Monday, July 19, 2010

Entry 9: The start of the horse trek

The evening after getting our visa extension approved, we organized a ride to Choibolsan, an eastern Mongolian town a distance of 350km. The ride picked us up at 2 am, bad for us since we could not see the poor condition of the minivan – that the driver was checking the front wheel before the ride and every ten minutes there after was the sure sign that breakdown was imminent. The driver and to our surprise, another female passenger helped pack our gear in the back. Sure enough, only 100km east of UB, two hours of driving time, we broke down on a lonely (and only) stretch of road. The driver not only took off the wheel that was having a lot of side to side motion but the entire metal brake assembly and ended up dropping the bearing in the dirt.

Putting the dirty bearing back and reassembling the wheel, he was barely able to drive 20 miles back in the direction of UB when miraculously his brother appeared in a Chinese imitation American Jeep Grand Cherokee and we were able started off again. The terrible driver was now able to drive 80 mph instead of the 20 mph he had been doing in the minivan with the loose wheel and we drove on hard top for another two hours before the road just abruptly ended in the backyard of a Ger where a herder was adding to cow shit to his already huge pile.

With several rough dirt tracks to choose, we drove another 5 hours through very dry grass country until we finally found hard top again - 1 mile from the center of Choibolsan. It began to rain hard and the terrible driver exhausted from driving over 15 hour was in a hurry to get rid of us. We had a GPS coordinate for Neale but couldn’t find him right away, so we waited at a hotel lobby but was unable to check in – apparently all hotels were booked that weekend. Over an hour later, Neale finally found us and now the driver, annoyed and irate drove us to a concrete slab of a building from the era when Russia took control over Mongolia

and dumped us out nearly throwing our gear whie driving away. So enraged, he almost left without payment and didn’t seem to care whether he got it. We slept on the dirty floor of an apartment and a girl came the next morning demanding way too much payment.

We spent the next day trying to arrange a ride to our next destination, Sumber, the most eastern town of Mongolia and ended up at another hotel lobby hoping someone – a guest, the hotel receptionist - might speak some English. While the receptionist did not speak English, she did contact someone who did, and also contacted a driver, who agreed to drive us. The driver turned out to be her brother in law and the English speaker, Bimba, a 27 year old male native to Choibolsan, a Latter-Day Saint she knew from the Mormon church here! Bimba agreed to accompany us to Sumber as our translator and we left at 3 pm the next day after spending all morning and afternoon being told by multiple drivers we could go and then couldn’t go. We drove for 5 hours with two pleasant drivers and Bimba, our hired translator, before arriving at one of the several military checkpoints we would pass en route.

Sumber, being a border town near the Chinese border, requires special permission for entry. Neale found this out in a more round about way, spending a night in jail a week earlier, at one of these military checkpoints, after driving 10 hours to get near Sumber only to be driven right back to Choibolsan. With some discussion with the military in a bug infested one room building (checking our passports, registering our names, etc) and, with the world cup game barely discernable on the old TV (Korea vs. Spain?) we were allowed to pass through all the checkpoints only to arrive in sumber another 6 hours later and be told we actually did not have the permission to be there.

We were made to camp next to the military compound and after a day and night of convoluted discussions and meetings, we were told we could go to Nomrog, near the east border but had to be out of the military zone in one weeks time. This seemed a big victory for our expedition.

The buying of horses negotiations was arduous. We finally ended up with eight horses, five from one herd, and three from another.

We planned with one of the herder’s and his son to meet us by the river at 6 am the next day but they never showed up. After much hassle and time (we woke at 4 am and finally departed at noon), we put saddles on the riding horses, packed the gear on the pack horses and parted with Bimba who helped us tremendously with the military, police, and herders.

getting all the gear together

(over 4 hours later, finally putting bags on the horses)

The first day with the horses was hell. It is traumatic for me to even think back of it and write details so, I will just summarize. First the heat of the day was tremendous and we were almost covered black with mosquitoes. The horses were anger from being separate from their herds and annoyed by the heat, the bugs, and us. Sony got thrown off the back of her horse twice, her two horses ran off twice (Neale retrieved), and Janusz got bitten by his horse twice. Beyond thirsty at only 6 km into the ride, we stopped off at a Ger and got water – that was the best part of the day.

Neale wanted to me to set a course straight to the southeast corner of the country irregardless of land features, water or roads, so we rode off into a dry plateau and rode several hours in the intense heat with no water in our packs and no water in sight. Janusz' pack horse was the next to try to run free and we were fighting the horses every step of the way as they didn’t want to leave their home and probably sensed we were going into danger (no water). We rode several hours in the intense heat with no water in our packs and no water in sight.

What we thought was salvation on the horizon (a white structure – a GER! ) turned out to be just a stone monument to the Russian mongol defeat of the Japanese in that very location during World War II. So I decided to beeline it back to the river but many sandhills blocked our way. Neale got behind and we lost him. It was beyond insane, even one of my reigns broke off and I could not steer the horse back to the town around the hills. The horses now tired and stumbling were running and at a frantic pace (back to their herds and near the river) we could barely hold on. The horse I was leading was the biggest horse and kept trying to get in front of my riding horse. We could not even stop to rest since Neale had the gear to tie up the horses and was no where near sight. The thought of water drove us on, I almost cried when the first Ger came back into sight. But only one old woman peered out and we needed more help than that. So we rode on to the next Ger where a 21 year old mommy, her 4 month old baby, her brother and his friend saved us from losing our horses and possibly all of our gear. We ended up spending the next week at this Ger, trying to forget our harrowing experience and relaxing to the rhythm of farm life: the boy herding the cows; the girl milking her cows each morning, and her 4 month old baby;, boiling milk, baking bread, preparing yogurt, swimming in the river, fishing, lounging in the Ger, and even drinking cold fresh water from an artesian well, located just behind the Ger.

Making yogurt: first, milk the cow

then, boil the milk


here's Leo relaxing
Neale relaxing...

Everything was heaven compared to the days with Neale except for the first night, when we lost one of the horses. The perpetually disorganized Janusz did not realize he had the extra hobbles (or more accurately, did not bother to thoroughly search) in his bags which would have been used to restraint the horse. Then two days after we arrived, Neale, haggard, in a shroud of mosquitoes, followed by two unsavory Mongolian men, stumbled through the Ger door. We thought maybe Neale had abandoned us and instead of following behind us back to water, continued to beeline it to the most Eastern part of Mongolia in Nomrog Park. Afterall, he was still dealing with amateur horse riders and chasing down the horses that would run off every chance they got. Unfortunately for Neale, his two days apart from us, were not spent riding to Nomrog, but rather included a tortuous 20 km ride to an unfriendly Ger where he was fed food that made him throw up, a man that took all his rope that he bought in Australia, (he recovered half of it a few days later), the loss of both his horses (a man tied his horses incorrectly and both escaped in the night), and a big dog bite to the ankle. After a heated discussion and a demand for money, the two unsavory men that brought Neale, left. Neale inaccurately assumed the men were trading two new horses for $10 rope from Australia.
(perhaps misunderstandings are understandable considering this is how we often communicate)

That week, we did recover two horses, the third we never found. Maybe the owner either hid it from us or turned it into horse meat. Neale gave up his idea of starting from the eastern border, possibly a good idea since we already exceeded our allotted time in the area as deemed by the military. They did not want us around. Before setting off again, we asked Bimba to come back as our translator and ride with us for two weeks.

We agreed to the follow the river (this time) down stream to a point where its course wound to its most western extent before flowing to the border of China.
After two days ride we arrived at the most westerly river bend. Also, a location of a pretty Buddhist site with a large white rock image carved into the side of the hill.

That night Neale left two horses without hobbles and they fled in the night. He and Bimba spent the next day chasing them down almost all the way back to their herds, riding a total of 70 km return. Meantime, Sony and I took a nice horse ride to visit goat herders on a hill high above the river.
Incredibly, Neale returned that evening with the two horses and we arranged with a herder to cross the dry steppe above the river to Buir Nuur, a big lake 50km to the west. Now with only seven horses, the herder packed our extra gear on his motorbike and we followed him 10km to the first and last well en route to the lake. All but my two horses took advantage of a final drink and we headed off again.
Although I instructed the driver to only go 5 KM ahead, he decided to drive the final 30 km all the way to a Ger to wait for us and drank vodka. However annoyed, I was just happy to see that he didn’t drive off with all of our gear (not unlikely scenario as later Neale would have half his gear stolen when he had it shipped back to Choilbolsan). We camped at a Ger next to the lake where we swam and camped for a few days. The scene around our tent took on the feeling of a circus like drama as herders from all directions came to the lake to water all sorts of animals – camels, horses, cows, goats and sheep. Boys, some just a few years old, were racing their horses past our tent in preparation for Nadaam, the biggest holiday in Mongolia. While other boys sang songs while herding their animals.

After some deliberation that evening, we decided to break up the Fellowship of the East-West quest.
Janusz so anxious to get back to the city, he jumped off his horse at the first sight of a car leaving for Choibolsan - even leaving the precious saddle he brought from Poland behind. Bimba helped Neale find a herder to ride across the 250Km dry stretch of steppe west back to Choibolsan with four horses while Sony, Bimba and I decided on a relaxing week of travel 50km with three horses along the lake edge visiting Gers, swimming in the lake, and enjoying the scenery.

We have been traveling around the lake for a week and we are now looking for someone with a truck to drive us and our horses across the bone-dry steppe back to Choibolsan. Herder families live about 10km apart along the stretch of the lake and word travels fast in these parts. We have been hearing rumors that Neale ended up putting his horses in a truck instead of herding them across the steppe. Maybe his guide left him – this would not be surprising since he is a bit of a conman and a slave driver, pushing all those around him to go as fast as possible in a straight line east-west. Doing so proves only counterproductive - making so many bad hasty decisions that he ends up wasting more time than saving. Sony and I have decided to pen the horses in Choibolsan if we can get them there, then sell the oldest one. We then plan to truck the horses north of Choibolsan where we can start another one month long trek along a river in the area where Gengis Khan was born and would at times return in his life to the highest local mountain to seek guidance from nature: the sky and the wolf. The Lonely Plant guidebook describes this area as having picture perfect villages of alternating meadows and forests similar to Switzerland in contrast to the area we rode in the past month - an endless sea of grass flatlands spectacled with round, white dots (GER homes). The people in this border area with Russia live in log huts as due their Siberian neighbors.

Sony and I are now back in Choibolsan staying with Bimba’s family planning our next trek and resting the horses, after another jarring ride.

(loading our horses for the ride back. The truck broke down about 4 times this trip.)

When you get in a minivan and the sidewalls and ceilings is covered in the same padding used in insane asylums to prevent people in straight jackets from injuring themselves, you know it is going to be a bumpy ride. Not only did the ten hour ride from the lake back to Choibolsan massage or rattle (not sure which) the internal organs, huge amounts of dust quickly clogged the nose and eyes even with a face mask and sunglasses, while a fuel leak saturated our brains. The driver took us on back roads to avoid military checkpoints that may have not permitted us to move horses since there is a district wide foot and mouth disease epidemic which only affects cows and sheeps, but horses could spread the disease via mud on their hooves. Adding an extra tortuous hour to the journey, our driver drove in a big circle to oil wells the Chinese recently installed just inside the Mongolian border (which could spell doom for the remaining wild herd of gazelle in this area should the planned pipe line project be built). Earlier that day, we helped the driver’s son net Carp in the lake and the driver kept trying to sell the now stinking, bloated and ungutted fish to Chinese oil well workers, neither of which knew a single word of the other’s language. Attempts to communicate were made by writing in the dirt with sticks. The driver ended up giving the fish away.

We arrived on the outskirts on the Choibolsan, the forth largest city in Mongolia (populating 80,000) , but still just a smattering of dilapidated buildings and a single eerily lit smoke stack pouring out black smoke from the town’s only power plant. We slept next to a Ger and the driver had one of the herder’s sneak the horse he brought across the river into the animal market. He sold the horse to some Chinese from Inner Mongolia with strange Mongolian accents (according to Bimba). The horse will probably be sold for meat in China which I fear will also be the fate of our horses in a few months. We quickly heard rumors that Neale was still in town and went to visit him the next day. Turns out, he rode and herded his four horses from the lake and sent his bags back to Choibolsan via minvan in order to lighten his load for the arduous trek. His bags arrived two days after he did, picked over and half missing. True to the rough and tough Australian outback attitude, Neale left the next morning to ride by himself to UB without almost no gear left, no permits and two horses. The other two he sold. Unceremoniously, we parted ways again. We hope Neale made it off okay since it seemed the people he chose to board with in Choibolsan were more of the unsavory type of folk he so easily attracts.

That night, Sony and Bimba went on a stealth mission to ride the horses through and across the river, bypassing the bridges which are under military control. The 7 km trek took an unexpected 3 hours due to the unexpected barbed wires fences they encountered and not being able to find a shallow part of the lake to cross. Crossing the river well past midnight, the horses were kept at the Mormon church that night. The next day we found a wonderful herding family living just outside town to care for the horses and a young newly married herder collected our horses and herded them to his home.

It may seem that we are suffering by what has been written however, we are enjoying our Mongolian experience immensely. No where else in the world is there such an extensive nomadic society left. Although it seems that every Mongolian we meet thinks that they are going to walk away rich after helping us once (I’m sure in part because there are thoughtless tourists and come in and drop 100usd to stay in a Ger overnight the equivalent of a year’s salary for many herder’s that are still on the bartering system, not the monetary one). They are still genuine, opening their homes and lives to anyone.

(the inside of a GER. The stove is in the center and acts as kitchen and central heating system)

(sharing photos and movies with the families)

(one of many meals cooked for us)

(A wolf shot and skinned by the herder. Warning Wolves: stay away from our herds)

(Taking the horse for a drink)


  1. Dear Lenny, Can you please not delete my comments?

  2. Love reading about the adventures. Amazing. Frankie asked tonight, "Can we travel around the world like Uncle Leonard?" Love you. Come home soon. Be safe. Your sister.