Into the Wild Horsemanship, conversation and fermented mare's milk on the Mongolian Steppe.
Retracing Ghengis' hoofprints in Ulan Bator
The huge silver horse rose eerily above the infinity of grassland on the road out of Ulan Bator. When we reached the crest of the hill, its full magnificence was revealed, a 40m-high metal statue of Chinggis Khaan on a wedding cake plinth staring proudly over the Mongolian Steppe towards China, the land he conquered in his prime. Constructed in 2006 to celebrate the 800th anniversary of his self-appointed Khaanship, it is both a tourist attraction and a tribute to the only Mongolian to put his country on the historical map.
Foreigners may recognise Chinggis as Genghis Khan, a bloodthirsty tyrant who usurped half the known world between his ascent to power in 1206 and his death 23 years later but, as is usually the case with patriots, Mongolians dare to see him differently. Their Chinggis was an intelligent despot who kept defeated tribes on his side by sparing lives, imposed a just legal system and introduced Mongolia's first written script. Banned in the Communist era from 1924 to 1991, he has re-emerged as the face of modern Mongolia, looking sternly out from souvenir coffee mugs and vodka labels everywhere.
Like most of his compatriots through the ages, Chinggis was a horseman through and through. Today there are roughly three million Mongolians, half of them nomadic and semi-nomadic Steppe dwellers living in yurts (gers) and herding mixed flocks. A head count of 34 million animals - goats, sheep, cattle, yak and Bactrian camels (two humps) - includes an estimated three million horses. After we'd ridden the lift up the horse's tail to join the crowds on the viewing platform between its ears - a chance to get up close and personal with the steely Khaan - we bumped on over unmade roads in the general direction of China. By the time the nightly summer storm broke - a cacophony of thunder and lightning accompanied by great sheets of rain - we were comfortably installed in the luxury Bayangol ger camp, set up with hot showers, crisp white sheets and wood-burning stoves.
This was the official start of our recce ride across the Steppe in the hoofprints of Chinggis Khaan. The team was headed by our Wild Frontiers leader, Richard Dunwoody, twice Grand National winner turned polar explorer, with essential backup from two very contrasting Mongolians. Although born in the Gobi desert, Tulga, our enthusiastic organiser and universal fixer, has reinvented himself as a city slicker after spending three years in England. With cheerful aplomb, Tulga introduced us to the concept of his windhorse, the Mongolian "soul" that evolved out of Tibetan Buddhism with a lot of input from shamanism. He insists we all have one, the idea being that we blame it for our shortcomings while taking credit for our successes.
Our second mentor, Bataar - the Hero - rode into camp the next morning on a palomino, much prized because it was Chinggis's favourite colour, leading a dozen half-wild Mongolian horses. Or so he claimed. Far from misbehaving, they cantered easily over the springy turf, immaculately sure-footed as they avoided fields of marmot holes and were exceptionally obliging in all other circumstances. The Mongolian Steppe is natural riding country, mostly dramatically empty grassland with lines of hills covered with larch and silver birch forest in the distance. At times we crossed them to get from one plain to the next, negotiating rock fields and woods carpeted with wild strawberries.
We covered around 40km a day, an estimated total of 320km over eight days in the saddle, with a rest day at the mid point. Our group was of mixed ability, ranging from a top event rider to intermediate, but both terrain and pace were suitable for all levels. Tulga learnt to ride when he was six, clinging on desperately so as not to lose face among his fellow pupils, all girls. Some 30 years later, his style is much the same, allowing him to bounce along at the head of affairs, identifying deer stones - Bronze Age burial markers set randomly in the Steppe, and telling us about local life.
Ever vigilant, he was quick to point out a marmot, an armadillo or a deer bounding between the trees. On the plains, handsome diamond-backed snakes - non-poisonous, he assured us - slithered rapidly out of range while eagles and red kites, rare in other parts of the world, circled low overhead, clearly interested in leftovers. Bataar, by contrast, looked as if he'd been born in his ornately decorated saddle, quite a feat because it consists of high wooden pommels fore and aft with a tiny leather seat in between. Richard, with his western racing style, found it agonising, but Bataar, an equally natural horseman in a very different way, sat tall and motionless throughout the day. The nomads move their camps four times a year, seeking the shelter of the forested uplands in the winter, but summer is the season for camping on the plains so Tulga and his team set up our tents in the middle of the widest open spaces. In the evenings, the peace was total, especially during the blazing sunsets that marked the week of the full moon. As the drinks flowed during our four-course dinners in the mess tent, the decibel levels rose, especially when Tulga performed his trademark horse dance with wild abandon.
Chinggis is also partially responsible for the Mongolian passion for chat. His pioneering postal system using mounted relays to deliver messages from his capital, Karakoram, to Beijing in two days and to the Polish border in 13, was discontinued in 1949, but the morin urtuu (horse camps) are still hotbeds of gossip. Satellite dishes, motorbikes, solar panels and shiny tractors suggest that there's a reasonable living to be made out of herding mixed flocks in the early 21st century, but the curds and airag, fermented mare's milk, generously offered to every passing stranger, are from a much earlier age.
Come meal times, nomads see their flocks as their larder, routinely slaughtering an animal with the flick of a knife. They cook in bulk in milk churns, the meat cuts mixed with water and hot coals in a delicious primitive stew. Avoid the prized eyes if you can, not only because they're rubbery but because the patriarchs like to boost their rampant machismo by eating them themselves. Top of the gourmet range is a festive goat skin stuffed with flesh, onions and hot coals, its fur burnt off with a blowtorch. The guest of honour, in this case, Richard, makes the first cut through the tough fatty exterior, finally releasing succulent meat and soup. Surprisingly it was the best meal I had in Mongolia and, with the help of a huge loving cup of airag passed from mouth to mouth, it triggered an epic sing-song.
Bataar and Tulga, accompanied by family members on plaintive morin hwr (horse-head harps), worked their way through a traditional repertoire of mournful ballads about love and pillage on the Steppe to sustained applause. Throat singing, a growl and whistle combo that starts in the stomach and builds through the larynx, is a bit of an acquired taste, but the girl-child contortionists, Mongolia's alternative cultural offering, are amazing.
On our last day, Bataar took us to the races, the social epicentre of rural life. Every year Ulan Bator celebrates independence day (July 11) with an elaborate Naadam Festival featuring horse racing, wrestling and archery, the key warrior skills in the Chinggis era. Top horses, aged five or six, cover 32km of uncharted Steppe in 40 minutes, an awesome feat of speed and endurance, for glittering cash prizes put up by the mining companies. The tourists love it, but the country naadams, held randomly throughout the summer in the back of beyond, are far more atmospheric.
On this occasion, traditional music played as 30 two-year-olds circled in the rain. Their jockeys were aged five to 12, some wearing bright team colours but many riding bareback in their socks. Teenage girls in sparkly robes and ornate leather boots sat tall as they checked out the guys. In the absence of Facebook, the rural naadam is an effective marketplace. Preliminaries completed, the horses headed for the start line 15km away. Within the hour, the lead car was back followed by three riders involved in a nail-biting photo finish. The prize-giving was upbeat, with carpets and radios for the winners and airag poured equally liberally down parched throats and over horses' backs. No wonder the Mongolians love their horses, when they put on a display like that.