‘This is your horse,’ says Hishgay, the Mongolian groom and guide. ‘His name is SlowGo. He’s a very good horse for beginners, very quiet.’
He’s holding a small bay pony with black tipped ears and a short black mane that’s as thick and prickly as the bristles of a broom. As Hishgay speaks, the horse is shaking its head up and down ferociously, skittering from side to side and twitching all over.
I look at Hishgay horrified but he just smiles, holds the rein tighter and gestures at me to get on. In a daze I put one foot in the stirrup and swing myself over. The horse stops moving for a second then starts snorting and throwing his head with renewed vengeance. Hishgay throws the reins over SlowGo’s head and leaves me to it. ‘Take him for a walk; he doesn’t like the flies,’ he says over his shoulder as he goes to saddle his own horse.
I’m sitting there stunned, doing my best to remember how to hold the reins and sit in a saddle and desperately dredging out memories from the last time I sat on a horse, some 25 years ago.
‘Hishgay, I’ve changed my mind, I want to get off,’ I manage to squeak, desperate with fear.
Hishgay, who can be selectively deaf, ignores me and SlowGo takes matters into his own hands by dancing off to the left and then walking away up the hill. Dear God, why am I doing this, I think to myself.
It all seemed like a good idea some six weeks ago when, with the nonchalance of distance and time, I booked a three day horse trek in Mongolia. What better way to see the country that taught the world how to ride than from the back of a horse, I thought as I pressed the ‘buy’ button on the SteppeRiders website.
I only started to get nervous two days ago when I arrived in Ulaan Batar, the Mongolian capital (a city home to some 1.5million people that feels more like Eastern Europe than Asia with its Soviet architecture, row upon row of pubs and bars, Western dressed inhabitants and a nice line in petty crime and pick pocketing). It was there that I began doing some late, ill advised research, which revealed that Mongolian horses, unlike their European counterparts, are still half wild. They’re left to roam as part of a herd all winter and in the summer are only occasionally rounded up and ridden. They barely tolerate riders but as Mongolians learn how to ride at the same time as they learn how to walk, it usually doesn’t matter. But put a Gringo on their back and it’s a different story, as SlowGo is proving at this very moment.
Last night when I arrived at the camp, the country was captivating in its beauty, with one grassy hill rolling into another, seemingly infinitum into the blue grey horizon and herds of horses grazing contentedly in the evening sun. I slept in a Ger (the tents that Mongolian nomads use when they follow their animals across the steppes).
When I woke this morning it was to see Hishgay riding across the hill, herding the horses into a corral and choosing our horses for the trek. It seemed idyllic, very Mongolian and so far removed from my experience that it was inconceivable I was about to take part in this lifestyle.
But here I am, sitting on a horse that’s bouncing and snorting and heading off up the mountainside. A few moments later Hishgay rides up effortlessly beside me and we’re away. The first two hours pass in a daze. I’m so scared that I can’t see the mountains and the grasslands that we’re riding over. I just concentrate on holding the reins, clinging to the saddle and trying to ignore the pain in my knees that starts within 5 minutes of climbing on.
Eventually I begin to regain my senses. I look around at the pale green hills and grasslands that we’re riding over. I can smell the wild thyme and mint that SlowGo crushes beneath his hooves (a scent that I’m sure will remind me of the Mongolian steppes for the rest of my life) and I can hear the deep silence of the plains, the only sound the horses breathing and snorting and the wind rustling over the grass. In the distance are herds of goats and horses and the green grasslands are occasionally punctuated by a white domed Ger.
We ride for almost seven hours the first day, pausing only to cook noodle soup for lunch in the middle of a grassy plain with not a tree or bush or inch of shade in sight. The sun is high and the sky and temperatures are close to 40C.
This part of Mongolia looks very green but it most resembles a desert: there is little water (no rivers or lakes only the occasional well) and no trees or other vegetation. Mongolian horses prove to be hardy and reliable. They water once a day, eat only the grass they can find but manage to climb steep inclines and trot along the occasional flat. As the heat builds the horses plod more slowly and some hours later I find myself voluntarily kicking SlowGo into a half hearted trot to speed things up.
It is late afternoon by the time we spy our first campsite – a small (and rare) pine forest in a valley between two mountains. We ride the horses into the edge of the forest, thankful for the shady respite the trees offer and dismount. My knees are aching so badly that my legs almost crumble beneath me when I try to stand. I fall in a tired heap in the shade while Hishgay unloads the horses, hobbles them and lets them graze. We set up the tent together then I wash the sweat and dust of the day’s ride away as best as I can with a couple of wet wipes while he cooks dinner (rice and vegetables: Mongolian food is plain and pretty bad). We eat in an easy silence. There’s not another person in sight. The forest is peaceful and the sun filters softly through the trees.
Once the sun sets there’s nothing to do except sleep and I’m grateful for it. Mentally and physically exhausted, it’s all I can do to crawl into the tent and drag off my trousers before I fall into a deep and dreamless sleep. Hishgay sleeps outside, keeping an eye on the horses. He has a heavy traditional coat that he wraps around himself and pillows his head on a saddle.
Living nomadically in Mongolia is a lesson in reduction. There is no running water. We wash at the wells, throwing a handful of water in our faces or over our heads. We’re limited to the water and food we can carry; around 2litres a day for drinking, a little less for cooking and cleaning. There’s a weight limit on our packs too, which means a change of t-shirt and underwear is as far as it goes when it comes to clean clothes. My tent and sleeping bag are the only concession to the west.
When I wake the next day my muscles ache but I’m relaxed and calm. SlowGo looks tranquil in the early morning light and I’m looking forward to the day’s ride. We head up to a monastery, then down again across the plains and back onto the hilly grasslands, where we stop for lunch with a local family.
We sit in their Ger, which is about 4m in diameter. There are single beds on each side of the door and a wood burning oven in the centre. At the rear of the tent is a small shrine with some religious artefacts and a picture of horses at play. Meat hangs from the rafters, drying for winter. There’s a small tv in one corner, powered, Hishgay tells me, by a solar panel. We eat barbecued mutton and drink Arak (fermented mare’s milk that tastes like buttermilk and has a small alcohol content).
I sip it first, then take a big gulp. Hishgay eyes widen. ‘Just a small sip,’ he says nervously. ‘Otherwise maybe you fall from the horse this afternoon.’
Personally I always find my confidence improves after a beer or two so I surreptitiously finish it off and, sure enough that afternoon as we take our first canter over the hills and through the valleys of the grassland I’m finally beginning to channel my inner Genghis Khan.
That night we pitch my tent in a small valley. The grass is green underfoot, herbs lay their scent around us. A herd of horses roam by and, just as we eat dinner, a herd of goats peers nervously at us across the hill top opposite. Silhouetted against the fading light and the pink grey of the sky, they look like an army about to ambush. The sun is setting and it is unbelievably peaceful.
There’s not a sound to be heard. I lie on the grass and look at the sky, which runs far and wide above me. It’s like lying on a shallow green saucer with a deep pale blue bowl cupped above you. After a while I experience a kind of vertigo, falling into the darkening sky and have to prop myself up on my elbows to reconnect with the earth again. As the moon rises I wrap myself in my sleeping bag and only wake when the tent blows over on top of me.
It’s 1am. A storm has blow up and though we try, the heavy wind means we can’t right the tent again. I drag out my sleeping bag and Hishgay lies the horse blankets down as a base for me. I lie awake in the growing storm, praying that rain holds off. Eventually the wind eases and I sleep. When I wake there’s a pale line of light on the horizon and morning of our final day dawns pleasantly cool.
We only have a short two hour ride back to camp so Hishgay takes the chance to show me his horsemanship, riding SlowGo at a gallop and leaning over to pick up my riding helmet from the ground as he passes. Like many Mongolian’s he’s been riding since he was a small child and the communion between man and horse seems effortless; the two are barely distinct beings.
As for me, well although I’ve become quite fond of SlowGo and am happy enough to saddle him up and ride away, I don’t think I’ll ever become a real rider. I’m wary rather than relaxed and, when we arrive at camp and I step down for the last time, what I mostly feel is a sense of relief.
But it’s relief mingled with pride and with awe: pride at having survived the ride and awe at the beauty and isolation and solitary splendour of the Mongolian steppes.