Mongolia had never fascinated me particularly. Much grander seemed the formidable Andes and Himalyas and Jon Krakauer’s Into the wild had only inspired crazy thoughts of solo jaunts into the American or Australian wilderness. But when the idea of traveling on horseback over the Mongolian steppes first entered my mind, after reading Tim Cope’s book (On the Trail of Genghis Khan) detailing his epic travels by horse across Mongolia, Kazakhstan and Russia, I was thoroughly hooked. One of the least densely populated countries on the planet, and presenting a stunning array of landscapes – not the least including the vast openness of the unending steppe, emerald green grass and the eternal blue sky – it seemed the perfect place to escape on a solo adventure.
On the 1st of May, 2014, six months after first conceiving this trip, I was settled comfortably in a four-seat train compartment on my way from Beijing, China to Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. I shared the small compartment with a French lad, not much younger than I. He was also traveling alone but would only stop for a few days in Mongolia and, like many I was to encounter throughout the duration of my trip, thought I was completely mad. Even as I described my plan to buy two horses from a local Mongolian horseman, pack them up with supplies and head off for several months alone through various national parks and towns across the country, I couldn’t help but feel a bit silly. I didn’t speak any Mongolian, and although 80% of the population supposedly understood English, outside of the cities and towns this proportion declined considerably. Due to monetary issues I had also opted against purchasing a satellite phone and thus would not be able to communicate with home or call for help when I reached the more remote places. Further, the sum-total of my experiences with horses was limited to several trail rides a year when I was under the age of 17.
There was the issue of my gender to contend with as well. Woman in Mongolia do enjoy relatively similar rights to men. Aside from the fact that the majority of skilled workers in the country are female, the country also has a strong history of powerful women (see The Secret History of Mongol Queens by Jack Weatherford). Even so, the roles of woman and men in a traditional sense are quite different. For example, whilst women do ride horses in Mongolia, a woman riding long distances without the accompaniment of a man is still considered a very strange occurrence to most Mongolians, and Mongolian ‘horsewomen’ are relatively unheard of. I was also heavily warned against traveling without a male guide to protect me from possibly dangerous encounters (of the environmental and human nature), to aid with the language barriers and to direct me in a country where virtually no detailed maps existed. Tim Cope himself stressed that I should take a guide with me, when I met him at a book launch in Sydney one night. But I am an incredibly stubborn person. He did it alone. And I wanted to do it alone too. I would not, however, be completely under-prepared. I had arranged to stay at a camp several kilometers out of Ulaanbaatar, where I would hopefully pick up a bit of the language, learn the ways of the Mongolian horse and establish a home-base.
I had arranged to meet Mendee, the owner of this tourist camp, at the train station in Ulaanbaatar. Mendee had a great, open, smiling face that was built on a solid tanned frame. He was kind and generous, common characteristics in many of the Mongolian people I was to meet on my travels. He picked me up in ‘Mongolian time’, which I came to define as a time much later than you had expected, ranging anywhere from 1 – 4 hours after the intended meeting. After conveying his apologies, he ushered me into his car, where I met a Singaporean woman, known only as ‘Ox’. Ox and I were to spend the next two weeks together, working as volunteers at Mendee’s camp, Steppe Riders. It was the first time either of us had visited Mongolia, and I don’t think we really knew what to expect. On my part, I was very surprised at how developed the capital, Ulaanbaatar, was. According to a friend, who had visited 10 years ago, it hadn’t been much more than a collection of gers (the traditional Mongolian tent housing composed of felt and cotton wrapped around a wooden frame – much like the south-east Asian ‘yurt’), dirt roads and markets. Now it had great skyscrapers, tourist shops, paved roads and streets and a bustling population of very well dressed men and women. As we whizzed across the city, narrowly avoiding catastrophe in the swerving madness of traffic, I noticed the diverse architecture of this city. Old Russian soviet buildings meshed with Chinese-styled temples and American high-rises. It all presented an amazing visual representation of the history of conflict, control and influence in Mongolia.
As much as the city intrigued me, I was glad to see it disappear behind us as we drove out into the countryside, and towards Mendee’s summer camp. Steppe Riders was situated about 2 kilometers off the main road, a collection of little white gers nestled amongst great rolling green hills. At the time of our arrival in early May, however, winter snows were still common, and thus the hills were tinted gray and yellow and the sparse covering of trees behind the camp were skeletal and leafless. Despite the dull wasteland-like visage of the landscape at that time, its vast beauty captivated me. The enormity of space out there was almost unnatural and the sky appeared to be stretched impossibly large from horizon to horizon. I remember excusing myself from the small party that had gathered to welcome us at the camp, and racing up one of the nearest hills to view this land from a high point. It was at that moment that I felt all the apprehension, all the fears of solo travel in an unknown country disappear. The cold wind rushing up from the deep valleys chilled me and I shivered not from the cold, but from the excitement and energy that coursed through me. I understood that the journey had well and truly begun, although I hadn’t even yet saddled and ridden a Mongolian horse.
My introduction to the Mongolian horse came the following day. Ox, Mendee and I piled into a sturdy looking 4WD with several young children and took off east towards Steppe Rider’s winter camp (most Mongolian families who live out in the countryside have a camp for summer and a winter camp, which is set in a place more sheltered from the snow and icy wind that characterizes the colder months). From several disjointed conversations, Ox and I quickly gathered that we were to make a stop in the nearby town of Zuunmod, where a collection of Mendee’s racehorses had been captured trying to make a run for their original grazing land. At first glance, the animals appeared similar to the western pony. Short and stocky, they had stumpy, powerful looking legs and wild eyes. Initially they didn’t impress me as much as the tall, graceful thoroughbred and wiry stock horse resident in my own country, however I was to quickly come to respect them and to be at awe at their unbeatable stamina and sprint. Although the animals were much smaller than any horse I had ever encountered, fitting them in the back of the jeep was out of the question. Thus, the next best option was employed, and the 7 – 12 year old children jumped onto their bare backs and rode them southwards for approximately 50 km’s to the winter camp. Without a map, any food or water, they would rely on the people they encountered along their path, using lonely white gers as way-points, and applying their inbuilt sense of direction to find the way.
There were around 200 horses at the winter camp. We were to herd a group of them to the summer camp, over 100 km’s across the steppes. I was provided a rather mangy looking animal with a short stature (even by Mongolian horse standards) and a rough, brown body speckled with thick tufts of winter fur. He eyed me with a similar suspicion to which I considered him. I was convinced that this slight animal would fold very quickly under my weight. All doubts escaped me, however, after I lunged clumsily into the saddle and he instantly set about trying to throw me off with his fast pace and his insatiable taste for quick cornering and sudden stops. We rode for 7 hours, the horse cantering and trotting underneath without rest. I was sure that although he was doing all the running, I was feeling much worse off.
Riding a Mongolian horse is an entirely different experience to that of an Australian horse. Their gait is much faster and usually prevents the opportunity to rise and fall to the trot. The Mongolians will therefore often stand in the saddle, balancing carefully as the horse moves fast underneath them. These people are born riders and there are few in the country who don’t demonstrate masterful control of the animal (see video below). I didn’t have this skill or the endurance at that stage, so I sat awkwardly, bouncing madly up and down and feeling almost as sorry for the horse as I did for my bruised bottom.
Later that evening, a huge snow storm ran through the area. Mendee had driven Ox and I back to summer camp, leaving two horseman to ride with the herd through the storm and the night. Once the horses get cold, they will continue running to exhaustion in order to maintain their body temperature. These means that the horsemen will only pause to relieve themselves and to capture and mount a fresh horse when their own is unable to maintain a fast enough pace. It thus quickly became apparent that it was not only the Mongolian horse that demonstrated an intensely fiery spirit and an unbreakable stamina.