Sunday, February 5, 2017

Mush Ado About Nothing

I've tried out more forms of transportation than the average person.  Hell, just in my trek from Greece to Egypt in 2008 I used planes, trains, cars, buses, trams, a ferry, a camel, a horse, a felucca, and probably one or two that I've forgotten.  One form that has been tempting me for the four years I've lived in Mongolia, though, is dog sledding.  Every winter, Engrish and I talk about wanting to do it, and every winter, we fail to get out acts together and actually go.  Until now.

With Five and I leaving at the end of the year, this was going to have to be the year.  Five took point on this one and contacted one agency - a French guy who does longer treks - only to be told that he was booked solid (for which, in retrospect, I thank all that is good in the world).  She didn't let this stop her, and imposed upon Wild Ass to help her contact some of the Mongolian agencies who offer dogsledding, and eventually Engrish and I were informed that we were ger camping at UB2 this weekend after a delightful dog sledding experience.

Enkhaa drove us up to Terelj, and we set about finding them.  The owner said that it was next to the river, near the bridge at the entrance to the park, but we went there and waited for a while, but didn't see them.  Finally we called again, and again, and again, each time getting a little closer to where we were supposed to be.  Eventually we saw the teams mushing along, and found our way to the meet-up point.
We waited a few minutes while the dogs had a chance to catch their breath, and then we were each told to go get on a sled.  Up until that point, I don't think any of us had really thought too hard about the concept of dog sled, but actually sitting on one, I found myself feeling pretty bad for the dogs.  It was cold out - not the coldest day by far this winter, but still pretty uncomfortable for my toes.  At the starting point the dogs were tethered to a fence, and they were yipping and whining as they waited.  In my mind, I realized they were working dogs, and teams like these have been pulling far more than my weight over greater distances in less hospitable climates, but I still felt like a terrible person.
Finally, the drivers were ready and we set off.  Engrish and Five got off to a good start, but as soon as my lead dog was unclipped they began...champing at the bit?  You probably can't apply horse terms to dog sleds, but regardless, they were raring to go, and my driver couldn't untie the knot at first...he had to re-tether the lead dog and back everyone up before getting us loose.  Finally, we were gliding over the ice, and I found myself torn between continuing to feel sorry for the dogs and fear that the sled would turn over, spilling me onto the hard ice and smashing my precious camera.
There's a saying that unless you're the lead dog, the view never changes, and from my seat on the sled, I realized that this was true.  What the saying does NOT adequately express is that unless you're the lead dog, you also expose yourself to the very real threat of flying turd.  As we followed the trail along the river and then through some trees, the delightful aroma of feces wafted up to me, and I realized why the dog in front of me was running weirdly...someone didn't go before we left the house.  Luckily there were no fatalities.
It was about 30 minutes from start to finish, but my toes were done after five.  They felt like blocks of ice, and when the driver stopped the sled to let me try driving, and I felt bad for the dogs...and Engrish, whose team seemed to have a couple of Dugs in it, wanting to chase after squirrels.  Actually, Engrish could have run faster than the teams, although probably not while she was dragging either me or Five along behind her. As I stood on the back of the sled, I was a little bit terrified.  I'm not exactly the best driver when the vehicle is fully automatic with power steering.  I'd been paying attention during the ride - trying to ignore the pain in my toes - and it seemed like the driver kept the sled balanced by shifting his weight from side to side.  Up til then, I had no clue how the dogs stopped - it seemed to be by telepathy - but it turned out you put your weight on a pedal that brakes the sled.  There was also the fact that there were unfrozen patches of the river along this part of the route, and I now had visions of myself capsizing the sled - you can ask Babysis how good I am at flipping vehicles over sometime - and freezing to death.  But alas, we got back to the starting point safely, and the three of us vowed that we would never do it again.
Don't get me wrong - I feel that there was value in the experience.  I can understand how difficult life was for the teams that helped deliver supplies and news to early Alaskan settlers, and I have more respect for those people who keep the tradition alive by participating in the Iditarod each year.  But once is enough, and I sort of wish I'd known more about the company before we booked it - without going into too much detail about things I don't really understand, I don't think the dogs were treated as well as they should have been.  I wanted to give a big steak to each of my dogs for being such a great team, and let them sleep in our nice warm ger for the night - and if you've been paying attention, you know I'm not a dog person, so this is saying a lot.  Instead we left, with Enkhaa telling us, "I told you so."  We offered to let him try it, too, and he said he didn't want to, that it felt disrespectful to him.

Back at UB2 Enkhaa and Engrish went for a run while Five and I pretended to take naps but actually talked.  I gave up on napping and started sewing, and when Engrish got back she convinced Five to go for a hike.  Later on, after a round of their favorite game, Quiddler, they made the best damn shashlik I've ever had, proving that Engrish is a true ger-camp gourmand.  We talked into the night, having one of the best catch-ups we've had in a while, and not just because we were discussing the interview I'd gotten up at 5 that morning for.  After breakfast we went out for a walk, with Five and I nerding out over our upcoming trip to Japan, especially everything we were going to do in Universal Studios.

It's hard to believe I'll be gone in five months.

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