Back to the top
"Mongolia: A horseman's paradise"
by Christoph Schork
Trail Blazer Magazine December, 1996
Start with a big sky, add abundant grassland, mountains and rolling
hills; lakes and rivers with crystal clean, drinkable water; disperse
free roaming herds of horses, camels and sheep according to taste. Finally,
add the heady aroma of mutton fat to round it all out. One word of caution,
however, you must not add any roads or fences. This would indeed spoil
the horseman's recipe for the ideal horse country.
As an avid rider and endurance competitor over the last 10 years I have
often dreamed of just such a horseman's paradise. In the summer of 1996
I found that paradise had a name: Mongolia.
As a young boy, I had read the adventures of Svend Hedin the explorer
and all my life dreamt of Mongolia. Now I was one of 13 equally eager
riders from Japan, New Zealand, Brazil, Europe and North America. We were
under the wing of Linda Svendsen, owner and founder of Boojum Expeditions.
Linda pioneered riding adventures in central Asia, breaking new ground
in tourism and diplomacy with the first riding vacations in Tibet, Inner
Mongolia, Manchuria and the Kazakh regions of China. We arrived in Mongolia's
capitol, Ulaan Baatar for the Naadam festival, where Mongolian culture
is celebrated through the "manly" sports of archery, wrestling and horse
racing. As an avid competitor in ski archery, (the equivalent of biathlon,
without firearms) I had a particular interest in the archers, who shoot
at 70 meter targets with their handmade horn and wood bows. Genghis Khan's
armies conquered the largest land empire in history with two things central
to Mongolian life; the horse and the bow.
The horse races are the highlight. As many as a thousand horses mass at
the start for a 30 kilometer race. The jockeys are boys and girls, four
to seven years old. During the race, many kick off their boots and drop
their saddles to give their mount every advantage.
As the first riders approached the finish line, the crowd, may of them
mounted , took up the ululation of the young riders as they urged their
ponies to the finish. I guarantee that no horse person, on viewing this
spectacle, would be unmoved! They teach the horse not to stop during the
race, no matter what may happen. In the race I observed, dozens of riderless
horses ran on to the finish, their riders collected by the support jeeps.
The winning horse is "Tumay ekh" or "Winner of ten thousand". The last
horse also receives a prize; a song sung, not to humble him, but to encourage
him for next year's race.
The Darhat Valley in the most northern part of Mongolia was our destination.
Our objective: To ride through the Darhat Valley and search for the summer
camp of the "Tsaatan" or "reindeer people". The Tsaatan summer near the
Siberian border where their nomadic life is based on reindeer. Along the
way, we passed through some of Mongolia's most spectacular and diverse
scenery and experienced the renowned hospitality of the nomadic herders.
By airplane and truck we traveled for nearly three days, until the confluence
of the Tengis and Shishgid rivers stopped further motorized travel.
At this bucolic location, Boojum Expeditions had built a rustic lodge.
It was mid-August and the river waters were just warm enough for an extended
swim. The fishing enthusiasts among our group had a heyday catching lenok
and grayling. The next morning we got acquainted with our mounts. Annette,
one of the most experienced riders, took off at a gallop just seconds
after swinging into the saddle. Some raised eyebrows followed her, but
Baigalun, one of the wranglers, pointed out that this particular horse
was a winner last year at Naadam. We all reflected on the training these
horses receive; to keep going regardless....
In Mongolia, everyone rides. Travel on horseback is a way of life, perfected
over thousands of years. The horses are pony sized but their appearance
belies their character. They are spirited, tough animals, able and willing
to carry their riders at a healthy clip all day long, for days in a row,
with neither horseshoes or grain. Their preferred gait is a fast trot
that lacks any leg extension, but displays a dizzying high cadence and
covers ground rapidly. Horses make pastoral nomadism possible. From the
back of a horse the nomad has both economic and political freedom. It's
hard to tax and govern people who can simply gather their goods and be
gone! So the Mongols learn how to ride before they can walk, and on the
backs of their horses, they are always smiling. The indigenous saddles
are made out of wood and were definitely an acquired taste. We chose the
Russian Cavalry saddle instead, a distant relative to our English saddles.
A prominent feature is a "horn" of metal tubing and "cantle" of the same.
Convenient for tying necessities on but less appealing if one happens
to loose fore and aft balance while posting!
Along with our horses we met our local crew; Ariunna, head guide, Gana
,cook, Oyuna, interpreter, and five wranglers who would handle the pack
horses. We set off through a wilderness abounding in larkspurs, edelweiss
and bluebells; bizarre rock formations with waterfalls and steep, high
mountains creating an image of fairyland travel. After covering about
14 miles, we stopped to set up camp at the river side. We unsaddled our
horses, set up the tents and build fires. Before long, Gana presented
us with the first of a series of delicious variations on mutton stew.
The next morning, the forests became more dense with moss-laden larch
trees and thick dark green underbrush. Deep taiga moss, sometimes horse-belly
deep, and bogs slowed our travel to a walk. Then, late on our second day
we spotted small white spots against the tundra. It was the tipi-like
tents of the Tsaatan! We all scouted intensely for the reindeer, but they
were still browsing in the distant hills. Only at dusk, after we have
camped nearby, did they appear across the tundra and gather around the
tipis. The cows were milked, the bulls tethered for the night or saddled
to stand ready as mounts. Many of us enjoyed the offer to ride a reindeer.
Smooth-gaited, the reindeer are a lot of fun to ride. Their hooves are
very pliable and spreading laterally making them more sure footed on tundra
than the horses.
The 3000 remaining Tsaatan are not members of the Mongol race. They are
smaller in stature and have distinctly different facial features. They
also have their own language, related to Turkish. But, Mongols and Tsaatan
have much in common. They are both proud people, and their hospitality
is boundless. We are invited to share tea, "airag" (fermented milk ),
yogurt and reindeer cheese. Like the Mongolian gers, their tents have
the hearth in the middle representing the center of family as well as
symbolizing ties with their ancestors. Etiquette requires always entering
and proceeding clockwise around the hearth. Mongolia is full of traditions
and customs and Linda had briefed us thoroughly prior to our arrival to
avoid any major faux pas. "Don't be a culture klutz" she admonished us.
Our return to the lodge went smoothly with great weather and plenty of
opportunity to canter along the trails beside the Tengis River. We then
set out cross country for the hamlet of Bom, where our faithful Russian
truck would pick us up for the return journey to Ulaan Baatar. Along the
way, we crossed the Shisgid River, loading people and gear into a rickety
rowboat and then swimming the horses across. The remaining riding days
were spectacular with a mixture of forest and valleys for loping and trotting.
We were often joined by local riders, who, seeing this strange foreign
entourage, dropped their herding duties for a while and rode with us in
friendly and appreciative curiosity.
Flying back to Ulaan Baatar, we all reflected on the beauty of the country
and warmth of the people. Yet we had seen some disturbing signs of the
invasion of modern life. From the air, you can see multiple roads braided
across the landscape and erosion of the grasslands beginning. We, the
visitors, who have the privilege to experience this genuinely unspoiled
part of our planet, had great memories but were left to ponder how Mongolia
can avoid the mistakes that "modern" cultures have made in pursuit of