Horse trekking in the middle of Mongolia

Posted by on Oct 6, 2015 in Asia, Featured, Mongolia, Travel | 6 comments

Horse trekking in the middle of Mongolia

I had long dreamed of visiting the wild and rugged countryside of Mongolia.

Growing up riding horses, my sister and I were always drawn to the ‘land of the horse’.

Mongols are regarded as some of the best horseman in the world, which is no surprise as life in Mongolia depends on horses.

Reading Tim Cope’s epic On the Trail of Genghis Khan, and later listening to him speak, only increased my desire to experience the life of these nomadic people living in harmony with their horses and other animals.

What I didn’t know, is that I would fall in love.

I fell in love with the kind and generous spirit of the people, the sturdy and reliable nature of the horses, the harsh yet stunningly beautiful land, and above all the simple life they live.

Nomadic families don’t worry about how other people perceive them, don’t lust after the latest iPhone, and are not consumed by social media.

Their life is shared with family, friends and loved ones.

They concern themselves with looking after their animals, who in turn look after them providing transport and nourishment.  They are completely self sustaining.

They think about nature, the weather and when it’s time to move further up or down the mountains.

There is a real honesty and beauty in this uncomplicated living.

 

Curd out drying

 

To have an authentic experience we travelled eight hours out of the capital Ulaanbaatar to the small town of Tsetserleg.

Arriving at Fairfield Guesthouse we met up with the owner Murray, who had organised horse trekking guides to take us into the mountains for a week.

The next morning we headed out to a family ger to begin our journey.  ‘Gers’ are the round tents nomads live in, periodically moved around the countryside depending on weather and available grazing for their animals.

Entering my first ger I carefully moved my way past a half skinned horse head placed by the door.

Two women were busily working to prepare food, one making khuushuur (an empanada looking meat pastry), the other stirring milk bubbling on the stove.

 

Making dumplings

Making milk in ger

 

They welcomed us in and offered what we would come to know as the usual greeting, suutei tsai (a piping hot drink made of water, milk, tea and salt) accompanied by various forms of cheese and/or curd served with fresh bread.

Due to climate the Mongolian diet is dominated by meat and dairy, which admittedly are not my favourite!

It was virtually the same menu at each ger we visited, nomads having access to limited food sources.

All food is handmade, dinner often a meat and noodle soup and breakfast either a rice milk porridge or what we called ‘Mongolian fairy bread’ – a dense bread served with a bowl of soft dairy and sugar spooned on top.

They use every part of an animal and nothing is wasted, bones are used for soups and organs are eaten.  We were offered blood sausage made from intestines, which only one from our group sampled.

Sunday is slaughter day, and as we stood outside the ger a young cow met his fate.  I didn’t watch, but the boys told me they knocked the animal out first with a swift blow to the head.

 

Bread and dairy

 

The air was crisp and the sun was shining, I couldn’t wait to get in the saddle!  We would be travelling with two guides (who knew about ten English words between them), our group of five, and two pack horses.

It was time to head off and we mounted our horses, some of whom don’t seem too impressed to have been taken out of their herd to carry foreigners around!

The horses were smaller than what I am used to, and at first I was worried about how they would go carrying the heavier boys and our packs.  But I needn’t have worried, these horses are the hardiest in the world, and although small in stature they are strong and sturdy.

They survive winters of -40 degrees celsius with no rugs and forage for their food, they cover every type of terrain imaginable without shoes, and are often ridden for eight or more hours a day.

 

Tea break after riding (boys)

 

My horse was a small grey with attitude, I named him ‘Baringa’ after a horse from The Silver Brumby books.  He was fast paced, tough and a little bit cheeky.

With short legs even Baringa’s walk was jolting, but it was nothing compared to his trot which was so quick I could barely post to it.

Our saddles varied from comfortable leather ones not too dissimilar to home, to a traditional Mongolian saddle almost a “V” in shape, and my least favourite one with steel pipe hoops at the front and back and a small cushion tied over the top.

We quickly learned the most important word for riding Mongolian horses – “tchoo“.

If I (or anyone else within earshot) uttered this word Baringa would be off!  The word means GO and the horses take it very seriously.  Strangely there is no word for stop, or if there is no-one told us..!

The first day we helped (and sometimes hindered) herd the family’s horses, cattle and yaks to a new location as they were moving their ger.

It was amazing to see how much communication is done between the Mongols and their animals purely by verbal communication.

I loved seeing the animals roaming in their natural herds, with no fences in sight.

The Mongols may not ride with the grace that western countries admire, but they have their own style and really know what they’re doing.

At the end of the day we got to watch them construct the ger in it’s new location, where we slept that night with the family.

 

Building ger

 

Overnight it snowed heavily and we woke up to the ger looking somewhat different..

 

Ger in the snow

 

It continued to snow throughout the day so we stayed inside the warm oasis of the ger.  A family member stayed inside and slept all day, we thought he might be sick but it turned out he was just staying warm and passing the time.

In the afternoon we were getting cabin fever and decided to head out for a short trail ride, which sounded like a good idea, but it was bitterly cold.

Our guides gave my sister and I their chaps to ride in to keep our legs warm and dry, and gave my sister one of their jackets as they could see she was freezing.

 

Riding in the falling snow

 

Thankfully the next day the snow had stopped and we woke to a bright blue sky.

We watched as one of horses was lassoed from the herd, which was really impressive.

 

Lassoing

After the guides finished smearing animal fat over their boots we set off on our horses, headed for our next ger.

The family’s dogs accompanied us everywhere.  They frolicked through the powder snow and sprinted across the dry ground, stopping for a brief play (or mating session!) with other dogs along the way.

It felt magical riding through still mountains with snow crunching under our horses hooves, the sun warming our faces.

 

Through ears of horse

 

The next ger we endearingly referred to as “grandma’s”, because the most lovely woman looked after us and reminded us of our grandmas.

She was extremely house proud with a beautifully presented ger, everything in it’s place and perfectly clean.

At night once we were all laid in a row on the floor she tucked us in with extra blankets, making sure we would be warm and comfortable.

The boys also loved her cooking!

 

Boys breakfast in ger

 

The next day more snow had melted, and once again we packed up our bags and headed off on our next adventure.

The horses were in high spirits and full of energy, happy not to have to plough their way through deep powder snow.

Our last night we stayed in a visitor ger, a separate ger some families have to accommodate travellers.  It was of course less crowded, but we missed the intimacy and being able to observe daily routines.

We arrived at the ger with a few hours of light remaining, so climbed up to a cave in a nearby mountain to take in the view.

 

Wayne with view from cave

 

By our final day enough snow had melted that we were able to take our horses for a gallop with gleeful cries of “tchoo! tchoo!”

The weather was warm, the ground nearly dry, and everyone had a great day.

We rode across vast open expanses of grassland flanked by mountains with pine trees and rocky outcrops circled by large eagles, eventually making our way back to where we began our trip.

A sense of sadness washed over me as we arrived at the ger and dismounted, I would miss my pocket rocket pony and the friendly faces of the nomads.

We were invited into the ger and offered tea and food, as well as “snuff” (ground tobacco leaves you sniff into your nose) which my sister and I tried.  While sniffing the powder I glanced over to see a man singing heartily to Wayne.

 

Wayne with men in last ger

 

Our trip to Mongolia was everything I had dreamt of and more.

I admire the Mongols and their way with animals, they have a deep respect for their animals ingrained within their culture.

They are kind to animals, although not in the same way that we are.  They don’t pat and cuddle their dogs and horses, these animals serve a purpose and have a job to do.

But they rely on their animals and make sure they are well looked after, resting them when they need it and tending to any problems.

Towards humans they are welcoming and undeniably hospitable, there is always a cup of salty tea for a passing traveller.

Riding through the countryside in the middle of Mongolia, staying with nomad families and experiencing their way of life is something I will never forget.  I will treasure the memories forever.

 

Two grey horses in snow

Wayne and Myles riding

Dog and horses in snow

Heading off into snow

6 Comments

  1. Great photos, and a really good blog entry! Thanks for sharing your experience with us all. Glad you had such a great time here. See you again maybe? 🙂

    • Thanks Murray! We would love to be back in Mongolia one day, maybe in the summer next time 😉

  2. What an adventure! I love reading about it all from the comfort of my armchair.

    • Thanks Jo, it was a great adventure! 🙂

  3. Hi Jo..please can you email me… I would like more info as I intend to do this same trip next year 🙂 Thanks

  4. Simply tremendous. I dream about taking a trip like this. Thank you for sharing!

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