Mongol Derby Blog - The After Party
Posted by Sophia Mangalee at 23rd September 2011 at 14:48
Mongol Derby – the After Party
It is truly amazing what you can put your body through and what it will put up with. With the exception of one day of illness, my body was surprising resilient throughout the nine days – because it had to be. But come day 10, it was acutely aware that the race was over and shut down to recover. It forgot I still needed it.
The night of the finish my nose ran like a faucet and I awoke with a pretty spectacular head cold. The type where from the neck down you’re fine, but you’d prefer to use your head as a bowling ball just to abuse it.
So on day ten, the riders did what anyone of us would do after nine days of extreme physical exercise. We went looking for more, and found it on the side of a volcano.
You see, you can’t position finish camp within view of a tempting volcanic cone reaching towards the heavens. It was approximately 2 – 3 kilometers across a wide plain and damn if we weren’t all salivating to get to the top of it and see what was inside.
So those of us that were physically able too (and some that were not) set off to the volcano. Upon arriving at the base, some soul with a great deal of common sense suggested following the road around.
Air. I need air.
Not the best choice of activity for a head cold. Some of us crawled. The pumice stones were loose and rolled down the hill behind us. I didn’t want to join them so with care I counted.
One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight….Nine……..Ten steps. Stop. Refill blood cells with oxygen. Rub cramps out of thighs. Deep breath. Repeat. Avoid blacking out.
We made it to the top in a staggering line. Craig was first of course (over achiever), with Olivia the energizer bunny right behind.
I was more modest in my assault on the summit and gasped my way in somewhere in the middle.
The cone had a little pond down there in the middle of it with a small forest of trees on the South side of it and nothing on the north. There was a clear line of demarcation cutting across the middle. Around the ridge of the cone ran a small trail that we followed among the pumice rocks until it descended steeply down to the pond and the lush grass beside it.
We flopped down beside it, someone popped a can of sprite and we all took a long swig.
I sniffled and snuffled my way into a particularly lush patch of grass, stretched out long and went limp. Why did I not just stay back at camp like a good girl?
In the words of one of the crew I have “FOMO” – fear of missing out.
The journey back down was quick (down the jeep path we should have walked up) and we were all chattering across the plains on the way back to camp when John’s truck came screeching across to meet us.
Nice! We were going to get a ride.
“Medic! We have a rider down,” John said out the window, his usual cool tone just slightly strained.
The medics amongst us leapt into the truck and they were away.
The rest of us stood looking at each other trying to figure out who amongst us was crazy enough to give it another go on one of the equines.
Surely the cripples we’d left back at camp weren’t joyriding around again.
With concern we made our way slowly back into camp.
We learned later that our lovely Catherine (a medic herself) had spent the afternoon riding. After the ride was over she approached her mount to give it a well deserved pat on the neck and the bugger reared and struck her – breaking her elbow, cracking her in the face and busting her lip wide open. Seems the worst injuries of the race occurred pre and post ride with Borja’s broken arm in start camp and Catherine’s broken elbow in finish camp.
The rest of us reaffirmed our vow not to get within 100 yards of the monsters.
Today was day 10. We had all finished the race so quickly, they moved the post race entertainment a day early.
Mongolia’s three main sports are horse racing, archery and wrestling. I was thrilled that they had arranged the wrestlers for our post race entertainment.
I just wish I knew what the hell was happening.
I managed to break it down into the following.
Step 1 – Wrestlers march out to their trainers and bend over.
Step 2 – Trainers smack them on the ass.
Step 3 – Wrestlers head to the Mongolian flag and make like an eagle in slow motion – giving honor to the gods.
Step 4 – Wrestlers firmly grasp each other – facing each other and bending at the waist.
Step 5 – Throw your opponent on the ground.
Step 6 – Rest and repeat.
The whole thing went on for nearly an hour and even the cows lost interest after a time. I was intrigued and haven’t any idea on how they settled on the winner.
Post wrestling we had some wonderful musical entertainment. The funniest part was after it was all over the kids ripped off their costumes, threw their hats on backwards and break danced their way back into the van. Whoo, whoo tradition.
Dinner was a meal I don’t remember and I went to bed early. Only to be awaken somewhere in the 1 am hour by a drunken John that tried to physically drag Olivia out of her bed to join them at the bonfire.
I cowered in my bed hoping he wouldn’t see me in the shadows and God bless Olivia, she wouldn’t give any of us up. She should work as a secret agent. Or maybe she already does.
Ronald eventually threw John out and now that I was awake FOMO kicked in and I found myself inexplicably drawn to the fire like a moth.
“Sophia! You were such a bitch on day five,” Regina cackled. I suppose that depends on your definition of it. Oh wait, day five, I remember – that’s when my intestines were crocheting themselves into a nice sweater. Over, under, pull through. Yes, I suppose I wasn’t my normal peppy self.
The empty wine bottle next to her and Craig’s log like form on the ground were evidence of the earlier festivities. Seems I had missed most of it.
But I arrived just in time. Charles had thrown a few spuds in the fire and in no time we were eating hot potatoes with John’s “secret sauce,” something that surely should have been refrigerated over the past ten days.
Ah, how I’m going to miss this.
Tomorrow (or wait, it’s already today) destination – Ulaanbaatar.
Mongol Derby Blog - Day 9 - The End
Posted by Sophia Mangalee at 4th September 2011 at 20:01
The Mongolian wanted to know which saddle was mine. I pointed to it and he gathered it up to place on a small bay horse. The horse didn’t look familiar, but then again I was a bit distracted over my sick horse the night before and I couldn’t remember if I’d even made a selection.
Photo: Day nine - horse number 1. A little Thoroughbred in there perhaps?
We had heard further news that our gallant Sir Richard was riding on with broken ribs after taking a serious tumble the day before from this very horse station. Jason suffered similar broken bones when a horse struck him in the chest.
Frederique, Ronald and I were taking nothing for granted. While we hoped we could make it to the finish line today, nothing ever was a given.
A Mongolian on a fine gray pony escorted us over the nearest hill and then pointed off in the distance to indicate the direction we must go and then peeled away.
“Bayaarla,” we thanked him.
“Would you like to try a canter?” asked Frederique.
“Sure, but I’m not sure I can stop this guy. He seems to want to run, but if he does I’ll just let him go and then you can catch up to me later,” I replied. The strategy had worked before with other eager beavers. Just let them run for 2 kilometers and they would settle right down.
Oh. My. God.
It was like being on a Splash Mountain at Disneyland. That moment of truth when you reach the top of the roller coaster and the car slowly tilts forward and you are looking down at your future doom – and screaming. Tears were streaming down my face as the wind rushed against my squinted eyes.
I clung desperately to the rope handle across the front of the saddle. And then I prayed.
He ran, and ran, and ran, his hind legs reaching deep under his body and then thrusting out with tremendous power. He flung his forelegs out far to grab the ground and pull it beneath him. His ears pinned back and he reached his head down low, the loose reins flopping along his neck.
I have never been so scared in all my life and at the same time felt so safe. He was running at tremendous speeds and although I had no control, I felt that he did. He knew where every foot was going before he put it there and he banked like a race car around every turn. He would change direction with the slightest touch of the rein to his neck.
I struggled to get my gps out of my vest to take a reading. We’d just galloped seven straight miles.
I felt him take a deep breath, his ribs expanding against my leg and with that he slowed to a trot, then a walk. And then he just plain stopped.
He took a very long pee.
When you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go.
After finishing the job, he started to trot.
And with that he was off again at top speed.
I remembered back to the first time I was ever legged up on a racehorse. “Just remember you can ride them as fast as they can run,” said Donnie Senebald right before I was run off with for the first time.
His words rang in my ear and I relaxed into this wonderful quick stride. I gazed around me in wonder. It was a cool morning and clouds dotted the blue sky casting shadows on the gentle green hills below. Two local riders were crossing over a ridge in the distance.
I looked at the gps. Another seven miles in the books, this horse was truly amazing. He slowed again, stopped.
He took another very long pee.
This horse really knew how to take care of himself.
He walked on for a few minutes catching his breath and I pulled out my chocolate candy bar (compliments of Sarah the vet). That was how his owner found me when he drove up on his motorcycle. He indicated he wanted to retighten the back cinch so I rode over.
As soon as his hand was off the rein, my horse took off again. Even on the motorcycle, the owner couldn’t catch us.
No sweat. I peeled the wrapper off my candy bar, the crinkling making him spurt forward. Mmm, almond and chocolate.
So there I was in Mongolia, galloping across the valley with an almond and chocolate candy bar in one hand and the reins in another. Now THIS is what the Mongol Derby was all about.
I rolled into the horse station two and a half hours later. I had a grin that could have lit up the Eiffel Tower. I was giddy with adrenaline. I think I may have skipped. I wanted to hug someone, I think I did.
“Let’s get a heart rate,” said Jen. “Good heavens, its 40!”
Damn straight! Because this is a real racehorse and that Ain’t. No. Joke!
Through the translator I learned that the owner had selected this horse just for me after seeing how miserable I was the night before. The horse was one of his Nadaam racehorses and he wanted me to have a good start to the day.
Man knows how to make a girl smile.
I waited for Frederique and Ronald and we set off toward two peaks. I found I had another little firecracker of a horse and although he wasn’t nearly as fleet as the one before, he was just as eager. All our horses were moving well together with mine just a tad faster. Before long I was riding ahead of the others. We reached the top of this stunning hill and it seemed as if all of Mongolia was stretched out before us.
We made a straight line for horse station 24. Wow, had we already ridden through 23 different horse stations?
About 10 km out I had a decision to make, go around the marsh marked on the map or go straight across. In my typical fashion, I chose the shorter course. Oops.
Just 2 km from the horse station I found myself in a bog. My horse was hopping from mound to mound trying to find solid ground. I looked to my left and saw a pit of water – reflecting under the murky surface were the pale white bones of a horse skeleton. My horse missed a mound and we sunk into the muck up to his belly. He gave a gallant surge and found a solid cow path. We zigzagged through, stumbling at times. I encouraged my horse with kind words and assured him he would never see me again. And then just as quickly as we had entered the bog, we were out. Victory!
My tired horse came into the horse station with his head held high, mud dripping from his belly. A real trooper.
The owner at the horse station got excited upon seeing me.
I seem to have that effect on men.
He gestured toward my head, I think he called me short.
Thanks buddy, you aren’t the jolly green giant yourself. He then gestured to a petite brown horse and indicated I was to ride his smallest horse. Fabulous, I didn’t think they came in an extra, extra, extra small.
Frederique, Ronald and I grabbed tea in the ger while the vet crew came to the conclusion that it would be jolly-good fun to ride the last leg with us – bareback, reaching such a brilliant idea only after consuming sufficient amounts of vodka and airag.
Frederique, Ronald and I were a bit flabbergasted. We had sweated and cried through 960 kilometers and they were just going to hop on and go 40 km? Good luck with that.
A bit skeptical, we waited for them and then set off. I think they made it 10 km before the courage and pain killing effect of vodka wore off and it didn’t seem like such a brilliant idea any longer.
Frederique and I continued on with our lackluster ponies. The traditional “choo-choo” didn’t seem to work to get them to go so we started shouting like banshees and making noises like a police siren.
“Yippee ki yi yay!”
It made us laugh, but it didn’t last long. So instead we tried to recount every single one of the 25 horses we had ridden, in my case 27 (including the two lost ones).
A hail storm rained on our parade about an hour from the finish line and then we spent the later kilometers in a heated discussion on how we were going to make our grand finish. Should we gallop across? No, our horses would only run for about 50 yards.
We settled on a short canter to the finish line. We were almost there – just twenty feet to go when all our horses buggered off in different directions. Finish line flags are very scary for Mongolian horses. We regrouped and tried another assault on the finish line – success!
This was it! We did it. We finished the 1,000 kilometer Mongol Derby – the longest and toughest horse race in the world. We hadn’t succumbed to injury or illness, we had prevailed. Through thunderstorms, flooding rivers and hail storms. Through excessive heat and freezing cold nights. With good horses and bad.
I cried. I think more because I thought it the appropriate thing to do. Katy offered me some airag. I didn’t want to give it back. I got one parting picture with my pony and then it was over.
“Did they find my horse?” I asked.
“I knew that would be the first thing out of your mouth!” said Maggie. “And no, not yet.”
Frederique, Ronald and I were the last riders across the line, but that meant every one was there waiting to welcome us.
23 riders made it to start camp
In the interests of record keeping, the final placing read like this:
I felt relief, happiness, and all in all felt it a little anti-climatic.
It was a once in a lifetime experience because I would not do it again. I wouldn’t tempt fate twice. My guardian angels had done enough.
I pulled on my Mongol Derby jacket, proud to bear my sponsors across my back and proud that I hadn’t let them down. It was a bit worse for wear, dirt marks from where I had been dragged on my back, and it sure didn’t smell too good.
Without the support of my sponsors and contributors, this dream would not have been possible, this magic place would have remained locked in my imagination, and I would not have filled my lungs with sweet mountain air or sat astride a wild pony of the steppe.
Special thanks to my family that has always believed in my dreams. To my Mom and Dad for fostering such an independent spirit and instilling in me the discipline and determination to never give up. To my husband for loving me. To my friends for cheering for me. Thank you to everyone for all your thoughts and prayers.
I’ll surely have more blog posts. After all, I have to tell you about our amazing summit of the volcano and provide pictures of our post race entertainment (men in underwear – yay!). But for now, I’ll leave you back at the beginning with the words that inspired a little horse crazy girl nearly twenty years ago.
Ride a wild horse with purple wings striped yellow and black
Ride a wild horse against the sky
Whatever else you leave undone
Mongol Derby Blog - Day 8
Posted by Sophia Mangalee at 1st September 2011 at 13:26
It didn’t sound like such a good idea to me. I slowly poked my head out of my sleeping bag like an apprehensive marmot. I saw a cloud in front of my eyes. Oh, wait. That’s my breath.
There was a pile of Mongolians to my right snoring gently. They slept in full dress on the cold ground – no blankets for them. I have no idea at what point they arrived in the night. Definitely post mutton soup, that’s for sure.
We hurriedly got ready, the ground frozen beneath our feet.
Last night’s horse selection hadn’t gone well.
“I’ll take that one,” I said pointing to a stout chestnut.
Grunted Mongolian, shaking heads.
“Ok, how about the one next to him?”
More grunting, shaking heads, bucking hand motions.
“Maybe the owner would like to pick one for me?”
Serious grunted discussion, affirmative nodding.
So there shaking and quivering in the cold stood Snowball. I was surprised he was so cold with all his fat, but he seemed a kind sort with a big gentle eye.
I climbed aboard and discovered with delight that I had the best power steering, brakes and acceleration I could possibly want. We set off along the river with the sun peaking over the mountains, quickly warming us. Snowball was like a big white Hummer, wide base, big tires and a flat nose.
Photo: Frederique and her mount cross the river.
We made good time to the next horse station, the mountains just spitting us out like unwanted rainwater. I pulled off my saddle and Jen stepped up to take a heart rate.
“44, that’s amazing.”
I gave Snowball a hug. I actually think he liked it.
Since I had made out so well at the prior station, I asked the owner to pick another out for me as I didn’t see much point in stressing over the selection process.
He chose a bay that he said the kids liked to ride.
Because kids like to go fast. So do I.
Frederique got a dog. This horse was so slow molasses would have flowed by him. Ronald’s was somewhere in between the two but every time his got near mine, mine would take off. It was wholly what I expected. The Mongol kids like to race each other and their horses pick up on this enthusiasm.
So I rode off ahead, Frederique kept her plug in the middle and Ronald took up the rear.
It was hot, buggy, and boring. The mosquitoes were bigger than canaries and managed to make mincemeat out of my left thigh. My right thigh was covered by the flap of my rain coat but it wouldn’t reach all the way around to offer protection.
The road was straight and rather than grass filled jeep tracks, it was hard packed all the way across. As the scorching kilometers dropped away I got more and more frustrated. The mosquitoes, the small black flies constantly buzzing around my face, the skin melting off my bones. This sucked. Then my horse lost power steering 25 km into it and took to wandering off to the right despite all my efforts. I distracted myself by making a video in which I noticed I’m frowning - a lot.
My roll applicator sunscreen was no longer working, the applicator so caked with dirt no sunscreen would come out. My lips were cracking again. The heat rash on my left thigh was throbbing. I was thoroughly annoyed. Gee, what a great time.
And as with all great times, they must come to an end. Thank goodness horse station 21 appeared.
I picked out a skinny bay horse with expressive eyes. We mounted up and took off. Tonight would be our last night out on the steppe. But none of us would say it out loud. We barely dared to think it for fear that some calamity would befall us and set us back another day.
At this point we only wanted to survive. We had received word through the grapevine the previous day that Regina had pulled out after her fall. Then today that Barry was also out with a shoulder injury, his arm in a sling. We didn’t dare tempt fate with joyful thoughts of crossing the finish line tomorrow, just one step at a time, one horse at a time. The fact that the Craig had already finished today along with a few of the others had little bearing on our thoughts.
Our final leg of the day reminded us of Greece. We rode on a rocky path close to a winding river with trees reaching out over its banks. Our horses felt strong and we managed a steady trot and occasional canter. We were feeling great as evening descended and we approached our final horse station without incident.
As was our usual routine, we reined in and walked the last kilometer.
One of the Mongolian vets came over to check my heart rate – 68. No problem, great little horse would be down in no time. Frederique and Ronald passed right through.
Sarah came over to take the second check and I scratched my horse’s back – he kept turning around trying to reach a spot – 72.
Fifteen minutes later – 80.
Then he lay down and wouldn’t get up.
Now in addition to losing a horse I was about to kill one. The $700 deposit they collected was definitely not enough.
As I agonized over my horse, Sarah the vet was calm, cool and collected. Quickly treating the horse with fluids she identified his symptoms as a mild case of colic likely from dehydration.
“He’ll be just fine,” she said.
“Um, was this all my fault?” I asked hesitantly, dreading the answer.
“No, it wasn’t. I mean if you hadn’t ridden him, he probably wouldn’t have colicked, but it wasn’t your riding that caused it either. We can tell he wasn’t over ridden, he’s just a little dehydrated.”
I let out the breath I didn’t realize I had been holding. I don’t think I could have lived with the guilt as I was still mortified that they hadn’t found my horse from day six.
“Oh, but I do have to give you a two-hour penalty for the heart rate.”
What rotten luck.
How wonderful that we were blessed with the most beautiful sunset of the entire trip. God was telling me to take a deep breath and enjoy the view, so I did.
Mongol Derby Blog - Day 7
Posted by Sophia Mangalee at 30th August 2011 at 15:11
Dreary. Ronald, Frederique and I mounted our horses in the damp cold and made our way to the next horse station. It was raining, again. I had finally given commando a go and I was deeply regretting it as I bounced in my wet saddle in wet riding tights. It was all I could do to stay on my horse all the way to the next station. While wet and cold, Frederique and I said nothing for Ronald was riding in a lightweight, long-sleeve shirt and nothing else (well, he did have pants on). His saddlebags had malfunctioned on day one and the equipment that he hadn’t lost was in one of the Jeeps. As miserable as we were, we could say nothing.
We arrived at the horse station with little fan fare. A damp red flag with the number 18 hung limply from its pole on the top of a mound with three lonely horses waiting for us on the horse line. It was quiet. There was no one waiting for us except one of the translators.
“We were told Regina fell off, the team had to leave to make sure she is ok,” she said.
We pulled up a stool in the ger and waited for lunch. Or maybe it’s breakfast, hard to say. The furniture in a standard ger makes me feel like Alice in Wonderland goes to Kindergarten. The stools are like those you would buy for your toddler and all the food and drink is served in little bowls that you accept with your right hand (left hand supporting your right elbow), or both hands. It’s rude to accept with your left hand. Typically there is a large bowl of dried curd (cheese) that has a pasty texture and a not too unpleasant taste. Often, there are pieces of bread mixed in as well with a couple pieces of wrapped candy. That is, if you get there before Richard. Post Richard, there mysteriously is no candy.
We could do nothing but dry out and wait for the team to return to the station. We were fortunate to observe Mongol Cooking 101. Or I should say I was. Frederique was a vegetarian bravely trying not to hurl as the mutton sizzled in front of her. The mutton was chopped into little pieces – no bone, fat included – and then added to onions sautéing in an enormous iron wok set over the stove in the middle of the ger. After the meat braised (browned on the outside) and seared in all the juices, a little water was added and a lid was placed on top. The small bits of meat cooked quickly and small bits of carrots and potato were then added. Once it was all nearly done a pile of noodles was added along with some oil. Ok, lots of oil. They then removed the lid and stir fried it all together.
It’s not that I don’t enjoy the taste of mutton and goat. It’s more that I don’t enjoy the taste of anything three times a day for nine plus days. Frederique, Ronald and I resigned ourselves to our little bowl of mutton and then nearly cheered when the host family produced a jar of pickles. I hope it wasn’t too rude that we only left three in the jar.
The vet arrived and we went out for our horses. Ronald was given a deel to keep off the rain. The deel is the traditional Mongol attire that can only be compared to a long overcoat. It reaches down past the knees and goes on like a robe with a long sash tied around your waist. The sleeves are long and cover the wrists and hands, practical for keeping your hands warm in winter.
We mounted up. Frederique had a stout gray that from the rear looked like a Percheron, minus the extra three feet of height. Ronald’s horse was a brown thing that always wanted to race Frederique’s. And funny enough, neither her grey nor Ronald’s brown had any interest in racing mine. Probably because he was a putz with a serious leftward drift. He had no gas, and it wasn’t for lack of trying, but more for lack of ability. I settled in for a long ride as we set off around a mountain range dotted with grazing sheep.
I had been blessed with good horses for the bulk of the journey. And while I didn’t feel affection from them, I always felt relatively safe and my steeds seemed quite amiable to my presence. This one did not.
We were coming out of a flat valley about 8 km from the next horse station. Frederique was way ahead and Ronald way to the rear. We had separated their two to keep them from racing each other simply because mine couldn’t keep up. I was using my braided rope to “encourage” my horse when he suddenly turned his head and looked me straight in the eye.
“I will kill you if you touch me one more time.”
Wow, I didn’t know horses could talk. The hostility radiating off him was loud and clear. I knew without a shadow of a doubt that if I hit that horse one more time he would kill me. How he would do it, I’d rather not imagine, but after seeing the antics of his herd mates, I knew it wouldn’t be pretty.
I gingerly dropped the rope and prayed. I couldn’t get off that horse fast enough when we got to the horse station.
Photo: The horse with the evil eye.
Our next leg was to take us over another mountain pass so I picked out a chestnut that reminded me of Secretariat. A beautiful white streak poured down his face and he looked fast. Satisfied I had picked a runner I retired to the ger for a quick bowl of warm tea.
Photo: My secretariat look-alike.
Upon returning to the horse line I found my next mount was still tethered and sans saddle. I looked quizzically to the translator.
“They say he’s too much for you to handle, they suggest this horse to you.”
The new mount and I eyeballed each other. He was fat and kind of ugly. Maybe he thought I was too.
“Uh, sure, he looks great!”
We saddled up and set off in the direction of the mountains. The journey would be relatively easy navigation-wise as we were to just follow the jeep track over the pass.
Frederique looked green, which I thought was actually an improvement.
“Are you ok?”
“I don’t think so. I don’t feel so good.”
“Do you want to go back?”
Damn that chick is tough. For the next two hours she clung to the front of her saddle and although she looked like she was going to throw up, never did. I was so proud of her.
Horse number three had forgiven me for my initial judgment of him and turned out to be just a stellar horse. He was still fat, but strong going up the mountains and from this angle I couldn’t really see his jug-shaped head.
I’ve always felt at home in the mountains. As we made our way through the high pass, wildflowers flowed along both sides of the track and herds of mares and foals frolicked in the woods among the pines. We spotted a strawberry roan stallion, but he was elusive as I tried to photograph him.
The mountains gave way to a valley and we spotted two young boys racing their horses along a small stream. We’d find the horse station over the crest of a hill nestled in a small valley next to a sparkling river.
Frederique and I weren’t far behind.
It was dark. I could smell food. Someone had a bowl of noodle soup under my nose. My stomach growled. Breakfast in bed has nothing on mutton noodle soup in bed. I gulped down my food and promptly fell back to sleep. Frederique had mutton noodle soup in bed in a more literal sense when our hostess accidently dumped the bulk of it down her sleeping bag. Eww.
Mongol Derby Blog - Day 6
Posted by Sophia Mangalee at 26th August 2011 at 16:26
Day six dawned glorious. After the preceding day’s rain, the valley was fresh, the river was clear and the sun was strong.
The path to the next station took us between the river and the mountains. My mount was a strawberry roan gelding, feminine and tiny. The bit hung so low in his mouth I was sure he’d just spit it right back out at me. But he was quick and had a lovely canter and carried me well.
The morning was uneventful – the calm before the storm so to speak. We arrived at horse station fifteen in fine spirits. Except for Regina, who was puking over the bank and Frederique, who was avoiding the food like the plague. I had bounced back from the day before with no residual effects. The worse thing to happen to me was my camelback had sprung a leak and was turning my saddle wet and my bum into a wrinkled prune.
The horses at horse station fifteen were fat and squirrely.
“The horses are a bit hard to saddle here, but they are fine once you get on,” Maggie said to me over my shoulder. Hmmm, I think I’ve heard that once before.
I selected a brilliant red gelding with white hairs where the back cinch would go. The Mongolians use horse hair girths and they would leave their mark on the bellies of horses that were frequently ridden. It was something I always kept an eye out for, and in this bunch I felt I had selected well. The smiling Mongolian boy agreed with me, swung aboard and showed me how swell my little red horse was.
Kevin’s horse on the other hand was a cow. He looked it – an enormous (relatively speaking) black and white…cow. And he was petrified of the saddle, of the bags, and quite frankly, of Kevin.
Once aboard, Kevin and I had no choice but to set off up the broad valley according to Shatra’s directions, “Go up to the valley to that mountain, then get on the dirt track and stay on it over the mountain pass.”
That’s like saying turn left at the big oak tree.
The others weren’t far behind and quickly caught up. That’s when the excitement began.
“He wouldn’t stop so I tried to turn him and my saddle slipped,” Olivia said when we finally reached her. “I’m ok, my gps said my top speed was 52 km per hour.”
If my math is correct that makes her top speed 30 mph. Well done!
A Mongolian appeared from somewhere on a motorcycle to help and Olivia climbed aboard and set off after her horse. The rest of us continued to ride up the valley where we finally rejoined her and the wayward horse who now had no stirrups but was otherwise in excellent condition after his 4 km blowout.
As we gathered in a group to contemplate our next move, I glanced at Frederique and was shocked to see her white as a ghost and looking decidedly unwell.
“Olivia, you have to take Frederique back with you to the horse station. She cannot continue on. Just look at her, she’s about to pass out,” I said.
Frederique slowly swung her leg over her horse and then doubled over on the ground. Medic!
With impeccable timing, the Mongol Derby Jeep showed up from our recent horse station with Shatra.
“What do you want to do?” asked Kevin.
“Not much we can do, I figure. Continue on?”
And with that he and I slowly headed away from the group. The Pattersons joined us, then Jason caught up and as we made our way into the foothills Regina as well.
Nearly an hour later Olivia and Tyga also were able to catch us. And finally – Richard. Chivalrous Sir Richard, who would not leave Frederique until she was bundled into the Jeep and properly looked after. He was truly our guardian angel.
The dirt track steadily climbed, then began to switchback on itself. It was beautiful. We reached the top at 7,195 feet. A perfect prayer pile was on the top.
It was what I had been waiting for. I swung my camelback around, reached into its depths and pulled it out. I would never have risked it in my saddle bags. Ten years, 8,000 miles and here we were.
I fingered the clay for just a moment. The white ribbon was now a shade of gray, the clay cracked in places. You could still see the knife marks where I cut the edges with the innocence of young love. I tossed it into the rock pile and it shattered into pieces, falling amongst the weather beaten rocks and blue swaths of cloth.
Goodbye, Z. It was the highest mountain I could find for you. You died on one, may you live free in spirit on another.
With my vision blurred, but my heart light we continued down the other side of the mountain. My most important task in Mongolia now complete, a promise kept.
The descent was quick and as we reached the flattening valley, I stopped my horse to retighten my girth. My saddle was quickly making its way up to his ears and knowing we would pick up speed on the flat, it was the prudent thing to reset the saddle.
Four people were in front of me walking on, but others were behind me stopped for a moment. It seemed a good time to dismount. I gave the saddle a shove. Not quite right, gave it another shove and it settled in behind his rounded withers. I reached behind his elbow and pulled the girth tight. There we are.
I gathered the soft rope reins in my left hand – the pony still had his head down grazing and I lifted my left foot for the stirrup. Balancing, I hopped a little on my right foot, shifted my weight into the left stirrup and prepared to swing back aboard.
It was like stepping onto ground that gives way beneath you, the stirrup was there, and then it wasn’t. The horse was there, and then he wasn’t.
When the saddle slid under his belly, the horse bolted forward. I hung onto the reins, feeling the dirt and rocks scrape across my back as he dragged me. With a sigh, I opened my hand.
“Loose horse!” Jason shouted.
I popped back to my feet and watched in grim horror as my horse galloped down the hill. Bits and pieces of the saddle were flying into the air as he kicked and bucked. The saddlebags ripped open, my sleeping bag bounced off him, the stirrups ripped off. Something else came flying back and then finally he just ran.
“There’s something here,” said Owen.
“And over here,” said Kevin.
“Something here too,” said Jason as I trudged up behind them and gathered my scattered gear.
My camera! Thank you, God! My most treasured piece of gear - there it was lying in the dirt! Life was looking good.
I shrugged my sleeping bag and saddlebags across my back, flung my stirrups over my shoulder and began to walk. We were 8.5 km from horse station sixteen, about five miles.
My horse had disappeared over the nearest hill and even though my comrades raced to catch sight of him, he was gone.
“Don’t wait for me, there’s nothing you can do!” I shouted to the others. The Pattersons, Regina and Tyga trotted off.
Wonderful Sir Richard, sweet Olivia and kind Kevin remained.
“Go on guys.”
“We aren’t leaving you.”
I smiled sheepishly. It was nice to have friends.
What they didn’t know is that not ten minutes before I had been thinking to myself how fabulously well things were going and how I couldn’t wait to break away from the pack and ride in a smaller group. Be careful what you wish for – it might just come true.
The Jeep came to pick me up right outside horse station sixteen and Maggie, the Jeep driver and the boy that had been smiling and riding the horse before – all set out to find him.
Five and a half hours later I returned to the horse station dejected. We went over the mountain pass twice, searched the river valley and herds of hundreds of horses and my red firecracker wasn’t amongst them. Most unpleasant was returning to the family that owned him and in an embarrassing version of charades try to explain to the grizzled old man what had happened and how this dreadful American had lost one of their prized horses.
My only relief was seeing Frederique and Ronald! Frederique spent the afternoon hooked to an IV, recovering from whatever mystery illness befell her and Ronald had waited for her. Dinner was pasta and tomato sauce supplied by the vets. Seemed the host family didn’t think much of me and I wasn’t offered any dinner. Or maybe they just didn’t want to come out in the rain. Either way, dinner never tasted so good.
Mongol Derby Blog - Day 5
Posted by Sophia Mangalee at 25th August 2011 at 14:59
I recall day five as being barely alive. Cramps, diarrhea, fever, nausea all assaulted me as soon as I woke up. I lay staring at the roof of the ger thinking dying would be a great option. Ugh, maybe it was the fish.
I recall little of my first horse – but did capture a bit of his ears as we made our way across a toll bridge in the morning.
Fortunately he was a kind soul as I was too feeble to raise an objection if he opted back home. We made our way to horse station thirteen, which was nestled along a snake of a river with little excitement. As terrible as I felt, I still was trying to break away from the main pack with a direct route across the marsh while the others went around. It would prove futile as the pack caught up again with little effort. Kevin’s horse unseated him after falling in a marmot hole, but the horse was recovered quickly and Kevin was thankfully ok.
The trek to station fourteen was exciting, and not just because we were nearly struck by lighting. To start, Frederique’s horse sank up to its belly in a bog and mine just barely struggled out of the same muck. Next we were joined by a grinning Mongolian with a note clenched in his fist in English that read, “Follow this man for safe river crossing.”
And so we did. It was wild. Thunder cracked over head and a bolt of lightning scorched the earth not 30 yards from where we rode. It poured rain. There was nothing to do but push onward to the flooded river that had held up the race that morning.
The horses made it across with the water rushing against their bellies. The Jeeps had water flowing over their hoods and floated downriver slightly before gaining purchase again and powering out. The head medic, Catherine, ordered me to put my raincoat on. I was sincerely grateful as the next two hours the temperature dropped and I was still soaking wet.
We only made two horse stations that day with the four hour delay, but I couldn’t have been more happy. Hypothermia was starting to set in and I couldn’t stop shaking as I sat in front of the stove. Someone removed my helmet for me, for I surely couldn’t.
“Sophia, you have a spider on your head.”
No kidding? I found I didn’t care. After five hours, he wasn’t going to do anything he hadn’t done already. Besides, he was probably having a buffet up there and it seemed a shame to interrupt him.
As life slowly ebbed back into me, it ebbed out of Frederique. She was faint and the medics were called back in and treated her with electrolytes. Our hosts, God bless their souls fed us sushi. Yes, I ate the best sushi of my life in the middle of Mongolia.
I said little that whole day. Retreating inside myself as I battled the fever and vertigo, it was all I could do not to vomit off the side of my horse. I told no one, just indicated maybe I wasn’t as well as I was the day before.
Tyga received the award for bravest rider that day as she made her way four hours in the rain to the river crossing – alone. She coped as only Tyga could – belting out Lion King tunes. After arriving in camp Marcus started vomiting and they transported him back to UB – another casualty in the books.
Mongol Derby Blog - Day 4
Posted by Sophia Mangalee at 24th August 2011 at 17:00
I went with a handsome pinto (again), having had such spectacular luck thus far with skewbald ponies. And, the evening before, I had seen this same pinto being ridden by a small boy as he rounded up the herd. He couldn’t be half bad if he was the one they snagged to gather up the others. Richard, Kevin, Frederique, Regina and I all set off together at a quarter to seven.
Photo: Horse 1 of Day Four - third pinto of the race.
Frederique and Regina were in grand spirits again after the debacle the day before, but highly cautious when it came to navigating. For the first two hours, Frederique was neurotically checking the line on her gps while Regina stuck to the hip of Richard’s horse. After sweeping into the valley, we spotted another rider making his way – in the wrong direction.
Photo: Regina re-mounts after we hiked with our horses up the mountain - we had just ridden across the valley behind her.
It was Jason! Jason was the type of rider that everyone wanted to be around. Jovial, fun and always with a smile on his face regardless of what poor circumstances came his way. We discovered his true value that morning when out of nowhere he produced a Ziploc baggie full of Smarties and peanuts! For those unfamiliar with this delectable treat it is candy coated chocolate and after the fourth day of mutton for breakfast, mutton for lunch and mutton for dinner, it was like the finest chocolate truffle ever to be had. Jason could have negotiated for my first born child in exchange for just a couple pieces of Smarties.
Upon our arrival at horse station ten, the vet Stuart informed us that nearly all the horses were coughing, and those that weren’t had gone crazy in the night with their hobbles on and had tore up their legs and were being withdrawn from selection. Long story short – don’t expect to find your next Triple Crown winner in the bunch. Yet, that is just what I did.
Rose came in close to the other horses and went to dismount. Before I could blink, she was suddenly on her back with her left foot still in the stirrup and her hands on the rein with the horse preparing to leave with or without her.
“Let Go! Let Go!” Frederique shouted and Rose, using good thinking, opened her gloved hand.
Her pony, free at last bolted into line of waiting horses and all havoc ensued. The horses on the line startled, pulled back and ripped out the pole to which the top line was tethered. Frightened, the five of them took off with the remains of the horse line pole bouncing dangerously behind them and their tether ropes snaking around their legs. Horses were going in every which direction at a dead run. Left, right, north, south they all went, while those of us that had a mount clung to it desperately praying the frantic herd wouldn’t circle back around towards us.
Richard and I swung up and headed out wanting to leave the scene before more chaos took place.
Regina was laughing hysterically. I was not.
“Regina, get away from me! I can’t slow him down, move away!” I screamed.
I’ve been on racehorses that simply won’t let another horse pass them and this little gelding was no different. He pinned his ears and ran, and ran. The road was hard with ruts and ridges from the jeep tracks and I was scared he’d put a foot wrong and go down. The ground to the side of the road was no better – riddled with marmot holes.
Regina finally steered hers clear and I could feel my horse take a deep breath, flick his ears back and gear down. I breathed a sigh of relief. He was soaked in sweat. He had just run blindly for 3 km.
The route from horse station ten to eleven took us across rolling green hills before spitting us out on a sun scorched plain – the marsh marked on the maps was simply baked earth and sand, the water a distant memory. In the distance to the South we could see the city of Karakorum.
We arrived at station eleven, stripped the saddles off, plopped them on the ground and lined up for vet check. Richard and Regina passed through, my horse was 72. The heat and his dark coat were combining for a high heart rate. My palms sweated, we waited. One of the Mongolian children came over and rubbed dirt on his back to cool him. Why didn’t I think of that? With five minutes left we took another check – 64. Praise Jesus!
Photo: My "hot" little horse covered in dirt to try to lower his heart rate.
Richard dragged me inside the ger and ordered me to eat. I wolfed down a bowl of mutton and rice. Or perhaps it was mutton and noodles, one just tends to forget these details.
Exhausted and melting in the afternoon, I turned once again to the horse owner for his selection. He pulled out a fat red horse and we prepared for our last leg of the day. Word was Barry and Joe weren’t that far ahead, having suffered a heart rate penalty earlier in the afternoon. Jason would be held back after his stallion’s heart rate wouldn’t drop and Kevin joined our threesome.
The next leg was bloody boring. There’s no other way to describe it. It was 25 km along a lightly traveled paved road. It was hot, it was buggy, it was misery on horseback. If it wasn’t for the brilliant company I think we all would have gone mad. From the get go, Kevin’s horse shifted into his main gear – slow. Mine shifted into go really fast and then freak out when it would find itself on the lead all alone, then stubbornly wait for the others. He had a definite steering issue that caused him to drift left, then right, then left, anywhere but in a straight line unless he was on another horse’s tail.
The paved road came to an end as they all do in Mongolia and we followed a winding dirt track up another small mountain. We crested it 5 km from horse station twelve.
It was suddenly all worth it. The heat, sweat, tears. There laid out before us in the setting sun was the most beautiful lake nestled between the mountains. On the east side, the edge curved to a tongue sticking out in the water and right on the tip of the tongue of land was our horse station. The setting sun and the promise of water – the promise of a bath. Sweet Jesus, a bath.
I’ve never unsaddled a horse and stripped to my undies quite that quickly. Nor had I ever done both at the same time.
I tiptoed into the water – so refreshing. There was a little algae on the round stones making it slippery. I took a sponge bath, did some laundry and made my way back up the hill. I added my clothes to the outside of the ger along with the others. Wait, was that Olivia’s underwear?
I popped my head into the ger and much to my relief saw Olivia’s smiling face!
“I was just too tired, I had to stop,” said Olivia. “Craig just kept pushing and pushing and I couldn’t take it anymore, it’s so good to see you guys.” And so good to see you Olivia!
Not too long after Jason, Cara and Frederique rode into camp and we all settled down to a wonderful meal of…wait for it…fresh fish! Wonderful, golden fried, fresh fish for dinner with moist, white flesh. I had three pieces, I couldn’t help myself.
After dark, Marcus and Tyga arrived by jeep after a horrendous day. Somehow they got lost in those pretty mountains of the first leg – for a really, really long time. And as delirium and dehydration set in, they finally pushed their help button on the spot tracker and were rescued. I didn’t catch the whole story, but I do believe there was a loose horse involved there somewhere as well. Marcus’s mom Sarah had rested up that day – recovering from her sprung rib and fortunately was not part of the latest rescue. Unfortunately, it meant both Tyga and Marcus were officially no longer competing in the race, having been moved up by Jeep.
We snuggled into our sleeping bags, batted the beetles away and fell asleep.
Knock! Knock! The door to the ger was thrown open.
“Guys, just so you know, the race has been delayed. The rivers are flooding and we can’t get the vehicles across. You’ll have to hold up here until 10 am tomorrow,” said the vet Jess.
We all grunted and moaned happily and promptly fell back to sleep.
Knock! Knock! Really? I peaked out of my sleeping bag for a second time.
“Party down by the lake guys! Come on, you don’t have to get up early! Come on!” taunted John. Then just as quickly as he appeared he was gone – surely setting off to harass riders in the other ger.
Richard, Sarah and I stumbled out into the cold night air. The stars were brilliant and twinkled out over the lake. I have this fear-of-missing-out (FOMO) that prompted me to trot down to the lakeside campfire for an evening of dirty jokes and warm Mongolian beer.
As the night grew colder I felt strange. Unbalanced. I retired early, something just wasn’t right.
Mongol Derby Blog - Day 3
Posted by Sophia Mangalee at 23rd August 2011 at 14:20
“This little pinto here looks good,” Jenny, the vet said in a low voice as I ambled up to her.
“Great! I’ll take that one.”
“The horses are a bit hard to saddle here, but they are fine once you get on,” she reassured me with her New Zealand accent.
I watched wide-eyed as three men courageously tried to saddle my chosen pinto (who was turning himself into a pretzel), while hobbled with his three legs tied together. They couldn’t do it, so they tried another one, also a pinto. After that one jettisoned my saddle across the horse station, they went back to the original, held him down and got my saddle secured.
Well, no time like the present to leap on board and see what type of horse power I had secured for leg one of day three. And boy did I get a good one. After narrowly avoiding being close lined on the horse line, I was off! The little pinto eagerly leapt forward and we were away with a quick but controlled canter. Kevin, my South African partner was soon right behind me and we settled into a quick trot on happy horses. It wasn’t long before we came upon Richard, who had started out ahead of us. Seems his horses would run out of steam about 10 km, but with our two churning along, his horse joined the party and we made quick work of the morning kilometers.
“Who is that?” Richard asked, or maybe it was Kevin.
“Over there, across the hill. Is that Tommy?”
“Sure is, but where is Cara?”
The day before, Tommy and Cara had teamed up to ride together. It seemed that Tommy was eager to continue their association, begging Cara to ride with him the next day so neither would have to ride alone again, but there was Tommy dashing across the hills sans Cara. Once again, Cara would be riding alone. There had been quite the commotion that morning as they attempted to saddle Tommy’s horse. Seems the horse station crew was encouraging him not to take the hard to handle mount, yet he insisted. He would come to regret that decision in just a few short hours.
We made quick time on the way to horse station seven. The landscape was rolling hills with unusual rock formations. We crested one of many gentle hills and came upon a small herd of horses, and there amongst them was the most amazing stallion I’ve ever seen in person, in books or in movies. I don’t even remember his color, just the impression of him. He was a dream horse that went beyond the world of dreams and nightmares. His mane cascaded in waves down past his knees and just brushed the ground, his tail was a thick cord. He peered at us through a forelock that was a waterfall flowing off his nose and we could barely see his deep brown eyes or read his intentions. Would he come to investigate these intruders? Kevin, bless his soul, rode right up to get a photo. I was too in awe to reach for my own camera. In fact, I don’t think I wanted a record of him. I’d rather save the memory selfishly for myself and that way he stays in my magical dream land of Mongolia.
We chattered about the stallion near all the way to the next horse station, which is perhaps why we made a wrong turn and found ourselves on the hill across the river from the station upon arrival. We were making our way down a steep bank to cross the little valley below to the horse station when we spotted Tommy arriving at the horse station across the way.
Suddenly, Tommy’s horse was running loose with a nearby herd and the small boy that had ridden out to greet us dashed after him. Tommy was standing staring after it.
We watered our horses nonchalantly in the little stream and then made our way slowly up to the horse station. What’s another loose horse anyway? I would not dismount until I reached the station, not wanting the same scenario as Tommy had as my horse was still a bit flighty and nervous with people on the ground. We were surprised to see Marcus and Sarah at the horse station as well. Seemed they had had a rough day on day two and were getting a casual start to day three. Tyga was with them.
“Where’s Tommy?” Richard asked.
“He had his thumb ripped off, clear down to the bone. The medics are working on him now,” said Marcus, “I saw it, it was disgusting.”
No shit Sherlock. Seems when Tommy dismounted he had his rein wrapped around his thumb and he dismounted by swinging his leg over the horse’s neck, instead of over the back. The unusual dismount spooked the horse and he ran backwards, taking Tommy’s thumb with him.
Karma’s a bitch.
The third casualty of the Mongol Derby was in the books as they transported Tommy back to Ulaaanbatar.
The Mongol Derby continued. For the journey to horse station eight, Kevin was saddled with a stallion. Knowing I wanted a horse that would go along well with his, I picked this pretty, feminine cream colored gelding that was on the line next to his stallion. The horse was tiny but a real sweetheart and off we went up the river valley into these beautiful mountains were we saw the first “forest” of any sort. The trees had strange twisted branches with a ghostly white bark. Most were dead.
Photo: Kevin's (wild) stallion
We caught up to Marcus, Sarah and Tyga and had a fun trip down the mountains and across these enormous sand dunes to horse station eight. Time passes amazingly quickly when you have a good horse and good company.
Photo: You can see the sand dunes in the middle of the photo. The pile of stones is a prayer monument. You circle clockwise three times, adding a stone each time.
I was a little nervous as we came into the vet check as my horse had been coughing along the route, but he didn’t seem to be in too much distress so I thought we would have no problem.
Photo: My cream colored gelding.
Marcus, then Sarah, Tyga, Kevin and Richard all made it through on the first check. Mine was 72 and had to be at 64. No worries, a little drink from the stream, a nice roll in the dirt, a pee, and he would be fine. Thirty minutes later he wasn’t.
“He’s the most listless horse I’ve seen the whole race. It’s obvious he’s sick and it’s not your fault,” said Sara the horse station vet. “I’m going to pass you through – it’s safer to ride with others and it’s the right thing to do.”
I breathed a sigh of relief and rather than agonize over the next horse to pick, I turned to the owner of the ger and implored his opinion. He promptly picked out this snappy red chestnut. There was something odd about him as he rode him once around the horse line. His legs seemed to move in a peculiar manner I’d seen somewhere before…
That’s it! He’s pacing, legitimately pacing. Good heavens, what a ride this will be. When a horse paces the legs on each side move in tandem. Think of watching speed skating at the Olympics when two skaters are right behind each other and in sync. Right legs, left legs and they sway back and forth. That is what a pacing horse does. It is horribly uncomfortable to ride, but efficient and normally quite quick for the horse.
Lucky for me, upon mounting I found my new steed preferred to canter instead and had a canter as smooth as fresh churned butter. We left the horse station in good order. Sarah was trotting along with Marcus’s giant water bottle. Seems Marcus’s camelback wasn’t working and he had dislocated a finger and couldn’t carry it on his own. It made a comical picture.
About15 km into the ride I realized that we were going to be hard pressed to make it into horse station nine by 8 pm. Especially if our horses petered out at the end as they all had a tendency to do. Richard, sensing my eagerness to break away from the pack joined me and we made quick time away from the others. After a few kilometers, we glanced back to see Kevin pushing on hard after us, the others were not to be seen.
“Where are they?” I asked, thinking they were just moving more slowly.
“Sarah got bucked off, they are catching her horse.”
Oh dear. Having seen my horse’s derriere disappear over a ridge, I knew what she must be feeling, but we realized there was little we could do but press on. The rest of the ride was uneventful and we barely made it to horse station nine by 8 pm, only to find out that riding hours were to be extended to 8:45 pm each night because horses were not prepared by 6 am at most horse camps.
Owen and Rose Patterson, the husband and wife team from Britain, were in camp. But where were the others? Frederique and Regina had not yet passed station nine and we had not seen them en route. They were now behind us.
“I was so lost, for seven hours,” she sobbed. From then on she would refuse to use her gps, instead relying on others to show her the way.
Twenty minutes later Frederique rode in to camp and explained that after she and Regina got lost three times, they finally went their separate ways. They had been lost in the mountains for hours.
Still to appear were Marcus, Sarah and Tyga. As we settled into the ger, not expecting any others, the three musketeers appeared, much the worse for wear. After Richard and I had broken away from them, Sarah’s horse proceeded to buck her off three times. The third time resulted in a possible broken rib or “sprung” rib as the medic described it. Marcus also hit the deck after trying to catch his mother’s horse. Ironically the buck-off seemed to reset his dislocated finger and return it to a proper state. Finally, Tyga lost her horse when she tried to reattach her kit and the horse would have none of it. It had been a rough leg for all three.
Again we settled in expecting no more excitement in the night – eight of us snuggled in the ger. Then in came Jason. Jason?! Seems he was 20 km to the next horse station when his horse had a bucking fit. And while he didn’t get dislodged, he dismounted, pressed the help button and refused to get back on his extremely dangerous mount. It was the oddest thing. These seemingly tired horses would suddenly have a burst of energy mid leg and wreak havoc on everyone. We scooted aside and made room for Jason. It was quite the stopover with nine people in one ger for the night.
One only wonders what tomorrow could possibly bring. Word from the grapevine is South African’s Craig and Britain’s Olivia are still pressing hard in the lead. The last time I had seen Olivia was at the first horse station when her horse cleared the vet check and I received my two hour penalty. Don’t expect to see her again!
Mongol Derby Blog - Day 2
Posted by Sophia Mangalee at 22nd August 2011 at 20:06
“Pssst! Are you awake?”
I grunted louder.
“They are still asleep,” said Frederique, gesturing towards our gently snoring hosts across the ger. “What should we do?” she asked.
Hell if I know. The race organizers had told us most families of the steppe are up at 4:30 am and off with the herds. Our host family apparently was taking a day off as it was fast approaching 5:30 and as evidenced by the sounds emulating from the pile of bodies, they were unlikely to be getting up soon.
Frederique tiptoed across the ger to her saddle bags to find her contacts and I assessed my body. Movement, check. Able to sit up, check. Bum sore, check.
“I have to go to the bathroom Frederique,” I said as I gingerly moved to the edge of the bed.
“What about the dogs?”
I froze. Suddenly I didn’t have to go quite as bad. The resident canine was a ferocious looking Rottweiler cross that took his job very seriously and I didn’t fancy an encounter with him with my pants down.
Finally our host woke up, stumbled outside and with that we were right behind him ready to get our horses. As we gathered our things, we found our host had returned to bed, but not after having turned our hobbled horses loose for a little morning snack. No worries, my bay creature was a tame sort and took to being caught and saddled. Frederique’s dun on the other hand had second thoughts about continuing the race with us. I still don’t quite understand how two horsewomen were unable to catch a horse with three of his legs tied together. With the six o’clock hour destined to pass us by, Frederique returned to the ger to beg some help from our host.
We were less than 15 km from horse station four and made quick time, rolling into the station around 7:30 am. We passed through the vet check quickly, snatched our next horses off the line and prepared to be off.
We didn’t make it 20 yards before mine started coughing up a lung. We had been informed at start camp that a virus had been making it’s way through the herds and should we get a sick horse, return it immediately for an alternate or face the consequences of being stuck midway between horse stations with a flailing horse. Frederique patiently waited by as they selected a stout bay for me and we once again took off after a 15 minute delay.
This was it! No one would anticipate us bravely sleeping outside of a horse station on the first night. We were now just one hour behind the lead pack. We were launching a sneak attack. At least that is what was going through my mind six km from horse station four when my wonderful bay suddenly took a right hand turn and decided to audition as a professional rodeo bucking horse.
Oh-my-God – no really, that’s what I was praying. Amazing how much you can process as the animal you are on is determined to shed itself of you, your saddlebags and saddle. I must admit I was quite proud of myself as I stuck to my bucking bronc like glue, even taking a moment to take a sip of water from my camelback hose. After about 20 jumps, I realized two things. A, he was going faster and becoming more dangerous, and B, there was no way I was going to get his head back up and stop the bucking.
I did the only thing I could think of. I bailed. Spectacular flying dismount – 10.0 landing. My horse continued to buck around us in a circle, in his mind thinking my loose saddlebags were surely a mountain lion attacking.
Suddenly, his head came up and realizing he was free of at least one offending piece of luggage, he set off towards a distant ridge back in the direction of the horse station.
“Are you ok?” Frederique asked.
Guessing correctly that she was referring to my physical well being and not my wounded pride I answered affirmatively. I encouraged her to continue on without me and then took off at a trot after my wayward steed. He crested the ridge and that was the last time I would ever see him. By the time I reached the ridge he had completely disappeared and the medic team camped in the ravine hadn’t seen hide nor hair of him. Uh-Oh.
They graciously gave me a lift back to the horse station where Shatra and Unenburen (horse organizer extraordinaire) organized a search party while I deflated into a defeated heap on the ground. That’s it. I’m out of the race. Everyone we passed in the evening made their way through the station one by one and rode on. Barry and Joe, who had such terrible luck the day before, left riding hard and I knew they would make a run on the leaders. Their camera crew spotted me looking dejected and figured it would make for a great interview. I managed not to cry.
After about two hours, I could see the silhouette of the last rider making his way in from the east. Suddenly horse and rider became two and the horse took off to join mine. Only thing was it was in sight of camp and the locals quickly rounded up Ronald’s horse. Mine was still not to be found.
In that moment I realized that this was no longer a race for me. Shit happens and damn it if I wasn’t going to have fun. When I had asked my jockey husband for competitive advice prior to leaving, he said simply have fun and the rest will come to you.
By then I’d been on four horses for the morning and gone no further than 15 km. The replacement, replacement horse was a spooky, sparkling red chestnut that took offense to every rock and bush along the track. Not a mean horse, but the type that takes his flight instinct to the extreme and sees boogey men in every shadow. I was encouraged when I saw another rider in the distance that turned out to be Paul, one of the South Africans. His horse could only give mine confidence and two horses are faster than one. At the time I didn’t realize how true that would be.
We sweated through another hot afternoon, but after cooling my heels for 2.5 hours, I was happy to be in the saddle. And there was something wildly freeing about not having a stitch of kit besides that which was on my back. As the kilometers rolled by I noticed that Paul was no longer with me. His horse kept dropping back and finally refused to go faster than a slow walk regardless of what Paul did.
I would set out on the next leg on my own again, but luckily reunited with my saddle and saddlebags. My previous mount was found wandering in the hills after four and a half hours and all my gear was still intact – including my precious camera.
The following video I made shortly before happening upon South African Kevin – another stroke of luck.
My slow horse and I were happily making our way to horse station six when I caught sight of Kevin. I was excited and grateful for another human being to ride with and we set off with confidence over the nearest ridge, sure we’d make the next horse station with no trouble.
I wanted to curl up on a rock and die. For hours we zigzagged across the rugged landscape. Down steep ravines and up the never ending mountains we rode. As we headed down one particularly steep part I realized if we got stuck or injured, there was no way any vehicle could ever reach us. And at the rate we were going, there was a good chance we’d be stuck there for the night. It was the only time during the entire race that I felt a twinge of true despair. As the skies darkened with the impending evening, we began to eye the crooked trees as potential camps. We got off and led the horses – finding they traveled quicker with us on foot.
“Yikes! Did you feel that?” I yelped.
Damn if we hadn’t got ourselves into a bunch of stinging plants. We promptly mounted up again and continued above the offending fauna, rubbing our thighs where the stings had penetrated our riding clothes.
We finally came upon a dry river canyon with a sandy bottom that seemed to lead in the general direction our gps indicated. After five hours it just spit us out amongst green rolling hills as if it’s deadly ravines and steep canyons were only an illusion and on we trudged to horse station six.
Kevin and I were exhausted. We stumbled into camp at 8:20 pm and I collapsed on the floor of the ger. Our eager hostess was unable to rouse me, and I was unable to move. My shoulders burned from trying to jerk my horse’s head up every time it snatched a bite to eat. Richard finally rolled me back upright and got me to the food table. Tommy and Cara were also there, it was a party!
Day two was finally over. Only six or seven more days to go, I couldn’t even fathom it. But on the positive side of things, at least my horse didn’t do this. Cara – the only other American in the field had the most dreadful pick of horses including this ornery beast that just gave up and lay down in the middle of the road on day one.
Mongol Derby Blog - Day 1
Posted by Sophia Mangalee at 21st August 2011 at 16:51
A nine day race of a lifetime cannot be properly condensed into just a handful of blogs so it is with great effort that I will try to wring my memories out of my exhausted brain and reproduce them for you day by day of my great journey. I hope you enjoy and don't find it too cumbersome. I'll do my best to liven it up with photos and video as well.
To put you in the proper mood and frame of mind, first watch the video below of the herd that thundered past our ger the first three mornings of start camp. This is why I have stars in my eyes when I speak of Mongolia.
As we eagerly leaped off the bus on the first day on that certain hill in the early evening light I had my first step onto the great Mongolian Steppe. I stepped out of reality and into a completely different world. One where the smell of thyme, rosemary and sage tickled my nostrils and a cool dry breeze ruffled my hair. Into a land so vast that I couldn’t see the end of it – just a general horizon that promised more of the same.
But as I stood there and inhaled deeply, I realized the steppe was filled with life. Bugs buzzing, locusts flapping their wings in loud protest and just over the hill a herd of small, plump horses making their way to a watering hole.
Holy Mother of Horses.
Mazoo burst from the line with gusto and in moments I found myself propelled away from the others with just Olivia, Frederique and Sarah keeping pace. I tested the brakes a bit and found I had none. We raced, truly raced the first 35 km. Galloping across the steppe, I was realizing my dream. We whooped and hollered. We grinned at each other like chestershire cats. I think I said it was the greatest moment of my life, but the wind whipped the words away.
In a mere 2 hours and twenty minutes we found ourselves approaching the first horse station – and the first lesson of the course. Having galloped the entire way (really no choice), Mazoo came in with a heart rate of 102. I wasn’t particularly concerned, knowing I had 30 minutes for it to drop to 64. But after a half hour of calm he was only down to 69 and I was hit with a two hour penalty. My glorious start to the Mongol Derby would now be delayed by two hours as I pulled up a seat in the shade of a dusty ger and watched all the others ride on through. Well, most of the others. Frederique and Richard were also hit with penalties. And while waiting for the afternoon to slowly drag on there was suddenly shouting in the camp and a horse returned at high speed – riderless. We quickly identified the saddle as either belonging to Joe or Barry, yet they were not to be seen. And as they rounded up the riderless horse I realized that in this crazy race – anything can happen and will. As Frederique and I prepared to leave on the plump bunch that was left, Barry and Joe came trotting in sans horse. Joe’s horse had gone down in a marmot hole, throwing Joe and when Barry’s horse bolted after its herd mate, he bailed as well. Both were in frustrated spirits but thankfully ok, yet I wouldn’t see them again until the next morning.
Frederique and I were handicapped with a couple of shiny, plump mounts that were the scraps at the station after all the others had picked fleeter steeds. A bit wiser to our horse’s fitness and heart rate, we nursed the two through a five hour leg in the heat of the day. We dismounted and walked in the last kilometer and were rewarded with heart rates of 54.
With evening quickly descending and just two hours left to ride in the day, we picked our next mounts knowing we would not be spending the night at a horse station. We would be on our own and riding fast. We were giddy with the adventure of it all.
My next mount was a small bay with the most uncomfortable gaits of any mount of the entire nine day stretch. Then again, he was one I surely will remember for his jaw numbing roughness. Frederique was blessed with a leggy dun that skipped over the hills and moguls of the marsh land.
We rode hard, knowing the horses would have all night to rest and about 7:45 started eyeing the gers in the valley trying to decide which one to stay at for the night. We finally settled on three gers with a herd of goats out front and the family doctoring sheep’s tails.
We rode slowly up to the ger conscious of the vicious dogs snapping at our feet.
“What should we do?” said Frederique.
Don’t worry. I’ve got this part covered. And as the Mongolian looked at us quizzically (and not too friendly), I dug in my backpack for my secret weapon. A letter in Mongolian that asked if we could stay the night and help us with the horses. He examined it carefully and then with a broad smile waved us off our horses and towards the ger.
The family consisted of an old grandmother with a toothless grin, the man, wife, two children and a tiny baby. There were medals hanging in the back of the ger and we recognized these as the ones given for racing horses and when we pointed to them, the man proudly pointed to his son and indicated that he had won them on their horses. The son could not have been more than eight years old, we were duly impressed.
I cannot say enough about the hospitality of the Mongolian people. With no ability to communicate, we were offered food (bbq’d goat head), drink (airag – fermented mare’s milk) and a bed for the night (Frederique and I became very close). We caused quite a sensation because it seemed the neighbors all came over just to stare and laugh at us. We took it in good spirits and were just bedding down for the night when we heard English, and in strolled Jess, one of the vets. Apparently our spot trackers weren’t functioning properly and they came in to check on us. Lucky for us as well because it seems that our horses had hopped off to their homes in the previous hour and there was a bit of a search and rescue party organized to return them back to the horse line. How they can cover so much ground with three legs tied together is beyond me.
Frederique and I once again attacked sleep with our magical Mongolian bubble just slightly deflated. I guess we weren’t as far removed from reality as we had hoped. Fingers crossed the horses are there in the morning for Day 2.