Day 6

Day 6, Urtuu 14 to Urtuu 15
Horse; “Tugboat”

Day six dawned with the promise of a rickety bridge. We had heard legend of this bridge (that was compulsory to cross after a few derby riders barely made it across the river a few years previous) and I was not looking forward to navigating its rotting boards. What we didn’t know was that a mere month ago, a brand new bridge had been built within eyesight of this bridge, and though our directions made no mention of it (since it wasn’t up and running when they were written) it was the option we probably should have taken. To even out my trepidation of the bridge crossing was the prospect of being able to stop in the Soum on the other side of it. We had brought a little money and along with the bank of Sam Jones at start camp, I had a fair amount of capital to invest in sugar. Adam and I spent most of the ride planning how we would pool our money and what kind of sinful calories we could buy with it. Chocolate and pop were among the winners. Especially after my lack of breakfast. Finally regaining my appetite that morning I was ecstatic to see what I thought was rice with raisins for breakfast. Jade shared in my excitement and the two of us waited hopefully as bowls were doled out. (Jade had a particularly rough time with the food as she was previously a vegetarian until she began preparing for the derby). I took a wistful bite and immediately realized I had been sorely mistaken. The rice bowl was in fact filled with tiny nuggets of goat, not sweet sugared raisins. After my second bite I offered up my bowl to Adam, who was on his second or third bowl at this point (if Adam could have ridden at the speed he ate, he would have won the derby) and declined to eat more. Jade also tried to push her food on Adam, none of us wanting to look rude in front of the herders, but I think her rice magically made it to one of the dogs without anyone being the wiser. The majority of derbyists that had ridden together the previous day planned on riding out together again that morning. Adam and I deciding to stick with them again until it made sense to do otherwise. This plan sort of shattered a few kilometers down the nearest dirt track when we finally let our horses have a gallop. Jade’s horse took off with her and one of the cavalry boys went along as well. They quickly became dots on the horizon. We didn’t see either of them for the rest of the day. I believe we rode most of the leg in the company of Simon and Matthew and we enjoyed a good chat as we made our way to the dilapidated bridge. The little horse I was on was small, brown, solid and firm in his belief that he should bring up the back of the pack. Adam’s tall gelding usually took the lead in our small group so the fantasizing about the food we were going to purchase didn’t get too out of hand (we were too far apart to converse).
My horse meandered along behind everyone as though attached to a string. Preferring to trot until he absolutely had to canter to keep up, much like a string was tugging him along. “Tugboat” became his name. In retrospect it is probably good that I was brining up the rear; it allowed me little time to take a good look at the bridge when we finally arrived at it’s rotted foot, and by the time I started to protest the first riders were already picking their way around the holes to cross it. Tugboat was determined to follow. A few horses balked, and I didn’t blame them but Tugboat shouldered past (completely on his own accord; I was certainly not encouraging him) and hopped across the first hole that showed a swiftly moving river some 20 feet below. Adam, never properly afraid of anything, rode steadily forward making comments about how lovely the bridge was while I all but cried. Now, when you see the photo I have to accompany this story let me explain; this does not do it justice! The photo I have was stolen from derby riders during the 2013 Mongol Derby (Chloe and Kristen I think) and let me tell you, one siberian winter later and no need for repairs (since there was a perfectly good bridge made of concrete just down the way) made the wooden monster look like something out of a horror movie. I don’t think we should have really subjected it to the weight of one rider, let alone the small horde of us. There are about ten new pits and fifty or so more rotted boards that this picture does not depict; I imagine right now, after another siberian winter, this bridge may actually no longer exist (lucky 2015 riders and their new bridge…). As we approached I closed my eyes and let Tugboat hopscotch from solid un-rotted patch to rickety unbroken plank until we were mercifully over in one piece. I felt like dismounting and kissing the ground.
The Soum was a welcome sight. I felt our reward was well earned and after some confusion about which store was open we all stopped and tied-up our mounts to the gates and hitching posts outside. We descended on the poor women tending shop like a pack of wild dogs. Adam and I did our best to spend all our money and were the last to leave as we stuffed candy into every open and available slot in our bags and saddle pouches. The rest of the ride was spent happily trading different bits of candy back and forth.

 

Day 6, Station 15 to Station 16
Horse; “Dunderbolt”

After a chilly morning the heat of this leg at first seemed welcome. Adam and I got to the horse line last once again, but this time the strategy did not work. I quickly charged my horse with the name “Dunderbolt,” though I often referred to him in less kind ways. If he hadn’t been riding out in the group, he probably would have never moved. Luckily I was feeling good and fueled by copious amounts of sugar from our previous Soum-raid and I was able to vehemently urge him forward. This leg was beautiful but between the constant battles with my horse and the heat… I was quickly drained. We rode with a canal of sorts on our left and jagged hills on our right, the heat of the day making the sky blue and cloudless. Eventually our group thinned and separated, our horses slowed. As Adam’s horse left mine behind, Dunderbolt stopped, refusing to move forward. I gave him a solid whack with the lead rein and he bucked in protest. I smacked him harder; he bucked harder. I kicked and yelled “Chu!” and Dunderbolt bucked again. Exasperated I whipped open the zipper on my saddle’s front pouch (an act that usually got horses either bolting or bucking) and he jumped forward with alarm. We chugged along, both Adam and I now playing our zippers like musical instruments. When the fear of our zippers wore off and the horses began to slow again we started making as many strange noises as we could; anything from imitations of Donald Duck to screeching to clapping loudly. We cajoled our mounts until the last kilometer when both our energy and the horses’ had been spent.
A few kilometers previous we had encountered Roisin, walking dutifully beside her horse in the heat, her saddle in the opposite hand. Her horse had given out due to a girth sore and she was kindly carrying the saddle for him. I wanted to offer to carry the saddle for her but the sight of a human on the ground had been so psychologically upsetting to Dunderbolt we had barely had time to wish Roisin luck getting to the next station before he was shying away with renewed energy. So when Adam and Jamie decided to dismount and walk beside their horses for the last kilometer, I was nervous about how Dunderbolt would feel. Of the thirty plus horses I rode in Mongolia, he was the only one who I really felt wished me dead for the entire ride (and perhaps, at key moments, I him). I had made him exercise, and I had done it on one of the hottest days of the year. We were not friends. I made a hasty dismount and ungracefully bumbled to the ground as he flung himself away from me. I held onto the lead rein for dear life, hoping he didn’t take off. After a struggle in which he rocketed back about forty feet down the road away from me, I finally convinced him to go forward (mostly by getting a bit behind him and smacking him while he kicked at me). After a more intense “conversation” between us, Dunderbolt and I arrived at the agreement that I would walk five feet ahead of him (as far as the lead rein would allow) and he would walk behind me only because it promised our separation at the next horse station. He was my least favorite of the derby, and really only because he was slow and stubborn; I was beginning to really miss the crazy bolters and buckers….

 

Day 6, Station 16 to Station 17
Horse(s); “Muffin,” and “F***tard”

This was another epic leg. I must preface this account by saying that even though Adam playfully christened his mount “F***tard,” he still holds a special place for that crazy rocket. The horse took him across the valley at unmatched speeds surrounded by ancient bronze-age deerstones most tourists will never lay eyes on.

The heat of the previous leg had all of us out of water and a bit cranky. The line was sparsely populated with horses and we scrambled to pick out the best options as we knew the next leg was supposed to be tough. The mountain pass was said to be rough and the leg was fairly long for such a trying ride. The directions read “this is a real monster and needs careful riding, rocky ground, sharp switchbacks.” Adam went and filled up our water while I scoured the horses that were available. I kept picking horses and being refused by the only herder available. He was very old and seemed determined to pick horses out for us. The big paint that had been thrashing around on the line and I had tried to get for myself was allocated to Adam and the other like him was given to James Douglas Mitchell. I got stuck with a tired little appaloosa. Adam and I often found that the herders tried to give him the harder horse, supposing that riding skill was directly associated with gender. Sometimes we would pick out one another’s horses and I would pretend my tack was Adam’s to get a better horse.

The little appaloosa stood still on the line. I scrutinized his gangly limbs and tired eyes and felt fairly certain he would never keep up with Adam’s horse. As my horse was saddled without my approval I did what I could to get a replacement. By then, everyone had taken what was left and I decided to go with my antiquated appy. I hoped his steadfastness would translate to a slow but safe ride over the pass and that somehow Adam and I would stick together. As Adam’s horse circled wildly, muscles twitching, we made a plan. If Adam’s horse took off bolting, which looked in high probability, he would wait for me to catch up. We rode out at the same time as the four remaining cavalry riders. Adam’s horse frothed at his bit, determined to get going. He was immediately off while Simon Lukas, Matthew Pearce, Jamie, Andy Mobey, and I gamely trotted behind, watching him disappear into a dot on the horizon. Adam’s horse seemed to only have two gears, full blast and stop and stand. Everytime we would get within range of the paint gelding, he would rocket off again at a break-neck speed down the valley. The five of us trotted and cantered at leisure keeping watch on Adam’s dot as he paced waiting for us. We were trying to conserve their energy to tackle the mountain. None of our horses seemed too wild and so 17 kilometers in we let them run a little. Chaos ensued. As we descended a small ridge full gallop, riding five abreast, one of the horse’s slipped and horses exploded up, down and sideways. I lost a stirrup and held on as my horse wheeled a hard left. When I pulled him up two riders were on the ground and two horses rocketed back the way we had come. A third rider gave chase and Jamie and I sat astride our horses checking to see if the two fallen riders, now getting to their feet, were all right. I looked ahead, concerned at what Adam’s crazy horse (he had sinced dubbed him “F***tard”) would do when he saw two horses galloping back home pell-mell. My worst fears were confirmed. His horse was streaking down the steppe after the two loose horses. I tried to push my shaggy little pony on in pursuit but after a sad stretch of gallop I pulled up, realizing how slow and useless he was; I would never catch up with Adam or the runaway horses.

At urging from the rest of the guard Jamie was told to ride on but he was just as reluctant to leave the others as I was to leave Adam. Had Adam’s horse run off with him? Was he halfway back to the station already? Would he be able to turn his horse around? Other riders were now coming up the valley towards us and I rode out to them, hoping they would know what was going on. Two of them didn’t and then I rode up to James. He told me that Adam had thought I had been one of the riders who had fallen and was chasing after the horses of his own accord. I worried aloud about what to do. Would it be too late by the time Adam figured out that neither horse was mine and that I remained kilometers ahead without him? James pointed at the low-hanging sun and advised me to keep moving. I reckoned that if Adam had gone back to the previous station my best chance was to ride on now with James rather than go alone but I couldn’t leave my teammate. I stared down the empty valley and whispered a prayer over and over. “Please come back please come back please come back!” I was about to start riding back when I saw a derby vehicle. I didn’t know what the right decision was. I didn’t know where Adam was. I wished for the first time that I had a cell phone! How great would it be to just be able to call or text Adam! But I couldn’t. I had to decide what to do without knowing what he was doing and without much data to go on. I sprinted towards the vehicle and they asked if I was alright. I think I looked pretty panicked and I begged them to tell me where Adam was. He’s coming up the valley right now they told me, then they urged me to get going.

Someone joked about wolves being out around there after dark but when that only made my eyes widen they just kindly prodded me to keep moving. I squinted down the valley as the vehicle pulled away and picked up the horseless riders. Jamie rode up next to me and said he wanted to get riding. I made him wait. I could see Adam coming towards us, F***tard barrelling across the uneven ground. I rode out to meet him gleefully and he told me he had thought it was me who had fallen off and he had tried to catch the horses. We rejoiced in our reunion and the three of us set out, about half the leg left ahead of us. Our renewed happiness was short lived. Perhaps not even a kilometer along Adam’s horse began to shut down. His uncontrollable bolting had caught up with him and his tank was on empty. I rode up behind him and slapped F***tard on the butt, hauled him along by his lead-rein like a towing service but to no avail. It was clear the horse could not finish the leg. He was heaving heavily and we could barely get him to walk. We paused, trying to make a good decision for the horse, and Adam was forced to hit his SOS button on the spot-tracker. F***tard was finished. Adam would not be able to finish this leg. Another painstaking moment; I had to ride on without Adam, just after having found him! Thankfully it was the last leg of the day and Adam would probably be driven forward with the crew so we planned to meet up at Station 17. I looked back over my shoulder as Jamie Griffiths and I trotted away, hoping it wasn’t the last time I would see my teammate, because in the Derby, you never know.

We made it about another five kilometers before we were all but beating our horses forward. Their heads drooped and steps faltered in the failing light and I knew we wouldn’t finish the leg in time. Jamie pulled up. He told me he wasn’t going to make his horse go any further and he wasn’t spending the night in the mountains. I grappled with what to do. Muffin (my tired appy) was breathing hard and I couldn’t imagine the two of us would get far. I contemplated continuing on alone and camping alone but I didn’t think my horse would settle well without another horse and with me and some wolves. I tested him and asked him to trot on but all I got was a stumbling walk; he wasn’t going any further. I shook my head. None of the horses we had gotten were fit enough for the ride. I hung my head as I admitted defeat and we hit the SOS on one of our spot trackers. I realized that my own determination to ride every leg wasn’t as important as my horse’s well-being and it was one of the hardest calls I’ve had to make in honor of doing ‘the right thing.’ We pulled our saddles from the horses and twenty minutes passed before the derby vehicle rolled up. We told them the state of our horses and they told us to ride back to Adam so we re-saddled and set off in the shadowy evening. Our horses were exhausted but the short break bought us some trotting. As if to solidify my choice a verse of wolf-song caught my ear and I felt glad I would not be camping out alone between Stations 16 and 17 that night. By the time we found Adam he was sitting on the side of the road with a beer and F***tard was completely out of it. Anna Bowker, a Derby veternarian, assessed Adam’s horse quickly and it was determined he needed an IV. He was quickly hooked up and Jamie and I waited as the crew tried to figure out what to do with the three spent horses. After a lot of discussion and negotiation we left Muffin, F***tard, and Jamie’s mount with a nearby herder who would hold them for the Station 16 herder overnight. By this time it was 11pm and we were all shivering as the temperature neared freezing. Station 16 was out of viable horses and it made no sense to continue on tomorrow on horses that couldn’t make the first half of the leg as it was, so we begrudgingly had to accept a carry-forward. We were out of options.

I should have been more upset but at the moment I was really glad that Adam and I hadn’t gotten separated. I had only three goals, and us finishing together was one of them. As we josseled around in the van, laughing and joking that night, I was happy I had done the right thing in loo of doing what I had wanted and I felt karma had come around when a delicious bowl of goat dumplings was put out for us late that evening. Station 17 knew how to feed us! The family had stayed up late to take care of us and one woman kept refilling our giant bowl of dumplings, happy at how much we were enjoying her cooking! (Most of the women that fed us absolutely loved Adam; he devoured their cooking like a wild animal and I think they were entertained with how much he ate!) That night, we all made the woman happy. We ate our weights in goat meat and passed out, full, warm, and exhausted!

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