I have now been back in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar for a few days. After several weeks’ horse trekking in the wilderness it felt pretty good to have a hot shower, not have to set up and pack down my camp every day and to eat delicious food (There is an amazing bakery that I have been to every single day, Tous Les Jours. The staff there know me now). I have had time to sit and reflect on my adventure and it still feels surreal that I did it. Quitting my job to travel the world and starting off with a most incredible and unique experience, a four week solo horse trek in Mongolia. Despite it being tough and full of challenges I really miss being out there, navigating the mountains and steppes, searching for good grass and water for the horses, meeting the nomadic families and the feeling of complete freedom. And I really miss my two comrades, Jumper (my riding horse) and Peter Pan (my pack horse).
As I had not done anything like this before I didn’t really know what to expect. It was so easy to romanticise what the trip would be like and although I was trying to be realistic about what I would go through, it was a bit more more challenging than I had expected. But in a really good way. A fun and fulfilling challenge.
I hope that this post can provide you with a bit of an insight into what it was like, and if anyone is thinking of doing something similar or wants to know more I am more than happy to have a chat.
. . .
It was an intense experience and over the course of the month I experienced a whole spectrum of emotions. From complete elation and joy to sheer panic, it was all there. There were tears and laughter. There were times when I felt really lonely and others when I was so content being alone. There were days when the riding felt like a chore and I didn’t want to be there anymore, but those moments were often brief and usually only because I was hungry, tired or cold.
I started off just south of the capital Ulaanbaatar. I then headed north east through Bogd Khan Uul National Park, through Terelj National Park and into Khan Khentii Strictly Protected Area. This area is very remote, more remote than I expected. It is a virtually uninhabited region (12,000 square kilometers) that borders Russia. The scenery changed from the steppes and forested hills of Bogd Khaan Uul to rocky mountains and grassy valleys along the rivers in Terelj, to the shrubby and forested lake and river regions in Khan Khentii. Unfortunately around the villages it was not as pristene, as there is so much rubbish around, but thankfully I passed through these areas quite quickly. It was really sad to see. Most of it is from city dwellers that come into the national parks to camp on weekends. Even when I was riding in the middle of nowhere I would often come across an old empty vodka bottle on the ground.
My most northern destination was the Khagiin Khar Nuur, a 20m deep 2km long glacial lake tucked away in the Khentii mountains (1800m elevation). I had originally planned to continue further north towards Yestii (where there are hot springs), but at the grass was getting so poor the further north I went, I decided that I couldn’t put the horses through that.
Once I had passed through Terelj Village the number of nomadic families became fewer and far between, to a point where I didn’t see a whisper of another human being for an entire week. I must say that is a strange experience as I don’t think I have ever gone more than a couple of days without speaking to someone in my entire life. And here I was, in the middle of a remote part of the Mongolian wilderness, alone, with two horses and only the SOS button on my ‘Spot Tracker’ there for me if I needed help. I definitely went through a brief i-think-i-am-going-crazy stage (around day 4 of being alone) as I had words and phrases and song lyrics just churning over and over through my head on repeat, but once I got through that I really settled into it and almost didn’t want to bump into any other people as it was so nice and peaceful to be alone.
The scenery was incredible, beautiful and varied and not exactly what I had expected to see. Sometimes I followed a trail, sometimes I blazed my own. The further north I went the harder the trails were to follow and they were less likely to coincide with what was on the map. Some trails were so overgrown that if I happened to move even just a metre to the side the trail would be lost. Some areas had very deep mud and bog with no way around it, and having your horses over and over sink into elbow deep bog was a horrible experience. I would plead with mother nature that the next section would be drier, sometimes it worked, often it didn’t. I lost count of how many times I crossed rivers and creeks. At one point I had to make a huge detour to cross a different section of the river as the original section was too deep from the recent rains. Even then the river was up above the horse’s shoulders, and once I had to have two goes at crossing the deep river because I chickened out before I got halfway and had to return to the riverbank and give myself a stern pep-talk.
Some of the mountain passes were steep, rocky, full of tree roots and muddy. I felt like the “Man From Snowy River” sliding down the steep trails. But whatever I was faced with these horses literally took it in their stride with very little discussion. Sometimes all I needed was a firm “Chu!” and they would go forward for me (“Chu” is the voice command for “go”. The command for stop is “Hoosh”). The horses here are strong, brave and incredibly tough. I will be forever grateful for my two beautiful horses, Jumper and Peter Pan, and what they carried me through.
The wildlife I encountered ranged from tiny birds darting in and out of bushes, to large eagles soaring up in the sky. I saw a fox being chased by a falcon, deer bounding across the trail, a weasel, marmots (and their damn hols they dig everywhere!), plenty of squirrels and there were fish in the lake that were teasing me when I tried to fish.
It was an amazing experience but not as relaxing as I had thought. Don’t get me wrong, there were so many amazing moments riding through some beautiful areas, but compared to doing a guided tour there was a lot to consider and manage and problems to solve each and every day. And I only had myself to rely on to make all the decisions. This was hard at times. Even the rest days were spent doing chores such as washing clothes, collecting and sterilising water, fixing gear etc. Some of the days were really long and tiring. Having two living beings dependent on you for their health and safety was at times stressful, especially as I did not know the area I was riding in, sometimes the navigation was really tricky and finding good grass in the northern areas was at times quite hard (thankfully there were plenty of rivers and creeks for water). I didn’t get a full night’s sleep the entire time as I was either getting up to check the horses were ok and/or hadn’t been stolen by horse thieves, wild animals waking me in the night, cows licking my tent, goats trying to get in my tent or due to wind and rain pelting my tent during the night. Some days the weather didn’t play along and it was cold and miserable. I got a bit sick of having to pack up my entire camp and fix it to my pack horse every day (but mind you, I got super quick at it by the end!). I got chaffing where nobody ever wants to get chaffing, and blisters on my butt that I had to tape up. Being on food rations of really boring food really sucked after a couple of weeks, and towards the end of the trek I was recovering from food poisoning and was quite miserable and was starting to feel lonely. But, the amount of personal growth I experienced has been immense, and once I worked through these tough challenges I had an amazing time.
I woke up one night at midnight to the sound of howling wolves very close to where I was camped. That was one of the most terrifying things to wake up to, especially when I was several day’s ride from the nearest nomadic family. I had been warned that there were wolves and bears in Khan Khentii, but that they would probably leave me and my horses alone during this time of year (compared to winter when there is less food around). My horses were grazing quietly and didn’t seem too perturbed by it all, but needless to say I didn’t sleep for the rest of the night. Instead I laid there with my axe in one hand, knife in the other and headtorch strapped to my head. Ready to jump out at any moment and yell and scream and wave sharp objects around…or something like that.
The worst moment of the trek (followed closely by the wolf encounter) would have to be when my horses decided to attempt an escape one morning. In the morning while I was getting myself organised and packing up camp I would untie them from their tethering ropes and let them graze some extra grass with just their hobbles on. Up until that day it had not been a problem. This morning however Peter Pan managed to slip out of one hobble making him more mobile and he recruited Jumper for a little bit of an adventure. Being so used to hearing them close by I noticed very quickly when they had moved further away. I couldn’t see them but heard them crashing through the 2m tall dense shrub at the edge of the clearing. I followed the sound and popped out on a wide trail to see them tottering along the trail away from camp (turns out they can still move quite quickly in hobbles when they really want to). My heart sank as panic set in. I was at least a couple of days riding from any nomadic family and although I had thought through a “plan B” incase my horses got lost/stolen/eaten by wolves, I didn’t actually want to execute it. I followed, and the closer I got to them the more speed they had and I was yelling “hoosh” at them (trying to control the panic in my voice) whilst running through muddy trails in my pyjamas. My slip on camp shoes got left behind in the mud and I continued to sprint after them barefoot after stopping for a quick nervous poo. Finally, after over a kilometre they stopped and I managed to catch them. I led them back to camp in silence, and I think they knew that they had been naughty. It didn’t happen again.
Don’t let my photos fool you about the weather, I obviously wasn’t taking photos in the pouring rain 😉 During my first 24 hours the weather was terrible. It rained almost the entire time, it was very windy and my tent blew over in the storm. I was miserable, my horses looked miserable and I was having serious doubts about what I had set myself up for. Thankfully the weather improved, and along with it my spirits did too. I was reasonably lucky with the weather. I had patches of rain some days, some rainy days, some snow falling on the mountains around me but many fine sunny days. The further north I went the colder the nights got, and most mornings I awoke to a frost-covered tent and frozen creeks.
For food I ate mostly oats, noodles, pasta and rice with a tin of tuna here and there. I managed to jazz it up a bit with pasta sauce and different spices but by the three week mark I was getting really sick of the same thing. And I had run out of snacks, most importantly (devastatingly) – chocolate. Thankfully as I got closer to civilisation on the way back there were small convenience stores in the villages where I could stock up on more food and snacks. Needless to say, there was a good binging session on really unhealthy food hehe.
The nomadic people in this country live in an incredibly beautiful but harsh environment. Most of them live in felt gers that are relocatable when they need to move their animals (either horses, cattle, sheep or goats – that all roam freely) to other areas for better grazing. It is a simple structure that has not changed much over the centuries, however now many of them are equipped with solar panels and TV’s. The nomadic people were incredibly friendly, welcoming and generous, and despite the large language barrier they would invite me, a complete stranger, into their homes and allow me to observe their way of life. On cold days they would call me over as I rode past and invite me in for tea (usually salted milky tea). I spent most of the nights camped out on my own, but when I was in the steppes or near the villages I would just ride up to a family and ask if I could camp near them. They all said yes and that meant that I could feel a little safer at night as horse thieves are less likely to steal horses from a family. Some would also invite me in for dinner (and breakfast in the morning), and a hot home-cooked meal was so great! (Even though it was usually just a slightly different version of the same thing – vegetable soup with mutton, and sometimes delicious dumplings). One family gave me a whole huge freshly caught fish to take with me on my travels. And one family was so kind to look after my horses for me when I was curled up in my tent with food poisoning, which I am pretty sure I got from something they fed me (the absolutely delicious cream/butter off the top of the milk served with national bread). I was out in the middle of a field on all fours for most of the night spewing my guts out with a storm raging above me and rain pelting down on my back. Fun.
One thing that was so great with spending time with the nomads was that they didn’t put their day on hold when I was there, they continued with tending to their animals, milking their cows and horses, herding their sheep, chopping firewood and everything else that needed to be done. I am so grateful for them letting me into their homes and getting a glimpse of their lives. They live so simply and yet appear so content and happy, which was really humbling to see.
When I had about five days to go I was taking a break by the river. It was cold and windy, I had just started to recover from the bout of nasty food poisoning and I was exhausted, weak and starting to feel really lonely and miserable. Then along came a knight in shining armour disguised as another miserable and exhausted solo trekker from the Netherlands. His greeting to me was “Hi, you look terrible”, which I must have done all pale and bundled up in all my warm clothes. He was also heading back to the same place as me with his horses and was due back on the same day. We decided to join forces for the remainder of the trip and quickly became friends. It was so great having someone else to talk to and share the experience with. As nice as it had been to do it alone, being able to share the decision making of where to camp and finding water and grass etc at this end stage of the trip when I was exhausted and miserable was really really great. We spent a lot of the time dreaming about having a shower, wearing clean clothes, sitting in a high-backed chair and all the food we were going to eat when we were back in Ulaanbaatar.
The scenery, the nomadic people I had the privilege to meet, the culture I got to experience and my two fantastic horses made this an absolutely amazing experience. I still miss hearing my horses grazing outside my tent at night.
Am I glad I did it? Without a doubt.
Will I do something similar again? Absolutely.
Do I have horse experience?
Yes, I have ridden horses for a large portion of my life and I work as a horse veterinarian. There are definitely people with no horse riding experience that set off on a solo trek, but I would not recommend that they ride into Khan Khentii alone. There were parts of the trails and terrain there that even made me nervous. The Terelj region would be a much safer option then and it is still really beautiful. I think the minimum amount of time to do a solo trek for would be 10 days, but I would recommend at least two weeks. Firstly it takes time to get places (usually longer than you think) and you don’t want to feel too much time pressure and do too many long exhausting days. Secondly it also takes time to get into the swing of things so you can relax a little and really enjoy it.
I basically arrived, got my gear sorted and headed off on my own after being in the country for 4 days. I would recommend that before setting off to go and spend a few days with a nomadic family with your horses (or get a guide to ride with you for a few days) to learn a bit more about the way of life and just to make the start a bit easier.
Where did I get my horses from?
I got two horses from a trekking company called Stepperiders. I spent a couple of days there with them for “training” and getting myself organised before I headed off. You technically ‘buy’ the horses from them and then sell them back to them when you return, but you only get any money back if they are un-injured (which mine were 🙂 they lost a little bit of weight but other than that they were fine). They also provided all the equipment I needed, however if I did this again I would have larger pack bags (as I had to also carry my duffle bag strapped to the top) and consider using a more comfortable saddle such as an endurance or stock saddle (because I got blisters on my butt and I even had to tape them up!).
My horses Jumper and Peter Pan were great! They were well trained, and although Peter Pan drove me bonkers sometimes by being slow and arrogant, they were actually really really wonderful horses that worked incredibly hard for me. My pack horse was probably carrying about 40kg (with food water and equipment), but they are capable of carrying much more.
What did I do with my horses at night?
The horses would wear hobbles and have their lead rope tethered to a long rope staked to the ground. They were amazing at getting around in their hobbles and would even lie down and roll with them on. I felt mean that they couldn’t run completely free, but I would have had to complete the trek on foot if that was the case. So I would tether the horses in a grassy area and move them last things before I went to bed and then first thing in the morning. If the grass was poor I would move them during the night too. They didn’t eat anything other than grass. We all lost a little bit of weight over the four weeks, but thankfully not too much. I tried to camp near a watersource if I could, otherwise I would find water for them in the evening and set off early in the morning to find water. Some of the nomadic families had a well and they would let me water my horses.
When did I go?
I rode from mid August to mid September. I had been told August was a good time of year to visit as it isn’t meant to rain much, however I still got a fair bit of rain. The days were mostly warm and the nights were often below freezing, but on the plus side I didn’t have many bugs annoying me. The grass was relatively good until I went deeper into Khan Khentii where it was colder and the frosts had started to kill the grass. If I was to have ridden longer then I would have needed to either do shorter days or have more rest days as the grass died off.
How did I decide where to go?
I had a rough idea of the places I could ride in before I left home, but it wasn’t until I got to Mongolia and could talk to the people at Stepperiders that I decided on where to go. One of the most important things to consider is the amount of rain they have had that season and where there will be food and water readily available for the horses, all local knowledge. I did have an option to transport my horses to another area and ride there instead, but due to the costs involved in doing that I decided to go somewhere that I could ride to from the Stepperider Camp.
How did I navigate?
I used a combination of a paper map, google maps and maps.me (both of these apps on my phone would give you an approximate location even when offline). The map didn’t always have the correct trails on it and the number of times I got frustrated with trails that just ended in the middle of a forest was multiple. A lot of the time I used the topographics of the region and my compass instead of the trails on the map to work out where I needed to go. I got off track a couple of times but didn’t get lost. I was also using a “Spot Tracker” to track where I was where my family could know that I was safe. It also has a “help” and “SOS” button to activate if I get into trouble.
I was surprised at how much phone signal I did have when I was close to the villages. All you had to do was climb the nearest hill and you had reception.
NOTE: pretty much the only place you can buy maps is in UB at either the Seven Summits store or at The Map Shop. And keep them safe from the wet!!
What did I do for food?
I packed about three weeks’ worth of food. This consisted of oats, noodles, pasta and rice with some tuna and condiments. I also had some snacks and comfort food. It was supplemented with some meals from the nomadic families, and re-stocking on supplies when I went through the villages on the way home. I cooked mostly with my gas stove, but when I was able to get a good fire going I would cook on the fire. I also had a mouse one night chew a hole in my brand new tent to get at my food that I had stored in my tent. The little bugger! I then had to spend a couple of minutes chasing it around my tent until I got it out!
The food from he nomadic families consisted of alot of mutton. Either in dumplings (steamed – buuz, fried – khuushuur) or in varying styles of soup with vegetables. They also love to eat big slices of pure fat, which I tried really hard to avoid. They also make their own “national bread” (boortsog) a dough that is rolled out, sliced and fried in oil or lard. I was often served süütei tsai (salted milky tea – it kindof grown on you), öröm (clotted cream – really declicious but definitely what gave me food poisoning), airag (fermented mares milk – tastes kindof like watery fizzy youghurt) and “Mongolian vodka” (distilled airag). And they love sugar! I watched many people eat plain sugar cubes like they were going out of fashion, as well as candies.
How far did I ride each day?
It really varied depending on the terrain, weather and what we had done the previous days. The longest day was a little over 7 hours of riding time and about 35km. But some days were only a couple of hours and about 10km. I had a few rest days along the way, both for myself and for the horses to have a rest. That involved moving the horses every couple of hours to new grass and washing clothes in the river, collecting firewood, collecting and sterilising water for myself, repairing gear, reading, painting/sketching and exploring a little bit in the surrounding region.
Was it dangerous?
I would say that anything with horses is potentially dangerous. They are an animal with their own mind and instincts and it doesn’t have to take a big dramatic fall to do serious injury to the rider. Then throw in difficult and uneven terrain and you have a higher possibility for an accident to happen. I fell off twice – once I leaned over to fix something and spooked Jumper and he jumped sideways and I fell to the ground. The other time Jumper tripped on something and basically fell on his face and I did a fairly dramatic roll off. Both times I was 100% fine. This is probably where I confess to my mother that I did not wear a helmet the entire time. I had planned to, as in the past I have had some serious falls and have been hospitalised, but at one point my helmet was absolutely drenched from pouring rain, so I had clipped it to my pack horse to let it dry while I rode. After over an hour navigating through some horrendously difficult forest with no trail it was missing – and there was no way I was going to go back to find it. I learned that I should not strap anything to the outside of my packs (I also lost a jumper and my mallot along the way, and my fishing line got caught in a tree and I didn’t notice until it was almost completely wound out).
The other dangers I was warned of was wild animals, horse thieves, drunk people (near the villages), water-borne disease (I boiled and sterilised all my water) and injuries to your horses. These injuries could either be as devastating as a fractured leg or as seemingly small as a rub from your tack which meant that you couldn’t keep riding until they were healed (eg rubs on the back of the horses from the saddles – mine got some very very small sores that were healed within 24 hours, thank goodness. But I have heard horror stories of people continuing to ride with saddle sores and creating huge problems for the horses). As a veterinarian I had a good first aid kit for my horses with me, however I was advised by a local that if my horses got a wound I should pour the urine of a young boy on it, but if I couldn’t find a young boy to pee on my horse, that my urine would do ;).
Did I learn any Mongolian?
I tried and mostly failed. I learnt a few words and phrases, but my pronunciation was so terrible at times that I instead ended up doing a lot of sign language to ask if I could camp with a family etc. The funniest one was when I had to demonstrate going to the toilet so they could point me in the right direction (which was either a pit toilet or just somewhere behind the trees).
The nomads didn’t seem to mind my lack of language, they would just laugh at me and continue to talk to me in full sentences, of which I understood very little/nothing.
What did I give the nomads in exchange for letting me camp near them?
I brought a variety of small gifts with me for the families. The best things to give them are things from your home country or things that they can’t easily access. I brought postcards with Australian animals, Australian flag sew on patches, pocket knives, small perfume samples and moisturisers (the women loved these!), small hair clips for the girls, colouring pencils and books for the kids. Some people buy cigarettes as this is a way to get on the good side with the men, however I am really against smoking and didn’t want to encourage it. Alcohol is a no-no, alcoholism in Mongolia is a big problem and it should not be encourage. As well as candy, they already eat enough sugar and have terrible dental hygiene, so don’t encourage this either.
What gear did I bring?
- Camping gear:
- tent (Marmot Catalyst 2p – so happy with the decision to go for a two man tent. It meant alot more space for my gear and more comfort for spending four weeks in it)
- sleeping mat – Exped Synmat 7 (super comfortable and insulating)
- sleeping bag
- pillow – Exped REM (don’t judge me for spending over $50 AUD on a pillow – it was amazing and I slept so well with it)
- Cooking equipment – Jetboil and a pot to cook on a campfire. But, the fuel for my Jetboil I could only get from the Seven Summits store in UB (and it was expensive). I got away with using two 460g gas cannisters over the four weeks but I was being really stingy with my gas. I would recommend getting a small gas camping stove from the Black Market in UB that you can use the gas bottles readily bought from any convenience store in the villages along the way.
- Food – see above
- Clothing – riding clothes (I rode in jodhpurs the entire time – so much better to reduce chaffing than normal pants with seams down the inside) and night clothes (icebreaker thermals) + a warm down jacket
- I bought some really great riding boots from the Black Market (Naaran Tuul) in Ulaanbaatar. It is important to wear shoes without grip on them so that if you fall your foot will slide out of the stirrup. I also had imitation-“Crocks” as camp shoes – the best decision as all you have to do at night when you pop out to the loo or to check the horses is slip them on.
- Spade (for the digging of poop holes) and axe (for chopping wood and hammering in the thethering stakes)
- Goal Zero Nomad 20 solar panel + power bank
- First aid kit for my horses and for myself
- Headlamp and torch
- Many dry bags – all those river crossings and rainy weather!
If anyone wants a super detailed packing list just let me know and I can email it to you
Would I change anything for next time?
- I would have different larger pack bags (the ones I had were far too small, meaning I had to carry my duffle bag aswell which didn’t sit as nicely), small saddle bags for my riding horse for small items, and a more comfortable saddle (potentially bringing one from home). But here the most important thing is that it fits the horse well first! I would also potentially bring some elastic tie-down straps to help secure things to the pack saddle.
- I would bring more rubber bands and spare ziplock bags for my food.
- I would bring ear plugs. I didn’t bring any because I wanted to be able to hear my horses, but some nights when the cows wouldn’t stop bellowing or the wind was flapping the tent like crazy I wish I had some.
- A broad-brimmed hat. I wore a cap the entire time but I wish I’d brought an Akubra.
- Some dehydrated meals to provide some more variety in the food.
- I would bring photos of my family and life back home (or have more of these photos on my phone), as the locals loved to see what my life was like.
- A small world map wouldn’t be a bad idea to bring as the locals liked to see where I was from in the world and it was hard to show them on the small google maps on my phone.
. . .
I would like to thank the horsemen at Stepperiders for giving me such well trained beautiful horses for my trip.
I would also like to thank Tim Cope (the author of ‘On The Trail of Genghis Khan: An epic journey through the land of the nomads’) who generously took the time to speak to me on the phone a couple of times and give me tips and advice for my trip.