Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Travel: Horse riding for beginners - Mongolian style

In a fit of eccentricity my wife and I decided to go on a vacation to Mongolia. After all, it is the place that produced Ghengis Khan, Kublai Khan and Tamerlaine, as well as having been the centre of one of the largest empires that the world has seen. After the initial three weeks of festivals, mountains, lakes and open plains, we left our group and went off to see the remote and nomadic Tsaartan people, who live in the extreme north of the country with their herds of reindeer. This required a significant horse trek, and I had done next to no horse riding. I looked forward with some excitement to the 60 kilometres of travel that awaited us. Needless to say the Tsaartan, being nomadic, were not where they had been expected, and the ride extended to over 120 kilometres!

Day one consisted of an introductory riding lesson. I had been told that no previous experience was necessary, however I must admit to feeling some trepidation.

‘Have you ever ridden a horse before?’ the trek leader asked me through the interpreter.
‘Uh…no not really. Well once, when I was about nine years old I did, but only for about 15 minutes.’ I replied.

‘Never mind. It’s easy. Just get on the horse and we’ll go from there.’ I proceeded to get myself up into the saddle and found a set of leather reins being put in my hand. They were more like shoelaces in my opinion.

‘OK Peter, tug left and right to steer, and tug back to stop.’ I nodded and made some tugging gestures to show that I had understood.

‘To get going say “Cho” and give the horse a good jab in the ribs with your heels. If you want to go faster just dig the ribs some more and say “Cho” in a louder voice.’

I waited for some more instruction, but I waited in vain.

Not having any other option, off I went, or rather, off I tried to go. After a couple of unsuccessful attempts at getting my trusty steed to move, one of the local horsemen came to give me a hand. It was then that I learned to trot as we caught up with the rest of the group. To encourage me further, one of the guides was thrown from her horse. However, we don’t talk about that because you just don’t fall off horses in Mongolia, and anyhow she was ok. So no worries!

We rode for six hours until we reached our campsite. On the way I learned how to cross rivers, holding on for dear life. At the end of the day it was compulsory to open a bottle of vodka and share its contents. So that’s what I did.

Day two started with sore knees and some excitement. This was the day that we were going to see the Tsaartan people. After breakfast I got back on the horse, which was now looking at me in a scornful way. I could swear it was smirking, and I knew that it was thinking, ‘Right sonny Jim, you thought you had a tough time yesterday, but just you wait. Hahahahahaha!’ Perhaps this paranoia was just part of the learning experience.

We rode a short way before we entered the forest. It was dense and muddy, and downright boggy in areas. The path wound its way up and down very steep and slippery slopes between the trees. Some trees had spaces of approximately one metre between them through which the path went. My horse, bless him, thought it was entertaining to try scraping me off at these points. I had to either mastering basic steering, or be good at putting my knees back into place. It was usually the latter. It was an evil horse!

Once out of the forest we proceeded up precipitous rocky slopes. I tried to ignore the long drop to my left. I prayed my horse’s instinct for self-preservation was greater than its desire to send me tumbling into the raging mountain river some hundreds of metres below.

Of course, there was no let up after this. Just as we were nearing the Tsaartan camp, we could see it in the distance, we encountered severe boggy ground. My horse found itself up to its backside in the mud on many occasions. It was impossible to tell which bits of ground had a covering of six inches of mud, and which hid pools a metre or more in depth. At this point my horse decided to ignore my yelling and screaming, preferring to stand still and wonder which way to go next. My local guide came to my rescue and found me an equally boggy and hazardous route. This further ‘cemented’ my relationship with my horse, however I was grateful to be led by an experienced horseman during this, and some of the more challenging parts of this journey.
Despite this, we did make it to the Tsaartan camp. However, time was of the essence, so after a short break for lunch and some photo opportunities with cute reindeer, some entertaining repartee with the local people, and a chat with the local shaman, it was time to leave. Of course I now had an idea of what to expect on the return journey.

At the end of the day I resisted the urge to utter sentences like, ‘Ahhhh my knees’ or, ‘I have chafing’ or, ‘I can’t walk anymore’. No, instead I walked confidently to my tent showing no signs of protesting joints. To prove my fitness I went through two or three rounds of traditional Mongolian wrestling with my guide. I think that being dumped on my back a few times may even have loosened my aching muscles and realigned my spine.

As day three dawned I tried to ignore my aching limbs and back, now unsure whether the wrestling had been wise, and stoically mounted my horse once more. I wondered whether my look of supreme confidence fooled anybody. Our guide was obviously fooled as he took me for a canter as we neared the end of the journey. He tried to teach me to grip with my thighs and half stand in the saddle like the locals did. I tried, but not having spent a lifetime in the saddle it lasted for only a few minutes before my protesting muscles won the argument. We eventually slowed down and came to our waiting vehicle. It was a day-and-half drive back to Moron airport, but I was, by now, looking forward to getting off my horse and relaxing in a seat. Without me on its back my horse quickly distanced itself from me to avoid the shame being associated with a mere novice. In fact novice was probably too advanced a definition for the horse’s liking.

So the ride finally had come to an end. Despite the aches and pains and moments of terror, it was a great journey! Where else could I have gained such varied experience of riding in such a short period of time? The goal of reaching the reindeers had been attained, but it was the journey that stuck in my mind. With no previous experience, my wife and I had ridden over 100km. Each evening we had sat around a fire waiting for the night’s chill as the sun slowly fell behind the mountains, which engulfed us in their shadows and. We shared vodka and food with our guides and gazed up at the endless clear night sky. We rode in glorious sunshine over land seen by very few people, and we had plenty of laughs along the way. I even learned some Mongolian wrestling moves, so next time I won’t be such a pushover. The memory of the aches and pains quickly fades when I remember those three days. In fact, what aches, pains and physiotherapy bills?

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