Last Updated on September 29, 2022 by Sammie
Do you know where Mongolia is?
If you did, impressive. I didn’t. But my boyfriend wouldn’t stop talking about it after he went in 2017, so I investigated. It was an idea I had after getting a dose of authentic travel in Africa in the Spring. My go-tos for Asian travel didn’t seem as shiny and alluring as they once were when I first arrived in Macau and I wanted something different for this holiday. I wanted thoughts to be thought and feelings to be felt. And I was determined to do this without a four star hotel (and I love a buffet breakfast). So I decided, Mongolia it is.
It’s sitting pretty between China and Russia, landlocked for as far as the eye can see. Its vast terrain of mountains, plateaus, and rolling plains gives way to the strong nomadic culture. The Mongolians honor the horse for its support in this lifestyle and I had the opportunity to experience this simple way of life for one week.
Was it difficult to get to Mongolia?
You would think yes, but actually no. Though our flight was delayed 12 hours due to high windspeed in Mongolia (very common), it was relatively easy. A four hour and 40 minute plane ride from Hong Kong and we were there in time for breakfast.
The trip was as simple as it could be; arrive in the capital city Ulaanbaatar, drive to basecamp, start our week of camping on horseback in Mongolia’s Steppe. Because the airport is situated right at the edge of the park the car ride was short and sweet and left us at basecamp before we had a chance to realize we were outside the capital. We relaxed, coffee in hand, in the silence as one by one volunteers and visitors of the camp stopped by to introduce themselves. Some having stayed at the camp for months while others were passing through, tending to the horses in exchange for free accommodation. It was here, after breakfast, that we got introduced to our beautiful steeds.
Choose your company and your horse wisely…
What company did I use?
We had one test ride before heading out for good. And it’s a good thing we had it because my friends horse kept laying down every chance it got. The horse won and was returned to the stable and swapped out for a more “jubiant” chariot. Once saddles were secure and stirrups tightened we were on our way!
The group was myself and 2 of my friends from work, a volunteer from camp, our guide, and our driver. Before arriving I had done most of the planning but not much research. I figured… its horseback riding and camping, not too complicated. And that’s what I was interested in. The bareness of this trip. No phone, no internet, no trip adviser or google maps. It was our horses, our books, and some cards. And it was joyous.
There was no “Mongolia horse trek” tripadviser search this time around.
I love a good recommendation but something about Mongolia made me want to approach this week with blissful ignorance. I wanted the open air and my horse. Everything else was just extra.
The group was myself and 2 of my friends from work, a volunteer from camp, our guide, and our driver. Before arriving I had done most of the planning but not much research. I figured… its horseback riding and camping, not too complicated. And that’s what I was interested in. The bareness of this trip. No phone, no internet, no facebook polls or google maps. It was our horses, our books, and some cards. And it was bliss. Honestly, when was the last time you enjoyed something so simple?
I put down my phone and experienced Mongolia with my eyeballs.
I know I know, I probably sound like your mother; GET OFF YOUR PHONE. But just take a second to think for me. Do you remember this morning? What about the color of the shirt your partner was wearing today? Or even what you had for lunch yesterday? “Where are you going with this Sam….” Okay, MAYBE we are living through our phones and forgetting to see and experience…like real…in the world…with our eyeballs.
It’s dang near impossible to find a place where within an hour you cannot be connected to the internet, or expect to have internet. But that was the draw of Mongolia! There was complete disconnect. To explain my point, on day one we were three hours into our horseback trek and we were supposed to meet up with our van to set up our campsite (each day our car would drive ahead to meet us at the next camping location). We went over a mountain and around another, stopping every so often to take in the sites and adjust our saddles. But then I realized we were retracing our steps. Our guide who spoke little english was looking quizzically onto the horizon. First pointing left then putting his hand on his mouth then confidently pointing right.
Oh god. We’re lost.
I, having that first world confidence (or ignorance depending on how you look at it), wasn’t concerned. He lived here. He could call his buddy and ask him which hill we were to meet him on. Was it the one with the two trees or the one with the rocks with prayer flags on it? They’re Mongolian, they got this. But rain has a way of sensitizing you to a situation and I realized he was trying his best not to look overly concerned. No phone on him, we were at the mercy of trying to find a van on top of a hill in the distance.
I was nearly in tears in the back of the pack, second guessing my rationale for my “totally unique and awesomely authentic trip” when 2 headlights flashed a couple kilometers away. It was like a warm hug from momma. WE’RE COMING! Galloping with new found enthusiasm we united with our truck in time to set up camp and make some soup. We had just enough time to pitch our tents and grab our bowls before the rain picked up. It was night one and we were sitting squished together in the truck that smelled like lamb, listening to Mongolian rap [listen to the exact song HERE] when our guide, Naymaa, offered us a plastic cup of beer. I’ve never felt more content.
Mongolian alarm clock
Each morning the silence would wake me up. The air was so clear you could hear the grass moving in the wind. The first tent to zip open for a morning relief would be our alarm clock. Usually Naymaa was up first preparing some eggs. A children’s tarp was laid out as our breakfast table with some biscuits, bread, peanut butter and (the prized) one jar of Nutella. Breakfast was leisurely. We’d enjoy a cup or 2 of coffee before packing our tents away and greeting our horses for the day.
Learning how to horseback ride in Mongolia
Mind you, none of us were “horseback riders”. I think I could count on my hand how many ponies I’d been on at a few fairs before this 90 kilometer trek through Mongolia across the Hustai. But we learned fast. And so did our horses. They knew we were nervous in the beginning, taking advantage of our anxiety; moving left when we pulled right and taking off sprinting when we wanted them to pick up in a trot.
Of course there were falls. At one point my stirrup ripped mid trot. I let out a gasp, immediately regretting that decision. Zoolander (my horse, possibly obvious but I’m here to help.) took it as an opportunity to take matters into his own hooves and take off sprinting. I gripped for the life of me, digging my Target bought camel colored ankle booties around his stomach while attempting to pull back on the reins. It was this moment I graduated from mere horse enthusiast to Mongolian cowgirl.
I wish the accomplishment ended there but the next day I accidentally kicked my horse while mounting and once again that jacka** took off while I had one leg in the stirrup and the other one flapping like a severed limb. Arms around his neck, I was screaming bloody murder. Zoolander ran with a vengeance just to say hello to Naymaa a mere 20 meters away. We all have our qualities, mine just happen to be walking on 2 legs planted firmly on the ground.
This trip changed my way of thinking.
Mongolia was unique. It was the first vacation I remember. I say this because I don’t need the 583 pictures I took to help me with the details. Hear me out. This is the first trip I have taken where I can tell you what I saw every single day. It’s as if my recall was heightened simply because I didn’t have the luxury of distraction. I was 100% present every moment. From the lamb soup eaten out of the backseat of the truck the first evening to being offered 6 glasses of Mongolian vodka that tastes like parmesan flavored water. I remember it as if it happened yesterday. Which is actually a horrible metaphor since I can’t remember what I ate for dinner the other night.
We are so consumed by our life on screen we are missing our reality. We’re here, we’re there, but we’re not present in either. I’m not saying you have to go to Mongolia to experience thought thoughts and felt feelings. But I am saying take a second to recall what you did in the last seven days. Can you remember?
I’m always looking for new ways to stay present in my daily life and in my travels. If you have any suggestions or practices please leave a comment below!