Finding Nemo

Friday, November 23, 2012

Alone on the Steppe: Chapter 6

Click to read Parts IIIIII, IV, or V

Chapter 6: Wanders with Beef

We got back underway, following the narrow trail. At every opportunity where it widened, I urged Rocky into a trot. Walking is not only slow, but boring. Trotting is making real progress. But soon the trees grew closer and thicker. Riding fast in a forest is very dangerous. The horse won’t run into a tree, but he doesn't mind if you get smacked across the lips with a thick branch and back-flip onto the ground. And a horse knows exactly how wide he is, but he doesn't quite seem to realize that your legs and the saddlebags make him wider than usual. Thus, to avoid getting your kneecaps removed from your legs, its best to make a nice wide berth around trees.

Which was becoming more and more difficult. Eventually, I gave up and resigned ourselves to a slow walk. Looking around through the trees, I realized I had lost the main river. We were somewhere between it and the foothills above to the north. I knew from the topo map that this was generally the right direction, but the going was not how I imagined. Instead of strolling along a happy burbling river among tall shady trunks, we were walking through a thicket of young dense trees and brush under the hot sun. It was slow going.

Ahead, a large gully appeared. As we approached, the path disappeared below. At the bottom lay a wide deep stream. I was not about to flood my boots again, and urged Rocky across. He balked. I gave him a good kick and a loud “Choooo!” He gingerly stepped into the water, and immediately slipped on the smooth rocks. He lowered his head to see his feet, slowly stepping across. He slipped again, dropping his front quarters, and I nearly fell off over his head. What the heck was going on? I had crossed water before on Toroo’s horse a few weeks ago. But Rocky was having a lot of trouble. Perhaps he was overburdened? Perhaps he had poor sight? Perhaps one of his feet or hooves was bruised, and he couldn't tolerate the rocks? Probably all of the above, but it didn't matter. I had about as much clue as Carl Pilkington in An Idiot Abroad. The water became deeper; I lifted my legs up off the stirrups and balanced on my butt. Eventually we made it, Rocky scrambled up the opposite bank, and we were back on the trail. But it was disturbing.

The awesome Idiot Abroad

After a short ride, another stream. Another round of slipping and tripping. And then a 3rd stream! This was becoming a nightmare. Rocky was struggling, I decided to get off and lead him again. The trail meandered through the forest. I had been riding for 5 hours, about the most you want tire the horse on any given day. It was getting late. A cold breeze hit the back of my neck and the sunshine disappeared. I looked up. Storm clouds! Drops began coming down. I looked at my cheap black market Chinese tent and a knot formed in stomach. Please work tent. But then, just as I feared it might become another Doom Mountain, the clouds pulled back again. I was safe for a moment.

Where the hell was I? I had hoped to make it to the river leading north into the mountains by the end of the day, but I hadn't made it to the Tuul Gol yet. Ahead, the trail opened into a large meadow. As we rode into open space, the mountains finally reappeared to the north and south. Far away, I saw the mountains bend and gap open to the south. The Tuul Gol! Incredibly I was still far away. I couldn't believe how little ground I had covered. My plan had simply been to follow the Terelj river to the Tuul, but it was becoming clear that this would be difficult. Streams were appearing all over the place. I was starting to realize the confluence of these two rivers was actually a huge network of hundreds of branches all twisting and turning in different directions.  It was more like a massive delta. I got off, hitched Rocky, and sat on a stump. What to do?! I wasn't lost technically, but it felt that way. I had no idea which way to go. The sun grew low in the sky, the shadows of distant trees played across the field. Getting to the confluence of the rivers would be difficult. The delta was very large, and it was out of the way really.

Much friendlier after they become steaks
I continued riding across the meadow, through a thin band of trees, then suddenly emerged into a much larger field. Not five feet in front of me was an enormous bull with huge horns. It was startled and looked up. Rocky and I were even more startled. Rocky slammed on the brakes and I almost fell off forward. His head came up ramrod straight, eyes wide, ears pulled back tight like a bowstring. I thought for a moment he would spook and I would be bouncing atop the crazy cart. After a few blinks, the ungulate stand-off ended and the massive bull slowly lowered his head and began munching grass. Rocky relaxed. I looked down at my hands and realized I was gripping the reins tight enough to make them go white.

I surveyed the field. There were yaks and cows scattered everywhere. We had stumbled onto a ranch. This, of course, meant men were nearby. And possibly, thieves.

I couldn't go forward through this morass of rivlets and swamp. I couldn't stay near the herds. Dispirited, realizing I’d lost hours going the wrong way, I turned Rocky around and headed back north. Back to the foothills and high ground.

The fields faded behind as we re-entered the quickly darkening forest. Finally, through a small band of trees the foothills rose. But then a troubling sight. Smoke, rising up above the trees. I hitched Rocky and walked forward alone, peering through the brush. Ahead, a camp of 3 large gers, surrounded by a set of fences. A small herd of horses and cows lay inside the enclosures. It was the ranch.

I was out of time, it would be too dark soon to set up camp, and Rocky and I were both exhausted from the hard day’s slog. Suddenly, I heard a pattering sound on my hat. I looked up and got nailed in the eye by a fat raindrop. Perfect timing, rain. You really know when to strike.

After a short ride north the trees, I spotted an opening. Just to the right lay a large clearing, full of grass for Rocky to eat. It was protectively enveloped by a bend in the nearby stream, and cloaked by tall hedges. In the center of the clearing stood a thick tree. It was actually a perfect campsite. I would just have to risk the proximity to the ranch.

I hitched Rocky, pitched the tent under a tree partly out of the rain, and threw my pack inside. Then I set about the task of breaking down Rocky, removing the saddle, pads, pulling out the bit (much easier than putting it in!), and brushing him down. Then it was off to the stream for him to drink, and finally back to the tree. Horse sorted, I set about looking for 3 large stones, as I had been taught by Toroo. The stream provided my needs, and I found a somewhat protected patch of grass under a tree to place them. Then it was off to find tinder. I looked around the few pines, and found a few low-hanging dead branches. They were partially wet, but it was the best I could find. I worked them free of their parents and carried the load of off-the-ground pine tinder back to the rock tripod. I stared dubiously at my damp fuel.

My preferred method for starting a campfire
Starting a nomad fire, unfortunately, does not involve spraying a large bottle of kerosene onto a giant pile of wood. I am actually very fond of this method, and secretly enjoy replacing the kerosene with gasoline. Makes for a much more satisfying explosion. However, some advice: if you use gasoline, you should make a long trail of gas away from the fire, perhaps 30 feet. Then light it up, watch the trail burn and get ready for BA-DOOOM!!! You can star in your own Hollywood movie and burn off your nose-hairs at the same time. Not to mention, it really impresses your friends.

Nomad fires, on the other hand, require taking your knife and slicing off tiny little bits of wood from the driest branch you can find. This is tedious under good conditions. When it is getting dark and you are hungry and getting wetter by the minute, it feels a bit like trying to force out a turd when you are stopped up. Painful, slow, and even when you do make some progress it’s not very satisfying.

Finally I had a nice little pile of tiny dry-ish pine twig bits. I stacked them in a little Tee-Pee, layering slightly bigger sticks on top. Any boy scout would have been proud. Out came the Mongol matches. I like to have fun picking on all the slightly inadequate things in the 3rd world, but Mongol matches are actually pretty macho. They only come in one variety: big sticks and big heads, much like little lollipops.

Still, fat rain-drops were dripping through the canopy. Now was the moment of truth: could I, Nemo the Nomad wannabee, start a fire out here, on my own, in the rain?!  Was I worthy? I struck a match, and instantly the cold wind blew it out. I struck another, trying to shield it with my other hand. It wavered mightily, and then it was gone in a puff of smoke. Flashbacks of the North came. That night on Doom Mountain, with the gale-force winds and freezing sheets of rain, Toroo attempted to light one match after another after another. He went through one box. A second box. After the 3rd, he looked at me and shook his head. There would be no fire tonight, no food, no warmth, no evening yak tea (thank the Shaman Spirits on that last one.) We had failed.

About halfway through the box, I began to fear the worst. Then, for a brief moment, the wind stopped. I quickly lit another, held it under the shavings and twigs, and suddenly, like a miracle, the pine sap caught and flared up. Protecting my newborn with both hands, I waited patiently for the little shavings to catch something more substantial. The little flames began to die, and then, they were gone. But wait! One of the bigger twigs had a spark on it. I blew. It grew lighter. I exhaled slowly, patiently, until my head was spinning. Then, a flicker of flame. It crept up the twig, and like magic, slowly, over the next few minutes, more twigs caught. 

The orange and yellow tendrils began to climb and merge.

In every nomad fire the beginning is tense, or my case, filled with dread. Your entire night hangs on the balance of a few breaths or the whims of nature. And then there is a moment of realization that it might actually survive. No, it WILL survive! It has been given life. I stared in happy disbelief at this light of creation, made from nothing but wet twigs and the magic of the match. Of all the defeats and set-backs of the last few days, at least I had achieved this one victory.

For those who might be reading this on a comfortable chair back in civilization, latte in hand, let me assure you of one thing. When you are alone, cold, wet, and miserable, and the nearest sauna is hundreds of miles away by horse, there is nothing more gratifying to the soul than bringing a warm bowl of food off your own fire and into your hands.

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