Before we set off on our big two month horse trek, Dom and I trekked for three days in the Terelj National Park just out of the capital Ulaanbaatar.
Our two guides – Ganah and Morgy – were excellent horse handlers who didn’t speak any English but were very patient. Lots of time was spent flicking through our Mongolian-English dictionary, laughing and miming.
Of the five horses, I was coupled with an old grey gelding more interested in munching grass and farting than going anywhere. The guides had picked up on my trepidation and lack of riding skills and assigned me a quiet steed. By the second day I was feeling more confident and swapped to a more lively chap.
We rode about eight hours a day through spectacular forests and mountains and spent our first night camped by a stream in a beautiful valley surrounded by Siberian-like taiga forest. It was so cold that night, but we were finally out in the countryside!
The padded Chinese saddles we’d bought from the Black Market (Naran Tuul Zac) proved comfortable enough and only one horse developed a saddle sore. Ganah showed us how to fix it by peeing on the horse blanket and putting it back on – explaining that it should heal in a week or so.
Since we weren’t planning to take any guides on the big horse trek, we were keen to learn as much as we could about Mongolian horsemanship, including how to care for the horses, how to hobble them, and what to do at night.
We rode through herds of sheep, goats, oxen, cows and horses, and passed a seemingly endless parade of discarded shoes, scrap metal, cattle bones, ceramic parts, feathers and plastic bags.
An abundance of beautiful wildflowers covered the landscape too, including wild irises and amazingly enough rhubarb, which grows wild on the southern sides of hills and mountains. Perhaps we will be able to eat it on our big horse trek?
At the top of most hills we encountered sacred Ovoo mounds – piles of stones, like cairns. Traditionally travellers pass to the left of an ovoo and then circle around it three times clockwise, placing an object (usually stones or blue prayer scarves) on top for good luck on the journey. Removing objects from an ovoo is thought to bring bad luck, with the good luck of the person who left it there reversed upon the taker.
Our second night was warmer but was spent camped under huge, ugly powerlines. While they didn’t hum they did reinforce our desires to get further out into the countryside.
The following morning a local herder joined us and raced his horse with Dom, which was so funny to watch. Dom’s horse had raced in the Nadaam Festival and loved to go, go, go. He went so fast the other guy couldn’t stop his horse, only slowing down when it hit rocky ground and lost interest. He kept a tighter rein on it after that!
We were also joined by a grey wolf, shadowing us from the cover of some trees about 200 metres away. The guides howled and pointed and said, chun (wolf). We waved our arms and yelled and hollered, but it just kept following us until the trees ran out.
Hopefully the wolves will be more interested in livestock than foreigners. Talk about a reality check!