Horsing Around in Khövsgöl

Long time readers with minds like elephants might recall that I had an equestrian incident (I fell off a horse, had plenty of ribs broken, a concussion, cuts up my back, and had to sit through a ridiculously painful three hour ride back to the nearest town) all the way back in 2012, and have ever since been justifiably nervous around horses and their ilk (seriously, I’ll walk in a large arc around any large animal resembling the shape of a horse, such as a cow) ever since. So it was to some people’s great surprise that I wanted to go on a twelve day horse trek from the southern tip of Lake Khövsgöl to the Tsaartan people in the extreme north of Mongolia, unreachable my motorised transport, and back again. I did get thrown off again, but only once and I didn’t get hurt from that, it was something else entirely that very nearly drove me out of my mind.

After postponing our departure by a day to avoid a nasty storm and to give us more time to stock up on the provisions we’ll be needing underway, we still managed to leave in the rain after considerable delays on the day of departure as other groups were leaving too, though on much shorter trips, and as the guides all helped each other, no one left until even the last laggard was ready. We left Khatgal with our guide, Turbat (pronounced “Toro”), down one of the meandering earth-trodden side paths off the main road, riding in the direction of the Naadam field. As we rode past one of the last families departing, a tiny fluffy white dog came hurtling towards the horses barking at its loudest, and sending the first horse it reached, the pack-horse, into a panic. Turbat turned his horse away from the dog and indicated that Silja and I should to so too, which calmed the horses until the owner apologetically in a sort of slow jog approached her dog and picked it up.

Unlike me, Silja is a lifelong and experienced rider, which also means that she isn’t as intimidated by horses as I on occasion found myself. The horse I rode the first day was exceptionally stubborn, and according to our guide needed substantial corporal incentives to keep moving. If you were sitting on a reasonable intelligent animal with the power to kill you like the faint memory of a bitter lemon cake, would you be beating it every time it paused to graze? If your only other experience with a horse included being hospitalised? I thought so. Horses learns this from how you ride them, and eventually even reluctantly hitting it wouldn’t get it anywhere, so the guide and I swapped horses and on future days that original horse of mine served as the packhorse. On the other hand, something that I didn’t need to worry about at all was slipping and stumbling, which the horse often did on smooth rocks or over above-ground tree-roots as it always found its footing again, yet still my heart skipped a beat every time.

The first half of the first day to some degree followed the main road (gravel and dirt, with deep ditches) north along the western bank of Lake Khövsgöl, crossing at several places until Turbat pulled away from the road for a last time, riding up the bottom of a low valley for a total of a few hundred metres and then tying his and our horses to a series of wooden stakes outside two small huts that we were invited into. Still uncertain about the horse, I stayed on until Turbat had both tied it to the stake and held the bridle for me; a teenage girl came up to help Turbat unpack the packhorse, remove a few items and repack it, a long and time-consuming process of holding the bags in place while tying it securely 117 times.

The girl, who had a little English, conveyed that this where Turbat’s mother, daughter (herself), and nephew lived, and an offer of tea and bread with yak-butter and sugar, a small ceremony that would repeat at all of our social calls, and having been caught unaware of how strenuous riding could be, I gladly took bread and yak-butter to satiate my unexpected hunger. The hut was one large room with three mattresses each on metal frames along each wall and a fourth bed underneath the ceiling, a small kitchen by the door (mostly a tabletop for preparing food), a large fireplace with a large cauldron on top, and various framed pictures of Turbat’s father and various 20th century historical figures of Mongolian culture. The items Turbat had removed were presents and other goods he had brought back from Khatgal, where we had started from.

Generally speaking, but also especially because this was the shortest day, the first day was the hardest, and when we arrived at the campsite Turbat had chosen, a small hill dotted with trees opposite a much larger hill covered with trees, everything on the ground was wet but as we soon learned and came to appreciate during the entire trip, Turbat was nothing if not resourceful, and with a dull axe managed to start and build a fire with freshly cut saplings and put down a stake on either side with a crossbar between them to hold up the pot of food, where we cooked what would quickly become the staple dinner of our existence, rice with potatoes, carrots, and canned tuna or anchovies. The water came from a small nearby stream, white and foamy we decided to filter it through a cotton t-shirt, once into a bottle and a second time into the pot in which we would be cooking. This was also nearly the only time we had to do this, as all water streams from here on out were impressively clear, coming directly from melting glaciers.

A family travelling with their ger and goats were camped just on the other side of the hill, and after pitching the tent I gave Silja a sideways glance and got a nod back, so I grabbed the camera that had been lying safely and unused in my thoroughly inaccessible-during-the-day backpack and ran over to see what, if anything, was happening. Three children were running around chasing goats, while two would approach it from the side to close off those avenues of escape the third would run up from behind, attempt to grab both its horns and then wrestle him- or herself onto its back and ride until thrown off (never long). I sadly never got a photo of the end result as they only succeeded once or twice, and besides I was much to busy enjoying the spectacle.

In between all the activity and bustle of catching goats, the children would relax with a strange game consisting of placing fingers together and then removing or keeping a finger in place, and the winner or loser would be determined by what other players did. I know of some such games, but I couldn’t determine a pattern here, and when I joined in it was to much amusement, both because they certainly hadn’t expected it and because I was terrible at it. Or they just told me that I had lost, and I naïvely believed them to their amusement. They were the sweetest children, not the slightest hint of shyness which I would otherwise encounter to some degree later on, but my guess is that most of they places they camped were close to the lake, where far more tourists come by.

On the second day Silja and I woke up to the sound of wood being chopped, only dinner is a warm meal on this trip, but Turbat was preparing a fire solely for boiling water for his (quite frankly, atrocious) tea; talk about dedication. That didn’t mean that we got an early start, because the horses can only take so many kilometres per day considering also the amount of days we’re away, five to seven hours of active riding were the norm so we never got started until 12 o’clock, but because of Mongolia’s skewed timezones that was only about two or three hours after we got up; this was probably the time in which I got the most reading done.

Several other people that we spoke to complained of inner thighs rubbed raw from endless trotting, the riding style where you have to stand up and sit down in rhythm with the horse all day long (or suffer a “punch” to your thighs and pelvis with every bounce), but that was mostly something we avoided by having enough time for our horses to walk to their destination, except when my horse fell too far behind (it would always walk a little bit slower than Turbat’s horse and then have to trot every once in a while to catch up), though it was still uncomfortable and I can’t imagine enduring it for a full day.

The landscape on the second day started much in the same vein as the day before, low tree-covered hills, small valleys with grassland in the lower parts and the occasional hut or ger, but after turning off the road the final time it started getting wilder, and today we entered the mountains proper that border Lake Khövsgöl on its western shore, though it was to get even more mountainous and remote before we were out of it. Rivers from glacial water also grew more frequent and we often had to cross them, which often meant lifting your legs as high as possible while retaining balance and control of the horse, or live with trousers and shoes drenched in (or as near as) icy water.

On one occasion while climbing a steep embankment on the far side of a twisting river my horse panicked, maybe it trod on something painful or it was the first horsefly we came along, none the less the horse panicked and I jumped off after my saddle started sliding sideways off and the horse wasn’t responding to me tugging on its reins; that which I had been fearing most happened, but since it happened so quickly, I had been so prepared for it, and absolutely nothing happened when I hit the ground (all three unlike last time), I wasn’t fazed in the slightest and it didn’t bother me nearly as much as the horse slipping.

As the trees slowly disappeared and the mountains grew relatively smaller, it became clear that we had ridden up to a plateau at a respectable attitude (the mountains didn’t shrink, we simply went higher), and the streams grew much smaller but also much more bountiful, at times even becoming swamps more than anything else you’d expect in the mountains of Mongolia. People were also becoming a rare sight, the path had vague tracks of motor vehicles, but aside from the odd motorcycle we met not a soul. We eventually came upon a larger stream, a river even, which split into a Y-fork around a small island and rejoined again on the other side, which we rode onto for night, where Silja and I held onto the horses while Turbat quickly made some stakes for the horses.

Waving away millions and billions of hungry flies we pitched our tents and had knock-off Nutella sandwiches for dinner (everything here seems to be knock-off products from Russia or Germany, probably a leftover from the communist era), followed by an early retreat to bed despite the late-setting sun turning the tent into a portable oven. I have no idea what Turbat was expecting of the trip and his obligations, he spoke only Mongolian and insisted on it to such a degree that Silja and I eventually learned about five words of Mongolian as he was always using the same ones; but he always seemed to stay up long after us. The food he had brought seemed to consist mostly of the same terrible biscuits, which he kindly shared as we shared our rice, vegetables, and fish.

By the latter half of the second day, I had gotten thoroughly used to the gentle swaying of horse riding, the beautiful landscape and the refreshing climate, though sunscreen was occasionally called for. Silja was worse off however, haven been under the weather on the second day and having a rough start on the third, lying down in the shade of the tent while everything else was being packed together. It would plague her for a solid portion of the trip, but she was incredibly stoic in the face of pain and uncomfortableness. On the first day her saddle, which has a wooden base (mine is metal) had been digging into her legs, cut a hole in her trousers and had started wearing away at her skin. Turbat, after we had made camp, brought out his axe and chipped away the offending wood on the sadle until it was more comfortable.

While the day before sunrise had been entirely insect-less, they started arriving as we got underway and soon horseflies were everywhere on my horse rendering it entirely unpredictable; it would jump up and down, from side to side, and kick itself on the stomach and elsewhere in feeble attempts to get rid of the biting flies. This somewhat predictably brought me closer and closer to panic, and at one point I simply jumped off the horse, ran down to the river and sat by the calming babbling of the water for a healthy amount of time before Silja and Turbat approached, I’m assuming that it correctly looked like I needed some privacy. They were aware of how uncomfortable I had been with the constant sudden movements, but not of how scared it had made me, frightened out of my mind I was.

My horse hadn’t been content with jumping and kicking, it had also walked next to the packhorse to scrub its sides against the packs strapped onto it and insisted, despite my heavy pulling on the reins, to walk on the side that put it behind Turbat’s horse leading to the situation where every time Turbat’s horse kicked in the air, either my horse or I were very nearly hit by a pair of flying hooves. So the rest of the day, five out of six and half hours, I walked comfortably on my own legs which also made me better able to take in the grandness of the Mongolian nature; as trees returned and the mountains rose above us again, the streams widened to the point where continuing downstream at times was more of a puzzle than it was walking. At one point I had to pick up some of the many, many rocks that made up the riverbed, both wet and dry, and throw them into the stream to make a fordable place shallow enough so that I didn’t have to swim.

It was weary going, the mountains were no place for my painful knees though I took a long rest at a beautiful mountain pass with a Buddhist tribute, as the horses were particularly slow uphill; the impoverished trickle of motorcycles that had passed yesterday was now completely gone and there now wasn’t much of an alternative for getting out, as the distance we had already crossed was shorter than the road ahead to Renchinlkhumbe, the midway village and last bastion of (by vague Mongolian terms) civilisation before the final stretch of mountains, trees, lakes, and nomads that separate us from the Russian border. Eventually when the streams just got too deep, the water too cold, and the day was drawing to an end anyway and the horse flies had gone back into hiding, I clambered back onto the horse and had a calm remaining 30 minutes before we arrived at a beautiful clearing, passing several other camp sites in the final 10 minutes where we dearly hoped Turbat would stop, but each time dashed our hopes.

Turbat had to make new stakes, and after pitching the tent while Silja still felt ill she went to sleep, leaving me to explore a bit around where we were. A small section of forest on the edge of which we camped stood underneath steep cliff sides in two directions, with an open grassy/flowery field where the horses grazed on the third, and not far away from us in the fourth and final direction the calming babbling of the two streams that met just below us, which we would follow out of the mountains tomorrow. Cooking dinner with the clearest glacial water, I sat up till late by the lovely campfire that I for once had made myself rather than just rely on Turbat, eating more rice with vegetables and tuna and enjoying a new book I had just started. Truly, one of the greatest functions of travelling is all the newfound time for reading.

An early fourth morning dragged on forever as I sat eating the remains from dinner last night and reading. Silja was still ill and Turbat always took long enough that I could have picked up classical piano. As usual I helped him strap the packs onto the packhorse, something that would be much harder alone. While I held up one side of the pack and he the other, it was two large bags stuck together with a piece of fabric that it would rest on the back of the horse, as close together in weight as Turbat could reasonably make them, he would start tying the bags together with many knots and turns, passing me the rope to pass under here and there and then back to him for an additional knot, until they were tied so securely that he would start leading the rope underneath the horse to secure it, and then both of us would rock the pack up and down to pull it down on the horses sides (we had been holding the pack very high while tying it), and to find the ideal balance.

I got on the horse with a sense of foreboding trying not to think too hard of the innumerable horseflies, but Turbat was distracted and left us there to sit for quite a while. Horseflies aren’t the fastest creatures, and at a normal walking pace horses can better withstand their bites, but at a standstill they kick and jump vigorously, so I quickly got off again and walked the rest of the day. Turbat had managed to ask if we wanted to camp tonight, or whether we wanted to stay in a guesthouse. So looking forward to a decent night’s rest and with a faint glimmer of hope for someone who spoke English to translate between Turbat and us, I found the energy to walk an entire day again though it was particularly tough going.

We did indeed soon after leave the mountains as we left the area where we had been camping, no more stony riverbeds or steep pathways, instead we entered swamps, dense forests, more swamps, and more flies and horseflies than I would wish on even the finest and kindest of spiders. Like riding the “lively” horses, the flies and their constant buzzing began damaging my calm, and I would with alarming regularity take off at a run, waving my arms to knock the flies and nargles off course and only stop again when I was winded. It actually worked for some time, but either they’d come back or new flies would find me. I couldn’t use this tactic in the swamps, but after we hit solid ground and tracks after the swamps when I would fall far behind the horses as this was their ideal ground for walking, I’d use this tactic liberally if only just to not go out of my mind.

The swamps were exactly that, boggy marshland where everything sunk-in deep between tiny stretches of what had once resembled a road; driving in anything but the most terrain going vehicles here would surely spell the end of said vehicle. Looking at the horses who went almost as slowly as I did here, they instinctively knew where to walk to avoid getting stuck and sinking in, where as I as always ended up with shoes soaked, only this time it was muddy water instead of the pure and cold glacial water, my only solace was that I didn’t lose my shoes. The amount of flies here was truly impressive, black clouds buzzed around everyone’s head, and wherever they landed and congregated they obscured from view that on which they landed. I always sing when I’m out hiking, particularly if other people are out of earshot, and walking through the swamp I was bellowing at the loudest volume my lungs and throat could carry, trying to encourage myself to carry on through what in all directions was swampland, with scraggy trees clinging on to remaining patches of solid ground, everything soaked in grey and yellowish green tones (I was in fact so disgruntled that I didn’t even take any photos).

You see, walking through the marshland was so straining that I thought I’d try riding again, which couldn’t possibly have turned out much worse. I was struggling to get the horse to move, it was constantly kicking, jumping, and now also biting to get rid of horseflies, sending me out on the edge of what I could mentally handle. I couldn’t well get off either, Turbat was far ahead, and getting off a jumping and kicking horse is akin to using crocodiles as stepping stones across a river. Suddenly the horse became very still, and I tried urging it onwards, but instead it very suddenly and violently pelted forwards at an extreme speed, and it took all my strength and a complete and soul-draining disregard for the wellbeing of the animal, to heave hard enough on the reins to make it stop, the leather digging hard into my fingers. I sprang off, let go entirely of the horse which wandered off towards Turbat, and fell to my knees crying loudly with hulking sobs. I was scared out of my mind, given my previous experience on horse I had genuinely feared for my life when my horse had bolted this time. I walked the rest of the way to Renchinlkhumbe, hardly saying a word, not stopping for the breaks or much of anything else.

When you’re not in the mountains of Mongolia it’s as flat as a pancake, as flat as Denmark where we say that standing on a chair you can see coast to coast. So once we cleared the forest and caught sight of Renchinlkhumbe, we were sure that salvation was at hand. Only to realise after about thirty minutes that distances are deceptive here, the land is so flat that it’s hard to gauge distances and it took more than an hour to cover the distance. We arrived in the town after walking through an enormous yak grazing ground, but they are docile creatures and left us to our own devices though they could easily have flattened me as I was on foot. But even once inside the town, though knackered and half dead we weren’t at the end of our trials, people out here like to live with space in-between them, building horizontally rather than vertically, so the distance to Saridag Inn on the far side of Renchinlkhumbe was still considerable. They had a vacant ger with proper beds (they had in fact several as the recent Naadam festival had kept tourists away from the area), pasta bolognese for dinner, and a hot (hot!) shower that we were free to use, prerequisites for feeling human again.

Not only was Renchinlkhumbe well spread out and utterly devoid of people, it was also more a gathering of huts, as the “roads” was merely well-worn stretches of dried mud as uneven as the mountains we had just left, with branches and stubs of trees sticking out wherever they pleased, cows walking around mad as hatters, grazing and staring. We did see two people actually, two teenage girls in more Western clothes playing with their phones. What must it be like to grow up this far removed, the boondocks even by Mongolian standards? Actually, one street had artificial lighting, but we were told in hushed voices that they had never worked. Who told us? The proprietor of the Saridag Inn spoke English moderately, and would later help arrange our return from the wilderness to the slightly less wild Khatgal.

The biggest surprise we had in store, was the French mother and daughter, Natalie and Julie, and their fluent-in-French-but-from-Mongolia guide Baryama; Natalie and Julie spoke English quite well, but Baryama didn’t, so the language of the evening was French. My French is still a beginner’s French though I still managed to pick up quite a bit of a conversation, but Silja speaks it nearly perfectly, so whatever I didn’t understand or when I wanted to add to the conversation, Silja would help me conjugate verbs, adjust for tenses, and add to my French vocabulary. We learned so much through Baryama, like what the Mongolian words Turbat kept repeating meant, why he was always laughing and shaking his head when I ate the dried meat he had brought (you’re supposed to boil it), how old Turbat was (47), that only one of the girls from the first day was his daughter, learned that he thought we had to be back a day later than we had arranged with the guesthouse (which if it had happened, would have made us late for our plane back to Europe), whether we wanted to stay with his wife and other daughter on the returntrip, and got help with planning the final stage of our trip from Renchinlkhumbe up north and back down again as we had a few suggestions for changes. Mostly though, Turbat was interested in why I had been walking instead of riding, why I had been so uncomfortable; my previous experiences mostly just seemed to amuse him, why would anyone be scared of a horse?

We took our dinner with Natalie, Julie, and Baryama, and had a lovely and lively evening, good conversation and even if the pasta bolognese wasn’t exactly what I had had in Bologna a few months prior, it was a huge relief from our rice, vegetables, and tuna/anchovies diet, and still plainly delicious. We learned that the French had been stuck here for days, missing the Naadam as they’d rather ride up north to the Tsaatans where we were headed, but had been unable to go as the area had been closed to visitors for the past week. It had just opened up again in time for Silja and me to go north, but alas not for Natalie and Julia who had to go back to Ulaanbataar for their flight home; there had been a contagious horse disease, but with our inoculated horses we were supposedly safe. Despite my physical exhaustion we stayed up till late, and I shared the chocolate I had bought in a small shop here in town, of which everyone (including myself) took one piece, ate it, and with a frowning face inwardly swore never to try it again.

The landlady paraded her children out at 22 o’clock, very late for children that age typically, but we had long since accepted that children in Mongolia tend to be up for as long as they like; and I seized at this opportunity to dump my terrible Polish chocolate (it was Polish) on the unsuspecting children and they gladly accepted, though I suppose they haven’t had much experience with delicious European chocolate. Like elsewhere they children were out of school for the summer, but unlike a lot of the nomads we had encountered and would be encountering, they lived close to their school and stayed with their family all year round. I also managed to record a bit of conversation between Mongolians, it is truly a beautiful language, and sounds quite akin to the Inuit languages of Greenland to me.


As everyone started to drift off to bed for a night of solid sleep our landlady told us that the hot shower was ready which was much needed, having not showered for several long days in close companionship with horses and roughing it in nature, this was much called for. It was absolutely delightful and soul-cleansing, but also made me feel sad for the inn; they had clearly invested a lot of time and materials in making this place special despite it’s incredibly remote location (it takes 18 hours on the road of hell to get to a somewhat accessible town, basically extreme off-roading in a highly packed poorly ventilated 4x4 minivan), and when the French people had arrived they had had to go looking for the proprietor, there had been no one visiting for quite a while before they arrived. Clean and feeling human again I went to sleep on a genuine Mongolian bed, and slept sweet dreams until the following morning, when Silja and I set out to continue ever northwards.

This last day had been a rollercoaster of emotions, from yet another horse incident that had frayed my nerves beyond their breaking point, my utterly worn out knees, the hours upon hours of constant buzzing from flies (at least the horseflies weren’t biting me), and the endlessly muddy swamps; all of that suddenly upset by surprise company, a cooked meal that actually tasted of something welcome and had generous amounts of tender meat in it, a bed to sleep in, no need to pitch a tent, a steaming hot shower in the middle of nowhere, and perhaps most importantly of all the chance to speak to our guide through a translator, which proved to be vital in later days of the trip.

Originally published at www.rothe.dk on November 28, 2015.