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