Stacey West – Mongolia, the final frontier (Part One)

In the spotlight

Globetrotters you are in for a treat. One of our prolific globetrotters, Stacey West, completed the nineteen-day Mongolian horse riding holiday last year and has kindly offered to share her journal of each day with us. And my oh my is it an interesting read! Thoughtful cultural remarks, humorous anecdotes and brilliant descriptions, reading through the pages of this diary will transport you to Mongolia from your living room and you will feel as though you are there with Stacey, experiencing everything she did. Grab yourself a cup of tea and settle in for a wonderful read, broken into two parts!

DAY ONE

Arrived in Ulaanbataar at around 1am. First impressions of the city was that it is mutton dressed as lamb. At night, there are many flashy office and industrial buildings. By day, all the buildings are painted the same beige or terracotta colour, with peeling paint and cracking bricks. Much of the infrastructure is industrial and residential buildings in the city resemble 1950s lego blocks, outdated and angular. The roads are dotted with tents and gers, and further out the eye can see the coloured roofs of small houses collected together in slums.

Being male dominated you only really see men driving their Prius around or sitting together smoking, while the women take care of the children or produce. That’s not to say that women aren’t independent or appreciated. Mongolia seems to be at the crest of rolling into modern life but still lugging baggage from their ancient heritage. Mongolian women attend university and have the right to divorce their husband if they are not happy. Men and women are truly partners in life, and the Buddhist religion in combination with traditional Mongolian culture dictates values as such – nature, mother, children.

After a short sleep in the bathtub warm hotel room and a quick breakfast of cereal and fruit, I met my guide Aza for the 1.5 hour trip to Hustai National Park. On the way, Aza explained some of her life in the Gobi. About half an hour out of town the landscape becomes more rural. Herds of goats, cattle and horses graze within a foot of the main road, and drivers have to navigate through mobs of animals crossing in between potholes and ditches. Dogs sit on roofs, old men and children pee without shame on the side of the road, and my nose was filled with the stench of carcasses and tannins from the animals being turned into skins and furs just metres from the main road.

Mongolians have everything that Westerners do, but in its lesser form. Phones are older models, cars are older models and telephone poles are little more than naked trees that have been placed at odd angles in the ground by wooden anchor poles. As we drove further out I noticed herders attending to their horses and rows of half tyres jutting out from paddocks (Mongolian fences).

The vastness of the land, given the build up of Ulaanbataar, is impressive. Aza explained that Mongolians can live anywhere they please in the countryside, as long as they obtain a permit. As a result, gers are positioned haphazardly all the way throughout the outers of Ulaanbataar. Similarly, livestock herders and their families can use the land for grazing wherever they choose, the only condition being to pay taxes when herding larger mobs.

On arrival in Hustai National Park, we spotted marmots, the Mongolian equivalent of rabbit. Marmots used to be the staple of choice for rural people and are still considered vermin and eaten. The are quite tubby, but run in a similar fashion to kangaroos – both front feet first with their wide bum and flicky tail last. Being large rodents, Aza told me their meat is quite fatty. Hustai homes hundreds of animal species, but I only saw a couple of white tailed eagles and a mob of about 13 takhi horses (through borrowed binoculars). I was disappointed I was unable to see the takhi at closer range, but heartened by the fact that they are still existing as they always have – ever elusive and with intelligence.

After a quick lunch of bread, salads, rice, some kind of meat, and Mongolian milk tea (too milky for me!), we departed Hustai for the return to Ulaanbataar. After a few walks and hill climbs Aza and I were both exhausted so napped for much of the car trip back. We were awoken about half way back when the driver spotted a mini Naadam festival taking place. As we turned onto the dirt road, a jumble of bright colours on horses shouted “Choo choo!” and our car raced the Mongolians to the finish line of the traditional horse race event. Aza and I stayed at the celebrations awhile where I saw my first Mongolian pony up close and witnessed grown men in blue silk underwear giving each other wedgies (wrestling)! Mongolians start riding very young, evidenced by the 2-3 year old girl I watched race along the plain with her father.

Renewed by the fresh air and festivities, Aza and I drove a short distance more to a herding family who keep horses. Greeted by the dog, we entered their ger, a dusty round room littered with toys. In an animal skin (probably cow) our gracious host had fermented mare’s milk (airag), an alcoholic drink offered throughout Mongolia. Depending on where the mare is in her hormonal cycle and the length of time fermentation takes, airag can taste vastly different. I enjoyed airag more than I thought I would and more than milk tea (perhaps the alcohol was the selling point). As I watched the two young boys chatter with their father, I wondered how Western life had become so complicated.

Soon it was time to go again. I was dropped back at Bayangol Hotel in time for a little nap before group dinner, where I met the rest of our tour group. After some frustrations with Tuul, our would be guide for our trip, it occurred to me that I would quickly have to learn to que sera in Mongolia (within reason). Luckily the group of eight women seem of common mind and interest and have similar riding abilities. I couldn’t be more excited to get out of the city!

DAY TWO

Delicious mini pancakes for breakfast (probably my last refined sugar for a while). The group and I hopped on a bright pink bus to the airport, where we boarded a small plane built in the 80s for our flight to Khovsgol province. Once we touched down on the single runway, it quickly became clear that we had reached rural Mongolia. We walked through the black market in the centre of town; among soft drink stands, fabrics of all colours and boot stalls, were antique trinkets and live sheep. Lunch was at Shalom Bakery, a nice restaurant on the outer border of the town. Since we were travelling on Mongolian time, we didn’t hit the road until later in the day. Still, we travelled on 100km of mostly dirt road full of ditches before stopping to camp beside a stream and herd of yak.

Our cook was able to cater to our western taste buds with spaghetti bolognese while our driver assembled our ‘toilet’ (a hole in the ground surrounded by canvas). The day ended with chatting around the dung campfire before the rain encouraged us back to our tents.

DAY THREE

Rain on the plain! A very wet and grey morning greeted us – breakfast was wet eggs and nutti, a sugary Nutella-type spread. We travelled over 100kms on a bumpy dirt road (one of the worst roads in Mongolia) before happening on a marriage celebration. Fascinated by us, the Mongolian family invited us to celebrate and asked to take photos (we happily obliged).

As the rain continued, we sought shelter in a ger for lunch. Our host family served us sweet bread and buttermilk, along with milk tea and curd. Once the rain subsided a little, we continued on our way over river crossings and rocky passes, scaling river edges and forests, until we reached the area where I prayed to my spirit animal, the tiger. Turning in a circle three times around the totem teepee, I tried not to feel subconsciously silly, but it was hard to perform the ceremony properly in the pouring rain. Onward we drove until we were thwarted by a river we could not cross, so took refuge with a local family in their ger for the night. Boki made the best potato balls (mashed potato lightly fried) and I enjoyed watching the daily chores of the family (milking and medicating the yaks, making butter and cream) and peering outside with possibly the best view in the world. We stayed overnight in the warm, dry ger.

DAY FOUR

I woke early as the ger lightens when the sun comes up. I helped myself to the warmth of the morning fire while the family’s mother boiled milk tea. Afterward, she let me milk a yak! I tried natural Mongolian yoghurt – it is very fizzy with good bacteria and has a strong sour taste. I didn’t like it very much but in Mongolia it is impolite to refuse. We farewelled our host family and hit the road again for a looong and bumpy car drive filled with mishaps. The recent downpour meant that many rivers and bridges were impassable and we were stuck in the province and surrounding areas until repairs to the main bridge could be made. We saw many cars, bikes and horses being turned back as the bridge had become unstable and there was no guarantee they would be able to return back over it. We stopped a while at a local small Naadam. I felt ill from bouncing on the road for hours so I had a nap in the car. Finally, we were able to cross a buoyed river bridge (our drivers went first, we walked across after) and made our way to our horse wrangler’s family ger. I was unable to do much but vomit as my car sickness had come to a head. Boiled rice and a tent to myself was the best remedy I could offer myself.

DAY FIVE

I woke up feeling slightly better, albeit fatigued and nervous about eating. This was our first day riding! The horses were rounded up and brought to the ger. I was given a stocky chestnut, very quiet until you ask him to stop. All of the horses live in the wild for nine months of the year, evidenced by their tough feet, hardiness, and stoic personalities. They are not groomed or handled excessively, and are kept in the summer as true work horses.

Once accustomed to the tack, the horse was quite comfortable and relatively easy to control. I learnt my Mongolian name from the head wrangler, Baysaa, meaning ‘she who is always smiling’. Mongolian horses all have similar quirks – they nod a lot due to the flies (and probably also the incredibly loose bit they carry). Tex (Walker Texas Ranger) was sensitive to the leg and rein, but humped and bucked when pulled up from eating or told to stop at the front.

In the afternoon, the dark clouds rolled in and it began to rain. Rain in Mongolia is soft and even, a welcome shower in summer. Even so, being wet as the sun sets is less than ideal, so we trotted into the rain cloud and entered a ger to wait for it to pass. Our hosts were extremely hospitable. The mother resembled Pocahontas and served us bread and tea. We were invited to visit her mother in a neighbouring ger who was delighted with our presence as she had just been boiling sheep organs and our arrival when cooking offal signifies good luck! We spent some time in her ger eating offal (I passed) and drinking dairy vodka, a product of fermented yoghurt. It is more tangy than Russian vodka, but unoffensive.

Shortly thereafter we set up camp by the river where I was able to do some washing and our precious host stopped by with her portable handicrafts market. In her fifties but aged beyond her years, she sews dells, boots, toys, bags and jewellery from animal skin and bone (all by hand). Her husband compliments her trade with his metal working (knives etc.).

A shot of vodka with dinner was the treat for the group, then a reasonably early night.

DAY SIX

Today was a big riding day. After beginning the journey on Tex, I was swapped to Popcorn, a shorter (14hh) flaxen chestnut who soon proved he could not be squashed by a person of my stature. Unfortunately Tex had pulled up lame in his left shoulder and it was kinder for him to bear someone smaller. Luckily for me, Popcorn was a jaunty fellow who enjoyed visiting different horse huddles and had the quickest trot of all the horses.

We covered a vast terrain of all variety: hills, open plains, through and past lakes, among pines and up sand dunes. Lunch was served atop a mountain with 360 degree views of snow-topped ranges. I have never seen such a wonderful sight. After a quick nap, we rode on until we reached camp situated near a sacred river source, where we played card (choo) well into the night.

DAY SEVEN

Another big riding day! Popcorn was fresh and ready this morning. We explored more rugged terrain today, trotting across rocky plains and into the forest. The hardiness of the horses amazed me. None of them are shod, yet no amount of sticks and stones seemed to be a hindrance to their can-do attitudes. Finally we were able to canter, which we all did successfully (much to our wranglers’ relief). Both Tuul and Saikhnaa expressed that they were concerned as other groups had not been able to ride well, but once their fears were alleviated we were given much more freedom in our riding. Freedom which I exploited by ‘flying’ (letting go of the reins and holding both arms out to the side whilst galloping). I was promptly reprimanded before being congratulated by Tuul and Saikhnaa for my balance and courage. Saikhnaa was also amused by my boobs bouncing at a trot. I got the feeling for a Mongolian he was comical and appreciated a good joke.

I was learning piece by piece, day by day, how disarmingly kind, unassuming and loving Mongolian people are. Above and beyond the level of customs and rituals, there is a deeply ingrained sense of community which transcend ethnicities and social boundaries. If a car gets stuck in the mud, four other cars will stop to pull it out. If a herder is missing his horses or cattle, passers-by will assist him in finding them. If a stranger needs a ride into town or shelter from a storm, they are invited to safety without question. The western world can learn a lot from the hospitality of the Mongolian people. Likewise, western horses can learn a lot from Mongolian horses. Not only are they stoic, foot-sure and incredibly hard working, but they also have a fast trot gait unique to their breed called khatirah. Such a fun bouncy ride!

At the end of our fantastic day of riding, we set up camp near a river so cold my toes ached for twenty minutes. After a massage from Thea and dumplings hand made by Boki (so good!), I hit the vodka hard. Somehow Odkhuu had produced two bottles and was passing them around like soda. A cultural exchange ensured, and the night ended with a raucous box game and a fall of rain. Best day of the trip so far!

DAY EIGHT

We left camp pretty late and embarked on an easy ride into the capital town (Soum). We passed more dense rainforest and the horses marched through long, wet grass and mud without complaint. We had out last gallop before entering the Soum – Saikhnaa told us to be controlled and then yahoo’d past us all!

Once we reached the tourist camp we bid farewell to Saikhnaa and Munduu, a sad occasion as we had all been very friendly. The afternoon was spent wandering through markets in the Soum, a visit to a handicrafts workshop and taking the first shower I’d had in a week.

DAY NINE

Today was the Naadam festival in the Soum. I was introduced to a concept known as ‘Mongolian time’ when the ceremony, due to begin at 10am, began at 12pm. While waiting in the stands we were able to interact with some locals and take their photos (which they were thrilled with). Two older ladies were intrigued with my body piercings and it wasn’t long before several ticklish hands were touching my ears and nose in an effort to verify that the piercings were, in fact, real.

The opening ceremony for Naadam consisted of introductions of every semi-important person or official in the Soum and seemed to drag on for hours. I was happy to break from the harsh sun for lunch with Saikhnaa and Nimalah. We ate traditional Naadam meat parcels (delicious!) and drank vodka to wish the boys in their wrestling. It’s no wonder the Mongolians love their vodka – it is distilled from grain so tastes cleaner and is only $9 per bottle from the local supermarket!

In the afternoon I trekked back and forwards from watching wrestling in the arena and the horse races. Both Saikhnaa and Nimalah won their first and second rounds, Nimalah being particularly impressive given how well-matched and aggressive his opponent was.

Boki pulled out the potato balls again for dinner (yum!) and we all tried our hand at archery as Tuul had employed a local to teach us the basics. I surprised myself with the distance of my shot…now to improve my accuracy!

After dark we made our way to the cultural centre for a Naadam concert (which also started two hours late). The concert was interesting, both local and countryside singers performed in their chosen style. It reminded me very much of pub karaoke given the dodgy sound system, but the dance sets were lovely. Once the concert was over (at 12.30am!), all the seats were cleared for the social dance. I paid my 1000 togrog (50 cents) to watch local youths and drunken elders whirl each other around the dance floor. Just when I thought the clash between modern mini skits and traditional couples dancing was too much, the lights went out and club dance music filled the room. We left after a very energetic rendition of ‘Gangnam Style’ and made our way back to the ger through the dark dusty streets at 2am.

DAY TEN

Slept in until very late (my sleep pattern is all out of whack now), pottered around for a bit until lunch (spaghetti) which I lost just after the short albeit extremely bumpy car ride to our next host family of wranglers – I have never experienced car sickness like this!

Soon after we saddled up for an afternoon ride to our camping spot in Hogrog. I was again given a chestnut gelding who seemed willing but disinterested. The ride was easy with some beautiful valley views and it wasn’t long before we reached the camp (tents already set up – what luxury!). Spent some down time just chatting, then celebrated Bakhuui’s birthday with cake in the midst of a massive wind and rain storm. We all watched our struggling tents from inside the log cabin, but the storm quickly cleared and we all went to bed.

Click here to read Part Two of Stacey’s Mongolian adventure!

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