John McTaggart: A 23 year-old Israeli. John was a hilarious guy but thought of himself as a seasoned backpacking veteran even though he had never really done it before. He had all the equipment for the game, however, and Nate and I probably left a bad first impression by showing up without a single ounce of gear. Our typical laid back manner led John to think that we had no idea what we were doing and this caused some problems early on between us, but despite this, we became great friends on the trip. John also had a sweet Nikon that took all the pictures featured on this blog. Heâ€™s clearly talented.
Horseman (aka Marlboro Man): 50 years-old with five children, the legend known simply as Horseman smoked about two packs a day and looked like Robert Redford - the old-man version. He could make anything with his pocket knife (is “pocket knife” the correct term if the blade was half the size of my leg? Weâ€™ll say sword). He was also a surprisingly good chess player. One of the more bizarre moments of the trip was when Horseman said, â€œCheckâ€ in perfect English after saying a total of ZERO words in English before that. I beat him, by the way.
Buggy (aka El Mongolito): A younger version of Horseman. 25 years old with three children. Buggy could take his horse from zero to ludicrous speed in under 5 seconds. He loved to sneak up on my horse while I was on it and then thwack it with a stick sending us running without warning and me hanging on for dear life.
Simon: My horse. An absolutely beautiful 10 year-old, brown stallion. Could follow better than any other horse in the pack but could never lead.
My horse Simon
When he lost site of the other horses he would walk in circles until another horse came back. My first horse, and my first true love.
Penzoil:Stop and go, Nateâ€™s horse had the habit of running ahead of the pack, then stopping to eat as we all passed him, then doing it all over again. Basically, he was me in horse form - I know for a fact that I would pull that same shit if I had a little animal who was too nice too hit me sitting on my shoulders.
Shamalalananala:Johnâ€™s horse. Started off as a friendly creature but as the trip went on, and John found bigger and bigger objects to hit it with, it became a wild brute. He would occasionally try to back kick me and Simon, and would take off running and then veer quickly to the right, almost killing John.
Pack Horse:The saddest creature on earth. Bugs sucking his blood, all our stuff piled on his back, and the inability to do anything about it. I remember holding the reins when Horseman and Buggy were putting the saddlebags on his back. They told me to hold tight, but instead of trying to run away, Pack Horse just fell over sideways and lay there in defeat. He had eyes that said, “Please, just kill me.”
The other two horses that Buggy and Horseman rode:Pretty cool, but nothing much to note.Life is slow on the road
Our adventure started off in a wide-open valley. Like I said, Simon was a follower and pretty soon I was placed in the situation that I would stay in for next nine days: walking behind Pack Horseâ€™s ass. Aside from the bugs that collected on Pack Horse and then jumped onto me, or the constant “poots” that Pack Horse emitted from his rear, the worst part was when Pack Horse would suddenly stop and Simon would side step around, sending my knee right up under Pack Horseâ€™s tail and into a horrible, horrible spot.
That first day we galloped away from a group of barking dogs. It was the first time I have ever galloped. For those who havenâ€™t experience it, it feels like youâ€™re flying. We laughed hysterically the whole time.
The next morning we woke up at around 8am and set off. It started raining so we stopped in a ger (a Mongolian home thatâ€™s round and looks like a tent) and met a family. We were served bread and fermented horse milk and old cheese and shots of vodka. For those who haven’t tried this breakfast, it’s a really good way to start the day.
Despite the food, life was looking up. It was becoming very clear that we were traveling in some of the most beautiful terrain I had ever seen. On top of that, the children were wonderful. They played on basketball courts located in the middle of huge fields and ran around with animals (horses, ox, sheep and goats) that were smelly and friendly. It was a good time.
Thatâ€™s how things remained until day five when we got to a huge lake. Immediately John and the guides started fishing and pretty soon we had at least 70 fish. No joke, you could literally throw your line in, hold it their for five secondsm and then reel in a eight inch fish. It was the most incredible thing. That night we ate about 10-15 fish eat and fell asleep stuffed.
the lake at night
After that things started to slow down and nothing happened. It was the same old stuff over and over: wake up, eat, ride, eat, ride, eat, sleep. I donâ€™t even remember it too well. Things came back into focus a few days later.
On day eight of our horse trek we stopped under a group of trees to eat lunch. A day before we had been riding into camp when a massive swarm of giant horseflies literally attacked us and our mounts. Unlike mosquitoes, thereâ€™s absolutely nothing insidious about a horsefly. These horrible monsters relentlessly bite and chomp as they compete for the largest piece of flesh. Iâ€™d say in that first hour, before we managed to hide in our tents, the flies ate a lot of meâ€¦ a lot of Kai. But to be fair, they got more of Nate. Perhaps because he was in front when the ambush hit, or perhaps because the sweat around his head was visibly steaming off his head creating a beacon for all creatures of evil within a mile radius, whatever it was they got him hard and Nate was thrown into a deep fit of depression.
Disturbing sight #1: Watching a friend sit on a horse with his head bent down as thousands of insects bite the living hell out of him. Poor chap.
We spent the rest of the day in our intensely hot tents, occasionally sticking our heads out to get a quick breath of fresh air before the bugs ate our retinas. That night we ate pasta with ketchup, and afterwards, while everyone slept, I played a game I dubbed â€œGet up every twenty minutes to take a piss because you drank too much water and coffee.â€
The next morning we wanted to leave early to avoid the heat and the swarms of bugs, but our two guides, who apparently didnâ€™t give a rat’s ass about the flies, decided to take their sweet time. It was 10am before we left. It was hot and the bugs were back. Everyone was depressed now.
Disturbing sight #2: Watching the smoke of a huge mound of flaming horse poop waft over your body and wanting more of it just to be free of bugs.
So there we were, we had just stopped for lunch and we were sitting in the shade with bugs everywhere. Nate, John, and I had run out of real food a while back so we were forced to eat straight peanut butter for lunch. It wasn’t even crunchy. It was creamy.
Kai: I canâ€™t believe we bought creamy peanut butterâ€¦
John: I hate this. I just want to go back to Ulaan Baatar (the capital of Mongolia).
Kai: I just want to go back to America.
Kai: Honestly, Iâ€™ve never been so patriotic in my life. Never.
John: This is god awful. And this is the only thing Iâ€™m going to remember too.
Kai: No. Listen. Youâ€™ll get back and probably within a week youâ€™ll have told the story of this trip ten to twelve times. Youâ€™ll see that people really respond well to the lake with the endless amounts of fish and youâ€™ll start emphasizing that part of the story more and more until that actually becomes the story. Your memory. Isn’t that optimistic?
John: Pass the peanut butter.
Kai: Itâ€™s creamy.
John: I said I was sorry!
Kai: Sorry doesnâ€™t make this all better. Nate, are you eating that moldy ass piece of bread?
John: You shouldnâ€™t do that, mate. The horses wonâ€™t even eat that.
Somehow I managed to fall asleep. In my dream I was Jeff Goldbloom, not in The Fly but rather in Jurassic Park. I was in the back seat of a jeep leaning over to talk to my horse, who was sitting in the front, â€œYou see, Simon, if this drop of water hits my hand like so, the drop could fall to the left or the right. You canâ€™t predict itâ€¦â€ A huge drop of water splooshed across my forehead and I woke up.
<This is a Mongolian 7-11. Seriously.
Above me, the skies were dark gray and a light sprinkle was coming down. John, who did not have a rain jacket and was deathly scared of getting wet/sick, was already up and screaming at us to get moving before the rain hit us hard. We jumped on our horses and rode off, John urging his steed forward with kicks to the ribs and me and Simon just following the crowd. As we progressed the rain grew harder and pretty soon we were completely soaked. For John - who actually rode ahead, dismounted, and tried taking cover behind a three inch diameter tree â€“ this was an unacceptable situation.
For me, this was just what I needed. First off, the goddamn bugs were gone. GONE! That alone was cause for celebration, but I think Nate phrased it best a day later when he said, â€œWe just needed a change of pace. Things had become so monotonous.â€ He was right. Often times, you canâ€™t have a good trip unless bad things happen to you. I was hoping for hailâ€¦
And I got it.
Folks, the hail that started coming down on us was on a epic scale. They felt like big snow balls hitting us at a hundred miles an hour. The wind was so strong that the ice was coming in sideways and Simon had a hard time walking with his face pointing into it. Of course, Nate and I were whooping and hollering, even though, to be honest, we were both in great pain. Even though it was happening to me as well, I took great joy in watching ice pelt off everyone. As if things couldnâ€™t get even crazier, suddenly we were standing at the bank of a 60â€™ wide river. John and Horseman were far behind, so it was just me, Buggy, and Nate (and Pack Horse of course). With the might of Ghengis Kahn, Buggy smacked his horse and they started crossing with Pack Horse in tow. Nate and Penzoil were next and they rode across with great courage. That left me, but for the first time all trip, Simon refused to follow. He was scared, and he kept turning in circles in search of some other horse to follow. No matter what I did, I couldn’t get him to go forward. I pleaded and slapped him and whipped him and even pulled at his ears. Nothing.
This was the defining moment. I knew that the scenario could go one of two ways: I could wait where I was and Horseman would probably assist me across, or I could do this on my own. I thought back eight months. I was sitting in front of the TV at home watching an episode of HBO’s Big Love. My motivation was at an all time low and I needed something in my life, some type of adventure, some kick in the ass to get me started. I remember those TV days. I was stuck and I wanted to get out so badly. And here I was now, sitting on a horse, soaked to the bone and overlooking a Mongolian river with hail pelting into my face. I smiled.
I wound the reins around my right hand and jerked Simonâ€™s head forward. Then I leaned over and stroked his neck. â€œYou see that ass, Simon,â€ I pointed at the back of Pack Horse, â€œTake me there. Take me there one more time.â€ Simon nodded and took a step. And then he took another step. Pretty soon we were crossing the river and I felt like Billy Crystal in City Slickers. The hail was coming in at such a crazy angle at this point that it was bouncing off the river and up into my legs. The water rose and rose until I was knee deep in freezing water. I was shivering but I wasn’t completely sure it was from the cold. And then just like that we were on the other side. I gave Simon a hug and rode over to Nate. We clasped hands knowing that we had just experienced something incredible.
Hail, baby, hail
Later we galloped down the open plains of a huge valley as the hail painted the ground white. At that point, even John was loving it. Even Horseman and Buggy were screaming. Our lives had done a 180.
A day later we were heading home and still talking about the day before. As we rode up to our final destination we stopped in a small ger for a meal. Inside was a whole family, the father was obviously drunk and he asked if we would roll his sheep bones. Apparently, there are four sheep bones that are identical and belong to the ankle. When you roll them, they can land one of four ways and depending on the combination you get a fortune. We all rolled. After mine, there were a few gasps. I looked at the chart and it said, â€œYou will live a long and lucky life.â€ Suddenly, the man of the ger was ushering John and Nate out. He picked me up and the women of the ger dressed me and the oldest daughter in ceremonial clothes. We were taken outside where everyone took pictures of us. I was in a complete daze, but somewhat enjoying the whole thing when they ushered me and the daughter into another ger that was completely empty. The daughter looked at me in apprehensive anticipation, and all I could do was blink back a couple times. Seconds later me and my red cheeks were galloping as far away as possible, while behind me, everyone laughed hysterically.
Awkward few seconds before realizing that was fake
That was the trip. It was hard, it was boring, it was shocking. Everyone, think Mongolia. Itâ€™s a crazy, beautiful place.