Of Horse Shopping and Fear
So, now we're in Mongolia. It's late August 2005. After a few days in Ulaanbaatar, the capital and, well, the only real city in that country, I meet Will, a fellow traveler looking to buy a horse and head out into the vast Mongolian steppe, in search of adventure of some sort. Will was about twice my age and a hardened traveler. Some time ago, he had been a graduate student working on a PhD in history, until one day he realized he wasn't doing what he wanted in life. He discontinued his studies, broke up with his girlfriend and took what money he had to travel the world. When that ran out he found work as a chef on a sight-seeing vessel that operated off the British Columbian and Alaskan coasts; hardly work at all by the sound of it, until he had enough money to do it all over again. He's been living like that ever since.
As we were already stationed there, Ulaanbaatar seemed like the ideal place to begin our search for horses. Somebody at Will's hotel said he knew of some breeders and offered to take us around to a few places. We happily agreed, and piled into his sedan. As we left the city, the roads rapidly deteriorated. Soon, we were crossing open steppe in the tiny car. Finally we pulled up to a typical Mongolian tent dwelling, a ger, with a few horses out behind.
We were offered a hard white brick-like substance and a white liquid, both of which we hopefully accepted. Smiling at our hosts, I tried to take a bite of the brick. It didn't budge. I gnawed violently in, and upon breaking off a piece, immediately regretted it. A rancid taste of potent decay filled my mouth, expanding exponentially with each chew. I'm sure at this point my eyes were watering terribly, but I did my best to keep a friendly face and act as though I was enjoying the treats offered. But the taste was simply too overpowering; if only there was something to wash it down … the drink! I reached desperately for the strange white bowl of liquid and took a large swig. I gagged. A new taste filled my mouth, unique but equally horrible. I found out later that this white beverage was fermented mare's milk, a delicacy in those parts. For relief from the mare's milk, I turned back to a bite of the white brick, and from that back to the milk. After a few panicked minutes of repeating this process, all the while smiling pleasantly to our hosts and making "mmm, delicious" sorts of gestures, the bricks and the liquid were gone. We were ready to negotiate.
Unfortunately, after all Will and I had been through in those few short moments, the horses proved to be too expensive. We tried a few more places with similar results, until eventually our stomachs dictated a temporary surrender. Next we decided to head further out west to a town called Tsetserleg, where prices were allegedly cheaper. No rides were leaving that day though. Overnight, I decided to try out my newly acquired camping gear by walking into the mountains south of the city. It would be better to find whatever glitch there might be in my setup while I was still in town rather than out in the distant countryside somewhere. I made plans to meet Will in the morning and set off.
The mountains themselves were pleasant enough. Nice forests covered grassy slopes, eagles and ravens played in the updrafts, and peculiar Buddhist rock-stick-and-prayer-flag constructions called ovoos prominently capped every significant feature. I was at one such ovoo, overlooking the extensive cityscape carpeting the valley floor below, when the sun began to set. I veered off the path a ways into the woods for privacy, and found as flat a spot as I could to set up my tent. Everything seemed to be in order. In my new sleeping bag, I drifted off to sleep listening to the evening wind whistling up the mountainside.
Suddenly there was a new sound. It was very dark; I had no idea how long I'd been asleep. The sound was strikingly similar to what one might expect to hear if something were slowly and carefully unzipping my tent door. I lifted my head quietly, peering over my feet. Sure enough, the zipper was moving. Without much thought, I kicked as hard as I could, through my sleeping bag and through the tent door, at whatever was causing the unzipping. I connected, and a set of footsteps ran off into the night. Now I was at a loss as for what to do. I couldn't go back to sleep, but I wasn't sure I'd be able to stay awake. It crossed my mind to tie the door shut. Ah yes, safe inside my highly flammable fortress of 0.5 mm fabric, doors tightly locked down with dental floss.
My thoughts were interrupted by an eerie, unnatural howl drifting in on the night wind. I couldn't place it; it didn't sound like a dog's howl, but it hardly sounded human. It was answered shortly by another similar howl, and then another, farther away. Whatever I'd kicked, there were a lot of them. I'd have to hold off on the sleep for the time being. With no idea of what was ahead for me, I readied my flashlight. My hand passed thoughtfully over my pocket knife. After a moment's hesitation, I pulled out the blade and set the knife within reach. It all seemed so surreal. Had my trip really come to this?