The Altai or don't worry, OK, little worry

Maybe I’m projecting rather than understanding, but Argamak has a personality a lot like mine. Oh so very eager to run. But, frustratingly, never going where directed.

I wasn’t about to win any fair race against Dalai Khan Alpamys (Alpy) and his no-name horse. But the Kazakh eagle hunter, son of the legendary Dalai Khan, would continue to humor me. He’s a stout man of thirty whose resemblance to Chinggis (Genghis) Khan is uncanny to the point where one of the many names he goes by is Chinggis. That has to be a power move.

Our advantage lies in being light and sprightly. At five years, youth supplies the brown gelding indomitable energy but certainly not the foresight of maturity. Argamak thunders up rubble hills and through boulder fields. Evidently, Argamak doesn’t seem aware of what he’s doing. And if he does, he’s not fazed one bit. I’m fearful that a misstep could result in snapping a leg; he would immediately be turned into mori mokh (horse meat). Alpy, practically born on horseback, waves a wooden switch with his non-dominant hand that often doubles as a perch for his golden eagle. The fur cap on his head does not bob one bit, perfectly linear even when plowing forward at full gallop.

It doesn’t take long for my competition to leave me in the dust. It’s okay though, because I’m still way faster than my Australian friends Brad and Haydn. This approach to enduring despite myself might be my most American quality.

Alpy shakes his head. “No, Argamak too weak for long riding.”

He will set out to catch a stronger horse from his herd tomorrow. Having grown attached, I insist on taking Argamak. But, no amount of pleading changes Alpy’s mind. He claims the new horse will be much better than Argamak.

He says, “New horse way faster.”

Alpy turns away, but I catch him wearing a sly smile. In typical Mongolian fashion, he offers no more explanation.

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The blue (silver) horse that arrives the next day is one of Dalai Khan’s own. He is the most beautiful horse any of us have ever seen. It is obvious in the way he carries himself that he is made of the stuff of legends and storied like the hardened ethnically Kazakh Mongols that have made a livelihood in this merciless landscape. Unlike Duffy (the Bactrian pack camel), Donkey (Brad’s horse), and Chance (Haydn’s horse), this one is not for sale.

Each family member takes turns making sure I’m aware Blue has won many Nadaams (the annual summer games where nomads from far and wide flex their skill in horseback riding, archery, and wrestling). Mongolians take horse racing very seriously. Dalai Khan says him and Blue have won Nadaam four years, but his son Alpy claims Blue has won a more modest three. Nonetheless, Blue is now ten and retired but still worth quadruple that of the others in their herd and priceless in the currency of prestige and good fortune. Dalai Khan has made it clear what this horse means to his family and expects to see Blue returned in good condition.

Brad and Haydn are frothing over my new horse. We are a little shocked, but I’m a whole lot grateful.  

I am the luckiest girl in the world.

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I must have proven myself at some point. Maybe it was on that day Alpy enlisted me to help herd his flock of 300 assorted yaks, cows, sheep, and goats 40 km from their wintering grounds to their summer home. There was a moment of understanding when Alpy, occupied with chucking bleating baby animals across a 20 foot wide raging river, glanced over at Duffy who was quickly slinking away. It was after galloping over to catch the runaway camel by its lead rope, did I find out just how strong Duffy really was. Nevertheless, I held steady and Duffy returned as our beast of burden.

Or maybe I have proven myself through some very convincing imitation. In a window of opportunity, Alpy and I had spent a day trapping a golden eagle. I’m no eagle huntress, but I did trap a hawk. I’m no horsewoman, but here I am. I’m no nomad, but ha let me tell ya…

It’s surprising that it has already been more than a month since Brad, Haydn, and I first met Alpy. We’ve had just enough time in Mongolia for an inaugural crash course in horseback riding (none of us have ever horseback ridden before), haphazard camel packing, and regional customs and manners. We try hard to assimilate so to not appear as what we really are. Fools.

After much deliberation, I settle on naming my new horse Rigel after the blue supergiant and brightest star in the Orion belt. It’s not customary here to give animals names, even this one was referred to by the color of its coat, but I am overly sentimental and my ragtag crew is small enough for names to still mean something.

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All signs point to this thing, long riding or months of equestrian assisted travel, not going so well. From securing three horses and a camel on a whim, to falling off and being dragged, to loosing animals every other day, to shamelessly begging nomads to catch our animals back for us, to an ongoing detox in which Haydn vomits all over this beautiful place, to hiding from the military, to being poisoned by nasty mosquitoes all along the Sagsai River, to shivering in our thin tents every night, to struggling with cooking over dung fires, to constantly smelling like socks, to having no other choice but to bath in glacial rivers, to bottoms exposed to dumbfounding views every toilet break, and to wandering in the most remote region of the most remote landlocked country in the world—all of it makes me wonder if I’ve truly gone insane. But, one thing is apparent. There’s no coming back from this.

Good boy Densen is out front running surveillance over the Cholak Dabat Valley, and good boy Actus drags his little pup paws in the back of our procession. I didn’t expect to find more room in my heart, but Alpy’s neglected dog Arlaan has taken a piece of it. He has three feet, because one of them froze in the winter and had to be amputated. Still uninhibited, tongue flapping in the wind, he keeps up with Rigel and will mess Densen up provoked or not.  

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Bittersweet we left Alpy’s generous abode, the mountains of deep fried dough and the rivers of salty milk tea and the rosy faces of his children. There have been many waypoints and unexpected course changes. Now we are on our own, under the care of no one except maybe our animals’. Brad and Haydn feel a sense of relief having thought this moment of complete exposure would never come. But, in all the questionable developments, we have always agreed that no objective takes precedence over health and safety--admittedly terms that have grown vague yet constantly sobering nonetheless. The timing is neither inappropriate or appropriate. We keep finding everything we need miraculously intersecting with our actions.

Never have I ever felt so invincible.

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