(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!!
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|
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|
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?|
|My general reaction to horse screaming|
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|
|Ger Camp in the granite hills of Terelj|
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|
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.
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|
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:
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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|
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 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.
|Katarina can also whisper to reindeer|
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.
"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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