The highlight of mine and Alena’s time in Mongolia together came after our Mongolian Olle adventure: we went on a three day horse trek.
The horse trek began with Alena heading off to Stepperiders camp, to spend Thursday evening in a ger there. I stayed in UB to get some last minute work done, and joined her in the morning.
interlude on Russian
(warning: this is kind of a nerdy story, so you can move on down to the story of the horses if you find your eyes start to glaze over!)
During our brief and early lunch late Friday morning, I began trying to learn to count in Russian, and met my third Russian nemesis (my first nemesis is Alena’s Russian name, Alyona, which is deceptively difficult to pronounce because the l is a “soft” l, whatever that means; my second nemesis was vkusno which means “delicious”, but you try pronouncing a v and k together without saying “veekusno”!)
My third Russian nemesis was the number 5, pronounce pyat, except the t, like the l of Alyona, is also a “soft” sound.
However, Alena realized realized that I could pronounce these tricky words in certain combinations. For example, I can actually pronounce the “vk” combination in vkusno if I put something in front of it — such as nye, or not. So I can essentially, I can say “not delicious” properly. Alena joked that I should just say everything nye-nye vkusno or not-not-delicious, and complement my food with a double negative.
The same went for five. I can (sort of) say fifteen (pyatnadtsat) which adds some sounds after the pyat, but not pyat on its own.
Anyway, I was getting frustrated over this five-fifteen soft-t situation when the Stepperiders cook came into the ger to clear away our plates.
“Oh god,” I said to Alena. “I can say fifteen but not five. Is this going to be another nye-vkusno situation?”
And then the cook gave me a very dirty look, at which point I remembered nye-vkusno is not just a series of sounds I can mostly pronounce, but also a phrase that means “Not delicious” in Russian… and most Mongolians know a bit of Russian.
It was a good thing we left for our horse trek after that.
Maverick, the Troublemaker, and the Cow
After Alena got the Stepperiders introduction to riding a horse (“get up on the left, pull to make him stop, choo means go, and turn this way, okay read,? let’s go.”) we headed off.
Alena has never been on a horse before. She was on a larger brown one whom we eventually called Maverick, because Maverick always did his own thing: our guide, on a black and white horse we called The Cow for its coloring and slow plodding, headed off down the hill. I followed on a tan horse. Maverick did not follow at all — or at least, not until our guide doubled back on The Cow to coax Maverick along.
And so we set off on our glorious adventure, one where my horse kept trying to trot off and turn around back towards camp, and Alena’s kept trying to stop. Full stop, and go no further, and then Ocean, our horse guide, would have to go back and chivvy him on again.
Maybe thirty minutes later, we finally hit a nice flat patch of land.
“You can gallop here,” Ocean, our horse guide, told us.
So I urged my horse into a gallop. He was both faster than I anticipated, and also veered sharply right, trying to return home. I don’t know why I was surprised — he’d been trying to make a break back for camp for the past half hour, only now he was doing it at full speed. And then, to my right, I saw Alena hanging onto her horse, which galloped along behind me, because this was the moment that Maverick finally decided to go along with the crowd.
I managed to get my horse to slow to a stop, which in turn made Maverick stop.
Alena and I both survived, but my horse was dubbed the Troublemaker thereafter. The guide, sensing Maverick’s intractability, also decided to swap horses with Alena once he caught up to us.
The rest of the day proceeded more calmly, though every once in a while The Cow would be so slow Ocean had ride back to Alena, and then hold onto The Cow’s reins to pull him along.
On the first day, we rode for probably about six hours (I think; I never remember what time it is or how long things take), until we reached the national park, which really actually wasn’t that far from UB. It was, at times, peaceful; at other times, it was jaw-achingly bouncy; and all the time, it was really beautiful. I also had periods of surprising aloneness — because the Troublemaker, surprise surprise, sometimes fell way behind Ocean and Alena, or insisted on walking way in front of everyone. This kind of movement mixed with solitude was one of the things I enjoyed most about the Jeju walk Alena and I went on, and it’s now made doing a longer solo-trek in Mongolia a bucket list item.
Our group for the three-day trek also included the eager Mama, a guard dog who had recently been spayed. Once, when I was walking out of Stepperider’s main ger to go use the bathroom, a couple of cows crossed the stone pathway. Mama, seeing I was headed towards where the cows were blocking the road, leapt up and darted towards the cows, growling them out of the way. She has a ferocious growl, but it was so cute that she was protecting me, I couldn’t properly intimidated by it. Unfortunately, for some reason Mama is constantly bleeding from her bum. It was so sad, but she just trotted (and occasionally darted off to sniff at some puddles of water or stalk some small animals) alongside us, endlessly cheerful.
That evening, we arrived in a small clearing in the woods to find Bagi with the carful of supplies our bags. He’d already set up the tents and laid out the sleeping pads and sleeping bags (two sleeping backs plus at least three blankets for each of us; we knew it was going to get cold). He has also had del, or deel, the traditional Mongolian jacket. He lent me one he had made for himself when he was younger — his family made del.
Usually, the del is supposed to be tied around the waist — kinda like an obi for a kimono or yukata — but I didn’t bother.
That night, Bagi and Ocean made a very warm and delicious mutton veggies rice thing for dinner, which was served with vodka, and we shivered in the cold looking at the stars. While listening to a strange mix of western pop music, Mongolian and western rap, and in one instance a country song, which blared from the car’s speakers. At one point, Alena saw dark shapes walk by through the trees.
“Are there cows and horses in the park?”
“No,” our guides said. “Only bears.”
“They looked like bears,” Alena said.
“I’m pretty sure they weren’t bears, Alena,” I said, a little uncertainly. I was mostly sure.
When the Ghengis Khan Gold vodka was gone (I had one sip and could not drink more; Alena says vodka is practically a tradition for her) and we couldn’t stand the cold any more, Alena and I bundled ourselves up in as many clothes as we had. Alena had at least two shirts and two jackets on, I think heat-tech tights, and two additional pairs of leggings or pants, and thick wool socks. I put on two shirts and two jackets, heattech tights and another pair of leggings, and then was SO warm I thought I was going to suffocate and rushed to get the clothes off of me. So I ended up just back in a tshirt and heat-tech tights.
Prepared for sleep, we bundled up in our own sleeping bags we had packed, which we put inside the other two sleeping bags, bundled under a bunch of blankets, and went to sleep.
In the morning, we woke up very slowly, to the sounds of hundreds of people, including packs of students, entering the park. In a clearing next to ours, a company had split into different colored teams and were doing some kind of hiking team building exercise/challenge. After a breakfast of hot dogs, eggs, toast, and these surprisingly good storebought bag of this pastry stuffed with jam, we rode through the park up to the ruins of a monastery.
Tying the horses up by the monastery ruins, we hiked up to the top of this hill ridge thing behind it, and tromped through the woods a bit. (“Are we lost?” I asked Alena at one point. “Dude,” she said. “I think so.”) We weren’t lost. We made it back down to the monastery just fine with our guide.
After visiting the monastery’s one maintained building, we got back onto the horses and rode back to our camp.
At camp, we a lunch of mutton veggies noodles thing, helped pack up the car with our sleeping things, and then got back up onto the horses to start riding in a loop. It was beautiful. Some of the best scenery of the trip.
There’s a rainbow in this one!
We also discovered what it is literally like to ride into the sunset. Spoiler alert: kind of painful. We squinted a lot, and I took a picture nearly blind, and we only saw the beauty in the photo when we looked at it later.
That evening, we rode on for a long time. It started to get dark. “Do you have a phone?” Ocean asked me.
I did, but it couldn’t make calls.
So we rode on a bit more. Then we stopped at a set of gers. Ocean dismounted and called through the closed door, asking to borrow a phone.
A whole family slowly trickled out, first someone with a phone, then more when they realized there were two foreigners there.
Ocean successfully called Bagi, and we rode on even further. It was a bit dark by the time we got off the horses, and then Bagi came driving up in the car. The horses, which Ocean had tied together, immediately ran off when Bagi approached.
So then Ocean leapt into the car, told us to stay, and he and Bagi drove off to go chase the horses. Alena and I shivered together, appreciating the beauty and also shivering, while we waited for the horses to be retrieved.
Finally they came back, and it was quite dark at this point. We all worked quickly to put the tents up and everything, and managed to get them up before full dark. Bagi had a headlamp and started cooking a mutton vegetables and ricey soup for dinner. Alena and I wandered off into the distance to do our business with my headlamp, and the ever faithful and Eternally Bleeding Mama accompanied us.
After taking care of our business (aka peeing in the dark,) Alena and I hid in the tent from the wind, while Bagi and Ocean hid in the car, while the food cooked. Finally, when it was ready, we brought it back into an small enclosed area before our tent to eat out of the wind, while Bagi and Ocean ate in the car. It was the kind of cold where we kept saying, “I know I should wait for it to cool down, but actually I’m going burn my whole mouth just to get this warm food in me.”
In the morning, the wind proved too much for our accommodations.
In addition to being frigidly cold with the wind whipping right through the tent, it was also comically bent, pressed in on Alena in her corner and tilted enough that I struggled to get out. After a few half-hearted efforts to get the tent back to rights(ish), I went off into the distance — the very bright, flat, unprotected distance — to poo. (#everybodypoops #especiallyme)
When I returned to camp, I was a little more awake and paid more attention to everything around us. Not only was our tent practically squashed in the wind, but Bagi’s and Ocean’s had pulled up stakes and was practically on top of them. In addition to that, only Cow and Maverick, who had been tied to the car, were still around. The Troublemaker had gone off somewhere.
At that point, Alena was awake too. We struggled together with the tent for a bit, before we gave up and sat in the car, where we found those pastry-snack things with the strawberry jam, and napped out of the wind. When Ocean and Bagi got up, Ocean untied The Cow and rode off, without even a saddle, in search for The Troublemaker.
By the time we finished eating breakfast, it was clear that The Troublemaker was not going to be found. Luckily, we weren’t too far from the Stepperiders camp at this point. Ocean saddled Maverick for me, and put Alena on the Cow again, and then he climbed onto the back of Bagi’s car and we went from there.
The rest of our trip took a few hours, and went very smoothly — the only pause being when Ocean thought he saw The Troublemaker off into the distance, and then got into the car so he and Bagi could drive after him. He told me and Alena to go very slowly, and in that direction, before leaving us.
So Alena and I plodded off by ourselves, in the direction that we’d last seen the car go in. Eventually, we happened upon Ocean, alone and sans car, and he guided us the last stretch back to Stepperiders — and on foot! (And he was still faster than we could get our horses to go…)
Later that night, when we got back to our Airbnb in UB that evening, our Anja the Stepperiders volunteer — who had been staying at our Airbnb while we were gone — treated us to her best interpretation of sweet and savory Austria-Hungarian crepes.
And now that I’ve finally written about my time in Mongolia way back in September — Happy (belated, of course) New Year!