A Watery Odyssey Across the Mongolian Steppes
Water, water everywhere.
“Come to Mongolia,” my sister Tess said. She and my youngest sister Sophie were planning a solo horse trek for 12 days to Gorkhi-Terelj National Park. She assured me we would take it easy, and have plenty of time to relax. I envisioned myself sitting by a river and scribbling in a notebook. I took three notebooks and three novels — which I barely opened. What I failed to bring was proper wet weather gear.
We didn’t have any downtime on our Mongolian adventure. But we had rain. Lots of it.
It began on the first day as we set out for Bogd Khan Uul hours after we intended to and finally stopped for our first meal break in the early evening. We were five people and seven horses, including two pack horses. Because we were going without a guide, we were required to buy the horses from Stepperiders and get a refund if we managed to return them safely.
Being the one of our group who made the bank transfer, for a brief period of time I owned seven horses. I cannot emphasise enough how good horse ownership feels — however fleeting.
But apparently, we didn’t look much like horse owners, sitting huddled in the only patch of grass in the Soviet-style town of Zuunmod. As we ate soggy pizza in the rain, a trio of Mongolian children approached us to ask if we’d stolen our herd.
We camped in the darkness in the clearing of a pine forest — and woke to the sound of rain pattering on our tents. There was a monastery nearby but a gushing stream had opened up between our campsite and the entrance, so we could only watch the mists rising above it in the distance. This would be the first of many battles with high water.
When there wasn’t too much of it, we couldn’t find any at all. It took us three full days of riding across the steppes before we could reach the national park — either in torrential rain or relentless sun. Our horses moved at a glacial pace up hills and down, while we stopped frequently to adjust slipping saddles or packs.
One of the pack horses had already taken to biting whichever unlucky person was tasked with tightening the girth under his belly, and left teeth marks and bruises on several of our crew. He pooed and pissed more than a toddler, halting at ten-minute intervals to release more material from his body than he was putting into it.
For each of those three days, we had a well loosely-marked on our map — where a small building contained an engine that pumped crystal clear bore water along a trough. Finding the first well was a triumph, but the second one didn’t seem to be anywhere in the vicinity of its pinpointed location.
Growing desperate and thirsty, we flagged down a passing motorcyclist — and somehow communicated to him with no language that we needed to be taken to a supermarket. My sister Tess was carried off on the back of his motorbike, and in the meantime word spread that our admittedly bizarre-looking troupe was in trouble. A family pulled up in a car just as the motorbike returned (with Tess and water) — the two men tapped us on the shoulder and moved us aside so they could heft the heavy packs for us little ladies.
We did not mind one bit.
No sooner had we camped near a scattering of yurts than the news of our arrival passed among the nomadic families. Small children approached us and we gave them kangaroo toys and showed them videos of real kangaroos on our phone. In return, they taught us how to play knucklebones.
Another man arrived on a motorbike, whether a father or a neighbour we couldn’t tell, and poured over our maps. With the aid of the Google Translate app, he offered to exchange one of his flock of 200 sheep for a mobile phone. At least I think that’s what he said.
He returned later in the evening with fermented mare’s milk, and we thumbed through the Mongolian phrasebook that we had brought until the (limited) conversation had exhausted itself. But in the morning, our friend was back while we were packing the horses — a two-hour operation each morning and evening — with a plate full of curd and cream. Our stomachs struggled with the sheer quantity of dairy we were offered.
As we were leaving, the kids invited us to “drink milk” in their family yurt, which meant more bowlfuls of fermented mare’s milk and cow’s cream among three generations of Mongolian nomads, including a youthful grandfather in a t-shirt that shouted BIGGER. BADDER. RADDER.
Crossing the bridge into the national park meant that our troubles with a scarcity of drinking water were over. We camped by the river and bathed in its luxurious freezing cold waters — to the sound of drumming from the shaman living in the yurt a few steps away.
The week we spent within the national park was characterised by two ongoing struggles: (1) to dry our perpetually damp clothes and (2) to cross the river on horseback. For the first, we set up an increasingly elaborate laundry line in the patch of sunlight whenever we arrived at our chosen campsite — and invariably it rained overnight so we left with our clothes more sodden than the day before.
Eventually, we grew accustomed to the smell and feel of wet jodhpurs, but we never quite got a handle on the river problem. We were headed for a bridge marked on our satellite map, but when we arrived, we found that it had steep steps leading up to it on both sides. There was no way we could lead our horses across it.
Although we had offers from passersby to take the horses across the waters if we managed the bags, our packs were far too heavy to carry on our own. I trudged up to the nearest English-speaking person I could find, which happened to be the receptionist of a luxury resort.
In all my life, I’ve never had as much swagger as the moment I strode into the foyer in my poncho and mud-baked jeans, past ornately-decorated golden statues, and announced that I had seven horses down at the river that I needed to get to the other side.
I kid you not, the receptionist held her nose. But she also gave me a map showing where the locals usually crossed the river in landcruisers.
Our convoy arrived at the designated spot, as the sun was close to setting. A man with a landcruiser asked us with some concern where our guide was and then told us repeatedly to turn back. When he realised that was futile, he offered to take our packs in his vehicle — so we could focus on managing the horses.
Mongolian horses are very small, more like ponies than Australian horses. The water was rushing past their shoulders as they picked their way across the current — stumbling occasionally on the rocks beneath their feet. I bent my knees back behind my stirrups so my toes were almost touching my saddle, but they still got wet. On the opposite bank, the landcruiser had parked and I could see the man waving his arms at us frantically, trying to keep our focus on him rather than looking down at the river below us. He and his friends cheered us when we reached the safety of the other side.
But as the song would have it, we had many rivers to cross… or more specifically, boggy channels, marshes, swamps and mudbanks, until we really reached dry land. Once we did, we realised we had made a colossal mistake: we didn’t have enough beer for the rest of the trip, and the last mini-market was back where we’d come from — on the other side of the river.
Tess and Sophie gallantly volunteered to make the trip as we waited for them at camp for a tense couple of hours. They re-appeared galloping towards us, beaming, and leaped from their horses to display their loot: chocolates, beer, cigarettes, Pringles. The bare essentials in times of rain, hailstorm and fierce winds (all of which were still before us).
But Mongolia also provided its own natural morale booster. Every time there was a brief cessation in the near-constant downpour, it unfurled a double rainbow from one horizon to the other.
Because there were actually two rivers converging into one, about five days later we had to re-cross the river to reach the place where we’d arranged to be picked up at the end of the trek. By now it had been raining solidly for ten days which meant the water level had risen even higher.
We decided it was probably safest to cross in a braided section of the river, where there were a series of (we hoped!) smaller channels. This assumption turned out to be — ahem — incorrect.
The first few channels were shallow enough, with the water only around our horses’ knees. By the fourth crossing, we had given up hope of keeping the packs dry, sitting as they were just below the horses’ belly. I lost count of the crossings around the seventh or eighth, as the scrub grew denser — along with the swarms of insects. Our pack horses got caught in the the thick bush, snapping branches when our bags pushed against them.
We headed further up the bank of the penultimate crossing — we had yet to reach the main part of the river but already the water was so wide and flowing so fast that we spent a long time just trying to find a safe spot. Tess went in ahead of us to test out the depth of the channel, and no sooner had she left the bank than her horse completely disappeared, submerged in the swirling waters. It resurfaced, my sister thankfully still on its back, and hurried to shore. There was no way for us to cross.
Nor could we go back the way we’d come, where the water level would surely be too high after days of rain. Without phone signal, we were unable to get much detail on our satellite map, but around 6 km further out of our way appeared to be a road that crossed the river. We decided to try our luck there, in the hopes that it might be shallower, or at least less muddy.
As we stopped by a yurt, a man sent his young son to ride ahead of us — our guide was half our size, twice our speed and seemed frustrated with our slow pace. We passed under a sign depicting the Grim Reaper, which never bodes well when you’re about to attempt a river crossing on horseback. Just beyond this symbol of death was none other than… a bridge.
Believe me, I have never been so happy to see a bridge.
But the bridge crossing wasn’t the end of our watery encounters. The vast river had spilled its bank, lapping at the foot of hills that were covered with pine forests. We spent an afternoon with our horses wading knee-deep through marshes until we could finally cut a track through the pine trees.
We still had two days left to cover the 35 km back to our pick up point — and the valleys turned into wind tunnels, blowing icy gusts against us.
Then it rained again. And again. It didn’t let up even as we trudged our way through the last 10 kilometres, with the statue of the mighty Genghis Khan rising up 40 metres high before us — urging us on to the end of our trek. It only cleared when we finally arrived: dirty, exhausted, aching, and elated that somehow the water hadn’t defeated us.