In which a team of British horsewomen penetrates some of the wildest terrain on earth
The girl behind the counter in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital, hands me a crumpled pile of notes and coins, all covered with horses. Such is the animal’s importance to the Mongolian people that their image graces the currency, along with that of the great Mongolian revolutionary, Sukhbaatar. I decide that this is a good sign for my horse trek in the northern province of Khovsgol.
I meet the rest of my group, five British women all keen to get as far away from civilization as possible. Each is an accomplished horsewoman.
Another day’s journeying by plane and jeep leads to a restful night in the basic but adequate Tsaatan Community and Visitors’ Centre in Tsagaan Nuur, one of Mongolia’s most remote towns.
Set on a vast plain, the two-storey building, with a pitched roof and a balcony, and surrounded by a pretty blue and white banister, looks straight out of a fairytale.
The only off note is the trail of blood left by the lamb carcass being dragged up through the house to “age” on the balcony. Luckily, the smiling butcher tidies the mess quickly. Well, most of it. The remnants remind me of why I’m a vegetarian. As the fat-laden smoke from dinner preparations infiltrates the house, I rest on my thin, dirty mattress in the basic, unpainted wooden bedroom, downing the cheap vodka we bought at the only shop around.
In the morning we set off to visit the Tsaatan (Reindeer) people. Known for their reverence to the official religion Shamanism, they live in such a remote location that the only way to get there is by horse. Our bags are tied firmly to the pack horses. I feel sorry making them carry such a heavy load.
We get used to our semi-wild ponies on the open Mongolian steppe, where they have plenty of potential fetlock-breaking marmot holes to dodge. This causes no problem for the sure-footed ponies, and we are soon relaxed, enjoying the expansive land and sky.
Some of us would love to name our ponies, and an eclectic mix of names are banded about, to much laughter. But Tomo, a Mongolian boy accompanying us, thinks we are half mad.
“We give no names to ponies,” he sternly instructs. He senses our confusion. “It’s not because we don’t love them,” he explains. “It’s because we respect them as their own beings. They are not our
children.” It seems I must drop my idea of calling my mare “Kylie.”
In no time we are faced with steep slopes lined with larch forests. For a moment I feel as though I’ve been dropped in Bavaria, but the sound of our guide, who loves to gently sing to his horses in the local dialect, reminds me that I most definitely am in Mongolia.
My saddle is too old, too small and too lopsided to be comfortable, as it slips around on my dun-colored mare, her belly stretched from having too many foals. But I soon forget about that, as the forest opens up to harsh but exhilarating scenery: mountainous terrain that seems to extend to eternity. My body relaxes, expanding in the extra space.
Though it’s midsummer, it’s cold, with the remnants of winter snow still packed up against the fast-flowing river. At an altitude of nearly 10,000 feet, the air is thin. This affects the ponies; their fast, choppy trot gives way to a walk as they negotiate deep bogs. We do our best to be as little a burden as possible, by sitting still and concentrating hard.
Nearly halfway through our seven-hour trek, Mongolia is failing to live up to its promo as the “land of the eternal blue sky.” It’s pouring. Draped in our wet-weather gear, we plod on. By now I’ve decided to help my sturdy mare out, by dismounting and walking, if only to give her moral support. She is so small that I can rest an arm over her neck, draped heavy with half a soaked mane, the upper half having been hogged off. It seems to be the fashion here, though no one can tell me why. I squelch through a bog, regaining energy. Maybe those shamanic spirits are working their magic!
It’s 9:30 at night when we enter the temporary nomadic village of teepees, erected around a small, muddy stream in a valley bordered by snowy peaks in the Eastern (zuun) taiga. Grubby children are waving; barking dogs and curious reindeer join the welcoming committee. With horses unsaddled and left to graze on the tough, native vegetation with the reindeer, we are ushered into the closest teepee by our shaman host, Ganbaa.
We leave our muddy shoes outside, so as not to dirty the odd pieces of lino that cover the earth floor, and warm up by the central fire. Comfortably propped up on old cushions, we enjoy a basic meal of salted, warm reindeer milk and bread. Who needs Michelin-starred restaurants?
As we eat, the women clean and store large cooking pots. The children prepare for bed. They clean their teeth, and return the toothbrushes to pouches made of old rice bags, hung above a
television that looks out of place here.
Tushig, our local guide, is a city-dweller who seems a little uncomfortable here. Through his translation help, we get to know our hosts, a community of 80 people and 200 reindeer. They are part of a larger group, the Tuva, who live in southern Siberia.
“Their reindeer are used for transport, milk, fur and antler products, but not for meat,” Ganbaa explains. We learn that there is a particular way of opening a teepee door to avoid offending the spirits. This is accompanied by a lengthy and animated demonstration by Ganbaa, who explains that spirits take payment for consultations in the currency of vodka and sweets.
The community take their beliefs very seriously, with the shaman warning of the places in this part of Siberia to avoid, as they are either sacred or inhabited by evil spirits.
The Tsataan rely on nature for everything, and so treat their environment with great respect. It is a message that makes me think reconsider my disposable, city life.
After the dogs have been kicked out, we collapse into bedding laid out for us in our own teepee. Maybe not the cleanest, it is warm and inviting after the long day, and we doze off to the sound of clacking reindeer feet.
Former London hedge fund trader Rebecca Ashton blogs at Hedge Funds to Hedgerows.
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