Archive for August, 2010

Late August in Bhutan: rivers are swollen with monsoon rains, valleys that were just-harvested or newly-planted dusty brown on my earlier trips are bright green with almost ready rice crops, and March’s blossoming apple and peach trees are summer-heavy with fruit. I’ve been to Thimphu and caught up with Karma, Namgay and Sonam, and to Punakha where I was very fortunate to be received again by the lama at Talo monastery and to have my guide/friend Tshe Tshe there to patiently interpret our Dzongkha-English conversation. Tomorrow Tshe Tshe and I will go to the Haa valley for a few days where we’ll stay at the farmhouse of one of his relatives and hike. It is an incredible blessing to be among the Bhutanese people and to be experiencing the energy of this special place once again.


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Approximately 25 years ago: Studied Genghis and Kublai Khan in junior high social studies class. About the only thing I remember from junior high social studies so it must have been relatively interesting.

Approximately 4 years ago: Read a book called Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford which I highly recommend. Began to imagine visiting the land of the Eternal Blue Sky.

August 3, 2010: arrived in Ulaanbataar, capital of Mongolia, population approximately 1.3 million and growing largely due to migration from rural areas.

Day 2: Ulaanbataar (UB)
Soviet-style concrete buildings, a dismal ger (traditional round felt tent) district and a monastery very similar architecturally to those in Bhutan. Here a monk shoved me aside as he ran out the door of a temple to answer his cell phone which had gone off mid-ceremony. A multi-storied State Department Store with … everything. An Irish pub (yes, I now do believe they really are everywhere). An impressive national museum covering prehistory to Genghis Khan to the current post-communist era. After a day of wandering the city and somehow managing to avoid getting run down by the traffic using the strategy of staying as close as possible to Mongolians who I assumed knew better than me when to cross the street, I met our guide Jen (from New York state) and those of my fellow travellers who had not been sucked into the Air China Vortex and headed out for our first group dinner at a Chinese restaurant.

Day 3: Meet the Furgons
Our group, now joined by one more who had managed to find her way out of the Air China Vortex and to UB just in time, took a two hour flight to Zavkhan province. From the air as we came in for landing, the gers dotting the steppe looked like little white buttons. The gentle evening breeze was heavy with the scent of wild herbs (sage and thyme I think) as we waited for our luggage to be unloaded and were introduced to our cook, Nara, our interpreter, Mandy, and drivers Toro and Goomba. We climbed into two Furgons – hardy Russian military vehicles – for the drive to nearby Uliastai to pick up a few supplies, and then continued on to a ger camp where we spent the night.

Day 4: Meet the Horses
The drive to our first campsite took most of the day. I ended up as the only passenger in Goomba’s Furgon which was otherwise packed to the roof with gear. Like many older Mongolians, Goomba knows some Russian, a legacy from the days of the Soviet Union, Mongolia’s closest ally for much of the 20th century. I dredged up what little Russian I remember from a university course I took a couple of decades ago and we managed to have a bit of a conversation (this long-ago course also came in handy for sounding out signs and names as Mongolian, like Russian, is written in Cyrillic script). We made an afternoon stop in Tosentsengel, a dusty town vaguely reminiscent of something out of a spaghetti Western, to pick up the tents, saddles and other gear as well as a few “supplies” (read: beer, port and vodka), and eventually arrived at camp in time to pitch our tents and test-ride a couple of the horses before dark. We also met the wranglers: Tsooj, Idear, and Baynaa.

Day 5: The Horizontal Shower
By the end of this first full day of riding on steppes, through forests and up ridges, I was feeling both sore and incompetent. My horse, who had no real name as Mongolians refer to their horses descriptively, was fortunately calm enough to put up with my entire lack of grace. The one success of the day was my invention/discovery of the horizontal shower technique useful in cold shallow rivers with fast currents: sit down in river; lay back; stand and lather up from head to toe; lay down in river and allow current to rinse. Nighttime was rainy, so we gathered in the mess tent and sipped port and vodka while Jen played a stringed instrument from Kyrgyzstan where she’d been living for awhile up until last spring’s revolution.

Day 6 – The Group is Complete
As we were packing up in the morning, the two final group members arrived, having finally managed to extricate themselves from the Air China Vortex. We were seven in total, the six other than me from England, Scotland, Singapore and Australia. The medical and legal professions were well-represented among us, but the Mongolians were most impressed by the Scottish sheep farmer with the 3,000 strong herd (their herds usually have a few hundred animals at most). For the benefit of the Mongolian staff, Jen put up a sign on one of the Furgons listing our names transliterated into Cyrillic script with descriptions: tall male person, tall female person (me), lady who smokes cigarettes, small female person, 3,000 sheep man, new female person and new male person. We had another long day of riding to our second camp, after which I again felt sore and incompetent, although I felt somewhat better following my horizontal shower. I was impressed that Small Female Person (from Australia) and New Female Person (my English tentmate), despite not being “Mad Canadians”, as Tall Male Person (English) put it, were brave enough to join me in the cold river water.

Day 7 – Yoga on the Steppe
Today was a shorter ride to our next camp, after which I was less sore (muscles beginning to respond to demands and a lunchtime yoga session on the steppe) and felt slightly less incompetent thanks to some tips from Tsooj around the campfire the previous night.

Day 8 – The Spa
Another relatively short ride to the next camp with a delightful pay-off: just a short way up the road was an abandoned spa consisting of three small rooms each with a tub that filled with hot spring water. I decided it was time to give my horse a name and called him Leonard, after Leonard Cohen because he seemed fairly laid back and a bit of a loner, being new to the herd.

Day 9 – Crater Lake
From our camp we took a short ride up a mountain to a lake. In the afternoon we played a card game, the rules of which I never quite grasped, but which caused Tsooj and Toro to shout and wrestle each other as they “helped” the rest of us play. That night Tsooj and Toro drove back to Tosontsengel with a load of elderly Mongolians whose van had crashed on their way down from the spa.

Day 10 – Hail and Rain
A long day’s ride in hail and rain over a high pass and through burnt out forests to our next campsite where we found no sign of the Furgons. Because we were all cold and wet, we set out for a nearby ger where we hoped to be invited in for tea and to warm up in accordance with traditional Mongolian hospitality. I put on my rain jacket for the first time which turned out to be a mistake because Leonard freaked out a few minutes into the ride. I jumped off him and started to walk instead, despite the wranglers insisting that it was too far to go on foot (it wasn’t, and I didn’t care anyway because I was perfectly warm walking) but just then we heard the sound of an approaching Furgon and turned back. It was Tsooj and Toro who had been … let’s say “detained” … in Tosontsengel. Poor Goomba did not get to camp until quite awhile later because he’d gotten stuck in a river and had to wait for help.

Day 11: A Ger Visit
A rest day, other than a very pleasant walk with the Lady Who Smokes Cigarettes, and a short afternoon ride to the ger we’d been heading for the previous day. The first person we encountered was a lovely 16-year-old girl on horseback who led us to the camp, and we watched with amusement as Idear appeared to flirt with her (Idear, who is 20, had told us a couple of nights before through Mandy that he expected he would get married in about 2 years and that his wife would be the happiest woman in the world). Whether he spent more time checking out the girl or her splendid black horse I couldn’t say. We visited for awhile with the family who graciously offered us food (yogurt, clotted cream) and warm drinks, including vodka made from cow’s milk, and put up with all our picture-taking. Other than the handful of groups the company I was with brings each season, no other tourists come to this area, so local people haven’t grown weary of intrusive foreigners. The herders are also nomadic so even though the company travels to the same places they would not necessarily meet the same families. As we were leaving to go back to our camp Leonard spooked again for no apparent reason, so I switched to another horse – Jasper – who was much more pleasant to ride.

Day 12: Falls
We woke up to a beautiful sunny morning and clear blue skies, and set out for the ride to our next camp, starting with a wide open stretch of steppe. We had made some changes to the horses, and I was riding Jasper who had a much smoother gait than Leonard, and needed a lot less prodding to keep up with the others. Just a short ways out of camp, a strap on my saddle broke, which started to hit Jasper in the belly, which caused him to suddenly take off… and eventually I fell off, fortunately landing right on my butt. After Idear fixed the saddle, I got back on, but it was only a few minutes later that Tall Male Person also had a fall which was more serious: his horse Eyeball had stumbled and landed on him. Jen and the 2 physicians in the group concluded that he’d probably broken a rib, and needed to go to the hospital in Tosontsengel to check for internal bleeding. Tsooj galloped off to get a Furgon, which arrived a few minutes later. The rest of us continued on to the camp, a little more slowly than before and concerned about our friend.

Day 13: Rest Day
Pretty sore from the previous day’s fall: skipped riding and rode with Toro in the Furgon.

Day 14: Goodbye to the Horses
A short last morning of riding to our lunch spot where Tall Male Person rejoined us and we said goodbye to the horses.By now I had decided Eminem would have been a more suitable name for Leonard, but I couldn’t help smiling as even in his last few moments of being bridled, with his front legs hobbled he tried to escape by hopping away, dragging the horse he was tied to behind him. Before driving off to Tosentsengel to drop off the gear, we took a few moments to enjoy the beautiful sight of all the horses freed to trot and canter across the steppe, drinking and grazing as they pleased before being driven home by the wranglers. After Tosentsengel, we drove a few hours more through a blizzard to a ger camp where we stayed the night. On the way we stopped to buy bottles of fermented mares’ milk from two little girls by the roadside, met a marmot hunter and his son, already a skilled horseman at the age of 10, and passed a van of tourists, the only other foreigners we’d seen since leaving UB.

Days 15-16: The Desert
We drove a few hours to the Black Lake camp, a spectacular site right at the transition zone between steppe and Gobi desert. It was cold and windy when we arrived and I had visions of reliving my Lakes of Patagonia experience, but the tent held up and the next day was warm and sunny enough for walks, yoga on the dunes and swimming.

Day 17: The End
Just after leaving camp we spotted some camels by a nearby ger: the first we’d seen. After taking a few pictures and waiting for Toro to buy some fish, we set off for the long drive back to the airport for our evening flight to UB, where we were greeted by smog, noise, and a sadly out-of-place streetside ger. A last late group dinner and we headed off to our hotel rooms for long-awaited hot (or more accurately, lukewarm) showers.

The next morning I said my goodbyes and headed to the airport for the first of a series of flights which eventually got me to Bhutan 24 hours later (yesterday morning), while miraculously avoiding the Air China Vortex.

A Few Final Random Thoughts

1. Of all the groups I’ve travelled with this year, this is the one that seemed to me to have the most “soul”, and I want to thank Jen and my fellow riders for a wonderful journey together. A special thanks to my tentmate, New Female Person, for all the great convo.

2. The story of horses and humans is a long and complex one, bound with cooperation, control, love, fear, anger, empathy, exploration, warfare, cultivation, survival, status, power and surrender. Better riders would understand this more than me, but I think when we spend time with horses, especially in concentrated periods as we did during our Zavkhan trek, we cannot help but tap into the energy of this history with all its complications and contradictions, and walk away with some kind of learning that is much more profound than techniques of reins, stirrups, saddles, legs, seats and gaits. I know that I wish I had set off on this trip with more skill and confidence so that I could have enjoyed the freedom of the open steppe without fences as much as my fellow riders, who I greatly admire (an image of Tall Male Person Clint Eastwood-like alone on a ridgetop above the rest of us comes to mind here), and I do hope that all those hours in the saddle did improve my technique at least a little. However, I sense that I also gained something deeper from my experience with these teachers in horse clothing that is not yet clear to me, but perhaps will become more so in time.

3. I seriously want a Furgon to take back to Yellowknife.

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