Friday, June 20, 2014

Horse riding on the Mongolian steppe

The last time I attempted a ride like this was the first time I'd been on a horse. Three years ago on a two-week ride through Cappadocia, Turkey, we rode alternate days and rested in between. On this ride—two weeks in Mongolia, and my second time on a horse—we are riding every day.

Horse riding uses muscles in your legs which you don't seem to use for any other purpose. You have to clamp onto the horse with your inner thighs, turning your toes out and your heels down.

I am in a small group of five riders—two friends I met on the Turkey ride, Susan and Ercihan, and two friends of theirs, Paul and Ann. We also have along a fluent translator, Jenya, who has a background in field anthropology.

From Ulaanbaatar we fly by Fokker 400 to Uliastai in the western province of Zavkhan, where we board a Russian-made furgon—a four-wheel drive van with a quilted interior that looks like a grey bread tin on wheels. The reason for the padded ceiling is soon apparent as we lurch over dusty tracks through vast, vast expanses of grassland, rolling as though on a gale-whipped ocean of scrub, for five hours.

This is nomad land. Dotted here and there like white pinheads stuck in a sprawling map are the traditional Mongolian gers—round tents like little big tops housing families, spilling wafts of smoke from the wood-fired stove's central stack. We pass their herds of goats, of sheep, and of course hundreds and hundreds of horses. But dominating all of this is the land. I have never seen anything so big.

Two hundred kilometres south of the Siberian border we move through the little towns of Telmen and Tosontsengel before meeting up with the ride crew—two wranglers, two kitchen staff and two drivers of support vehicles—and the horses. For the next two weeks it will be day-on-end riding for a hundred kilometres south.

And days on end of sore legs.

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