Click to read Chapters 1
, 4, 5, 6
, or 9
I reluctantly left Happy Ger Camp
and headed off in the light misty rain north, following the river into the valley. We
rode up and up, crossing a rock-strewn dry bed where as usual I got off and
walked to lighten the load. Smaller valleys ran off into the hills. I took out
my map and tried to see if any of them were the ones I was supposed to take.
Big Poppa had made it clear that I should stay on the main trail all the way.
Very unsure of myself, I kept going.
|So left at the 3rd hill, 4 blocks past the bush. Got it!|
My backback began to wear on me. Rocky of
course was overloaded, but so was I. It turns out wearing a backpack of food
while horseback riding becomes extremely uncomfortable after a few hours.
Yesterday it hadn’t bothered me too much, but today I began to curse my lack of
a pack horse. I just wanted to cover enough ground to get the riding for the
day over with and camp. I attempted to get Rocky to trot, but he was very
reluctant. Perhaps he was tired; after all, we were heading uphill the entire
So, I took turns riding and then
getting off to walk. I tried not to think about what this would mean for my feet wearing these Mongol boots o' nails. Up ahead I finally saw another settlement, consisting of a
run-down shack and some piles of scrap. No ger in sight, which was odd. But I
was getting anxious about my bearings, and decided to say hello. As I neared a
large Mongolian dog came out barking frantically. Mongols love them and in the
city you may come across expensive pure-bred Dobermans, German Shepherds, and
other “power” dogs. But increasingly rare are pure-bred Mongol breeds. I had
seen similar animals in Tibet, which are greatly treasured. These are large,
muscular sheep-dogs with comically long hair like a Yak. But when one comes up
to you growling and barking and snipping at your horse’s heels it is not nearly
as funny. I stole a quick look at Rocky to see if he was spooked, but
surprisingly he seemed completely relaxed. Perhaps he had grown up around them.
|The awesome Tibetan mastiff. Native mongol breeds are similar|
Reassured, I rode up near the
shack and dismounted. However, as I was about to hitch Rocky I heard a
commotion. Out from the door burst an apparition, which I can only describe as
a wicked witch. Her clothing was a colorless gray ragged wool cloak, her hair
was a bird’s nest of gray tendrils that could almost be called post-modern art.
Kind of like those sculptures made from used diapers and hub-cabs that are found in all modern hotel lobbies. From a face
that had seen too much suffering in one life, she screamed and spat in a broken
voice. “ZAIIILLTHFFF!!! HUUUUTTZZZ!!!” With great arm motions she waved me
away. Then a teenage boy emerged from the shack, banging on a pot with a metal
stick. He also began screaming at me to leave.
“OK, OK, I’m leaving!” I said
pointing at myself and then away with my arm. This did not seem to calm them. The wraith howled and spat, the man banged, the massive yak-dog barked. We retreated quickly, the dog nipping and growling at poor Rocky for a half-mile before
finally turning around satisfied.
I was a little bit shocked at what
had just happened. Especially after the wonderful encounters I’d experienced
since the morning, each progressively better than before. What had I done
wrong? Only much later did I put myself in the old woman’s shoes. (Or lack
thereof.) She was clearly on her own, as it is usually the man’s duty to greet
visitors. She was left alone to raise her son in the wilderness. Clearly,
something bad had happened to her husband and family. Perhaps visitors had accosted
her. Perhaps she had gone mad. No matter what the reason, I felt only sorrow.
No one in the world should be left to raise a child as a widow.
I felt relief as we escaped the
dog, but suddenly Rocky’s ears pricked and his nostrils flared. His head bolted
upright, and then, without warning he began that horrible sideways walk. I felt
sick as I pulled the reins tight and looked around frantically for the source.
On the main trail coming down from the mountains, a pair of yaks was pulling a
cart. As they walked downhill, the bells around their
necks clinged and clanged. Apparently this combination must have appeared as
some strange musical monster to Rocky. Thank Buddha we were still far enough
away that Rocky didn’t lose it completely. I steered him in a very wide berth
around the yak cart, and only after it was safely in the distance did I dare
return to the main trail. It had been a close call. Twice now in the same day I
had been atop a spooked horse, and I did not want to experience a 3rd
We rode onwards and upwards. My
back grew increasingly sore. I perversely began to look forward to running out
of food if only to lighten my backpack. After rounding a corner, we reached an
overlook of a large flat valley. A line of beautiful trees meandered through
the plain. Red, pink, and purple flowers sprouted everywhere. On both sides rose large
green foothills. Between the trees flowed the crystal clear Blue Rock River,
crossing from one side of the valley to the other. At that moment, I suddenly felt
light and warmth on my face. The clouds peeled away as the sun blossomed in a
vivid blue sky. Never are colors brighter and more beautiful than when dark
clouds are contrasted with sunny earth, and suddenly the land was painted in
saturation. The hair rose on the back of my neck,
a warm tingle crept up my spine. This was one of those moments I had waited
for, back in my cubicle. This very instant. Though
I was still cold and wet from the morning storm, I couldn’t help but burst out
laughing. My eyes lingered over the scene.
|Not found in cubicles|
We made our way down to the river,
and as usual I dismounted to cross. On the other side an impossible scene
greeted us. I could not believe my eyes. A cluster of shiny sport utility
vehicles sprawled around a small field. They spilled open with coolers of food
and liquor. A large boombox blasted the
worst kind of Asian techno-pop you can imagine. (Remember, these are the people
who still, to this day, flock to see Bon Jovi. For a sample of brain-dissolving K-pop, which has spread like cancer throughout Asia, click here
. You are warned…)
Garbage littered the ground. Empty
beer cans lay in piles in the grass. Plastic bags blew away in the breeze. I
knew it was my Western sensibilities at work, but the sight of this trash
desecrating the land of Mongolia made me ill.
|Nemo's heirarchy of needs|
They didn’t know any better,
though, and I could not blame them. A society where basic needs are met was rare in the part of the world where I was currently tromping. In Maslow's heirarchy
, environmentalism pretty much doesn't make the cut.
A crowd of “big-boned” Mongol
teens and their equally large girlfriends hooted, stumbled, and sang along to a
tune that combined Flock of Seagulls synth beats with style of rapping that
would make your pet hamster commit suicide. How on God’s green earth had these
vehicles made it out here? There was no road to speak of, and the crossing over
the rocky streams would claw out the transmission from most cars. The closest
village, Terelj, had a population of 100 people and 101 horses. I had not seen
a single motorized vehicle.
And these were nice trucks—there was a Mercedes and
a BMW in the mix.
There was only one explanation.
These were rich kids from UB, and they were on a mission to get as far from
their parents as possible to get as fucked up as possible. My guard raised to
DEFCON 2. (Movies and pop culture always get the DEFCON scale
wrong. DEFCON 5 is low alert, DEFCON 1 =
nuclear war. Then again, perhaps the backwards scale says more about our
military than the general public.)
I began to steer Rocky off the
main trail into the lumpy plain, when a pair of obliterated fat Mongol teens,
arm-in-arm, called out to me.
“Hello! Hello! Come talk to
uzzz…!” they slurred in fairly good English. One raised a bottle of vodka in
offering. The proclivity of Rocky to spook around strange noises was the only
thing on my mind as I quickly prodded him further away and we soon were a good
distance from the party. The disappointed women stopped and finally turned
back. We also stopped and I took stock. They were just kids having a good time.
Harmless. In fact, in different circumstances, it could have been a wonderful
encounter. These kids spoke English, they were rich and probably well educated,
and they were in a great mood. They would have likely enjoyed talking with an
American, traveling solo on horseback. And I could have asked so many
questions, about what they thought of the modernization of Ulaanbaatar, where
they thought Mongolia was headed, the rise in crime in the city, what city kids
thought about the cowboy life of the country. All while drinking Mongolian
gasoline, arm in arm with the happiest, fattest, drunkest Asians of Asia. But…
there was no chance of this. Rocky wouldn’t last a minute with that dying-cats techno in the background. And so
with reluctance I continued onward.
Rocky continued to resist my attempts
to get him to trot. He was simply over it. Even worse, my saddle had gotten a
bit loose. So, with great annoyance, I realized I would have to take a break
and redo everything. I removed his saddle and put everything on the ground. My
sore back needed the break anyway, and so, holding the lead, I simply sat down
and rested for a bit a little ways off the road.
We were making very slow progress.
The whole concept of horse trekking was questionable. I mean, a walking horse
doesn’t go much faster than a person, and then there is all the overhead. The
setting up and breaking down of tack, the watering, the feeding, the constant
worry. I mean, I would make better time walking with a backpack when all was
said and done! What was the point?!
With these dark thoughts in mind, a trio of riders apparated
in the distance. (Yes, I used a Harry Potter verb.) The lead rider saw me, and he left
the trail to approach. He was a Mongol
riding a beautiful black horse, towing a huge muscular pack horse that was
obviously European. Two 30-something women (I'll give them a puma
rating) completed the group. One was fairly
attractive and thin with long blond hair, the other stockier with a square jaw
and thick close-cropped black hair. We examined one another without saying
The guide asked me if everything
was alright. From his perspective he saw a solo rider stranded in the middle of
a field. I told him I was fine, just taking a rest. After explaining I was
heading to the monastery, he stated in broken English that he was leading this
group to the same place. He looked over my pile of gear and backpack and my
smallish horse, then frowned.
He motioned that I put my extra
stuff on his giant pack horse. “You come with us.” It was a generous offer, and made
even more so by the fact that he made it without even consulting his guests. My
eyes widened at the thought. How wonderful it would be to throw my excess gear on the pack
horse, and to be able to ride light and free! How much better it would be for
Rocky! I quickly agreed and transferred the extra gear to his large horse,
which would clearly have no problem with the extra weight.
I do like the
Mongolian horses. They are tough and fast, and their smaller size has its
advantages. They are easy to mount and handle, and the smaller legs means their
trot has a faster beat which is a little smoother than the jolting Western trot.
(Riding a trotting donkey, an even smaller animal, is even that much more
comfortable. But … what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.) In terms of carrying
capacity, however, nothing beats the strength of a large Western horse.
I re-saddled Rocky, we headed back
to the main trail together and off we rode. The guide led his horse into a
trot, which the girls’ horses immediately matched. I prodded Rocky and he also
took off in a trot, a little easier than before. This was very encouraging.
Soon we were making great progress. But no sooner had we got going than we had
to cross Blue Rock River yet again. Knowing Rocky, I got off and crossed
slowly, while the other horses went ahead and were soon out of sight. This was
not good. If I couldn’t keep up I would be a burden. As soon as I made it over
I mounted up and urged Rocky to go fast. But, it turns out that Rocky simply
wasn’t a very fast horse. Even unburdened, I had some difficulty in catching
back up to the group. The guide went at a fast trot, almost a run, covering
ground very quickly. Mongols always choose the best horses as their own, and
his beautiful jet-black gelding looked strong and fit and muscular. I found myself more than a little jealous. Poor Rocky was a dumpy plain
Jane compared to this supermodel. Finally, I had no alternative and forced
Rocky into a run. At length we rejoined the group. The guide looked over at me
with a frown. Perhaps he was regretting his offer of help.
I was surprised at his hurry. Most
guided treks I’d witnessed were slow walking affairs, ambling along as if the
guides were paid by the hour and wanted to maximize their profit. In fact, for
longer guided treks that may have been the case. But this trek to the monastery
was probably advertised as a 3-day, 2-night trip and the guide had a schedule
to keep. Perhaps more guests were waiting upon his return. For him, time was
It was disappointing to realize
this. My dreams of trekking alone had been fading with each person I met, and were
shattered after the encounter with the drunken SUV party. But to know that my
quest to find the secret monastery could be arranged as a tour was even worse. I consoled myself with the fact that at least I was keeping up. Barely.
Horses are herd animals. They like
to be around their own kind, and there is nothing they like more on a trek than
to bury their nose in the horses’ ass in front of them. This allows them to
turn off their brains and slip into cruise control. And it was good for me to.
I didn’t have to constantly steer Rocky or prod him to keep up; once he
realized this was his new pack, he was happy to revert to a sheep. But more
than anything, the gift of meeting this group was that suddenly I no longer
needed to concern myself with where I was headed. The greatest stress in solo
trekking, it turns out, is the constant worry of becoming lost. This gorilla
was now lifted from my shoulders.
As we rode along, I finally had
the chance to say my hellos to the girls. The blonde had an easy smile and chatted
happily. They were from Colorado on a girl’s adventure weekend. It made me
smile when she said that. There are basically three types of
fellow Yanks that you meet backpacking: New Yorkers, Californians, and Coloradans. New
Yorkers are well-versed in Europe and can often be found saying things such as "I'm so over Prague, soooo touristy, nothing like when I visited back in <insert year they visited, even if it's last year>. Budapest is where it's at, man
. It's so authentic
." Californians are found throughout Australia and the Southeast Asia
circuit, and are easily distinguished by their sparkling new didgeridoo they have no idea how to play. (I'm sure I have one somewhere in my backpack.)
|Slater + Didge. Mick Fanning's face is priceless: "Shit. Which end do I shove in my face?"|
Coloradans, on the
other hand, will pop up in the oddest places. I have found them anywhere from
Argentina to Africa, and now here was a pair in Mongolia. They seem to be the
most adventurous of the lot. The funny part is that there seem to be very few exceptions
to this 3-regions rule. And you know what: I was perfectly happy with that. Yes
there will always be fat obnoxious Americans from Texas and Ohio traveling to
hotels throughout the world, but there are these types of tourists from every
country. Backpackers, though, are a different
breed. They tend to go out of their way to mingle with the locals and seek out
areas that have not yet been spoiled. They are the vanguard, and therefore make
the first impressions upon a local populace. If our most important ambassadors
were from these select spots, then the US was representin' just fine.
I smiled at the short-haired jock.
She scowled back. Interesting. As we trotted along, I did my best to post a
little. (Posting is pushing up on the stirrups every other beat, which makes
trotting somewhat bearable for a man’s walnuts.) The blonde, however, had a very
different technique. She let the horse bounce her in the air at every beat,
which resulted in her lady-parts getting smashed into the saddle like a
jack-hammer. She practically squealed with delight at this, and was so happy
she had difficulty concentrating on our talk. The jock was a novice rider as
well but could at least ride without getting bounced. She looked over at us from
time to time to frown.
|No doubt about it: riding is much easier on women|
And then the light-bulb went off.
This was more than a girl’s adventure weekend. This was a date. It couldn’t
have been more obvious: the cute femme, the stern butch, and duh! horse-riding. Butch
wasn’t happy because she was jealous. Not only was the horse pleasing her lover
a little too easily, she now had to deal with a strange guy tagging along as
well. Poor Butch. Being the man in the relationship, she may have paid for the
We cruised along matching our
guide’s fast trot, chewing up huge chunks of distance in short order. Rocky was
now unburdened, and without my backpack I felt light and free. The horses
pumped forward in rhythm, the land slipped away. We flew over the green fields,
blooms of flowers splashing their colors. Even the mighty distant mountains
slowly slid past. So this was horse trekking!! Compared to the grueling forest plod
of yesterday, I felt like Iron Man in flight. (I even had a couple of girls along, just like Iron Man.) Never again would I doubt the
importance of the pack horse.
Ahead the trail split in two, the
path more traveled leading to the left. This then was the turn to the west on
my map. The sun was low in the sky at this point, but we continued on. At
length, we saw a set of well-kept gers tucked under a rocky hill in the
distance. Our guide stopped the caravan, and then he turned his horse in a
circle, looking around intently. My hopes of spending the night in a comfy ger
were dashed when he motioned us off the path down to a valley. Across a small
meadow, we came upon a babbling brook protected by tall brush. Water. Shelter from the wind.
Satisified, he said “Camp,” and dismounted.
I followed suit, and stood contemplating this latest turn of events. Not a few hours before, I had sat on the ground in defeat, tack in disarray, humbled. When out of thin air appeared my very own guide and pack horse, with a bonus pair of lesbians thrown in.
Today's moral: If you ever have the chance to pray at an ovoo, DO IT.