After Japan, I had a brief stopover in Seoul, South Korea, because flights to Ulan Bator are fairly limited (HK, Seoul, Beijing and Russia are the top/only places with direct flights.
In Seoul, I met up briefly with a friend from Shanghai, who showed me around a neat new Korean-hipster area that is being built in old, traditional Korean-style wooden houses. I ate Great Food (because Korea), including this strange cold glass noodle in a sesame sauce that a college friend, Ji-Eun recommended to me.
Unfortunately that weekend, Ji-Eun was in Jeju (Oh, Jeju!) so we were only able to meet up briefly the morning before my flight to UB. However, in that brief meeting, Ji-Eun managed to be the Best Hostess ever, treating me to lunch and making sure I had food for the plane, and even gifting me with a selfie stick and instructions to Take More Pictures.
And so, in the beginning of September 2017, I went off I went to Ulaanbaatar.
alternately, Ulaanbaatar, Ulan Bator, or, my personal favorite, simply UB for short. (Fun fact: almost half of Mongolia’s entire population lives in UB.)
The first thing I noticed when I landed in UB (after making my way through the very small airport, exchanging some money, and suddenly learning–because I do no research–that it is roughly 2,450 Mongolian Tubruk to the US dollar and holy shit, that’s a lot of bills) was that Mongolians use the Cyrillic alphabet.
Oh god, I thought as my taxi took me into the city and we passed signs with a mix of Bs, backwards Rs, and then some other things that looked like squares and boxes and more. (We also passed a lot of horse statues, and some camel statutes, but those were to be expected.) Why was I so unprepared for the Cyrillic in Mongolia? After some thinking, I realized it was because Inner Mongolia — which is actually a Chinese province — still uses the old Mongolian script. Having lived in China for three years, most of my impressions of Mongolia actually come from Chinese advertisements of Inner Mongolia. As the intrepid Alena pointed out to me, if you tell anyone in China you’re going to Mongolia, they just assume you’re talking about Inner Mongolia, so you have to specify, “I’m going to Mongolia, the actual country Mongolia.”
Anyway, in total, I spent about a month in UB wandering around, eating Korean food (there is a lot of Korean food in UB), and learning how to ride finicky Mongolian horses. Instead of boring you with the details of my 25 days there, here are the highlights.
Stepperiders Ger Camp — First Day
Stepperiders was the name of a camp outside UB, which took anywhere from 30 minutes to 1.5 hours to drive to, depending on the traffic, which is absolutely horrendous in UB. Since there was no internet to be had at Stepperiders, unless you climbed up the hill, and because I still needed internet to do work every day, I ended up going to Stepperiders for day rides. In the mornings I went, they would pick me up between 9 and 10, and then I’d be back in UB anywhere between 5 and 8 PM.
That was the other thing I learned about Mongolia: they kind of run on their own time, which is to say, things happen when they happen. My first day I was supposed to be picked up at 9, and because it was raining, I didn’t actually get picked up until a bit after 10. When the car did come for me, driven by a Mongolian guy who introduced himself as Rincent or Rintsen or Rinsen — I asked a lot of times, as did a bunch of other people, and we were only able to determine that no, his name was not Vincent — I met the first of many people I was going to meet through Stepperiders: a Japanese-American guy, and two French guys who were all going on a 5-day trek.
I’m not going to lie, I was very envious of all the people I met going on days-long horse treks I couldn’t do because of work. On the other hand, it was cool to be in and out of the camp and get to meet a lot of the people either heading off on their treks, or coming back from them.
On my first day at Stepperiders, there were a lot of people about to head off: Michael, Nils and Alex were going on a 5-day trek together; Shivom and Matt were going on a 7+ day trek (I can’t actually remember how many days it was supposed to be), and Jurgen and Sanborn were going on a 3 day trek. However, seven of us (Matt had gone back into UB to retrieve his luggage, which Aeroflot lost, surprise surprise) went on a three-hour ride together that first afternoon to gain instruction on how to ride a horse.
It should be noted that Mongolian horses would generally be called ponies in the West, where horses are larger. Also, they’re half-wild: every morning, Stepperiders horsemen start the day by going off to find the horses and herd them into a large pen. Then they wrangle the number of horses they need for that day, saddle them up, and shoo the rest off.
So anyway, there we were, seven foreigners learning how to ride half-wild Mongolian steppe pony/horses.
Our instructions went something like this: “Always get up on the left side. Don’t walk behind the horse, they might kick. Okay. You up? Good. Pull back like this to make him stop. Say “choo” to make him go. Turn like this.”
“Choo,” I told my horse.
My horse did not go. Neither did anyone else’s.
So there we were, seven foreigners sitting sheepishly on top of the horses, all whispering or yelling “Choo! Choo! Choo!” while our horses didn’t budge. Occasionally, my horse would yank the reins out of my grip so he could lean down and nom on the grass.
Another thing about Mongolian horses: they are incredibly stubborn. Only when the guides got onto their horses and starting coming up alongside ours, whispering ch-ch-ch, which was both a deeper and shorter noise than our desperate choos, did our horses go. Thankfully, once we got started, the horses all seemed content to be herd-like and follow each other along. They quickly separated themselves into the friskier horses, who tended to lead the pack, and the lazier horses, who had to constantly be chastised into going faster. I had the (mis?)(fortune?) of having a friskier horse.
In the front of the pack, Shivom, Sanborn and I would occasionally hear, “Choo, choo,” as one of the other riders tried to catch up to the rest of us. Their horses rarely heeded the call; however, my horse, Shivom’s, and Sanborn’s would, and immediately start speeding up, forcing us to pull back on the reins to slow down. And then, of course, my horse would sometimes just stop completely and yank his head down to eat.
So on my first day of riding I learned:
- horses are stubborn, and strong
- they basically just do what they want, and you’re along for the ride,
- unless you’re one of the guides, in which case they would mostly listen
- keeping to a schedule in Mongolia is like trying to get a horse to do what you want it to: it just doesn’t work
- Mongolian names and words are very hard to pronounce.
Second Day at Stepperiders
On my second day at Stepperiders, which was a few days after the first, I had the (mis?)(fortune?) of riding a horse I dubbed Frisky. (The horses don’t actually have names.)
Frisky, I later learned, was a young horse. Frisky, I learned immediately upon mounting up, was a horse with a lot of energy who liked to run a lot. Regardless of whether I wanted to or not, Frisky would take off into a gallop whenever he felt he had enough room to gallop.
“Pull up!” Undrakh, one of the Stepperiders employees I spent a lot of time riding with yelled. She motioned pulling back on the horse’s reins.
I pulled back on Frisky’s reins.
Frisky chewed at the bit, and ran on.
Eventually, I learned that in order to get Frisky to stop, I would have to pull to the side and turn him around in circles so he couldn’t keep running. That morning, we met up with Sanborn and Jurgen (Frisky ran towards them) coming back from their three-day trek, and then returned to camp with them (Frisky ran back towards camp.)
Stepperiders — White Guy
On another day at Stepperiders, I met Anja, from Austria. Anja actually rides horses, and she was volunteering at Stepperiders. I learned a lot about horses, and actually riding them, from Anja. It’s safe to assume anything I have written about horses and their habits here, I probably learned it from Anja.
On one of the days that I rode with Anja, I rode a horse I dubbed White Guy. White Guy wasn’t actually pure white — he had a lot of dark spots. He was also very competitive and loved to run: any time any other horse began running, White Guy would start too. White Guy had to be at the front of the pack — he hated being in last place. Occasionally, Abu, the guide with us the day I was riding White Guy, would come up behind me and start whispering ch-ch. He only had to say it once or twice, and boom, White Guy would be galloping off with me.
At one point, White Guy was galloping along a flat stretch of land, completely outpacing the other horses because he was White Guy and nobody could tell White Guy what to do. That’s when I noticed the ditch in front of us.
“Hosh!” I yelled at White Guy, while pulling on the reins. “Hosh, hosh!” (I had learned, on day I rode Frisky, that ‘hosh’ is theorhetically the opposite of ‘choo’. It works just about as well as ‘choo’.)
Then I realized we were getting too close to the ditch for White Guy to stop in time. “Hosh!” turned into “OH CRAP!” and then White Guy leapt over the ditch.
Completely unprepared, I slammed into the saddlehorn. That aside, it was actually kind of awesome.
Anja pulled up alongside me afterwards on her horse. “I tried to catch up!” she said, and showed me what she had done with her reins to urge her young stallion along. “Were you doing that too?”
I shrugged helplessly at her. “White Guy does what he wants.”