Getting Back on the Horse (Part Two)

We arrived in Mongolia during the Naadam Festival, a yearly contest of the ‘Three Manly Sports’ of wrestling, horse racing and archery. Richard, Margaret and Ruby had seen some of the wrestling the day before, at the stadium in UB, but by the time we arrived and had lunch it was more or less too late to see the archery, so we elected instead to drive straight to the camp site. This meant that, for Chris and I, the horse racing was the first and only bit of the Naadam we saw.

It was magnificent. The ‘field’ in which the event was taking place was heaving with people. The term ‘field’ is a bit misleading, because it wasn’t a fenced-in space; it was just the bit of the steppe where the horse racing was taking place. Thousands of people milled about – friends, families, gangs of young lads on horseback, kite flyers, horse archers in magnificent costumes; mounted policemen and army types. The atmosphere was fantastic: everyone smiling, excited to be there, enjoying the holiday.  Naadam races are really long – this one was a cross-country gallop of thirty kilometres.

While we waited for the race to reach us we were entertained by a display of horsemanship and archery on horseback. We all squeezed into one of the stands to have a look. All the seats were taken, so we ended up packed into the space between two of these stands, jammed in extremely tightly; it was difficult to see anything, especially as the show itself was quite far away. Still, the bits I did see were impressive. Men galloping past, standing up on the backs of their horses, or dropping down so that it looked like the horse was riderless; shooting various targets at high speed. At one point a line of horsemen all made their horses lie on the ground then stand up again, with riders still attached; another group, dressed in military uniform, gave the crowd a wonderful formal salute whilst standing on the back of their horses, as sure-footed and upright as though they were on solid ground.

After this we moved up to get a good spot for the horse race itself. There was a fair amount of hanging around, as there often is at these sorts of events, but we secured a great front-row position and settled in to wait, chatting to one of the stewards, who stood in front of us guarding the wire line that stretched between the crowd and the course of the race (‘racing track’ is too strong a word to describe the latter area). Then a cloud of dust kicked up in the distance: the race was approaching. People  began to hurry towards the wire. Those of us at the front row crouched down so that the people behind could see.

Soon the race was upon us. As with the earlier displays, there was still a fair gap between us and the race: none of my pictures of it are particularly impressive. It was fun to watch, though, and to be a part of the happy, excited crowd. I especially liked the riderless horses who were still going hell for leather, convinced they were still in with a shot of winning.

Once the race had thundered on past us we made our way back towards the van; it took an hour or so to find it amid the chaos of the field. Eventually we were reunited, only to spend another age battling our way back on to the open road. We had lunch at our campsite, and decided not to go back for the rest of the afternoon’s Naadam events: instead we all had a long siesta before it was time to saddle up ourselves.

Before arriving in Mongolia I had only been on a horse once in my life. I’ve been on a fair few donkeys and camels, but the only horse ride was a short one in Jordan, on the way to Petra, and it wasn’t a complete success. I mounted easily, but the damn horse wouldn’t move. The rest of my group all started off on foot towards the entrance to the siq, the narrow chasm that leads to the ancient city of Petra. My horse just stood there as though it hadn’t the faintest idea what was expected of it as I urged, prodded and cajoled it to move. Eventually the man who had rented it to me noticed that I hadn’t got anywhere, and turned back. He raised an eyebrow at it, and the horse trotted forward very smartly. Luckily no one else witnessed this little debacle; instead they saw me trotting past as though I knew what I was doing.

This was the sum total of my horse riding experience by the time I came to be standing in the steppe, eyeing up the stocky beasts in front of us. Mongolian horses are quite small, but they seemed big enough to me suddenly. Chris had a little more experience, having had a few classes as a child; Richard and Ruby had both owned horses in the past, but Margaret was another absolute beginner.

L-R: Richard, Margaret, Amaraa, Ruby, me, Baynmunh, Chris, and our driver

They assigned us all horses and clapped us in riding helmets and chaps before we hauled ourselves on to the horses. Mine was a medium-sized brown fellow. They all had rather boring names like ‘the one with the stripe’ or ‘the black one’, so we each re-named our mounts; I called mine Sinatra, as he had startling light blue eyes, and Chris called his Wolfgang – you’d have to ask him why. Ruby was given a horse she had ridden before, as she’d been in the country for longer than we had: she’d called it Rowdy Brown. Richard and Margaret were mounted on Blackie and Blondie respectively. Amaraa’s horse was called ‘Amaraa’s horse’, and Baynmunh had a dapple grey horse which I was soon driven to name Farty. All of them were geldings.

At first I was led by Amaraa, but his horse and mine immediately started sniping at each other until Baynmunh told us to stop and swapped Sinatra and I for Margaret and Blondie: apparently Amaraa’s horse and Sinatra were not on friendly terms. We set off across the steppe at an easy walk; Baynmunh was now leading Chris and myself. Sinatra kept turning his head slightly, surveying me out of the corner of his eye; he didn’t seem very impressed with what he saw. We learned how to urge the horses on – ‘tchoo! tchoo!’ but mostly they chose to ignore us. Sinatra liked to walk as close to Farty as possible, so that my knee often ended up wedged into Farty’s arse – not a fantastic place for it to be, but it seemed as though I had little choice in the matter. Despite this, the ride was brilliant, especially when we went downhill, standing up in the stirrups – great fun.

After about twenty minutes we stopped high up in a beautiful silver-green valley, and decided to camp there for the night. I was disappointed – I wanted to go further, ride for longer. The van appeared, and we started to unload everything, setting up the tents and the dining table. I chatted to Amaraa for a bit and was amazed to hear that the twenty minute ride had actually lasted two whole hours – I could hardly believe it.

Our second camp

Each evening the horses were hobbled for the night, but they could still wander off quite far – “just a couple of kilometres”, as Amaraa put it. Some were tied together – Wolfgang and Sinatra were always a pair – while others were left alone. Richard’s horse, Blackie, was the leader of our little herd.

Mongolian horses have a fair amount of freedom. The following morning a 4×4 appeared over the ridge above our camp, and two men stopped to ask if we’d seen their horses, which were lost. Amaraa told us about his cousin, who once spent a couple of weeks in the Gobi Desert looking for some camels  – moving from ger to ger, hosted by whichever family he happened to meet on his way. Often, in the mornings, Baynmunh would spend a long while looking for our horses after they’d strayed off in the night, carried away by their ongoing mission to eat the entire steppe.

This post is getting a bit long, so I’ll leave it there for now, even though there’s plenty more to report. Coming up (as they say on the news): Sinatra and I have a falling out, and Chris goes missing during a morning run. Stay tuned.

Getting Back on the Horse (Part One)

If you should happen to glance back at my previous posts from the Big Trip you’ll notice that I’ve updated them with some pictures. You can now see the Forbidden City and Rahul’s family and the street dogs of Kathmandu and stuff like that. Email subscribers: you lot will need to visit the blog site itself if you want to see these treasures.

But anyway. I was last seen leaving Beijing on my first Trans-Siberian train. We were lucky enough to have the whole 4-berth compartment to ourselves, which was a bit of a luxury. The day passed in a haze of lounging on the lower bunks, snoozing, looking out of the window and playing cards. The train ambled along at a gentle pace, creating a soothing rocking movement that acted like an anaesthetic; one nap blurred into the next. This was just as well, as we approached the Chinese-Mongolian border in the evening and the intricate process of passing from one country to the next meant that we didn’t get to sleep properly until after one in the morning.

The Border Boogie (as I began to refer to it in my head) is a complex process at the best of times, but it was made more complicated by the fact that the countries of the former Soviet Union have a narrower gauge of railway tracks than the rest of the world. This meant that our train was shunted into a shed, separated out into its constituent carriages and hoisted into the air so they could change the bogies. We could have got off and waited in the station, but Chris and I were both curious about the process, so we stayed on board as our carriage was slowly lifted up about ten feet into the air – so slowly you could barely sense the movement – then the wheels rolled out from beneath us, and new ones rolled in. It took about an hour. Before that some Chinese officials had come round and taken our passports – it’s amazing how readily you submit to having such important documents taken away for upwards of an hour at a time.

After we were lowered back down and reconnected into a train the border guards handed back our passports and we shuffled on a few hundred yards into Mongolia. Here we stopped again, in a dim and half-deserted station in the middle of the night, where a line of Mongolian military types stood to attention outside, ‘welcoming’ us into the country and making sure no one made an illegal break for outside world. In a sleepy haze, we handed over our passports again then were woken an hour or so later when they were returned, and we finally started to roll on through the dark steppe.

The following morning we woke up to a glorious view: the beautiful golden-green grasses of the Gobi Desert, underlaid by pale sand, streaming past the window. In the first few minutes after I woke up I saw horses and gers (the Mongolian equivalent of yurts), but the emptiness was the most breathtaking feature of the view: beautiful nothingness.

We arrived in Ulaanbaatar at around lunchtime and were met by some people from Horse Trails Mongolia, with whom we had arranged to go horse trekking. I had also arranged for someone to meet us with our train tickets for the Ulaanbaatar-Irkutsk leg but, much to our consternation, she didn’t show up. This created a problem that grumbled on throughout our time in Mongolia, but as we got hold of the tickets in the end and the story isn’t that interesting I’ll say no more about it.

It was lovely to meet our guide, Amaraa, and our fellow horse trekkers Richard, Margaret and Ruby. Richard and Margaret are from Byron’s Bay in Australia, and Ruby is a stand-up comedian who lives in Los Angeles. There was a thirty-odd year age gap between Chris and I and the rest of our party, but no gap at all in terms of enthusiasm or energy; we all got on well from the outset, and I feel really lucky to have met them all. Our time in Mongolia wouldn’t have been half as fun without them.

After lunch we inched our way through the dreadful traffic in Ulaanbaatar and out into the steppe. From then on until the afternoon we left, we didn’t see another town, shop or advertisement. We hardly even saw any houses or roads, for that matter, and when we did come across what passed for a road often they were so bad that cars drove along parallel to them rather than chancing their suspension on the bumps, potholes and enormous puddles. The above picture shows our accommodation for the first four nights of our stay; our last night was spent in a ger camp near UB.

This was the ‘field’ we camped in on the first night; it was quite crowded by Mongolian standards as there were a few other families within sight, all camping in anticipation of the Naadam Festival’s horse race that was due to happen the next day. The weather was lovely  – a dry heat that was far more pleasant than the humidity of China and Nepal. But the temperature plummeted as the sun went down, and the first night was quite cold – I unpacked my fleece for the first time, and slept in it. Having spent the last twenty four hours on a train I arrived in the country already craving a shower, only to find that we would be without such luxuries for the next few days. The only bathroom facility was the open steppe. You strode off into the distance ‘until you’re a speck’ as Ruby put it, and everyone looks the other way. Wet wipes and bottles of well water provided the only kind of wash. It took me a while to get my head round it.

But I loved the steppe. The wide emptiness gave me a feeling of freedom that I’ve never experienced anywhere else in the world – the feeling that you could wander for days and days on end and never be turned away, never find yourself fenced off or be called a trespasser. The grasses of the steppe, close-cropped by hungry sheep, goats, camels and horses, give off a glorious scent when you walk, and more so when they are crushed by horses’ hooves; the ground is covered in a type of spicy, minty wild thyme that we eventually identified as the source of the scent. Ruby found tiny bright shoots of rhubarb near us as well, and wild flowers grew everywhere.

The steppe is inhabited by a hilarious species of grasshopper, one of evolution’s best jokes. It has a double-butterfly wing system, cumbersome and inefficient; you get the sense that they have hardly any control over their flight at all. Their wings come in lovely delicate shades of pink and lilac. Walking through the steppe stirs up waves of the creatures ahead of you, rising with a whirring click; they land a few feet ahead only to be shooed on further when you reach them again. Apparently later on in the year they grow so large and fat they can’t fly at all, and then are crushed in vast numbers.

Thanks to Richard and Margaret for this photo

After we arrived at our first camping site our horses appeared, led by two horsemen, one of whom (Baynmunh, on the left) stayed with us for the whole trek. We didn’t get to ride them until the afternoon of the next day, though: the morning was spent at the horse racing field of the Naadam Festival, which I will describe in my next post.

Fear not, you won’t have to wait so long for the next instalment. Chris and I are due to have a little ‘Bloggers’ Ball’ lunch next weekend to celebrate our return, and I’ve been told most categorically that if I don’t update my blog properly by then I’ll be uninvited from my own welcome back party, despite the fact that it’s happening at my house. So I intend to have the whole of Mongolia written up by next weekend, to be on the safe side.