Living Like a Mongol: The Journey Rides On

For part one click here

We arrived at our first ger site of the five we would be staying at during our trip, and were greeted with bowls of noodles, cabbage and potato. The meat eaters had mutton. This would be the first of many meals of mutton and potatoes for us travelers. We would be sleeping in traditional gers (or yurts as they are also referred to) with the nomadic families, and we would be living like them for the duration of the tour. This included meals, sleeping arrangements, very little to no electricity, and bathing. The ger camps were set up near rivers so they were close to a water source. The day had been muggy so we set off to wash it away. Alex and I tiptoed into the freezing water but could only manage to wade in it for about 5 minutes before we felt our blood turning to icicles.

Our living quarters: inside the ger. Photo Alex Smith

After bathing Oyuna suggested we take a ‘20 minute’ walk up a hill that was near the camp. However, we forgot about the whole ‘Mongolian time’ concept so half an hour later Alex and I sat wilting on the side of an almost 90 degree slope in the steamy Mongolian sun, not even at the top, wondering if we could get heli-lifted down.

Later that evening, after our dinner of mutton, rice and potato, Oyuna ignited a campfire and we sat around its cloak of warmth. The nights were as chilly as the days were steamy. Cowboy Scott and Alex had both brought Chinggis vodka with them for the trip so they started their nightly ritual of throwing back a few of those of an afternoon/evening. Scott had a silver cup which seemed to follow him around like a knight with his trusty sword. Every beverage had to be drunk from this cup. I’m pretty positive he never washed it, unless washing it out with vodka counted.

The following day was the day of the big horse ride, and I’m not talking about the Melbourne Cup. Yep, it was the 24km horse trek. Or to be more apt, my worst nightmare. The horsemen arrived with the beasts and I eyed them off, looking for the lamest horse of the pack. Mine seemed quite chilled and I was actually not too terrified as I was led off into the barren landscape by my leather-faced Mongolian guide. The horses were so relaxed in fact that mid walk up a hill Philip’s simply sank down on it’s legs to lay down, with Philip still seated on top.

1st day of horse riding. I’m in the front calmly talking to my horse. Photo: Alex Smith

After our first stop, my guide decreed me fit to ride alone. I found this out when he rode off and I was left with no choice but to make the horse move by myself. It was a break up I certainly wasn’t expecting. I wanted to yell at him ‘don’t leave me! I’ll be better, I know I can make this work!’. However, I decided to take it in my stride, or my horse’s stride to be more accurate, and focus on staying alive.

Everyone else seemed quite comfortable on their horses, I mean Philip even had a nap with his. Alex was riding like a pro but being 6″8′, the horse probably thought better than to try to take on the mighty giant. The Mongolian word for ‘giddy-up’ is ‘chu’, and the others would authoritatively yell at their horses ‘chu chu’ to get them to move whilst I would say it in a sing-song voice to illustrate to my horse that though I would like it to keep moving, there was no need to go crazy and rush. It was like there was an excitable little man in a jockey outfit jumping up and down on my shoulder yelling in my ear ‘control the beast! He’s just dying to buck you off!’. For some reason he was Irish, and I believed him.

The ride was mountainous and rocky in parts but my well-behaved horse helped to keep my uneasiness at bay. The only minor hiccup occurred when it appeared we had lost half our party, and Alex, I, Michael, Jillian, Tyler, Kathleen, Miriam and Lena were left with two Mongolian guides that couldn’t speak English. We took refuge at a deserted horse shelter whilst one of the guides rode off to investigate. There was very little shade under the crumbling wooden frames of the shed, and as the sun beat down on us, forming beads of sweat and anxiety, I decided that this might be the end for us. I surveyed our water supply, shared a muesli bar with Alex to keep our energy levels up, and eyed off the rest of the group wondering who I would eat first…

However, there was no need to start weighing up my fellow travelers body fat ratios as within half an hour we were back on horseback. The others didn’t rejoin our party but I guess Mongolia is a harsh land… Eventually we arrived at our new camp and were surprised to be greeted by Oyuna, Scott and Philip. Turns out they had taken a longer route with flatter terrain, and somehow poor Philip had been caught up with the horse riding pros, and been forced to gallop to keep up. I have intel from a good source (Philip) that whilst he quite enjoyed the adventure, his backside was not overly appreciative. However, soon he would not be alone in this as slowly we all fell prey to the infliction I shall call ouchy horse butt.

Bathing in the river. Photo: Alex Smith

After a refreshing swim in an ice-cold river, a good crack at milking a cow (harder than you would think), and a hearty dinner of mutton and potato the majority of the group retired early, ready to wake for another day of bum intensive horse riding.

When the new group of horses arrived the next morning I lamented my lovely calm horse from yesterday. Once I was astride, my new beast friend wandered off and wouldn’t stop regardless of how much I pulled at the reins. Being a total horse wuss, I asked one of the guides to lead me. He looked at me like I was the most incompetent person in the world and I shrugged my shoulders in a ‘eh, what can you do’ kind of way. However the horse guide was about 12, and didn’t speak English so we will never really know what he was actually thinking.

Ready to set off on our second day of horse riding

We took this journey at a slower pace than yesterday, and it was a much shorter distance. Soon I could see our new camp site in the distance, and my shoulders sank into my back in relief. However it was at this point that Michael’s horse flew out of the pack, and started to gallop like a lightening bolt towards the camp. Michael tried to stay atop but lost his balance as the horse made him sway with its uneven footing, and he fell off.

Concern filtered back through the group as we continued to make our way towards Michael’s motionless frame. When we reached him we were grateful to see his legs moving. It soon became obvious that he had injured his collarbone. After relocating Michael to a ger to lay down, arrangements were made for him to be taken to hospital. We were all very sad to see Sarah and Michael be driven off by a white land cruiser several hours later. Sarah had remained completely calm and in control during the whole ordeal, and in true Aussie style, the last thing Michael did before he left was try to give Alex his remaining beer from his backpack. Beer was scarce in the Mongolian countryside.

Alex attempting to take down a 15-year-old at Mongolian wrestling

After Sarah and Michael departed everyone seemed at a bit of a loss, and possibly still in shock so we wandered off to the river to bathe, sun-bake on the bank, and regroup. By the time we returned to the camp Oyuna had organised for us to view some locals perform Mongolian wrestling. One of the wrestlers was only 15 years old. Oyuna encouraged the menfolk from our group to have a go, and Alex, Scott and Philip all gave it a whirl, and were taken down with gusto by this kid. It was very entertaining watching three grown men take on this 15-year-old, who fair play to the guys, was a big teen. At one point Alex even picked him up but the kid was too good. I guess the rule of thumb is: leave the Mongolian wrestling to the Mongolians.

Jillian giving archery a whirl with Scott coaching. Photo: Alex Smith

It was a pretty action packed evening, and soon after the wrestling we were taught how to shoot a bow and arrow, Mongolian style, by the superstar wrestling kid, who then followed this up by playing us music on a traditional Mongolian instrument called a morin khuur or horse head fiddle. He also accompanied this with throat singing. This kid was the Mongolian equivalent of the triple threat. If only there was a Mongolian Idol.

Superstar kid entertaining us with a horse head fiddle

Once the evening wound up, Alex and I took some sleeping bags outside to stare up at the night sky. The sky was clear for the first time on the trip, and as we laid there little bites of light began to pop out at us, and create a magical ceiling of luminosity. It had been a full on day, and this was the perfect end: me, my giant, and the universe.

For part three click here

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