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Published: August 15th 2009
I woke up with a nasty headache as the only reminder of the terrifying, agonising attack that had overpowered me the previous day, amazed that such an illness - the worst I had ever experienced - could have come and gone so quickly. Whatever it was, I hoped never to have to endure anything similar again.
After a large breakfast our driver Mogi took us out of Tsagaannuur for ten minutes before we alighteed and began walking north towards the taiga forests that were home to the nomadic, reindeer-herding Dukha people. The area, known as the Darkhad Depression, was shared between them and the Darkhad people, another of Mongolia's ethnic minorities who spoke a different dialect from that of the mainstream and whose gers (felt tents) we soon began to see dotting the landscape through which we walked. After an hour or so's walking we stopped at one, the home of a friend of our guide Ultsi, and knocked on the door. A small, slightly plump woman whose face, like that of so many people round here, had been coloured bright red by a lifetime of constant exposure to the elements, opened the door, greeted us with an enormous smile
and invited us in. After Ultsi had introduced us our host bade us sit down and brought us each a cup of salty tea which we drank appreciatively, glad of the opportunity to warm up. She and Ultsi talked in Mongolian for a while before Ultsi stood up, turned to us and said, "She says she would like to cook us all a meal but I told her we have a long way to walk today but we'll stop by on the way back to Tsagaannuur."
We kept on walking through the valley, tall mountain slopes covered in yellow-green grass rising up on either side of us. The no doubt ice cold waters of a small stream with a few barren trees growing on its banks gurgled away perhaps fifty meters to out left. Far ahead were more mountains, many of which were covered in a dense brown layer of forest. It was exciting to think that somewhere among those trees lived the Dukha and their herds of reindeer, eeking out an existence as their ancestors had done for hundreds or thousands of years in the southernmost fringes of the Great East Siberian Taiga. The swathes of taiga in
Khovsgol aimag (province) where we now found ourselves are Mongolia's sole example of this biome whose coldness of climate is exceeded only by the tundra and polar ice caps, and the Dukha its sole inhabitants. Ultsi had told us that this winter the temperature had dropped to 52 degrees below zero.
Behind the forested mountains, yet further in the distance, not clearly visible against the greyness of the sky, towered far taller, rockier, snow-capped mountains. "More Dukha live on the other side of those," Ultsi told us, "but it would take a long time for us to get there. Many days. Some are living high up on the snowy parts too, but they don't let outsiders into their communities. It's spring, so baby reindeer are being borne and they don't want anyone to disturb them."
That evening a family of Darkhad invited us to spend the night with them. As darkness fell more and more family members descended on horseback from the mountain slopes with their herds, the bright violets, marine blues and emerald greens of their dels (traditional Mongolian long coats) starkly contrasting with the vast bleakness of their environment.
some of our pasta and they in turn made some lamb soup, both groups sharing what they had with the other. When the meal was over we took out a bottle of Chinggis vodka which I offered as a gift to the head of the family. He found a shot glass, opened the bottle and poured himself a measure. Before knocking it back he dipped a finger into it and flicked three drops into the air, a ritualistic offering to the spirits governing these shamanic people's world. I was next in line and did exactly the same as him before passing the bottle on. It did not last long but it brought everybody together and the atmosphere became cheerful, jovial and uninhibited despite the language barrier that existed between us. That night I fell asleep snugly tucked in blankets on the ger floor, the horrors of the previous day's inexplicable incapacitating attack now nothing but a distant memory.
I awoke long before everyone else, shaking uncontrollably, my breath coming in suffocated gasps and every bone in my body filled with a deathly, freezing cold. The intense pain caused by this feeling of cold in the
bones is something I do not think I will ever be able to communicate effectively. Excruciating, maddening, inescapable, terrifying, these are the words that come closest to doing it justice. I had no idea what this illness could be, but that it was the same thing that had hit me almost forty eight hours previously there was no doubt.
As the cold within me intensified the shakes developed into full on convulsions and breathing became yet more difficult. My teeth were chattering so hard that I feared I would wake everybody up. Perhaps slightly delusional, I decided that everybody would be angry with me if I disturbed them from their sleep to ask for a hot tea. It was what I needed the most and during the previous attack had really helped to alleviate the symptons but for some idiotic reason I buckled down, gritted my teeth and lay there concentrating my hardest on controlling the convulsions. I wrapped several blankets round myself, not that they made me feel even the slightest bit warmer - the cold was coming from inside me, not from outside - and clung to them for dear life, sweat pouring in rivers down my
body and tears streaming down my cheeks. I spent an hour in this way, shaking, jolting, crying to myself and longing desperately for my torment to come to an end.
Eventually I could bear it no longer and I nudged Lizz a few times to wake her up. "It's the same thing as I had before," I managed to gasp, "I need a hot tea." Speaking had taken my concentration away from controlling the convulsions and immediately they came back full force.
This time it took six cups of tea to get the cold out of my bones and stop the shakes, whereas previously it had only taken three. After they had gone entirely I lay curled up on the floor so exhausted that even turning over would have required more energy than I had at my disposal. I had a headache so crushing that I was barely conscious of anything else but all the same I was just thankful that the agonizing cold was gone from within me. I spent about six hours in this way.
Just after midday Lizz asked me whether I wanted to continue with our trek or head back to Tsagaannuur.
"There's no way I can walk," I replied.
"Oktyabr has offered to let you ride his horse," she told me. Oktyabr was Ultsi's husband and the owner of our pack horse. Not being partial to walking, he had brought a second animal with him as well as the one we were using to carry our bags.
I thought about it long and hard. I guessed the illness had come back because I had not worn enough warm clothes while walking the day before. Both of the attacks had come the morning after being exposed to the cold without wrapping up enough. They had both also come the morning after drinking vodka. Presumably, I thought, if I wrapped up extremely warm and did not drink any more, I would recover that day as I had after the previous attack and would not be plagued by these bizarre and terrifying symptons any longer.
It got to the stage where if we did not leave we would not have been able to arrive at our destination before nightfall. I mustered the energy to stand up and staggered outside the ger, my headache still so strong that it almost forced me
to the ground. A Darkhad man lent me his del which I wore on top of several thick winter coats and jumpers. I carried a full thermos of tea in my right hand and held the reins of the horse in the other; in this way I rode for several hours across the valley floor, the fresh air and icy cold wind against my cheeks somewhat revitalising me.
Eventually we entered the taiga, a vast forest of barren trees to which, in this icy climate, spring had still not come halfway through the month of May. Everywhere the ground was covered in an orange carpet of pine needles several centimetres thick on which horses and humans alike padded softly and wound their way between the trees. After several hours we emerged into a small clearing on the far edge of which stood a solitary white tent. It was not a ger, the circular white felt tent in which fifty per cent of Mongolia's population live, but a much smaller conical one like the North American teepee. We rode over and Ultsi pulled open a flap in the front to expose a tiny interior supported by wooden poles interlocking at
the top to give it its conical shape. The adults were all out working and only a small group of very young children had stayed behind. They invited us in and I immediately fell asleep on the grassy floor.
I woke up an hour later being offered a cup of salty tea. "We're leaving in a minute," Lizz told me, "we still have a couple of hours to go today." Tired and still with a vicious headache I got back on the horse and we continued on our way. After climbing steadily uphill for some way we emerged onto a mountain ridge ringing what appeared to be a vast, flat, almost treeless bowl whose floor, some way below us, stretched for several kilometres to the tall, jagged, snow-capped peaks that formed is rim on the opposite side. We descended slowly to the bottom and crossed the nearest corner of the bowl. The mountain slopes here were covered in taiga and just on the edge of the forest were three more conical tents.
I remember very little of that evening but awoke early the next morning feeling almost completely recovered from the torture I had gone through the previous
day. Just as I had thought, wrapping up warm and drinking hot tea was all that was required! I just needed to be more sensible and take better care of myself! Almost ecstatic I got up and began wandering around the Dukha encampment. It was just after dawn and already people were up and at work. One woman was milking a group of reindeer; a man was herding some others away to a different grazing spot; inside the tents tea and breakfast were being prepared.
Before leaving we sat in a tent drinking salty tea around the wood and dung-fueled fire whose smoke was evacuated through a long hollow tree trunk and out of a hole in the ceiling, warming up before pushing on higher into the icier regions of the mountains.
And icy those regions certainly were. Rivers and lakes were frozen and could be walked across by men and horses. Snow fell almost horizontally as the biting, howling wind drove it into our faces. The next Dukha encampment we came to was significantly higher up the mountain walls than the previous one and the temperature far lower, so much so that I began to seriously worry
for my health. Inside the tents was not much warmer than outside and I sat in front of the fire shivering and drinking as much tea as I could get my hands on. Terrified of having another attack I moved closer and closer to the fire until I was a few inches away and engulfed by a heat that usually would have been intolerable. If ever I moved too far away from it the shivers would come back, but I could not tell if they were just due to the freezing cold or whether they were the faint beginnings of another attack.
An old Dukha lady in her eighties who had been baking bread in the tent with us went out for several hours into the blizzard that was raging outdoors to herd reindeer. Peeking out of the door before she placed the flap back over it I glimpsed an almost total white-out outside with visibility almost down to zero. How on earth did these people live in such a godforsaken place? And this the middle of May - God help them in January!
That evening we sat and ate dinner in a teepee with a Dukha family,
the father a local shaman. We provided pasta, they provided reindeer meat jerky. Something was sapping my energy again though and my appetite had almost disappeared. Conversation went on between us and the reindeer herders for several hours with Ultsi as interpreter, but for much of the time I was unable to contribute. Constantly alternating between sitting up and lying down, a fear began to grow in my heart. I was clearly still not recovered from whatever my illness was and later tonight, when everyone was asleep and the fire had burned down, the bitter cold from outdoors would seep into the tent.
"How did you become a shaman?" Lizz asked the head of the family.
"It was a gift. When I was young my grandfather always used to say that either me or one of my siblings would become a shaman. Then one day I suddenly went stupid for two weeks, lost my mind. I couldn't talk and nobody could talk to me. But the spirits talked to me and told me I must become a shaman."
"And how do you help people as a shaman?"
"Someone comes to me with a problem and I
ask the spirits how I should help them. Then they tell me what medecine the person needs, what plants to make it from and where to find them."
He was very keen to ask us questions too, mostly about Russia, a land just thirty kilometres away but with which the border was strictly closed and which he had never had the opportunity to visit.
"Have you visited the reindeer herders in Russia?" he asked.
"I have," I replied, "but not the ones near Mongolia. I've lived with ones in the Extreme North, in the Arctic ."
"Are they like us? How are they different?"
"They're quite similar. They live in tents just like this and their reindeer look very similar to yours. Their clothes are different though, they don't use dels. And they don't make bread like you guys, they only eat reindeer meat. They eat it raw and drink the blood! And they move camp very often."
"We move camp often too, once every two or three weeks. Have you never seen reindeer herders in Tuva?" Tuva is the province of Siberia just across the border from where the Dukha
"No, but it's somewhere I'd very much like to go to," I replied.
"Me too. It's where we come from," the Shaman told us. "We're all originally Tuvans but after the border was closed we got stuck here. We have lots of relatives in Tuva. My grandfather's generation was the last to live there."
I woke up in the night having another attack, shaking uncontrollably and with the same awful chill threatening to shatter every bone in my body. This time it was nowhere near dawn and I simply could not face waiting it out so I woke up Lizz. She built up the fire, piled blankets on top of me and boiled a cauldron of hot water. Two hours and ten cups of tea later the chill and shakes were almost gone and I drifted back into an uneasy sleep while Lizz stayed up keeping the fire going for the rest of the night.
I woke up feeling more immobilised than I had after either of the previous attacks. I simply had no energy to move, speak, eat or drink and my head was in such pain that I would
have screamed if I had had the energy.
"I have to go back to Tsagaannuur," I managed to mutter when everyone else was awake. They seemed to agree that it was a good idea.
Back through the forests and plains we went. Oktyabr, who had some serious back problems which he was going to use the money we were paying him to go to hospital about in Moron, a 2 day drive from Tsagaannuur, rode his horse. I, using an amount of energy bordering on the intolerable, sat slumped across the back of a reindeer, my world full of nothing but exhaustion, depression and a heavy, overpowering pain.
It felt immensely reassuring to be back in the log cabin guest house in Tsagaannuur. I slept in a proper bed next to the fire and felt sure that a few days spent like this, out of the cold, would cure me of my sickness. The village's only doctor came to see me and gave me some antibiotics free of charge. The next morning I woke up and found myself able to eat once again. Despite still being tired and with a bit
of a headache I felt very positive, sure that this would be the end of my ordeal.
After a day spent reading in bed I began to feel bad again around five o'clock in the afternoon. I managed to fall asleep again but around midnight awoke to find the same deathly cold invading my bones. Again the cold made me begin shaking and the shakes made it hard for me to breath.
"Put more blankets on me!" I almost screamed at Lizz. "Build up the fire!"
She put more and more on me until I was wearing five jackets and had all the blankets from the other nine beds in the room on me in a pile over two meters high. It did nothing to help me.
"Build up the fire!" I begged.
Lizz built up the fire to a stage where she herself had to strip down to just a T-shirt but still the cold within me intensified, taking me into new dimensions of pain I had never before experienced, not even during my previous attacks.
"God help me!" I cried, convulsing and rasping for breath, "I can't bear it any more!"
"Listen, you can't be cold," Lizz told me, "It's boiling in here, I can hardly stand it. I think you may be overheating yourself with these blankets and the fire and that's actually making you worse. I think you should try to relax, breath calmly and deeply and take off some blankets."
I gave it a go and, despite the initial increase in pain at taking of the blankets, I convinced myself this would do me some good because there was clearly nothing else that would help. I had drunk about fifteen cups of tea since the attack had begun but they had done nothing to alleviate it.
In my desperation for a way out, I became so sure that cooling down was the best thing for me that I asked Lizz to open the door and let in some fresh air. I tried to calm myself and take long, deep, slow breaths of the freezing air that was filling the room. Soon after doing so I had managed to get the shakes to subside somewhat and was getting much more air into my lungs. I am pretty sure, however, that allowing myself to become cold again was
what nearly killed me that night.
Over the next half hour I felt my mind gradually slipping away from me. I remember telling myself and Lizz over and over again in a voice full of forced calm and awful madness that getting cold was what I really needed, that it was making me feel much better.
"Eddy, I'm going next door to see if they can contact the doctor. There's something wrong, your voice, it's just horrible! And your heart, it's beating far too fast!"
That finally dispelled my delusions about getting cold being the best thing for me. All my symptons came flooding back at once, the convulsions, the cold and the breathing difficulties, and all suddenly magnified by a factor of around ten.
"Help!" I screamed.
Lizz came back in saying that the woman next door had gone to find the doctor.
"Thank God!" I spluttered in between jolts and gasps for breath.
Ten minutes later the woman from next door came in to tell us that the doctor would not come because it was the middle of the night.
"Ok, get all our money ," I gasped to
Lizz, "And ask her to take it to the doctor, she can have it all if she comes."
She went off with the money and I lay in agony, my limbs spasming and my chest heaving up and down several inches at a time. Lizz built up the fire to a level where she herself could not stay in the room for very long and candle sticks were melting into puddles of wax but still the freezing sensation in my innards persisted. My heart was beating so fast that I felt something I had not felt on any of the previous attacks - terror that it would explode. Breathing became more and more difficult until I began to suffocate, simply unable to get enough breath into my lungs.
"Do you know how to resuscitate someone?" I managed to ask Lizz.
"If I stop breathing, put my head back, breath down my mouth then push a few times on my chest."
Still the doctor did not come and the woman next door was nowhere to be found. It got to the point where I was sure I was about to die from suffocation. Lizz ran
out onto the street and went from house to house knocking on doors and screaming but no one answered.
By the time she came back my vision was going black around the edges and all I could see was a small patch of the ceiling which seemed to be covered in a crawling, writhing mass of insects. She held my hand and said, "Eddy, you've got to relax, try to breath normally. Calm yourself and take deep, slow breaths." I did as told and, miraculously, managed to slow my breathing rate and get some air back into my lungs.
"It's not going to last long though," I said, "please go out and try to find that doctor."
Lizz went out and disappeared for a long time during which my condition degenerated to its worst state yet. With my heart on the point of bursting, bones about to shatter, convulsing as if I was having a fit and absolutely unable to breath, I felt certain I was about to die. I have never been a religious person but as a numbness spread downwards from my head and upwards from my feet and my vision blackened once again, I
began to talk to God.
"I'm so sorry for everything I've done wrong in my life and I know I deserve no mercy from you at all, but please, if you'd just give me another chance at life I promise I'll do better this time."
It was a last desperate attempt when all else had failed. The warmth of the log cabin had not cured me, the antibiotics had not helped and the doctor had not come. Now I was going to die here, alone, in this far flung corner of the world so far from home. God was my last resort, though why He should have helped me I do not know seeing as I was not even sure I believed in Him. And that was the most terrifying thing at that moment - I felt like a man must feel who stands on the edge of a vast, black abyss into which he knows he must fall in a few minutes but in the depths of which he has no idea what will be in store for him. I had a few minutes of life left at most, and after that what would happen? Oblivion? Heaven?
Hell? Something completely different I could not even imagine?
It was at that moment, two hours after we first sent for her, that the doctor arrived. She opened her case and took out a stethoscope, a blood pressure reader and a thermometer. I tried to show her not to bother with any of that and that I needed medecine urgently but by this stage I was almost unable to communicate.
"He can't breath!" Lizz yelled, "hurry!"
"One minute... I'll die!" I managed, probably halving the amount of energy and breath I had left in me.
The doctor forced me to take all my layers off, causing the cold inside me to increase yet further, and used all the instruments on me. Then, at a maddeningly slow speed she went about preparing several syringes. I let my arm loll off the edge of the bed, knowing now that even the extra second of time this might save her in getting the injection into me could be critical. Finally when the injections were ready it was not the arm she wanted but the bum, so they rolled me over and gave me several shots. Within seconds the fever
had been drastically reduced, the shakes were less and I was able to breath again although still far from normally. My heart felt less in danger of total collapse.
By eight in the morning, when the doctor had said I should have more of the drugs she had given me, I had slept in almost every one of the ten beds in the room, moving from one to the next when I had completely drenched it in sweat. At some point I remember Lizz telling me that my temperature had been 41 Centigrade and my heart rate 140 beats per minute. It is normally around 60.
The next day we set off for Moron, the nearest town with a hospital. The way from there to Tsagaannuur had taken us two days of driving but we now planned to just drive into the night until we got there. The doctor gave me some prepared syringes of the drugs which she said I should take every eight hours. I believe they were strong antibiotics and muscle relaxants to stop the convulsions. She had no idea what was wrong with me but said that the doctors at
Moron could do proper tests. Amazingly she would accept no money for treating me and saving my life, despite the fact that we had offered her three times the average monthly salary to come out the previous night.
We drove into the night and around 10pm we stopped at a small roadside cafe for some food, though I was still unable to eat more than a few mouthfuls. While we sat eating Mogi found out that one of the other customers was a nurse and that she could give me my injection, which was almost due. And so, much to the other customers' amusement, I had to drop my trousers in this small one-room restaurant in the middle of nowhere and receive two jabs to the bum.
We arrived in Moron at five in the morning and the next day, after extensive testing, the doctors informed me that both my kidneys and my gall bladder were infected and that one of my lungs was not working properly. They said there was nothing they could do to treat me and that I would have to go on the next plane to Ulaanbaatar and, as it happened, the next of the twice-weekly flights was in a couple of hours. I was so tired that I could barely stand up but we made it to the airport and on to the plane, finally arriving at the doors of the hospital in Ulaanbaatar just as my next attack was beginning. Again there were convulsions, again there was the terrifying chill in my bones, but this time they got enough drugs into me quickly enough that the worst of these symptons were alleviated. Instead I lay drenched in sweat with a high fever and a temperature of 41 again for many hours, delirious and hallucinating. At one point they put me in a wheelchair and took me to be X-Rayed. Standing up for the few seconds it took to do the scan was so exhausting that I cried out to be allowed to sit down again.
The next day they informed me that the previous hospital's diagnosis had been wrong and that in fact I had malaria. They transferred me to the Hospital for Infectious Diseases where I spent three days in a filthy, freezing cell, waiting with no food for my travel insurance to kick in and take me away in the "emergency air ambulance" they claimed to be able to offer. There were ticks in my bed, one of which bit me.
"Mongolia has no anti-malarial drugs!" I informed my insurance on the phone numerous times, "so I'm not getting treatment! Any one of these attacks could fry my brain or permanantly damage my organs, you have to get me out of here!"
But still it took them over 72 hours, during which time I had two more attacks.
When it finally arrived, the air ambulance took me to a world-class hospital in Bangkok where I was waited on hand and foot, twenty four hours a day. They gave me mefloquine, an anti-malarial drug which even at the prophylactic dose of one pill per week can cause depression, hallucinations and nightmares. I was on five pills per day and for a week was barely able to stand up, only just able to stagger down the corridor like an old man when supported on both sides by someone else. After ten days I was ready to be discharged and fly back home.
Click here for information on travel to the Darkhad Valley, Darkhad people and Dukha / Tsaatan reindeer herders
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