One of the things I really wanted to do in Mongolia was go horse-riding, and John was also pretty keen. The tour we picked included a three-day horse-riding trek and we were quite excited about this. In the morning our small bags were packed into giant canvas saddlebags, along with tents, sleeping bags and food. And there were five horses, saddled up and waiting for us.
They looked rather small. And what surprised me was that they weren’t at all groomed, with manes either hacked to an inch-long or hanging in dreadlocks like their unkempt tails. The horses in Mongolia are half-wild and they’re considered livestock; unlike in Australia and in most of the ‘western’ world where you’ve got to have a bit of money [or live in the country] to afford a horse, and they’re pampered and groomed and stabled and very cared for. That’s not to say that Mongolians don’t care for their horses – it’s just very different. Their horses are pretty stocky and tough, but I imagine they need to be to survive the freezing Mongolian winter!
We were all allocated horses, and for some reason John – the biggest in the group – was assigned the smallest and probably the oldest horse. We all mounted and tried without much success to get comfortable on Mongolian-style saddles. They’re horrible. Horrible and small and my god I was sore by the end of the first day!
Another strange thing I found was that in Mongolia they only ride stallions. They don’t ride the mares, and they don’t geld their horses. Bloodlines don’t seem exceedingly important and I don’t believe special care is taken in breeding. The result is that the herds of horses are all mismatched colours and it’s rather nice. We’d been warned that Mongolian horses are half-wild, and it was evident rather early that this was the case. Unlike the well-trained horses I’d ridden in Australia, who were completely broken in and very responsive to the rider, these horses were basically outright bastards – mine in particular. I’d named him Marduk, and it seemed that naming him after an ancient god gave him some kinds of ideas about how he should act. John’s horse liked to be a few hundred metres behind the rest, slowly plodding along, and one of the other horses for some reason really liked to be right up the bum of anyone in front. Mine insisted on always being in front – to the point where it was absolutely predictable. If someone overtook him, for example if I was trying to hang back to catch up with John, he’d crack the shits and as soon as he had the opportunity he’d be stalking back to the front and very, very deliberately and obviously inserting himself directly in front of the other horses. Even if there was only six inches between the front horse and then the guide, Dash, bloody Marduk would stick his head in and force his way into the line. It wasn’t worth having my arms ripped out trying to stop him – the bastard knew he was stronger than me. Fortunately I wasn’t the only one riding a complete arsehole of a horse! Our guide, Aiyuna, was having difficulty with hers and at times all the horses decided to play up.
The first day we rode from our ger camp to another on a beautiful lake. We rode mostly along a track formed by use, over rolling hills and down valleys and past a gorgeous forest where fortunately we stopped for lunch. While lunch was cooking John and I went for a walk through the forest. It was incredible. The ground was thick with wildflowers in vivid yellows and delicate mauves, vibrant purples and pinks and blues. I wanted to pick them, but there wasn’t anything I could do with them. It was magical. The trees were straight and tall and green and blocked out enough of the sky to make the forest seem a little mysterious.
After lunch we scaled what is probably considered a mountain in Mongolia but was really just a steep hill. The views from the top were incredible, but unfortunately we weren’t stopping and we’d been strictly instructed not to take photos from horseback in case it spooked the horses. We got off a little later as we had to walk the horses down – the track was apparently too steep and the gravel made it very uncertain. Marduk thought it would be rather entertaining to try to push me over. I didn’t find it very funny.
We remounted at the bottom of the hill and rode the rest of the way to the lake, in front of which sat a couple of gers. One was for us, fortunately, and we were all quite happy to dismount and unpack before wandering around. The location was spectacular.
The family welcomed us with airag, cheese, a big bucket of wild berries and butter. We sat around on the grass eating berries, our fingers stained scarlet.
John and Will chopped some firewood for our little fire. We’d also noticed that the walls of our ger hadn’t entirely been completed, with about a foot around the base completely open. We found piles of fabric that looked to go around there beside the door and set about moving the beds so we could tie the fabric to the walls. Once our ger had been successfully remodelled, we were pleased that the warmth now stayed in and the wind didn’t blow through!
Two of the guys, Nick and Alex, were both incredibly sick that night and weren’t sure if they’d be able to continue riding the next day. Because of this we didn’t leave until really late – the family who owned the gers and lived there insisted on giving us all some traditional medicine. This traditional medicine, which apparently the nomadic families take for almost everything, is milk vodka. You heard it right. Apparently it’s a vodka somehow made from milk. It’s pretty gross, and had oily patches that left a sour-milk aftertaste. However afterwards both Nick and Alex were feeling much better and well enough to keep riding. It could be that the milk vodka was so potent it killed whatever they’d caught! The family insisted on giving us lunch of rice cooked in milk with chewy bits of dry mutton and, the part that really, really didn’t work for me, chunks of homemade cheese.
Before we left, the men and boys invited John and Will to play basketball with them. We were starting to notice that most gers had a basketball hoop nearby!
That day we rode out to White Lake, where we had a picnic lunch on a hill overlooking the lake. However, I’d been feeling nauseous ever since the food given to us by the family and lunch didn’t appeal. Instead I lay in the grass enjoying the view and crossing my fingers that I didn’t have what the guys had got! Fortunately by the end of the day I was feeling fine again. It was definitely the food we’d had at the gers – the cheese and milk hadn’t agreed with me and I’d realised that at the first mouthful. However, I didn’t have any choice but to eat it.
It was a longer ride that day and by the time we eventually arrived at our destination – almost two hours after we were told there was only 20 minutes left to go and we couldn’t have a break for ten minutes – we were all exhausted. We were camping this time, alongside a river in an area where a lot of families were staying. The site was beautiful.
We pitched our tents and John and I were given a tiny, tiny little tent for ourselves, which of course came along with plenty of pointed suggestions from Aijuna and our guides about baby-making. I’d never seen such a tiny two-man tent before, and we didn’t actually fit in it. Even on a diagonal John couldn’t lie down probably, and so I ended up curled up in a corner so he had space. Of course our tent also happened to not be waterproof…we were longing for the comfort of a ger that night! Still, we woke up to a spectacular view.
John had great difficulty on the second day of riding, as the stirrups were too short and couldn’t be lengthened and every time we were trotting it was causing him a lot of pain in his knee, to the point that when we got off he could hardly walk. So the third day, John chose not to ride back with us to the camp but took a motorbike instead – Dash, our horse-guide, knew the local people staying there and arranged for one of them to take John back. He was off, and it was time for the other four of us to ride back. We definitely made better time! We arrived back at the camp – the place we’d started the horse-trek from – about an hour later and it was lovely to relax in front of the fire for a while.
In the afternoon we walked to a nearby waterfall. I was a little cynical about the prospect of a waterfall nearby – the area was almost entirely flat.
However, I was pleasantly surprised. As we wandered in the direction we’d been pointed the ground opened into a giant crevasse, and it was into the crevasse that the water flowed! It was beautiful, and if it hadn’t been so freezing cold we might have considered a swim.
Later another group arrived, and they were heading off horse riding the next day. In the evening, after dinner, we had a little bonfire and some drinks, and Dash’s father came and performed traditional throat singing for us all. It was amazing – I never imagined that one person could make so many different sounds all at once. They all sang some popular folk songs for us and asked us all to sing something for them. After much discussion, the only thing we could come up with that everyone knew was ‘I Will Survive’, and it’s safe to say that the Mongolians sang far better than our motley bunch of Australians, Brits, Irish, Americans and Germans.