Six days into our trip the big passes were behind us and we had only a few days of easy riding through the wide river valleys before returning to UB and flying home.
After a gentle 40km we stopped in the early afternoon at a glade of larch trees beside the road. Even though the road was just dusty double-track it linked two valleys that was used by maybe one jeep an hour, making it positively bustling compared to some of the places we had camped, so we decided to wait until dusk before putting up our tents.
We spent the rest of the day lazing around soaking up the sun, reading and cooking dinner. Later, as the light began to fade and the air cooled, two figures – an old lady and a young boy – approached from the nearest ger. The woman spoke quickly in Mongolian, gesturing at the tents, mimicking driving and then pointing to the hillside on the opposite side of the valley. We had no idea what she was getting at but she seemed to be delivering a specific message. However as she wasn’t that persistent so we reasoned that it couldn’t be all that important. Nonetheless I was left with a lingering feeling of unease.
Message delivered, if not received, she returned to the ger while the boy stayed behind. We chatted as well as two people with no common language can, then after a while he too began pointing at the hillside. Eventually, after much gesturing and confusion, we established that there was a wolf living in the rocks up on the hillside. They, assuming we had a car nearby, were trying to tell us that we should drive away and camp elsewhere as it wouldn’t be safe with the wolf prowling around.
Instantly my mind was made up, we couldn’t spend the night here. So in the fading light we quickly packed and walked the short distance over to the ger where we hoped we could camp under the protection of their dogs. The old woman seemed happy to see us and after we had put up our tents she invited us into the ger.
This ger was very utilitarian in contrast to the richly decorated gers in the tourist camps. The sole concession to the last thousand years was the LED strip light hooked up to a car battery that illuminated two beds, a dresser and a small table. The rest of the space was taken up with strips of meat hanging from the roof poles and buckets of milk destined to become cheese.
Life as a nomad is hard and they have no hesitation welcoming and helping their fellow travellers. We were given bowls of suutei tsai – steaming milk tea and – and some urum – a beautiful cream cheese – and bread to dip in it. We showed the kids photos on our phones and established that they were staying with their grandmother while they father, a soldier, and mother worked in the city. It was sobering to see how little they owned.
After a very surreal game of darts, we said our goodbyes and stepped out of the warmth into a clear, cold night. Once I had put on every item of clothes I had – I underestimated how cold the nights would get – I quickly fell asleep.
A number of times throughout the night I was woken by the frantic barking of the dogs. It seemed the wolf was on the prowl. Content that the dogs had my back I fell back into a deep sleep. In the morning I realised that the dogs had discovered my food supplies while I was in the ger and scoffed the lot.
A small price to pay for a night’s protection.