Horse Trekking - Mendee's
(All the tired horses in the sun,
How'm I supposed to get any writing done?
My horse trek was booked with Steppe Riders, at the recommendation of Cathy and Julia. This was actually just a guy called Mendee who lived in a small camp of half a dozen gers with his family, three general helpers who worked as guides and some horses. Frank and Mel had spent a couple of weeks at Mendee's ger camp previously doing volunteer work of some description, so when I mentioned to Mel where I was going the day previous, she decided to hitch a lift with me to go and see them all again.
Mendee arrived to collect us both at 15:30 sharp, as planned, and I was only a few minutes late in being ready for him. On the way out of the city we also collected Hal, a South African who was primarily in the country to see the solar eclipse on 1st August. I had investigated the possibility of seeing this myself, but it is only 100% visible from the far west of the country. This would have meant a three-day jeep ride back afterwards and my train to China is booked for just thirty six hours later. Even if I chose to abandon my no-flying ethos for the trip, flights to the area were apparently jacked up in price and quickly sold out a long time ago.
Mendee's camp was about forty five minutes drive away. It was noticeable that he is the only sane driver I have found during my time in the country, attracting the ire of his fellow drivers for his refusal to attack the roads as if he was in a chase sequence from The A-team. There were three gers for guests to stay in, each with four beds, plus a dining ger for the guests. The family stayed in two other gers. We may have thought we were roughing it, but in truth huge effort had been gone to to raise the standard of our gers in the direction of hotel-like luxury compared to how the family lived. I suspect the family lived a lot better than most other families in gers also. Hal and I had one ger, three Americans (two guys and a gal) had another and Mel, as I recall it, had one to herself. We made ourselves at home, trying to remember what bits and pieces we could of ger etiquette. EG: always walk around clockwise from the left of the door, never anti-clockwise, and never step on the threshold.
Before dinner, we were asked if we wanted to get on the horses for ten minutes, which I figured would be a good idea for me to get my bearings before setting off on something longer the next day. The sum total of my horse experience is sitting on one as a child while it was walked across the field at a school fete when I was about ten years old and feeding sugar lumps to the horses around the corner whilst on occasional walks at the same sort of age. As everyone else had some experience, I was given a more docile animal that was less likely to get too out of countrol. Translation: I was given some aging mule-like thing that'll be on the menu of a local restaurant before the Summer is out. To make the horse go, you must call "Choo!" Alarmingly, there is no word for 'stop', but you can pull sharply on the reins and they sometimes get the hint. All six guests, plus two of the guides, mounted all eight horses. Everyone started trotting off down the hill to begin the walk whilst my horse applied his industry towards munching on the grass. Occasionally my cries of "Choo! CHOO!!" were met with a couple of grudging steps, but usually in the wrong direction and always culminating in some more grass eating. Essentially, he seemed to think I was shouting "Chew!"
Mel was quite the expert and tried to help, but it wasn't until one of the guides, Thalgar, came back and led him alongside his horse that I actually got moving. Thalgar's party trick to to slap the backs of other people's horses or shout "CHOO!" at them to get them racing along. I barely had enough confidence on the horse to reach out to shake someone's hand when I first mounted, so my party trick in return was to wail like my parachute hadn't opened, pull on the reins as hard as possible and hurl obscenities back at him. All of which amused him sufficiently to repeat his trick a few more times.
The ten-minute ride proved to be a two and a half-hour trip to the well and back to water the horses. By the time we got there I was charging around shouting 'Choo!" like a mad thing, much to the amusement of the guides. Coming back, some of us galloped most of the way. It turns out that the trick is just to not worry about the fact that there's not much you can do to stop falling off if it happens. As an amateur, I hedged my bets by holding on to the solidity of the front of the saddle with one hand while I held the reins in the other.
Upon our return we were fed in the dining area before I sat on a rug with Mel and Hal watching the very-bright moon rise from the horizon. It turns out that Hal is a visual effects expert working on an impressive array of big-name movies you will all have seen. Although the antithesis of big-headed, he was very proud of the fact that on his last movie his name appeared in the opening credits on the screen all by itself. A fascinating movie discussion followed. Well, fascinating for me, he was probably slumming it in terms of the knowledge we were each bringing to the table. We went to join the Americans in their ger for a while. From outside we could hear some local-sounding pipes being played which we assumed were from the family, but it turned out that one of the American guys had been playing it. He gave us a further rendition which was incredibly relaxing and guided all of us to the point of turning in. Hal still had the energy to get out his tripod to photograph the moon with one of his five (FIVE!) cameras but that was me done for the night.
The next day we were waiting for two Danish tourists, who may or may not have existed in the first place, to come along so I could join them on their trek. After breakfast and some interesting chat, the Americans headed off on their mountain bikes to complete whatever journey it was they were on. Mendee had gone off to the airport to collect the Danes but had seemingly come back alone. Mel and I were trying to work out what was going on and what it would mean for the trek when into the ger burst bright and bubbly Jo. From Portsmouth and recently graduated, she had been on the road since last December, although half of that time had been spent with her grandparents in Australia. It included many of the places that Mel had spent her formative years which helped towards the fact that all three of us got along very well. Meanwhile, it had been decided that after lunch we would go on a day-trek returning to the camp by nightfall.
The three of us rode off with Hal and Hishgee, another of the guides. Hal was explaining to me a great place he'd been to in Thailand were you can spend a week detoxing that includes several sessions of self-administered colonic irrigation. He carefully explained the long pieces of mucas that it pulls out and how good it is for your system. It actually sounded kind of interesting, but when I've mentioned it in conversation to a couple of other people subsequently, it has drawn nothing but horrified responses. After a couple of hours, the hot sun gave way to a torrential downpour. The gently-rolling steppes provide absolutely nothing in the way of shelter and we had a bit of a dilemma as to whether to turn around, which would have been futile as we were a long way from the camp anyway, or push on and see what happened. In the end we did the latter and it eventually died away to be replaced by the sun again which dried us out. Not long after, we parted ways. Hal was being taken to the monastry I would visit later, whereupon Hishgee would take his horse and bring it back to Mendee's so he could carry on back towards the city by foot the next day. Jo, Mel and I circled around to the right to go back home.
I nitially we went up a hill and picked our way around the edge of it. The views, like most of the time on the trek, were spectacular. We tried to photograph them, but a digital camera will never do it justice. I don't know how to turn off the automatic light or focus features on my camera and probably wouldn't know how to set it manually even if I did find an option. So, if my shot of the rolling hills included an y grass in the foreground, the camera would automatically put that into focus and the distant hills would be unfocussed. Alternatively, if I moved my shot up to remove the near grass, the bright sky took on an extra prominence and so the camera automatically darkened the picture to take account of it.
During our ride back, we had to make our way down a fairly steep hill at one point, zig-zagging much of it so the horses could handle it better. My saddle had come undone without my knowing, so when the horse suddenly stopped for one of its many unplanned grass breaks whilst we were going straight downhill, I found myself sliding forwards. The situation was not helped by the fact that he had his head down chewing the grass. In the end I conceded that there was nothing I could do to stop it so I had to leap-frog over his head to get onto the ground below. A more lively horse might have objected to this, but I don't think he noticed. So, this was my first experience of falling off a horse, but I like to think it doesn't count as it wasn't really my fault.
Mel had grown up in small-town rural Australia and was familiar with most things horsey and survival-like. Indeed, this was why they had agreed to let her act as our informal guide to take us back to the camp. So, she was able to saddle me up again. By now, my back was beginning to seize up and muscles that I had never used in anger before were completely exhausted so galloping was hard work and trotting was actually even harder. We took the horses back to the same well and pumped the water into the trough for them. After they were done we lapped it up from the pump ourselves. Grateful in the heat that it was so cold that it numbed your tongue and your lips.
Back in the camp after a long, hard day in the saddle there were a couple of new guests. At a distance, as they played frisbee, I figured that they were a couple of American student types and I admit I groaned inwardly slightly. It turns out that I couldn't have been more wrong on absolutely every count. They were John and Dan, a couple of Australian brothers in their mid/late-thirties taking a short holiday to Mongolia and China to Hong Kong, where John lived and worked. You could tell that this wasn't just a holiday to them, more of a bonding session that they both knew they should have done fifteen years ago. Our group was complete and the five of us got on like the proverbial house on fire. We chatted and ate over a couple of beers with what was left of the evening. They came from a similar area of Oz to Mel so they had plenty to talk about who had bought a car from the car dealer who was who's old friend etc. By the end of the night I fell asleep in the girl's ger after a long talk in the dark with Jo that I had no recollection of in the morning but which I'm sure solved most of the world's problems .
The previous day had been put to me as a bonus day before my four-day trek began, which was fine but I really needed to check my mail at some point if I was going to be a day late back to Ulaan Baatar as I was trying to arrange a new trip for a couple of days later. Mendee assured me that I could use his laptop to do my emailing but it then transpired that his mobile battery had died and he used it to connect to the internet. In the end the problem was solved by the five of us (Mel decided to join us) going on a three-day trek which, if I counted the previous day, gave me my four days and would bring me home on time. I dispensed with my helmet this time as no one else was wearing one and it allowed me to wear my brimmed hat to keep the sun off my face and neck.
I was given the same horse again which was perpetually slower than all of the others. On the one hand, this suited me. It didn't want to do much trotting or galloping but my back was completely frozen by now so I couldn't really do it either. On the other hand, it insisted on walking slower than all of the others so I spent most of the day two hundred yards behind them. We stopped for lunch under some rare trees where out guides cooked us up some noodles. We were being accompanied by Nyamka on a horse and Hishgee drove the car with our bags to meet us for lunch, camping and other intermediate points to check we were OK. Nyamka was telling me how he worked for Mendee in the Summer and studied English in the Winter. After two more years studying, he planned to study one more year in London or the US before coming back to Mongolia to try to run his own trekking operation. One of them was the brother of Mendee's wife, but I forget which.
The sun was beating down after lunch as we walked along a long line of properties that had sprung up alongside a power line. There were even a handful of basketball hoops, which was an unusual thing to find out in the wilderness. My lagging behind had not escaped attention and I had soon attracted an airborn fan club of vultures who kept circling above my head assuming that either I or my horse were about to expire, which was not an unreasonable assessment of the situation. I remembered something I had been told that they never stop circling once they have started until they had eaten, but they eventually went away.
After a while I decided that it would be good for my back to get out of the saddle so I walked along pulling the horse behind me. Actually, this increased my speed considerably with my big booming strides, but the horse didn't seem to appreciate the increase in workload. I had already enquired to Nyamka if horsemeat might be on the menu tonight, but aparently not. As we closed in on the gates to the monastry grounds, I ran the last few hundred metres, pulling the horse behind me. Nyamka and Hishgee were waiting and insisted that I had to get in the car to ride the rest of the day, but there was no way that I was going to give up, especially when they told me we were about five hundred metres from the end. I walked some more, and upon spying everyone else stopped with some locals behind some trees after the expected distance, I decided to run some more to finish the day with a big push. It turned out this was just a random casual encounter and we were not there yet. I was exhausted by now and a couple of the locals had got their cameras out to photograph the crazy English guy dragging his horse as he ran along. Still we continued until we found our spot in a clearing in the woods by a hillside. It proved to be about two more kilometres from the gate where they had told me it was a quarter of that distance.
I wasn't feeling at all good and when dinner came along I couldn't take in more than a couple of mouthfuls. I tried to drink as much water as I could but I could tell this was going into my increasingly-bloated stomach but no further. Even a trip to the stinky 'toilets' (squat over a hole in the ground with no lock on the door) didn't help much, although the others had pitched my tent by the time I returned. I left them to the beers around the campfire and retired to bed, barely able to crawl inside. An hour or two later I frantically got the zips open and myself outside in time to produce half a dozen puddles of vomit. I was in a truly dreadful state (much worse than the Three Peaks situation) but once it was done, I actually felt a lot better and was able to talk fairly coherently. Most of lunch had been returned, so that had obviously never been digested. It had actually been about the spiciest thing I've ever really eaten, which admittedly isn't saying much, so maybe the body had just rejected it. The girls gave me some Fanta to drink to boost my sugar levels and I crawled back into bed.
The next morning I felt a bit better but by the time we got back on the horses I felt fairly bad again. Jo had been dragged out of her tent by Mel in the night just in time to throw up also and was not feeling too good. The two of us took refuse in the shade with chocolate and fruit drinks whilst the other three walked off to look at the actual monastry. At almost no point since I dismounted had I considered that I had even a tiny chance of riding the next day, but somehow we all set off again. They had given me a different horse so I wouldn't get stuck behind everyone. I had just about mastered controlling it when, after an early break to water them, they gave me another one which was slightly calmer but bounced along in a way my back really didn't enjoy. Unable to sit back in my saddle while the horse did anything faster than walk, I developed an odd style of leaning far forwards, putting my weight on my hand holding the front of the saddle, that actually looked a bit like the Mongolian style of riding. I still looked ridiculous though and tried to sit back again whenever I saw anyone pointing a camera at me.
Mel would often hang back to check I was OK and to chat to make sure I wasn't alone and I need to pay tribute to her here. Everyone was really supportive and helpful throughout the ride and thanks to all of them, but Mel's support, both practical and moral, was invaluable to getting me through it all.
The lunch stop was unshaded from the fierce sun so while everyone else sat around chatting or went in search of poo for the fire (with no trees and therefore no wood, what else are you going to burn?) Jo and I hid in the car. This time I was able to take a few mouthfuls of food, which was good. Jo decided that the sensible thing to do would be to ride in the car for the afternoon and she certainly seemed a lot better for it later. This meant I was given her horse (my fourth) which was fine except it had no direction sense so I was constantly fighting it to go in the right way. After lunch we passed a place where they re-enact Mongol battles etc for tourists. Nyamka kept saying "video" when we asked about it, so we wondered if it had also been used in a movie set, perhaps like the recent Mongol film you may have seen in the cinemas. After John had amused us by asking two local girls if he could have his picture taken with them, we set off racing Hishgee's car across the fields. Mel, being able to ride a horse, was able to take a number of action pictures of us now. Some were inevitably blurred, but I've added some of the others to my own on this site. Incidentally, the brothers hadn't ridden before but Jo also insisted she had never ridden a horse either . . . except when she used to regularly attend horse-riding lessons, which apparently doesn't count.
Thalgar had come to our campsite on his motorbike, which Hishgee then rode Jo up to meet us on. We raced most of the way there, where there were some watering ponds which hundreds of horses gathered at to drink and spend the night whilst occasional herders chased them around with long sticks. It really was incredible to sit by our tents as all this took place just yards away while the sun came down. We also saw some horse porn that would make even the proudest man blush. Dan had played in some bands in his youth and at one point John had agreed to loan him the money to go into a studio to record some songs to see if he could kickstart a career out of it. I asked if John ever saw a return on his investment, wondering if the subsequent CD had ever had any sales. Dan reached behind him to put his hand on John's knee and reassuringly proclaimed "John will never see that money ever again". John's face was a mixture of brotherly pride and that of a man who knows he's just been taken for a chump .
T halgar headed off to Mendee's and returned an hour later with a dozen bottles of beer and a couple more of vodka for everyone. A motorcycle policeman, who may or may not have known the guides, joined us for a while and chatted about where we were going and what we thought of the country. With his shades, he really did look like a Mongolian version of Chips. I headed into my tent at ten O'clock but the others were up drinking and partying for a long time after and the last of them retired at three. It was a shame to miss out, but I really was in no state to get involved.
The next day we had arranged to get up early and head off between seven and eight to try and get some miles under our belt before the mid-day sun kicked in. We had done twenty-five kilometres on the first day, twenty on the second and were due to do fifteen on our way back to Mendee's on the third. Everyone's hangovers put paid to that idea and my rest meant I was actually one of the better-feeling people now. We still did well to get packed up, tents down, horses saddled and moving by nine though.
An ominous cloud had gathered above us and was moving closer at a faster rate than we could hope to out run. Although the rain didn't get us very wet when it came, we were surrounded on all four sides by a spectacular thunder and lightening show. The horses knew they were homeward bound and it was futile to try and stop them racing all the way, adding to the theatrics of the thunder. The ground was far from even and pocked with holes so it was white-knckle stuff as we clung on praying that they didn't put a hoof into one of them and fall throwing us down. First sight of Mendee's camp came from the top of a steep hill above it. After a stop for photos and for my saddle to be tightened by Nyamka (remember I said that), we picked our way carefully with zig-zags down the slope. As we reached the stand where the horses were to be tied up, I realised I was slipping off the front again, my saddle having come undone. A couple of people called out "Chris, you need to stop the horse", as if this was something I didn't already know, but pulling on the reins merely pulled me and my saddle further onto the horse's neck. Unlike last time I was still moving a bit and my feet didn't slip out of the stirrups so easily to I crashed to the ground on my arse with a loud bang as my back jarred, fortunately escaping with nothing worse than a headache for a few minutes.
Racing meant that we were back by half-past ten. We played some cards and ate some lovely food in the dining ger for a few hours but I think everyone was keen to get back into the city for a real shower. In theory, we were able to stay one more night in the camp but we departed at half-three with only Jo staying on for another night. Despite being ill for most of it, it was an incredible experience all round.