Lasting Impressions - Mongolia from the Saddle
Having just returned to her native Germany after spending two months on horseback with Tim Cope, Kathrin has set down her vivid and amusing impressions of the Mongolian people and way of life. Click here to go to Tim's page on our Current Expeditions section to read about his amazing journey from Mongolia to Hungary.
This text is like a Russian Babushka doll, you open one (text) and you find something that has been written earlier and so on.
Right now I’m living in a “movie”, back in Germany at my parents’ place, being offered all the advantages of Western civilization (yes, I’ve been driving my car again today for the first time after more than a year, the computer is working without me worrying about battery power, I can just open the fridge if I’m hungry and the washing machine is almost collapsing with all the dirty stuff I brought back) and in total stress about starting a new job on Friday on one hand (back to school, moving houses, health check, German bureaucracy and paperwork here kills me) and quite sad and wanting to go back and have this journey never stop on the other.
My almost illegible scribbling from two days ago will be “published” here.
I’m sitting on the plane from Beijing to Frankfurt with very mixed feelings and have a look at what I wrote four days ago when I had to leave Tim and the horses and return from Ulaangom to Ulaanbataaar. Knowing that Tim has no battery power left and how hard it is to keep everything updated this time it’s my turn to tell you a little bit about Mongolia, more a revue than an update – maybe from a different and female perspective, maybe with some repetition of what Tim has already told.
[But just one warning in advance: I tend to write VERY, VERY long texts in my beautiful German English :) so reading might take a little while!]
So that’s it?! Two months on horseback in Mongolia, more than 1000km (1380km according to the road map) from Kharkhorin (Karakorum) to Ulaangom in the far North West, many sleepless nights and exciting days – already September.
It feels like a movie and I can’t realise yet that my time is over, no more waking up and being greeted by the neighing of the horses.
When Tim and I first talked about the vague possibility of me joining him for a little while we were living in Melbourne, Australia, in a flat with all necessary and unnecessary luxuries around. As he planned this big journey to be one he would do on his own the idea of having me come even for a little while had to develop slowly, be thought through well and it required some changes, of course.
But after travelling through Australia for another few weeks I finally went back to Germany for only a week (that’s enough to kiss parents “Hello” and “Goodbye”, do some washing and repack) and had my flight ticket to Ulaanbataar as well as – with good luck – a 3 month visa for Mongolia. By the way Tim was very upset about the ease with which I got my visa after all his dramas.
The adventure could begin. And it did indeed with an uncomfortable, very long and bumpy but funny ride in a private minibus from Ulaan Bator to Kharkhorin. The “deal” Gansukh made for me with the driver was not more than 8 people and that we would leave within the next hour and a half. Don’t believe these fairy tales, it’s Mongolia!: We picked up another three boys and an enormous amount of luggage, everyone and every thing was squeezed in and hours later we were finally on the move. But not for long. So the first Mongolian experience was being patient: the breaks and stops, often in the middle of nowhere, didn’t make sense to me but just don’t question it. Anyway I was lucky not to sit in one of the many vehicles that break down and the people were really nice. One poor little fellow had to vomit every half hour – out of the window – while the other boys, three brothers travelling home with their father, just threw crisps and soft drinks into themselves right next to him.
The second experience I got used to on the way pretty quickly was using the toilet which means “Just take the big one”: squat down somewhere in the plain wide open, if you’re lucky you can hide behind a single stalk of grass or find a ditch.
Still I felt very excited and relieved when we finally arrived. Seeing Tim after more than a month in this new environment felt somehow strange. His face was tanned, his hair had grown, he smiled, obviously a bit nervous and insecure as well. But it also felt really good and we both knew we were not alone in this new situation.
We stayed in a guest ger, (commonly called a yurt in the West) where I saw the horses that would be our companions for the next weeks for the first time. There they were, tied to a fence, standing in the rain, a white horse, a reddish brown one and a dark brown one: Tsaga (aka Corolla the racehorse), Schnecke and Pupser. We chose their names a bit later after watching them carefully and I must admit we made the right choice.
“Tsaga” simply means “white horse” in Mongolian.
“Schnecke” is the German word for “snail” and it’s true that my horse had an extremely slow walk. You could have picked flowers on the way if there had been some which was a bit frustrating at times. Tim was usually riding ahead and during the first days I had a sore throat from shouting “chu” every few seconds, that is the typical Mongolian exclamation to make horses move. This horse obviously did not understand any Mongolian or my German accent was too strong?!
“Pupser” is the nice German name (i.e. a worse expression does exist but I use it for someone else once in a while) for someone who lets off wind. As this guy was the packhorse I developed the not so serious explanation that the reason was being squeezed in between two boxes and therefore the need to release some of the pressure. Anyway you were better off not riding too close behind him.
Some time later on the way we bought our fourth horse “Rusty”, a really big and strong and funny-looking white horse with little rusty-coloured spots and legs that gave me the impression that his owners had left him standing for too long in the nearby lake.
Later we decided to switch our two good but tired horses Tsaga and Pupser for one new horse, Pokus or Bogus, the first Mongolian horse that already had a name. The bonbon (sweet) I gave to the little boy the early morning we left with his horse didn’t make it much easier for him. But also for us the farewell was hard.
The decision to leave them was not easy but the right one: the horses’ health and well-being has been our first priority in every single moment and in all we’ve been doing. Checking them constantly, making sure they don’t get sores or suffer in any way, trying to find the best grass and water every day at lunch or for camp and asking the vet back in Australia (Thank you, Sheila!) if there was any doubt has been our major aim.
That’s why sometimes you have to say “Goodbye” to a horse and find another one. Personally I was just happy that Tsaga and Pupser could stay together as they originally came from the same herd.
So Schnecke had to bond with Rusty and Pokus which was a bit hard in the beginning. I reckon Schnecke would have preferred to follow Pupser’s elegant behind instead.
The first days were really hard for both of us until we had developed a certain routine and also got more confident with horses. Tim had learned some things from the Mongolian guide Damba within the three days before I arrived.
Before this trip I’ve been “sitting on a horse” for a few hours, been on a wonderful 5-day packhorse trip in the Victorian Alps and had the chance to learn more about developing a safe riding horse during five days with Sacha and Sam Watson.
But now this was reality, there were no fences, no paddock, no one to tell you what to do, it was just Tim and me and the horses.
The daily routine of packing up, saddling the horses, planning the route, riding, lunch break, finding a good campsite, setting it up, watering and staking the horses out in the evening etc. has soon become familiar. Tim is much better with knots, and more efficient and faster – I must have somehow adjusted to Schnecke’s speed in doing certain things.
I had to laugh when Tim was asked in a classroom chat via satellite phone by one of the Perth students about our relationship because he described it in the possibly best way:
“It is more like a business relationship: There’s so much work to do and you have to rely on each other, there’s not much time for each other or privacy (explanation see also later). But it’s good to know that you’re not alone and that you have someone with you who can help, you can trust and share everything with.”
That’s simply true. The image of a loving couple cantering over the fields, holding hands and eventually kissing as in the Czech fairy tale movie I loved as a kid just doesn’t work with two “grass-greedy” horses on the sides and something else on our minds. Anyway poor Schnecke would have been too slow to keep up. In the evening we were just tired and on alert because the horses had been stolen once.
Sure we had our difficulties, seeing each other 24/7 non stop for two months, sometimes in stressful situations. We had our bad moods and had been grumpy – especially me (SORRY TIM!). If grumpiness was an Olympic discipline I’m sure I’d have won the gold medal. But at the end of the day we managed to find ways and compromises most of the time and made it without any dead or injured up to now.
The two months have been ups and downs, the future is a big question mark but the love is there and real. I miss Tim already incredibly, words are just not good enough and probably this is not the right place anyway but maybe it gives a “belated” answer to the students’ question.
One thing that influenced my mood - which was not Tim’s fault at all – were the painfully cracked fingers during the first weeks. I don’t mind about not washing for ages (we both distributed more or less the same smell anyway) and being sweaty or filthy, ripping out too much hair or losing skin but small wounds are just annoying: everything was open flesh wounds and just terribly hurt whatever I was doing. Especially hobbling the horses, holding reins and ropes, doing up and undoing zippers, and finally the slightest touch made me want to cry out loud. And instead of doing that I often yelled at Tim or overreacted easily. On a trip like this hands are just the most important tool, always black and dirty and somehow injured.
My hands healed, approximately the third layer of sun-dried skin and permanent dirt make them look 20 years older and much more beautiful to me because it felt really good to work with my hands again.
But of course, I wouldn’t have been grumpy old Kathrin if I hadn’t found another reason to be angry with Tim. One thing he could have avoided was annoying me with his horrible “singing”:
First of all he was singing the same songs over and over again, usually Christmas songs. The heat must have reminded him of Aussie Christmas (it’s summer then) or simply burnt his brain after he had lost his sunhat but for my ears it was just too much. After a while, very desperate, I even suggested “Jingle Bells” but without much success. His absolute favourite though was “Frostie the Snowman” changing names and lyrics. This song will be stuck forever in my head (we call it “Ohrwurm” =“earworm” in German, a song you can’t get out of your head anymore). THANK YOU, Tim!
Secondly the problem with his so-called singing is that he tries to sing horribly on purpose with a strange voice that cracked as if it was still breaking. And if you have to ride close to this performance for about 8 or 9 hours, every day, for two months you just have to protect yourself somehow (= being grumpy or refusing to give him more of the sweets out of the lunch bag!).
were changing with the changing landscapes and heights of the terrain we
crossed. Some familiar flowering plants and trees but usually a lot of grass
and herbs could be seen. I enjoyed more the lush forests and green
vegetation with some shade and rivers.
Click on photo to enlarge.
Music and singing is a good way of finally writing about the local people instead of Tim and myself.
Most of them have beautiful voices and love to sing. The herders here – from little boys to old men – very often sing riding on the steppe and the women and girls when they’re getting water or cooking, for example. I was very impressed and didn’t dare to shock them with my own voice.
One young father of a family we stayed with one night performed for us, playing the guitar, his family joining him after a while. One could have recorded his singing in a studio straight away. Some older people also played traditional instruments and showed us the throat singing.
Thank God right now the Mongolians have this one particular famous folk pop song simply everybody sings or whistles – from little girl to old grandfather – everywhere – from town to the remotest area – which almost extinguished Tim’s “Frostie”. Almost.
Among the deepest impressions I will keep in my heart and mind are, of course, the extremes: good and bad experience with people.
The hospitality of people was overwhelming to me but is just part of their culture and therefore pretty normal for them. The door of their ger not only points towards South but is also open and one can just enter.
We’ve been invited very often for salty milked tea, dried yoghurt and other Mongolian food and quickly found our favourites amongst these delicacies: Tim had fallen in love (!) with the fermented mares’ milk and I usually tried at least to behave and not eat too much of the bread-like “Borzug”. One thing Tim had to help me with was meat and lumps of chewy fat. When it came to eating the intestines, parts of the head and other non-distinguishable body parts I stuck with a tiny bit of liver – at least I knew what it was – and Tim saved my life by having a fabulous idea: “Why don’t you go and get the camera and film this so you don’t have to eat?” I think I never enjoyed filming more than then.
The lack of fresh fruit and vegetables was sad but I liked the many milk products. When we left from a ger most women gave us bags filled with dried yoghurt or sometimes hard cheese crumbs. Unfortunately it used to be more than we could eat before it got mouldy.
What struck me were the similarities in the people’s life. Talking of food before it starts with the women’s tasks.
There is always the same pattern of milking, boiling the milk and making tea in the morning, cooking food later. Every little movement is identical to that of another woman in a ger maybe 50km away.
Of course, the men’s work also follows a certain schedule. They’re more responsible for herding, bringing the herds to the steppe and later back to the ger. But in general my impression was that the women – together with the children – do most of the work, constantly busy.
If I stay with cooking: from the order where oven, kitchen desk or cupboard, pots and buckets are put to the things themselves (certain cooking pots, water carrier etc.), everything is almost identical from one ger to the next. Also the way the rest of the colourful furniture and few belongings are arranged.
I’ve always been interested in their “foto wall(s)” slightly left opposite the entrance. But the political party poster honestly every single ger had put up looked a bit out of place and somehow destroyed the atmosphere created by beautiful colours and patterns, typical tools and decoration.
The children have their tasks but also a lot of freedom. There is a strong bond between different families and everyone takes care of each other looking after the babies, feeding the children and helping out with food or tools. Physically it is normal that e.g. a teenage boy cuddles the neighbour’s little baby, an aunt gives the breast to a two-year-old or two teenage boys sit close to each other, arms around or hands on each other’s knees. But you hardly see any affection between husband and wife.
On the other hand the culture of having an “open door” also means no privacy and everything is being lived openly in front of others.
Especially for me the lack of privacy in combination with being careful that nothing gets stolen was not easy to get used to. The unpredictability when another herder might turn up and didn’t mind staring at you when you just jumped into the icy cold river to enjoy your first “full body wash” after a week, or the kids crawling into the tent when you had just made the important decision to put on clean underwear, or another two herders pulling out every little thing, changing the buckles (no, there is no sense and reason behind the fact why we put it into the sixth hole instead of the fourth, so why not change the whole buckle and knot system so that we have more fun later figuring out how it was before and changing it back to safety, making a big mess and unpacking when we were in a hurry to pack up and leave before it got too hot, for example.
I do know that it is not meant unkindly, and 99% of the time it’s just pure curiosity, but after a while even Tim got really angry because we explained to them and showed them how important it is that our gear (saddle and blankets to prevent sores) is not to be used in the wrong way and thrown in the dirt or grass with sticky seeds (after I had spent 1 hour the night before to get them all out of the blankets) and they would still do it. At times our patience almost ran out– and you need a lot of patience and million eyes to make sure everything is still there, we couldn’t afford to lose a single rope or strap, and these curious examinations by sometimes up to ten people usually happened when we arrived or – worse – when we wanted to leave and had to pack the horses.
One family fed us over three days in rotating system and helped wherever they could, e.g. taking horses to the water, organising lifts into the next village for shopping, repairing horse gear etc. None of the families refused to let us stay next to their ger – for safety reasons – when we asked. But that always involved entertainment of the whole family non-stop, we had no time for ourselves which primarily meant for doing really important things like repairing stuff, washing clothes and horse blankets and maybe ourselves, writing diary, updates and making important phone calls (Tim) or even going to the “big loo”. Not to mention just resting for a minute, sleeping enough or even being alone. Therefore the so-called “rest days” we usually stayed with families– in my interpretation - were rest days for the horses and for us trying to do “all the rest” we couldn’t do while we were sitting on horseback. No rest for us. Sometimes it felt as if we were in the circus or zoo but on the other side (animals).
Unfortunately there were many Mongolians who turned out to be quite greedy (more closer to towns), not appreciating our gifts, wanting more, (more) money, our gear. Be it just herders on the way who were approaching us and riding along for a while or be it also people we stayed with, we heard “I want, I want, I want!”, “Give me, give me, give me!” and “I need, I need, I need!” just too often. We tried not to take it too seriously and just smiled, but they did take it seriously, which was the problem at times. No matter how often we explained to them how important our gear is for us, especially for Tim being on horses for 18 months, and that we’re not giving our saddles, bridles, halters, ropes, knives or even horses away for free they wouldn’t accept it and sometimes seriously asked over and over again or just grabbed it. My motto, which I tortured Tim with every day (“Put your knife away”, “Don’t spread out that stuff!”, “Close the pack boxes immediately when you got out what you need!” etc.) was simply “OUT OF SIGHT, OUT OF MIND!”
So we’ve seen many suspicious looks that made us become more careful. Some small things got stolen and there were several encounters with drunk Mongolians that unfortunately made me dislike a part of their mentality. These drunks were no exception, I’m afraid it is very common and they can get quite unpredictable. Most of them even ride a motorbike or steer a car.
One example is the guy who almost ran over our horses (I was standing in between and holding them so he would have to knock me over first) and tent and was quite aggressive from the very beginning threatening to drown Tim in the nearby river and punching and beating him, stealing our map because he wanted Tim’s knife (“Out of sight…”). He was the only one who got physically violent.
Another really big and strong horse rider obviously didn’t know where you’re not supposed to touch a woman at all and when he grabbed between my legs I made my point very clear. But usually we tried to avoid these (night) experiences by camping close to gers (which sometimes was no help either because the Mongolians rather stay away or watch and don’t intervene unless you ask them for help which I did once later) or to stay calm and patient in a situation like before and not to give them any reason for a fight.
I must point out that out of many days and nights theses were only a few and extreme situations that don’t reflect the majority of people. But of course they’re stuck in my memory, especially the night when two of our horses were stolen. This was in the very beginning and I’m honest if I say that since then there was no single night when we were sleeping non-stop without waking up several times, checking the horses, having strange dreams, listening sensitively to every little noise, being suspicious all the time. The adrenaline shock when you wake up and can’t see the correct number of horses is not a very nice feeling at all.
Even if this sounds like a very negative part and I’d like to end it soon to write about the majority of the country’s beauty there is one more thing I felt was really unfair: from my personal point of view the Mongolian tradition of hospitality in combination with alcohol makes it incredibly hard for women: we’ve seen it so often that, for example, a young mother is home alone with her five little children, and in the middle of the night total strangers, two drunk men, turn up on a motorbike, make a lot of noise, run into the ger, wake them all up and require more alcohol, food, a place to sleep and maybe more, I don’t know. Just the fact that this poor woman is alone and not safe at all, the children have to watch or accept what is going on was a very dangerous and rude situation in my opinion. I don’t want to judge here, it was just what I felt when I saw it and it made me very angry. Obviously the women are used to it and play their role but when I talked to a very smart Mongolian lady later about my experience she agreed that it’s a bad thing.
As a biology teacher I was especially fascinated by the different animals (and sometimes plants) we saw (or heard) on our way: the majestic eagles and other birds of prey, little birds living in holes, marmots, mice and hamster-like looking rodents, some rabbits, the cows, yaks, yows (as I called the mixed breed of them), goats and sheep, camels and horses, of course.
I just could not get enough of watching the birds of prey circling over our heads and aiming for “victims”, but somehow always relieved when they didn’t catch the poor little bird or mouse. They are incredibly huge with a Kathrin-estimated two to four meters wingspan. And water birds like some ducks, geese and especially grey herons were beautiful. After having been in Australia for some time now back in the Northern hemisphere I could see the connection to species I know from Europe.
I was as fascinated by but less nice towards the insects: in dryer areas there were bugs I called scorpion bugs because they had a long sting at the back of their abdomen. I was even so cruel to catch one alive and let him die in an empty jar, carrying him over the next 100km, dried him but somehow couldn’t preserve him properly so he dissolved and got kicked out again. The next bug of this kind was crawling in the front of our tent and I magnanimously (looked that up in the dictionary!) decided to let him live – only to be so stupid as to step onto him the next morning when I rushed out of the tent and he still sat there. Tim gave it the final squeeze because it was still alive when he got up some time later. I felt really bad all day, no kidding.
The plants were changing with the changing landscapes and heights of the terrain we crossed. Some familiar flowering plants and trees but usually a lot of grass and herbs could be seen. I enjoyed more the lush forests and green vegetation with some shade and rivers and when we were riding across the dry steppe for a whole day in burning heat I started little games like “bug chasing”, which is easier on a track than on the grass, in combination with statistic calculations how likely it is that it would survive, i.e.: I was making out a bug that was sitting in the distance on the way, Tim was riding ahead (four hooves) with the packhorse (another four hooves) and I was following (four hooves), later with the spare horse (plus another four hooves). It was interesting to see how these little creatures survived in all but one case 12 to 16 hooves walking by extremely close. None got squashed and none ran away in panic. Usually it was towards the end of the day and my brain had already had too much sun when I started this game. It’s more insider humour you develop while riding. Tim probably had his own way of enjoying nature.
What I found amazing and overwhelming was the variety and changes of landscapes. We’ve probably been walking and riding through and past all of them: mountains, steppe, desert, swamps, forests, sandy and dry parts, rocky, steep and flat areas, we’ve had river crossings, streams, creeks and freshwater and salt lakes.
Also the weather could change within seconds: when you were riding in heat suddenly a rainstorm could come up and rain and wind in combination made it very cold. We had sand and hail storms, a lot of wind, even snow but most often a terrible heat. So it was dressing and undressing several times a day, having the rain gear and beanies always handy although it looked ridiculous when we were starting the day in 30°C with sun hats.
Very often we were just riding along (Schnecke and myself in an appropriate distance, of course) and Tim would exclaim every now and then “How amazing!”, “How beautiful!”… whereas I’m more the person who knows how to enjoy everything in my own quite way. I appreciated every single moment without many words or much feedback, which might have confused Tim sometimes.
To compensate for this there are (too) many words here and now in this story.
I definitely enjoyed the whole journey - even with all its ups and downs - and I miss every single part of it a lot.
I would like to apologise for not contacting anyone then (I couldn’t check emails for more than two months) or now during the next couple of weeks (I’ll be really busy)!
I would like to thank all the nice people who sent us messages and gave us support and help on the way (family, friends, more or less strangers, and sponsors, they all know who I mean), we had incredible support so far and I hope for Tim that it will be like this in the future!
I would like to thank especially the Mongolians who were really nice and helpful and made this part of the journey an unforgettable experience. I will keep up my promise to send them the required photos, skin powder, cigarettes and socks.
A special “Thank you!” goes to Tseren, who helped us with her advice, translation and calm support on several occasions, and to Gansukh.
And a VERY SPECIAL “Thank you!” goes to TIM who “jumped over his shadow” as we Germans say and let me come and join him on this part of the journey. I know it was not easy for him, but he can also be a bit of a bastard :). I (still) love him and try to support him from afar as well as I can, think of him and wish him all the best and more incredible experiences during the coming months! He’s really doing a good job and I’m curious to know how the journey will go on. It will become harder but I’m sure he’ll make it!!!
I’m a bit jealous when I just heard from him about the mountain pass he crossed and I couldn’t make it that far. But that just means that we can all be looking forward to HIS next update.
You can wake up now :), I’ve finished writing and better go before even more comes to my mind.
Unfortunately German reality has caught most of me back (I have to go and spend a lot of money I don’t have on a new mobile phone in a minute so that I can receive satellite phone calls from far away!) but it will never take my Mongolian impressions and memories away from me.
JUST AMAZING AND BEAUTIFUL!
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