My apologies for the complete lack of posts over the last few months years… as you may or may not know, we’ve landed back in the states and have been settling back into life in the US of A. But you’re probably wondering how we ever made it out of Mongolia…
Our last evening at the gar was a special one, as the goats were being milked Erbolot started pulling one of the larger males out of the heard by his horns and almost instinctively “Bruce” knew what was up. 15 minutes later “Bruce” was hanging over the stove smoking, his hide was tanning outside, and his head and hooves were sitting by the door of the gar. It was amazing how quickly and efficiently everyone in the family executed their jobs of dispatching and using every part of “Bruce.”
The next morning after saying by to the family; Liz, Erbolot and I headed out onto the Mongolian steppe on horses while our driver put a few chunks of “Bruce” in the van and drove to our next camp.
Over the next 5 days we spent half the day riding and the other half enjoying the beautiful surroundings and some pretty amazing sunsets.
Liz enjoyed every minute on horseback as we crossed fields and streams.
We explored petroglyphs high on a hillside.
We tried to make friends with some 2 hump Bactrian Camels. But they weren’t having any of it.
We camped out under the stars and enjoyed some wonderful fresh caught trout shared with us by some locals and ate plenty of Bruce.
In true Mongolian fashion, we had beautify blue skies and some pretty ridiculous weather. One afternoon we had our cook tent blow down in the wind and unfortunately our day hike to the highest point in Mongolia, Khuiten Uul Base Camp, was a bit anticlimactic in the rain.
View of the highest point in Mongolia.
We also enjoyed one last bottle of wine given to us by our good friends Gavin and Becky to celebrate the conclusion of our trip. They sent us off on our journey with an amazing bottle of wine that we enjoyed in Nepal; So it was extremely special to enjoy another outstanding vintage from such a remote vantage.
And before we knew it our time was up and we were rattling through fields back to Ölgii.
Upon arrive back in Ölgii our first order of business was to get a plane ticket back to the capital. We had heard plenty of horror stories of the bus ride from Ölgii to Ulaanbaatar and we were willing to do just about anything to avoid that… anything except spend 2 more weeks in the thriving metropolis of Ölgii, Mongolia.
Apparently August is back to school time, which means every kid in the country is making their way to school … in Ulaanbaatar. Those with means fly and those without take the bus. And with only one airline in the country and only one flight every other day from Ölgii to Ulaanbaatar we were looking at at least 2 weeks before we could get a seat. Any seat!
So, looks like we’re taking the bus. We asked around about how long it should take to get to UB on the bus, “Two to Five Days.” DAYS. DAYS! They are measuring the time in DAYS!
We give up on the plane plan and go to where the buses leave from and start asking prices. It’s basically the same price for a mini bus (11 passenger van) or the big bus, and when they showed us which seats were available on the big bus (for gringo like us) we opted for the mini bus. Hindsight that might have been a mistake, but I have absolutely no plans of ever finding out if the big bus is any better. I think you see where this is going …
Clearly it was their marketing that sold us.
We make a deal with a minibus guy and he says that we’ll be leaving at 1:30pm Mongolian time. “Great!” we’ve got plenty of time to get some lunch and get back. So we leave our big bags and go around the corner to grab some lunch. We make our way back at 1:25 to see the last bus pulling out of the parking lot…
WHERE DID OUR BUS GO? WHAT HAPPENED TO MONGOLIAN TIME? Where are our bags?
Luckily, a guy in a Toyota, who kind of speaks english, says he’s been waiting for us and to hurry up… we jump in and then make a number of stops at various alley’s picking people up and dropping people off. Even switching drivers at one point. We have absolutely no idea what’s going on but Toyota guy is insisting, in broken English of course, that he’s taking us to the bus with our bags. #Trust
Mongolian bus stop
By 1:45 we’re at what seems to be at a combination minibus mechanic/corrugated aluminum sheeting company/family home where the minibus we made the deal with is as well as 4 high school age kids. We arrive as they are wrapping everything up in a trap on the roof where we’re told our bags are. The Toyota guy takes off and we proceed to wait thinking we’re leaving any minute and how lucky we are that it’s just us and some high school kids… plenty of room. You see where this is going …
Three more trips from the Toyota guy later and it’s now a quarter to 4 and we’ve got our 11 passengers. As we start getting in the van we’re told we need to sit in the back. Oh, no. We know this routine. We’re sitting right here in this middle row, we got here first. After a little back and forth they realize this isn’t our first rodeo and give in.
By the time we leave town we’ve made 2 more stops and we are comfortably sitting 5 wide on a 3-person seat with 17 people in an 11-passenger van looking at over 1000 miles of open fields between us and Ulaanbaatar.
Through multiple breakdowns.
Desperados waiting for a mini bus.
Just trying to make friends during a breakdown.
Being towed across a river by a tractor.
Getting towed across the river.
And through the nightly karaoke party that seemed to break out at dusk every night.
For FIFTY. SIX. HOURS.
I guess we’re lucky it didn’t take the full 5 days!
The next morning we meet our driver/guide/”translator” and set out in our awesome Russia van on our private tour. Our tour was going to be a bit different than the typical tour, since it was just Liz, the driver and myself, and we were between typical tourist seasons. The plan was that everything was going to be done communally, setting up camp, cooking, etc. That sounded great to us. We were excited that we’d probably get to do somethings we wouldn’t have on our own and overall just thankful that we weren’t starving to death in the rain walking back to civilization without any horses.
As we made our way toward Tavan Bodg National Park we got to experience another first… Russian Van Races. Out here there is nothing paved, roads are more like tracks through a field and are completely optional. Passing is done whenever, wherever and why ever. And they drive FAST! I mean REALLY FAST. Especially if the drivers know each other… and there is some pride on the line. With a bit lost in translation it seemed that the loser provided beer at the next stopping point.
Once in the park we stopped to visit and Eagle hunter. No. No. Not someone who hunts eagles, but someone who hunts with eagles. It’s basically the traditional Mongolian version of falconry. It was pretty cool. From there it was on to meet the family we’d be staying with for the next few days.
We pulled up to 2 gers with 6 or 7 kids running around and about 500 goats. We were quickly greeted by the kids, our host Erbolot and his wife. They invited us in and promptly offered us tea and an assortment of cheeses. We’d be staying in their ger and experiencing ger life for the next few days before Erbolot escorted us on a 5 day horseback ride around Khoton Lake.
From the outside gers are pretty nondescript and all look exactly the same; big round white tents. But on the inside they are absolutely beautiful. Decorated with brightly colored handmade wall coverings. There is a warm stove burning in the evenings and no shortage of dairy products. Liz and I quickly settled in to ger life, milking the goats, eating cheese, playing with kids, and experience the dominant culture in western Mongolia, Kazakh (From Kazakhstan). Oh, and zero English.. It was a great opportunity to practice our Kazakh language skills… which consisted of one word “Рахмет!” which means thank you and is pronounced Rax-met! With a deep guttural hack for the “Rrrrackmet!” They always laughed when I said it but I think they got the idea.
Cheese… It’s what’s for dinner!
Goat’s make great wind blocks.
A boy and his goat.
Over the next few days Erbolot and our driver took us to visit waterfalls and other ger families and to some of the regional historical sites. Which, our driver who didn’t really speak much English at all, explained to us as “dead people.”
Ger life moves pretty slowly on steppe … even after almost a year of travel and being out of the corporate rat race, coming to grips with South American siesta, and being OK with only accomplishing maybe one thing for the day, it felt slow. Glacial would be a good way to describe it but it was really nice to relax and just enjoy the wide-open spaces.
Liz and I got fairly proficient at the evening activity.
First my specialty; Goat Roping. First you gotta get the mama goats on a rope to be milked. Some come running; others have to be dragged across the steppe by their horns.
Then came Liz’s expertise; The milking. After a quick tutorial (broken English) she was alternating in with the rest of the ger girls and filing buckets. The oldest daughter (who was learning English in school) was so impressed she asked Liz “How many goats do you have?” … thinking back on it we’re not so sure that wasn’t a joke.
And finally once all the mama goats have been milked and removed from the rope it’s time for that last step and most important step; letting the babies out of the pin.
Shortly into our horseback adventure, we began to discover a few fatal flaws.
First, we started noticing that the information we had gotten on where to ride, how to get there, where there was grass and water, was not really accurate. It seems that while our new friend had been trying to be helpful, she had ABSOLUTELY no idea what she was talking about.
To add to the uncertainty, the weather turned on us. Mongolia, land of blue skies, did not have blue skies for us. It was cold and rainy as we packed up our camp and head with our horses into a big storm with horizontal rain blowing in our faces. But we were continuing on.
The saddle for our packhorse, Pokhara, was barely holding together and so bags kept falling off or shifting badly. Rick got off his horse, Kajo, to readjust the packs for the 5th or 6th time. Pokhara was tied to the saddle on Rick’s horse (hint, this was a bad idea!), and I was holding Kajo’s reins from atop my horse while Rick made adjustments. So the two horses were standing in front my horse, Valpo.
… And then disaster struck.
What really did us in was a combination of tack failures.
Something spooked Kajo and he jumped to one side of my horse, and Pokhara jumped to the other. I told Rick to grab Kajo’s reins to get better control of him than I could have from on top of my horse. When Rick pulled Kajo pulled back and his bridle snapped off completely!! Which totally freaked him out, so he starts bucking.
But Kajo and Pokhara are still tied together, on either side of me and my horse. And now the rope is coming at my horse’s head, he ducks it, but it’s about to clothesline me – with two spooked bucking horses on either end. Right then, Valpo rears up. I roll off his back and hit the ground – all I see around me are flying hooves of three bucking, rearing horses. I curl up in a ball and cover my head, and as soon as I see a break I jump up and out of the way.
At this point, one of the saddles has broken and now hangs under one of the horses, one horse doesn’t have a bridle, and all three are running away.
Keep in mind there are no fences, no buildings, nothing to stop them – just wide-open hills. We know we can’t chase them down – so I grab our most important items that were in the saddle bag that fell off when valpo reared and Rick starts walking in the direction they are running, just hoping to keep a visual on them.
As we’re watching we see Pokhara, our packhorse, bucking and throwing off EVERY. SINGLE. BIT. of supplies we have for this 21-day journey. I mean pasta bags exploding as they hit the ground, fuel canisters bouncing off rocks. It looked like an air strike being delivered via horseback. Did I mention it was pouring down rain? They kept their bucking sprint for every bit of a mile, before start slowing down; no doubt due the fact they they no-longer had any of our gear strapped to them. And luckily as he’s walking after the horses Rick come across a ger camp (the traditional nomadic family homes) and a guy comes out and asks, in English, what are you doing wandering around in the rain covered in mud. Rick tells him the short version of what just happened, and the guy tells him to come in his ger and dry off, he’ll send his sons to get our horses. Rick says he’s going to go back and get me and bring me to the ger.
After a few minutes to warm up and get our wits about us we go to salvage what we can of our supplies – there’s really nothing left. The stove is ruined, our food is scattered across a half-mile stretch of mud and rock. We’re down a saddle and a half a bridle, and one of our horses seems a bit injured. We realized that there was no way we could continue on at this point, without somehow getting back to Ölgii and starting all over finding tack, supplies and possibly another horse; did I mention how much trouble it was to find tack in Ölgii the first time?
Our new friend comes back and tells us that just yesterday he had taken down all but one of his guest gers, but something told him to leave it up a couple more days – and we’re welcome to stay in it. He also tells us that he is just starting a tour company that goes out to Tavan Bodg National Park, where we were planning to ride to. And as quicker then we could say yes, he’s got his sons bringing in cots and bedding and a stove and table and chairs. There is a fire going and hot Mongolian Tea!
We replayed what had just happened over and over trying to piece together what exactly went wrong as we changed into dry clothes. We came to the conclusion that what really did us in was a combination of tack failures and some bad information.
As we were finishing our inventory of what was left (it didn’t take long) our new friend came in and talked with us. He asked up what our plan was (we must have seemed like some crazy gringos). After hearing us out he offers us a ten-day private trip out to the park, where we would stay with a family there, then horseback ride and camp – we’d have a van for all our food and stuff, we wouldn’t have to worry about horse thieves, we’d still get to ride across the steppe – and he would do it all in exchange for our three horses.
While we were totally bummed not to be doing it on our own, it felt a little like it was our only real option at this point. And we felt so blessed that God had allowed our little disaster to happen right at the backdoor (at least in Mongolian terms), of someone who could help us and take us on a tour.
So we said sad goodbyes to our horse and ended our independent horse trek a bit earlier than planned, but without injury and still with a great sense of accomplishment and a lot of lessons learned.
Walking out of the Ölgii “airport” a feeling of remoteness came over us that we hadn’t experienced, even with the places we’d been so far on this trip. Outside of the small parking lot, it was just nothingness. And unfortunately not the lush, green, grassy hills of nothingness we’d hoped for.
The next day we found a name and phone number of tour guide that we thought might be able to help us with our dream of buying horses in Mongolia and riding across the steppe. We called and were told they would meet us in thirty minutes. This was our introduction to Nazca, and how things get done in Mongolia.
We expected her, being in the business of organizing and selling tours, to try to sell us on a tour, instead of buying our own horses and riding by ourselves. But as soon as we told her what we wanted to do, she said, “OK. I’ll call some people. Can you come to my place later?”
We were shocked, didn’t she need more information about what we wanted? Didn’t we need to figure out where we were going? Well we assumed she was just going to get some information, maybe feel things out with people we could talk to about horses.
We headed off to the The Black Market of Ölgii to check out what kind of tack and supplies they had …
It was nothing like the other market, there was virtually nothing. Even once it was open and full swing it wasn’t anything close to the UlaanBataar Black Market … unless, of course, you need some pots and pans or kids clothes or something like that.
We knew we were in trouble.
By noon, we got a call from Nazca, in broken English, to come to her place. As soon as we walked into her ger camp, a man left to retrieve three horses – what the?!? HORSES?! This is happening … We’re buying horses in Mongolia! We aren’t ready for this! We thought she was just going to talk with us more about where we could ride, how to go about getting supplies, maybe try and sell us on a tour … no, she had gotten horses. Things were happening so fast around here!
I examined the horses, they looked really healthy. I hopped on the first one, trotted him out of the gate, cantered down the road – he rode great. And it was the same with the next two. We had been told that it was hard for foreigners to find good mounts to buy in Mongolia – locals would only sell them their worst horses that were old, malnourished or way too wild. We decided it was too good of an opportunity to pass up, so we started negotiating with the family, and settled on a good price – ₮3,000,000 Mongolian Tugrik (about $1,500 US). But we had a problem, we still didn’t have any saddles, or supplies, or hobbles, or bridles, or really any idea exactly where we’re going … and we were staying in a hotel … and that hotel doesn’t really accommodate horses! We got them to agree to keep them for one more day and we could pick them up tomorrow.
For the next 24 hours I think I ecstatically yelled “OH MY GOSH!!! WE OWN HORSES!!!!!” about every five minutes! It’s impossible to capture here in writing how thrilled I was, but ask Rick sometime and he’ll recount the ridiculousness.
They were beautiful bays; we posted the pic on Facebook and asked for name suggestions. A couple people suggested naming them after some of our favorite places we’d been, and a couple more reminded us that you have to see their personalities before you name them.
We spent the rest of the day and most of the next morning gathering what tack we could find, buying a 3 week supply of food and with Nazca’s help, plotting our trek out on an old Soviet era Russian map.
When we picked them up we started to see their personalities. I knew as soon as I met him that I would be riding the stallion. They said he was the most difficult and spirited, so he was out for being a packhorse or Rick’s horse (sorry “Prude Dude!”). He was also the most beautiful, so I was thrilled. He was noble, and gorgeous, and freaked out at every little thing … I mean every little thing, if we rode past a green beer bottle, over a bridge, by a strangely shaped rock, he spooked. My favorite was when he spooked as we rode past a pile of cow poop. He was named after one of our favorite Chilean cities, Valparaiso and I called him Valpo for short, as they do in the city.
Our packhorse got the name Pokhara. It was one of the first towns on our trip. It’s in Nepal and a super chill, calm place. Pokhara was our calmest horse and it seemed to suit him. I remember the first day we were in Pokhara, Nepal, a guy at our guesthouse who had been there for three months, emphatically told us, “Don’t get sucked in!!” – he had only planned to be there for a week. It was an easy place to want to stay forever.
And finally, Rick’s horse. He was steady and reliable when you were riding, but seemed to have a bit of a split personality when you weren’t. He was the most affectionate of the three, but then sometimes he wanted nothing to do with what you wanted him to do and would be a total pain. We thought about places we’d loved that were difficult sometimes, but close to our heart and we know Kajo Keji was the perfect fit for him. Kajo Keji is in South Sudan, where we worked with Seed Effect. It was a hard place in a lot of ways, but some of our favorite moments from the trip happened there. We called him Kajo or KK a lot.
We struggled to find saddles, bridles, hobbles and gear. And unfortunately got stuck buying stuff that was broken or barely working. It wasn’t ideal, but the next day we saddled up our mounts and headed out for our adventure.
The Black Market in Ulaanbataar is a leftover from the Soviet era in Mongolia, when it was Communist and all shopping and markets were controlled by the government. The Black Market was an illegal market where individuals went to sell their goods. Now it’s huge, and legal, but the name hasn’t changed. And you can literally find ANYTHING you could possibly want there.
We went specifically to buy riding boots for me. We also wanted to check out their tack selection, but planned to buy our saddles in Olgii, the city we would fly into to begin our horse adventure.
It was overwhelming, but we finally made our way to the tack section and were blow away by how beautiful the saddles were!
… and how strange they were. I guess I understand now why we saw all of the riders standing up when they did anything faster than a walk. I also quickly realized that I would NOT be riding for multiple weeks in a Mongolian saddle. Not gonna happen. Hope they have other options in Olgii. We learned that most likely there would be Kazak saddles in Olgii, since the population there in Western Mongolia is all Kazakh.
Then we found our way to the boot section of the market. There were dozens of vendors and thousands of boots! I immediately fell in love with the traditional Mongolian boots – they are so unique! But they wouldn’t be my riding boots. Fortunately, the prices were lower than we expected, so Rick agreed to let me get two pairs, one for riding and one for wearing back home.
Before we left, we found an amazing section of antiques and traditional items. We haven’t been able to buy really any souvenirs on this trip because we couldn’t carry them. But since Mongolia was our last stop (besides a few days in Korea), we let ourselves stock up. It was also some of the coolest items we’ve seen, in that they were all authentic (not stuff made for tourists to buy) and really interesting. We ended up with a variety of items from a royal family’s turquoise jewelry to a beautiful heirloom snuff bottle, a singing bowl to traditional bronze bells. And of course, my beautiful Mongolian boots!
Getting to mingle with Mongolians going about their day-to-day business and seeing the incredible goods was a highlight of Ulaanbataar for us.
Since before we were even planning our big trip, we had this crazy idea that we wanted to go to Mongolia, the land of blue skies, horses and nomads, buy horses and ride across the steppe. So while in South America, we got an itch to end our trip with something big and adventurous – and Mongolia sounded like just the thing. So thanks to an amazing friend who helped us out with discounted flight tickets, were able to go.
We arrived in the capitol, Ulanbataar, from Beijing in the middle of the night and had fortunately booked a hostel already. We groggily woke up the next morning with plans to figure out what the heck we were doing (which part of the huge country we wanted to go horsetrekking in, how to get there, how to buy horses and tack) – but immediately got sidetracked by a flyer hanging in the hostel that offered a ride to the last Nadaam Festival of the year – Today! We asked when they were leaving and the answer was right now, so we hopped in an old Russian jeep and were on our way before we knew what happened.
A few minutes outside of the city, we were quickly driving through expanses of rolling green hills as far as you could see, no fences, no buildings, nothing. We knew we’re arriving at the festival when we started seeing Gers (traditional nomadic tent-homes, like yurts) and herds of horses. There were thousands of people there.
We started our day at the archery competition, one of “The Three Manly Sports”, which is what Nadaam is all about. The traditional dress is amazing and beautiful. And the skill of the archers blew us away! Even more so when we got to try our hand at it ourselves – it was tough! And we were using a little kid bow.
Next up we went to see some traditional Mongolian wrestling. Which involves quite interesting costumes!
I loved how there were horses everywhere! The people are incredibly skilled riders – standing up in the saddle, texting and galloping at the same time. We grabbed a seat in some bleachers next to where the horses were parked.
The final event we went to see was horse racing. The races are long distance – 25 kilometers – and are designed as a straightaway with no turns. That’s because the riders are little kids from 4-9 years old, and it’s safer if the kids don’t have to turn the horses. Basically the kid is just there to whip the horse and make it go fast. They use kids because they’re so lightweight, and they use virtually no saddle. We grabbed a seat in the grass when the horses and riders started heading out, thinking the race would start soon… but two hours later we hadn’t yet seen the telltale cloud of dust. That’s what you look for, a big cloud of dust in the distance. The riders have to trot the horses about 20 kilometers out from where you first see them and then turn around and start racing. We were so excited when we finally saw the cloud of dust, and it was over just minutes later.
We finished our day off with some fermented yak milk and evading the traffic jam leaving the festival, by heading for the hills. Our driver saw the traffic, busted a u-turn and drove right off the road. We just started flying through the grass, over creeks and rocks, and we made it back to the hostel in no time.