoped they weren’t full of horse blood.  At some point, I gave up swatting them.  The flies sensed victory; they bit and drank and I didn't fight back.  It was pointless: like a hydra, every bug I squashed was instantly replaced by 10 more.

Quickly we scarfed down the food and saddled up the pack horse.  At last, a couple hours later and a few pints of blood lighter, we reached the hills and said goodbye to the Swamp of Mordor.  But as we rode up the hill, only the mosquitos pulled away.  The rest of the Imperial Armada followed, they were ready to torture us to the end of the earth.

That was it: I gave Glue a little kick, “Choo!  Choooo!!!”  He was ready as me and took off at a full gallop.  As I rode away, I smacked the flies off Glue’s rump and watched the cloud recede.  Victory at last!  Glue belted out a whinny as if he wanted to high-five with his hoof.

We ran and ran until we crested the hill but suddenly I pulled the reins.  In front of me like a stop sign was another large spooky ovoo.  Toroo, off in the distance, would want to make a blessing.  So I got off and hitched Glue and waited.  Eventually he arrived trailing his cloud of flies, which soon detected our presence and attacked.  Ahh, Glue, your valiant effort was wasted.

Wooden Ovoo
Toroo performed the rite and we were off again.  I knew the ovoo was a good sign and an even better one was the tree filled with skulls on the other side of the hill.  When we’d left Khatgal we’d seen just such a tree which protected the town’s border.  It meant we were very close.  A short ride through some pine and then an enormous open prairie appeared.  Close to the forest a few gers smoked away, further lay herds of yak, goats, and sheep.  And, off in the distance, a large town.

We had arrived.  Safe and sound, for the most part.  Though I will definitely need some me-time thinking about my happy place over the next few days.


  1. Seems like Toroo wasn't the best guide. Didn't you almost get killed by a guide on your last trip getting lost in the fog on a glacier in the Himalayas?

  2. right?! wasn't really facing death this time, but definitely a scary night. i'll tell you when it started snowing i really thought i might lose the fingertips

  3. i did a similar trip a year earlier.