A Yahoo Gallop in Mongolia
Mongolia Horse Trek in Arhangay
by G. Spooner July 2006
Not long ago, I started taking a few horseback riding lessons in Maryland. I loved riding (though after a few falls my husband said I need a Velcro saddle) but I did not reach beyond a beginner level. I also enjoyed occasional day trail rides, but never learned much from them. I wanted the romance and drama of learning to ride better in the land where horses abound and horsemen are the heroes – Mongolia.
What did I know about Mongolia when I started dreaming about this trip? Not much. A remote land running from the edge of Siberia to the Gobi desert with endless steppes in between; extreme temperatures; nomadic people; herds of horses; and legendary horsemen. A history dominated by storybook tales of Genghis Khan and the Mongol horde building their vast empire 800 years ago – although a remarkable history is being written today as Mongolia emerges from the chrysalis of communism.
Although I was drawn to the trip because I wanted to glimpse this vast country that was closed to westerners for most of my lifetime -- the real magic was the idea of riding horses in a country where horses are in the very DNA. But with very little riding experience, could I do it? The answer was a resounding “yes.” My apprehensiveness about whether I could cope with the riding made the trip a real adventure – an exciting experience spiced with an element of risk.
San bain uu. The trip began in Ulan Baator where I met the other eight members of our group as we placed our bags on the bus and settled in for an eight-hour ride towards Tsetserleg, the capital of the province of Arkhangai in West Central Mongolia. Leaving Ulan Baator, we passed an untidy mix of new construction, decaying Soviet-style apartment buildings, the Trans-Mongolia Railroad, and outlying suburbs of white gers speckling the hillsides. Gers are collapsible, round, felt-covered dwellings designed so that nomads can move them easily from place to place. The suburban gers are now fixtures: some are surrounded by low wooden fences; many have a satellite dish and a motor cycle or old van outside.
Outside the city, wide, grassy valleys tip up at the edges to low, folded green hills that frame the high blue sky. A peaceful scene, but not bland. The soul of the land holds memories of a long, turbulent history and the soft wind hints at the bitter winter to come. The air was crystal clear, draining away jet lag and tension.
Sheep, goats, cattle, and herds of horses graze across the unfenced land. My biggest surprise was the sheer number of horses: herd after herd after herd – nodding their heads, swishing their long tails, some nuzzling up to each other, others running with heads held high.
We arrived in time for dinner at the ger camp in the Ikh Tamir river valley. Each ger had 4 comfortable beds around the trellised, felt covered walls, with an elaborately painted table and fireplace in the center. After a hot shower, we enjoyed an excellent meal in the big, ger-like dining room. The food on the whole trip, even while we were camping, was simple but much better than the fatty, boiled mutton I expected: grated carrot salads, salami, cheese, soups, scrumptious stews, and wild scallion flavored omelets for breakfast (our cook Nara’s specialty).
A real treat followed dinner with the arrival of a group of brightly costumed musicians, a dancer and a contortionist. The most striking instrument was the morin khuur, a horse hair violin played like a cello –-- larger than our violins and decorated with an elaborate carved horse head. The group played richly textured folk music and, surprisingly, a Mozart arrangement. The traditional throat singing was strange but extraordinarily beautiful. With complex movements of his tongue and throat, the throat singer produced a mix of high and low notes, at times sounding like a bassoon.
If one of my surprises was the number of herds of horses, another was the haunting and pervasive singing. We were serenaded with song after song – on the bus, after dinner around the camp fire, and on the trails.
A highlight of the trip was the Nadaam Festival in Tsetserleg the next day. The annual Nadaam Festivals held in Ulan Baator and smaller towns all over Mongolia (generally July 11 and 12) are sports events as well as family reunions and celebrations -- like a combination of July 4th and the Super Bowl. The sports competitions are horse racing, wrestling and archery – known as the three “manly” sports. Nadaam has roots deep in the past when the Mongol armies met to hunt and compete. This year, the Nadaam Festival celebrated the 800th anniversary of Genghis Khan. .
The grassy slopes of a hill overlooking the end of the race track (in reality, just a dusty road) hosted one large “tail-gate” party. Most people were on horseback or sitting on the grass with their horses waiting patiently behind. Men wearing traditional dels (a long heavy coat tied with a sash or heavy belt) were smoking – maybe betting on the races. Women in brightly colored dels sat on the grass watching the children play. Some families leaned against their vans or pick-up trucks. Young boys showed off their riding skills swooping in amongst the crowds. A dusty, noisy, happy scene. My anticipation about the coming ride grew as I witnessed the careless expertise of every rider -- but the anticipation was mixed with a prickle of apprehension that my riding skills would not be adequate on the trail.
The crowd stood up and began to cheer when the cars leading the racers appeared in the distance. Young riders (aged about eight to twelve years old) ride the horses bareback over 15 to 30 kilometers. The five winning racers – called the “leaders of 10,000” -- wear a bright yellow cloak and gold crown for the traditional award ceremony. Though I did not hear it, a song of empathy is sung to the losing horse.
After the races, the crowd moved quickly to a nearby stadium for the wrestling. The wrestlers, wearing red or blue dels, sat patiently in the middle of the field waiting for the action to begin. For the contest, the wrestlers wore unusual tops – patterned sleeves joined at the back. According to tradition, a long time ago a woman took part in the wrestling competition and won. Since then, the wrestlers keep their chests uncovered to prevent a women slipping into the competition. The movements of the wrestlers were like a slow-motion ballet; wild cheering erupted when one competitor finally wrestled the other to the ground. The winner did a graceful victory dance with both hands held high.
The Horse Trek
Once we reached the Taikhar ger camp, we met our wranglers and horses. Mongolian horses are small, stocky, and – in my eyes -- very appealing. Chatting (a relative term with their limited English and our few words in Mongolian) with the wranglers, the two expert riders in our group chose the fastest horses and the rest of us were matched with horses according to our skills (or lack thereof). I began trying out saddles. They looked really scruffy – plastic covered pads with a metal hoop back and front – but were actually quite comfortable. Certainly more comfortable than the Mongolian saddles with a narrow sitting area between a beautifully decorated high back and front.
On our shake-down ride, we began riding round the field watched carefully by the wranglers. I learned to change direction by moving the reins from one side of the horse’s neck to the other (as in Western riding) and to say “chu” to ask my horse to trot or canter. A good kick also worked Mongolian horses have a fast running trot that they can maintain for ever – bouncy but not as uncomfortable as I had expected. No longer white knuckled, my confidence grew. I was exhilarated and excited though still a little scared: this was what the trip was all about.
So began six days of riding, camping each night. We rode about six hours a day – one day it was eight hours -- over varied terrain. At first we rode across grassy valleys and low treeless hills; later, as we got higher into Arkhangai, we rode up and down higher hills and into the forests on top. Sometimes we rode together with the wranglers singing haunting songs about nature, love, and mothers. Other times we spread out – some were trotting, others cantering, and still others galloping as fast they could.
On the first full day of riding, one of the horses ahead of me spotted a big sandy patch and decided this would be a good spot to roll over and squash the flies on his back. My horse, Hier, also thought this was a good idea. He kneeled down and began to roll over on me. At least I knew enough about riding to get my feet out of the stirrups and jump off as fast as I could. I was not hurt but my horse enjoyed the experience and rolled over three more times that afternoon and twice the next morning. The wranglers then gave me another horse – a beautiful red chestnut called Huuren. Huuren also tried to lie down once when we were crossing a deep stream but I had learned from my previous rollovers and quickly pulled his head up and yelled ‘chu” and got him out of the water. I was making progress.
The wranglers took care of our safety while we were riding. They also worked very hard to please us and make sure we enjoyed ourselves. They were cheerful, helpful (except for one incident when one of them had too much mare’s milk vodka) and superb riders. And their singing! The head wrangler, Tseye, had grizzled grey hair, an old grey del to match, a gentlemanly manner, and a voice to rival Pavarotti’s. Bold was my favorite: tireless, constantly watching out for us and the horses, caring about my progress, with a twinkle in his eye, and a deep, rich singing voice.
The highlight of my trip came on the last full day of riding. Zola (Bold’s sister) – a beautiful young girl wearing a royal blue del with silver braid -- rode with me all day. She was a perfect companion: lively, an expert horsewoman, practicing her English while patiently listening to my attempts at Mongolian, and she enjoyed going fast. Late in the afternoon when we reached a perfect open stretch of grass, she urged my horse to go faster and faster – making sure I was comfortable with the speed. When we were already going fast, a young teacher in our group – dashing in a dark blue del with orange sash and his black cowboy hat riding an ex-race horse – passed me and yelled “yahoo.” My horse accepted the challenge and took off. I dropped my heels, straightened my back, held on for dear life, and loved every minute of the contest. The euphoria from that ride will be slow to fade.
That evening we camped near the Tsenkher hot spring ger resort. We soaked in the hot spring-fed pool until our fingers were pruny; after days of riding and camping, at last we were squeaky clean.
Welcoming strangers with food, drink and shelter is at the heart of nomadic life. Tying up my horse outside a ger in the middle of nowhere, and ducking my head as I entered the door to a family’s simple but cozy home is a treasured memory. On one occasion, we were invited by a family into their gers while our van was stuck for several hours. Like most of our visits to families, this visit was totally unplanned – not a show for tourists. Three generations of the family lived in four gers surrounded by their herds of sheep, goats and horses. As soon as we arrived we were offered food – soft, creamy cheese, pieces of hard cheese, and hot, milky tea flavored with salt. We were also offered airag (fermented mare’s milk). I much preferred the mildly alcoholic airag to the salty tea.
Next, a more serious drink was offered. The grandfather handed each of us in turn an ancient silver bowl of mare’s milk vodka. We dipped the ring finger of our right hand in the vodka three times flicking it in different directions before taking a ceremonial taste of the vodka. To the great delight of the old man, a couple of members of our group did us proud by downing the traditional three bowls of vodka. Photographs followed. The grandmother quickly changed into a bright brocade del for the occasion and the old man was tugged into a freshly ironed shirt. The Polaroid prints were placed proudly among old, formal pictures on a painted chest. We thanked the family by singing a folk song in Mongolian that our guides had taught us on the long bus rides. Baagi and Enjie, our guides, claim the family will be talking about our visit all winter.
The Mongolians we met were kind, courteous, and cheerful. But behind the lovely faces and worn hands, I sensed the solid strength -- a legacy from centuries of hardship -- needed to endure the harsh winters and the transition from the old nomadic life into an uncertain future.
Flowers and Flies
The province of Arkhangai is sometimes called the Switzerland of Mongolia. There were no snowy peaks but as we traveled farther away from Tsetseleg higher into the hills, the low grasses gave way to fields of wild flowers: purple, yellow, blue, and white, the soft colors accented by a small deep wine-colored flower. One evening, all I could see from our cluster of bright yellow tents were yellow meadows stretching into the distance. While we were riding, we saw bright orange red lilies among the edelweiss and purple campanulas, and dusky pink lilies on tall spikes deep in the forest. Golden eagles soaring above completed the picture.
Along with the flowers and recent heavy rains came the flies: world-class swarms of flies – little ones and big, biting horse flies. We found ways to cope with them – swishing with branches and spraying our clothes with insect repellent, or, as a last resort, leaving the horses and riding in the bus. But the flies were a real nuisance and, unfortunately, one of the vivid memories of the trip.
End of the Trip
Bayartai. We were delayed for hours because of the bad roads – several flat tires in one day alone. As a result, our sightseeing on the last couple of days was limited – and unlike our riding in sparsely populated areas -- not that different from the ger-to-ger tours in luxury coaches. We had only a glimpse of Karakorum, site of the ancient capital. Nothing remains of the original capital but we had a short visit to the re-built Erdene Zuu, the first Buddhist monastery in Mongolia. By the time we arrived at our ger camp in the dry, rocky foothills of the Khogno Khan Mountains, it was almost midnight. We visited the Uvgun Monastery on the way back to Ulan Baator. On our final day in Ulan Baator, we visited the Bogd Khan summer and winter palaces, shopped for cashmere and antiques, and ended the day at a spectacular music and dancing concert at the Tumen Ekh folk theater.
Back in Washington
In our short visit to Arkhangai, we touched the life of nomads by riding with them on the horses they love so much and by accepting spontaneous hospitality in their homes. I gained confidence in my riding, and by overcoming my fears felt that I had earned a glimpse into this wonderful country and its people. I am already planning my next visit; I want to return before the Mongolia I experienced disappears too far into the 21st century.
Details of this trip can be found on the Hidden Trails website at:
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