Riding the Mongolian Steppes

I got to ride a camel on our drive out to Zavkhan province.

The past two weeks have been some of the best in my life. I can think of only a few other occasions that have been so full of laughs, 360° scenery and adventure for such an extended period of time. Ever since hearing my grandmother’s description of Mongolia, I knew I would eventually find my way to the Steppes and this summer seemed like the perfect time to go. Rather than a quick foray into the wilds before returning to Ulan Bator in a matter of days, I booked a seventeen day horse riding tour in the Zavkhan Province. Not all of this was riding, the first and last were more bookend days in Ulan Bator with welcome and goodbye meals and we also had a number of days of driving in the ubiquitous UAZ vans.

The music performance.

On the long drive out to Tosontsengel in Zavkhan Province-this took several days-we stopped at the Erdene Zuu Monastery which contains what is probably the oldest Buddhist temple in Mongolia. This was really interesting because-since it belongs to a sect of Tibetan Buddhism-there was a lot of influence from other religions, notably shamanism. In particular the demon statues and paintings were simultaneously mildly terrifying and very cool. The presence of a rainbow and mountainous hills (when does a hill become a mountain?) stretching up beyond the plains further excited me and all I could think was I can’t wait to be riding through this.

The is a contest here every year where if one throws a rock to the other side of the rive they win a horse.

The first couple of nights before we met up with the horses and cook tent we stayed in tourist ger camps and enjoyed the last showers we would be experiencing for a while. The first one held a traditional Mongolian music performance by local students in the evening, which was enjoyable and I am still amazed over the throat singing and the sounds it produced. The second camp was next to an extinct volcanic crater, the rim of which we climbed up to and were rewarded with yet more spectacular views.

Base camp.

The next day was when we finally got to meet and ride some of the horses in what I will refer to as speed dating for riders. This was so Haldi-our trip leader-could assess our riding ability and confidence so he could pair everyone off with suitable horses. I was surprised that one of our group had never so much as sat on a horse before and as the trip progressed, was increasingly impressed with how well they took to riding at all speeds. Trying an ex-race horse was a fun experience as he was very quick to canter which I will confess to letting him do, although I have a sneaking suspicion we weren’t supposed to be going any faster than a trot. Whoops. A couple of other horses amused me with their ability to go in only one direction: towards camp. I mean it is not as if we were going in a fifty metre circle anyway.

Horses! The red saddle is a Mogolian saddle. According to the owner of Zavkhan Trekking, it is to be used by only Mongolians and masochists.

As the sun rose, waking up everyone along with it (black out tents should be a thing), we devoured our porridge and finally got to find out which horse we would be riding. My horse was one of the ones that hadn’t been ridden the previous day and as I managed to haul my vertically challenged self into the saddle from the ground (lets ignore that I had the shortest horse and that Mongolia horses are short as it is), I was informed he was “fast”. As we started off a a short walk to become acquainted with our horses, he certainly lived up to this, pulling towards the front of the group. Other than this, everything was fine until we spotted some wild horses on the opposite side of the valley.

Album cover.

I could tell relatively quickly that he was getting excited about something as we kept pulling ahead. My plan of attack was circle back into the group and tuck in behind someone else. Unfortunately for me the soon to be christened Demon Horse had other ideas and we cantered off. Here Haldi’s advice of steer uphill came in handy and we eventually drew to a halt. From this point on I spent the ride trying not to ride off in a cloud of dust. Even if Demon Horse was slightly better behaved after our snack break, possibly we were headed down a steep incline, I knew he was just biding his time… waiting.

The toilet.

And indeed he was as I found out as I tried to mount after lunch. This took multiple attempts as with my less than tall nature and the awkward cushion saddle, I struggled to get on quickly and he kept trying to run off when I was halfway on. I felt a small amount of vindication when even the wrangler had the same issue but after he had proved it was possible to get on Demon Horse I was hoisted into the saddle and we set off. The gentle ride quickly devolved into a battle of wills. With me arguing that staying in the group and walking was a good idea and Demon Horse of the alternate view that a nice trot or canter would be far more preferable. I began to suspect that Haldi and I had a different definition of “a little challenging” (I’ll admit to not miding his definition), despite reassurances that Demon Horse would calm down in a couple of days. That said I was enjoying myself immensely. Not only was the scenery delightfully stunning to ride through but Dagii’s food was absolutely delicious and everyone was blown away by how much she could cook on the wood stove-later on in our trip she made bread on it!

Pretty

The next day we set out from our base camp and began our actual trek out into the Mongolian wilderness. Demon Horse was very well behaved and by the time we returned to our new camp from the short afternoon ride-cantering and galloping across sand dunes-he had been downgraded to Rascal which remained his name for the rest of the trip.

Camp. This one had tons of flying ants that congregated on our tents.

From then on we changed camp location each day with a long morning ride and took shorter afternoon rides to explore our surrounds. Along the way we experienced the warm hearted hospitality of a number of local families, sharing food and drinking (lots of) vodka. From the Mongolian “quick lunch” to cream and dried yoghurt we were plied with food and sampled multiple batches of home made milk vodka. Something the student stereotype in me was excited to discover was the tradition that a bottle must be finished once it has been opened instead of being dipped into now and again.

This was a hot spring we visited on our rest day.

In the evenings we tried a variety of games and activities, including archery (I suddenly understood why all the female archers at my club used to wear chest guards) and knuckles which Dagii beat us at thoroughly. Playing white bone one night was amusing as it is also played in Scandinavia (by a different name) and since we had one Swede and two Norwegians, I was left with the distinct impression it is the Monopoly of lawn games, with no one quite agreeing on the rules. There was also cake on a couple of nights as we celebrated two birthdays, a most unusual occurrence according to Haldi as apparently there are normally only a couple every season. The only downside was having eaten so much of Dagii’s food we barely had room for it.

Dagii’s magical wood stove.

All the support team were wonderfull. I’ve mentioned Dagii’s cooking, I still can’t decide if her noodles or fried bread was best. The drivers transported the camp in the UAZ vans each day, having it set up by the time we arrived. A couple of days off roading at the end of our trip to reach the airport, proved their driving prowess and care for the cars. One of our wranglers was nicknamed the man, the myth, the legend and later on part time wrangler, full time badass for the way he would lounge on the floor of the gers we visited and during snack breaks when he would immediately light up. His brown deel was complemented with a trilby and tinted sunglasses. I am fairly certain he and Haldi had an unspoken contest to lounge in the coolest way and spot at each snack break. Halfway through, the wrangler disappeared from the group in a cloud of mystery and while we found out it was due to an argument, this didn’t stop us inventing stories of his adventures.

Some gers we visited.

After lasting most the trip unharmed, we had something of a massive pile up during a long canter. Fortunately, aside from some nasty bruises and a little shock, there was no lasting damage. This did however, signal for everyone else to start injuring themselves in minor ways and were lucky to have a trainee nurse with us, who really should be given a discount since they patched us up so well. I almost came off in the pile up but managed to cling on. It was only later as we were mounting back up that I came off because my saddle had broken, the cushion partially coming off, and Rascal was feeling flighty so took off before I had got my leg over his back.

Even the UAZ van appreciated the amazing sunsets.

We wrapped up the trip with some bare back riding (extremely painful on a skinny horse) and trying to pick things up off the ground from horseback. Picking things up was unsurprisingly hard and we all practised on Pumba who was the oldest and most steady of the horses. I was amazed to later see in the Mongolian music videos (playing at the front of the UAZ van) people picking things up at a canter. #lifegoals me thinks.

Snack break.

My words are insufficient to explain the magic of crossing open plains, hills looming ahead as birds wheel in a pristine sky. I can not articulate the emotion of standing atop a mountain and gazing across rolling hills of verdant green and realising the only sign of humanity is those who stand with you. Through valleys and over mountains, climbing rocks and ducking tree branches nothing can compare to the uplifting freedom I felt and the knowledge of belonging on this little blue dot to explore and appreciate its beathstealing beauty. Mongolia is truly an amazing place to visit and seeing it from horseback a humbling experience everyone should seek.

Some of the horse as they left us on our last day.

The Most Dangerous Hike?

Starting out optimistic.

I seem to have a slightly masochistic streak in that, despite a deep seated fear of heights, I love finding sheer precipices to visit. Perhaps it is an addiction to the adrenaline that sees me seeking new heights (literally), or maybe my fear of missing out is greater than my fear of heights (unlikely). However, I suspect the true reason is my Guernsey donkey stubbornness in the belief that enough self inflicted exposure therapy will eventually overcome a fear that is only exceeded by my fear and hatred of wasps.

This slope isn’t so bad…

Enough rambling prelude, let’s start painting a picture of what has got me chattering on about heights and my fear of them. Imagine a mountain which has a (somewhat misplaced) reputaion as being the most dangerous hike in the world. Bloggers love to repeat the old wives tale of 100 deaths a year on these precarious slopes and no post is complete without a photo of the notorious plank walk: a plank of wood bolted to a sheer cliff with a 5000 foot drop should one slip.

…Oh wait.

When first researching China, I stumbled across photos of the plank walk and just knew that I had to try it. It was 90% of my reason for visiting Xi’an, the other 10% being generously allowed for the Terracotta army. Imagine my disappointment (and I’m not too proud to admit, miniscule spark of relief) when I arrived at the entrance of the plank walk to find it padlocked closed.

More stairs. At least one doesn’t have to climb the old stairs seen top centre.

Admittedly I had known from the start that there was a reasonable chance of the plankwalk being closed. Of the three days I had pencilled in for a day trip to Huashan Mountain, I had picked the one with the least bad weather but conditions were still far from good. When I had set out from Xi’an that morning, it had been in a fine drizzle which accompanied me halfway up the initial six kilometre climb from the Jade Temple. That climb in itself had been rather nervewracking. The first three kilometres had been a deceptively pleasant upwards gradient followed by some slightly tougher stairs over the next kilometre. The two penultimate kilometres before the north peak were continuous steps of evil which saw me using my hands on the steps in front of me for various stretches or clutching firmly to the chain hand rails.

Stunning views.

At this point my Guernsey donkey stubbornness once again reared its equine head. I had read that the walking time for the “One Way up Huashan Mountain from Ancient Times” path took between two to five hours with an average time of three and a half. Hence I had decided that I would do it in under two and a half hours. Nevermind that I would never classify myself as particularly fit, there is something about being given a walking time that makes me strangely defiant and determined to be quicker. This meant that I took no respites on my upwards sprint beyond a few five second breathers on the longer stairways. Given the heavy cloud cover, I had no fear of missing out on the any views and was able to devote myself fully to the hike.

Getting somewhere.

I made it panting and sweating to the top of the North peak in two hours and fifteen minutes without falling down any of the ladders masquerading as stair so a definite win on that front. There were two precarious feeling climbs that I wanted to complete on the mountain. The aforementioned plank walk and the climb down to the chess pavilion. This latter was on the eastern peak and it was here I head to first.

And finally a view.

Sadly for me, the northern peak upon which I was standing was the lowest of the peaks and instead of getting a break from all the up I had been doing, I found myself immediately having to climb up yet more stairs. Mercifully these weren’t nearly as steep as the more terrifying stretches of the One Way path. There was a ridge I crossed which was fine as I was crossing it but when I looked back, the clouds to each side had momentarily cleared revealing the sheer drop to either side of the path.

More stairs!

Walking through the clouds was very enjoyable with the tantalising glimpses of mountain tops they occasionally revealed. In amongst the peaks there were far less sheer drops to set my heart beating above what could be excused as a severe case of excessive stairs. This of course changed as I reached the queue to climb down to the chess pavilion. Even after being given my harness I had a long wait to consider just what I was about to do. Only a certain number of people could climb down at a time and it was clear that the operators were letting that number down each time rather than opting for smaller, more efficient groups.

The Chess Pavilion.

Even though the group before me had all descended when I arrived, it was a forty minute wait before they all returned and we could begin climbing down. This left plenty of time for the clouds to clear for a few scant seconds at a time. Each time I became a little more nervous as I saw the distance to the pavilion. My nerves were not improved as, when it was finally time to start climbing, two of the girls ahead of me quickly backed out and retreated back up the steps.

Climbing down to the Chess Pavilion.

Once I got started the initial climb down, the only stretch deemed risky enough to need a harness, it wasn’t so bad although my knees shook a little from the pent up nervous energy. The remainder of the walk out to the pavilion was quite pleasant and I took great amusement from a couple of bits that didn’t have a wire to clip one’s harness to but still had a sheer drop patiently biding its time to capture the unwary at the bottom. I guess one must laugh or cry in that situation. Heading back the the top was very frustrating as I had been near the front of the queue going down so then had to wait for everyone else to finish climbing down – another half hour wait.

Made it!

When I finally made it back to the top, safely away from all sheer drops into cloudy oblivion, I walked as quickly as my exhausted legs would allow to the south peak and the infamous plank walk. Each step saw a coil tension winding tighter in the pit of my stomach. My nerves were a delicious crescendo as I walked along the first, safely railed section of the walk. As I realised the walk was closed, the locked gate looming before me, my turbulent emotions deflated like a balloon into a hard little ball of disappointment. Admittedly there was a pin prick of relief that softened the sharpest corners but I enjoy pushing my limits too much for that relief to be overarching.

Almost glad I can’t see the drop here.

With nothing left to see on the mountain – I saw no benefit in climbing to the very top of each peak with so much cloud concealing the view. I made my way to the western cable car. While the drizzling fog made climb to the peaks an exercise in futility and was most likely the cause of my disappointment over the plank walk, it did create some eerily beautiful backdrops, especially where the ubiquitous padlocks were joined with rippling red prayer ribbons on their fences and railings.

The start of the Plank Walk.

The western cable car was ridiculously overpriced, 126 yuan (£14.39) plus 40 yuan (£4.57) for the compulsory bus (unless one wants to pay even more for a taxi, since walking along the road is forbidden) back to the tourist centre. In Europe this may seem reasonable but considering that my student entrance fee to the park was only 80 yuan and that the 120km bus journey back to Xi’an was also only 40 yuan, the cost did rankle somewhat. In hindsight I should have walked around to the northern cable car which is cheaper and from the bottom of which one can walk back to the tourist centre. However, the weather seemed to be closing in even more and all the mini cafes were closing even though it was only just after five so I was worried that the northern cable car would be closed by the time I reached it.

With all the adrenaline seekers it is easy to forget that the mountain is also a religious sight.

If I let go of my irritation over the cost, the cable ride down was a lot of fun. I had the whole car to myself and there was a breathtaking moment when I emerged from the base of one cloud layer and could see all the mountains poking their heads from the layer below. Even sitting suspended in a box, surrounded in all directions by a white void was a surreal experience, making me feel like I had entered the nothingness.

Red prayer ribbons and padlocks.

From the tourist centre, I circumnavigated the cries of taxi taxi and caught the bus back to Xi’an in time to devour a late dinner of a lamb Chinese burger and some excellent 1 yuan beef skewers. The only difficulty was that sitting still on the bus allowed my muscles to seize somewhat and my walk back to the hostel was more of a very slow penguin waddle.

Path to the West Peak summit.

A final note I would like to make for anyone who travels from Xi’an by train to Huashan Bei station is that the taxi drivers will pounce on you as you leave the station and tell you that the free shuttle bus to the tourist centre is closed. No matter how many times you tell them no they will keep following you trying to get you to get a taxi. Ignore them. Walk across the square, passed the statues of musicians, to the carpark. There is a small bus stop. Wait there for the bus and continue to ignore the taxi drivers. Ideally get the number one shuttle bus as it is quicker than the number two. Some websites imply the shuttle doesn’t run outside of peak season but given the level of continuous misinformation, I shall leave it up to the reader to decide if they want to try waiting for the shuttle in the winter months.

Descending in the cable car.

The Chaos of Kyoto

My Kyoto adventure began with a five minute walk to Kodaiji Temple where I walked around the scenic gardens before continuing on to Kiyomizu Temple. The walk to the temple was along several traditional streets. These beautiful old buildings housed a variety of shops selling souvenirs, food or offering kimono rentals. The whole street was packed with people and I was carried up the hill at a suffocatingly slow speed with the rest of the masses, unable to overtake for fear of colliding with someone coming in the opposite direction.

Kiyomiza Temple is currently being renovated to stop the lower level collapsing and having a new roof put on so was wrapped up in scaffolding. It did offer me the opportunity to read about how the bark of Japanese Cypress trees is collected and used for roofing which was very interesting. I particularly liked the mock up cross sections of the roof that were used to illustrate the interior structure.

Having passed through the temple, I strolled down the path through the gardens before making my way past kimono clothed couples and groups to get to the bus stop. My next stop was Kinkakuji Temple, or as most might know it, the Golden Pavilion. I’m more of a silver person myself but as a tourist, I felt duty bound to visit it. It was undeniably impressive and I would be curious to learn about how the gold plating was added. However, that crowds boarded on being overwhelming as everyone jostled to get first a photo, then a selfie, and then have someone take their photo. I even had my someone use my head like a tripod. I mean I know I’m short but they could have waited for me to move rather than just resting their arms on my head.

Escaping the chaos, I walked along to Ryoanji Temple this was mercifully quieter and I really enjoyed strolling through the beautiful gardens. I was most notably taken with the famous zen garden. While the pictures I have seen of it in the past were pleasant, it was only seeing it in person that I felt that I could comprehend its many layers and true tranquillity.

Carrying this lasting peace with me, I walked through the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. With the sun beginning to set and looming rain clouds it wasn’t too crowded and proved to be a pleasant way to end the day before I retreated to my hostel out of the rain.