Finding Nemo

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Alone on the Steppe: Chapter 10

Click to read Chapters 123, 45678, or 9

The Wraith

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 time.

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.

Yak cart
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.

Trash of the Elite

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.

Lesbo Junction

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 anything.

Beautiful black mongol horse. Photo by kayellaneza
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 money.

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 whole thing.

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.

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