Day 3

(Dooms) Day Three, Urtuu 6 to Urtuu 7
Horse; the “Kracken.”

This is the day that, looking at my facebook history, gave everyone a heart attack. Comments from Devan, Ankur, and my parents adorn the page with everything from worry to scolding. To justify your feeling at the time, yes, I knew you all hated me at that moment; I knew you guys were watching with angst. Our tracker lines, surreptitiously being updated by derby headquarters, were slowly wandering further and farther from the projected route and I knew my friend Ankur, awake at such an hour back home because of his job, would be checking and shaking his head (I later found out this was exactly the case). Adam and I still quote the famous misdirection “follow the paved road,” and we laugh, but on some level it still hurts. But I get ahead of myself. The morning dawned bright and beautiful after a damp chill night. Though I still couldn’t seem to drink enough water, I was less dizzy than I had been in awhile as we set forth on two sturdy little mounts that the herders had paired up for us. Adam had a little bay and I a little chestnut who, due to an inner fickle nature I felt he possessed, and because, what a great name(!?) I dubbed “The Kracken.” This could have easily been a terrible leg but Adam and I both look back at it fondly. Demoralizing though it eventually was, the weather was nice (sunny but cool), the scenery spectacular (including great aviary wildlife), and due to the way our horses preferred to run huddled side-by-side, we actually really got to know one another and we talked for most of the eight hours it took us to complete the leg. As usual we set out behind everyone that morning but due to a few ejections (I remember trying to catch Ann’s horse as it flew by but my pony wasn’t too keen to play chase) we eventually found ourselves out ahead. We had been told that this leg was straight forward and the shining sun, solid horses, and promise of an easy ride never made us question the written and reiterated command to “follow the paved road.” As we successfully made it to the leg’s only suggested waypoint (to cross the paved highway) we pondered what to do. The GPS line told us to continue straight but the paved highway (anything paved is an EXTREME rarity outside of Ulaanbatar) continued on to our right. Not realizing that a real communicational mistranslation had occurred (in retrospect Adam and I think that ‘paved road‘ was either ‘well traveled road‘ or ‘well defined two-track‘ when it was conveyed in its original Mongolian tongue) and so we decided that the written directions probably trumped the GPS line. For those of you who didn’t ride the derby, your GPS line really only shows you a direct line from where you currently are to the next horse station, it was rarely the correct trajectory and often, to some degree, misleading as a guide alone. We were also equipped with short paragraphs that described the leg and a tiny map as well which are often much harder to check as your mount rarely tolerates the noise of a ziplock bag being folded about so that you can pinpoint where exactly you just went wrong. If I had looked more closely at my map I would have known we were doomed, but I had happily embraced the idea that this leg would be easy and assumed that following the paved road, as foretold, would be sufficient navigation. I never trusted the written portion again. After perhaps two hours of happily jaunting alongside the terrifying traffic (most cars and semis whipped past at eighty without slowing or giving our horses any berth) we began to get concerned. All along the distance between us and the next station had been dwindling, so we had had faith that the mountain range to the left of the road would eventually subside. When that distance started to increase again, we pulled up. Adam decided that we should “just ride to the top of this ridge and take another reading,” (a famous line I grew to hate) in case a valley lay on the other side that would miraculously put us on the correct path. I agreed only because it looked as if he was going to climb the mountain with or without me and I distinctly remember mouthing off under my breath as our mounts struggled with the gradual incline. When we reached the top and found nothing but more mountains I gave a poignant “I told you so,” glare and whipped Kracken around, back the way we had come. It was a tough moment, knowing that most of the legs’ efforts were in vain and that we needed to retrace most of what we had already ridden. Luckily we had great horses that though, not fast, had incredible endurance (my horse later galloped in and had a heart rate of only 60!**). Adam gave me a moment to steam silently and in no time we were laughing, imagining what everyone watching us at home was thinking and knowing, that they would never understand the kind of choices you have to make out there. We cheered a little at the thought. I think Adam even went so far as to tell me dead baby jokes! As we got closer and closer to the highway waypoint we had traversed hours ago, we noticed two dots coming up the road behind us; could it possibly be other derbyists? When we saw the helmets we knew we hadn’t been the only ones to misread the directions and not so secretly I felt relief. I think the first thing I said to Chris and Heather as they rode up was “Oh good! We aren’t the only idiots!” I don’t think they laughed. The four of us lamented our poor choices and then discussed which way was the best to get back. Heather had a very fast buckskin appaloosa and soon she was becoming a small dot on the horizon. Chris, Adam and I turned right and followed a strong two track that aligned well with our GPS path, having finally passed the vivid mountain range. If we thought the three of us had a long trek, it was nothing compared to what Heather experienced. Epic tale made short, Heather was chased down by two motorcycles and almost pulled from her horse by two enterprising bandits, but her amazing pony outran them and she escaped. I think she actually beat us to horse station seven, despite having ridden fifty miles out of her way! The worst we experienced was the inevitable crash of not having enough caloric fuel (an Amramp bar split between us worked miracles). At one point as we plodded dejectedly across the valley, we passed a ger and a little girl rode out to us. She smiled excitedly and mimed “drink of water?” making all the right gestures and theatrical noises of the act. I smiled and we declined but she rode along with us, happy to watch what we were doing all the same. Chris happened to know the name of the Mongolian family in charge of station seven and when she asked the little girl the name she smiled, nodded, and pointed us the way were going. As a thank you, I removed my sparkly earrings (which I had worn with such an intent) and handed them to her. At this point her brothers had ridden out to join her and she rode proudly back to show them off. We rode away as she flaunted the treasure, my spirits renewed. When we finally neared station seven the ground changed to undulating dunes covered with intermittent growth. The terrain was slow going but taxing on our horses and we all opted to walk the kilometer plus in. Up ahead we could just make out James and Wendy. I turned to say something to Adam when a brown shape burst over the crest of the nearest mini-dune; it was Wendy’s horse ploughing madly towards us, it’s riderless saddle banging against its sides. I had enjoyed eight great hours on Kracken and assumed I knew him well enough (he’d been calm with cars whizzing past and dogs threatening murder) so I charged forward hoping to catch the escapee. Never underestimate a Mongolian horse. Never. I thought Kracken would have been tired at that point but I think that episode is the closest I came to truly getting into trouble. As soon as he saw Wendy’s loose mount all four hooves dug deep into the sand. He pulsed electrically and his heart beat reverberated through the saddle. Then he exploded. He whipped right and wrenched the reins from my hands, bucking and turning comically in the deep sand. I pulled on one rein and braced my other hand against his short neck. I don’t know how he kept his legs under him but the most similar experiences I’ve had to this were all at Cedar Point (an amusement park). When he settled I had no brakes but I found he was willing to run blindly in the direction of my choosing so I pointed him at the ger and came in a full fifteen minutes before Chris and Adam. He barely stopped long enough for me to jump off and I dropped like an anchor with the lead rein. The vet, busy with another horse, mildly advised me to “please not gallop in,” and I laughed sardonically. By the time Adam and Chris joined me in the ger I had already gotten to talk with Heather and she seemed to be doing really great, all things considered. She rode out with Musse and Per and we agreed to ride with Chris, just to be safe. At that point we really only had time to do one more station so we ate quickly and hungrily and picked three beautiful long-maned stallions. I crossed my fingers that the next ride would go more smoothly.


Day Three, Station 7 to 8
Horse; “Aragorn.”

Chris, Adam and I rode out on the three gorgeous stallions we had chosen. I had a stocky, long-maned bay, Adam a gorgeous chestnut and Chris a red bay. Adam and I had a fair amount of trouble mounting as they were the type of horses that didn’t stand still, I think I ran in a circle to mount and the herder made wild gestures about needing to hold my horse back. I circled the line as Chris and Adam mounted, my stallion breaking into an animated trot in his eagerness to run. By this point I was becoming an expert at doing things mid-gallop via horseback. Heather Russell at one point removed batteries from the back of her pack and re-inserted them into her GPS during a frantic bolt and I swore by the end of the derby I could have brewed a pot of english tea while bolting. The crew had vaguely pointed to a road out and we aimed our missiles accordingly. The first part of the leg blew by in a fury of galloping stallions. There was no stopping them and the speed was exhilarating. Anytime we tried to pull up they all jigged or spun in place and then one of them would bound forward and we would all be off again. About 15kms into the ride we forced the stallions to pull up, hoping to let them catch their breath and it was then that I caught sight of Adam’s girth. My heart skipped a beat. His girth was almost hanging from his stallion’s slim barrel. I told Chris to hold up and then told Adam not to shift his weight much and I tried to decide what to do. Anytime Adam reached down to tighten his own girth his horse spun madly, putting him in further danger. I shifted my weight into the left stirrup, seeing what my horse might do if I dismounted and he buck-jumped right to let me know he was more than willing to let me off. I couldn’t dismount easily. Neither could Adam. Even if we did it was more than likely we’d chance loosing our horses or wouldn’t be able to re-mount again as it had taken several herders to hold my horse for me to get on in the first place. I maneuvered my stallion sideways into his and they squealed at one another. I ignored their warnings and leaned right to try and reach Adam’s girth and my horse (who I had named Aragorn for his disheveled appearance that hid his rogue good-looks) attempted to pitch me the rest of the way off as I leaned over. He felt his rider should always stay centered or needed to get off entirely; I took note. Adam’s horse jigged anxiously and I did another circle, passing slowly by Adam and attempted to lean right without changing my lower-body’s weight distribution in the saddle, pulling Aragorn’s head sharply left as I did so so that he couldn’t exactly make out what was happening. I grabbed the right girth strap and yanked up hard. My right arm, which had been made almost immobile by the strange muscle tension developed after moving my rein-hand along with every horse’s head movements, screamed in pain. Lionheart (Adam’s horse) made a low guttural noise and Aragorn spooked away right and I was torn from my attempts, Adam’s saddle now being held on by only one very loose buckle. I began to contort my body for another pass- this time letting Aragorn sniff Lionheart, hoping that the brief greeting period would distract both stallions long enough for me to at least tighten one of the buckles before fighting words (or actions) were exchanged. It was a success! I ratcheted up the right buckle to a higher and tighter hole before Aragorn slammed his foreleg into the ground and the stallions erupted into squeals. It took four or five more passes and an extreme amount of physical effort (try bending at the waist after two and a half days of extreme exercise and with a shredded arm pulling with all of your might whilst balancing on an angry steed) but I got Adam’s girth tightened! It sounds a bit ridiculous but this was one of the most intense moments of the derby for me as it was a physical and mental test while the safety of all four of us hung in the balance. It is a bit incredible what you can accomplish when you absolutely have to! After that the rest of the leg went by as uneventfully as a derby leg can. Including questioning directions, going out of our way to make a crossing rendered unnecessary by draught (a lot of the directions had been written in June when land had been saturated with rain and by the time we rode in August a lot of lakes and rivers had dried up) and some more inconvenient bolting. We rode in ten minutes before the 8:30 cut-off, finally having made it in on time but having done only two stations that day due to our earlier blunder. We should have been completely demoralized but the epic (if not ridiculous) girth-tightening incident paired with the great horses we had gotten put us in good spirits. We had already begun to fantasize about regular food (a consistent diet of noodles and goat fat does this quickly) and I had explained how amazing a peanut butter and jelly sandwich sounded. Adam had agreed so when we entered the ger that night to find a loaf of stale, slightly molded bread with jam; we rejoiced. It was like a prayer had been answered as I imagined the crisp bread to taste like toast (yeah it was stiff with staleness) and the neon-pink sugary preserve to be like fresh strawberry jam. We tore off the mold and happily ate around it. It was more of a conciliation prize than we could have hoped for! As I stuffed my face and contemplated the day (kicking myself for our earlier blunder) I suddenly realized I hadn’t peed in over 28 hours and that every time I dismounted I felt nauseous, but I decided I could deal with it in the morning. We feasted and immediately lay on the uneven slatted floor, and went out like lights.

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