September 2nd, 2010
Steppe Riders Camp, south of Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia
Transcribed from written journal

I’ve slept on some pretty awful beds during my days in Asia, but last night was the worst. It was the first time I’d suffered the combination of a rock-hard bed and terrible pillow. Bean bags are all well and good for sitting on, but put your head down on one and it’s a solid surface that crinkles in your ear all night. I ended up just stuffing my hoody full of clothes. It took us about four hours to get to sleep, and we woke around ten the next day.

Anybody who has dealt with Asian organisations – be they guesthouses, bureaucracies, or tour agencies – will be well aware of the standard level of customer service in this part of the world. You often find yourself battling to extract the maximum level of service you can, because they certainly aren’t going to give it to you freely, and unfortunately Steppe Riders are no exception. Mendee has gone to UB the previous night, and in his absence there seemed to be a lack of any kind of organisation. The North American group disappeared on their trek shortly after breakfast, and Chris and I were left sitting around wondering what to do with ourselves.

Some time after noon a guide smoking a cigarette ushered us up to some horses. He didn’t speak English, but he showed us how to bridle the horses and put on a saddle, and how to hobble them so they don’t run off during the night. Then we climbed up onto them, ready to start riding.

The guide was urging me to say “Choo!” to the horse, the Mongolian equivalent of “giddy up,” but my horse wasn’t having any of it. “Choo!” I yelled, digging my heels into his flanks. “Choo!”

His only response was to fart.

“Come on! Choo! CHOO!”

Eventually he begrudgingly started walking up the hill, but he stopped after about five metres and started eating the grass. I pulled the reigns up, to lift his head away from the grass; he lowered his head and started eating again; I pulled the reigns up again; he started eating again, and so on and so forth.

The guide told me to get off, then got on himself and went fora gallop up and down the hillside, as though that would somehow impart some arcane knowledge. I couldn’t figure out whaat I was doing wrong. I got back on and eventually managed to get it moving, although it was still quite disagreeable.

At this stage Chris was also on his horse, and we went up the hillside towards the cluster of shrubs, cajoling, coaxing and nursing our horses all the way. This was a fact that I already knew, on a vague and abstract level, but which was only now properly dawning on me: a horse is an animal, aliving creatuire with a mind and a will of its own. It is not a motorcycle, responding to the touch of a brake or a throttle almost instantly. It is a creature of flesh and blood, and a damned finicky one at that.

We went back down the hill and into the camp for lunch, with some vague mention of going for a ride to a well after the meal. Chris and I sat at the outdoor table playing chess and waiting.

Chris was looking up at our horses, which had been tied onto an elevated rope next to a third horse. The third horse was standing perfectly still, while ours were shaking their heads about and stamping their hoofs. “Look how jumpy our horses are,” Chris said. “That one’s all calm. Ours look like they’ve got schizophrenia.”

“Yeah…” I said. “Riding is hard.”

“A lot harder than I thought it would be,” he agreed.

Mendee showed up while we were eating lunch, which was a relief, because it meant we could discuss things with him. We talked about the gear we’d need to buy, and looked over a map to discuss the route we’d take. We’re probably going to head north-east, towards a national park that I’ve forgotten the name of. Terelj, or something.

After lunch we saddled up the horses again and rode out of the valley with one of the guides who possessed a very basic level of English. My horse was being an obstinate bastard again, and before we even crossed the first ridge I had to switch horses with our guide. This horse was much more agreeable, at first; later he developed a habit of throwing his head about and stamping his hooves all the time, in a manner which made me feel as though he was about to rear and throw me off. But at least he moved when I told him to.

We didn’t go too far. Probably less than a kilometre, although horses don’t walk much faster than humans do, so it took a while. We arrived at a bend in a dry creekbed where a fifty-gallon drum had been sunk into the earth to form a crude well. A large truck tyre had been peeled and stretched out next to it to form a drinking trough for the horses. Our guide showed us how to remove the bridles to let them drink, and we then replaced them and headed back to camp.

This was not, by any means, a long-distance ride; we were in the saddle for perhaps an hour. But it hurt. My ass was sore and my thighs were chafed. Standing up provided only temporary relief. Maybe we’ll grow accustomed to it, but I think I’m definitely going to have to buy a blanket or a cushion or something.

We took a different route back to camp, through a neighbouring valley filled with purple wildflowers. Chris was holding a hand outas he rode, to catch the grasshoppers that were hurling themselves through the air.

“We totally got to make a game where whoever catches the most grasshoppers wins,” he called back to me.

“I’m a little more worried about my spastic horse,” I said, as my mount threw its head around irritably. I was pretty sure it just wanted to eat – it certainly kept trying to – but I wouldn’t let it do so for more than a few seconds, or we’d be left behind.

We crossed a ridge to return to our valley, and as I was ascending the hill I had a wonderful image of Chris sitting there on horseback, sillhouetted against the blue sky and puffy white clouds. A few moments later I was standing next to him, surveying a landscape of plains and crumpled hills, covered by nothing more than a thin ribbon of road and a few ger camps. Even this close to Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia is a beautifully unspoilt country.

Back at camp, Mendee took us through some knot-tying and told us when we should let our horses drink water (apparently the answer isn’t “whenever they want to”) but after that we were left to our own devices. We ended up reading, since there was very little else to do. I finished “Going Solo,” Roald Dahl’s autobiography about living in East Africa in the 1930s and flying a fighter plane duing World War II. It was a splendidly British account of the last great hurrah of the British Empire, filled with snippets of life back in the day – copies of telegrams, handwritten letters, black and white photographs and steamship schedules.

The voyage from the Port of London to Mombasa would take two weeks and on the way we were going to call in at Marseilles, Malta, Port Said, Suez, Port Sudan and Aden. Nowadays you can fly from London to Mombasa in a few hours and you stop nowhere and nothing is fabulous anymore.

How true that is. I wonder how much further the world will have been watered down fifty years from now. There’s something about writing a handwritten journal that feels more pure than typing it into Wordpad on my laptop, something more adventurous, but that is of course an illusion. We’re only an hour out of Ulaan Baatar, a city that sounds remote and exotic, but is actually covered in Western restaurants swarming with backpackers, and we’re staying at a ger camp that has a website and was reccomended to me on the Lonely Planet message board.

Nonetheless, I’m glad to be here; only a slim fraction of the travellers who do the Thailand-Cambodia-Vietnam-Laos loop go on to do China, and an even slimmer fraction go on to do Mongolia, and I think it’s safe to say we’ll be the only people at any given cocktail party who have bought our own horses and rode around the Mongolian steppe. With every passing day we leave the Banana Pancake Trail further behind, and I’m certainly glad of it.

In the late afternoon, Mendee invited us to the table to join some of his friends from the city, and ply us with shots of vodka. This is a preview of what I expect to happen if we stay with any nomad families out on the trail: they’re big drinkers, and very hospitable, and lay the booze on pretty thick. My featherweight status was evident immediately, as I sipped my shot down, but Chris was obliged into taking five and got fairly drunk.

After dinner we started a campfire, since I wasn’t up for another dark and cheerless night, and also because it was freezing cold. The Mongolians joined us for a bit but went to bed fairly early, except for our guide from earlier in the day, who stayed with us to practice his English. He was quite nice, and sang us a song which was – as far as I could gather – about the stars. How many people can say they’ve been serenaded by a Mongolian cowboy?

We sat around the campfire talking for about an hour. “Part of me is really looking forward to that train,” Chris said. “The next bit of comfort we have.”

“All the way through South-East Asia and China you were just focused on Mongolia,” I said, “and I told you, you were putting it on a pedestal…”

“Mongolia’s great,” Chris said. “But… I don’t know, comfort is a big deal to me. I like having a bed I can enjoy, and right now I don’t. There is nowhere in this camp where I can lie down and be comfortable. I don’t care how much an air mattress costs, I’m buying one when we go to that store.”

“For me it’s the pillow,” I said. “I just need something comfy to put my head on.”

“Yeah,” Chris said. “I mean, if there’s people that can sleep rough on th dirt, that’s great, good for them. But I can’t.”

“The five billion people who do sleep rough would happily trade places with us,” I said. “We’re lucky enough to be born into comfort, there’s no shame in enjoying it.”

We watched the embers glowing in silence for a while. Our guide pointed out some constellations, and told us their Mongolian names. “I wonder if he knows what they are?” I said. “About planets and all that stuff?” We told him the name for Venus, which in the clear and unobscured Mongolian sky is far too bright to be mistaken for a mere star – this is the first place I’ve ever been in my life where you can clearly tell it’s a planet. I do miss the constellations of the southern hemisphere, though. How bizarre it is to be in a place so foreign that even the sky is different…