The first bright yellow and orange glimpses of autumn peeked out from the underbrush between the trunks of the pine forest outside. As the heaters pushed the morning chill from the car, we made our way over a pass on a bumpy dirt road. For a few moments, it seemed as if I was home again; the scene could have occurred on any of the frosty fall mornings of my childhood spent growing up in the Yukon. But as we descended around a corner, the distinct cylindrical profile of a nomadic Mongolian tent — called a ger in those parts — came into view, and the illusion quickly vanished.
I had been traveling for almost two months at this point, making my way overland from Moscow, through Siberia, and down into Mongolia, and drifting essentially wherever I felt like drifting across the vast Asian continent. By then, I had met up with a like-minded traveler named Will, and we’d decided that we both felt like drifting on horseback for awhile. We were, after all, in the steppes of Genghis Khan and the great Mongol hordes. Horses outnumber humans thirteen to one in Mongolia and play a vital role in a society where over a third of the population is still nomadic.
The car pulled to a stop near a set of gers in a valley bottom where a troop of horses galloped playfully beneath the hills. We were received with smiles and the usual barrage of obscene snack foods: rock-hard cheese, fermented mare’s milk, etc., which we choked down politely as we admired the horses, wondering which of these energetic beasts would proudly carry us over the rolling steppes to the mountains of central Mongolia. In our happy wonder, we failed to notice a pair of horses standing idly behind the tents, smoking cigarettes and making sarcastic comments about the others. These were to be our horses.
At long last, after everything had been packed and repacked by rigid Mongolian standards, we were ready to go. Having never been on a horse before, I watched Gambalt, who was to be our guide for the first few days, very carefully. “Chu,” he whispered to his horse, and obligingly it started forward. Will looked at me and shrugged. “Chu,” Will said, “chu, chu, chu.” Eventually his horse rolled off to a slow start. “Chu,” I said, looking down at my horse. Nothing happened. “Chu, chu. Chu? Chu. Chu!” I tried various intonations and volumes, but nothing worked. Looking concerned, the residents of the gers gathered around the horse, all chuing in a similar fashion. The horse gave no sign that it was aware of its surroundings, passing wind violently as if to drive home the point. Finally, a small boy picked up a stick and smacked the horse across its hindquarters, and I was off with a start.
I admired the rocky hills of the passing landscape as I basked in the newfound thrill of travel by horseback. Still, I had always thought that it would be different somehow … faster. I noticed a small plant bloom and go to seed as we passed; behind me, the gers remained dangerously large on the horizon, and yet despite this I was soon able to overtake Will. His horse made mine seem like a champion thoroughbred racer, but I suspect the difference in our paces was attributable solely to the thrust generated by my horse’s excessive flatulence, which thundered out on almost every step. Gambalt and his horse, which I took to calling “Black Lightning,” were far ahead.
The next few days were agonizingly slow. At something short of a snail’s pace, we crawled up over passes, crossed wide valleys, and waded through rivers. My horse, which I had named Jeb, and I, formed a special relationship; Jeb would casually and quite frequently stop to eat grass while I’d tug up on the reins yelling “chu!” with complete futility, as though Jeb had no idea I was there, and then he’d pass wind violently to drive home this point.
On the fifth day of our journey, Will’s infinitely slow horse discovered a method of going even slower: throwing Will off, it suddenly rolled over onto its back and kicked at anybody who approached. This went on for some time, until finally Gambalt galloped off to the nearest set of gers and made arrangements for the horse to be left there. And so we continued on with Will on foot. This is when things became particularly frustrating. Walking at a casual pace, Will quickly shot ahead of me, overtook even Gambalt and Black Lightning, and was soon a small dot on the horizon ahead.
The next morning we decided to call it quits with the horses, a wise decision seeing as how Will no longer even had one. Unable to convince Will to ride Jeb, I was forced to put up with one final ride out to the nearest road. As the road approached, I chued and bounced around, urging Jeb forward as best I could, but with each chu his pace seemed to slow a little. Finally, after what seemed like hours, and thus very well could have been I suppose, we reached the road and I eagerly hopped down. We would hitchhike from this point. Gambalt tied the reins of Jeb to his horse, and after saying his goodbyes he turned and left in the direction we’d come. I’m not sure if it happened or not, but just before Jeb and Black Lighting disappeared over the crest of a small hill, I could have sworn they broke out into a gallop.