After working in Beijing for six months, around-the-world cyclist Charlie Walker is back in a very different kind of saddle
Buying a horse involved being put in touch with my cousin's Mongolian friend's nephew's friend Puujee. I cycled the 50 miles from Ulaanbaatar to the village of Bayanchandmani, where I met Puujee, and was quickly whisked away into the hills in his van with his two giggling daughters. His herder friend lived in an isolated ger (traditional circular felt tent) and had three horses for sale.
My previous equine experience consisted of a three-day trek with guides in Mongolia three years earlier and once falling, near-naked and beyond intoxicated, off an English horse after a terrifying 12 yard bareback bolt. However, my resolve to go on a solo horse trek formed on my last visit to Mongolia and had since fermented and solidified into an unavoidable certainty. A huge, fenceless country with a still-existent nomadic, horseman culture was simply too tempting.
With a small crowd of amused onlookers, I test rode each horse and did my best to appear in the know by checking teeth, hooves, body fat, infected wounds, demeanour and spines. I didn't know exactly what to look for in each of these areas but I gave knowing grunts, nods and sighs when examining each. At length I settled on a small, fat, bay gelding. He was relatively calm (despite kicking me once during inspection) and seemed sturdy despite his diminutive size. The price was laboriously hammered out that night over liberal vodka, snuff, airag (fermented mare's milk) and mutton soup; each administered with a great deal of ceremony. A deal was struck and a couple of days later I found myself mounted and directing my new steed, Nicky, away from the village and testing how he coped with the combined weight of me and my loaded saddlebags.
I was genuinely daunted. Except for observing Puujee saddle the horse, I knew next to nothing. What if Nicky escapes? What if he throws me off and I break a bone miles from help? What if I can't look after him and he suffers, or even dies? What if he's stolen? It was going to be a steep learning curve.
Temporarily shelving my fears, I allowed Mongolia's seemingly boundless greenness to swallow me whole. I was soon deep in a grassy valley with no traces of humanity in sight. Following a west north-west compass bearing I rode steadily on; dismounting for the steeper climbs.
I pushed the horse hard hoping a baptism of fire would most effectively show me his capabilities and establish my dominance. It was a hot day and I prevented my mount from grazing as we went to set a precedent. He had been left free for some time (his rotund belly affirming this) and resented being deprived of grass. Suddenly angry, he violently bucked with no forewarning. The saddlebags were thrown off and a glass jar of pasta sauce within was smashed. He then refused my bribes (of carrots, sugar lumps and peppermints) I tried to calm him with. It was a messy start to our partnership.
Camping that evening brought new responsibilities and new challenges: finding ample grazing, tethering and hobbling Nicky. I had a hatchet and a sturdy stake so tethering was simple but kneeling down by his front legs was the last place I wanted to be while I fumbled with the lockable, metal hobbles (effectively handcuffs to hinder fast flight in case of theft).
I slept nearby in a bivvy bag having foregone my tent in favour of travelling light. It had been an exhausting first day and I soon fell asleep; staring at the stars and being lulled by the gentle clink-clank of the hobbles. It was a new experience to have another being to look after before myself.
Charlie Walker is a bicycle adventurer who is a quarter of the way through a four year, 40,000 mile cycle trip to the four corners of the Earth. He is hoping to raise £20,000 for a variety of charities. You can follow his exploits on his website, CharlieWalkerExplore.