Horseback riding through Central Mongolia

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Mongolia is a place out of time. Time is definitely not of the essence around here. Only the elements dictate everyone’s rhythm, everything revolves around the next heavy rain or the next below zero temperatures. The locals move their gers where there is grass and when it gets cold, they use extra layers of goat skin to build set up the ger. Every little thing, every detail, is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Even the language is unique. It doesn’t sound anything like Chinese or Russian, Mongolia’s powerful neighbors. It’s a mix of throat sounds that are really hard to imitate and groans.

Traveling to Mongolia is not for the faint-hearted. The weather is rough, the road conditions are chaotic at best and the food, mostly mutton cooked in very different ways, requires a pretty solid stomach.
The steppe is incredible and incredibly hard to describe to do it justice. Picture a very, very big and very large field locked between mountains from West to East and everywhere you look, you see this massive flat land with scattered gers and flocks. Steppe as far as the eye can see. You could walk for days and see no one. You could drive for hours or days and see the same landscape. The feeling of immensity is hard to explain.

Stating that living conditions are tough in Mongolia is an understatement. If you want to buy something from the so-called mini-market, which is just a small house with a few products to buy, you have to get in a jeep and cross rivers, which could potentially be dangerous. Today we saw a 4WD stranded in a river, water up to the windows and 2 men sitting on the rooftop, waiting for help to arrive.

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Such a vast country, such gigantic steppes and empty landscapes. Everything is re-used, nothing is wasted. In Europe, we get everything from the supermarket, pre-packaged, pre-selected and pre-chewed for us – and that’s merely pushing it a bit. Mongolians hunt for their food, or raise livestock and kill some sheep or goats to eat. They milk cows, yaks, camels, horses and goats. Nothing is wasted. The skin is used for many things, the meat is eaten. They boil the legs, chest and head together. Even the head and legs are eaten. They often offer the head to guests, it’s supposed to be very good. The skin is used to make rope, or sold. Cow skin or goat skin can be used as carpet. Marmot and rabbit skins are sold because they’re very expensive. They also collect nuts and sell them, about 2,50€ a kilo and eat pine nuts too. Life in Mongolia is no picnic.

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Day 1 of riding

My entire body hurts; my legs hurt from climbing down and up the waterfall, my abs from trotting on the horse, my shoulders from carrying a backpack with water, a heavy camera and all. My butt hurts a little and my back is fine. Scratch that, my back hurts too. I helped Sharr, our Mongolian guide, with the horses at night and this morning. I like watching how they saddle them up and take care of them. I think the guide enjoyed some help too. with the daily chores; unsaddle the horses, unpack the packhorse, use long nail, almost like a tent peg, to tie them up for the night. The feeling of riding a Mongolian horse in the open steppe is exhilarating! Bright blue sky, warm sunshine, red sunburn at the end of the day.

Mongolian horses are surprisingly easy to maneuver. We started in a line, following one another and by the end of the day, we were riding as we pleased, so long as we were going in the guide’s direction. Baaska, our translator, is pretty cool. He lived in the US, speaks great English and has tons of stories. He picks the funkiest topics to have a chat about, whether on the bus or on horseback. Why do we have seasons? What do you think the altitude is around here? Where do you stand on faithfulness in a couple? What about religion? Did you know that 2 Mongolians were eaten by wolves a few years back while picking berries? He told us not to approach the private gers or the dog would attack, and one actually chased us off.

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We ran into a Belgian-Italian girl and a French guy traveling together with their guide and spent some time with them until we stopped for a late lunch at 4pm. Rice, mutton and canned vegetable sauce, and it felt like the best lunch in the world after riding for a few hours. Then we rode again to the ger where we’d spend the night. We got there at 5:30pm and went straight to the river for a quick bath. Didn’t get into the cold river but poured water on my head to wash my hair. Got instant headache as the water was ice cold. Went to sit on a big rock away from the boys and washed my torso with natural shampoo and water from the river. Felt so fucking good to be clean of the dust, mud, horse smell and dirt from the journey. I think the boys are planning a fire for tonight.

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And I think it’s implicitly understood that when someone wanders off in the distance on their own, it means they’re looking for a toilet spot behind trees or bushes.

I was wondering, if families who live in ger have no electricity in their ger, besides the car battery that they use to watch tv and that they charge up using solar panels, and if there is no signal for cell phones, how do they communicate? Baaska told me there is a Mongolian company who makes satellite phones for them to use and be able to call each other. The families also have an agreement with the guesthouse and it’s never really unexpected when we show up at a family ger. I guess it’s part of the centuries-old solidarity of living in such harsh conditions; that families just welcome strangers and fellow Mongolians alike, just like they would welcome them too. I understand that walking up to a stranger’s house and just going in unannounced may sound like a very rude concept in Europe, but I think the Mongolians are just used to it. And after all, aren’t they all just a big family?

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Day 2-3 of riding

Orange and green ger doors. Mongolians with arched legs. Region of the 8 Lakes. Lunch is always rice and potatoes and lamb and sauce, dinner is always soup with mutton and potatoes, sometimes cabbage. It can be tricky to travel with 4 persons you don’t know. Some you get along with pretty well, they understand and share your point of view as far as horseback riding and traveling in the countryside is concerned, some don’t. Today I drank stream water and I was perfectly alright. No hygiene in Mongolia. Need for some water to freshen up. When it rains in Mongolia, it doesn’t last for very long. But the temperature can drop quickly after a shower. Incredible how hot it can get during the day, big blue sky and sun and how cold it gets at night. Last night, it probably went below zero but I got sunburns during the day.

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Nasty stone paths in the mountains, some rain too. Puddles of mud, rocky trail through volcanic lands, and sometimes, higher up in the forest, a very cool breeze through the trees. Horses colliding with trees. Are they trying to hurt our legs intentionally?

Camp fire and vodka with the people we met on the way. A French guy and a Belgian girl, Lukas the German kid and Coleen, another Belgian girl. We invited the guides too and drank vodka while talking about random stuff. Smoked some Mongolian weed from the Altai, pretty mellow shit with a very exotic smell. Laughed a lot, drank 2 bottles of vodka until midnight or so. Then everybody went to bed but the fire wasn’t lit in our ger so Baaska and I ransacked the other ger for wood and started a fire. That didn’t last for very long and I had the worst night so far. I woke up a million times, shivered even more and didn’t sleep well at all.

Day 4 of riding

Today was the worse. We went to the lake in the morning with our guide but it was pretty chilly. The weather was grey all day, and it rained a bit too. 3 hours to get to the lake and back in the morning plus 3 to 4 hours of riding in the afternoon was tough on some of us. Today we galloped more. The horses knew the way back, they felt they were riding home so they were very enthusiastic about going home and galloped easily.

Tonight we arrived at the ger camp and they had only 3 beds for 5 persons. Marco, the big German, threw a fit of rage and the 2 Mongolian women built him a bed from logs and wooden planks. Everybody is getting sick one way or another; the 2 Germans have diarrhea, the Portuguese had a pretty serious headache and I’m fine. Drinking river water seems to be okay for me. I’m getting more and more used to hard wooden beds.

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We’re finding out that the guesthouse who organized the tour didn’t provide a very good service. The food we eat is very often basic, rice and potatoes, potato soup with mutton, but today we had dumplings for a change. Breakfast revolves around some bread and Nutella-like stuff to put on the bread. The accommodation in ger is also pretty basic; the beds are hard, the blankets smelly and damp, and who knows what else we’ll find hidden under the covers – I’m just hoping I won’t get fleas or bed bugs.

We don’t interact with the families, we don’t really see what they’re cooking or how they live but from what Baasca told us, those are not real families. They stay here in the summer and provide food and accommodation for tourists, but nothing is genuine, authentic. Baaska told me that he may have to dump us tomorrow for another guide and that we may not ride horses to the monastery as planned originally. Things in Mongolia seem to be very so-so. You never really know what you’re gonna get, from beds to service or accommodation and blinking light bulbs and their weird throat language makes it hard to interact with them. In more remote areas we would probably have had the opportunity to interact with real welcoming families, drink airak and eat that mutton thing cooked with stones inside but with such a limited time in Mongolia and having to be back in UB in less than 10 days, this is not so bad. We’re just average tourists doing a very average tour in the countryside.

It’s a good thing we have a guide as cool as Baaska who translates things for us and helps us get through the rough patches. Tonight again, we’re all sleeping together in a ger heated by a stove/fire place at the center. In the dead of night, when it gets really cold outside and the yaks start eating just next to the ger, reading a book with the crackling fire projecting golden shadows on the walls really isn’t that bad.

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Day 5 of riding

Yeah they lost the horses.”

Losing horses in Mongolia is not a big deal! Everybody loses horses in Mongolia. They always end up finding them anyway.

I slept well last night, wasn’t too cold or too uncomfortable. Riding the horses was pretty nice today, although every time I sat down in the saddle I could feel old bruises or pains coming back where the stirrups hit my calves or where the saddle hit my butt. Anyway, the horses knew they were going home and it wasn’t long before they were all galloping in the vast steppe. If we tried to form a queue on our way out, the way back today was much freer. Everyone knew the way back, the horses had gotten used to us by now and us to them too.

Clear blue sky, sunny day, it was definitely one of the highlights of the trip. It didn’t last very long, sadly. It took us about half the time to come back – so about a couple of hours maybe, whereas it took us about 5 hours to get to the next ger camp on our way out. Good thing too cause it started raining shortly after we’d arrived at 3pm… And it hasn’t stopped since. It’s now 11pm. It’s funny how the raindrops explode in vapor as they fall on the stove. It is finally very pleasant in the ger today and my bed is oh so comfy. Probably the only one so far that is so comfy. But I can’t take the mutton anymore, I really can’t. So I’m relying on my instant noodles and chips from a nearby market store.

“As a tree I’d be very scared to be the next one” [to be chopped down] Thank you Val for this wonderful quote.

Bigger lake 3200m, ger camp by the lake 2600m, waterfall camp 2200m.

Random thoughts on things while traveling in Mongolia.

  • Shoo” for the horses to start moving. Shoo shoo shoo!
  • Mongolians use tent pegs to tie the horses and prevent them from wandering off.
  • Everything is used in Mongolia. No food gets thrown away.
  • No sheep die of natural causes. They want to kill them when they are neither too young nor too old.
  • Yaks roam freely in the countryside. We saw a baby bull yak!
  • Skulls and legs and bits of animals all over the place, squirrels all over the land – or is it field mice, or marmots?
  • Mutton in Mongolia is prepared the wrong way because they always pop organs when they cut them open and some organs taste really bad when they’re punctured.
  • Sometimes kids ride horses to school, because it’s too far to walk there. And every now and then, the teachers have to stop the class to milk the horses.
  • The airak, the fermented horse milk, doesn’t taste as bad as I’d expected. It’s very sour like a Greek yogurt gone bad, with a low percentage of alcohol.

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