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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The superstitious may consider my trouble reaching Ulan Bator from Beijing a result of travelling over Friday the 13th. However, the real culprit was much more mundane. The Naadam Festival in a Mongolian national holiday which stretches from the 11th July to the 15th July. By all accounts it is a lot of fun to go visit and I know a lot of tours will digress from their normal route to attend for at least a day. Unfortunately for me, the Festival also meant that the China/Mongolia border was closed.
My travels started out smoothly. On the morning of the 12th I had gone to Yongdingmen Bus Station and purchased my sleeper bus tickets for 180 yuan (£20). After lazing around the hostel for the day and enjoying some potatoes and skewers for lunch at a little shop in the Qianmen area, I returned to the bus station and boarded the bus. So far so good. It was smooth travelling the entire way to Erlian on the border and aside from being rather hot (all modes of transit in most of Asia are either roasting ovens or competing to host the next winter olympics) I had a good nights sleep.
This good fortune came to abrupt halt when I returned to the bus stop having got some more cash to be told “border closed. No bus, no car, train tomorrow” via phone translator. Ah. Now that could be a problem. Just a tiny one. Interestingly it seemed that no one realised the border as closed until we arrived in Erlian and there was no mention of it anywhere online. Thankfully I didn’t have to worry about my visa running out – I still had a few days on that front – and I still had a number of days before my Mongolian tour started.
I’d just go to the train station, book my ticket, and find somewhere to spend the night. Simple right? Not so much. When I tried the most obvious ticket office they sent me off, saying that I would have to buy the tickets the morning of the following day at a different office in that direction. Deciding to try and find the office in advance, I went next door but they waved me off further down the road. My exploration of “100m down the road” yielded a couple of maybes but no concrete ticket offices (no English signs here). It was only later in the day when I ran into another foreigner that they were able to show me which building to go to.
I spent the night in a 40 yuan (£4.50) a room night that, had I wanted to use the shower (considering the lack of door, I didn’t) would have cost me an additional 80 yuan). Waking up the next day with a few new bites, I set out to the ticket office two hours before it opened to ensure I was at the head of the queue.
It was just as well I did. Over the next two hours more and more people arrived, many determinedly shoving themselves in the front, until the front of the queue resembled sardines in a tin. This didn’t stop a couple of small fist fights from breaking out ahead of me. Think of the US’s black Friday sales. Eventually the door opened. And I mean door. The entrance may have had double doors but the crush of bodies forcing their way through was so great that the moment one was opened outward, there was no way the other could be opened. After stopping everyone from crushing a small Swiss lady whose bag was caught, against the door frame, I dashed up the stairs and began the queuing process all over again.
Fortunately it wasn’t as tightly packed. Instead there was lots of shouting and even more fisticuffs. Oh joy. Mercifully I was able to buy my Erlian to Zamiin Udd ticket (66 yuan, £7.50) and my Zamiin Udd ticket (233 yuan, £26) with little issue. The only downside was having to leave my passport so I could collect the second ticket later in the day. This was considerably cheaper than I had been expecting as the only online prices I had been able to find were for the official Trans Siberian from Beijing to Ulan Bator so I been expecting the price to be somewhere between £80 and £135. I think the difference was than this train was travelling from Hohhot rather than Beijing so had more local prices.
I spent the rest of the day with the swiss lady I previously mentioned and an American expat who works in Ulan Bator since they were both waiting for the train as well. This was a blessing as not only was it good to have someone to talk to, but the American had a wealth of infomation regarding Ulan Bator. We eventually boarded, my penknife getting confiscated as we went through security. After an interminable wait to get moving in Erlian and an even longer one for passport checks in Zamiin Udd I was ecstatic when the train finally began to move onward to Ulan Bator.
The next day, after three days of travelling I finally made it safely to Ulan Bator, only a few more insect bites worse for wear. Upon reaching my hostel, I luxuriated in a hot shower and treated myself to a nice meal at the Veranda restaurant before catching an early night.