Monday, August 30, 2010

Entry 10: In the Footsteps of Gengis Khan

After staying a week or so in Choilbason with Bimba, his sister and mom we arranged a truck to take our horses, Sony and I northwest 200 km to Dadal, described as an incredibly lovely small town of log cabins set in a picturesque valley a few km south of the Siberian border.

(the town of Dadal, comprising mostly of ethnic Buriats, who live in log cabins not Gers)

We helped load the horses onto the back of the pickup truck, not an easy task as the horses fight every push and pull and at times it appears they will destroy the truck, topple it over or hurt themselves. We had hoped the horses would have fatten up during their stay with the herders but they looked skinnier than when we left then as they had to be tied all night for fear of horse theft and thus couldn’t feed.

The first half of the drive to Dadal took only a few hours while the second half of the distance took the rest of the day and late into the night. We drove through several valleys and passes stopping at every ger to ask for directions which were few and far between. We drove on into the night on muddy, bumpy, nearly impassable roads along valley drainages and then winding up and through tree covered hills and passing the only bridge crossing of the Onon River, a major Mongolian River that has its headwaters just below the highest mountain peak in the area where Genghis Khan took refuge as a boy.

It was on this mountain Genghis spent his early years evading an enemy tribe leader that killed his father but by tradition had to spare Genghis’ life until age 11 when his enemy had the right to hunt him down and kill him. After flowing several hundred km just south of Siberia along the Russian border, the Onon River turns north and flows into Russia. The Onon is one of Mongolia’s rivers famed to be home to the Taimen, the largest - over 6 feet in length - Salmonoid species in the world. Look out Taimen, the Salmon Nomads are in town!

Our arrival to Dadal in the pouring rain felt to be an unfriendly welcome. With no one but drunk Mongolian men on motorcycles more interested in taunting than helping to ask for directions to wehre our super thirsty horses could drink. The sun rose the next morning, putting all my doubts aside, revealing a beautiful valley with soft rolling multi-colored hills bathed in sunlight to varying shades of blue, green and gray in the distance across a river tributary of the Onon lying just before us at the base of a gentle grass slope.

Just up hill of us, a cold spring surrounded by a wooden fence and decorated with hundreds of blue silk ribbons marks the place where Genghis Khan drank from as a boy.

Higher in the hills behind us were pine forests distinctly different from the flat dry grasslands we left behind in the East of Mongolia.

We spent the next two weeks exploring the rivers and hills around Dadal with our base camp located at a Ger of a young couple.

The owner of the ger, all thrity of his horses were stolen the year before (probably run into Russia) and now they only have cows. It seems that horse theft in the border areas of Mongolia is almost a multi-national sport. The girl spent part of her time fermenting a huge barrel of vodka, coagulating big vats of cream via a hand spun centrifuge and turning liter full bottles of locally picked red berries into jam, which I suppose they bartered with the towns people for things they needed like a solar rechargeable high powered LED flash light, the first that I’ve seen at a ger) that she proudly wielded.

(bread, baked from wood burning oven)

Sony and I did a one week horse trek loop down the river tributary and up the Onon river and over the hills and back to Dadal.

It was very difficult traversing marshes and steep hills along the river with grasses as high as the horses heads – over 6 feet in areas.

An amazing variety of wildflowers constantly surrounded us and wolves chattered through the night.

I figured a hobbled horse would be no match for a wolf pack so kept them tied close to our camp and stepped out of the tent periodically to build up the fire. On the last eve of the loop, we ran into the first tourist we’ve seen since coming to Mongolia two months ago – a French/Beligian couple with three horses. As they were on the other side of the river, we didn’t communicate much but we spied out all their horse gear with our binoculars.

Once back in Dadal, we met our second foreign tourists, two girls French and Indian, biking across part of Mongolia.

In exchange for taking them fishing, the Indian girl cooked us Indian food, in my opinion, the only thing better than sex. We had a great fishing experience, everyone catching trout while Sony landed a big 2.5 foot fish, just a baby but the famed taimen salmon. For the record, we released the baby taimen, even though I’ve heard that illegally poached fish taste even better.

Since we parted with Neale a month ago our Mongolian experience has been bliss. Not that traveling with Neale was bad, we learned so much about horses from that scruffy Aussie sheep herder and about ger life along the way. Maybe it was Neale’s do or die attitude about his quest to do nothing but an East to West Mongolian trek, in the straightest line possible, border to border that brought us bad energy resulting in complicated, un-relaxed travel or maybe it simply takes time to adjust to a place as unfamiliar as Mongolia. I always feel it takes me several weeks or more staying in one location to begin to feel a new place. In contrast most American barely have time to get off a plan and whisked to their resort destinations for a few days stay before they are back in their office chair. If vacation is defined by work and only a break from work, is that really a vacation?

The bliss that I now feel here doesn’t mean we haven’t had any problems; the red horse I was leading pulled so hard on his lead rope that my GPS dropped to the ground, which he then trampled as I could not get my white riding horse to stop on time. The GPS is my lifeline and I can now only read half of the LCD screen and daily, it is getting slowly worse, we rode back to camp after dark one eve and within a heartbeat of turning on my flashlight, the always skiddish red horse I was riding jumped so hard sideways to the left that I was falling backward before I could react. As I fell, my leg twisted hard before I could step out of the stirrup and the rope from the Brown horse I was leading wrapped around my neck and pulled hard almost strangling me as the Brown horse, now spooked, took off full speed after Red. I can now impress the ladies with a story about how I got my neck scar from the days I used to knife fight. Each night we use a section of rope called a hobble to tie three legs of each horse together so that it can not gallop off although a hobbled horse can still easily move many kilometers if it wants. The hobble also doubles as a whip to get a riding horse moving which I inadvertently dropped on the ground, spooking Red into throwing me off him (again) as he galloped into the grass adjacent the path stirring up a hornets nest, which then attacked the rest of us. Trying to shake the hornets, the White horse tried to gallop off in a straight line but I was able to get off the ground and grab his lead rope in time. I felt like the center pole of an insane merry-go-round as White ran in circle around me, bucking, pulling, and shaking his head violently until I decided to join the horses and run away also. Eventually, we managed to shake the hornets and gather up the horses. The semi-wild red horse, demoted to permanent pack horse, then went bucking wild when the pack slipped too far forward down onto his neck while walking downhill. A seamstress in Dadal fixed the bags that got torn apart in the bucking frenzy and we had her make two new bags to fit over the riding horses asses to lighten the load for Red. I discovered, there is a fine line between making the pack saddle to tight and not tight enough. I pulled so hard on Red’s belly harness, that I think I may have done permanent damage to his skin. It got real swollen, Sony cried, and now he is resting for a few days in a vacant pen we found by the river and he fortunately, looks almost like new again.

The next morning after our fish dinner, the girls left to continue their bike ride to Ulanbaatar while I am happy for having this horse riding experience, I hope someone shoots me before I ever decide to do another horse trip. I don’t think there is a better way to experience Mongolia than to enjoy solidarity with the people and ride horses as they do, but I am sure I can walk faster by the time it takes to pack and care for the horses each day as they barely walk as fast as a human at 3.5 miles per hour. On bikes, the girls cover as much ground as a vehicle each day but I think miss out on the experience of being a salmon nomad. I made sure to carefully check out all their bike gear in case I prefer to travel by bike someday but feel river kayaking may be the best way to explore this country next.

Back to the bliss….After finally leaving Dadal and parting with our host families, we headed up the ONon River and now camped river-side, the river recently swollen by thunderstorms.

The lightening was so close and bright last night it’s flashing as seen through the tent walls hurt our eyes. The view of the immense valley and distant mountains surrounding us is so big that we sat in sunlight today and watched the spirals of tornadoes form off in the distance to the north as thunder clouds built, formed, and floated passed us off to the West. In our river route from Dadal, we were treated with days of solitary riding, no Gers or people in sight,

incredibly pretty mountain passes and the most idyllic camp I can remember, next to a Ger with a small cold stream flowing passed feeding the big Onon river, purple flowers growing everywhere which our host mashed into salsa tasting of onions and big green smooth shapely mountains rising all around us. Sony and I waded out into the Onon and soon our fish bag was full of big trout.

On rainy days, Sony and I stay holed up in the tent and play Dungeons and Dragons.

The rules have changed much since I last played 25 years ago. So we have the new rulebooks in PDF format on the netbook to guide us. Every time a horse rider gallops up to our tent to investigate, I nearly question which world I am in. By the way, if anyone is interested I hope to form or join a Dungeons and Dragons group when I return to Seattle someday. We are now camped in Batshireet, a small frontier town, in the backyard of a cute little log home appearing palatial by Mongolian standards since it is the only home I’ve seen with two stories and a balcony.

It is chilly rainy and grey now after many days of hot clear sunshine. The remainder of our journey to this town set in the foothills of the region’s largest mountains alternated from joyous to difficult as we spent several days going one way and then having to back track as the road we followed terminated at the edge of a deep section of river with a cliff on one side and hills too steep on the other side to pass with horses. The joyous part was camping along the river, catching too many fish to eat and absorbing the beautiful scenery and the Mongolian activities all around us, picking berries, harvesting hay for the approaching winter,

hunting parties riding off into the mountains with their guns and dogs, herders herding (one of them a five year girl on a horse), unattended herds of animals coming for a drink then passing off into the hills.

1 comment:

  1. Awesome Leo... Frankie asks about you all the time. Love you and miss you and Sony. Your sister