The morning of the Thunderhoof Ride back to Lapis Sky Camp I was a little hung over. Way too much Mongolian vodka the night before. Let me tell you straight out that their vodka will make you go blind, or, at least in my case, make you lose your glasses. Somewhere between the bonfire where we ate and drank the night before and my tent, maybe 75 yards, I lost my glasses. Dammit.
We packed up our gear, sleeping bags, air mattresses, and tents and turned this stuff over to the Mongolians who loaded it into their Russian-made trucks, jeeps and whathaveyou. The weather was cold and threating rain. The Ride was going to be brutal: four hours and twenty miles over varying terrain saddled to a horse that really, really wanted to ride as hard as he could. I knew it would be a long slog but I wouldn’t want to experience Mongolia without Thunderhoof.
I dressed out in a ski jacket, long sleeve shirt, pants, wet weather cammo pants over the pants, leather ski gloves, riding boots and half chaps, desert hat underneath my riding helmet.
And since it was a Thursday, I also wore a tie. Back when I was an engineer, I started a custom of wearing a tie on Thursdays. The company I worked for (whose name fittingly enough rhymes with “boring”) had gone to a “smart casual” dress code (no tie) but just once a week I wanted to wear a tie. I became known for it. After I quit, I was able to keep up the custom with Facebook and post my Thursday tie. Friends started checking out my tie and where I was and what I was doing. However, I was Off the Grid; it would be a while before anyone saw my Thursday Tie.
Spencer my horse was waiting with the others; already saddled and standing quietly he was his usual taciturn self. When I put my hand on him to say hello, however, he was shivering. This I wasn’t expecting. A Mongolian horse shivering in July? This beast had survived the brutal winters here; how could he be cold? Then I realized he was actually trembling with anticipation. He wanted me to mount up and get on with it.
There were about a dozen or so of us travelers and about half decided that Thunderhoof wasn’t for them. So they crammed into a jeep and waved goodbye at us horse crazies as they pulled out of camp. We mounted our horses and the Mongolian horsemen released the riderless horses to gallop on their own back to Lapis Sky. We were given our briefing and told to stay together and keep the pace down to a trot.
Easier said than done. When Spencer and the others saw the riderless horses galloping away, their competitive nature emerged. No horse wanted to take it at an easy trot. All wanted to gallop and gallop hard. We started off and immediately it was a wrestling match with the horses. Mongolians got out front but soon the other horses wanted to lead. Spenser pulled and pulled and pulled at the reins because he wanted to lead. Restraining this willful half-wild animal to stay behind the Mongolians was going to be my most difficult task.
On the trail it started to rain and then it stopped. The wind blew and then the rain came again. There was fog here and there smothering the hills and the overcast sky was gloomy and our mood subdued. We riders didn’t say much as we were concentrating on the terrain underneath and ahead. We followed the trail and at times it was a little hard to see. We had to ride uphill for an hour or so to a plateau, cross it and then descend down into the valley to Lapis Sky.
After a few miles Spencer was settling in on the pace and not fighting me too hard. His impatience at the beginning of the ride gave way to a steady controlled trot once we had ridden for a while. His trembling had ceased and he was glad to be moving.
We crested the flat plateau and for the first time were able to gather together as a modern day Mongol horde. There were about a dozen or so riders: Mongolians, travelers, our interpreters and leaders. The feeling of the horses and riders moving across grass, gravel and rock as a cohesive unit was intoxicating. The horses were trotting shoulder-to-shoulder and this concentrated the sound of hooves and saddles and leather. I began imagining what it would be like to be in Genghis Khan’s army, assembled for a warcharge towards a terrified opponent, the cavalry line stretching hundreds of yards across the battlefield, hundreds and hundreds of horse and riders focused on the attack.
Key to the Mongol army success was the horse. Sometimes covering as much as 100 miles in a day, each warrior brought multiple horses with him so he could ride and ride without wearing down the one animal. The warfighter could battle from horseback using the Mongol Bow, sword and battle axe. They fought on the move, swirling around and engulfing their opponent astride the descendants of wild zebra.
Khan was known for his innovative ways of waging war. It was said by historians that he never fought the same way twice. Always morphing his tactics he conquered more of the world than anyone; Asia, the Middle East, Europe would all know him and his Mongol army. Khan’s armies sometimes used siege engines, designed and built on the spot by its engineers using materials found at the enemy’s front door. The Mongols used psychological warfare, deception, intimidation, encirclement, feigned retreat and the local civilians and conquered enemy soldiers as human shields. They were known to give a soon-to-be-attacked town the option to surrender and then absorb them into its ranks if they acquiesced. If the city didn’t surrender it would be attacked, plundered, slaughtered.
Off and down the plateau we rode and the trail narrowed. We quickly passed areas we had seen a few days before and we kept up the pace. We passed through forest and open plains, passed small nomad camps and their wary dogs. Soon the riverplain leading to Lapis Sky became visible.
Even though we had been riding for hours, the horses accelerated into a canter. For miles and miles we rode and short-legged Spencer made life atop him painful. At walk or trot speed, the ride was bearable, even relaxing. At a canter it was if a resonance was formed between me and him and the ride feel was like I was strapped to a diesel engine pulling up a steep highway grade in Colorado.
Up and then down one more pass and the white gers of Lapis Sky were in the distance. Across the flat grassy straightaway to the finish at Lapis Sky was at a gallop. Spencer and I and the others made the twenty miles in three hours, not four. The fastest Thunderhoof ride ever. I was beat up, spent. My knees were stiff and almost useless as I climbed off Spencer. I gave him a big pat on the shoulders and told him he was a great horse. And that he was. He carried my bulk miles and miles with enthusiasm. I could see how an army could conquer vast areas with horses like him.
This was a great trip. I saw a lot, rode a lot, photographed a lot, did things most Americans know next to nothing about. This is the way life should be experienced.