Finding Nemo

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Alone on the Steppe: Part I

The Saga of Nemo and His Not-Quite-So-Loyal Steed, Fighting Crime Together in the Wilderness

(Just kidding we didn't fight any crime, but that would have been totally awesome)

NOTE 1: Apologize for lack of pics... they are lost forever. *sob*
NOTE 2: This story will be posted in parts over the next couple weeks ... keep checking back for titillating updates!!

Abandon Hope

Part I: Peering into Darkness

So here I am. Alone. In the middle of Where-the-hell?, Mongolia.Well, its actually northern Terelj, and its safe to say I am at the last outpost of civilization. I am sitting on the lawn of the Hotel with No Name, of which I seem to be the only customer, staring across the grass at a chestnut brown horse. This unwitting soul will be my partner in crime this week. Beyond this hotel are wild uncaring mountains, impenetrable swamps likely filled with buzzing blood-suckers, raging rivers and muddy streams to cross, and the Great Unknown. I faced some of this before only a week ago, but that time I had a guide. And I still almost lost my fingertips. This time, I only have a compass, a set of carefully taped topographic maps, and a vague feeling that can be described most poetically as "what the f---".

Fear and excitement are the two primary emotions contesting for my brain's attention, mixed in with the surprisingly sudden need to go to the toilet. Also, somewhere in there is a niggling feeling that can only be called Dread. Because, it turns out, I may have lost my passport. Since my passport has an irreplaceable onward visa to Russia, this would turn out to be event of such catastrophic proportions that its best not to really think about it. Thus, at the moment it remains only a distant odd buzzing sensation. Or perhaps that is the small squadron of horseflies that has decided to join the expedition.

Tomorrow, for better or worse or probably much much worse, I will head into the wilderness with my horse. Yes, I said my horse. You didn't think I would do it, did you? Actually I too find myself constantly surprised to be staring at this animal I purchased. He looks even more surprised than me at the whole concept. Luckily, he doesn't know yet that I am a complete imbecile when it comes to horses, or he would probably be gnawing off his halter in terror.

Part II: Horse Torture Devices

I'm fairly certain I look just like Alexander here when I ride up
The first task after purchasing a horse and associated gear (which is itself a fairly interesting tale I will get to in a moment) is coming up with a name. Every famous mount in history has had an appropriately grand moniker. Alexander the Great rode Bucephalus, Zorro rode Toronado, and on my last trip to Baja I drove the legendary El Burrito. (What, you haven't heard of El Burrito?!)

Before introducing his name, I must give a little background. You see, I didn't ride my horse to this frontier village from the breeder's ranch. I rode in a truck. Which means that my horse had to be loaded up into a horribly-designed torture cage with wheels. You may have passed by one of these contraptions on the freeway and idly thought, hmmm, wow, those horses look pretty comfy. Perhaps you might even think they have a flat-screen in the front and are contentedly watching The Black Stallion, and were so eager to get on board they just leaped in on their own.

In Mongolia, it turns out things don't work quite this way.

In Mongolia, horses ride around on flat-bed tow-trucks designed for cars
First of all, the trailer is on wheels, which means that it is about 3 feet off the ground. How does one get a horse, which can spook at things you cannot even hear, to leave the firm comfortable earth it knows and loves and jump into a steel cage? Excellent question. In Mongolia, the solution is to back the trailer up next to a steep hill. Then, one person whom the horse knows and trusts pulls the horse down the hill into the trailer, while another man gets out the whip and cracks a few on the horse's rump. The person who is leading the horse, who is at this point trapped inside with a large terrified animal, then prays to the local deity that they will not be bitten, crushed, or pooped on in the process.

The previous owner of the horse was not with us when the trailer arrived so I was a little mystified who would be picked to pull the horse in. I mean, the horse didn't know any of us, and we could tell he was already starting to get those wide eyes that say, "don't even think about it dude." Mendee, my local fixer, stared at me and pointed to the trailer. "You will go. It is your horse now." Gulp. I gave him a "Ha ha you are so funny Mendee! You really had me there buddy!" look. He didn't smile back. Ruh roh. A leaden feeling started to rise in my legs, and it was at that moment that the reality of owning a horse finally hit me. For the first time in this whole fiasco, I would have to start taking charge of an animal I knew less about than the 37 mysterious ingredients of a Twinkie.

Doesn't sodium acid pyrophospate sound like an explosive? 
I grabbed the lead rope gingerly with two fingers like it was a deadly snake. After a few seconds of hesitation, I again looked hopefully over at Mendee. The only time I saw a look of more disgust was when as a boy I was eating spilled candy off the dirty floor of a Kroger's and looked up to see a horrified mother with her baby. (Checking the floor around Kroger's candy vending machines was one of the true pleasures of my formative years.) I dutifully began tugging at the rope, leading my horse with no name to his fate. Of course, even with the genius plan of backing the truck onto a hill there was still a sizable 2 foot gap between the earth and the metal floor of the flatbed. The horse balked. I climbed onto the truck bed and pulled harder. But, as anyone knows who has ever worked with horses, they happen to be ridiculously stronger than wimpy humans. If they really don't want to do something, well, good luck. The horse leaned back and looked at me like I was stupid. Mendee got out the whip, and, my eyes nearly closed, bracing for impact, I watched as he gave a little crack. The horse lifted up his front legs, threatening to rear and yank me off the ground while letting out a terrifying neigh.

My general reaction to horse screaming
I had taken a crash-course in horse-riding before I left. So I thought I knew my horse noises. But to my disbelief, when a horse wants to, it can scream. And when it does it in your face, it is unnerving. Before I could think, Mendee gave a harder crack of the whip. Suddenly the horse leapt up with its front legs, slipped madly on the slick metal, and crashed down on its shins on the tail of the truck, then slid back off the truck. Frantic, it tried to pull free. I leaned back with all my weight, Mendee gave another whip, and then it leapt up again screaming in terror. This time as its front hooves slid around it jumped up with the back legs, landed on its chest, scrambled around, managed to get up, nearly slid back off, then was aboard. I tightened my grip, pulled up the slack in the lead, and walked the sweating horse forward to the front of the bed. His eyes were wide in panic, legs shivering.

We did a damage assessment. No one was hurt. Most importantly, perhaps, the horse didn't seem to break anything during that horrible fall onto its shins.

At this point, I mostly just held the horse while the truck driver came up and secured it. This involved tying a thick rubber band across the back, holding the horse's rear in place and preventing it from falling out. Then, the head was secured high by shortening the lead to only a few inches, and hitching it to a bar across the top of the cab. I mostly just sat there making soft "woah" noises to the horse (which probably means "roll over!" in Mongolian) and petting the shoulder in an effort to calm it down. This complete, we got off the truck.

The first meeting of my new crime partner had gotten off to a very rocky start. He barely knew me and now I was associated with banging his shins on metal, getting whipped in the ass, and being generally scared to death.

Not pictured: hoof in face security system. Like all car security systems, its easy to accidentally trigger
The drive was better. But with nothing on the floor of the truck, every once in awhile the horse would slip around. I looked out the back window, and right there was the horse staring back at me. When we looked at each other he seemed to calm down a bit, as if happy to not be forgotten. After a long slow drive through the countryside, we arrived at Terelj national park, a popular tourist ger camp close to Ulaanbaatar. But this developed area wasn't what I was looking for. I needed something wilder. So we drove through the park, passing tourists posing with 2-humped camels, getting photos with the enormous hunting eagles, and the helmeted clueless bouncing around on supervised horse rides. At first I felt smug, but as the safe fun park passed and we headed further afield, it was soon replaced with something else: an uneasy sense of loneliness. I was, after all was said and done, also just another rich tourist passing through this poor beautiful country. Now I was leaving my tribe behind. As Moses once said, I had become a stranger in a strange land.

Ger Camp in the granite hills of Terelj
And Terelj is beautiful. A scenic river, the Tuul Gol, flows through gorgeous green fields broken up by large granite hills. Huge boulders lie at the foot of the cliffs, some taking on interesting formations such as Turtle Rock.

We passed through it all, leaving behind the fake tourist gers with their concrete foundations, road-side vendors selling souvenir schlock, and grandmongol mommas hawking mare's milk. We went up over a high pass, the little Korean truck struggling mightily, and finally descended into the little frontier outpost of Terelj village.

Iconic turtle rock
Here, the unkown awaited.

Part III: Making friends

We rolled up into the town, looking for a place that might be friendly to a random foreign invader. First we stopped in at the little market. There was a parking lot with two spaces. More interestingly, there were six hitching posts. In other words, they expected more customers by hoof than wheel. This raised my spirits--we were in the right place.

Horse parking
My driver spoke no English, I spoke no Mongolian, and so armed we confidently walked into the store to ask directions. I will say, after spending 6 weeks in China a man can get pretty good at the universal language of hand signals. Asking for a hotel is easily done by pointing at yourself, and then putting your hands together and leaning your head against them. Asking for food is done by making a shoveling motion with your hands into your mouth, which is pretty much how I eat anyway. Drinks are simple: tilt back your head and hold an imaginary bottle. And asking for the toilet is, well, trust me they usually get the message immediately when I make the signal. (Of course, there was that one time in Malaysia where I didn't quite have the hang of it yet. After looking at me grabbing myself, the store owner picked up the phone and I heard something that sounded like "police".)

The owner pointed back the way we came and spoke Klingon with my driver for a few moments. He listened and then nodded and said something like HIja' (this is actually the real Klingon word for "yes".) After picking up a few supplies for my trip, we rode back up the hill the way we came and soon arrived at a pleasantly run-down hotel sprawled on an overgrown field. It looked clean, cheap, and built for Mongolians. Perfect.

We parked the truck and walked inside, and my prayers were answered. The hotel owner spoke English, and when I informed him of my plan to ride off "north somewhere," he took a long look at me, shook his head, sighed, and then said I could camp on the lawn for $5. And even better, he even said I could keep the horse inside the grounds so it wouldn't be stolen. Now, keeping a horse inside the grounds of a hotel was quite a gracious move on his part, because horses tend to eat a lot of grass, and then that grass tends to come out the other end. A lot. I thanked him profusely, I couldn't have had better luck to start things off.

Lucky owner. My horse's back-side seemed to be open 24/7
Woo-hoo!! I had a safe place to camp the first night, and even had a local to ask questions about the trip.

Next, we unloaded the horse without any terrible mishap (they are pretty happy to be led out of the trailer it turns out) and I even managed to tie him up to the fence with a decent hitch knot. My half-baked horse boot camp up north was already paying off. My driver looked me over and frowned, waved goodbye, and drove off. It was getting dark and cold. I looked at the horse. He softly whinnied, "What now, boss?"

I only replied, "Sorry buddy, I don't know."

Sadly, I was starting to convince myself I could speak horse.

Now we were truly alone.


Which brings me to the present moment, writing in my new cheap Chinese Oh-Lord-Please-be-Waterproof-I'll-Do-Anything-Please-Please tent I bought in the Ulaanbaatar black market.

Outside, I hear him munching away. He seems OK, remarkably, considering the day's trauma.

I take a final look at the gear. Maps, water tablets, a small stock of food, knife, saddle and ropes, headlamp. It makes such a small pile.

Tomorrow we leave mankind.

Interactive Map of Alone on the Steppe:

View Alone on the Steppe in a larger map


Part I: Who's the Boss?

Its midnight. And someone outside is screaming. I bolt upright, peer out my tent with my headlamp. In the distance I notice a single eye shining back at me. It is my horse, and he screams again. Well, perhaps screaming is the wrong word because it tends to evoke a human noise. But if a horse could scream, this is what it would sound like. It is a high-pitched, nervous whinny. And it is very loud. I cringe, thinking of the extremely generous hotel owner, how he let me camp on his property, how he let my horse eat his grass and crap on his lawn. And now I am repaying him by awaking all 3 of his other guests. I get up, grab my horse-brush, run a few steps, and then stop myself. It's better if I walk over carefully. He still hasn't decided if I am a threat or friend I suspect, and I don't want to get bitten or kicked on the first day of my trip.

The rare crazy chicken horse. I admit, this has nothing to do with my story
He has every right to scream, I suppose. After all, 2 days ago he was happily wandering around on the ranch where he was born and raised, surrounded by friends and family, dreaming of that hot young filly across the yard. Then I showed up, yanked him to a new ranch, whipped him up into a metal box, drove a world away, and dumped him alone and scared on what might as well have been the moon. His screams for family and friends back home were unanswered, and the only person he knew was the clueless chump writing this diary.

I turn off the headlamp when I get closer to not blind him, letting my eyes adjust. And then, carefully, I walk up and look him over. His ears are forward, his eyes watch me closely. Not mad, but not relaxed. Of course, this is a wild guess, I really can't speak horse yet. I carefully pet his left side. He lets me. I get the brush and begin brushing his flank, then legs, and very carefully walk around to the other side. Horses generally don't like people on their right side. It makes them nervous. You approach, put on the tack, mount, dismount, remove the tack, and walk away from the left side. That's how its done, and that's what the horse knows and expects. Even walking over from the left to right side of a horse must be done cautiously and using soft noises to let the horse know what you are doing.

Blissfully happy or ... plotting evil?!
I finish brushing his other side, then inspect him. He looks ok I suppose, but I really don't know. Reading a horse's mood is a black hole to me. I'd be better at guessing what the Mona Lisa is thinking. (Clearly she is bemused by the crowd of 50 people stomping and shoving each other out of the way to take a picture which will inevitably be obscured by the glare off the bulletproof glass, tilted 20 degrees, and have a smiling Japanese head in the corner throwing up their mandatory peace-sign.) There are experienced horse wranglers out there that can take one look and instantly know if a horse is hungry or excited or tired or pregnant or are thinking of investing in AAPL. I usually wait until it pees or poops and then knowingly remark, "That one looks a little lighter on its feet." For some reason this hasn't gained me much ranch-cred yet.

I look around and notice that most of the grass within reach of his rope has been munched. Hmm. Perhaps he's just hungry! I unhitch him, and then try to lead him to a new batch of grass. He steps on the rope which I have carelessly not coiled up and almost trips. I walk over, then push him a little to get his foot off the rope. He doesn't budge. I push harder. Then, he picks up his hoof and steps on my foot.

Horse psychology
Katarina can also whisper to reindeer
Doh! Now, luckily, thanks to an enlightened girl I met, I knew exactly what the horse was doing. It was all psychological warfare. First of all, I knew it wasn't an accident. If horses know anything, they know where they are stepping. He had stomped my foot on purpose. But, he hadn't intended to really hurt me. He was just testing to see who was the leader of our little gang. Like all pack animals, horses are very hierarchical. There is an alpha, a beta, and so on, until you get to the gimpy old horse whose days until the glue factory are numbered. (This horse always seems to be named Pokey or Dumpy.) The only reason I knew any of this was during my previous horse trek up north I happened to run into the Horse Whisperer. Her name was Katarina, and she was cute, blond, freshly sunburned, and happily disheveled in a cool bohemian way. She surely had a story to tell.

I was sitting over at the next table in the hostel, when I overhead "You bought your own horse?" from an incredulous man. A little bolt of excitement hit me. This girl, obviously traveling alone, had already accomplished the very thing that I was still scared to do. I looked again. She seemed to be radiating a halo of power. Perhaps she was a horse goddess. Or perhaps I had just put too much hot sauce onto my spaghetti and was hallucinating.

As soon as the other man left, I found myself getting up, walking over, and sitting down across from her without quite realizing what was happening.

My mouth started talking.

"Um, hi. Hey. Yeah."

"Hello." She had some kind of lilting European accent I couldn't identify.

Awkward pause.

"Yeah. Um, sorry to bother you, but I thought I overhead that you bought your own horse? Is that true?"

"Yes. Actually I bought two horses."

I tilted my head and looked her over again. Who was this wild child traveling alone in northern Mongolia?

My lips flapped open. "Wow that's amazing actually I'm hoping to do the same thing this is pretty cool I can't wait to hear your story who are you how did you do it?!!!"

She blinked. But instead of smacking me in the face, she smiled and said, "Well, actually I bought both horses right here in Khatgal. I just spent the last couple weeks riding in the hills northeast of here, and just got back today."

Over some hot coffee, which in this part of the world consists of boiled lake water and powdered Nescafe, she told me her tale.

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