On the 2nd of June 2014, after a month at Steppe Riders and a month in the country, I was making final preparations for a horse trek into Gorkhi Terelj National Park. Terelj is situated about 40 km’s NE of Ulaanbaatar (by road) and although the southern section of the park has been quite developed for tourists, its northern parts, which lead into Khan Khentii, are protected wilderness areas and often devoid of people. Whilst you may think of livestock and horses and the great open steppe, rolling green hills and huge brilliantly blue skies when Mongolia crosses your mind, it is in fact a much more diverse country. Terelj, for example, is home to a huge variety of animals, including bears, wolves, red deer and moose, and it holds a vast array of environments and ecosystems, such as swaps, alpine lakes, forests, rocky mountains and huge river systems.
For the first few days I would be sharing my company with a German named Swen, who had purchased two horses and was planning to wander the steppe for a week or two. I would be, as Swen put it, the woman on white horses and had purchased a young, spirited grey and led a calm, older grey ex-racehorse as my packhorse. For the time being, these horses remained unnamed.
Swen and I rode from the Steppe Rider’s camp mid afternoon and set our tents by a ger situated just outside of the entrance to Bogdkhan National Park, north of Zuunmod (park entrance fee of 3000₮, more required if you want to visit the museum and temple). I was told that when camping around people in Mongolia, it is wise to introduce yourself and ask to camp next to a ger. This not only provides safety for you and your horses but is also considered polite. It has the added benefit of good company, the opportunity to sample traditional foods and practice your Mongolian.
At this particular ger, we met an old man and his wife who was busy making urum, using goat milk she had collected earlier that day. She offered us the products of her hard work, the urum as well as some dried curd, or Aaruul, and her husband produced a plate of cold boiled innards from a recently slaughtered goat. Mongolians will eat the entire animal, leaving only the bones, and the intestines, heart, lungs and brain are all considered delicacies. Swen and I prodded warily and the plate of grey mass with a sharp knife provided by the man. It looked much like an animal had been run over by a car, scraped off the road and then served up on a plate and we had no idea how long it had been sitting around, covered in flies. Not wishing to be rude, and with the spirit of adventure, I tried some brain and Swen had a go at the lungs. It had an incredibly strange texture, but all things considered, was quite tasty.
We woke up to a light drizzle of rain, which appeared to characterise the month of June, in Mongolia. The rain acquainted us to the first of many troubles with our packsaddles. The loss of friction due to the water caused the two girth straps securing the saddle, and thus the packs, to slip down the wet belly of the horses. The packs on Swen’s fat brown horse caused the most problems. We would have to stop every hour or so to readjust the packs and occasionally, especially when traveling down hills and steep embankments, would have to completely re-saddle the horse as the packs slid up, and over his head. Thankfully the horse was a ‘Nomkhon mör’, Mongolian for ‘calm horse’, and would sit quietly while we pulled the packs off his neck.
Horses, I discovered, often had quite a bit of trouble getting over obstacles and across landscapes that we found easy to navigate. Unfortunately I was slow on the uptake of this fact and after a veil of mist made path finding difficult and saw us enter a thick and treacherous forest, we continued on, rather than opting to find a way around. Between the icy rain, the constant re-saddling of Swen’s horse and the arduous detours we needed to make to get the horses around logs and raging rivers and small cliffs, the forest expanded in front of us like time itself. Aptly, we named it the Endless forest. We had been on foot for most of the day – partly for the sake of the horses and partly because we were too wet and cold to ride – and by the time we broke through the edge of the forest, we were soaked to the bone.
We camped at the edge of the pines, enjoying a small fire when the rain died down and some rice and vegetables to warm our bellies. The issues with the packsaddles weighed heavily on our minds; due to the rubbing Swen’s fat brown horse had started to develop sores. If it went on like this, Swen would have to turn back.
It had stopped raining but the wind was biting and our socks were still wet from the day before. The packsaddle continued to cause us hell and Swen was developing quite a severe cold. Morale was understandably low.
Aside from a backwards glace that would see us staring in wonder at the black Endless forest that stretched onto the mountains behind us and the ruins of old deserted buildings we passed early in the morning, the surroundings were bleak. We passed through the small town of Honhure, where we were invited into a ger to share lunch with some locals. The two men of the household were covered in facial sores and I noticed a card indicating that the two young girls, who both smiled gayly in the corner, were sponsored by World Vision. Their ger was filthy and unkempt but despite their relative impoverishment, they still displayed that over-the-top Mongolian hospitality. Those with the least share the most.
The afternoon saw us follow a busy paved road towards Nalaikh. Nalaikh is a large town built on the edge of a mining community. It reeked of smoke and of rushed industrial expansion and I wanted to get as far away from it as possible. At our pace, however, we were forced to stop around its outskirts. The occupants at the ger we approached were stoney faced and cold. They stared at us with red eyes and answered our questions with monosyllables. They were clearly distrustful of us but Swen was ill and the horses needed to rest. After several hours of sideways glances between the two groups, I gained courage and approached their ger. Ten minutes later we were laughing, sharing food and stories (as much as we could with my limited Mongolian). It appeared that they had been just as apprehensive and wary as I had. As a guest, who had suddenly called upon their services and their kindness, I felt ashamed for the fear and mistrust I had approached them with. I was, however, thankful, as the experience taught me a valuable lesson on prejudgement.
Today was beautifully warm. I marveled at how different a mood can be set when the sun is out and shining brightly on your back. We were offered fresh milk from our hosts and friendly smiles as we packed our gear and mounted our horses. We then quickly left the smoke and Nalaikh behind us as we continued east, towards Terelj. Swen decided to ride the fat brown horse to remedy the problems he was having with the packsaddles. Unfortunately, he found that the horse didn’t really want to move forwards. He was a clear follower and we had great difficulty getting him over the many rivers and creeks we came across that day. I soon started having problems with my own packhorse, who was constantly trying to pull my arm out of its socket. I later discovered, to my horror, that his pace was inspired by an inflammation on his back caused by the wet and rubbing of the packsaddle on the previous days.
By early afternoon we were riding on a huge flat plane bordered by small green treeless hills and the great Tuul river, which was clearly in flood. I had become restless at the slow pace and after securing my packhorse to Swen’s care, galloped up a steep hill to get a decent view of the land. Upon returning, I found Swen in the company of a jolly herdsman, who had a smile that cracked his rosy-red gnarled face like poetry and a laugh that was so contagious that it left us in a wake of wide grins and giggles. We camped with a lovely, busy family and were doted on furiously by a concerned grandmother and a strong, independent mother. We were temporarily adopted that night and I slept as soundly as if I was at home in my own bed.
Today we passed the great Chinggis Khan (Ghengis Khan) statue (amazingly cost ~$4.1 million to construct). It is an impressive monument at 40 meters high, a perfect memento to one of the greatest conquerors in human history. It stands solitary, all polished silver and gleaming in the sun, against a back drop of green and blue. We were content to view it from afar and so opted against paying the fee (~7000₮) to enter the museum.
A few hours later we were riding across green rolling landscape that shone florescent in the sunlight. So vast and beautiful was this setting that we decided to stop at some of the picturesque gers on the southern hills, just so we could watch the effect the falling sun had on the colours of this landscape.
Another elderly couple invited us into their ger that afternoon. Once inside, the woman quickly donned traditional head ware and proceeded to sing Mongolian songs. Her voice was cracked with disuse but the passion she felt towards her beautiful country shone through like a brilliant flame. I was enthralled. We spent the evening learning how to catch and milk goats, and drunk vodka, hoping to shake Swen’s cold. Outside the falling sun crackled in the air and our horses munched contently on the lush green grass of the steppe.
A quick evaluation of our horses’ condition inspired a rest day. It would also be the last day I traveled with Swen. The clouds threatened overhead but no rain fell and I spent the day bathing and washing clothes in the nearby Tuul river. We enjoyed an early but hearty meal with our hosts, until we realised (through our disjointed understanding of Mongolian) that they would shortly be entertaining a whole host of family visitors. We respectfully departed to our tents, after a brief moment of excitement in the form of a horse chase that involved the escape of an older horse owned by our hosts. Galloping across the planes and leaping from the back of my own horse to grasp the trailing reins of the escapee was a truly invigorating and memorable experience. In that single exhilarating moment I was a Mongolian horseman, one with the beast beneath me, sharing the immense power of his stride.
Late into the night I was kept up by the festivities of a ger full of people. I almost managed to get a good night sleep until I was disturbed by a curious cow that refused to stop butting and licking my tent. After chasing it with a stick several times (it continued to return and lick my tent) I gave up and hoped that in the morning I wouldn’t wake to sunlight streaming through a hole torn in the material.
** I decided to jump right into the trekking adventures, however, I will post information on the equipment I purchased, and other helpful tips regarding how to plan an unguided horse trek in Mongolia, as well as my experience as a volunteer with Steppe Riders at a later time. **