It's a startling realization that an animal of any decent size or threat is watching you, let alone close enough to make a move.
I was a few steps out of the tent when this moment came. At 4am, it was already light as day outside, yet the air had the mistiness and the grass the dewiness that gave away the early hour.
I saw it. It saw me. I quietly tip-toed around the other side of the tent. There were perhaps 10 meters between where I stood and my goal, just behind the river bank. Stepping out past the mental safety of the tent, there was “Mongolia's angry animal,” the yak, waiting for me on the other side.
The black beast stared straight through me. Then came the flaring of the nostrils and the grunting, the kind that required no animal expertise whatsoever to know this guy wasn't in the mood to be giving out any free passes.
The moment he started lifting dirt with the repeated scraping of its front foot to the ground, and a few offensive steps forward, I actually mentally heard music in my head. You know the refrain I'm thinking of, the kind from a western film when the two enemies finally come head to head, and time hangs in moments of psyching and anticipation of that first move?
It was me vs. yak and given the size, weight and horn factors, odds weren't exactly stacked in my favor. I had to make a move. I had two options, both relying on an “out of sight, out of mind” philosophy. The first would be to continue to the river bank as planned, and the second was to re-trace my steps back to the tent and hope that my unzipping skills would beat any potential pursuit.
Oh, but I really, really need to pee. Given the frosty cold and general pain in the butt that getting out of a tent generally entails, I had already been putting off this call from nature far longer than was comfortable. The thought of having to ride out an indeterminate amount of time until this solitary giant decided to move on was bordering on unbearable.
With stares so intense it was as if they penetrated the physical and deeply studied your every tendency, I started to slowly move backwards, never taking my eyes off the horned beast. It matched my steps with a few steps forward. My heart was racing but I maintained my resolve. Somehow I managed to duck behind the banks and get to the reason for this whole early morning outing.
I couldn't see the yak anymore and all the while I just imagined the big black hairy creature appearing above me, a grand giant towering over me in my vulnerable state and leaving me nowhere to go but an undignified dash for the river.
I took a deep breath as I prepared myself to emerge back onto the clearing. Would it be closer than before?
It was, but not as close as I had feared. What it did mean though was that returning to the tent the same way was impossible now. I'd have to take a different route.
I started increasing the distance by stepping further along the banks. My plan was to get far enough back to the tent where our guides were sleeping, then make a loop around the other side to ours.
It barely moved but its stare was unrelenting. It was watching me and it wanted me to know it. Some more grunting was thrown in for good measure.
Reaching the guides' tent, I saw that the door of their little dome was completely unzipped. Despite my impending death, I remember thinking, “They must be cold.”
I was now halfway and being a glass half full kind of girl, I felt that re-energizing surge of a sprint to home base. Yet I had to remain patient. A sudden bolt to the tent would likely be the worst and possibly my last move.
Creeping across the field ever so slowly, it felt like I had been up for the longest time, despite the whole scenario unfolding over minutes. It's amazing how little actions can amount to big ones and how suddenly what felt like the insurmountable turns to an achievement within reach.
Now at the tent, the careful steps were replaced with a quick flurry of hand moments as I yanked at zips in ways probably not recommended in the instruction manual. When the final zip clinked metal to metal, I breathed a huge sigh of relief as I quickly climbed over bodies and tried to find my place under the sleeping bag in the middle.
Yeah, let's try not to die by yak.