A Horse Trek in Mongolia 2013: Part Two

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LOWER KHOTAN NUR:  June 13

There was frost on the tents this morning, and I could almost imagine myself back in the Canadian Rockies – if it weren’t for the goats.

Not everyone is thrilled with the temperature.

Cool morning

At least there aren’t any mosquitoes.

Today is a holdover day.  We will do a practice ride, enjoy the hospitality of our wrangler Karbai and his family, and watch some horse games sponsored by Eddie – a mini Nadaam festival he calls it.  All of this is intended to introduce us to Kazakh (and Mongolian) culture: the primacy of the horse and the unfailing generosity of the people.

We are a group of four Americans and four from Canada.  I’m the oldest at 76.  Eric, who works in Dubai, rides in the desert and has done more travelling than seems possible for someone his age, is 28.  The other two men, Tom and Viktor, plan to hike the route rather than ride.  Amy has brought her mother Laura along.  Heather, a grade four teacher, says she doesn’t know how to ride.  Karyn and Lisa are friends and seem confident about riding.  After breakfast the horses begin to arrive.

Our horses arrive.

Our horses await us.

Laura says she wants a horse that is half dead.  Viktor wants nothing to do with four-footed transport.  I’m hoping for something a little livelier than the mount I had two years ago.  Pun’kin, I named her.  She was sweet and sleepy and nearing the age when she would no longer be useful.  The people here waste nothing; Pun’kin was eaten last year.

We have each been assigned a saddle, based on weight and butt size, and now must be matched with a horse.  Eddie gives relevant information to Dosjan, who relays it to the wranglers, who speak very little English.  Dosjan speaks Kazakh, Mongolian, English, Russian and Turkish (I’m surprised he isn’t trying to learn Swahili from Alex).

Sorting the saddles, with an audience.

Sorting the saddles. It seems that all the local children have come to watch.

Amy helps Mom Laura get ready to ride.

Amy helps Mom Laura get ready to ride.

I’m thrilled with my horse, a grey roan pinto that is strong but very obedient.  I name him Breeze.  The Kazakhs don’t name their horses (you really don’t want to name something you plan to eat), but we westerners can’t resist.

Breeze. Photo by Laura Micks.

Breeze and me. Photo by Laura Micks.

Once we are all mounted Eddie leads us uphill and through the trees to Karbai’s ger, where we will be honoured guests.

Those of us who come from a land of locked doors and gated communities, where strangers are more to be feared than trusted, can only be amazed by the ingrained hospitality of the Mongolians.  Walk up to any ger, open the door without knocking, walk in, and you will be welcomed.  At the very least you will be offered salted milk tea (it tastes better than it sounds) and dried yogurt.  If you need shelter or more nourishing fare, you will be taken care of, no questions asked, no thanks expected.  Karbai’s family is wealthy by nomad standards, and we have been invited, but two years ago, by Lake Khovsgol, I sought shelter from the rain with impoverished strangers and was also welcomed.

On a far deeper level, if you work to establish a relationship with these people, they will be loyal friends for life.  Over the years Eddie has built such a relationship with Karbai’s family. And although I know them far less well, I have learned to love the gentle nature of our hosts, so open and genuine are they, and so untouched by the greedy competition of the outside world.  Will my fellow trekkers come to share my sense of wonder and quiet joy?  I keep my thoughts to myself.

Eddie with the elder member of the family

Eddie with the elder member of the family

The wife of one of the sons prepares milk tea.

The wife of one of the sons prepares milk tea.

Dried yogurt, cheese, fried bread, with music by Karbai.

Dried yogurt, cheese, fried bread and milk tea, with music by Karbai.

We return to camp and evaluate our horses.   Heather wants to change and is given one she calls Mondo.  Mondo immediately sinks into a deep depression, where he remains for the entire trip.  Heather thinks it’s because he had just been ridden by Dosjan, who was probably born on a saddle, and he hates being demoted.

Heather and Mondo

Heather and Mondo

In mid afternoon riders come from all around to compete for the prize money Eddie has put up.  It’s also a social occasion and a fun event for the children.

Greeting.

Greeting.

Eddie with some of Karbai's family.

Eddie with members of Karbai’s family.

The locals gather for the games.

The locals gather for the games.

Children ride almost as soon as they can walk.

Children ride almost as soon as they can walk.  The boy in white is riding bareback.

The games consist of a race, a tug of war and an attempt to pick an object off the ground while cantering past.

Racing five times around a long loop.

Racing five times around a long loop.

Fourth lap.  The brown horse in the eventual winner.

Fourth lap. The brown horse is the eventual winner.

Who will let go first?  Photo from two years ago.

Tug of war. Who will let go first? Photo from two years ago.

With the prizes awarded, the locals return to their gers and we enjoy a quiet evening, where the still water of the lake and the cloudless dome of the sky seem to merge into one vast expanse of blue.

Peace at day's end.

Peace at day’s end.

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