Mongolia Journal ~ 2 Into the steppes

I’ve finally got my act together and have started blogging edited extracts (and PHOTOS) from my Mongolia travel journal. If you missed the first post, it’s here — First Impressions.

This post covers the commencement of our two-week horse-riding expedition. Owing to the nature of journals, events are not necessarily presented in sequential order, so I’ll include the ‘day 1’ etc references for the days of the trek.

25 June 2015

Stepperiders camp

Morning, 8am. Hot sun climbing in the sky. Horses roaming free around the site, grazing, snorting, whuffing contentedly. We’ve just watched mother cat stalk, kill and eat a ground squirrel. She brought it over (still wriggling) near to the shelter we’re sitting in, before she bit its skull and then proceeded to munch her way through the entire animal head to tail. It took her about 5 minutes. Now she’s back at the stalking.

The horses here just roam free when they’re not being ridden, mares with foals among them. Currently a whole herd is grazing around and through the camp — frantic munching and snorting and occasional biffo. They are such beautiful colours. We’re going to watch them get rounded up this morning, among them the ones we’ll ride for the next two weeks. Only the geldings are ridden, but Stepperiders has three stallions, each of which has his own herd. Today, they are rounding up the geldings from the ‘Palomino’s’ herd…

(Later) They rounded up the horses, with one rider first driving them down the hill towards the camp (amazing to watch him ride), and then along a valley into a rickety corral. Because the horses are half wild, they lassoed the horses they wanted, bridled them, then led them to the shed for saddling. This all took rather a while, and it was about midday by the time all the horses were saddled.


Rounding up the herd


Selecting the riding horses

Meanwhile, mother cat caught another ground squirrel and gave it to her babies. So cute (and slightly disgusting) to watch kittens gnaw on a dead rodent.

26 June 2015

Lunch stop – Day 2

Too exhausted to write last night, but what a day! The first of our horse trek. We didn’t leave the Stepperiders camp until almost 1pm, but eventually we got away and rode out onto the steppes. I am riding a dark brown horse with a white star and two clipped ears. He seems to have a lot of gas, so we’ve been calling him ‘Sir Gasalot’. (The Mongolians do not name their horses; they refer to them by their colour and markings only.)

My horse, Sir Placid

My horse

It’s just me and Kirstyn on our expedition, accompanied by a guide (Borma), a horsewoman (Gana), and a driver (David), who appeared at camp last night and brought us lunch just now. We’re a little overwhelmed at having three Stepperiders staff for just two of us — they wouldn’t let us help with setting up camp last night, although we did dismantle our tent this morning. Right now, we are sitting down relaxing, while our three attendants cook us lunch. We already requested hot water for coffee (which we have) and I think they probably consider us crazy Westerners. We feel so spoilt.

Back to yesterday: We set off late, but stopped for a quick lunch of sandwiches about an hour later. Then we rode for about four more hours, winding through hills and valleys, into Bogd Khan National Park. Along the way, Gana sang us a wonderful local song (in Mongolian) about a mare and her foal. It was really hot, the sun relentless. I wasn’t sure my sunscreen was going to hold up, but I don’t appear to be burnt. (I’m really glad I brought a couple of light long-sleeved shirts.)

Day 1 lunch stop

Day 1 lunch stop

We stayed mostly at a walk, although towards the end of the ride got the horses up to a canter. Bogd Khan National Park is forested, so we were able to relax in shade while waiting for our support vehicle to bring water and dinner — by which time it was apparently 7pm. It didn’t feel that late, because it’s high summer here and it doesn’t get dark until around 10pm. I have to confess I was absolutely exhausted and, aside from an easy walk around the camp, didn’t do much for the rest of the evening.

Day 1 campsite, Bogd Khan NP

Day 1 campsite, Bogd Khan NP

Evening – Day 2

It’s night, and we’re in our tent at the end of day 2, listening to the wind howl. This camp is in a saddle, where there’s a stand of rocks and pines and scrub (meaning: plenty of cover for outdoor toileting). It’s pristine and the view is amazing. We got in late again, set up camp (we were allowed to help put up our tent this time), then sat with a coffee while dinner was cooked. After dinner, it turned out to be 9pm! I couldn’t believe it was so late. But we still had time to climb up to the top of a nearby hill to appreciate the view over the steppes.

Day 2 View over campsite

Day 2 View over campsite (dusk)

I love camping with horses. They are hobbled and tethered together in pairs, just beyond the pines we’re camped in. They have plenty of grass to graze upon and despite the howling wind, they seem pretty happy.

Back to this morning… We started late again. I have no idea what time it was, but maybe around midday. I think we probably had breakfast around 10am. We have come up with the concept of Mongolian time, which comprises very slow mornings and late finishes — not what I expected at all. Means we may find ourselves utilising mornings for exploration. Likewise, our lunch stop today was long and leisurely, while they cooked a full meal (some rice thing). I honestly don’t know where the time is disappearing to. But we like it! It’s very pleasant just sitting on the steppes, enjoying the view and the sounds and the smells.


Anyway, first up this ‘morning’ was a short ride to a nearby Buddhist monastery in Bogd Khan National Park. A visitors centre houses a collection of stuffed animals that can be found on the mountain — including bears, wild boar and pole cats. We also discovered that the ‘hawk’ we’ve been seeing is some sort of kite. Beautiful. The monastery, which was destroyed by Russian communists in 1937, was very picturesque.

Day 2 Bogd Khan NP monastery

Day 2 Bogd Khan NP monastery

The post-lunch ride took us through the steppes, including up and down some hills. We watered the horses in a valley where there was an actual watering station, and where other ‘wild’ horses and other animals were drinking too. Afterwards we moved a bit faster — the horses even galloped. I had never galloped before, so this was exciting.

Day 2 watering station

Day 2 watering station

This post covers Days 1-2 of our two-week horse-riding adventure in Mongolia. I’m on a roll now…

Mongolia journal ~ 1 First impressions

It’s over a year since my Mongolian adventure, and I haven’t got near all the blog posts I was going to write. Thank goodness I kept a daily journal, or I’d have forgotten so much already.

I always intended to write themed posts about my experiences, rather than simply transcribing my journal. But… I’ve left it too long now, so my journal is what you get. It’s not verbatim, though. I’m cutting out the boring bits and re-interpreting a few things based on later experiences. I’m focusing on my reflections of the Mongolian horses and culture and horses and landscape and… did I mention horses? (Also, in some cases, kittens…)

It’s also giving me an excuse to finally go through my photos. Some I have already used in earlier posts, but I think many will be shown here for the first time.

So here we go!

Ulaan Baatar, 23 June 2015

Arrived Ulaan Baatar late morning and were whisked away to our hotel by a driver. The journey from the airport was fascinating. The architecture is blocky (mostly) and exists in pockets of conformity and multicoloured madness. Everywhere is badly maintained — cracked concrete, abandoned buildings, scraggly weed-infested gardens, faded and jumbled every which way — but quite clean, as in devoid of litter. Today was overcast and dusty and (when the wind picked up) thick with fluffy plant seeds.

We spent a couple of hours this afternoon walking around the city — there’s not much English, and things are hard to find, but the mix of architecture is interesting. The traffic is mad and, like in so many Asian cities, crossing the road is terrifying. I braved one of the non-traffic-lit pedestrian crossings… and survived.

I can’t wait to get out of the city and onto the Steppes. As the plane flew in, the view of the crumpled landscape was amazing. It’s really NOT flat. The drive from the airport also gave us a glimpse of the undulations at the edge of the city. I’m so excited to get out into the wilderness and experience the landscape properly! I think I’ll gain just as much insight about that as horses (to inform my writing) from this trip.

We have internet here in our hotel, but otherwise my phone is in flight mode. For the next two weeks, we won’t have any internet at all. Nor will we be able to charge our camera batteries, so we’re going to have to be conservative. It’s going to be interesting!

Steppe Riders camp, 24 June 2015

It’s after 7pm with such bright sunlight that it feels like the middle of the afternoon. We’ve had a relaxing day at the Steppe Riders camp, after being picked up from our hotel at 10am. The camp consists of several permanent gers, including one central common/dining ger, where we were greeted with traditional Mongolian tea. This is milk with rice and salt and bits of dried meat… one eats it with a spoon… very odd, but edible. Then we had hot tea.

Steppe Riders camp, Mongolia

Steppe Riders camp, Mongolia

We were left to our own devices for several hours, while they prepared a ger for us to sleep in and awaited the return of another riding party. We loitered in these gorgeous surroundings — rolling treeless hills, dotted with gers in the many valleys. The hilliness of this part of Mongolia has surprised me. The ground is also rocky in parts, and the grass is very short. Kirstyn and I walked up to the top of one of the hills to see the view — more hills and gers, also cows, horses, sheep, and many falcons hovering above the steppes.

Lunch was served at around 3pm (!) when the riding group returned. It consisted of fried pastry parcels (either filled with meat or vegetables) known as “hoosh” with salad (“gatherings”).

Steppe Riders horses, Mongolia

Steppe Riders horses, Mongolia

This afternoon, we went on a “training” ride for around 2.5 hours. I was a bit nervous to start with, and suddenly it was borne upon me what a big deal this is. Horse riding for 14 days! (OMG) Riding here is a bit different. The command for go is “chu” and the command for stop is “osh”. The horses are quite small and hardy, with a really smooth trot.

We rode in a loop out from the Stepperiders camp, stopping halfway for a visit to a neighbouring ger, where we tried fermented mare’s milk (“airag”). It’s only just become available as they start to wean the foals. I’m not sure I like it too much; it’s like a mix of yogurt and beer. Not really my thing, but pleased to have tried it. They keep it inside a massive open leather bladder hanging on the inside wall of the ger.

While riding, I tried the Mongolian way of trotting a few times, which involves standing up in the stirrups, instead of rising to the trot. It’s quite fun actually, and by the end of the ride I was feeling much more confident in general.

The sleeping ger we have been allocated is also home to a mother cat and four kittens! They are so cute. The mother cat is still suckling the babies, which seem to live in a pipe under one of the beds. There are five beds in here, but so far Kirstyn and I are the only inhabitants (along with the cats). This is a good thing, because we’ve just spent an hour (and all the available beds) re-packing our bags for tomorrow…

IMG_2717 kittens

The cuteness!

That’s all for now. I’ll try to keep the Mongolia journal posts coming every month or so. To see the earlier posts about the trip (and there were a few) click on the Mongolia tag.

Travelling in the 90s: Venerable Rome

It’s been a year since I posted the last extract from my 1993-1994 travel journal for the Travelling in the 90s series. I’ve been distracted. But there’s only a couple of weeks of Italy to go on the entire trip, so I’m going to focus on getting to the end.

Our last stop was Florence — a bit of a disappointment in gloomy February. Will Rome be an improvement? (Oh, yes, I think it will!)

[Thursday 15 February, 1994] We took a train to Siena this afternoon, but upon arriving discovered that the train station was at the bottom of the hill (mountain) upon which the town perched. We tried to ring a hotel and got someone who only spoke Italian. Then we tried to catch a bus (up the mountain) but couldn’t work out how to get tickets.

Then we both had a tantrum, and in a fit of pique decided to trash Siena and Go Rome!

So we jumped back on the next train to Rome. When we got there we didn’t see any pickpockets (I have to admit to being paranoid) and were taken by a scout to Soggiorno “Vichi”, which is where we are now. However, there are not many blankets on the beds, and the shower is only so-so, so I’m not sure whether we’ll stay for the nine nights we have left. In the meantime, Rome awaits — I can’t wait to see some of it tomorrow!

[Wednesday 16 February, 1994] Today, we basically explored Rome. Our LP guide book gave a suggested route, which we more or less followed, and which included many of the major piazzas and monuments. Rome has so many of these that there is no possible way to see them all in one day.

We’re staying in a not-so-interesting area near the train station, but it’s certainly convenient as far as carrying packs goes. It means that we have to walk somewhere to get into the atmosphere of Rome. Initial impressions include smog, crazy driving, enormous, and the incredible number of piazzas — small or large squares, often with fountains in them.

There is the fountain in the piazza del Spagna (near the Spanish Steps, which are all uneven and higgledy piggledy); the famous and beautiful Trevvi Fountain (which was by far the cleanest thing we saw today — sparkling white); the fountains in the piazza del Navona (the central and main one is called “The Four Rivers” and in fun we named them Tiber, Arno, Rubicon and Grand Canal); and fountains in the piazza Farnese (two old bath tubs). We threw coins in the Trevvi Fountain (as one must) and also I believe in some others along the way.

Another feature of Rome is obelisks!

It was a great day. I really enjoy wandering around a city and just soaking up the atmosphere — Rome doesn’t hit you the way Paris or Venice do, but respect and wonder kind of seep in. It’s a GRAND old city and reminds me (in a literary fling) of a crusty old grandfather, who has seen so much of life that now everything is taken in his stride. Age and position command respect!

Our route today included the major sights of the Spanish Steps, Trevvi Fountain and the Pantheon. This last is an amazing piece of architecture — a huge dome with a hole in the top. The inside is mostly Christian, having been consecrated to the faith in 609BC. It was originally dedicated to all the Roman gods.


Pantheon, Rome

The Campo de Fiori was very un-bustling — I guess you have to catch it in the morning. And the via Vittorio Veneto is absolutely DEAD in the morning! We went through a pedestrian subway between via Veneto and piazza del Spagna which must have been half a kilometre long. We also walked for quite a while along the Tiber — it’s pretty, but seems almost forgotten. The grass is overgrown, and I got the impression that traffic zips over the bridges without even noticing that there’s a river there at all. Poor river.

Tiber River, Rome

Tiber River, Rome

There is so much more of Rome to see! More piazzas, heaps of churches, ruins, museums, not to mention the Vatican. Rome has so many layers. Venerable City!

Tonight we solved the dilemma of whether or not we should use our kettle (which MUST BE EARTHED) on the Italian sockets. For the operation we donned rubber-soled shoes and flicked the switch with a plastic spoon. It worked and boiled water twice without electrocuting us! But we shall continue to be careful…

[Thursday 17 February, 1994] It’s incredible to think that it’s only a week until we leave for home. Today I amazingly woke up with the 8:30 alarm, and actually got out of bed into the freezing cold morning. H was about half an hour behind me.

We went to the ancient sector of Rome today — the Colosseum, the Forum and the Palatine hill. The Colosseum turned out to be free for the first level, which suited us. A ruined stadium looks much the same from all levels.

Colosseum, Rome

Colosseum, Rome

Next we went to the Forum which reminded me a bit of Ancient Corinth. It was a mess of ruined temples and basilicas — we were taken aback at how disorganised it was. We were forced to buy a guide book in order to discover what everything was. However, the book proved to be really good value with lots of interesting and useful facts.

There is not much left standing in the Forum. The Temple of Saturn has about six pillars, Castor and Pollux three, and Vesta three. The Temple of Antoninius and Faustina has about eight as well as a Christian basilica built in the centre. There were also temples to Julius Caesar, Venus and Rome, Romulus, and an interesting one to Apollo on the top of the Palatine Hill.

Ancient Forum, Rome

Ancient Forum, Rome

The guide book also covered the ruins on the Palatine hill, which consisted mainly of palaces and houses. The architecture of these buildings is really amazing. The Romans seemed to mainly build with flat bricks, so as a result the ruins look less ancient than ruins in Greece. They also tend to be covered in green vines, blending into the side of the hill. It was a very enjoyable day. We had a picnic lunch beside the temple of Venus and Rome with a view of the Colosseum.

I really really must go back to Rome. It was one of my favourite cities on this trip. There’s still more to come from Rome, but next post will be a side trip to Naples and Pompeii. More amazement!

(As usual, terrible photo reproduction… adds to the experience!)

If anyone has memorable travel experiences of Rome I’d love to hear them in the comments.

A day at the races, Mongolian Nadaam style…

It’s been hard to avoid horse racing in Melbourne this week. The Melbourne Cup carnival seems to get more hyped every year, and all week it’s been a frenzy of fashion, ridiculous weather and thoroughbreds.

I largely ignored proceedings (although I’m regretting that now, given the inaugural win of the main event by a female jockey; plus the name of the winning horse, Prince of Penzance, appeals to me). But it has struck me that now would be the ideal time to share my experiences of horse racing in Mongolia.

Horse racing in Mongolia. Where the field of a few hundred horses races for up to 27km and the jockeys are as young as 7 years old.

We were lucky enough to accidentally time our recent visit to Mongolia to coincide with the annual Nadaam festival. I will talk more about this in later posts, but basically it’s a traditional festival covering the “three manly sports” of Mongolian horse racing, Mongolian national wrestling and Mongolian national archery.

None of these events are anything like what you might imagine.

The wrestling and archery take place in stadiums within Ulaan Baatar (as well as villages and towns all over the country). The horse racing in UB takes place at a venue outside the city.

This is the story of our day at the horse races…

Our first challenge was finding a bus to take us to the venue — called Doloon Hudag. Armed with virtually zero information, we clambered through the maze of food vendors outside the main Nadaam stadium trying to find buses, and in the end gained assistance from the police/security detail. Even as we were sitting on the bus, we weren’t entirely confident it was taking us to the right place… but thankfully, after a 1h 15m journey, we arrived at our destination.

We still had a while before anything was scheduled to happen, so we wandered around the food vendors, essentially a village of “kitchen gers” offering various different types of national cuisine. Horses were being ridden everywhere and the place definitely had a carnival atmosphere. It was hot, with no shade. Our efforts at eating icecream were disappointing, with “3 scoops” Mongolian style equating to about half an Australian scoop. Hmph

kitchen ger city (my photo)

kitchen ger city at Doloon Hudag (my photo)

At about 2pm we headed to the bleachers, where a small crowd was starting to gather, to watch whatever was going to happen. The bleachers were lined up along one side of the track at the finish line. All the public announcements were in Mongolian.

We sat around for a while wondering what was going to happen (and when). Eventually, one rider came down bearing a flag, and this appeared to mark the start of the procession of horses and riders to the start line. For the next 60-90 minutes, riders streamed past in groups, heading away to a distant marshalling point.


young riders head out (Kirstyn’s photo)

The horses and riders kept coming and coming and coming. Most of the riders were young kids, riding horses twice as big as themselves, many riding bareback. The sun was beating down on us and we felt rather sorry for the stoic security detail standing in lines beyond the fence.


marshalling area (Kirstyn’s photo)

Once the last horses had (finally) reached the marshalling area, they all got going again and headed into the distance and out of sight.

There are six horse races during the three-day Nadaam festival, based on age:

Azarga (stallion) – 22-24 km
Ikh Nas (geldings over 5 years old) – 25-27km
Soyolon (5 year olds) – 22-24 km
Hyazaalan (4 year olds) – 18km
Shudlen (3 year olds) – 14-16 km
Daaga (2 year olds) – 10-12km

Tradition dictates that the race routes be long and straight to best test the character and stamina of the horses. There’s no need for navigation. They just let the horses run and run and run.

We were watching the Ikh Nas… the longest race of them all. At this point we were waiting for them to ride out 25-27km to the starting point of their race.

And so we waited. The minutes ticked past. The sun beat down. More and more people packed into the stands, a flock of multi-coloured sun umbrellas. 4pm still nothing…

At some point they made an announcement and a cheer went up. We got excited, thinking it meant the horses were in sight! Alas, all it meant was that the race had actually started. But that was progress, right?

More waiting, watching, wilting. A few times we contemplated leaving. Why would anyone choose to do this? Why would they bring kids? But we kept thinking we’ve waited this long, we had better just see it through.

Finally at 4:45pm the racers appeared as a distant cloud of dust on the horizon. (You have no idea how many “mirage” clouds of dust I’d been seeing!) And then we could actually see the poor horses sometime after that, all sweaty and exhausted, their young riders lashing them with ropes.


first horses return (Kirstyn’s photo)

Most cantered in, a few managed a gallop, one or two had dropped to a trot. Some looked about to drop and the whole thing made me want to weep. We knew from watching the stallion race that morning on TV that they’d been pretty much galloping the whole distance.


horses returning (my photo)

We decided we didn’t much like the horse racing component of Nadaam, and we got out of there pretty quickly, before all the horses (and there were at least a couple of hundred) even finished. There was a mad scramble for buses, and we eventually found ourselves back in the centre of the city.

The Mongolians, though, they love the horse racing. Here are some interesting factoids from the tourist brochure we picked up:

Star horses get titles, like “tumen eh” (leader of 10,000) for horses that have won Nadaams in the past. The best horses are “dayan tumen eh” (multiple leader of 10,000 horses) and “darhan tumen eh” (unbeatable leader of 10,000 horses).

There is a lot of ceremony involved with all the Nadaam events. The horses’ manes and tails are bundled with leather; the horse trainers wear traditional garb with fancy hats and carry ornate horse combs; some of the races warrant dawn send-off ceremonies; there’s apparently a special crowd call of “giin goo” or “guurii gurrii” as the riders come in…

Horse field dust is considered wonderful, almost sacred. So getting dusty and dirty at the races (pretty much guaranteed) is good luck. Getting the Soyolon dust on you is apparently best of all.

The first five horses to finish each race are each nabbed by one of five designated “horse collectors” hovering at the finish line. The five winning horses and riders win presidential awards and medals.

Thus ended our “day at the races” in Mongolia. Worth doing once for the experience, but I think I’d much rather be riding the horses across the steppes of Mongolia, than watching them race.

(Some photos by Kirstyn.)

The treacherous footpaths of Ulaan Bataar

Before I went to Mongolia, my aunt said to take a torch.

Well, doh! I’m camping… “No, not for the camping. For the footpaths in Ulaan Bataar. They’re really dangerous at night! You could hurt yourself.”

I thought, yeah, right. But, well…

Ulaan Bataar is many things. Well-maintained is not one of them.

We spent around a week in UB, much of which involved schlepping from one thing to another on foot. At first, the footpaths greeted us with smiles…

But as time went on, the truly treacherous nature of UB’s footpaths were fully revealed. The city overlords attempt to make them attractive urban conduits, but…

I think you’d call that a fail.

And then you see things like this in the middle of one of the biggest annual festivals… I believe this was to run power to one of the stalls out at the horse racing event during Nadaam. Across a busy thoroughfare.


Yep, it definitely pays to be watching where you’re walking when pounding the UB pavements. Which is why this week’s WordPress photo challenge theme of Beneath Your Feet rather resonated with me today (and gave me another excuse to share another facet of Mongolia).

Some of these photos were taken by my travelling companion, Kirstyn McDermott.

Horse trekking in Mongolia – part 2

selfie_ellen with Sir PlacidI started to tell you about Mongolia… and then I got distracted by houses getting demolished and an epic night of D&D. But today we return to the steppes and the horses.

The earlier post (part 1) covered the logistics of the horse trek and how I managed the riding. Today I want to talk about some of the other aspects people keeping asking me about — namely the camping and the food.

Sleeping arrangements

One of the most frequent questions I’ve fielded over the past two weeks has been: did we sleep in gers (known elsewhere as yurts)? I guess this is what most tourists do when they head to Mongolia. There are numerous tourist ger camps and there’s this romantic notion that travellers can rock up to a nomadic family and beg some floor space in their home.

We did not sleep in gers — other than the two nights we spent at the Stepperiders camp at the beginning and end of our trek. Those gers were comfortable enough — lino floors covering a concrete base, five basic timber beds in each, brightly painted woodwork… and in one, kittens! (I kid you not. We had mama cat and four kittens sharing our ger. So cute.)

IMG_2717 kittens

We shared a ger with kittens – aww

But when we were out on trek, we slept in a tent.

Our campsites were pretty much anywhere — and not necessarily flat! We camped on the side of hills, beside a river, on broad flat valley floors. Sometimes beside roads.

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The first thing we would do on being informed “we stop here” (whether for lunch or at day’s end) was furtively assess the availability of trees, bushes, ravines, ridges, secret places where secret business might be conducted. Sometimes our glances would turn into panicked, futile, desperate stares.

Our camp sites were pretty much always beautiful — although some were more so than others. On our second night we camped among a grove of trees nestled at the edge of a grassy saddle between hills. The view was gorgeous and there was lots of ‘cover’. One of my favourite camp sites for sure.

Sharing the steppes

Most of the time, we shared our campsite with an abundance of animals. First, of course, there were our four horses. They’d usually be tied together in pairs, and one would be hobbled. They’d then graze happily wherever they could find grass, roaming indiscriminately into the evening. One night, the horse-sharks chomped so near, we were joking about them falling into our tent. (And they were loud!) Once darkness fell, they were most often staked to keep them under control.

And then there were the goats and sheep and cattle. It became commonplace to watch the little herd beasts drift through the middle of our camp, and we chased inquisitive cows away from our gear on more than one occasion. Or watched them ford the river, right where we were camped.

IMG_5963 cows

Cattle fording the Tuul River

Most exciting were the herds of free horses.

They’re not wild precisely — they’re all owned by someone — but they’re not domesticated either. Each herd has a stallion with a bunch of mares, most of which had beautiful foals in tow during the time we were there. Any other male horses are geldings.

These herds of free horses are majestic. We loved watching the stallions marshal their herd — call them down to a waterhole, lead them up a grassy slope, round up any stragglers. On more than one occasion we heard them moving very close to our tents after dark, the stallion’s call shattering the silence of the night.

Culinary adventures

Let me say one thing now: One does not go to Mongolia for the cuisine. I think this is pretty true, although it must be said we were eating Mongolian style camping food, so it was probably even more limited than otherwise.

Our Mongolian camping food was all carbs carbs carbs. Rice, noodles and potato featured heavily. And the same limited combination of vegetables (carrot, sweet potato, capsicum and the occasional tomato and cucumber), with small pieces of mutton with all the lumps of fat left ON. (Beware eating after dark, when the fatty bits are harder to pick out.)

The same few one-pot dishes were recycled over and over for dinner and lunch — mainly a rice-risotto thing and a noodle soup. Twice we were blessed with a dish we dubbed The Delicious Thing — a national noodle dish known as Tsuiwan, a little like pad thai in texture. Wish we’d scored that more often. (Unfortunately not pictured)

We did not drink any yaks’ milk — Mongolia has plenty of cows to provide milk. We did, however, try fermented mare’s milk, known in Mongolia as airag. This is a mildly alcoholic drink that tastes across between beer and yoghurt. An acquired taste — I could only take a few sips, but the Mongolians drink it by the bowl-full.

And then there’s the curd they make out of cow’s milk. It’s everywhere. A delicacy. It’s the first thing you’re offered when you visit a ger, and it tastes like a brick. Blurgh.

And the coffee? (I hear you ask)

While on trek, we subsisted on Robert Tims coffee bags, which we took from home. I just couldn’t risk the chance there would be no coffee at all. No coffee = bad.

Turns out we would have had instant coffee supplied, but the coffee bags were probably a bit better than that. We also took sweetened condensed milk to whiten said coffee — I’m sure that was better than the milk powder we would have had otherwise.

The ‘food’ I missed most? Red wine without a doubt. There were a few evenings, sitting in the sun by our tent, when I would have loved a bottle of red and some cheese on crackers to accompany us through the long evening.

In fact, the catering department didn’t extend to nibbles or dessert of any kind. Breakfast was typically stale bread with jam or a nutella-like spread. It was all very basic. With that and all the exercise, it’s no wonder we lost weight.

There will be more from Mongolia in another week or so. Definitely.

In the meantime, bayarlalaa (thank you) for reading.

Riding into the storm

This is a blatant leveraging of the weekly photo challenge theme of half and half as an excuse to publish more photos (and tell a story) from my recent trip to Mongolia — a land of big sky, spectacular clouds and sweeping grasslands.

The horizon draws the eye repeatedly and bisects many of my photos, so I figure these images qualify for the theme.

We mostly had great weather, but on one particular afternoon we found ourselves riding into a storm. (There might have been singing: Riders on the storm… Singing in the rain… Raindrops keep falling on my head…)

Into the storm... Half an hour later we were putting up a tent in a hail storm

Into the storm… Half an hour later we were putting up our tent in a hail storm

There was nothing we could do about the storm, but we had no idea just how ‘exciting’ the next hour was going to be. My knees were tired, and we’d been promised a trip into a nearby town for a shower. Stopping to camp seemed like a good thing to do.

(Mind you, we did look at the broad, flat expanse of steppe, fairly near a dirt road with regular traffic, and question the exact choice of campsite. We tended to prefer campsites with a bit more, ahem, cover… if you know what I mean.)

No sooner had we hobbled the horses and started putting up our tent, than the clouds burst on our heads. Slashing rain. Gale-force wind. Thunder. Lightning. Hail.

We scurried around trying to get the tent fly on, smashing pegs in with rocks. At one point the tent almost twisted in on itself. It did go up eventually, a bit skewed, but good enough to shelter us for the next half hour while the storm ripped itself into pieces.

We were nonetheless already drenched.

This is what happens when you put up tents during hail storms.

This is what happens when you put up tents during hail storms…

After the storm, the sun came out and we got everything dry by hanging it on the tent. I kid you not, this happened —

After the storm...

After the storm…

Meanwhile, we got our much-needed shower and a beer and all was good in the world.

Definitely fun times.

Horse trekking in Mongolia – part 1

selfie_ellen with Sir PlacidI’m now back from my latest international adventure, the focus of which was a two-week horse trek across the steppes of Mongolia. It was an amazing trip: challenging, inspiring, fascinating. And boy did it go quickly.

Over the coming weeks I intend to write a series of posts about my Mongolian experiences. (There’s so much to say I have been struggling to decide where to start!) I think my photos have come out OK — some of them anyway — so stand by for an avalanche of steppes and horses and the occasional selfie…

First up, I’m going to deal with some of the FAQ — everyone so far wants to know how the horse riding went. (How did I pull up? What was the trek like? Did I fall off?) So this first post covers some of the logistics of the expedition.


We arranged our trek with a local company called Stepperiders, which has around 100 horses. They operate out of their private ger camp (outside Ulaan Baatar), where trekkers hang out both before and after their respective treks. There’s no running water or electricity, but it’s a lovely relaxed environment, providing the opportunity to swap notes with other travellers and to start soaking up the beauty of the steppes.

stepperiders camp

Stepperiders camp amid the steppes

There’s also ample opportunity to watch their gorgeous horses, either running free in the herd or getting rounded up and singled out for riding. We went for a group ride the afternoon we arrived, possibly so they could assess our ability and decide what horses to assign us for the next fortnight. In any case, I ended up with a different horse the following day.

Mongolian time

We were surprised to discover that our two-week trek would be just the two of us, accompanied by three Stepperiders staff: our “horsewoman”, who determined the route and was responsible for the care of the four horses; our English speaking guide, who looked after the two of us very well indeed; and our driver, who transported all the gear (bags, tents, bedding, cooking equipment etc) via car and met our riding group at intervals with water.

Another surprise was the daily schedule, which comprised late starts and late finishes. Although our lack of timepieces meant we were never sure exactly what the time was, we grew increasingly adept at judging time from the position of the sun. We think we broke camp and rode out each morning sometime around 11:00-11:30am (much later than we expected), stopped for an extended lunch break around 1:30-2:00pm (maybe around 90 minutes?), and finished riding around 7:00pm. (The sun was setting around 10pm.)

For the first few days, I really struggled to make sense of the passing time, which I couldn’t internally account for. Normally I’m not too bad at judging time, but “Mongolian time” is a thing all to itself. Especially when one is on horseback or lazing about on the grass. It slithered and slipped past like a fast-running stream. This was a challenge for me, as I thrive on structure; but I think by the end I was fairly chilled about it all.

My horse

My assigned horse was a dark bay, with a lovely gentle personality. He was dependable, sure-footed (as are just about all Mongolian horses), and never startled (even when other horses got bolshy around him). He did have a tendency to take the slow option, but demonstrated several walking and trotting gears after sufficient encouragement. He could certainly be fast when he wanted, but didn’t seem to want to all that often.

My horse, Sir Placid

My horse, Sir Placid

We named him Sir Placid. (The Mongolians don’t name their horses; they refer to them by fairly specific colours and markings.) The other name we called him sometimes was Sir Gasalot.

As the days progressed I got a lot better at asserting my authority, but at heart I know I’m a soft touch and most of the time we were at the back of the party. Nonetheless, I was definitely aware of my confidence and skills improving as the days progressed. Moving with the horse started to become more instinctive, and I felt more as though I were “riding” as opposed to merely sitting on the horse’s back.

To the steppes!

We rode out from the Stepperiders camp that first sunny afternoon and made our way across the undulating landscape to our first campsite in Bogd Khan National Park. Over the next several days we visited Manzushir Monastry, Terelj NP and the massive 40-metre statue that is the Chinggis Khaan monument… but the majority of our time was spent riding across the vast and beautiful steppes.

campsite_day 7_horses

Mongolian steppes: hills and valleys

The steppes, to my surprise, are not flat. At least, not the region surrounding UB, where we were riding. They comprise hills and mountains and broad valleys between. We rode up and over and around many grassy hills, often strewn with rocks.

The horses walked whenever we were doing something precarious — such as traverse or descend a steep hill — or where the ground was especially rocky. (We took those horses up and down slopes I could never have predicted.) Other times the horses rather liked to trot and, at times, canter. We didn’t gallop a lot, especially in the second week, but there were some occasions early on when we flew across the valley floor.

Surviving two weeks on horseback

I am pleased to report that I managed two weeks on horseback pretty well. I expected to have sore muscles, at least at first, but that didn’t actually happen. Whether it was my Pilates preparation, or a characteristic of the horses (which are fairly narrow shouldered and have a smooth gait) — or a combination of the two — I’m not sure. But every morning I awoke feeling fresh and not at all stiff or sore. Getting on that horse again each morning was easy.

I did get fatigued, though, particularly as the trek went on. At the end of the day, it was harder to lift my leg over the horse’s back, and my knees ached after hours in the saddle. In the second week it was worse, but easily relieved by dismounting and walking around for 5 minutes. A couple of times I walked alongside the horse for 5 minutes or so, just to stretch out my knees.

I got tired if we did too much trotting too. We rather enjoyed trying the Mongolian style of riding, which is to stand in the stirrups when trotting and cantering. Initially, I could manage about three beats in the trot (essentially a slow-motion rise and fall), but built this up to longer as the days progressed. It did take it out of my body, though, and at the end of each day trotting was really hard.

It’s much easier, however, to stand for cantering and galloping. At such times, when I found my optimum balance, it was like flying as the horse moved under me. Wonderful.

And, no, I did not fall off. Huzzah!

I think that’s enough for the first installment. More later… Promise.

In the meantime, last week I posted a short 30s video entitled ‘A glimpse of Mongolia‘, which I filmed at the end of Day 9 of the trek. You can meet my horse there too.

Gone on a journey…

I’m in Mongolia — how cool is that? Today I leave the city of Ulaan Baatar to join a two-week horse riding expedition through some national parks and across the Steppes. There will be no electricity or WiFi so I’ll be offline for the next fortnight…  

I’ll leave you with this little guy in Sukhbaatar Square, near Parliament House. We found many such lions as we wandered the streets of UB yesterday. They’re real Chinese style lions, when much of the city has strong Soviet influences. Fascinating.

More later. Off I go to the horses…