Mongolia Journal ~ Just another day on the steppes — with video

My next trip (July) will be a week in Broome with the extended family. In the meantime, let’s return to Mongolia…

3 July 2015

Breakfast – Day 9

Breakfast seems earlier today. Not sure why. It’s maybe 9-9:30am?

It’s sunny. Crickets or grasshoppers are chirping. A bumblebee came to visit – it landed for a few seconds on my hand. Soft and furry. A butterfly landed on my foot yesterday afternoon too. There are loads of butterflies. Other types of insects too — flies of different sizes, including large ones that bite; long, thin, iridescent green things with spindly legs; grasshoppers of all different sizes, colours and types; beetles that crawl; giant mosquitoes…

And so many different kinds of vegetation. There’s tussocky grass, single thin green blades, small clumps of flowers (many different kinds), ground-coverings with feathery fern-like foliage, bare earth… and it varies in bands in the same valley.


Day 9 – water drawn from a well for the horses

Lunch – Day 9

We’re sitting with shoes off on the grassy banks of a little stream. A cute little baby goat came to visit us just now. He was all on his own, looking at us, taking a few tentative steps closer… He looked so cute stumbling onto his front knees to drink at the stream with his tail in the air.

Then David (our driver) picked him up and joked “Mongolian BBQ!” and then Burmaa (our guide) picked him up for a cuddle, and that’s when we saw he had an injured leg. There was an ugly gash, semi-healed. We were anxious, debating what to do. About five minutes later, an oldish man turned up on a motorcycle with his granddaughter and picked up the baby goat (kid). Turns out the kid belonged to him and they’d come to take it for doctoring, so there’s a happy ending to the story.

We’ve seen eagles and cranes (and more kites) wheeling above us in this valley. Aside from the roadside tourist eagles, these are the first eagles we’ve seen, we think. Pretty cool. I’ve lost count of the number of kites we’ve seen, though. They are everywhere.


Day 9 – Lunch stop with some locals thundering past

We rode for at least two hours before stopping for lunch. It was mainly flat and the horses really wanted to trot the whole way. Really tiring. I had to get off for a bit, just before lunch, to walk for five minutes and stretch my knees out. My knees are really fatigued.

Late afternoon – Day 9

We stopped early again today, this time in another valley. The post-lunch ride was nice — walking and trotting mainly. Only a couple of hours, I think. I’ve just taken a video on my phone for uploading to my blog — exciting! I think it’ll be a nice way to bring the steppes out of a photo. [see below]

My horse had a pretty good day today. I’m getting better at getting him to do what I want him to do. In fact, everyone seems in a better mood today. I don’t think anything has happened to make us stabby. Lunch was a Mongolian rice and milk dish — kind of like porridge. Right now I’m craving wine and cheese as we sit in the shade at the front of our tent, writing in our journals.


Day 9 – Just another herd of horses on the steppes of Mongolia (This is from our campsite)


Mongolia journal ~ Rivers and words

Exactly two years ago I was in the middle of my Mongolian horse trek. TWO YEARS AGO! It’s so hard to believe… (I’m definitely due for a new adventure!)

This is a short post about our sixth day of riding, which largely involved following (and crossing) the Tuul River.

30 June 2015

Lunch – Day 6 (near Terelj NP)

We’ve retraced steps from Terelj NP to stop in the vicinity of the previous night’s camp by the Tuul River, sitting on a hill overlooking the distant valley and road. It’s a gorgeous spot. The horses are grazing peacefully and it’s quite windy with intermittent cloud.

We’ve been learning Mongolian words the past few days… first we learnt ‘thank you’, ‘hello’, ‘my name is’ etc. Then we started learning how to count to 10. Yesterday we learnt 1-5 and we’ve just learnt 6-10. It’s fun. Burmaa (our guide) gives us spot quizzes from time to time.

This morning’s ride was very pleasant. We meandered long the river and forded it a few times. Awesome fun. I sang some songs while riding along in my own little world — it seemed like the time for it. The wide open spaces often make me feel like singing.


Fording rivers is awesome fun.

Eventually we ended up at here at our lunch stop after a couple of hours riding, mostly walking with some trotting and cantering. I’m starting to understand my horse a lot more. He’s a lovely horse, docile and responsive. He goes downhill a bit slowly and has a slow trot, but he canters really well and seems happy enough to wade through water.

Evening – Day 6 (Tuul River)

Tonight we’re camping beside a different section of the Tuul River, this time right on its banks. We’re at a ford, with horses and cows crossing as we’ve been sitting here. Everyone has washed a bit (selves and clothes — our newly washed underwear is strung up to dry along an old paling fence), and it’s been a chilled-out couple of hours. As always when the sun fades (now) the temperature drops substantially, though.


Cattle fording the Tuul River



Camping on the banks of the Tuul River

The afternoon ride was pleasant, although rather long with lots of trotting and cantering. We are starting to feel the fast pace and long days. I like not having to rush around in the morning with the late-morning starts, but I’m a bit tired of finishing so late.

It must be around 9:30pm right now and we still haven’t had dinner. Although it’s nice not to have to do any of the cooking, we are somewhat at the mercy of the Stepperiders crew.

Tonight the horses are grazing around right outside our tent. They munch grass like machines. From within the tent, it sounds as though they’re right on top of us! We’re half worried they’ll trip over the guy ropes… (heh)

Mongolia Journal ~ Terelj NP

It’s been a little while between posts, but this is the fourth edited extract from my Mongolia Journal, covering day 5 of my two-week horse trek in 2015. With photos!

It’s hard to believe it was almost two years ago now.

29 June 2015

Morning – Day 5 (Tuul River)

Morning, best guess about 8:30am? Sunny and very pleasant. Ant crawls across my knee. Mixed herd of sheep and goats descend upon our site, much as they did yesterday at our previous campsite.

This is one of the things I love about Mongolia — the sharing of the land. There are no fences, so sheep, goats, cows, yaks and horses all roam freely, intermingling together. There’s a herd of horses roaming around our camp right now as well. It’s just so cool.


Day 5 – Overlooking our camp near the Tuul River — sharing the steppes with sheep, goats, cattle and horses

(Later) We’ve just been on a morning walk around our camp… up the hills behind the camp to look down the Tuul River valley towards Terelj National Park (there’s a town on the other side of the hill from our camp), then along the ridge down to two ‘owoos’ (shrines) with ‘hatag’ (prayer flags). The hatag is used as a sign of respect for festivals such as the lunar new year, and Burmaa has just told us that when young couples decide to wed, the boy’s father gives a hatag to the girl’s father.


Day 5 – Two ‘owoos’ (shrines) with ‘hatag’ (prayer flags)

Lunchtime – Day 5 (Terelj NP)

Great morning ride. We left camp by riding along the river,  then forded it on horseback. I confess I was apprehensive about this, but it turned out to be the coolest thing ever. So exhilarating! Then we crossed a road twice and followed it towards Terelj National Park. We did a lot of trotting and cantering this morning and I am getting better and more confident every day.

We are now sitting on the steppe beside the road, a herd of cattle surrounding us. Our stepperiders hosts are cooking lunch (we’re getting two high-carb cooked meals a day — so much for losing weight!).


Day 5 – Lunch stop by the road near Terelj NP (also later our camp site).

We took a stroll towards a nearby big rock with a cave inside. Apparently monks hid within when the Russian communists came. Otherwise we are just sitting in the sun (there being no shade). It’s pretty hot today.

30 June 2015

Morning – Day 6 (Terelj NP)

We camped overnight beside the road into Terelj NP after an epic day that left us too exhausted to write last night. It’s now a sunny morning and we’re waiting for water to boil so we can have coffee and then breakfast. It’s not a great campsite, having been chosen in desperation. In fact, it’s the same site where we had lunch yesterday. It’s right beside a road, and there’s no cover for any toileting — a bit stressful!

Yesterday afternoon we rode from here into Terelj NP to “see Turtle Rock”. K and I had no idea how long this “side trip” was going to take, but Ganaa (horsewoman) stayed behind with the car and David (our driver) rode her horse.

It took forever. And it was hot. I got really cranky, knowing we were going to have to retrace our steps (which I detest), so the further we went, the crankier I became. We had no idea of the time, but we think it took at least 1.5 hours to get there. Moreover, it was clear our “guides” didn’t actually know where they were going…


Turtle Rock. Yeah.

Once we finally found it (which involved backtracking), Turtle Rock itself itself was hardly worth the effort, although I guess it was an interesting rock formation. An added bonus, however, was the presence of a flushing toilet we could pay to use (worth EVERY cent).

By this time it was probably late afternoon, but we went on another 2km to see the Princess Monastery. This involved a long climb (on foot) to the building, but we elected not to pay the entrance fee.


Day 5 – Terelj National Park (from Princess Monastery)

Then came the long ride back to our lunch spot (now camp site). By then the shadows were really long (maybe 7 or 8pm?). On the way back we trotted and cantered a lot, because it was so late. I was absolutely exhausted, but managed a standing canter and gallop!

It was pretty late by the time we reached the car, at which point our tent came out and four of us raised it in about 5 mins. We were handed dinner — already cooked. Then we collapsed in our tent until it was dark… (Then we took it in turns to sneak out under the veil of darkness to take care of business. Ahem.)

2017: According to most of the Mongolian travel guides, Terelj National Park is one of the major attractions around Ulaan Baatar. I’m not surprised it was included in our itinerary, but I don’t really feel as though we saw much of it…

According to our itinerary, Terelj NP was one of the few specific highlights mentioned:

  • Day 3. Ride to Terelj National park and beautiful valley, camping next to river
  • Day 4. Explore Terelj National Park, which is located in Khentii Mountains… natural beauty and interesting rock formations… Massive woolsack weather conditions very well known. In Terelj National Park-forested alpine mountains, see you gigantic rock formations such as Turtle Rock. The area of Terelj National Park is ideal for hiking, horseback riding, fishing, climbing and photography.

So it’s fair to say we were expecting much more of Terelj NP. More at least than a scant half-day, during which I was too tired and cranky to fully appreciate what I did see. Considering the length of our trek (14 days), I’m still not sure why we got shafted on this one! It remains a slight disappointment.

So that was Terelj NP… Plenty more to come. I’m hoping to post more regularly for a while and keep the posts a little shorter. Stay tuned…

Mongolia Journal ~ 3 Getting into the swing of things (with eagles!)

This is the third edited extract from my Mongolia Journal, covering days 3 and 4 of my two-week horse trek. With photos!

27 June 2015

Lunch stop – Day 3

selfie_ellen with Sir PlacidWe’re at lunch in a long flat valley with a train line and a town in the distance. The night was wild and cold, and it rained heavily. I wore a fair few layers, plus dragged out the Mongolian blanket to put on top of my sleeping bag. Since I used that as a pillow the first night, this left me without a pillow, which wasn’t too comfortable. Hmm.

This morning we visited the ger of Ganaa’s friend. They served us Mongolian tea (salt, milk, water, some herb) and a range of homemade snacks: a bread/cake thing, milk curd (not very appetising) and some milk cream/half butter. It was lovely hospitality, but strange, because our hosts wouldn’t make eye contact or even try to communicate with us. We stayed about half an hour.

Since then, we’ve cantered and trotted quite a bit, before watering the horses just near today’s lunch stop. We’ve just watched a herd of horses come up to the shallow waterhole near where we’re sitting. A couple of them rolled in the muddy water as though having a bath; but, since they are decidedly not clean now, they were probably just trying to cool down.

It’s wonderful watching the horses interacting, gaining an appreciation for herd dynamics. The stallion is very much the dominant presence, making sure all his mares are together, actively rounding them up if they wander too far. One of the horses stood in the water splashing it up onto his stomach with one of his front hooves. Another (a chestnut) stood in the water with his head on the shoulder of a beautiful grey. Among the mares, the foals are often lying flat on the ground beside their mothers, out for the count.

Day 3 - lunch stop

Day 3 – lunch stop with freight train

Evening – Day 3 (near the town of Nalaikh)

Our camp is on a sloping grassy hill where the horses are grazing. I’m still temporally challenged. Ganaa (our horsewoman) asked us if we were tired and we said we were fine (perhaps a slight untruth on my part). Turns out it was probably closer to 6:30pm than 4pm as we thought. We continued on to this campsite and have just eaten. It’s after 9pm. (Yes, OK I’m struggling with the time thing. Everything is taking longer than it seems. Apparently we left our lunch stop at about 4pm. I’m just going to try to accept the routine — such as it is — and stop obsessing about what time it is…)

Our post-lunch ride was great. Lots of cantering and trotting. We also had to cross a main road, which was quite scary.

Day 3 - camp

Day 3 – camp

Day 3 - sunset

Day 3 – sunset

28 June 2015

Early afternoon – Day 4 (near the town of Nalaikh)

It’s sometime in the early afternoon and we haven’t left camp yet. But that’s OK… there’s a very good reason.

First up this morning was the dawn. We were both woken by the call of some sort of magpie (we think). Unlike Australian magpies, which have a beautiful call, this did not. Anyway, the light outside looked reddish, and I had the sudden urge to see dawn breaking over the steppes. Unzipping our tent, I found we were perfectly oriented to witness a magnificent dawn display — all pink and gold. We watched it for about 15 minutes, took photos and thanked the magpie (which we dubbed the “tourist bird”, assigned to wake campers to see beautiful dawns). I slept some more after that and I think we woke quite late.

Day 4 - dawn

Day 4 – dawn over the steppes

After breakfast, we went into the nearby town of Nalaikh for a shower. This was an interesting — albeit wonderful — experience. The water was hot, pressure fine; all in all perfectly adequate for getting clean and washing hair. Yay! (It had, after all, been four days since our last shower.) The facilities, on the other hand, were pretty ramshackle. Although they did seem clean. But, contrary to our expectation of a facility offering running water, there were no toilets!

OK, so by Mongolian standards, there was a toilet. Upon asking for it, we were directed out the door into the lane out the back, where we found a ramshackle hut. Inside this hut — which had no door — was a hole.

Yep. A thunderbox with no door. Opening onto a laneway.

No. Just NO.


After our shower, we found a shop with bananas! And then a cafe latte! With our clean hair, banana and coffee, we were pretty happy by the time we got back to camp.

Evening – Day 4 (Tuul River)

After leaving camp, we rode for a while before stopping at a roadside bazaar. (We were asked if we wanted to detour to see a camel. I was ambivalent.) In the end I was glad we went, because, camel aside, the roadside attraction had eagles!

Day 4 - roadside eagles

Day 4 – roadside eagles (L-R black vulture, golden eagle, white tailed eagle, black vulture)

There were a golden eagle (Mongolian hunting bird, approx 8kg), a white-tailed eagle (Mongolian fishing bird, 7kg) and two black vultures (Mongolia’s largest bird, 15 and 20kg respectively). For a modest fee, we could hold the golden eagle — the most beautiful bird, soft feathers. Amazing. (Yes, it was all a bit tacky, and I wasn’t comfortable seeing these glorious raptors tethered on posts at the side of a main road; but how else to get that close?)

Day 4 - Me with a golden eagle. Gorgeous.

Day 4 – Me with a golden eagle. Gorgeous.

The other thing that happened this afternoon involved Ganaa going off in the car with David to “get products for dinner”, leaving Burmaa (our fairly novice guide) leading Ganaa’s horse. Our instructions were to “keep following the road until we catch up”, which we did until we reached a point (a town and a river) at which we had to stop and wait. And wait… And wait.

Day 4 - while waiting, we took photos! This is me with my horse.

Day 4 – while waiting, we took photos! This is me with my horse.

It was a bit uncomfortable, because they’d left Burmaa without a phone and we were waiting for at least half an hour, probably longer. They eventually turned up in the car at around 7 or 8pm, having had their own showers back at Nalaikh. Fortunately our current campsite was nearby. It’s on the side of a hill overlooking the Tuul River, which winds its way through the steps towards UB.

For dinner we had the most delicious thing — a fried noodle dish with spices called tsuiwan. Easily my favourite dish here so far. The sunset tonight was beautiful to match the dawn.

Day 4 - camp above the Tuul River

Day 4 – camp above the Tuul River

As a side note, the steppes are littered with rubbish (broken glass, plastic bags) and bones. We’ve seen many horse skulls and the skulls of other animals, plus severed limbs and heads. In fact, there’s a dead foal on the hillside not too far from our camp. That’s the natural cycle of life, I guess.

In the next post we ford a river and head towards Terelj National Park…

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.

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.

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.

In preparation for the steppes of Mongolia where there be horses

There’s a rumor going around that my next big adventure will be in Mongolia. Horse trekking in Mongolia. On the steppes. The steppes of Mongolia. On horseback. With horses. For two weeks. (And then some.)

Except it isn’t a rumor.

It’s tremendously exciting. The scenery should be amazing, the culture fascinating — and, oh, the adventure!

For me an added bonus is the experiential research a two-week horse trek (with camping, no electricity and no showers — eek) will give me. For someone who writes fantasy with horses, this is going to be the ultimate research expedition.

Of course, there are a few practicalities to consider… Am I an experienced rider? No. I’ve been on a horse several times, maybe as many as ten times in my life, but I definitely consider myself to be inexperienced. (But maybe I’ll have characters with as little experience — right?)

A great many people have looked worried and asked how much riding I’m going to do beforehand. A little, I say. I know I’m going to be sore. It’s all part of the experience.

Having said that, I’m not entirely averse to a little preparation…

So today I went on a two-hour trail ride

Yes, that’s two hours, not two weeks or even two days. And even so, I am a little, er, weary.


The lovely horses at Hepburn Lagoon Trailrides

I rode a beautiful horse called Wilson at Hepburn Lagoon Trailrides, near Ballarat. He liked to be right up the front. He also liked to walk right up snug to the horse that was supposed to be leading. He was a good horse — trotted and cantered when he was supposed to, and most importantly stopped when I asked him to. Good horse.

We had two ‘dramatic’ incidents (almost). First, when he stumbled quite badly and I could have gone over his head. Second, when the horse next to him shied and we got shoved aside rather abruptly. I managed not to fall off both times. Yay me.

This ride was very much a trial run. I am expecting it to reveal which parts of me are going to hurt the most (presently I ache all over with weariness, but there is no real pain… yet). It’s also highlighted a few bits of gear that could be useful — such as riding gloves and elastic straps to keep my sunglasses on.

Over the course of two hours I made some progress with my trotting technique, although it’s still far from mastered, and managed most of the time to hold the reins correctly. But I figure after two weeks, I’ll be a pro!


Wilson scratches his head

When we got back to the yard and dismounted, Wilson scratched his head all over me, which was kind of funny. I choose to think this was his way of saying thank you. (Or maybe good bye and good riddance?)

We had fabulous weather and it made for a spectacular day. The people — both staff and other participants — were lovely and there’s a good chance we’ll return for a longer ride — all part of the preparation.

Meanwhile, I’m sure that tomorrow I will ache.

A-Z of fantasy: H is for Horse

Seems I dropped the ball on my A-Z of Fantasy series… I made it to G and then got distracted. But I think I’ll continue with it at a leisurely pace, because it seems such a shame to leave it there.

So. We’re up to H.


Today… H is for HORSE.

HORSE: A solid-hoofed plant-eating domesticated mammal with a flowing mane and tail, used for riding, racing, and to carry and pull loads.

I know. Horses are a well worn trope of fantasy. But I like them. Unashamedly. I still love fantasy novels with long epic journeys on horseback, and I’m not too demanding of the author when it comes to the finer points of equine management. (Although I make an effort to get such things close to accurate in my own writing.)

Pony on Bodmin Moor (from my recent trip)

Pony on Bodmin Moor (from my recent trip)

I love it when horses get named and have distinct personalities. But it’s not essential. A novel at the forefront of my mind right now (again) is Kate Elliott’s Jaran. It’s technically science fiction, I suppose, but Jaran is the first in a series of novels that explores the impact of technology on a pre-industrial society. As such, it has a distinct fantasy feel, and involves the main characters riding for weeks across an expanse of steppe-like plains. Love it.

But horses are everywhere in fantasy. They’re so prevalent they’ve almost become generic. Well, okay, in many novels they are generic. But they don’t have to be. They can be their own character. (Two years ago, as part of my research for writing about horses I spent the day with a horsey friend of mine. Here’s the post I wrote about that day.)

Other iconic H words in fantasy include:

HERO: a person who is admired for their courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities.

There can’t possibly be any genre with more heroes — archetypal or otherwise — than fantasy. There are far too many to list — although I will cite both Phedre and Joscelin from Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Legacy series as two of my favourites. (I’m working my way through the audio recordings of these just at the moment.)

Look - a hero with a horse!

Look – a hero with a horse!

Then of course there is Aragorn!

HERBS: any plant with leaves, seeds, or flowers used for flavouring, food, medicine, or perfume.

In many fantasy novels, herbs are used widely — and it’s great fun to make up new ones specific to one’s imaginary world. I’d suggest they are most often used for HEALING (or as a drug).

HEIR: a person legally entitled to the property or rank of another on that person’s death.

I cannot count the number of fantasy novels I’ve read involving a secret farm boy/kitchen boy/orphan who turns out to be a lost heir to a kingdom. This is a done-to-death trope, yet one still finds recent examples.

Finally some books and authors (and films):

  • The HOBBIT — The classic Tolkien novel hardly needs explanation, and I am excitedly awaiting the second movie installment out in a couple of weeks!
  • Robin HOBB — I know I bang on about Robin Hobb a lot, but she remains one of my favourite fantasy authors. And just in case you didn’t already know (heh), my favourite series of hers is the Liveship Traders trilogy.
  • HARRY Potter — Should Harry be listed under H or P? Somehow H makes more sense to me. And HERMIONE too. Much loved characters from the wonderful Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling.



That’s all I can think of today. If you can think of any fantasy H words — or books, authors and characters — that ring true for you, feel free to leave a comment! I’m sure there must heaps I haven’t listed.