I looked out the absurdly tiny window of the child-sized aircraft that was transporting me to the town of Murun, and I was hit with a wave of excitement. I had never travelled anywhere so remote and with such unique natural landscapes as northern Mongolia, and I was ready for an adventure. My friend Claudia, who I would be traveling with for the next three weeks, had arrived three days before me and was already in Khatgal, the departure point for our fun-filled horse-back riding expedition.
Claudia had helpfully arranged for a private jeep to take me directly to Khatgal (spelled XOBCRON in Cyrillic), where she was waiting for me, and sure enough, a friendly Mongolian driver, along with an entourage made up of two women and eleven children, was there to meet me in the airport. He kindly grabbed my heavy backpack from me and asked if I needed to use the restroom before our departure. Little did I know that this would be the last time I would see a real toilet, and if I could go back in time, I would have rushed into that last vestige of Western civilization with open arms. However, sensing some urgency on his part, I declined, and we sped off in the jeep. I never saw another bathroom again for two weeks.
The ride seemed to be an attempt on my life, or a divine effort to test the extent of my tolerance for extreme physical discomfort. We flew over giant ditches, the gears of the vehicle grinding and the wheels churning out sizeable rocks, and we blazed a new trail through the untouched grassland. The driver was exceptionally considerate, and he told me to sleep as he helped me recline my seat. It would have been easier to sleep during a Peléan volcanic eruption than in the front of that jeep, but I appreciated the sentiment nonetheless.
After breaking down twice and changing the wheels three times, we finally made it to XOBCRON a few hours later. I had an unfortunate pounding in my temples and felt nauseous, but it was nothing compared to the time I watched the third Lord of the Rings installment with a searing migraine, so all things considered, I was in pretty good shape. Claudia had been holed up in a guesthouse in XOBCRON for the past three days, waiting for me and with not much else to do, so she was raring to go. We had a quick lunch, talked to the trip organizer about some last-minute details, and before we knew it, we met our noble steeds and hopped into the saddle.
I had discovered that booking things in advance and getting specific information is next to impossible in Mongolia. I had been in contact with the trip organizer for three or four weeks prior to my departure and in that time, I had asked him around twenty questions regarding the price, itinerary, and timeline for the trip. In that month-long period, I received a response to half of one of my questions, and so by the time I arrived in Mongolia, I had no idea of what to expect on this trip! I was told later by the guesthouse owner that Mongolians hate questions, and one of their biggest pet peeves is having ignorant albeit well-meaning tourists asking them ridiculous and overly specific questions that, in their opinion, are either self-explanatory or will become obvious at a later time. Which is fair enough. As a wannabe extreme sports practitioner, I have on several occasions seen the look on my various instructors’ faces as my incessant questions begin to demonstrate my total idiocy. But, as I got into my saddle, I still hadn’t figured out how much the trip would cost, where exactly we would be going, what we would be doing every day, and how we would eat. And off we went!
The two of us left XOBCRON with our horses, our gear, and our guide for the day. Actually, we left with the father of the man who was our assigned guide because earlier that day, the whole town had been enjoying a mini version of Nadaam, a huge cultural festival which celebrates the three main Mongolian sports: archery, wrestling, and horse-racing. However, if you’re not competing in these events, it’s basically a giant drink-fest. So the father of our guide, not being a jockey, archer, or wrestler, got pissed drunk and was deemed unfit by his son to drive his motorcycle home.
So what did they end up doing? Well, our assigned guide rode the motorcycle home and left his trashed, elderly father to guide two foreign girls, one of whom had never ridden a horse in her life, through forests, rocky scree, grasslands, and rivers along a route with no signposts, no inhabitants, and no cell phone reception. Jesus…
Despite the odds being heavily stacked against us, we made it to our guide Bagi’s home with no real problems. His father had been jovial and helpful most of the route, in spite of not speaking a word of English and, oh yeah, being drunk out of his mind. He pointed out different natural sights to us along the way, while muttering in Mongolian, and then he would giggle hysterically at our lack of comprehension before turning around and guiding his horse forward, teetering and zigzagging in a worrisome manner. As soon as we arrived at Bagi’s ger (traditional Mongolian tent-like dwelling made with a felt covering placed over a wooden frame), his father walked right in and made a beeline for the sheep meat that was sitting in a bowl on the table.
Keep in mind that we didn’t pass any bathrooms along the way, and our guide had stopped to relieve himself in nature at least six times during our trip, sans soap, of course. And when we got to the ger, he immediately jumped off his horse, entered the home, picked up a questionable-looking chunk of sheep guts from the bowl with his bare, dirt-caked hands, bit into it, and offered us some of the remnants with a huge grin. Understanding that this was a gesture of kindness and generosity, and not wanting to offend our welcoming host, we gulped down our disgust at the raw-looking and completely unidentifiable body parts that had been proffered and politely declined.
The next day we set out with Bagi, our real guide, and spent an enjoyable day riding through lush green grass and peaceful forests in order to reach the Western shore of Lake Khovsgol (Khovsgol Nuur). We joined another group, made up of an American couple and a French family, who was going the same way as us. I think the main reason for this was that Bagi desperately wanted someone else to speak to in Mongolian, as he spoke very little English and I’m sure it was tiresome to have two overly worried foreign girls constantly asking him questions slowly and loudly in a language he didn’t understand. So we did the rest of the trip with the other group and their guides, Marha and a kid whose name we couldn’t pronounce. We ended up calling the kid “petit asshole” among ourselves. If you were to spend even a short amount of time with him, the name would be self-explanatory.
He spent most of the trip making obscene gestures at me and Claudia, and he thoroughly enjoyed whipping the backsides of our horses discreetly and sporadically so that he could watch us freak out as our panicked mounts leaped forward in fright. He reminded me of Sid, the disturbed child villain in Toy Story who tortures and maims toys for his own entertainment. I guess every good adventure story needs a psychotic and almost implausibly cruel villain, and “petit asshole” played his role well.
As I mentioned before, it had been virtually impossible to get any real information about our trek from the guesthouse owner and trip organizer. Because of this unfortunate fact, I thought that I had booked a ger homestay program, where we would ride horses during the day and stay with different Mongolian families in the steppes at night.
However, I was unpleasantly surprised when I found that this wasn’t the case. What we had in fact booked was a rural camping trip! Now, I like to think of myself as pretty tough – I mean, I’ve gone bungee-jumping, rock climbing, paragliding, scuba diving, skiing, and done almost every extreme sport in existence. And I have camped before, I proudly reminded myself as I processed the fact that we would be sleeping out in the cold every night. In fact, my cousin Iris and I even did a five-day camping trip by ourselves in Ontario’s Algonquin Park a few years ago. However, thinking back to that experience, I remember that most of the work was done by my hardworking and terrifyingly organized cousin. I mostly spent the days whining about the heat and picking at my mosquito bites while Iris set up the tent, cooked our food, figured out our daily route, and basically kept us from dying. So, truth be told, I am a city girl at heart. And now I was embarking on a fourteen-day camping trip in the middle of the Central Asian steppes. Awesome.
Claudia also had very little experience camping, and we depended on the American couple and the French family in our group to do almost everything. They helped us set up our tent – which was inside out and missing a few poles when we first attempted it – start a fire, cook our food, and put out the fire properly when finished so we wouldn’t burn down our only shelter. For them, it must have been like going camping with Dumb and Dumber, except instead of two brainless American guys, they were saddled with an irritable South African girl and a totally incompetent Canadian woman-child. I’d like to think that our ignorance was charming and cute, and that they were totally enthralled with the idea of helping us discover camping, but I think the more likely reality is that they were plotting to knock us off of a cliff at some point.
To add to the stress of the trip, there was also the issue of our skittish horses. OK, I have gone riding dozens of times, and I have never had such a scared mount in my life! Everyone in our group, except for Claudia, luckily, got thrown off at least once, and I got thrown off twice.
Here is a list of some, but not all, of the things that our horses were terrified of:
- certain kinds of grass
- bright colours
I decided to name my horse Baby, because he was scared of everything in life and because he threw unexpected temper tantrums like a small child. One day, after a few long hours of trekking, Claudia and I ended up far behind the rest of the pack. Claudia’s horse was spooked by a small horde of bugs who were laying in wait on the ground for such a meaty, delicious delicacy as horse legs, and he took off at full speed through the pine forest. My horse attempted to follow suit and tried to buck me off a couple of times. Scared and exasperated, I jumped off of Baby’s back before he had a full-throttled conniption fit and threw me into a tree. I decided to walk for the rest of the day.
Despite our camping ignorance and our nervous steeds, though, the trip was excellent, and we saw unique landscapes and large exotic animals that we could never see anywhere else in the world. We trekked through frigid taiga (subarctic evergreen forests), scorching desert, and bright yellow fields of wild grass. As we galloped by, we saw herds of yaks, goats, wild Przewalski’s horses, and even Bactrian camels, unafraid and close enough to touch.
At night, we had a clear view of the Milky Way, and I attempted to locate the different constellations in the black night sky. Claudia and I would spend our evenings under the stars, drinking wine and learning useful Mongolian phrases from my Lonely Planet guide like “I hope your animals are fattening up nicely” (mal sureg targan tavtai yu?) and “We’d like to drink some fermented mare milk” (bid airag uukh gesen yum).
The highlight of the trip was visiting the indigenous Tsaatan, a nomadic people whose entire existence depends on the herds of domesticated reindeer that they keep. The Tsaatan live in orts, which are similar to the teepees of North American native peoples, and they rely on reindeer for food, clothing, milk, medicine, transport, and sometimes meat. There, we played with – and even rode! – reindeer and sat around our campfire drinking reindeer milk as it snowed.
In spite of all the amazing things we were seeing and doing, however, Claudia and I decided to end our trek a few days early. We were bruised up and sore all over from trotting for six to seven hours a day, sadly unprepared for the bitter cold nights up north, and lacking in nutrients from eating canned food and packaged starch every day (again, these are the results of being, seriously, the dumbest campers alive). Also, after visiting the Tsaatan encampments, we would be heading back the same way we had come, so there wasn’t the enticement of seeing new scenery to keep us from backing out. The only issue at hand was our pride. While I had given up my pride and courage at about the same time my horse kicked me off for the second time, and I landed unceremoniously and painfully on my butt, Claudia still felt like ending the trip early would be giving up.
However, an unfortunate twist of fate cinched the matter for us. We had spent that last night deciding what to do, and the next morning, Bagi and Marha told us that ten of the horses had, in fact, run off in the middle of the night. Apparently, they had been scared off by a herd of wild camels! This was surprising because I had seen the slow, calm creatures up close, and, despite their wobbly back humps, supernatural-looking bodies, and excessive neck hair, I couldn’t figure out how any animal could perceive these gentle giants as scary. But somehow, a herd of these grass-guzzling, slow-moving, desert gargantuans had terrified our horses so badly that they broke free from their posts and took off into the Mongolian wilderness! So our decision was made. We ended the trip early, blaming the horses instead of our sore butts, cold feet, and pathetic wimpiness, and made our way to Ulaanbaatar, where we had our first shower in two weeks! I spent almost an hour scrubbing the dirt from underneath my fingernails, ripping bugs out of my wind-tangled hair, and eradicating the smell of horse and ash from my skin – it was glorious!
Here are some more photos from my trip. Enjoy!