At full gallop the world streams past as a blur of stone, sand and sky, stretching away from under my horse into the miles of empty steppe all around us two. The wind whips Kafka’s mane wildly across my stiffened hands – numb from the chill Mongolian air – as I try to keep control of the racing animal, excited senseless by our immanent return to camp. Then suddenly, and with a deepening sense of dread, I watch as my steed stumbles on a rock, throwing me forward and then violently backward, the horse rearing up in reaction to its own blunder. In one swift motion my feet leave the stirrups and I head legs-first towards the bare earth, rolling – dazed – in a thick cloud of dust and sand. The angle of the fall somehow carries me back onto my feet, just in time to see the galloping horse continue off into the distance; a solitary speck of movement in an otherwise still and empty land.
‘This will be your horse Jamie,’ Alpamys told me, thrusting the twisted sun-bleached reins into my outstretched hands, ‘and this will one will be yours Matt; they have no names.’
Admiring the animals under the strong Mongolian sun, I decided on a whim to nickname mine Kakfa, whilst my expedition partner Matthew Traver struck upon the name Larry for his horse. Alpamys – a Kazakh friend of an acquaintance and our quasi-guide for this expedition – then moved onto loading up the hard working packhorse that would carry our supplies for the upcoming 200 mile journey through the Western Mongolian province of Bayan-Ölgii.
Matt and I had come to the region to meet Alpamys in person, to ride with him, and to hopefully learn about looking after horses in the steppe, all in preparation for a 1700km horse-riding expedition the three of us we would undertake together next year. We had also come to meet, photograph, and ride with the province’s fabled eagle hunters who – in a thousand year old uninterrupted tradition – have made a living catching their prey using giant hand-reared Golden Eagles. Indeed, it had been no small task just to get to this starting point in the frontier border town of Ölgii; the pair of us having traversed a distance much greater than the length of the UK, offroad – over three days with three punctures and one near-disastrous incident of an airborne automobile flying down a hillside. After that, the notion of horseriding seemed positively tame by comparison.
‘Okay, okay! Let’s go!’ shouted Alpamys, his slight, mongoloid frame wrapped up tightly in hat, scarf and trenchcoat; protection against the bitter and approaching Central Asian winter. The air was hazy, the sky blue, as a huge landscape – so unlike the vistas of little England – began to unfold around us for miles in every direction. I haven’t been on a horse for years. Matt had never sat on one in his life, except for maybe once during a seaside pony ride in his distant youth. However between us, we’d still had enough sense to try and acquire at least some suitable riding equipment: jodhpurs, Mongolian riding boots and, oddly enough, a packet of apple flavoured horse-treats.
Luckily, Mongolian horses are famed not only for their hardy nature but also for their small stature and extremely placid, hard to spook demeanour, making me feel slightly less ashamed that I hadn’t packed the big and heavy riding helmet my mother had loaned me the week before I flew out of Gatwick. However the ground, covered as it was in the white bleached bones of deceased animals, did help remind us both that the outcome of suffering just a moderate injury this far from help would not be even slightly good. ‘So long as we don’t fall off all should be well,’ I’d reasoned naively.
We rode onwards through the steppe, the cloudless sky appearing almost purple under my expedition sunglasses. Matt filmed various goings on with a small wide-angle action camera, mounted atop his walking pole to form a homemade boom set-up. That night we stayed in a warm ger (a nomad’s tents), being offered cup after cup of heavily salted tea. After we had drunken our fill of the Dead Sea, a permanently-smiling Kazakh in his early thirties began to sharpen dulled knives.
Guessing what was about to happen when one of the older women brought the bleating sheep to the front door for our appraisal, we offered the man use of one of our razor-sharp Swedish bushcraft blades instead. Then, with a skill born from year upon year of experience, he dispatched the animal outside with a swift flick of the knife across its throat, proceeding onwards to skin, gut and butcher the entire carcass in just under an hour. That night we dug our hands into a communal pile of sheep meat and organs. Later, Matt listened to Alpamys riff away on a two-stringed dombra, whilst I watched through the ger’s only skylight as the world outside darkened to black with the encroaching night.
A biting wind funnelled over the mountain pass, barrelling its way right into the three of us, alone once more. I sat hunched, hiding underneath my new Arc’teryx windproof jacket; its high face-guard and hood keeping the chill at bay but also shutting me off from the outside world; cocooned in my own thoughts as I rocked back and forth with the horse’s rhythmic gait. Kafka however, was shiny with sweat from the steep ascent. It ran down his flanks in rivulets, mixing with the dust and dirt to form hard grey arrowheads at the tips of each hair. We made for a sightly pair; the overheating horse painted grey with sweat and the swaddled rider daydreaming from within the folds of his neon-coloured clothing.
Shadows were sweeping up the hillside by the time we came to set up camp. As they rose the watercourses nearby froze, the solid white channels snaking down the hillside in the direction of Altai; the town still a day’s ride away. Thankfully our floorless Nemo Pentalite tent took only minutes to erect and its ample room allowed us to get everything under cover before the night’s frost gripped hold too badly. However when I did wake that next morning, it was to find the top of my down-sleeping bag coated in thick ice from my the condensation of my breathing. I think we were both glad when we eventually reached the town that next afternoon, and I was even more excited by the prospect of finally meeting and riding with the eagle hunters I’d read so much about in the long months prior to departure.
The Golden Eagle soared skyward, leaving behind both its owner and I, stood forlornly on the cold and bleak mountaintop; the empty steppe stretched away from us for miles in all directions until the gentle curvature of snow-capped mountains blockaded a more distant horizon from view. I watched the eagle’s flight through my high-powered binoculars, its wings splayed beautifully against the white sky. Suddenly, a shout echoed up from Alpamys far below; a rabbit was racing across the scree and the eagle was already bearing down fast on it, the bird’s dark shadow streaming across the ground as it mercilessly closed in on its prey. With all of us looking through our lenses, we watched tensely as the plucky rabbit darted aside just as the talons were about to close tight, bolting down a warren and permanently out of the grasp of its frustrated pursuer.
A little disappointed, the hunters reclined back on their horses at the mountain’s crest, resplendently bedecked out in their traditional costumes, topped with red fox-fur hats. They posed like models, each framed on the skyline at different points of the hill. Alpamys’ father Dalaikhan was the highest up of the three, watching in kingly repose as his son struggled to get his father’s eagle onto an unsheathed arm; the bird’s talons causing our friend no small measure of pain, evident even at this distance. I took a swig from Matt’s Lifesaver Bottle – the untainted water tasting much better than the chemical cocktail my purification tablets created – and we had got back onto the horses ready for the next ride to the next mountain and the next hunt. Disappointingly for the eagle hunters, but quite happily for myself, we saw no further signs of prey; a lucky escape for the area’s animals, spared the ungracious terror of winged death swooping down upon them from on high
The horses were well rested and frisky. Our meeting with the eagle hunters had been all to brief for me, but we had to continue our ride back into the steppe. The three of us had been going for three long days already but it certainly didn’t show with Kafka.
’Such energy was something I had probably been unwise in encouraging,’ I pondered to myself, gingerly prodding at an already swelling ankle, my horse still cantering away from the spot it had deposited me at so ungracefully just moments before.
‘Are you all right?’ I heard from behind, as Matt approached on Larry, ’Where’s the camera?! Is it okay?!’ he added lividly before I could even muster a reply. I handed him the action camera, feeling very stupid; the display was covered in coloured lines, the casing scratched to pieces.
‘Great it doesn’t turn back on, it’s broken.’ he muttered petulantly. ‘No, wait! This might be okay, God, man you should have had this strapped somewhere.’ ‘Priorities mate,’ I retorted irritably, but we were spared a blazing row by the distracting sight of Alpamys’ distant figure at camp jumping bareback onto his horse before proceeding to easily round up my wayward ride, still cantering haphazardly around the plains.
We’d pushed our horses as close to the remote Chinese border as we thought prudent and the weather had obligingly turned from bad to worse. The cold was bitter for two days straight, even wrapped up as I had been in Brynje base-layers, micro-fleece, AlpKit down gilet, a Berghaus down jacket and my Arc’teryx windstopper. Sitting atop a horse, not moving, in conditions dropping below -12°C, felt in my mind akin to conducting a weekend’s scantily clad sunbathing break atop Scarfell Pike mid-winter. I came down with a fever and as we pushed the horses across a series deep-flowing ice-laden rivers, I felt so weakened that I was ready to just slide right off the saddle if it meant a decent rest. I asked Matt to lash me to the pommel, only half in jest.
That night, driven by an overwhelming feeling of suffocation, I stumbled out of the people-filled ger we’d been forced to stop at; gulping down lungfuls of the burning midnight air. It was snowing heavily but without a breath of wind. Snowflakes landed gently onto my flushed face, making it seem as if I were a character in an old black and white Christmas movie. Not far away, I could hear the rustling movement of our horses, hooves crunching on the crisp white ground, as a brilliant moon suddenly lit up from between parted clouds the magnificent landscape all around for me to see.
Drinking everything in – and all too aware of the short few days we had left on this ride – I was once again struck by how lucky we had been to come to this place where borders meet. From that very spot, right under my tottering feet, the steppe stretched away, limitless in every sense. To my feverish mind it seemed to go on forever, to the very edge of the earth and back. It held all the adventures we’d come through and yet, still hid those that were soon to happen. We’d learnt here a lot of what we needed to know about horse riding in the steppe. The proper test would now come in a few months’ time, when we set out for real.
To be continued…
Text by Jamie Maddison