Mongolia Journal ~ 3 Getting into the swing of things (with eagles!)

This is the third edited extract from my Mongolia Journal, covering days 3 and 4 of my two-week horse trek. With photos!


27 June 2015

Lunch stop – Day 3

selfie_ellen with Sir PlacidWe’re at lunch in a long flat valley with a train line and a town in the distance. The night was wild and cold, and it rained heavily. I wore a fair few layers, plus dragged out the Mongolian blanket to put on top of my sleeping bag. Since I used that as a pillow the first night, this left me without a pillow, which wasn’t too comfortable. Hmm.

This morning we visited the ger of Ganaa’s friend. They served us Mongolian tea (salt, milk, water, some herb) and a range of homemade snacks: a bread/cake thing, milk curd (not very appetising) and some milk cream/half butter. It was lovely hospitality, but strange, because our hosts wouldn’t make eye contact or even try to communicate with us. We stayed about half an hour.

Since then, we’ve cantered and trotted quite a bit, before watering the horses just near today’s lunch stop. We’ve just watched a herd of horses come up to the shallow waterhole near where we’re sitting. A couple of them rolled in the muddy water as though having a bath; but, since they are decidedly not clean now, they were probably just trying to cool down.

It’s wonderful watching the horses interacting, gaining an appreciation for herd dynamics. The stallion is very much the dominant presence, making sure all his mares are together, actively rounding them up if they wander too far. One of the horses stood in the water splashing it up onto his stomach with one of his front hooves. Another (a chestnut) stood in the water with his head on the shoulder of a beautiful grey. Among the mares, the foals are often lying flat on the ground beside their mothers, out for the count.

Day 3 - lunch stop

Day 3 – lunch stop with freight train

Evening – Day 3 (near the town of Nalaikh)

Our camp is on a sloping grassy hill where the horses are grazing. I’m still temporally challenged. Ganaa (our horsewoman) asked us if we were tired and we said we were fine (perhaps a slight untruth on my part). Turns out it was probably closer to 6:30pm than 4pm as we thought. We continued on to this campsite and have just eaten. It’s after 9pm. (Yes, OK I’m struggling with the time thing. Everything is taking longer than it seems. Apparently we left our lunch stop at about 4pm. I’m just going to try to accept the routine — such as it is — and stop obsessing about what time it is…)

Our post-lunch ride was great. Lots of cantering and trotting. We also had to cross a main road, which was quite scary.

Day 3 - camp

Day 3 – camp

Day 3 - sunset

Day 3 – sunset

28 June 2015

Early afternoon – Day 4 (near the town of Nalaikh)

It’s sometime in the early afternoon and we haven’t left camp yet. But that’s OK… there’s a very good reason.

First up this morning was the dawn. We were both woken by the call of some sort of magpie (we think). Unlike Australian magpies, which have a beautiful call, this did not. Anyway, the light outside looked reddish, and I had the sudden urge to see dawn breaking over the steppes. Unzipping our tent, I found we were perfectly oriented to witness a magnificent dawn display — all pink and gold. We watched it for about 15 minutes, took photos and thanked the magpie (which we dubbed the “tourist bird”, assigned to wake campers to see beautiful dawns). I slept some more after that and I think we woke quite late.

Day 4 - dawn

Day 4 – dawn over the steppes

After breakfast, we went into the nearby town of Nalaikh for a shower. This was an interesting — albeit wonderful — experience. The water was hot, pressure fine; all in all perfectly adequate for getting clean and washing hair. Yay! (It had, after all, been four days since our last shower.) The facilities, on the other hand, were pretty ramshackle. Although they did seem clean. But, contrary to our expectation of a facility offering running water, there were no toilets!

OK, so by Mongolian standards, there was a toilet. Upon asking for it, we were directed out the door into the lane out the back, where we found a ramshackle hut. Inside this hut — which had no door — was a hole.

Yep. A thunderbox with no door. Opening onto a laneway.

No. Just NO.

Sigh.

After our shower, we found a shop with bananas! And then a cafe latte! With our clean hair, banana and coffee, we were pretty happy by the time we got back to camp.

Evening – Day 4 (Tuul River)

After leaving camp, we rode for a while before stopping at a roadside bazaar. (We were asked if we wanted to detour to see a camel. I was ambivalent.) In the end I was glad we went, because, camel aside, the roadside attraction had eagles!

Day 4 - roadside eagles

Day 4 – roadside eagles (L-R black vulture, golden eagle, white tailed eagle, black vulture)

There were a golden eagle (Mongolian hunting bird, approx 8kg), a white-tailed eagle (Mongolian fishing bird, 7kg) and two black vultures (Mongolia’s largest bird, 15 and 20kg respectively). For a modest fee, we could hold the golden eagle — the most beautiful bird, soft feathers. Amazing. (Yes, it was all a bit tacky, and I wasn’t comfortable seeing these glorious raptors tethered on posts at the side of a main road; but how else to get that close?)

Day 4 - Me with a golden eagle. Gorgeous.

Day 4 – Me with a golden eagle. Gorgeous.

The other thing that happened this afternoon involved Ganaa going off in the car with David to “get products for dinner”, leaving Burmaa (our fairly novice guide) leading Ganaa’s horse. Our instructions were to “keep following the road until we catch up”, which we did until we reached a point (a town and a river) at which we had to stop and wait. And wait… And wait.

Day 4 - while waiting, we took photos! This is me with my horse.

Day 4 – while waiting, we took photos! This is me with my horse.

It was a bit uncomfortable, because they’d left Burmaa without a phone and we were waiting for at least half an hour, probably longer. They eventually turned up in the car at around 7 or 8pm, having had their own showers back at Nalaikh. Fortunately our current campsite was nearby. It’s on the side of a hill overlooking the Tuul River, which winds its way through the steps towards UB.

For dinner we had the most delicious thing — a fried noodle dish with spices called tsuiwan. Easily my favourite dish here so far. The sunset tonight was beautiful to match the dawn.

Day 4 - camp above the Tuul River

Day 4 – camp above the Tuul River

As a side note, the steppes are littered with rubbish (broken glass, plastic bags) and bones. We’ve seen many horse skulls and the skulls of other animals, plus severed limbs and heads. In fact, there’s a dead foal on the hillside not too far from our camp. That’s the natural cycle of life, I guess.


In the next post we ford a river and head towards Terelj National Park…

D&D Chronicles: In which we leave Tippa in a tight spot

ZILLAH

D&D CHRONICLESWe never should have answered the summons from Tippa. She blinded us with gold and an express carriage ride, and I was actually happy to be returning to our house in Kelsen — even though I never wanted to purchase it in the first place. I was also keen to see whether Tippa had managed to unearth some of the magical items we’d requested.

But then she made demands of us, demands I couldn’t in all conscience meet. And everything fell to pieces.

My heart aches for the defeated little girl we abandoned in Kelsen. Gone was the confident young woman heading up the thieves guild, soaring high on the laurels we’d gained for her on our last visit. I remembered too late that her authority still largely depended on our strength. Or the rumour of it.

I do not regret the stand I took. I could never have done the deeds she demanded. Killed people simply as a show of strength. Acted as an enforcer to artisans struggling to feed their families.

But I do regret my naivete about the situation we left in Kelsen the first time, the deal we did indeed strike with Tippa. And I regret not leaving Kelsen as soon as I heard what Tippa wanted. Because I fear by showing our faces there — my recognisable features in particular — we only made things worse.

I have to tell myself that, although Tippa might not survive our recent actions, her life must always have been precarious if she was relying on us to give her credibility. I do not think we will be back this way. Our house in Kelsen is a dead investment. Our path lies north and west. And north.

ALIX

Kelsen. Whose idea was it to buy a house there? What a trap just waiting to be sprung.

I’m glad to be gone. We all have more important things to do than be a little girl’s weapon of choice. Circumstances being what they were last time, there was benefit for us in having Tippa in a position of power in the thieves guild. But she is still a child, with all the tempers and tantrums that go along with being a child.

How dare she whistle and we run. How dare she point her finger and expect us to do damage. As for demanding we attack those leather workers, whose families are starving, simply to set an example… Would coin have magically appeared in their pockets as their blood ran down the cobbles? Foolish, foolish child. I protect homes and hearths, I do not purposefully destroy them.

The others say Tippa is an old head on young shoulders. There is some truth in that, or she would not have risen to head up the guild, but she still has the vanity and insecurity and anger of the young. No matter. About now, I imagine she has no head at all.

And that is a shame. For she was an urchin who dreamed of more, a daughter who loved her mother, a tough girl who got to lead for a short while. But until the end she remained a frightened, vicious child, and perhaps there would never have been a space for her in this city. Not the way she was trying to carve it.

And so we are away. I imagine Tippa’s mother gathering her daughter’s body close, bereft, crying as we ride. As much as it saddens me, in truth I do not see how it could have been another way. Not if she wouldn’t bend when she feared it meant ending on her knees.

Gods! What a mess. How I long for the North.

SQUIRREL

This is all damned inconvenient, I have to say. We were onto a good business in Kelsen. Tippa was keeping the money flowing, even digging up a few handy magical items for us. And all we had to do was slit a throat once in a while to keep her position shored up. Of course our Northern, god-touched heroes paled about that. It’s business, innit? What’s so hard to understand? And now it’s flushed out to sea.

That pair, Zillah and Alix, walking out on us in the face of a couple of dozen het-up leather workers out there on the street; that could’ve gone bad for the three of us with the stones to do the job. We had to cut our losses — and Tippa loose. Didn’t we?

So now poor old Tippa is probably gonna wind up in the sea, and we’ve lost our safe haven (most like) and our income from the guild. All because of a bit of squeamishness.

And, to pour salt in the wounds, I still haven’t had a chance to transcribe the spells that are burning a hole in my backpack. Honestly, is a week of peace and quiet in a well-lit room too much to ask for? Maybe at the Dharian Hills we’ll have some RnR and I’ll finally be able to hit the books, salvage something from this mess. Maybe.

BLIZZARD

I dreamt of Tippa again last night: her face open with innocence, smiling, but then her eyes scrunched up and tears of blood streamed down her cheeks.

Perhaps it is Kaltan punishing me, these dreams. Perhaps he is reminding me that I serve at his pleasure. Or is Tippa herself castigating me for not doing more? She is dead. If not now, then soon. And that knowledge is a boot in my guts. I should’ve done more.

Tippa’s requests were simple. Kill some men who’d been fleecing her. Fleecing us, really, because we left her in Kelsen, managing our affairs. Kill a couple of men and beat up the ringleaders of a guild for refusing to pay their fee. Easy enough.

But then it started: Alix’s and Zillah’s blunt refusals. Their calling on morals. Fuck me – we kill for a living. It’s what we do. But no amount of sweet-talking, reasoning, arguing could sway them. I’ve never seen the party so divided, so fractured. For a while there, I thought this might be the anvil that shattered our steel.

And so it was up to Nightshade, Squirrel and me. We cornered the first upstairs in his office, until he escaped through a trapdoor. Zillah was guarding the backdoor but didn’t give chase. I could’ve knocked the smugness from her face.

Tippa insisted on accompanying us to the next place. I should’ve seen it coming, of course: she’d done it before. But to actually see her, all of fourteen years old, walk right up and open the woman’s throat with her dagger… I was gobsmacked – a little in awe. It was then I recognised her as a kindred spirit, the baby sister I’d never had.

It was the final task that did it. After much arguing, we persuaded Zillah and Alix to accompany us to the guild. This was just a dusting up. Nothing too serious. But these weren’t a people who were trying to subvert anyone’s rule – they were just struggling to subsist. Zillah walked. Alix followed. They left us stranded.

When we returned to Tippa, her eyes went wide and her face blanched. And we knew – all of us – we’d screwed her over royally. This wasn’t just a matter of one guild, but all guilds. We’d snuffed out her authority, as if it were a lantern wick.

Late into the night, we tried but failed to find her a way out. I even lit upon the idea of marrying her. The faces of my party… But if we were married, I could put her under Church protection.

She returned the next day, so brave and so collected. I blurted it out – offered my hand. But she refused. She came across to me, stood on her toes and kissed me on the cheek. “You are a beautiful man,” she said – rather ironic seeing I’d never felt more ugly.

And with that, she walked away, young, poised and radiating a fear she obviously didn’t want to show. And that was the last I saw of her, until she came to haunt me in my dreams.


Thanks to Jason Nahrung (Squirrel), Lita Kalimeris (Alix) and Tracey Rolfe (Blizzard) for the very different perspectives of some interesting events…

All posts on the D&D Chronicles page.

Journal: Nail art and NaNo

I have always liked colour and fun. I wear bright colours. I have purple streaks in my hair. And now I have little flashes of colour on my fingernails as well.

The craze that seems to be sweeping through my social circles is Jamberry nail stickers.

Look:

Those are my fingernails!

I confess this post is merely an excuse to share the above photos — I’m enjoying the challenge of nail/hand photography (for social media) as much as running around with decorated fingernails. A good photo comes down as much to creative cropping as anything. But it’s also so much fun deciding what I’m going to ‘hold’… And natural light is a must.

The lowdown on Jamberry is this: They are vinyl stickers sold online and/or via individual consultants. I’ve found them pretty easy to put on and take off, and they stay on for up to two weeks. There are heaps of designs. However, I’m not doing a full sales spiel — check out DebK or Kirstyn if you are in Australia. (Both good friends of mine and highly recommended as consultants.)


In writing developments, I am in the last week of planning before NaNoWriMo starts. (This is where writers spend November trying to write an entire novel or 50K words.)

It’s been four years since I participated, and this year it comes at a good time for me. My plan is to spend the month churning out as much as I can of the next book in the fantasy series I’m writing. At best, I’ll have the beginnings of something good. At worst, I will have some words down that can be worked into something useful. Win win!

I’m really looking forward to NaNo actually, because I’m in need of some self-discipline, and this will provide some much-needed structure. I also have a five-day writing retreat in the middle of it, which is awesome!

The planning is coming along OK. I have a starting point at least. And I have a very rough idea of the overall arc. I need to decide whether to trust my subconscious and go with whatever NaNo produces, or whether I’m better to have more of an outline. Today I had something of an epiphany, which could affect some things…

I’ll let you know in a month how I go — plus more Jamberry!

D&D Chronicles: Ghostly encounters

Picking up where we left off, Squirrel has just collapsed after attempting to dispel the ward applied to a border of trees around a strange villa in the middle of the desolated Dust Plains…


ZILLAH

The ghost in the villa

D&D CHRONICLES(18 April) Squirrel takes a huge breath and attempts to dispel the ward again.

It’s the third time he’s tried. The last two times he overcast and wasn’t much use for anything for at least a day. As a result we’ve been stranded outside the villa for three whole days. That’s three days of food and water we’re probably going to need on our journey to and from the Temple of Death.

Three days of keeping an eye out for the monstrosities that inhabit the region. Three days in which some unknown person is ransacking the villa, according to Alix, who has been listening in using a clairaudience spell. Smoke rising from a chimney suggests things are being burned. Will there be anything left for us to find? (And how the hell did said person get past the ward?)

Squirrel suddenly gestures with his arms and grunts, “I can hold it for about 20 seconds.” With that, we’re running through the gap in the trees towards the villa courtyard and its dry and dusty fountain. Squirrel arrives looking relieved and rather pleased with himself.

The door to the villa is open.

We gather near the door, uncertain at the sound of footsteps within. It sounds like someone is pacing back and forth. Blizzard uses a spell and detects high intelligence, seething anger and frustration. The footsteps approach and a warrior appears in the doorway. He’s wearing beautiful full-plate armour, black, bearing the markings of the Church of Elloran. He’s wielding an impressive greatsword and looks as though he knows how to use it.

“Help me, or die,” he says. Then tells us he’s looking for a particular book and gives us exactly one hour to find it.

We decide to oblige him, figuring we might discover other things of interest as we go. The villa itself yields nothing, other than a fireplace with the remains of burnt books. We turn our attention outside, and Alix eventually uncovers a hidden door leading to a tiny cellar. Inside are some items of extreme interest: a ring, a dagger, a box containing a wand, an empty backpack, and a… brick. Hmm.

The brick turns out to be a spellbook in disguise. It’s undoubtedly the book the Elloran warrior wants; Squirrel undoubtedly does not want to part with it.

The Elloran warrior strides up, takes the book out of Squirrel’s clutching fingers and leaves. We follow him around the building, into the villa and up to the fireplace. Squirrel almost swallows his tongue as the man throws the spellbook on top of the charred heap of burned books and kindles a fire.

Peace descends upon the warrior’s face as the book goes up in flames. He explains the Vahdrim mages killed his family… then, in the middle of speaking to us, he dissolves into thin air. His armour and greatsword clunk onto the ground.

Defeated by the Dust Plains

(24 April) In the end we’ve put it to the vote: to continue on towards the Temple of Death, or retreat to Issimbaal.

After the villa, we persevered onward through the Dust Plains for several days, encountering strange creatures and abandoned villages. But by my estimate we’re making much slower progress than we envisaged. The road is hard to make out in places, and although we haven’t encountered another dust storm, I don’t think we’ve come even halfway in our journey.

We simply don’t have enough water and food to get all the way there and back without starving… and, although there’s a chance we may find water in Baal, and a chance there’s a portal we can actually use to leave, do we risk our lives on that? Besides, we still need to find a cure for Nightshade.

We’ve voted and we’re heading back to Issimbaal. It’s frustrating as hell, given the time and effort we’ve invested trying to get there. But I don’t think we have much choice.

(26 April) Another night in this cursed barren waste that is the Dust Plains. We’re camping out in the open, when five swirling air elementals attack us out of nowhere. None is as big as the gigantic elemental that almost defeated us last night, but these five also look bent on our destruction.

The encounter doesn’t start well for me. One after the other, my two weapons fly off into the darkness. Nightshade thrusts the hilt of her longsword towards me, but the battle is rapidly escalating out of our control. One of them is pummelling Blizzard. I can’t see what’s happening to the others, because I have my hands full with the one attacking me.

It seems air elementals are to be forever my nemeses. This one is relentlessly gaining the upper hand and I’m growing weak. A healing potion revives me for a bit, but soon I’m slumping to the ground again and blackness descends…

I’m clasped in the embrace of Emrys, my god. He holds and comforts me, infuses me with love and peace and understanding. And a sense of wellbeing. Is this the end? I didn’t think I’d meet my god again so soon after Issimbaal. He is majestic and great...

When I open my eyes, Alix is hovering over me anxiously. I blink up at her, confused. How am I back here? The night sky is resplendent with starlight and I’m sure we’re still out on the Dust Plains. I was dead. I know I was dead. Who has brought me back…?

“Hush, rest,” Alix says and smooths unruly hair back from my brow.

Fleet snuggles up against my side, purring as she nuzzles my face and neck. I wind an arm around her and draw her to my side.

zillah_death3

A success of sorts

(29 April) Geretam, the cleric of Phanator, greets us warmly when we finally arrive back in Issimbaal. His people have created a potion they believe will cure the zombie virus.

Nightshade has deteriorated considerably over the past few days. She was nearly killed in the same battle that did for me. But Blizzard’s quick thinking saved her (I heard afterward). He force-fed blood into Nightshade’s mouth, which brought her around, but then she attacked him viciously. It seems recent events progressed her disease almost beyond recall, and it was only Blizzard’s ability to control undead that enabled us to bring Nightshade back to Issimbaal with us.

The clerics feed a ravening Nightshade the potion… Gradually the fury leaves her, colour returns to her cheeks, the redness leaves her eyes and she rasps a request for water. Food. Not blood. She realises the truth and smiles in relief.

Cheers erupt among the clerics who have witnessed Nightshade being cured. Then they all start talking at once. Their work here is done, they say. Time to leave Issimbaal and return to civilisation.

(5 May) The city of Toressen is wondrous after all those weeks of dust and decay and death. We arrived with the clerics’ party to the news that armies in the south are disbanding and returning home. There’s an air of joy and hope that the 8-year war might be finally over.

We visit the Church of Elloran to try to get a message to Vamis, the cleric who sponsored our quest to Issimbaal, about what happened with the renegade cleric, Elliana. Another cleric (Mikka) gives us a coded message from her, and we reply that we will continue our mission.

The Elloran priests are extraordinarily excited about the armour left by the ghost warrior. They recognise it immediately as belonging to the fabled warrior Olesh, who disappeared 30 years ago. They ask all sorts of questions. In return for restoring the armour to the church, they’re going to outfit us with provisions and other magical items for the next stage of our journey.

And so it continues. Our quest to prevent the rise of the goddess Varrien. Where will it take us next?


This brings our adventures around Issimbaal and the surrounding Dust Plains to a close (a total of six playing sessions). With four deaths and subsequent resurrections, plus a zombification and revival, it was rather a costly exercise. Next session will see us heading out on another phase of the adventure…

How many more lives does Zillah have, I wonder?

Links to all posts in order on the D&D Chronicles page.

trek_day3_steppes

Mongolia Journal ~ 2 Into the steppes

I’ve finally got my act together and have started blogging edited extracts (and PHOTOS) from my Mongolia travel journal. If you missed the first post, it’s here — First Impressions.

This post covers the commencement of our two-week horse-riding expedition. Owing to the nature of journals, events are not necessarily presented in sequential order, so I’ll include the ‘day 1’ etc references for the days of the trek.


25 June 2015

Stepperiders camp

Morning, 8am. Hot sun climbing in the sky. Horses roaming free around the site, grazing, snorting, whuffing contentedly. We’ve just watched mother cat stalk, kill and eat a ground squirrel. She brought it over (still wriggling) near to the shelter we’re sitting in, before she bit its skull and then proceeded to munch her way through the entire animal head to tail. It took her about 5 minutes. Now she’s back at the stalking.

The horses here just roam free when they’re not being ridden, mares with foals among them. Currently a whole herd is grazing around and through the camp — frantic munching and snorting and occasional biffo. They are such beautiful colours. We’re going to watch them get rounded up this morning, among them the ones we’ll ride for the next two weeks. Only the geldings are ridden, but Stepperiders has three stallions, each of which has his own herd. Today, they are rounding up the geldings from the ‘Palomino’s’ herd…

(Later) They rounded up the horses, with one rider first driving them down the hill towards the camp (amazing to watch him ride), and then along a valley into a rickety corral. Because the horses are half wild, they lassoed the horses they wanted, bridled them, then led them to the shed for saddling. This all took rather a while, and it was about midday by the time all the horses were saddled.

stepperiders_roundinghorses

Rounding up the herd

stepperiders_horsecorral

Selecting the riding horses

Meanwhile, mother cat caught another ground squirrel and gave it to her babies. So cute (and slightly disgusting) to watch kittens gnaw on a dead rodent.

26 June 2015

Lunch stop – Day 2

Too exhausted to write last night, but what a day! The first of our horse trek. We didn’t leave the Stepperiders camp until almost 1pm, but eventually we got away and rode out onto the steppes. I am riding a dark brown horse with a white star and two clipped ears. He seems to have a lot of gas, so we’ve been calling him ‘Sir Gasalot’. (The Mongolians do not name their horses; they refer to them by their colour and markings only.)

My horse, Sir Placid

My horse

It’s just me and Kirstyn on our expedition, accompanied by a guide (Borma), a horsewoman (Gana), and a driver (David), who appeared at camp last night and brought us lunch just now. We’re a little overwhelmed at having three Stepperiders staff for just two of us — they wouldn’t let us help with setting up camp last night, although we did dismantle our tent this morning. Right now, we are sitting down relaxing, while our three attendants cook us lunch. We already requested hot water for coffee (which we have) and I think they probably consider us crazy Westerners. We feel so spoilt.

Back to yesterday: We set off late, but stopped for a quick lunch of sandwiches about an hour later. Then we rode for about four more hours, winding through hills and valleys, into Bogd Khan National Park. Along the way, Gana sang us a wonderful local song (in Mongolian) about a mare and her foal. It was really hot, the sun relentless. I wasn’t sure my sunscreen was going to hold up, but I don’t appear to be burnt. (I’m really glad I brought a couple of light long-sleeved shirts.)

Day 1 lunch stop

Day 1 lunch stop

We stayed mostly at a walk, although towards the end of the ride got the horses up to a canter. Bogd Khan National Park is forested, so we were able to relax in shade while waiting for our support vehicle to bring water and dinner — by which time it was apparently 7pm. It didn’t feel that late, because it’s high summer here and it doesn’t get dark until around 10pm. I have to confess I was absolutely exhausted and, aside from an easy walk around the camp, didn’t do much for the rest of the evening.

Day 1 campsite, Bogd Khan NP

Day 1 campsite, Bogd Khan NP

Evening – Day 2

It’s night, and we’re in our tent at the end of day 2, listening to the wind howl. This camp is in a saddle, where there’s a stand of rocks and pines and scrub (meaning: plenty of cover for outdoor toileting). It’s pristine and the view is amazing. We got in late again, set up camp (we were allowed to help put up our tent this time), then sat with a coffee while dinner was cooked. After dinner, it turned out to be 9pm! I couldn’t believe it was so late. But we still had time to climb up to the top of a nearby hill to appreciate the view over the steppes.

Day 2 View over campsite

Day 2 View over campsite (dusk)

I love camping with horses. They are hobbled and tethered together in pairs, just beyond the pines we’re camped in. They have plenty of grass to graze upon and despite the howling wind, they seem pretty happy.

Back to this morning… We started late again. I have no idea what time it was, but maybe around midday. I think we probably had breakfast around 10am. We have come up with the concept of Mongolian time, which comprises very slow mornings and late finishes — not what I expected at all. Means we may find ourselves utilising mornings for exploration. Likewise, our lunch stop today was long and leisurely, while they cooked a full meal (some rice thing). I honestly don’t know where the time is disappearing to. But we like it! It’s very pleasant just sitting on the steppes, enjoying the view and the sounds and the smells.

mongolian-time

Anyway, first up this ‘morning’ was a short ride to a nearby Buddhist monastery in Bogd Khan National Park. A visitors centre houses a collection of stuffed animals that can be found on the mountain — including bears, wild boar and pole cats. We also discovered that the ‘hawk’ we’ve been seeing is some sort of kite. Beautiful. The monastery, which was destroyed by Russian communists in 1937, was very picturesque.

Day 2 Bogd Khan NP monastery

Day 2 Bogd Khan NP monastery

The post-lunch ride took us through the steppes, including up and down some hills. We watered the horses in a valley where there was an actual watering station, and where other ‘wild’ horses and other animals were drinking too. Afterwards we moved a bit faster — the horses even galloped. I had never galloped before, so this was exciting.

Day 2 watering station

Day 2 watering station


This post covers Days 1-2 of our two-week horse-riding adventure in Mongolia. I’m on a roll now…

Journal: shaking in my boots

I finally sent the novel I’ve been working on to some writing friends for feedback. Huzzah! Now I’m shaking in my snazzy red boots.

redboots

It’s amazing how my mind flipped after clicking ‘send’.

Before hitting ’send’, I was pretty happy with the general shape of the draft. I’ve been dying for someone to read it — to tell me what’s working and what’s not. I’ve been hungry for suggestions for improvement. I’m ready for and in need of external perspectives. Even so, I was confident the story was holding together. Not terrible. I read it through over the past couple of months (while I was procrastinating over the final scene) and parts of it even made me smile.

Immediately after hitting ‘send’, all my insecurities surged to the fore and now all I can see are the holes: the pedestrian narrative, the mundane dialogue, the trite story. I feel like my soul is laid bare ready to be flayed. Why would anyone waste time reading anything I wrote?

And did I mention I sent this to friends?

I really have forgotten how nerve-wracking it is putting your work in front of people. How exposed it makes you feel. The purpose of writing anything is to forge a connection with readers — but what if you fail? What if your work is completely crap and no one ever, anywhere in the entire universe, likes it? WHAT IF —

OK stop. This is stupid. It can’t possibly be as bad as all that… (fingers are crossed)

To maintain perspective, I keep telling myself the following:

  • Nothing is ever perfect. The whole point of asking people to read it is to identify the areas that need improvement. (It takes a village, right?)
  • Every reader is looking for something different. So, my book might not be Game of Thrones… but, guess what? I don’t even like GoT. It’s too dark and violent and filled with unlikeable characters for my taste. Some readers might want that. Others might prefer a gentle fantasy with moral dilemmas, a bit of romance and a happy ending.
  • Not everyone can win the Booker. It’s easy to read an amazing book and self-flagellate because there is no way in hell I could ever write like that. Even though this does happen often enough, the truth is that many authors do not inspire such envy in me… While I certainly don’t aspire to be mediocre, I can’t help but notice that a great number of published authors are. (I guess my point here, in a roundabout way, is that story is more important for most readers than writing craft.)

Bottom line: Once I’ve taken feedback on board, made this book the best it can be, (figured out the best way forward from a publishing perspective…), I just need to find my readers. I aspire to be regarded as a good writer. But, more importantly, I ultimately want to connect with that sub-group of readers who like what I like.

(Having said that, if this is how nervous I am when friends are reading it, how much worse will it be if/when strangers get their hands on it?)

Meanwhile, my thoughts are now turning to the next book in the series (this is, after all, fantasy, folks!). My intention is to spend October planning, ready to tackle a draft (or part thereof) of a sequel during NaNoWriMo in November. I think it’ll do me good to write something new for a while. First drafts are so damn hard.

Mongolia journal ~ 1 First impressions

It’s over a year since my Mongolian adventure, and I haven’t got near all the blog posts I was going to write. Thank goodness I kept a daily journal, or I’d have forgotten so much already.

I always intended to write themed posts about my experiences, rather than simply transcribing my journal. But… I’ve left it too long now, so my journal is what you get. It’s not verbatim, though. I’m cutting out the boring bits and re-interpreting a few things based on later experiences. I’m focusing on my reflections of the Mongolian horses and culture and horses and landscape and… did I mention horses? (Also, in some cases, kittens…)

It’s also giving me an excuse to finally go through my photos. Some I have already used in earlier posts, but I think many will be shown here for the first time.

So here we go!


Ulaan Baatar, 23 June 2015

Arrived Ulaan Baatar late morning and were whisked away to our hotel by a driver. The journey from the airport was fascinating. The architecture is blocky (mostly) and exists in pockets of conformity and multicoloured madness. Everywhere is badly maintained — cracked concrete, abandoned buildings, scraggly weed-infested gardens, faded and jumbled every which way — but quite clean, as in devoid of litter. Today was overcast and dusty and (when the wind picked up) thick with fluffy plant seeds.

We spent a couple of hours this afternoon walking around the city — there’s not much English, and things are hard to find, but the mix of architecture is interesting. The traffic is mad and, like in so many Asian cities, crossing the road is terrifying. I braved one of the non-traffic-lit pedestrian crossings… and survived.

I can’t wait to get out of the city and onto the Steppes. As the plane flew in, the view of the crumpled landscape was amazing. It’s really NOT flat. The drive from the airport also gave us a glimpse of the undulations at the edge of the city. I’m so excited to get out into the wilderness and experience the landscape properly! I think I’ll gain just as much insight about that as horses (to inform my writing) from this trip.

We have internet here in our hotel, but otherwise my phone is in flight mode. For the next two weeks, we won’t have any internet at all. Nor will we be able to charge our camera batteries, so we’re going to have to be conservative. It’s going to be interesting!

Steppe Riders camp, 24 June 2015

It’s after 7pm with such bright sunlight that it feels like the middle of the afternoon. We’ve had a relaxing day at the Steppe Riders camp, after being picked up from our hotel at 10am. The camp consists of several permanent gers, including one central common/dining ger, where we were greeted with traditional Mongolian tea. This is milk with rice and salt and bits of dried meat… one eats it with a spoon… very odd, but edible. Then we had hot tea.

Steppe Riders camp, Mongolia

Steppe Riders camp, Mongolia

We were left to our own devices for several hours, while they prepared a ger for us to sleep in and awaited the return of another riding party. We loitered in these gorgeous surroundings — rolling treeless hills, dotted with gers in the many valleys. The hilliness of this part of Mongolia has surprised me. The ground is also rocky in parts, and the grass is very short. Kirstyn and I walked up to the top of one of the hills to see the view — more hills and gers, also cows, horses, sheep, and many falcons hovering above the steppes.

Lunch was served at around 3pm (!) when the riding group returned. It consisted of fried pastry parcels (either filled with meat or vegetables) known as “hoosh” with salad (“gatherings”).

Steppe Riders horses, Mongolia

Steppe Riders horses, Mongolia

This afternoon, we went on a “training” ride for around 2.5 hours. I was a bit nervous to start with, and suddenly it was borne upon me what a big deal this is. Horse riding for 14 days! (OMG) Riding here is a bit different. The command for go is “chu” and the command for stop is “osh”. The horses are quite small and hardy, with a really smooth trot.

We rode in a loop out from the Stepperiders camp, stopping halfway for a visit to a neighbouring ger, where we tried fermented mare’s milk (“airag”). It’s only just become available as they start to wean the foals. I’m not sure I like it too much; it’s like a mix of yogurt and beer. Not really my thing, but pleased to have tried it. They keep it inside a massive open leather bladder hanging on the inside wall of the ger.

While riding, I tried the Mongolian way of trotting a few times, which involves standing up in the stirrups, instead of rising to the trot. It’s quite fun actually, and by the end of the ride I was feeling much more confident in general.

The sleeping ger we have been allocated is also home to a mother cat and four kittens! They are so cute. The mother cat is still suckling the babies, which seem to live in a pipe under one of the beds. There are five beds in here, but so far Kirstyn and I are the only inhabitants (along with the cats). This is a good thing, because we’ve just spent an hour (and all the available beds) re-packing our bags for tomorrow…

IMG_2717 kittens

The cuteness!


That’s all for now. I’ll try to keep the Mongolia journal posts coming every month or so. To see the earlier posts about the trip (and there were a few) click on the Mongolia tag.

D&D Chronicles: Of portals, dust and a strange villa

ZILLAH

D&D CHRONICLESWe’re finally leaving Issimbaal. It’s been over a week, but feels even longer. So much has happened.

After much deliberation, we’ve decided to brave the dust plains and head south-west towards the Temple of Bahaal and hope it doesn’t live up to its other name — the Temple of Death. We’re pretty sure that’s where Elliana has gone too. Last night’s research revealed, that in addition to possibly being the place the zombie virus was created, it’s the location of one of six known Vahdrim portals.

There’s another in Tel Marrenor. It figures. Elliana must be after the Right Eye. This is so not good.

But maybe — if we don’t all die — we can can find some hint of a cure for the zombie virus. And now I wonder if Squirrel and Alix between them can figure out how to use the portals (if we get that far)?

The six Vahdrim portals

Baal — Temple of Death (dust plains)
Tel Marrenor (broken forest)
Teras Arnor
Vahd (dust plains)
Tel Elenor
Capital Tuyar Empire (dust plains)

We’ve geared up for the dust plains as best we can. Water is going to be our main issue: we’ve scavenged two barrels and a cart, enough for 80 days (total rations). Hopefully we can make it to the temple and back in 20 days. It’s lucky (in this instance) that Nightshade doesn’t need rations.

We depart Issimbaal on 5 April. At first the road is easy followed, if overgrown and untended. But soon we begin to feel the full despair of the dust plains. They are bleak. Barren. And this is only the fringe.

The first day is not so bad, but on the second the wind picks up until our visibility is reduced to about 30 feet. Grit swirls into our faces as we push through through the cloud of dust. It’s well nigh impossible to pick out the road, and I’m trusting all my instincts to make sure we’re heading in the right direction.

We shelter in a ramshackle hut for the night, but it feels like we’ve been settled only minutes before we’re under attack. Two creatures lurking in the dust and the night are hurling magic at us — fire, cold, electricity. We manage to fight them off, but our shelter is in flames and our water barrels are destroyed. Again.

dustplains_firehut

Squirrel casts a magical shelter, and we huddle inside as the dust storms around us. Dawn comes and there’s no respite from the dust. Squirrel casts another hut and we wait out the day and another night. By the next morning, the storm has settled. We deal with a couple of giant scorpions… and then fight off three giant poisonous centipedes as we trudge along the road back to Issimbaal. We arrive back in the city, despondent and despairing, around midday on the fifth day after we left it.

The clerics have made some headway with the zombie virus. They tell us they need a special type of moss — Sorias moss — which is grown to the north and west. We discuss heading there instead, but ultimately decide we need to make a second attempt to get to the Temple of Death. We scavenge another couple of water barrels.

This time when we head out of Issimbaal, we have better luck. The ‘road’ is clear of creatures (mostly) and dust storms, until on the fourth day we reach a town. It’s in ruins and the wells are all empty, but it yields a few coins when we search.

The villa

On the fifth day, we see a villa on a hill in the distance. After days of lifeless waste and decayed buildings, the two-storey villa looks remarkably grand and intact. What is more, it’s surrounded by a thick border of living trees, vibrantly green. Clearly there’s magic at work, and we approach cautiously.

When we’re about 400 feet from the trees, we make out an array of withered corpses. It looks as though an attacking force fell foul of some magical barrier, and we halt about 30 feet away from the outermost one. Squirrel, Alix and I venture forward, but almost immediately feel the drain on our energy. We retreat, and Squirrel determines there’s a spell causing the trees to drain the life energy of living creatures in the vicinity of their root systems.

Nightshade crosses into the danger zone. Her zombie disease enables her to move through the field of corpses and get closer to the trees before the ward affects her. According to Squirrel, three of the corpses bear magic items and Nightshade drags them out. (There’s a ring, a suit of ring mail armour and an iron shield.)

We discuss how to get beyond the trees and reach the villa. I immediately veto Squirrel’s suggestion that he fireball the trees. I can’t bear the thought of killing these trees — it’s not as though the mages who cast that ward gave them a choice.

Instead, we circumnavigate the villa, searching for an entrance. There are more corpses, many non-human, and we discover a path and a gap in the trees. Beyond, there’s a dormant fountain in a courtyard in front of the building, and the doors to the villa tantalise us with their inaccessibility.

The villa is just too intriguing to abandon, and Squirrel eventually decides he will attempt to dispel the ward. It’s late in the day, so we make camp opposite the entrance to the villa.

Just before dawn, Squirrel casts his spell. It takes a while. He seems to be struggling. Sweat beads on his brow.

Then he reels and collapses…


Will we get inside the villa? I’ll find out tomorrow, so stay tuned for the next D&D Chronicles post. See the D&D Chronicles page for the full story.

Farewell, my devilcat

I collected Chenna’s ashes today, exactly three weeks after she signed out. Three weeks. Gosh.

Chenna with Mr Tickle December 2015

Chenna with Mr Tickle December 2015

I still think about her every day, because there is not one aspect of my life in this house that she wasn’t a part of. She arrived as a cute and cantankerous kitten within weeks of me moving in, and proceeded to make her presence felt each and every day.

She was the first thing I thought about every morning, as she sat on my pillow (or sprawled on me) and jabbed me awake.

She was the first thing I encountered every time I arrived home, as she waited for me, meowing, at the front door.

She was often the last thing I was aware of at night, as she snuggled against me in or on the bed.

This was her house, just as much as it is mine. From the beginning (for nearly 14 years), a whole end of the sofa was set aside for her use. During the day, she slept on a colourful cushion propped up for her comfort, positioned so she could see out the window. Sometimes she would squeeze half her body through the venetian blind, much to the amusement and joy of my neighbours (and the ruin of said blind) — presumably to catch a bit of extra sun.

(I’ve just removed the cushion and set the sofa to ‘rights’, after two and a half weeks of staring at her empty bed. Now my sofa seems too big.)

For most of her life she enjoyed complete run of the house and garden. I keep thinking I hear the distinctive clunking sound of her cat flap. That and her automatic cat feeder, which allowed me to program feed times and dispense measured doses of feed from a hopper, revolutionised my life. And hers too, I daresay; because she was much happier at home with no interruptions whenever I was away.

It’s no secret she wasn’t a particularly likeable cat — although I loved her. Even with me, she could get vicious, often without apparent reason. She was quick with her claws, unrestrained with her teeth. Some nights, she developed a fondness for attacking my bare feet — really painful! — and even though I could usually read the signs, it was often too late, and I’d be subjected to ninja foot attacks. My only recourse was to run and jump on my bed, but she was much quicker than me.

As for her relationships with other people… I cannot think of one person other than me that she liked (and I’m mostly sure she liked me). Some people she tolerated… barely. Most people she detested on sight.

But she was a tricky one. She was good at looking all cute and cuddly and luring people in, before flipping into a ninja attack. So many people refused to heed my warnings, only to suffer the pain of her disdain.

She definitely earned her nickname Devilcat, and my Diary of a Devilcat series of posts on this blog and earlier on her own blog Feline in Therapy (mostly 2007-2009) — were a lot of fun to write. I am so glad now that I’ll have them as memories.

I was probably the only one who ever experienced her affectionate side. And she was affectionate far more often than she wasn’t. She didn’t start off as a lap cat, but she made up for it in her latter years, when she would appear beside me as soon as I sat down… her little face peering up at me, then she’d leap up and nudge any obstacles away. (FYI it is a challenge to negotiate a lap cat and a laptop computer simultaneously.)

She also liked stretching out on my chest when I was reading in bed — not necessarily convenient, but it was hard to shove away a purring, warm, cuddly feline, gazing up at me.

Having her around was always companionable — whether smooching on me, sitting outside in the sunshine, sleeping the day away, greeting me at the door. Even when she was being annoying — waking me too early, nagging me for food, prowling all over my workspace, or leaving dead moths (or worse) all over the floor.

Chenna had her share of medical issues as well. From early on she was prone to urinary tract infections, although this was controlled with a specially formulated diet. Then there was her left eye, which changed colour from green to brown when she was still quite young. This saw us visiting animal eye specialists and contemplating the prospect of having her eye removed due to the risk of melanoma of the iris. Thankfully we risked keeping her eye and nothing came of it.

Extra random memories of Chenna (to be updated as they come to me): her black fluff smeared over my chairs (and its subsequent removal with lint cloth)… the sound of her jumping off furniture… the sound of her simply walking across the floor… her enjoyment of tuna juice… her love of escaping out the front door and scampering around the driveway… the fact I always walked around with scratches over my wrists (they have, alas, all healed now)…

The myriad tiny adjustments I would make to accommodate her: turning my toothbrush to the wall so she wouldn’t brush against it… putting my devices out of the way so she wouldn’t sit on them… never leaving food uncovered on the bench unless I actually wanted her to lick it up…


When I received the news about Chenna’s condition three weeks ago, after several weeks of knowing there was something wrong, I wept and wept. (I had no inkling it was something so serious.) Then I sat down and wrote her final devilcat post. Then I curled up beside her in my bed until it was time for her final appointment at the vet.

She purred and let me stroke her. That was our farewell.

I made the decision to end it straight away, as she was so sick there was a good chance she’d simply die in my bed at any time. That, I wasn’t prepared to deal with. And I didn’t think she should have to either.

I spent a lot of time crying (well, bawling) in the days that followed — when I rang the vet to arrange for her to be cremated, when I received a card from the vet with Chenna’s paw print on it, when I packed up her stuff strewn about the house.

When some amazing friends presented me with the following bespoke graphic illustration of Chenna in a frame. (Designed by Rachel Rule, The British Rule (etsy shop).)

Chenna

Graphic illustration of Chenna

And I wept today, when I collected her ashes from the vet and donated her leftover food. (And, of course, while writing this post.)

After three weeks, the intensity of the grief has ebbed. Most of the time I can think about Chenna without weeping, or only weeping a little. Most of the time her absence seems almost a quizzical thing, something just a bit wrong, a bit weird.

But I’m still sad. A bit flat. I miss my little devilcat animal companion terribly.

Farewell Chenna

Farewell Chenna

chenna_10-Aug-16

Diary of a DevilCat: This is Chenna, signing out

I got a bit of a shock today. Turns out I’m not so indestructible as I liked to believe.

Bone marrow cancer. That’s what I’ve got. The prognosis is “guarded” (which means “not good” is a helluva understatement).

No options for treatment. Barely any options for management.

I’m so anemic I could keel over at any second.

I haven’t been feeling great for the past six weeks or so, truth be told. It’s just been so hard to rouse myself to get out of bed. (Ellen’s bed, under the doona, where it’s nice and warm.) Even eating has been too much effort. (Yes, I know. Who’d’ve thought?)

The upside? I’ve lost a kilogram in weight. (I’ve been trying to lose weight for a while, now… Maybe that much in six weeks is not such a great idea.)

The downside? This will be my final post on this blog. I wish I could make it more devilish in nature, go out with a last hurrah; but I’m just not feeling it. It’s been a while since I’ve had the energy to attack anyone’s ankles — although I did get in a couple of awesome swipes at the vet last week.

Hey, at least I’ll go out with a manicure! The vets did a fine job on my claws yesterday, when I went in for the full workover.

I’m almost 14 years old, and I’ve had a great life. Even if I haven’t had all that many friends… I know Ellen loves me.

Thanks for reading my Diary of a Devilcat posts on this blog. And my Feline in Therapy blog was pretty good too, while it lasted.

This is Chenna, signing out. I’m off to hang out with the cat gods.