June 16, Khotan Nur camp
Eddie Frank is a larger-than-life, hard-core adventurer, a veteran of desert crossings and mountain ascents, but he provides his clients with very comfortable wilderness experiences. Fully in charge, gruffer than Amy, but still open and approachable, he is as fine and knowledgeable a leader as one could want.
Amy seems the perfect foil for Eddie. Her quick smile and easy manner belie her competence and a steel as strong as his.
On this first day of our trek Eddie and Amy have special plans for us. After breakfast we head uphill from our camp to the ger of the family that is providing our wranglers and some of the horses. Over the years a deep respect and friendship has grown between the Franks and this family.
Dosjan, our Tusker Mongolian guide, is related to them but lives in Ulgii, where he teaches computer science at the local high school.
We are welcomed to the ger by 3 generations: the elder parents, the sons and some daughters-in-law, and their children, the oldest just out of the toddler stage. The ger is large and elegant, with elaborate wall hangings, bed drapes and blankets. A table is spread with cheese, several types of dried yogurt and breads, while bowls of yogurt are passed around.
Dosjan tells us about the family, their routine, their life, while 2 women churn milk or yogurt (not sure what they are making) and the youngest woman breastfeeds the baby. I have finally grasped that this part of Mongolia is inhabited by Kazakhs, not Mongols. The language is different and probably unrelated. Dosjan says that all Kazakhs will say they are Muslim, in contrast to the largely Buddhist population of the country.
This is a wealthy family, with many goats, sheep, cows, yaks and horses. The milk from all except the mares is mixed together; mares’ milk is fermented into airag and distilled into vodka. The animals provide food (mostly dairy in summer, meat in winter), and the family sells them and their products for whatever else they need. A solar panel provides power for satellite TV and music. This ger is only a summer home, being too large to heat easily; the family will move to a more sheltered location for the winter.
A few of us rode to the ger in a Land Cruiser while the others walked. Since the vehicle has to return to Ulgii, I get to ride a horse back to camp – the first one in our party to sit in a saddle (my bad knees make walking downhill painful). I mount confidently, take up the reins, dig my heels into the horse’s ribs and cry “Chiu!” (the Mongolian equivalent of “giddy-up”). Of course, the horse just stands there, fully aware that I don’t know what I’m doing; one of the sons has to lead me partway before letting me manage on my own. The horse proves easy to control and unlikely to run away with me. I tell Amy that I have fallen in love. Now I meant that I love the type of horse the Mongolians use, but Amy thinks I mean that particular horse, a mare, and she becomes my mount. I decide to name her Pun’kin (Mongolians don’t give names to their horses).
After lunch Eddie announces that he has put up prize money for some horse games. Riders come from all around to display their skills at 3 games: picking up a white cloth from the ground while riding; tug of war between two riders who try to force each other to let go of a piece of cloth (wildly spinning horses and crafty maneuvers on that one). The final game is a race (5 times around a long route) won by a boy riding bareback.
Children learn to ride as soon as they can hold the reins. Even toddlers experience the joy of riding with their fathers.
Children don’t get to ride alone until their feet can reach the stirrups.
Finally it is time to meet our horses; even the participants who plan to do most of the trek on foot must have a mount for river crossings. The good riders get fast horses, as does Noa, our 12 year old (kids have no fear and learn quickly). Pun’kin is definitely at the slow end of the group – I can walk faster than her leisurely pace. We head out on a short ride up to the ger and back. Some in our party are soon galloping and fooling around, while the rest of us walk, although I manage to coax Pun’kin into short trots. I wish I felt more confident.
Back in camp we find that the ger family has driven down and laid out their handicrafts. Some truly beautiful fabrics and objects. I settle for a riding crop for my riding instructor back home; I think I’ll need it on the trek.