Derby Diary #13
September 15, 2020
Category: Mongol Derby
Beware the haunted ger
Sometimes you get more than you bargained for out on the steppe. Linda recounts a memorable night and a brush with the supernatural in our 13th Derby Diary:
Linda Vegher- “It was Day 3 and we were approaching HS 9. After having two sluggish horses for the first leg, we had gotten quite far behind. What a contrast after leading for most of Day 2! We rolled in around three in the afternoon, confident we’d make it to the next station. Sitting with the herdsman in the grass, waiting for the horses to cool off on this hot day (after two days of non-stop rain and cold), I selected a slick, thick-bodied red roan with a familiar brand on its flank. The herdsman insisted on getting on first and he promptly jumped on its back and threw it into a wild gallop. Then with no notice the horse balked and planted its front feet. The herdsman flew ass over tea kettle onto the ground right on his head, tumbling into a somersault directly in front of the horse. All the spectating herdsmen laughed hysterically while the horse stood there and gawked at him. With a large grin, the herdsman got up from the ground, dusted himself off, straightened out his hat and handed me the horse. “Well”, I thought to myself, “at least the horse stopped and didn’t run off!”
I got on and Julia, Ben and I set off. We knew that we couldn’t cross the river ahead so our route would be an indirect one and would take us a little longer. We galloped and galloped and galloped….we checked the GPS and realized it was MUCH longer than the direct route. We began to have walk breaks. Suddenly a random dining chair appeared on the trail in the middle of this sandy desert-like steppe, sitting right in our path. It got the best of us: the horses were not amused by this “creature” and sent some of us flying in the air.
The sun was getting lower and lower, my horse’s quarter had officially run out and I had nothing left in the gas tank. I had to walk. Julia and Ben’s horses were still trucking. With an hour left before curfew and a long ways to go, there was no way I was making it – but they could. I assured Julia and Ben that I’d be fine, saying “PLEASE do not stay with me if you can make it. Surely there will be a ger with a family soon enough or I’ll camp in the wild, it is what it is!” They headed on. They became smaller and smaller in the horizon, and then it was just me and this tired horse. “Chin up” I thought, “things could be worse.”
I had an hour to find a campsite or ger if I wanted to stay in the race; yet there were no gers along the route. I decided to camp. Just when I’d made up my mind and prepared mentally for a night alone on the steppe, I saw a little blurb in the far off horizon. Was it a motorcycle? Maybe a herdsman? Surely it was something interesting. It was Ben! His horse’s quarter had run out too and he was feeling worried about me being solo on the steppe so close to a road. A gentleman in the steppe – a sight for sore eyes indeed.
It still didn’t change the fact that we had about 45 minutes to find a spot and were about seven miles from HS 10. We finally came across an oddly quiet ger next to the river. With time running out, we decided to camp. The ger was locked (which we thought was strange) and the mosquitos were out in full force. The horses are so tired they didn’t even seem to notice the swarms. After watering the horses, we set up camp on the other side of the road further from the river. A herdsman appeared out of the blue, barreling down on his tapestry-adorned dirt bike, grinning from ear to ear. We scurried to find our translation cards and books. Mine was destroyed from the two days of torrential rain and the muddied translations were a blurred mess. We went around and around communicating with the herdsman. He would not let us stay in the ger. He was determined and adamant about it, which is very contrary to Mongolian culture (they are the most hospitable). Something was just not right. This was not the herdsman’s ger, but he wouldn’t let us stay there.
After many futile exchanges of pointing, hand gestures, and sharing translation cards, the herdsman finally drew a truck in the sand and insisted we go to his ger. After 20 minutes of Mongolian charades, I turned to Ben and said “He’s trying to get us the truck – you have to go with him! If you get on the bike with him, we aren’t breaking the rules. I’ll stay with the horses.”
Off they went in a whirl, zipping down and out into the horizon. I was alone again and it was almost dark. I watched the horses lazily graze, and thought “Ok, maybe that wasn’t the best decision…but it was obvious the herder was genuinely trying to help.” Meanwhile I sent messages to headquarters that we were fine, that we were camping and the horses were tired so we had to stop.
There was still no Ben 20 minutes later and the mosquitoes were thick in the air. I finally saw headlights coming down the road. It was the Adventurists checking in on us. Still no Ben though, and I thought “Yikes, maybe that was a bad idea!” Then not 5 minutes later, large beaming headlights came bouncing across the steppe. It was the herdsman and Ben in a big truck. I was so relieved.
The Adventurists’ crew had a translator with the group and we found out that what the herdsman was so concerned about. We were on superstitious ground! Someone had been murdered in the locked ger we were trying to stay in! According to Mongolian culture, the site was haunted. We had to sleep in the truck much further away from this bad Mongolian juju! That night, we slept in the back of a covered truck with our own private body guard standing watch. It was the best night’s sleep I had the whole race!