Touring a new destination on horseback is one of life’s greatest thrills, and Mongolia offers what is arguably the most unique equestrian experience on earth, combined with the opportunity to immerse yourself in an intriguing culture. Although Mongolia is 5,800m above sea level, the Gobi desert was once a sea and is the site of momentous fossil discoveries. Other natural features include steppes, lakes of salt, and the world’s oldest national park. The capital city of Ulan Bator was one of the world’s only nomadic cities.
Horses are inextricably woven into Mongolia’s past, present and future. They carried the great Genghis to victory, and they continue to make nomadic life possible on challenging steppes and beautifully rugged terrain. A full three days of our trip were devoted to riding, but other treks were available during the 12-day tour.
Mongolian tack and riding styles are unlike any other – the very same design used by Genghis Khan in his empire-building conquests. Tack has been adapted in more modern times to make those of us used to Western traditions more comfortable. Our guide’s expert advice helped us to adjust our riding style to these changes; for example working with the animals’ forequarter strength, sitting comfortably in the high-fronted saddles, leaning back to slow down, and even learning to trot from a new perspective!
You’ll feel closer to the ground than you’re used to being, but don’t be fooled by the pony-like appearance of Mongolia’s horses, because they’re tough and determined! They’re treated with the utmost care and respect, and quirks such as referring to them by colour rather than giving each a name belie a deeply ingrained partnership between horse and rider.
The trip itself is also extremely adaptable. Our party included a few beginners and they thoroughly enjoyed their easier trails while the rest of us relaxed after our challenging routes. Vehicles and drivers are also available – along with interpreters and guides, as with the riding trails – so you can do as much or as little as you like. Make sure you take a ride to the spectacular Orkhon Falls with their black volcanic rock background. Spend some time around the campsite where you can help tend the herd, try your hand at cooking traditional mutton or yak dishes, or sample the local drink of fermented mare’s milk, known as airag.
More sights and sounds
As the world’s most sparsely populated country, Mongolia features horses and humans in equal numbers – around three million of each – and vast open spaces. The best time to visit is between May and September, but travel between 10 and 21 July is first prize as you’ll also have a chance to experience the Naadam Festival, a national holiday for which events are held in the capital and further afield, with competition in the three ‘manly games’ of horse racing, archery and Mongolian wrestling. Oh, and the sweat of the winning horse is said to bring happiness, so feel free to join the rush of spectators who dab the horse with cloths that can be placed on their family altar.
Other highlights include the marvellous rock formations of the Hogno Han Park, huge sand dunes, and a ride on one of the region’s camels. Taking in the local culture when back in the capital is well worth the time and features dance, music and singing.
One last bite …
It’s easy to forget little things like eating when you’re constantly amazed and astounded, but when it comes to food, Mongolia offers some fantastic taste experiences. During our unforgettable three-day riding and nomadic jaunt, we enjoyed a traditional Mongolian barbecue. You won’t find this in a restaurant or hotel, and it was absolutely delicious, cooked over hot stones which are then given to guests to hold as a token of good fortune.
Making travel arrangements to somewhere as far-flung as Mongolia can be daunting, but Priority Travel has all the right connections to make the planning and travel easy! The 12-day package was exceptional value at R45,000, including flights from Johannesburg, accommodation, horse riding and that camel ride! It also provided two nights in Beijing and a full-day tour of Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and the Great Wall!
Text: Francois Swart, Priority Travel
The full article appears in the April issue (98) of HQ.