How to Ride in Western Mongolia
by Tamar val Kenier
On June 1st 2017 I entered Mongolia. My dream had been for many years to ride a horse, by myself, through the most remote part of the most uninhabited country of the world: Bayan Ulgi province, the most western province of Mongolia, bordering China and Russia. Home of the Altai Mountains, home of the eagle hunters, home of an incredibly hospitable, colourful, strong and welcoming Kazakh culture.
I had been on a horse maybe ten days in my life and arranged with Stepperiders (a horse trekking company) to volunteer with them before heading off on a solo trek. Volunteering is quite expensive though (circa 200 dollars a week) and the solo trek training they offer even more so. I heard many stories of people being very disappointed with the solo trek training. But I was lucky to be included in a seven day trek the day after I arrived. The group included two tourists, two Mongolian horsemen, a Mongolian driver and cook, and me. During this trip I learned about riding, staking and hobbling at night, about when to feed, when to unsaddle, and a lot about Mongolian customs and language.
At Stepperiders I met Lynnea Zuniga who had come to Mongolia with the same idea in mind: to do a solo trek in Western Mongolia. We both had spent several months contacting people to prepare our trip and we decided it made sense to team up to travel west, share costs for drivers and guides to find suitable animals. Once we were comfortably set-up, we could always split up. After Stepperiders, I spent another week with a nomad family who lived south of Ulan Bator. There I rode horses, herded goats and rode a camel, before meeting back up with Lynnea and travelling west. We ended up travelling for two months together, after which Lynnea went back home and I continued solo for another six weeks.
|Prior to her departure, Tamar read The Horse Travel Handbook. She wrote, “What an amazing help that book is and will be on my travels! Thank you so much for putting this all together. It is very helpful and is exactly what I was looking for!”|
Speaking to people in western Mongolia, first to Australian Long Rider Tim Cope and also to the guide we hired, Nurbolat Len, we were advised that nobody uses horses as pack animals in that part of Mongolia. The authentic local way of transport would be to use a Bactrian camel to carry our luggage. Although this was a very tempting idea neither Lynnea nor me had much experience with camels. We wanted to be sure we wouldn’t harm the animals. We asked our guide whether he could find someone that could teach us about camels for a few days, then we would decide whether to buy two horses each or a horse and a camel. In the end we set off with two horses and two pack camels.
The horses in this part of Mongolia are exceptional. Susanna Rode was also in the Altai Mountains at this time. She shared this accurate description of the Altai horses with me.
“Even though I have ridden in many countries, on many continents, these horses made me realize that I knew very little in terms of what horses can really accomplish. The Altai horses moved with such ease, and were so surefooted when travelling over steep slopes, that I felt like I was riding an ibex. What these horses can do was beyond all my expectations. And travelling with them across snow and crumbling stones, with the heavy wind blowing, made me feel as if I was in a horse fairy tale world.”
Almost none of the nomads speak English, so bringing a translator with you is wise. If possible, I would advise you to test your animals with all your gear for a few days before setting off. Preparation can make all the difference between a successful long ride or a journey full of disasters. Make sure you give yourself enough time to get ready.
Lynnea and I set off to travel to Ulgi Sum (the capital of the Bayan-Ulgi province, consisting of about 100,000 people, mostly Kazakhs) by bus. It is possible to fly, which is much more expensive and polluting, but a lot faster. The bus takes about 40 hours. It is quite comfortable although a lot of locals will tell you it’s horrible. The paved road doesn’t continue all the way, so it’s a bit bumpy now and then; the Kazakh music can be very loud, but you might grow to like it, as I did.
In Ulgi Sum, Nurbolat’s father picked us up from the bus station and we stayed with his family. This gave us the real Kazakh experience: a table always full of food and milk tea, meals shared from the same plate, a cow roaming the backyard, a dombra (musical instrument) on the wall and ever smiling people. Nurbolat arranged a driver to bring us to an eagle hunting family of which the father speaks a little English, to teach us what we needed to know before heading off solo.
We arrived at their summer ger in the most beautiful valley on earth, inside the Tavan Bogd National Park, close to the Chinese border. For the park you need a permit and the office in Ulgi Sum only deals with Mongolian speaking people, so you will need to find someone to help you. Both Nurbolat and Dosjan from Kazakh tour were very helpful. Arriving in the park we were immediately very warmly welcomed by the whole family and they went way beyond necessity to help us get ready.
Kazakh Long Rider Dalaikhan, the father, is a three time eagle hunting champion and as we found out later also a Long Rider! Twice he rode with his son Alpamys and Canadian Long Rider Bonnie Folkins through Kazakhstan.
|Canadian Long Rider Bonnie Folkins first travelled to western Mongolia in 2007, where she discovered a Kazakh minority living in the remote Altai Mountains. She discovered that the Kazakhs were not only still mounted, they had also retained their ancient tribal custom of hunting wolves in winter with the help of specially trained golden eagles. The Kazakh eagle hunter, Dalaikhan (right), is one of the nomads Bonnie photographed. Photo copyright Bonnie Folkins.|
We couldn’t have ended up with a more skilled family to start our adventure.
Dalaikhan took us on a five day camping trip around the mountains with his horses and his camel. He taught us what to do, letting us make mistakes, teaching us how to pack the camel the traditional way – which is quite tricky to learn -, showing us what sort of terrain the animals can handle, how to ride with the left hand, leading with the right, how to cross rivers, how to stake the animals, how to make dung fires for cooking and making tea and how to offer hospitality to the guests we met on the way. From then on Lynnea and I always carried a visitor’s bag full of snacks and treats we could pull out when people would come to visit our camp. It helps a lot too if you speak a bit of the language. So carry a Kazakh-English dictionary, learn the basics and get yourself a Kazakh name. We were Aiculu and Kunsulu which always resulted in laughs and people found it easy to remember our names. Many times we met people yelling our names, even though we couldn’t remember where we met these people.
Learn from the Locals
I have been on many solo adventures before (though not with animals) and the main survival skill I found to be most useful is the ability to make friends. Language, gifts, sharing food, all these help. I also carried a chessboard and a guitar. A Polaroid camera was very successful. We let the children ride our camels and shared everything we carried. Photos from home are really appreciated too. Almost everyone went through our whole phones looking at all the pictures, so censor out what you don’t want to show beforehand.
Respect the customs. We didn’t show our shoulders or legs and mostly wore head scarves. Even though this was not expected from us as foreigners, it was appreciated. Almost every ger we passed invited us for tea and the least we could do was be good hosts to every person that visited our camp. Though there are not many people in this area we found gers almost every day and even when we thought there was no-one anywhere close, a horsemen would often show up and come over. So be careful with naked swims. The longest stretch for not seeing anyone was ten days. This happened around Yamaat, in Uvs province. We arrived just after all the nomads moved out of the cold mountains on to the warmer river shores. Although one marmot hunter walked by as I was just drying up from a naked swim in the river again, I keep hiding behind my saddles!
Gear & tack
We bought saddles at the market in Ulan Bator. I didn’t see many saddles at the market in Ulgi. But it won’t be hard to buy a saddle from local nomads, possibly from the people you end up buying your animals from. Depending on which style of saddle you would like to ride: Mongolian, Russian, Kazakh, prices for a saddle can range from between 100.000 to 300.000 tugriks ($40 to $125).
You might manage to find a nice smooth bit in Ulan Bator, but it’s not a bad idea to bring a bit from home. We saw several horses get sores from the roughly forged bits locally available. The horses are reasonably soft-mouthed and I’d say a broken snaffle bit would be enough. Also, get everything in pony sizes, the horses are quite small in comparison to ours.
In Ulgi there are plenty of ATM’s and in the smaller towns there is usually a bank. But don’t expect local banks to either be open and able to give you the amount of money you need at the moment you ask for it.
|In a message to the Guild, Tamar wrote, “I was together with Lynnea Zuniga for the first two months: two girls, two horses, two camels, two dogs. And I continued on for six weeks on my own with two horses after Lynnea returned home.”|
During our five day training trek, we fell in love with Dalaikhan’s camel. He offered to find us suitable animals. We went back to Olgi to arrange a permit for the Tavan Bogd National Park, which was quite a hassle. We were told that within 30 kilometres of any border you need a permit. Plus, they usually won’t let you in without a guide. We insisted and found an option of getting a Spot trekking device. It took many days though and increasingly cost more money. Finally we ended up paying 300 dollars for a three week permit. Possibly it would have been cheaper to hire a guide. Also, with the knowledge I have now, I would have probably wandered around the outskirts of the national park, equally beautiful, less touristy and no hassle with permits. But we were in.
|“We started at Dalaikhan’s house at the Chinese border, deep south west inside the Tavan Bogd National park. We worked our way to Malchin (the highest peaks of Mongolia, passing Black Lake, Khoton Nuur and Death Pass. Then we went north to Zagaannuur, Nogoonnuur and Boxmoron before going into the Yamaat valley and over the pass to Olonnuur. There our ways parted and I went south to the salt lake. I followed the Kovd River all the way back to Olgi Sum, Sagsai Sum and finally Altai Sum.”|
What to bring
At the market in Ulgi we bought things like canvas, axes, stakes, plastic containers, food for three months and set off back to Dalaikhan and his family. Though camels can carry a lot more than horses, it is still advised to keep your pack as lightweight as possible. Also because of environmental awareness we did not bring any canned food, glass jars and tried to limit our plastic. Along the way it is very possible to buy meat and all sorts of milk products form the locals. Bring your own bottles for milk and yoghurt though. Dried meat (“suru et” in Kazakh, “borts” in Mongolian) is not only tasty but also a great source of protein and energy, lightweight and keeps for a long time. We brought ten kilos. In Olgi we also found a lot of dried fruit and nuts, flour (to make pasta and bread), some rice, porridge and we brought oatmeal from Ulan Bator. Once outside of Olgi you will have almost no opportunity to buy anything fresh, so we brought quite a lot of potatoes, onion, garlic, a few cabbages and fruit; also to hand out to families we would meet, a good present. For Dalaikhan we bought many presents to say thanks, including big pieces of horsemeat and Kazahl, the horse sausage people love.
When we arrived back at their ger, two horses and camels were waiting for us and the whole family including neighbours helped out fixing our saddles, sewing together saddlebags and everything we needed to pack our camels. This was the first of an endless series of amazingly hospitable and helpful people. I would recommend that you bring large amounts of presents you can give the families you meet to pay back or pay forward the hospitality you received from them. Although it is part of the culture, never take anything for granted, never expect anything and make sure you give back more than you receive. These people have very hard lives and will share with you more than they can afford. We brought things like good knives, solar lights, good quality binoculars, batteries, pens, baseball caps, lip balm, moisturizers, and lots of little things for the children: hair ties, bracelets, balloons etc.
To keep you safe on any solo adventure a Friendship Book [Editor's note: The Horse Travel Journal is available in the US, the UK and in Australia] helps too. Everyone you meet can write something in the book including their name and telephone number. They are much less likely to take advantage of you when they write their contact details down and also they can read who has been your friend before, which every time made us be welcomed even warmer. Some people had already heard of the two girls and their animals coming their way and were expecting us.
The few times people invited us to spend the night in their ger we refused out of kindness, not wanting to invade their personal space and also feeling more comfortable sleeping close to our animals, keeping an eye on them.
Another option is to get in touch with some of the many Peace Corps volunteers that are living all over Mongolia. They are in the country for two years, speak the language, have a lot of connections and all the Mongolians we met seem to love them.
We both managed to get a dog and I would highly recommend it. Lynnea rode her horse around Altai Sum and asked around until someone was willing to sell her their dog. I got my dog at a small Nadaam festival where it had been strolling around for a few days. It didn’t seem to belong to anyone. We asked a few people and then I decided to take him along for a bit. With a bit of sausage I lured him in, put him on a leash for a few hours and then took the leash off. I thought if he had a home and wanted to go back this was his chance, but he stayed with us the rest of the trip. Both dogs protected our tent, our luggage, us and the animals by barking at anyone coming close. Especially at night it gave us a much better night’s rest, knowing the dogs would wake us up if someone tried to come close, which happened quite a few times. Many Mongolians were scared of the dogs. Also, as a woman alone it felt much safer.
|Tamar and Tetti travelling through Mongolia.|
My dog, Tetti, was a good scavenger and hunter, catching marmot and ground squirrels. But I still fed him more than I fed myself. He ate everything I ate. I fed him a lot of the dried meat and flour soups and people along the way gave me so much gort (dried curds) I couldn’t possibly finish it by myself. But Tetti was very happy to help me out with that. He followed me everywhere I would go and when it started to get colder he would sleep in my tent, sometimes pre-warming my sleeping bag.
As for the camels, most Kazakhs lead their camels on nose pegs. The noses of both our camels were a little bit infected and got worse during the trip. Every nomad we asked to have a look at it told us it was perfectly fine though. We had saved the telephone number of an English-speaking vet and asked for advice through the satellite device we carried.
Also, we bought SIM-cards from three different providers since coverage is available at many places but scattered. It is possible to rent satellite devices from Ulan Bator but we both had our own: the Garmin Inreach Explorer. It comes with an SOS-function and is able to send as well as receive text messages and emails wherever you are in the world. We arranged with a doctor and people in Olgi that we could contact them in case of emergency. We built a good support network in case of need.
We decided not to use the nose pegs but make halters for the camels. It’s not that hard to do and you can download a ‘how-to-make-a-halter’- instructions before heading off on a journey with camels. It worked fine.
Slowly the animals were getting used to each other and we found that in a certain order it was much easier to cross rivers, cross high mountains or other sorts of difficult terrain. When you travel this part of Mongolia your horses need to be shod and don’t be alarmed when the nomad that shoes your horse puts him on his back, that’s just the way they do it here. Carry an extra set of shoes and nails with you. One of my horses managed to walk the whole three months on the same pair of shoes, the other had to be re-nailed and reshod twice.
|This method of placing a horse on its back, before it is shod, is also practised in Kazakhstan.|
Also carry needles, thread, pieces of canvas, leather, felt etc. to make repairs and adjustments along the way. Especially the hobbles tended to break a lot. In these wide open landscapes it’s very helpful to have a decent quality pair of binoculars or monoculars. These make a good gift to some family at the end of your journey too.
We saw many locals tie their animals together without quick release knots. Nobody brushes their horses or picks out the hooves. You make up your own mind what you think is good for your animals. Whenever we rocked up at a ger, immediately someone grabbed the rope from our hands leading the animals off for us, which is very nice. But many times the locals were rough on our animals, so we stopped automatically giving the lead rope to strangers.
For yourself make sure you have a good supply of the antibiotic Ciprofloxacin. You can buy this from MOHOC (“monas”) pharmacies in Ulan Bator or Ulgii without a prescription for less than $10. It is a general use, broad spectrum antibiotic that is effective for food poisoning/gastrointestinal things, typhoid (deadly and present in Mongolia) urinary tract infections, kidney infections, the plague, and many other things. Lynnea used it once for food poisoning that she could not get rid of after four days. Make sure you have your tetanus vaccination. Rabies vaccines for humans are available but expensive, only partially effective, and they do not last very long, but I think it is definitely worth considering. Dogs are everywhere and rabies is prevalent. If you get bit without a vaccine then there’s a serious possibility of you dieing, depending how far you are from a large settlement.
As for moisturizers, bring enough for yourself. I am used to be as natural as possible, without using any cosmetics, but Mongolia is so dry that my hands, lips and skin were cracking open and hurting so much that it distracted me from enjoying the trip.
Many diseases are in the water, so make sure you have suitable filters and/or cook all the water you drink. I brought a Steripen as well as a Lifestraw water bottle, in case one of the two might fail. The Kazaks themselves almost only drink milk tea.
I have hardly seen anyone drink uncooked water. The plague is still around as well as many other diseases, so make sure you carry the right medicines in case you do get sick.
Many diseases are very treatable but medical assistance in Mongolia is poor. I had one little accident where I ended up with a hole in my head. The nurse in Sagsai Sum put on gloves, wiped them clean with a cloth, put a disinfectant (that was two years out of date) on my wound and then wanted to stitch me up. I thanked him kindly, got out of there and was happy I carried superglue and iodine.
When preparing your first aid kit, don’t just think about your own needs, but also consider bringing things for the nomads you meet. We also gave a man Cortisone cream: he was having an allergic skin reaction on his arm after bundling grass. As the Westerner, many people will come to you with their medical concerns, assuming that you will know what is wrong with them. Many times people told us about their dental/oral pain, and I wish we had been better prepared, maybe having Mongolian/Kazakh instructions on how to/the importance of brushing teeth, or on the effect of sugar on teeth. We gave a lot of Ibuprofen and felt bad that there wasn't something more sustainable we could do for them.
For the animals bring lots of antiseptic. The most common things we used were to clean wounds and keep dirt out of wounds. I wish I had brought Vet Wrap (stretchy, coloured, rolled bandages that are really versatile and durable for covering wounds). Bute is great if your horse/camel ever has swelling or joint pain. Also bring Neosporin and Polysporin.
As for deworming we spent a lot of time finding deworming paste. We finally found some in a fancy German horse shop in Ulan Bator and also in a tiny shop at the market in Olgi. It is best to bring horse medicines from your own country. Dalaikhan told us our horses were de-wormed in spring and he would deworm them again in autumn after our trek.
Dog medicine is probably also best to bring from home, as well as medicines for yourself. Many of the pharmacies in Mongolia sell fake medicines. The brand that is reliable is spelled in Cyrillic: MOHOC. Also the German brands are reliable. We ended up giving away a lot of painkillers, so bring extra.
For navigation we relied on a map we bought from the map shop in Ulan Bator. We didn’t find any maps in Olgi but we had our maps plasticized there. We checked our GPS everyday, making sure we didn’t accidentally cross the Chinese border. A very useful app is called Soviet Military maps, from which you can cache maps on your smartphone. These maps are even more detailed and using GPS, the app shows you exactly where you are at that moment.
Be aware that none of the nomads seemed to be able to read maps. They are not all always accurate but your best navigation skill is to be able to ask for local advice on which direction to travel, on where to cross a river, on whether there is a bridge, water, or grass on the way etc.
|The travellers used a combination of old-fashioned Soviet maps and GPS technology to avoid crossing into China.|
Mostly there was plenty of water, but a few days we crossed extremely dry terrain. When this happened we travelled on until we finally found a ger, since they usually have some sort of water source nearby to water their animals.
Water them at least once a day. Also, when camping, it is advisable to at least walk up to the closest ger, introduce yourself, make some small talk and ask if it’s alright to camp there. We were always very warmly welcomed.
Horse theft is a big problem in Mongolia. Besides all the other advantages and fun experiences it brings, camping with and making friends with the locals reduces the chances of your horses being stolen.
Where there are gers the grass is usually of lesser quality. So make up your mind every day which is your highest priority. You don’t have to camp right next to a ger, but introducing yourself to the closest one, maybe buying some products from them, will give you an extra shield of safety.
For cooking we bought a teapot, which you can buy anywhere. This turned out to be extremely useful. I carried a little gas stove for which I was able to find gas canisters at a shop called Seven Summits in Ulan Bator (highly priced but good quality camping gear). But I ended up hardly using the stove because there was always plenty of dung around to cook on and in some forested areas even wood.
For deciding on a route Long Rider Tim Cope gave us very helpful advice. Lakes and forests can be very unpleasant during the summer months because of the amount of mosquitoes. But travelling in the mountains, even in August, can already leave you waking up to a thick blanket of snow. During all of September it was freezing during the nights. Thankfully Mongolia has plenty of wool clothes for sale at a comparatively low price and they can keep you warm.
Make sure you have a good warm sleeping bag. I treated myself to a custom made Mongolian traditional del ($30) which also served as a blanket. Making dung fires in the morning after snow or frost can be challenging. It pays off to bring decent lighters from home, since the lighters we found in Mongolia are of very poor quality.
|Keeping warm in the Altai Mountains is a challenge, even in late summer. Lynnea collects firewood for the camp.|
At night we both hobbled and staked the animals. On the stakes we had rings that can make a 360 degree turn around. The longer the rope the more food the animals can reach. But there is also the higher the chance of the rope getting tangled. I would check regularly on the animals. Knowing that winter was coming, and that I was asking a lot of them with this trip, I was determined to give the horses and camels the best possible treatment.
None of my animals seemed to be interested in anything else like apples or carrots, so if your animals are losing weight stop in time or go slower. Give them more time to feed on good nutritious grass. That’s the best thing you can do for them.
After travelling together, the horses were so attached to each other and the camels that I only needed to stake/hobble/lead one of them and the others would follow or stay near. But be attentive for any signs of emotional or physical distress.
Mongolia is certainly the land of the clear blue skies. Because there is so much sunshine, a solar panel will charge all your equipment without any problem. My Goal Zero panel broke after one month but Lynnea’s Anker worked well. Many nomads nowadays have solar panels where you could charge your device. Make sure you pay them for this service!
Mongolia has a reputation of theft and I had some problems on my journey. On different occasions my phone got stolen, my saddles got stolen, small things like a watch and a spork got stolen, one of my horses got stolen but I managed to get that back by paying a lot of money. In the end we set the camels free. I lost my dog but my horses returned to Dalaikhan and his family, where I know they will be happy and healthy.
Overall advice: prepare well and give yourself enough time for that, make friends, pay back and enjoy your time in this incredibly beautiful and amazing part of the world!
|Though she did experience some problems, Tamar came away from Mongolia with a strong positive impression about the country and humanity. She wrote, “I strongly believe that if you approach the world assuming that everyone is an angel, most of them will turn out to be just that.”|
Prices will likely change every year and will be affected by your contacts, but here is what we paid.
$450 - horse
$450 - camel
$110 - driver + petrol one way between Ulgii to Altai Sum (5 hours)
$50-130 - riding saddles with pads
$5 - bridle/halter
$20 - 60 meters of rope for picketing and camel packs
$3 - hobbles
$12 - plastic containers to pack camels - we bought four per camel
$200 -500 - food for 3 months; meat and cheese are relatively expensive, pasta and everything else is VERY cheap
$800 - guides/friends who helped us get ready and find animals; we didn’t want to skimp on compensating anyone who helped us.
$35 - one way bus between Ulan Bator to Ulgii
You can sell your horses and camels at the end of the journey, probably for around 700,000 tugriks (approx.. $300), but we had always planned to give them as gifts to trusted Mongolian friends.
All photos courtesy of Lynnea Zuniga and Tamar val Kenier.
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