Day 5

Day Five, Urtuu 11 to Urtuu 12
Horse: “King of the Wind”

I never felt better than I did the morning of day five! What a difference an IV makes! I think of all the days of the derby this, though by only a narrow margin, is my favorite day. It was epic, terrifying, but overall a lot of fun, filled with fast horses and best of all, nowhere near over! We awoke to pale rain clouds and a lackluster drizzle, and I discovered just how many other riders were in the other ger. I even got to see Jade again! We caught up briefly as we begrudgingly downed a bit of rice and fat tea and then I attacked the horse line with vigor, picking a beautiful bay stallion that gnashed his teeth at me when I approached. I had the translator ask for a good horse to accompany my stallion and Adam was given a little chestnut midget. We shrugged and assumed the herders knew something that we did not. Though mounting was not an easy task, my stallion never bucked and only spun in sporadic circles as I waited for Adam to mount the feisty little chestnut.
As I waited I settled on a name. My pretty bay stallion reminded me of the cover of the book “King of the Wind,” and King fitted his regal manner. Though unsure of me at first, he settled and became willing to do any little thing I asked. It was like driving a sports car, complete with full acceleration and even brakes! Adam and I rode out into the mist and quickly ate up the ground, passing the cavalry and then riding along with Wendy, James and Anna for a bit. As the derby vehicles roared by us we pushed into a gallop for the photographer and it was a good reminder of what an incredible adventure we were on, and how lucky we were to be doing it. Eventually we split up from Wendy, James, and Anna (who was struggling with many of the issues I had had the day previous) though we kept seeing their tell-tale dots appear to the left or right of us. We rode into Station Twelve feeling pretty good, the navigation had been simple, our horses adequate, and the weather not too hot (the drizzle had subsided mid-ride). On top of that we were coming in ahead of the bulk of riders, meaning that we had a good chance of leaving last by only a few minutes or so!

 

Day 5 Station 12 to Station 13
Horse; “Roy Rogers”

This leg ranks in the top two of the derby for me. Even before the leg started we were in high spirits thanks to the discovery of an unattended Snickers bar. As Claudia, Anna, Adam, Vicky and I downed fat tea and a new combination of goat and noodles (or rice) Dylan pointed out that a crew member had left a Snickers bar. We all stared hungrily. I whipped out my knife (originally with the intent of fighting to the death for it) and offered to portion it into five pieces. The result was a tiny morsel for each of us but when you are expending that much energy and away from familiar foods, a little bit of Snickers can go a long way! We approached the horse line, rejuvenated. Happiest with the stallions I had ridden, I chose another. This one built in a trimmer fashion, as my most comfortable horses had been, I pointed to a lean buckskin. I asked the herder to find a horse that would ride well with him for Adam and he pulled a dark brown gelding from the line that had been leaning on my horse. Both guys looked fit and they fidgeted and spooked the right amount as they were saddled. Adam’s horse looked a bit more twitchy but nothing he couldn’t handle. I mounted up easily and Adam endured a bit of spinning, but soon we were off on our next leg.
The afternoon was warm but not hot, the higher elevation of that leg allowed for a pleasant breeze, and the scenery was magnificent. Most of day five was a series of gorgeous valleys (free of bogs) and snow-capped mountains, we even saw our first real trees. We rode out at a steady gallop, holding our mounts back to conserve energy (most horses want to bolt straight-away but this is a good way to burn up all your gas early) and we successfully held them in check for the first few kilometers. My stallion had beautiful gates. He had a rocking, western pleasure lope and his gallop was almost as smooth. Better yet he seemed to go faster when I sat down on him then when I stood up off his back, allowing me to rest my strained legs the entire way. His kind demeanor and lovely gaits put the name Roy Rogers in my head, as he seemed both a gentleman and a cowboy, and so my stallion was named.
As we navigated towards a small mountain pass, we found ourselves in a picturesque valley of tall wildflowers crowned with mountains on its edge. The only flaw in this ride is that my iPhone was safely stored in my backpack; I never got a single photograph of these horses or this amazing scenery! As our horses ran through the tall grasses and flowers Adam’s horse began to bolt and soon the two horses were giving it everything as we swept across the valley. Our motion disturbed what must have been a migrating flock of butterflies and we were caught in a rain of tiny white wings. I dropped my reins, stretched out my arms, threw my head back and laughed. I was galloping through a sea of white butterflies and purple wildflowers on a beautiful semi-wild buckskin stallion in the middle of nowhere, Mongolia. It is a moment I will keep forever. The rest of the journey went wonderfully, Adam’s horse, with no provocation at all, would randomly bolt forward from time to time and Roy would gamely gallop after him. This earned his horse the name “R. Bolt,” for Random Bolt. R. Bolt and Roy galloped and bolted for most of the leg and as we approached the last five kilometers we caught sight of the main group that had left before us. Reunited with Jade, the cavalry, and an assortment of other riders we made the final pass through the mountains with high spirits, completing the 42km ride as a group. We rode in with plans to all ride out together, as the next leg promised to be interesting. It certainly was.

 

Day 5, Station 13 to Station 14
Horse; “Sinbad,”

A dark storm was blowing in as the large group of derbyists attempted to ride out at the same time. The leg promised boggy and rocky ground and covered 39kms; we decided running it as a group would be beneficial, with all of our navigational powers combined…. it was an interesting theory that never exactly panned out. Adam and I found ourselves on two mismatched geldings; his a tall tawny git, and mine a tiny compact brown rocket. My horse had the air of a cartoon middle-eastern merchant. Sly, fat, the kind that sells you a magic lamp that never worked, the kind of personality conjured by the name “Sinbad.” Duplicitous and yet full of comic relief. I dubbed my gelding thus. Sinbad never flicked a malcontent ear nor let his eyes roll. He didn’t flinch when I got on him nor did he ever attempt to buck (at least until provoked later by Adam), but at the slightest mention of “Chu” he exploded in a frothing-at-the-mouth bit-grabbing bolt. He didn’t really believe in gaits below the canter, and he treated such slowness like a dirty word. The interesting part about this was that around twelve of us were all heading out to ride the same leg at the same pace, and we each had a horse with roughly the same policy as mine. I think that it is a miracle that we were even able to coordinate mounting and leaving at approximately the same time, and I think only two people were initially thrown at the station. Unfortunately not much more coordination was attempted. The approaching storm brought with it epic gales and riding side-by-side screaming was not enough to combat the sound of the whirling rain and wind. As we rode out our horses jigged and strained at their bits as we attempted to begin conservatively and coordinate a direction. Adam and I were barely holding on when Katja’s horse bolted. Then Jamie’s horse bolted, then Matthew’s, then Jade’s, then Anna’s, then Musse’s, then mine, then Adam’s, and soon twelve horses were sprinting up hills and in circles as we struggled to keep our group together. After much confusion and a few more bolting incidents that included the loss of a stirrup, a rider, and a horse, we allocated the correct path and hurtled down it full gallop. I remember my arms aching with the strain of holding Sinbad back and my eyes languished under the task of peering around my rain hood to keep an eye out for where Adam was. A few more kilometers in and suddenly we found ourselves slowing down for the bog moguls. A strange thing happens to mud in Mongolia as it dries. It forms itself into large rounded gumdrop shapes jutting up from the earth up to a foot in height. The mud caps then do their best to disguise themselves and become covered with a uniform carpet of mossy grass making entire stretches of valley look, from afar, like little green oases. They are basically earthen reincarnates of Winter Olympic snow mogul courses. And they really slow a horse down. Some mounts we had would refuse to do anything but walk when presented with moguls (and who could blame them?) while others expertly trotted, bouncing from one to the other in an impressive show of dexterity and athleticism. As the rain picked up, our mounts slowed, the bog we had just ridden into was pocked with giant squishy moguls and every attempt Sinbad made to trot them left him scrambling and slipping into deep mud. We all settled into a hurried walk. The wind and rain had picked up to a miserable pitch. Everything not covered by my rain shell or mudding shoes was soaked. Then the lightning started in on us. During our in-classroom orientation day the crew had informed us of exactly nine different ways we could die out on the steppe, due to lightning strikes, with little in the way of how to remedy such a demise. Lightning has always posed a slightly larger fear for me than is reasonable. I cringed as I watched the bolts blow ever closer to the edge of our bog. I urged Sinbad into a faltering trot, hoping to outrun the oncoming forks that split the sky to my far left. We bobbled out in front of everyone and Adam watched my determined bid with amusement, letting his own horse take its time over the moguls. I left the others in my wake; my sacrifice to the angered sky gods. Just as I began to laugh at the ridiculousness of our ordeal (I pulling away from the group like a turtle out-walking a herd of snails) a shattering scream split through the rain. To my far right I saw a rider going down into the muck, her horse up to it’s armpits in the bog, and sinking fast. It was Katja. Her cries for help were edged in terror and I instantly headed towards her, eager to help, my fear of the approaching lightning completely forgotten. Adam intersected me and yelled out, asking me what I was going to do. That was when I realized there was nothing I could do. I languished, fear and stress from how useless I really was coursed through me. We were in a bog, filled with patches of quicksand, with lightning headed straight for us. What was worse was Katja and her horse were rapidly sinking and we had nothing to pull her out with nor could we risk getting our own horses stuck in the same situation. It’s hard to be in a terrifying situation, but even harder to be rendered useless in it. We all began to yell to Katja to try and drag her horse out, as she had now dismounted and made it to solid ground. Through the rain I could just make out her horse’s head bobbing above the muck. A few tense minutes later her horse found purchase and hauled itself up out of the water and it looked as though Katja and her horse were alright. I let out a breath and began scrutinizing every step my horse took, wary for quicksand or bottomless patches of bog. The four of us closest together rode in a straight line, nose to tail, figuring it was the safest for the three behind the front rider and better than no precautions at all. It took us awhile but we finally traversed the rainswept bog and emerged on a muddy track. We learned that another rider had gone down as well, his horse all but crushing him into the water; he was thoroughly soaked that night at the ger. We regrouped right in front of Tsenkher Soum and rode through the derelict town. In the summer months nomadic herders that reside in Soums during the winter leave, so it looked like a ghost town. Brightly painted buildings dulled with the absence of human life. Scrappy dogs wheeling cautiously like ghosts disturbed long after the end of the world. The melancholy rain added to the effect and we rode in silent admiration of how remote a land we were in. As we came out on the far end of town, a large fairly well trafficked bridge presented itself. Touchy little Sinbad, quite happy to be on solid ‘runnable‘ ground, was now vying to take off once more. Every car he eyed gave an excuse to skitter wide and I struggled to hold him back on the concrete shoulder. As the sky and rain began to lighten and lift, so did our spirits. We found the correct dirt track after some discussion and were quickly thundering down it, all our horses eager to run again. As we galloped along steadily I leaned over and yelled “Chu!” to Adam’s horse and both our mounts exploded into a higher gear, whizzing to the front of the group and causing a chain reaction of bolting horses. We reveled in the speed, making up the time from the slow going of the bog. As we finally felt our horses slow we approached a ger, the entire family out to watch our passing, and the family began to yell “Chu! Chu!” I yipped with a mix of joy and trepidation as our mounts obligingly burst forward with renewed vigor. We rode the ensuing bolt for another kilometer or so before we could convince them to walk and catch their breath. Occasionally we would ride with one of the riders from our group (the different levels of energy each horse had left and the triumphant gallop once we’d reached the dirt track had left everyone well spread out across a few kilometers) and then Adam or I would no longer be able to resist the urge to “Chu!!” or smack the other’s horse on the rump with a lead rein, causing the other to be bolted off with. Sinbad bucked lightly with alarm when Adam did this to me once and I let him gallop down the track, my curses trailing behind me as I went; I imagine I was quite a sight to the watching Mongolians. As we came into the last few kilometers of our 39km leg, we decided to give our bolting horses a rest. Though appearing completely mismatched, the two had gamely raced alongside one another for most of the leg and I mentally thanked the previous herder for making the match. The plane we rode into was dotted with yaks and lined with a gorgeous snaking river, blue and purple mountains framed the edge making a remote and beautiful sight. The far off rain-clouds dotted the sky as the sun began to set and the sky ignited. With a full hour left of ride time we enjoyed slowly taking in the scenery. Jade and I stopped to water our horses and I even went out of my way to photograph a large shaggy yak, which bellowed at me in a curious manner. (Yak noises sound like a cross between a low dog growl and a cow lowing!) We rode into a large array of riders but no vets. One of the King’s Cavalry (the five boys from England) had his horse come up lame and the vets stationed at Urtuu 14 had gone out to meet him. Adam and I, having happily made it on time for once, were slightly off-put. We ended up waiting for about forty minutes, our clothes still drenched, so that the growing cold of night had us shaking by the time vet-checks were possible. After saying goodbye to our pair we rushed in to eat and, amongst several new riders, learned of the additional rider drop-outs with a touch of sadness. Some gear exchanges were made between the riders no longer planning to finish and the rest of us and Adam and I happily found a beer and a bottle of coke to lift our spirits. It had been a really long, but really good day.

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