When I bestride him, I soar, I am a hawk: he trots the air; the earth sings when he touches it; the basest horn of his hoof is more musical than the pipe of Hermes.
– William Shakespeare
When I signed the form and sealed the envelope that would confirm my spot on a horse trek through wild Mongolia, I should have probably taken into consideration the fact that I am terrified of horseback riding. I was just six short weeks away from a series of mild panic attacks, some serious self-realization, and a self-taught class in the art of turning pantyhose into a fan belt. My old irrational fear—similar to flying in planes or speaking in front of a crowd—is the kind of invisible body-numbing apprehension that surfaces at the exact moment when you must face it or head home with your tail between your legs.
I had been on horseback a time or two in childhood. Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, horse trails weaved through the mountainous neighborhoods that were my backyard, horses lived in my friends’ backyards. My fearless youth was filled with fantasies of frolicking through untrammeled fields like great explorers of centuries passed. But on my 22nd birthday, those dreams were trumped by reality when I found myself ferociously ducking under tree branches holding on to the pummel of a saddle for dear life on a dark brown horse named “Scribbles.” Narrowly escaping decapitation I quickly realized that Scribbles was errantly and intentionally deviating from the pack and clearly didn’t have my best interests at heart. He could smell my fear. I just hoped to make it back to the stable alive. And when I did, I hopped off my horse-by-the-hour and returned to the car thinking “I am never riding again.” Nonetheless, a decade later, Scribbles and my brush with death in Malibu Canyon surprisingly never came to mind. I simply fell asleep and woke up a month later in Mongolia’s capital city of Ulaanbaatar (also known as “UB.”)
Horses danced alongside cars, music streamed from jimmy-rigged speakers clinging to diesel-fuelled air—cars that would never pass California emissions tests. Alongside my fellow travelers, I quietly watched the locals on horseback and studied the mechanics of horsemanship—lean to one side, stand a few inches from the saddle… I expected twinges of fear in the faces of those children. But in Mongolia, children mount horses before they learn to walk. There was no fear, only joy.
Scampering atop the grassy knolls and dirt roads of the capital, the Mongol children were practicing for the upcoming derby races at the annual Nadaam festival. When the day arrived, the spirited frontier city was shrouded in blue and red, the national colors. “Nadaam,” or the “three manly games” (archery, wrestling, and horse racing) is a sort of warrior Olympics unified by a horse race led by young riders, boys of about ten years. Leaning over a waist-high rope front line at the race, decked out in makeshift rain gear, we witnessed the boys ride into manhood chasing glory, prizes, and bragging rights within ger camps and among local families. The excitement rang with the pitch of a boiling tea kettle, and so did the starting bell. As they stampeded towards the finish line through a vaporous haze, we roared and waved our fists in the air with the locals as I stampeded within towards my own finish line: to fearlessly ride a horse.
At the culmination of three weeks of traveling through museums and monasteries, dinners and long jeep rides out of town to destination ger camps—after turning cartwheels atop the “Singing Sand Dunes” in the Gobi Desert and climbing the rocky peaks of Khongoryn Els—it was time to move on.
My boyfriend Jon, one of our friends, and I, hired a local driver to set out west in search of the Khangai Mountain Valley. Our excursion quickly became awkward when the driver scornfully eyeballed us for hours through the rear-view mirror after discovering that we were going much farther than he was told (blame it on a faulty translation.) What was meant to be a straight shot out of town had turned into an eight hour excursion over potholes, through newly formed ponds of murky standing water from late summer flooding, and relief that the padded ceiling of the Land Cruiser was soft enough to cushion my head the umpteenth time it smashed into it. Let’s just say, we were anxious to arrive. As we approached the former ancient capital of Karakorum (from the days of Chinggis Khan, [known by most as “Genghis Khan”]) and the village of Tsetserleg, the Land Cruiser climbed and descended peak after valley, the suspense building with every bounce… “Are we there yet?”
The experience of stepping out of the muddy ATV at dusk to a joyful welcome instantly washed away the long trip. Carroll and Tom, the camp owners, met us at the car with blazing smiles and wrapped our shivering necks with turquoise satin scarves they had brought from their Nepali home in Kathmandu. They embraced us as new friends, embracing us as honorary parents – which in many ways they would become over the next few days.
We were led into the main ger and warmed with vodka, wine and an eastern-inspired feast of ratatouille that we shared with other weary travelers – one from India, one, an American expat living in UB. I slinked into my seat, overcome by warmth that tends to accompany a home-cooked meal and thoughtful conversation. Sated by a final cup of Suutei tsai (milk tea), we walked the grounds to locate the squat toilet nestled beyond archer targets made of cowhide with arrows darted at an angle into the ground beneath it. Carroll led us over a stream on a two foot wide bridge constructed of solid round logs and sturdy tree branches found on the river bank nearby. “The water level is double what it was last year,” she said as she looked back. Into the woods and towards the song of the rushing river, we passed the personal-care ger where we would boil river water in a central stove for what turned out to be the only shower of the seven day stay.
The Lapis Sky Camp is virtually unheard of by common travelers yet is a place that common travelers are welcomed warmly. Short of industry insiders and general word of mouth, one is unlikely to come across the home of “Wild Earth Adventures” without being guided to it. A short paragraph write-up in one of the few travel guides I was able to find on Mongolia prior to my trip touted the camp as a haven for “writers, poets, artists, yogis and Buddhists.” I relinquished my participation in most of the artist colony activities at the camp, hoping they would find me here regardless. Art would find me and my sketch book relaxing next to a cool riverbed; Buddhism would find me paying offering at an ovoo (burial site) atop a dusty mountain peak that, from a distance, resembled South Dakota’s Devil’s Tower; poetry would find me somewhere between sleep and waking as I fell to my sleeping bag amid the songs of crickets and wolves in the distance… and yoga would find me tomorrow morning.
I woke to enjoy a quick cup of tea before I was to meet Carroll across the river for an 8:30am yoga practice. The scene was nothing like my usual studio—the usual studio being a warm, wooden room with competing scents of lavender aromatherapy and baking dough rising from the vents of the Jumbo Slice pizza parlor below. There were no blaring sirens disrupting Shavasana that forever accompanied the mean streets of DC. It was just she and I, two yoga mats, and no real props to speak of—just morning light and fresh air adulterated only by a pesky river horseflies with red chevrons on their backs guiding us through our practice. As we completed Sun Salutations she batted flies away from her face. “I never get used to these buggers.” Relief. Carroll had the inner smile of which all yogis speak, as pure as the mountain streams where we would catch our dinner later that afternoon. As the river sang beside us, I felt we were not alone there. I painted into the landscape spirits of Khan from the 1400’s appearing through the trees atop white horses with comrades at their sides. I couldn’t help but look behind me… once, twice, 50 times.
Tom (co-owner of the camp and Carroll’s husband) walked into the main ger where I sat dressed in chaps and light colored clothing. He collected riding helmets, spices, twine and other miscellaneous gear from around the room. I looked up at him and asked him to talk to me about the horses. I asked him how to ride. Without words, I asked him to calm my fears. After twenty some years living in Nepal and Mongolia, I think it was unusual for him to meet someone with misgivings of horsemanship. He pulled at my sleeve, “light colors keep you from attracting flies.” I surveyed my black breaker treated with bug repellent, black pants and black riding boots I picked up at the black market in UB. Anxiety. He was a bit laconic, but in a very familiar way. “Just hop on and learn as you go.” Suddenly I was back in Paris several years ago.
In 2005, I had gone to visit my expat brother in his home of Paris, France. It was my third time in Paris and I felt comfortable enough to set out on my own. After a day of crepes, cafés, gardens and museums, I was ready to return to his apartment on Rue du Pré aux Clercs. Wandering for hours through the cobblestone streets of the 7th arrondissement, I became lost among countless passages of “rue de” this and “avenue de” that. Between trying to navigate my way through the city with sciatica, a tattered map, and precisely eight French words in my arsenal, I became weak and exhausted trying to find my way. I called brother on the telephone, pleaded for direction for which he would not give. “The address and a map are the only tools you need to light your way home,” he said as he hung up. I was not pleased. With no other choice, I continued walking through small alleys for over an hour, planning a verbal retaliation on my brother. At one point I found myself in tears. I didn’t speak for him for two days. In the long run, his refusal to coddle me amounted to a great personal accomplishment in the wild hills of Mongolia. One day, his casual refusal would help me one day ride with abandon.
Now in Mongolia, it was a different year, a different situation, and the contrast between the world’s most fashionable city and the raw steppes of Mongolian back country couldn’t be starker, but the sentiments from my brother and from Tom were the same: “You’ll figure it out.”
I walked out to the horses hitched to wooden posts, their reigns woven together like a Rugby team engaging. I stared at the horse I would be riding for a moment and then mounted from the left side. Galen, the ten year old son of the camp owners was eager, a born leader. In the throes of practicing to race in next year’s Nadaam, he galloped circles around us. Speaking Nepali with his folks, Mongolian to the nomads, and English to me, he rode up with playful youth, “let’s go, it’ll be fun!” The child wore a navy del with a bold orange sash cinched firmly around his waist—a del is traditional horseman wear, much like a Japanese kimono. With enough room to store a whip or a sheep for the evening mutton feast in the front wrap, a del is a trustee companion to a nomad on the steppe. Galen’s excitement negated my trepidation—we were on our way.
The nomads’ presence on the trips was cyclical, returning year after year to the Lapis Sky Camp. They trained the horses—the horses are very much like dutiful golden retrievers are to all-American men: a horse is a Mongol man’s best friend. I had a designated nomad, named Purvey. He had dark reddened skin and deep lines falling from his eyes that are common in this part of the world from sun-drenched days on the steppe and the harsh winters that followed. He softly kicked his heel into the flank of his horse, coaxing it to set out. “Shu, shu.” There was no abruptness, no “giddyup!” no “hyiah!” The sound was as gentle as a mother hushing her baby in a quiet room. “Shu, shu.” As we started to walk, Purvey held my horse’s reigns, softly singing the Mongolian long-song. This traditional song had accompanied nomads for centuries on long journeys across the steppe, it was a song I had fallen in love with a couple weeks earlier at a concert in the capital city. There was no turning back. Whether I liked it or not, I was on horseback somewhere in Mongolia for the next five days. The ger camp slowly disappeared behind us and the steppes peppered with wildflowers invited us in.
I quickly fell in love with riding. I moved my body to the rhythm of my horse’s steps, rocking with him and singing Russian hymns I had learned during my days in the choir. I figured Russian would be more familiar – Mongol horses don’t speak English.
Then something miraculous happened: my horse began to canter. With the riders crop in hand, joy flooded over me and I gently pushed him to go a little faster. “Shu, shu.” Carroll rode up next to me, “you’re a natural,” she said. I cantered, leaned forward slightly, and tilted to one side like I had seen the kids do weeks before in Ulaanbaatar. I swatted my horse with the weathered reign and took off from the group on a solo gallop into the bright sunlight. Every time the horse gained speed, I felt my grin widen, wind against my teeth. Around the bend, I rode into the camp with a magnitude of confidence. I wasn’t scared, I was exhilarated. I was flying.
At lunch, Carroll twisted and tucked a silky fabric sash around my waist. I felt the pressure of high altitude holding me in. “Wrapping your midsection tightly warms your organs while holding them in place — like a sports bra for the waist.” And it held me (and kept my organs in place) for the rest of the trip.
At camp we sat in a circle with the nomads photographing each other—sharing vodka and the universal language of “smile for the camera.” Every ten minutes or so, Galen would run up from the river in victory, beaming with a string of three or five dangling fish as his father and mother looked on proudly. “That makes 14, Galen. You’ll have to throw some back.” Tom said. As darkness fell, we sang songs from our lives by the campfire and drank vodka, a tradition that stayed in Mongolia long after Russia had returned home from protecting their southern neighbors from Chinese rule.
The next day we hiked to a low peak. Sloshing through rhubarb plants, Carroll (a medical anthropologist) taught us the different plant species as Tom (a filmographer) photographed a mountain in the distance. The mountain was home to a sacred deity and was only allowed to be climbed by men—he and Galen had summited it the year before. At the top of the peak sat an ovoo adorned with traditional multi-colored prayer flags. There was a goat skeleton propped against the face of the burial site along with wreathes of live and dead flowers cradling clear water bottles filled with vodka that had been sitting to collect dust for probably over a year. As is tradition in Mongolia, when you come across a burial, you toss in an offering and circle it clockwise three times. As I turned my final circle, it donned on me how clean this memorial was — completely free of trash, free of vandalism. In 21st century America, this site would have weathered Bud Light cans strewn about the grounds and graffiti on the structure (if it had not yet been dismantled completely in a drunken stupor.)
Carroll sat on the side of the rocky ledge and placed her small canvas shoulder bag to her side, pulling from it papers with a prayer on it, a wooden horn, and other tools used to conduct a Buddhist prayer. She read aloud, blew the horn, and twisted the drum while we sat quietly watching her… a shaman, a healer, an earth mother. I couldn’t help but look to her with the sort of reverence that a devout Catholic might cast upwards to the pope speaking from the Vatican balcony. She stood and walked to the head of the burial to pay an offering, we followed. Forging down the mountain back to our horses, we remained silent, enjoying the last of the daylight quietly. It was our final night of the horse trek. I went to the cart hitched to one of the Delicas (Russian war Jeeps) to grab my pack and noticed a small goat at my feet. I knelt beside it and began petting his head between his eyes like I would a domesticatted dog or cat. “Hi sweetie.” Jon walked up behind me, “I wouldn’t get too attached to him.” I looked up quickly, and not two seconds later the goat was being cradled in the arms of a nomad, headed to the riverside where the other nomads stoked the evening fire. The excitement grew as the men crowded around the goat, a gift from Carroll and Tom for seeing us safely through the expedition. “Slaughtering sheep is a great honor for a nomad.” Carroll indulged me, “It is actually very humane, you should go watch.”
I walked over just in time to see the nomad cut a small incision about four inches long into the goat’s chest, just beneath the windpipe. It was completely silent. He put his hand in and felt around for the heart which took only a moment – he twisted it. The goat fell to its death quietly. There was no blood, no noise. The nomads, Tom and Galen smiled while the rest of us watched in veneration. By the river, we enjoyed a mutton feast and tea of rhubarb stalks. By the river, stars like fireflies, flecks of the universe scattered in the sky reminded us to find light amidst darkness. And we slept.
Half of the riders were continuing on. Jon, Jeremy and I would head back to the Lapis Sky Camp in the morning for a final day of relaxing before waking at dawn to return to the bus station that would take us back to UB. We collected our packs and said our goodbyes to the other riders.
Rainbows and pantyhose…
We forged up the mountain at 1:00pm. With a two hour drive ahead of us we planned to take the rest of the day at camp to read, shoot arrows, fish, eat, write and drink some wine beside the fire before getting a good night’s sleep. After making it successfully to the top of the third peak, the engine sputtered and spit bringing the old jeep to a halt. As it happens with international travel, everything takes longer than you plan for and there is almost always an occurrence that leaves you completely perplexed. The young nomad designated to return us to camp smiled and jolted out of the car, lifting the hood with ease. After a few short moments of tinkering with the engine, he clapped his blackened hands together and hopped back in the jeep to start the engine without fail. This sequence would continue on for the rest of the day — we broke down countless times after that. Nomads on the steppe rear the epitome of self-sufficiency. With no goods or services beyond the aid of fellow families for miles—fixing a car, finding food, and taking in a weary traveler is all a part of the nomads life. We got out and ate lunch that had been packed in a cooler for us. We took photos and laughed. But with every plume of smoke that spit from the exhaust pipe, laughter slowed and frustration set in. It was a broken fan belt. Each time the car stopped, we created a temporary fan belt refashioned from on-hand materials and carried on for five or 10 more minutes until the Jeep inevitably stopped again. Finally, we found luck at a ger camp shared by four families. Jon, Jeremy and I waited in the jeep while our nomad took a tea. A small child climbed onto the driver’s seat as we were waiting and flirted with us as we snapped her photo. “Arunteck!” The sweet girl giggled and pointed at herself. We assumed “Arunteck!” was her name, exclamation point and all. Behind her floppy pigtails, our driver walked out to the jeep exchanging a small package and a handshake with one of the men at the camp. The package did not contain a fan belt, it contained pantyhose. Did you know that pantyhose can become a temporary fan belt?! It can… and it took us all the way back to camp. As we road into the peak before us, one of the many rainbows we saw during our trip to Mongolia fell magically into the Lapis Sky Camp as we descended to our last night. Jeremy, a writer and part-time resident of Mongolia chuckled, “My next story will be titled ‘Pantyhose and Rainbows.’”
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