1000km across Mongolia

I have travelled 1000km across the Mongolian Steppe on horseback. I have cried. I have laughed so hard that I nearly fell of my horse. I have been irritated, disappointed, angry. Tired, so very tired. I have been in awe of the landscape, the hospitality and care of the Mongolian people. I have been wet and cold. I have made new lifelong friends. I have longed for my family. I have been on an emotional roller coaster. And I have cried some more. I have been moulded by the Steppe of Mongolia……
Why did I do this? “At least part of the answer, I think, is that modern society has perfected the art of having nothing happen at all. There’s not anything particularly wrong with this, except that for large numbers of people, if life has become easy it has also become vaguely unfulfilling. Civilization is about eliminating as many unforeseen events as possible. But, as inviting as that seems, it leaves us hopelessly underutilized.” (Don Pinnock)
So I chose this adventure. (Adventura = what must happen). I could have chosen a safer trajectory, but didn’t.
And now I am sitting back in civilized Ulanbataar, sipping on probably the most expensive wine I will ever drink, staring at the spot where Bogd Khan should be in the mist. And I am trying to figure out if I am a slightly different person. The Steppe will know, I’m sure.

Checking it out

Right. Today was checking one another out and I actually like the way this city works day.
It was also the day of last good normal breakfast day (lots of “Boiled Eggs 10 min”, I am serious – that is what it is labeled). We had pre-race training day 1. Rout layout and explanation (maps handed out) GPS’s handed in for waypoint loading. And here I started to get a bit worried, as they have kept them overnight to recheck them. Mmmmmmm….. At least rout looks fairly straight forward if you paid attention today. Vet charts and Rider field handbook with even the Uurtu families at each stations name in (unpronounceable!) and latitude and longitude. Penalty system explained again, and I hope I never fall prey to that one. Medical team Dr talk – SO glad I am off duty!!
A very mixed bunch to say the least. From Thomas from Texas who is planning to ride alone and calls himself The Lone Ranger, Alexander from England whose luggage has STILL not arrived (he came via Berlin!?!?), Todd from Australia who is VERY difficult to understand, and thank goodness I am not the only galloping granny! Some riders have a few years on me. Some fiercely competitive (can be quite daunting so we are just avoiding them), but overall a great bunch of people.
Most of us were off to another night out. We organized a taxi as it was located on the other side of town, had a very interesting ride with driver not really knowing where he was supposed to go. All we heard constantly was lots of Mongolian jabber with the restaurant’s name coming up every second sentence. A few back up’s out of shortcuts that ended being more clogged up than the main road, lots of hooting, lots of driving in circles, but eventually we got there – with a stiff taxi fare to pay. Ah, Mongolia.
Again great Indian food (seems to be the safest and most popular) good beer, lots of jest, walking right through a construction site (Babes, Health and Safety would have had a field day) but the construction workers helped us over the danger tape and guided us nicely past the deep trenches. Hit the main road and started to hitch a taxi. And you really just flag anyone down. 20 seconds flat and we were on our way back to the hotel, got there super fast and paid a third of the previous taxi fare. The driver even offered us sweets. I ate mine, Barabara kept an eye on me to see if I had any adverse reaction and then had hers. This city really works well in it’s own way.
So tomorrow morning we are off to the steppe. This is for now my last blog. Hopefully my Mongolian phone will work from there, so check The Adventurists site for further news (Mongol Derby 2013). I have sent most of you the link.

COURAGE IS GRACE UNDER PRESSURE!!!

UB continued

Well, after we eventually got our buts out the front door of the Ramada, we only got as far as a Monastery around the corner, bailed out of paying entry fee, walked back and promptly ran out of steam, and found ourselves back in our room. Not good! But we did organize a trip to Ghenghis Khan’s 40m high statue for later the evening. The official tour to there was hectically expensive, and Ghanja (probably spelt VERY wrong) one of the receptionists offered to takes us herself and at the same time practice her english. How lucky can you get! And our taxi – her husband! And no, he is not a real taxi driver, he is a lawyer busy doing his “internship”. So off we went in real style.
Ghenghis Khan was not only big (meant history and not actual size) in real life, but no picture can do justice to this unbelievably huge statue. It is totally overwhelming. We were unfortunately too late to enter, so could not take the lift up into the horse’s neck, but could not complain as we still made daylight by a good margin. I will post a picture below.
We learned such an amount about such a lot of different facets of Mongolian life, that I will only be able to relate it as I remember.
We did see our first real squatter camp on our way to the Monastery, which IS just 800m from our hotel! And we are not in a crummy hotel or area by any measure! And our first homeless person, and people scratching in dustbins. Lots of friendly waveing children, and it is not strange to see young kids below the age of 10 to be selling goods. We encountered a very well dressed little girl outside the restaurant last night selling gum (chewing gum). The kids are incredibly mature for their age, having to bring income in very early in their lives.
Ordinary cleaners have to have a college or university qualification, be able to work a computer, be neat and not to ugly looking! (I’m serious!) Thus unemployment also very high.
Had a real taste of traffic in the back of the car. Everybody drives anywhere and anytime, no road markings out of town, in fact no road out of town. We had to travel 54km to the statue, on roads that you make yourself (a bit like cows and sheep) to negotiate around huge potholes. Once again felt very at home!
BUT we saw our first Mongolian ponies along the way!! My goodness, they look even smaller up close!! And our first rainbow. I think we are ready to ride now..image

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Welcome to Ulaanbator (the spelling changes daily) the city that never sleeps! Monde, Barbara and myself WALKED back from the restaurant, approx. 1km at 11.45 PM without any problems and never feeling unsafe. A good couple of people still in the street, lots of traffic and wet payments with lots of puddles after the afternoons thundershower. That had the streets turned into flash floods!
Earlier the afternoon, Barbara and myself went shopping for underwear and a jean and T-shirt as clean clothing. And a cheap cell phone. Three Mobicom stores, lots of sign language, and lots of walking I had an ancient Samsung and SIM card. The underwear a different story. Seems that no one wears socks in this town. Then large panties (which would be medium in South Africa) is anything but large, as I found out later. Needless to say I have already stuck my finger through the top elastic and now have a “large” and broken panty!! Clothing so hysterical we were in heaps laughing most of the time. And if you found something that might work it was hellish expensive.
But in our wanderings of the streets without sidewalks, lots of holes and manholes, we noticed a few things. The city was clean. The gardens were not kept. The people were friendly and helpful, even if they did not understand a thing you were asking. Barbara wanted to buy a pair of shoes, but adamantly the sales lady was trying to tell her they didn’t have her size, despite the size being right and we just wanted to know how much they cost. And this all in sign language, english and mongolian.
No toddlers, I think we saw two in strollers. A few Poor people sitting around and begging, sidewalk trade, really not much different if any from South Africa. The big difference – the clean city and nobody takes anything from anybody. It may be an old and disorganized city, but not a rat hole by any means!!
The new cell phone switched on and talked to me in Russian (not a turn on this time) and we could not find anybody this night who could read Russian and get the phone on English for me. So I had to fiddle with every option, in Russian until by miracle I recognized the word English. Voila, we were speaking to one another again!
So after an epic walking and try shopping day we were back in our old dirty clothing (we did shower beforehand) to go and take the town on.
Lovely draft beer at one place and then the best Hindu food I have had in my life! We were able to join some of the organizers, medical back up team, endurance guru Maggie, Richard Dunwoody then photographer. Had a super time withnthe crow.

Travelling NEVER boring

And so my travels have begun, and not without spurts of adrenalin and the long arms of Vodacom striking back. Online check-in, no problem. Booking in, no problem. Baggage weight 29kg, no problem but possibly very problematic in Beijing. Customs, no problem. Currency exchange, first problem!! They need proof of residence – inside customs! Print statement from their computer, but it only reflects PO Box address. No problem, will exchange in Dubai. So I arrive at Dubai airport, hand over my cash for exchange, next hitch! Half my cash still old R200 notes and they don’t accept them. OK, pay rest with card but now have to look after SA cash in UB! And Vodacom roaming – not on your life! So much for activating it…..
But the send off was great. Thanks Lani, Mariaan and Kobus! Had entertaining passenger next to me on flight, watched a crappy movie (don’t know why I finished it, I could have changed channels) and did not sleep at all. Going to catch up with me!
And now I am sitting next to an uncommunicative Chinese lady, with a moustach, (they are a weird lot), holding my pee in and working on a headache.
On the bright side, met up with fellow riders Barbs, Monde and vets Peter, Helen without the help of Vodacom. Unfortunately we are spread out all over the plane, so will have to catch up some more in Beijing. And they offered to spread my extra 9kg over baggage weight amongst them – might have to saw the saddle in half!!
So now I have the choice to either do acrobatics over or wake up my fellow pasenger. Welcome to Beijing!

8.55pm local time and it is now again dark outside the plane. My next door neighbour traveller actually has such a pretty smile and speaks English! Great opening for bugging her a few times to visit the loo or have a chat to Barbs 4 seats behind me. On the aircraft location map we are now just south of Ulanbaatar – can’t we just turn towards it? Still a 4 hour stop over at Beijing!!!!

Beijing – my goodness, customs was hectic. Extra forms to fill in, and the way they check you out to verify your passport wants to make you confess to something you haven’t done! The 9kg baggage over weight cleared itself out, as Barbs and my luggage were booked straight through. Never cross a bridge before you get there….

Kulula in disguise!! Small plane, small seats and a 1 hour and 50 min flight. We were now all floundering a bit on the energy side, I had not slept in nearly 2 days now. But one always reaches ones destination, albeit with a wee problem. The 9kg problem mushroomed into a our luggage did not arrive problem! But we were tired and really did not care much, so quite chipper we filled in more forms, described our luggage by way of a sort of luggage and color chart, organized a taxi through the customs guy and set off for our hotel. Ah, we were back in familiar territory. Potholes, dangerous swerving to avoid both traffic and potholes, shot suspension groaning at the onslaught. But here we were in UB, very old and very new mixed everywhere, a steering wheel covered with beads and a right hand drive car in the right side lane. Hotel room a very welcome sight – shower, breakfast and then bed for a short while. Need to do some shopping still this pm, oh and try to get our luggage.

Last day at home

It took me the whole day to pack the allowed 5kg – and a lot of staring at an empty case and various objects/clothing lying around it. Checked and rechecked baggage and hand luggage allowance. Emirates allow 30kg, Hunnu/Air Monglolia only 20kg. So back to the 5kg scenario.
But it is now done. What gets left behind, I surely will not need. And if I do, I will quickly learn to live without it. Traveling lite 101 course passed! As Kurt always says – He who travels lite, travels far…..
Thank you for all the well-wishes I received during the day. Your words will carry me through the difficult times. And as always to The Rhino Orphanage for their unwavering support and allowing me to ride under their name. We will have many more success stories to tell.
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Day 2

Somehow as I said “goodbye for now” to all at work, it felt like I was closing a chapter and standing at the brink of starting a new one. It is all still a bit surreal. During the next three weeks I will be making my own history. I will be testing myself. I will learn much more about horsemanship, forging new friendships, the hospitality of people that do not speak the same language as I. Possibly if not probably, I will be pissing someone off at some time, but I will be having the time of my life.
Mongolian Airlines/Hunnu Air – proud owners of 5 Aircraft and 2 on order. Boeing 737-800 and Boeing 767-300ER. So to all of you that were worried I would be taking turns to peddle the propellors, I will be sipping vodka on the flight from Beijing to Ulaanbataaar.
So tomorrow final packing, weighing and fitting. Then,for now, the last sleep in my own bed for a while, and lots of adrenalin pumping. Wish me luck, I will need loads of it!