Steppe into a Unique Culture:  Mongolia

By Jim Sill

I lay in the dry creek bed, stunned.  

Our lead guide called down to me, “Are you OK?”

I stood up slowly, unsteadily; apparently, no broken bones.  “No,” I yelled up at him.  “I’m not OK.  The (flippin’) horse you gave me just bucked me off.  I want another horse.”  It was a rough and painful beginning to my five-day yak trek on horseback in the remote wilderness of Outer Mongolia. 

I chose to visit Mongolia because it is the world’s most unique nomadic culture, centered around horses and herding.  It’s a land rich in history and natural beauty, from the fabled Gobi desert with its dinosaur digs, to steppe valleys and plains that sweep dramatically into hills and mountains. And, friendly, accommodating people are eager to make your visit an unforgettable experience.

My 12-day visit was timed to attend Naadam, Mongolia’s annual July festival featuring its three major competitive sports: archery, wrestling and horse racing.  Naadam translates as “games” in Mongolian, beginning as a 13th century celebration marking the triumphant return of Genghis Khan from his conquests.

While the primary Naadam games are held in Ulaanbaatar (UB), every town and village holds its own.  We visited one such game about an hour’s drive away from UB.  The advantage of the smaller venue is that you can get much closer to the action. 

We walked over to where a horse race was assembling.  About 70-80 riders were lining up, and a crowd of 250 pushed at the rope barricade to get a better look.  Overhead, a blush of dark gray clouds swept across a rapidly disappearing blue sky.  As the first few riders raced forward, a few raindrops started to fall.  More racers took off.  The raindrops got bigger.  Suddenly, 50-60 knot gusts swept in off the steppe, turning the rain heavier, blasting horizontal, and in another instant, into pebble-sized hail.  The crowd bolted.  The riders abandoned the race, stampeding into and through the crowd in a chaotic rush of people and horses.  Amidst the mud, the hail, and the throbbing mob of horses and people, the wind stopped as suddenly as it had started.  In another heartbeat, the sky stood still and cloudless.  

High steppe’n Mongol-style
Supporting the three of us on our yak trek was an English-speaking primary guide, a local trail guide, a cook, three helpers, three yaks/carts and five Mongol horses.  After I got dumped, we trekked through “Lord of the Rings”-style steppe wilderness towards our first camp, where several bottles of local vodka awaited me.

The next day, we visited a family in their ger (yurt).  We were immediately invited in, as is steppe custom.  Hospitality is a big part of Mongol life.  They offered us sweet milk tea, whey cookies, homemade cheese and bread.

We rode for a few more hours, finally crossing a river that was belly-deep for our horses and knee-deep for us.  On a broad expanse of prairie in the distance I could see our next campsite already prepared for us. My replacement horse wanted to run.  So with about a kilometer to go, I leaned forward and loosened the reins.  He ran at a full gallop until we reached the campsite, his stride smooth and sure.  

On the final day, we rode the high steppe around surreal rock outcroppings, moss-covered and Dali-esque in their other-world appearance.  This was our most ambitious ride, about 25 kilometers (15 miles). 

While your horse is strong
The Mongolian people we met were gracious and accommodating.  An incident on our last day was a case in point.  I was admiring some chopper motorcycles when a young man in full biker regalia approached me.  “Are you a member of a club?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said in pretty good English, “the Mongols.”  He explained that he had met his American counterparts when several (American) Mongol bikers showed up in UB one day.  His desire was to ride his Harley on American roads.  When I asked him what his job was, he said he was a television personality who visited various places in Mongolia to sample their cooking: Mongolia’s Anthony Bourdain.  He then hospitably offered me the keys to his motorcycle for a quick spin.  

“While your horse is strong, travel to see places,” is a Mongolian saying.  If your horse is strong, travel to see Mongolia.  It is one of the world’s few remaining geographical treasures waiting to be explored.

Jim Sill is a 32-year resident of Modjeska Canyon.  He likes to travel and has visited some 80 countries.