We eventually park up, in a place that the wild horses are known to congregate, at a certain time of day. A small river lies to the side of us, and this is where the horses come to drink. So we sit, and we wait, and we sit and we wait, for what seems like and probably is hours. Another minivan, containing a Spanish family (or were they French)?, pulls up alongside us to endure our misery. Let me further describe the scene. It's getting late, we're getting hungry, the weather is getting wet, the mosquitoes are getting abundant, Saskia is getting more irritating, Danielle is getting more irritated, the horses are getting more invisible and Gerrard, who remember is essentially deaf and blind, plus 85 years old, is getting increasingly more concerned that the organisation of the trip is not that great. Thus proving that although he is not in full control of all his senses, his sense of smell is strong enough to smell the truth, "Le organ iz ation, c'est terrible", he mumbles to himself and anybody else who, may or may not be listening. My own role in this scene, is one of observer.
Eventually after many false alarms, many mosquito bites and many conversations between the driver and the guide, the decision to continue the journey is made.
With images of Gerrard's appendage firmly etched in my mind forever, we leave the double rainbow, poisonous plants and invisible horses behind as we bump our way along an ever increasingly hostile terrain. Our driver once again instils us with the confidence of a sheep, at pub closing time, in a small Welsh village on St David's day. As he hits every bump, pothole and puddle that he is confronted with, as well as ones that he isn't. And all the while he sings along with the radio, to Mongolian folk songs about legend horses that won the Naadam competition for 20 years running. Suddenly the music stops and the void of silence is filled by the neighing of a horse, who I can only presume is either impersonating or actually is the legend himself. Which in turn brings a tear to the drivers eye and a lump to his throat, in a manner that a Churchill, Kennedy or Hitler speech would to patrons of their respective countries.
The Naadam by the way, is kind of like the Mongolian Olympics, which take place every summer and is watched in some context by every Mongolian citizen in the country. It has existed for 5 centuries, but now formally commemorates the 1921 revolution when Mongolia declared itself a free country. The event is split into 3 sections, horse riding (the songs of which bring minivan drivers to tears), wrestling (where the men throw each other around, attired in gay little outfits) and archery (where men and women try to knock balls of wool (surs) off a wall). It all sounds kind of retarded to me, but they enjoy themselves, god bless them and there's little else in the form of entertainment in Mongolia, I guess. The main Naadam is held in Ulan Bator, but it seems like there is one in every city, town and village these days. At first I am upset that I have missed the Naadam. By the end of the trip, after being invited to one in every place we go, I'm glad I never went.
It's getting late now and the driver does not seem to have a clue where he is going. From listening to the banter between the driver and the guide (which I can't work out whether is hostile or friendly), they seem to be playing for time. We have been given news that one more Spanish girl will be arriving tomorrow, although our guide can't elaborate any further on this. Then there's the ever increasing threat that the fuel could run out at any given second, since we were earlier, unable to fill up the tank. The skies are once more darkening, down to the impending thunder storm rather than the late hour. The mood of the van is also darkening, as our hunger and anxiety increases.
To our delight, we spot a ger camp on the distant horizon and we head towards it. The mood immediately brightens as we draw to a halt. The guide gets out, disappears into one of the gers and then returns. We are told that this is where we will be staying for the night, a message of which I relay to Gerrard by shouting into his ear. He replies with his usual "C'est bon". He is obviously dying to get stuck into his vintage Chateux 2007, red wine.
The ger camp is small and cute. It is essentially 2 big round tents (gers). Our ger houses 6 beds which surround the inner perimeter and rest on a wooden floor. A lattice frame work forms the body of the ger and support the long roof poles which come together in the middle. Layers of felt surround the lattice and this is covered in white cotton. It is all held together with several ropes. In the middle of the ger is a stove, with a flue rising up through a hole in the ceiling. Two support poles come down into the ger and make for a nice place to hang stuff. Our guide explains that there is a ritual about which way you should walk around these poles although I am not paying attention when she tells us and I am consequently too scared to go near them for the rest of the trip, in case I cause offence. The door of the ger, always faces South (which begs the question -why could I never find it)?, is a flap which you can tie back during the day, like a regular tent. The whole construction is erected with portability in mind and can be assembled/disassembled and put on to the back of a truck within an hour.
Our arrival could not have been timed better. Light raindrops start to fall as we move our bags into the ger. Once inside, our guide immediately starts to prepare dinner, but we are too filled with curiousity to help, much to her disdain. Historically. Mongolian women have been known for their servitude. Unlike many countries, this attitude has not dissolved over the years, although our guide is an exception to this rule. Her feisty attitude has been intensifying throughout the day, and is clearly visible in her facial contortions as she peels the vegetables. The focus of her hostility, is aimed at the driver, who she clearly does not like, "He lazy, he don't do nothing, but drive the van", she spits out. I follow her gaze as she flashes a sideways glance at the driver. I am rewarded by a view of his enormous belly, which hangs over his large, leather weight lifting belt. This seems to be the vogue in Mongolia. My eyes work my way up, over the contours of his midriff, past his blue vest (which he wears for the next 10 days), until I stare him in the eyes. His eyes, reveal nothing but stupidity and idleness, which is a pity because they are strikingly turquoise and are wasted on the rest of him. He looks back at me, probably thinking that I am going to offer him vodka. He does not seem to realise that I do not have a death wish. The roads are treacherous enough, without the introduction of hard liquor the night before a long journey.
Like kids arriving at a theme park, Danielle, Saskia and I run off to explore the terrain. In the distance, forks of lightning illuminate the whole landscape, followed by deafening, hollow cracks of thunder. At this point, I am unsure whether day is becoming night or it's just a result of the storm. We are only on day one of the trip, but time seems irrelevant. Danielle, takes my camera and tries to capture the moment in a photo. She gets some good shots, but it is impossible to capture anything beyond a slight feeling of what we are actually experiencing. Turn around in any direction and the vast emptiness of the place is overwhelming. Literally, nothing for mile upon mile, yet strangely beautiful and awe inspiring. The greeness of the the landscape, like no other green that I have have experienced.
The owner of the camp, it turns out is a lady in her mid 70s, although her youthfulness belies her age. Unbelievably she lives here alone, he husband deceased and her sons living on different camps with their families. She does not seem too bothered by this, nor by the fact that total strangers just turn up on her doorstep, early one evening and ask if they can stay in her home. When we ask if we can take a photo with her, she dissappears into her ger and re-emerges in a change of clothes and a coat of makeup on her face. Although, she lives alone, literally in the middle of nowhere, she is fiercely proud and wants to look her best.
The moment digitally captured for the Facebook generation to view for ever and eternity, the old lady jumps on her small Mongolian horse, with the agility of an Olympic gymnast. Our posse stand and stare as she rises in the stirrups and flies across the landscape at a breakneck pace. The horses little legs animated in an almost comic fashion, as they move ten to the dozen. What an image! A beautifully illuminated mountainous backdrop, colliding with a perfectly moody sky and as luscious a green foreground that anybody could ever wish to experience. My mind is perfectly charged by a fantastic blend of the surrealism of the environment and excitement of the situation. I stand in awe, as the old lady's silhouette flashes back and forth across the horizon, as she rounds up her cattle.
Our guide, summons us to dinner in a visibly hostile manner. It is clear to me (and evidently her), that she has been born the wrong gender in the wrong country. As we sit and eat our bland mix of pasta and rice, the guide shows no hesitation in letting us know how much she has toiled in the preparation of it, whilst the "lazy fat pig" plays with his belly and waits. I am assuming that she is telling the "lazy fat pig", a similar story about us. It would also not surprise me if she has spat on our meal. I even momentarily consider the idea of spitting on it myself to add some urgently needed condiment.
By the time our carbohydrate dinner has been consumed, the rain is pelting against the side of the tent and the whole landscape has been eaten by darkness. There is nothing left to do but retire to our narrow ger bed. We assume that the guide will sleep in the van with the driver, but she is having none of it. She would seemingly rather sleep with the horses. Stupidly, rather than gallantly, I offer her my bed. A gesture which she pounces on, and one that I am left to regret all night, as my hips dig into the hard floor, a mouse darts over my aching torso and my ears are tortured by a combination of the guides comfy noises and gerrard's musical anus.