In a country more than twice the size of Texas but with a population only the size of Houston, one finds open land, peace and serenity. Just over an hour’s drive outside of Mongolia’s capital city, Ulaanbaatar, a piece of paradise awaits discovery from the saddle.
The Mongolian horses live in an almost wild state, have an incredibly smooth gait and seemingly endless endurance. Horses are kept as nature intended, and the herdsmen share a silent connection with them, their unwritten traditions passed down through the generations. On horseback is the perfect way to experience this country.
I watch a herd of 40 horses cross the river that runs through the land owned by Baagii and his wife, Saraa. A mare tied to her foal coaxes it across. Instantly falling in love with this country, I would soon discover that the people are as genuine as its beauty.
The herdsmen live as nomads, moving their portable round houses, called ger, to greener pastures. The wooden accordion-style sides of the ger fold up, the center columns that support the roof slats all come apart, and topped by the felt or canvas shell it lays neatly on a wagon that is often pulled by a yak. Young children fetch water from the river; women milk mares and ferment the liquid to make the famous beverage called airag. Yogurt, cheeses, curds and other food staples are made from yak, sheep, cow and goats’ milk. Cashmere is spun from goat hair. The Mongolians of the countryside live a tough yet peaceful and sustainable life off the land.
I arrived at the ranch with tour coordinator Julie Veloo and her husband, Chelvan. Julie met Baagii and Saraa many years ago while living in Mongolia and paired up with them to organize horseback riding adventures. Thirty percent of the profits go to the Children of the Peak Sanctuary, a kindergarten Julie raised money to build in the Ger district of Ulaanbaatar.
Children of herdsmen who were displaced by an exceptionally harsh winter six years ago can go there for food, clean clothes and an education.
At the ranch, we are treated to a lovely breakfast of eggs and sausage before packing up to ride to Turtle Rock, where we will meet the other riders. Bugiin, Baagii’s 8-year-old granddaughter, comes out of the house with a bright green sash and asks him to tie it on her deel. Pronounced “dell,” the traditional robe worn by the herdsmen is made of brightly colored silk.
With Baagii and local guides Lkhauga and Tsengel, plus a few extra horses in tow, we cross the river and head north through an enormous valley dotted by large herds of horses. Cresting the hill, we watch the guides round up and corral one of the herds, then rope a few of the horses to add to our string.
After meandering through huge rocky outcrops and forests, we find ourselves in a bog. My little 12.2-hand horse, Hongur, is up to his chest in mud and can’t seem to get out of it with me on him. He falls to the side and off I go. Baagii laughs, and other than a little mud on my elbow, all is good. I hop back on, my pride slightly tarnished.
Julie tells me that when you fall off your horse, the Mongolians say you have been “born onto the ground.” I accept that.
Arriving at Turtle Rock, an interesting rocky outcrop in a tiny tourist town, we meet the other riders who will be joining our group. Once presented and clothed with our own personal deels, mine so tight I can hardly breathe, Julie gives us all a short briefing about Mongolian horses.
“These horses live practically in the wild when they’re not being ridden, so they are spooky, something that helps them survive,” she explains.
We receive a crash course in Mongolian horse etiquette. “Only approach them on the left; never approach them when in a tie line in a group; do not mount or dismount your horse unless a guide is holding your horse; watch for holes, of which there are many; and do not take your jacket, scarf or deel off while riding,” says Julie. “These simple movements can easily spook the horse.”
We mount up and head off to Ariyabalin, a spectacular Buddhist monastery perched high on a hill. The long, upward climb rewards us with outstanding views.
After lunch in the shade of some trees, we head to a private farm where some of us sleep in tents and others in private gers. Hot mutton soup warms our insides as the setting sun brings the cool of the night.
The song of the cuckoo bird echos in the morning air as I stretch by the flowing river. A young boy herds his cows through the water while a yak, which we later get a chance to milk, munches breakfast nearby.
Later on the trails I stand up in my stirrups and call out “tuk tuk,” cueing Hongur to go into a smooth gait that could last for miles. The English tourist saddle is comfortable compared to the traditional wooden Mongolian one that I tried. Mongolians ride with incredibly short, jockey-style stirrups and stand straight up in the saddle, gliding along with their horse’s gait.
Buddhist temples are scattered on the trails and we are instructed to ride around them three times clockwise for luck. As we pass private gers, we are conscious to abide by the etiquette of keeping our distance at a walk, minding the dogs that run out and trying not to ride through the burning dung—wise advice.
White, puffy cumulus clouds hang over the ridge where we stop to take in the view and have lunch. I lie in the grass and listen to the grasshoppers as wind rustles through the trees. A crane soars overhead. I wander into the woods seeking shade and discover a herd of mares and foals peacefully grazing, backlit by the midday light.
We get back in the saddle and complete our day’s ride, stopping at a river to set up for the night. Saraa has driven the khainag, a yak crossed with a cow, to meet us with a ger ready to assemble. We change into our bathing suits and jump in the chilly yet refreshing rapids. Sipping wine after dinner by the fire, the sun sets behind the river. This is a photographer’s paradise.
The next morning after disassembling the ger, we mount up and head out. A young boy on his horse, covered in a colorful blanket, rides past.
“He is training for the Naddam,” we are told. The Naddam festival is Mongolia’s national fair. Spectators and competitors come from all over to watch and compete in wrestling, archery, and for what the country is best known for, its own special form of horse racing. Jockeys range from 6 years old and up. To win a Naddam race is pride to the family.
As we rode into the small town of Erdene Soum on our horses for the Naddam, horses were everywhere and people were dressed in their finest deels. After the colorful opening ceremonies of dancers, singers, fiddle players and demonstrations, we head to the finish line of the race to watch countless kids, some riding barefoot, kicking up dust as their mounts gallop to the end.
To learn more about the Mongolian culture and try on traditional costumes, we spend a day riding to a rebuilt 13th century town made up of various villages within a 30-minute ride of each other.
After visiting the shaman, artist and education villages, we lunch at the King’s Palace while being serenaded by a fiddle player and traditional throat singer.
At the end of the day, it’s time to relax at our camp and enjoy the scenery. In the distance, a huge herd of horses crosses over a ridge to come and drink from a nearby pond as the sun set. A herdsman in a brightly colored deel gallops by to fetch his herd, and I’m inspired by the simple beauty of Mongolian life.
Riding together for 10 days turned complete strangers into lifelong friends, and it was a sad day to ride back to the ranch knowing that our trek together would soon end. A hot shower and massage at the spa down the road helped to refresh our spirits and ease our sorrows as we prepared to return home.
The beautiful scenery of Mongolia is endless, but the hearts of the people, the simple life and horses everywhere you look is what I will remember the most. If you have a love for horses, a love for the land and enjoy the company of truly unique and sincere people, then this is a country you must experience, and in the saddle is certainly the best way to do it.
Visit www.horsetrekmongolia.com and www.veloofoundation.com/children-of-the-peak-sanctuary.html for more information.
Shawn Hamilton is a freelance equine photographer based in Ontario, Canada. CLiXPhoto.com.
This article originally appeared in the January 2016 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!
Equine photojournalist Shawn Hamilton resides on a small farm in Ontario, Canada with her husband Joe and three horses. Shawn enjoys trail riding and eventing and is a level 2 ski instructor. www.clixphoto.ca
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