Perils of Polly: 'Giddyup' not necessarily in the vocabulary

Posted: Friday, October 29, 2010

Editor's note: Polly Crawford was a reporter and associate editor of The Peninsula Clarion from 1985-1988, when she wrote "Perils of Polly." She also wrote a series of "Peril" columns in 1998 about her Australian adventures. Although she is now a teacher at Soldotna Middle School, the perils continue as she just returned from an around-the-world journey that started in Russia and ended in Tibet.

Photo Courtesy Polly Crawford
Photo Courtesy Polly Crawford
Polly Crawford and her hosts break for dinner in Mongolia. The shadow in the foreground belongs to Polly's sister Sue.

Horse training is definitely not overrated. It's wonderful to have a horse respond to leg cues, give to the bit, and read your butt muscles. It's wonderful to have a horse that actually appears to like you, and doesn't want to bite, kick, or freak out at your ground movements. That does NOT describe a Mongolian horse. But it's all part of the experience.

We woke up to the sounds of the cuckoo bird the first camping morning on our trek, and discovered Kishigee was still in bed -- which we didn't find unusual as they all had a tendency to sleep late. But this morning he had a reason: Sue's horse had decided that home was better than this mountaintop, and had broken his halter and headed home. Kishigee had spent all night

riding back to the ger, catching him, and bringing him back. From then on, Sue called her nameless horse Houdini.

That meant the horses were tired, too. Today, Baigalmaa was our guide. We soon found out that not only did she not like to run, she didn't like us running, either, probably because it made her horse want to run, too. It was soon not an issue. Within the first half hour, we couldn't get our horses to move beyond a walk. Plus, it seemed that Baigalmaa chose the steepest hills to climb instead of keeping to the easier lowlands. We didn't protest, but Houdini did. On a steep hill we were traversing, he suddenly decided he'd had enough and lay down. Sue, an agile 62-year-old, sprang off. Baigalmaa and I, riding ahead of her, looked back in shock, but then began to laugh hysterically.

Sue was beginning to have her share of problems in other areas. I had begun this trip with a good Alaskan tan from the only sunshine we had the whole summer, so the Mongolian sun didn't bother me. Sue's Oregon sun had stayed hidden during the end of May and early June, so now her lips and arms were beginning to burn. Not one for sunscreen, she put on long sleeves, but her lips really began to bother her. Of course, lots of water would have helped, but we were still on the conservation mode, calculating that we really didn't have enough water with five people drinking it.

Our campsite that night was a sloping meadow in some sparse pine trees. No place to sit except on the ground. No level spot for a tent. We breathed deep. Chuduruu had said last night -- or at least we thought he had said -- that tonight's campsite was going to be much better than last night's. We finally sat them down and communicated through gestures, some words, and some written words, that it felt like we were just wandering in circles, and that there was no real plan. It didn't look like the trip we had been e-mailed. They assured us it was, and that it had all been planned out by the owner.

The next morning, they communicated that we had to ride pretty hard because it was going to be a long day -- at least that was Sue's take on the "conversation." Baigalmaa was again our guide. Sue and I were ready to run, and our horses had more energy than they did the previous day. Again, Baigalmaa didn't want to, but Sue and I did anyway, pulling up and waiting for her when we didn't know where we were going. An hour and a half later we spotted the yellow car. An early lunch, we thought. It was a nice spot -- flat and next to a river, near a famous landmark, Tiger Rock.

But no, it was not an early lunch, we were told. It was our campspot. But -- Sue and I sputtered to ourselves -- what about the long day of riding?

They hobbled our horses, and we prepared for a long afternoon in the sun. At least there was a river, and across the river were some trees for our "secret places." We headed off across the river, about 1 1/2 feet deep, to explore and find the source of some drums we were hearing, and discovered a shaman troupe with a string around their camp about a foot off the ground. No one was allowed across that string, apparently for some spiritual reason. Again -- lack of communication. On the way back, all but Sue jumped into a water hole that looked like it had fairly clean water and we had a great time splashing and riding the "waterfall."

As Kishigee prepared dinner, a small bus pulled up to the river about 150 yards away, and we watched about 20 young people, four adults, and a sheep pile out. "Mmmm. Dinner," Sue remarked. Sure enough. As I watched through binoculars, the kids all went in search of dung for the fire, and the sheep was quickly dispatched and butchered with all meat placed in a giant canister that looked like old-fashioned milk can. They dug a pit, built a huge fire with dung and branches they gathered from across the river, and put the canister into it. They returned three hours later for dinner. Then they had what looked like a free-for-all Mongolian wrestling match. It was fascinating, and worth ending the horse riding early. Baigalmaa explained the dinner procedures, somehow saying that they put garbage into the canister. We had a great laugh over this! Language can be hilarious.

The next day our horses were raring to go. We wanted a video, and mine obliged, taking off like a streak. We basically ran most of this day with Kishigee as guide, splashing through buttercup swamps and avoiding the hills until he couldn't find the little yellow car and started to get hungry. We turned our horses up toward the hills, and they slowed down like they had been handed 300-pound weights to carry. At this point, I realized we had been pointed toward their home, and now were not.

It was exceptionally hot, and when we finally found the car, Sue and I took an entire liter of water, hid on the other side of the car and the two of us downed it. We were bordering on dehydration. Then we discovered what we expected would happen: no more bottled water. Oh oh.

We headed back toward the flat marshes and soon things began to look familiar. That was our ger! But wasn't this supposed to be a four-day trek? Sue was grateful, sunburned, thirsty, tired of the riding and the hard ground, dreaming of hot fudge sundaes. That would still be a ways off.

Keep following Polly's adventure on the Clarion Recreation page.

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