How to Ride in Central Mongolia
by Simone Johanna Aleida
Last summer (2016), I spent a few months in Central Mongolia, living with nomadic families and travelling by horseback. I embarked on my journey solo, but soon realized it was very hard to travel alone. Then I luckily met Annie at Stepperiders Nomadic camp and we continued the journey together. We went to Bogd Khan Uul, Terelj, Khan Kentii, and Gachuurt. I recommend this area because the scenery is very diverse: many mountains, rivers, forests, and of course the steppe.
Finding your horses - This is the most important part of your journey. You require two horses, one riding horse and one packhorse. They should be calm, bomb proof, but still forward going.
When you are scouting about for horses it would be very helpful to bring a Mongolian-speaking friend with horse knowledge, as many nomadic people donít speak any English. Many of the nomadís horses arenít used or trained as pack horses. This is why you might find it easier to get in touch with nomads that organize trail rides (like Stepperiders), this way you might find a suitable well-trained packhorse.
When you buy your horses I recommend trying them, for several days, or even weeks, with all your gear. Donít rush the preparations while you are in Mongolia. Itís very difficult to plan everything from home, so give yourself at least a few weeks in Mongolia before you head off. Donít leave your base camp until you feel comfortable and in control, take time to build enough trust to embark on your amazing journey.
Planning your route - I would recommend that you plan your route and trail, but be very flexible and donít prepare a day-by-day schedule. You never know how you will feel or what you might encounter. Just make your decisions based on the moment. Itís never about the miles, this it what the Long Ridersí Guild told me before I went to Mongolia and I truly tried to keep this in mind. There is really no use in pushing yourself or your horses hard. You might have limited amount of time but donít compromise your horsesí health. Take enough rest days, enough time and breaks to allow the horses to eat grass and build up new energy.
But to be honest, the hiking maps that exist for Mongolia arenít that great, often lakes show but arenít there, or roads occur that arenít on the map because the map is outdated. We just roughly planned our route and then totally changed it day by day. We often took advice from the nomadic families we met along the way.
You can purchase your maps in a place called Mapshop in Ulaanbaatar, for a reasonable price. These maps are in Cyrillic which is great when you ask local people for directions. Mapshop can seal them for you. This is highly recommended because you may encounter heavy rain storms. You may also find some tourist maps at the Seven Summits, someone gave us the Terelj tourist map and it was very helpful.
Weather - Central Mongolia has many different kinds of weather, boiling hot in summer (and no trees on the steppe means no shade), combined with thunderstorms. And if you are planning to ride in September and October you need very warm clothes too because the temperature might drop below zero at night. Luckily the humidity is very low and everything dries quickly after a rain storm.
Gear & Tack - A lot of tack, such as halters, bridles, ropes, stakes, and hobbles you are able to buy on the black market in Ulaanbaatar. I recommend buying most horse gear in Mongolia because of two reasons; Firstly, the tack is made for Mongolian horses so it will fit the horses well. And secondly, we were never robbed, and I believe itís mainly because we had normal Mongolian gear. Decent quality, but nothing too fancy looking. I was lucky to find an amazing real vintage Russian saddle on the market that fit our packhorse perfectly. But I would recommend anyone else to bring a good quality adjustable packsaddle from home. You can buy simple but strong saddle bags on the black market.
Mongolian saddles arenít great, either for the horse or the rider. I wouldnít recommend them to anyone. I brought an endurance saddle from home. I recommend trying your saddle at home on a similar built horse, but its tricky. It could be smart to bring some adjustment pads from home so you can play with the fit.
Donít bring anything you donít really need, this was my biggest mistake initially. But definitely bring a tarp! They are very multifunctional, and can be used to cover your gear at night when itís raining.
Horse care - Mongolian horses are very tough. They donít eat anything apart from grass. Always make sure your horses have enough time to eat grass, and donít ride too many hours. We would normally stick to about 4 hours max.
Annie and I mainly followed rivers and streams to have easy access to drinking water for ourselves and our horses. We also had to cross dry areas a few times. This meant we had to ask nomadic families to turn on their water well for us. Water wells are easy to recognize because they look like a small house with a long metal drinking trough.
I recommend you only brush your horse under the saddle, and clean the dirt only in places where it might give problems. Because brushing your horse a lot can affect the coat, which they really need in the winter. Mongolian horses are never shod, so make sure you donít ride too much on hard ground and stones, Mongolian horses prefer to walk in the grass. The horses are also not familiar with hoof picking, because Mongolians never do this. It will require some time before your horse will allow you to do this.
We really disliked hobbling our horses, but if you donít hobble, you are likely to loose your horses very soon. Or your horse could even end up in a dangerous situation if you pitch the line without hobbling. Especially in the beginning of your journey you need to be very careful. By the end of our journey we would only hobble the horses at nighttime. During morning, lunch and afternoon we would pitch them on a long lunge line.
Learn from the locals - If you donít speak Mongolian or Russian, the language barrier will be extremely high. Personally I thought it was much more difficult to communicate then I expected initially. Itís recommended that you bring a pocket translation book that translates both ways, and you might want to consider teaching yourself the basics (or more of course) before you head to Mongolia.
But even though our poor Mongolian skills we tried to communicate with the locals, and we learned from the nomadic people every day. They gave us great advice on tacking up and horsemanship. Sometimes their advice seemed strange, but later we often realized that the horsemen was right. In all my travels I never met people that were more real, warm, hospitable, helpful and generous. Generally speaking most Mongolian people will be very interested in meeting you and learning about your journey.
Never take any advantage of the nomadic generosity. Always bring gifts to compromise their expenses on food. In Mongolian culture it is a tradition to give traveling people shelter and food. This is how they survived for many centuries in bare conditions. Even if the nomads donít have enough for themselves, they will still share everything with you. Often they will not accept your money, but gifts will always be accepted, and highly appreciated. It can be difficult to bring a lot of gifts because you want to pack light, but donít compromise on the gifts!
Food - I highly recommend you invest in a good water filter and not only filter the water but also boil it!!! This might be a hassle, but will protect you from lot of digestive problems. Someone I knew used a UV pen, but still got very sick. Water purifying pills I only recommend for emergency situations, because they are bad for you and also very harmful for the environment.
Annie and I are vegetarians. If you are also a vegetarian you need to prepare yourself to eat some meat. Nomadic families will be offended if you refuse their food, and because we didnít speak any Mongolian we braved up and ate a lot of meat! You need to understand that for the nomads herding and meat is their cultural heritage. Their life is based around this. There are barely other options, because almost nothing grows in Central Mongolia besides grass, wild berries and pine nuts.
Safety - Every night we tried to ask a nomadic family if we could set up camp close to their ger for safety reasons. This had one downturn, because the quality of the grass next to the ger was mostly not so good for our horses. Often we would wake up early to move the horses, so they could enjoy fresh grass.
The steppe is infamous for horse thieves. Luckily we never encountered any problems with horse thieves, but I know many people who have! I had many sleepless nights and often I was extremely paranoid. If the weather allowed we slept mostly in the open air next to the horses, enjoying a stunning view of the Milky Way. If it was too cold or raining, we would sleep in our tent and check up several times a night to make sure our horses were still ok.
Try to avoid towns and busy places as they are probably more dangerous and there might be more drunks. You also might want to be cautious during Nadaam festival, because this event is notorious for drinking! Always try to be friendly with the local community. Being on good terms with the locals could protect you from dangerous situations. If you have a bad feeling with a place, just follow your instinct. We never took unnecessary risks and always stayed close to nomadic families.
I canít tell you if we were lucky or just very careful, but we didnít have one bad experience with drunks or criminals. The only dangerous situations were caused by our own mistakes. We lost the horses a few times, but were luckily always able to find them again with the help of locals. Forget about phone reception and internet because there wonít be any. So a satellite phone can be very useful in some situations! Concerning safety, always think twice about how you use your tack. If you think something is not fitting properly or unsafe, fix it before you do anything else.