A View to a Chill

As I went outside to take a quick walk around the ger for about the 10th time that night, I glanced at the thermometer. -30C. Cold. Cold enough to freeze the vodka we were drinking, if we hadn’t already drained all of it. Plus a few liters of beer apiece.

It was near 3 AM and the four of us had been playing some kind of modified Chinese Poker since the sun had gone down. Our quartet consisted of myself, Brian, Joe, and Dan. Joe was from England and had a thick accent. He was taking some time out from school to do a bit of traveling. He’d come through the places we’d yet to visit and was headed to China, following our trail. Dan was an American who’d come, by way of Shanghai and Beijing, from Japan. He’d been teaching there for a couple of years. He was going to ride the Trans-Siberian to St. Petersburg as we were.

The UB Guesthouse had arranged a trip for us to go to one of Mongolia’s national parks where we’d stay the night. We rode out in a Land Rover, a capable vehicle that we knew well from our previous trip to EBC. The area had recently received a covering of snow, a rarity for the desert climate. We arrived just before lunch, which was prepared for us and brought to our ger. The meal was rice, meat, potatoes, onions, carrots, and tea. It was good, but there wasn’t much of it.

With the light meal in our stomachs and the cold clean air in our lungs, we set out to walk around. There was a hill behind us and a small village a bit further to the west. We headed towards the village, but detoured to climb around behind and up the hill. The hike up was fairly gradual but we had to walk through layers of unmelted snow from the several months of winter before our arrival. Some of our steps took us across bare rock which had managed to heat up enough to stay clear. In the cool of the day, some of these gave off streaks of steam as the moisture quickly evaporated into the dry air.

At the top of the small hill, there was a cave created by the seeming random placement of huge boulders. I’m not sure what left these here in this position: erosion of softer rock, glacial motion, ocean currents? Any of these seemed likely in this cold, barren place. Climbing inside the small space, we were able to cool down a bit after our hike. We scrambled across the top of the rocks and through the snow covered and lightly wooded hill. We had some incredible views from that vantage, both of the village and of our ger and support tent. We saw one of our hosts down working with the horses, so we decided to head down and see what was going on.

Through the very limited vocabulary we had in common, we discerned that we had a choice between a two hour horseback ride around the valley or a four hour trek to an abandoned monastery. We decided that the four hour trip would be a better payoff than just wandering around on our beasts of burden. Fortunately, our horses knew better.

I use the term “horse” loosely. These were probably Mongolian Horses, a breed similar to the only wild horse left on the planet. At roughly 4ft tall, they are only a bit taller than the oft lampooned Shetland Pony. The animals we rode astride probably weighed around 500-600 lbs. In comparison, the Clydesdale typically weighs between 1,500 and 2,000 lbs and stands around 6 feet tall at the back. Joe, who had made the trip a couple of days before, told us that the animals were only fed if they were going to be ridden that day. It was apparent, as our horses looked rather thin and weak.

The animals were very slow and seemed to feel they were being paid by the hour, rather than for results. Often veering off course, our guide prodded them back to the trail. After an hour or so of meandering across the terrain, it became clear that we wouldn’t make the monastery and back by sundown. As it was, our fingers, faces, and toes were getting a bit chilly any time we faced away from the setting sun. As we went on, the horses began to wander more often and seemingly in coordination with one another. We all decided that it would be best to turn back when the horses would go no further along the path but would only walk at hard angles to it.

When the guide gave the signal to turn around, the horses sprang to life and broke into as near a gallop as the little animals could go with such huge loads on their backs. We made record time back to our little area of the world across some quite picturesque scenery. We were literally riding into the sunset as we returned home. I, being the largest and heaviest of our crew, brought up the rear, as the ride back took a long trek uphill before racing down quickly. We all rejoiced as we dismounted and headed back to the safety of our protective shelter.

Our legs and seats were relative spots of comfort compared with our toes and noses. The trip had begun when the mercury reached just above the freezing point of water. At its end, it was well below and dropping quickly as the sun became a memory. The blanketed wooden structure was warmed by the cast iron stove, bellowing smoke from the wood in its belly. This, as we learned, was to be the fifth member of our crew for the evening — and the one we all cared the most about.

As our guide became our waiter, we became warm and full. Another of our hosts, a boy of perhaps twenty, came in carrying a load of wood for fuel. It was obvious that he was the one who we had heard chopping the lumber, as he was sweating despite the low temperature and his lack of a shirt. None of us could remember seeing him in our campsite earlier, but Joe had remembered from his last trip that he was from another house a couple of hundred meters away and was paid to chop wood for visitors. This is the second time we realized how far our relative pittance had reached in this desolate land.

As I reentered the ger after my short trip to the restroom, the warmth hit me. We had just put the last of the wood on the fire that was to last us until morning. The temperature was over 30C, a swing of at least 60C in the couple of seconds it took to step inside. With the supply of wood exhausted, the temperature would quickly drop to nearly freezing. We all decided it would be best if we went to bed.

We returned to the UB Guesthouse the next morning, slightly bleary-eyed from the late night and the consumption of libations. It was an experience to be treasured and one that would not have been diminished had we stayed a few more days. But the sound of the railroad car bustling across those steel rails gets into you and you just have to keep on riding. On to Russia.

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Posted on March 9, 2007, in China, East Asia, Round the World and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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