What do you do when you watch your pack horse galloping towards the North at full speed, and your spare horse towards the South, gleefully whinnying in the wind, and your motorbike refuses to start? Did I mention, we had been riding for close to five hours when the horses decided to run for the hills?
We’ve all had these moments that test your resilience. Backpacking is a fun sport, but only if you have learnt to let go. I sat down as I watched all my belongings disappear behind a hill and pulled out a protein bar, which I offered to the biker. One thing was for sure, this would make a good story back home (and now you get to hear it!)
We had ridden for hours already, attempting to reach the village before sundown. My travelling partner had already called it quits and got a motorbike ride back. His horse was lazy, regularly attempting to go on strike, carefully lying down on the ground. We all agreed we would go faster without the horse, and left it with the family who had agreed to give him a lift. We had four horses left: mine, our horse guide’s, our guide’s, and the pack horse carrying our bags. My horse was eager to gallop, awaiting for any opportunity to go fast, despite a damaged leg that caused him to limp and miss a beat every now and then. The wind was blowing, the lake in front of us was glittering under the sun, while hail threatened to cut off our path. None of us were looking forward to getting caught in it, but hastening would probably only make it worse. By moving at a slower speed, we would only get caught in the tail end of the storm.
We rode on. And on. And on. Mongolian distances are no joke. The country operates far worse than with mirages, as you can see your destination and you know it is real. And there’s only a plain to cross after all. Only the world’s longest plain, stretching for dozens and dozens of kilometers.
We trotted. We paced. We avoided the storm! We spurred the horses on. “Ear” I called mine, despite that Mongolians do not give names to their horses and were quite amused at the thought. “Ear, tshu!” I whispered. Ear went for it, “tshu” is the language command for “go”. You do not need to yell, you do not need to dig your heels in their side. Mongolian horses were bred naturally, and their nature is to gallop across steppes. They will take the smallest leniency in holding the reins as a signal that you want them to gallop. So they gallop.
We galloped until we reached a hill, and Ear got lazy. Mind you, I was quite glad for the break. The horse guide questioned me eagerly “did you enjoy it?”, “were you scared?”, “would you like to do it again?”, “have you done it before?” and about a million other questions all relating to my (un)ease on balancing on a galloping horse with a lame foot. He saw the look of exhaustion on my face and stopped a passing motorbike, asking the man to take me back to the village. I was sad to dismount: I would miss Ear. I loved the feel of the wind on my face and the sense of unparalleled freedom.
Slowly, I came down and landed on sturdy ground. This was strange, how do you walk again? Do my legs still work? I tripped on a stone as I walked over to the bike; they must have thought it a miracle that I could ride.
I jumped behind the driver and overshot the bike, almost falling onto the other side. Even mountain bikes are a lot lower than horses, I suppose I didn’t need to put that much effort in the jump. I lowered myself carefully this time and hooked up my feet off the ground. I was focusing on the pleasure in riding bikes, as opposed to the pang of guilt at leaving Ear behind. The bike did not start.
We tried again, and the bike still refused to start. The engine sputtered and died. I looked at my newfound friend, and looked at the horse guide in the distance. Was this really a great plan? He was trying to follow the other two horses, which had taken the opportunity to go and munch on some grass.
That’s when it all happened. The horses realised they were free, with no tether. One started to wonder in one direction, the other aimed for the opposite. I wonder if they glanced at each other and nodded before taking off at full speed.
Isn’t it just comical? The minute you dismount, the horse takes off, and you are powerless to catch up with it. I watched as one horse ran like never before, followed a minute later by our guide. I was trying to calculate how long it would take him to catch up, and whether the motorbike would have started up before he returned, or if I should consider hitching a ride with a horse instead. Whoever said technology was the way of the future?
It took over half an hour to get the bike running. In this lapse of time, I never saw the horses return. At this stage, I was considering making a head start by walking. Eventually, after much tinkering and even more patience and a dose of voodoo, the bike was kicked into life. We hopped on and made as much headway as we could before it decided to take a break again. Bikes and their tempers, they are worse than animals I tell you!
As we drove on the second time, we passed one of my companions pacing alone. One horse, one human. Where were the three other horses and the last human? I waved but the distance was too great to talk, I just hoped she knew the last horse was in front. Driving into the village, I kept my eyes open for an aimless horse with our bags strapped to its back. Nothing. I considered that perhaps we had just lost everything, and might have to continue our trip with a single pair of underwear.
This is the point where most would panic. Upon returning to the guest house, I was relieved to find at least one human was there – my partner – who carried not only the bulk of our money but also our passports. We counted our blessings, we were whole, we were safe, we were warm, and we had the only possessions that might actually matter.
We counted our problems, we were dirty, we were tired, we were hungry, we were in pain, and we had lost the majority of our belongings. Dissent grew between us. We were still missing our two companions. Restless and feeling rather useless, we decided to walk around the village and its outskirts to try and spot the missing horse.
After spending a week blessed by the elements, riding Ear into the sunset, I could not stop walking for fear of growing roots. Staying inside was unbearable, everything felt so close and cooped up, the horizon was hidden by walls and the eye could not rest on the beautiful landscapes.
It is this very same eye, practiced after glancing at the horizon for days, that spotted the runaway horses. With them, our horse guide. A very tired horse guide. Unfortunately, the pack horse had dropped our bag of valuables, and the camera disappeared with it. I was pained, thinking of all the photos that had gone missing.
Our guide returned a half hour later, on foot. As the only English speaker, she explained that the horse had run to its heart content and the knot had become undone, causing it to lose one bag. She had called a friend to come by bike, so they could retrace the entire route until they spotted it. She spun on her heels, and showed us our little bag that she was carrying on her back!
This moment, tense and full of emotions, is for me a perfect reminder of why I travel. To remember what truly matters: health, friendship, and generosity. That in these moments of need and exhaustion, you will find that people are not out there to cheat you, and will go far out of their way in order to accommodate guests in their country. These are truly humbling moments and worth keeping forever in your mind; this is why I always cherish the moments when things go dreadfully wrong. No trip is complete without its fair share of life lessons and fantastic friends.
NB: if you are travelling to Khovsgol Lake or to see the Tsaatan people, I can undoubtedly recommend the guides who took such fantastic care of us. Feel free to write asking for their details.