So, why Mongolia?
This may seem like a very unlikely explanation coming from someone who is not traditionally any good with surprises… But, Mongolia was a very different style of destination choice for us. I officially managed to surprise Gavin for his not-to-be-talked-about significant turning of age, with a horse trek in Mongolia.
He knew we had two weeks off, but it wasn’t until he woke up on the morning of his birthday and I handed him his passport, complete with a Mongolian visa inside, that he found out where we were going; AND that he now had three and a half hours to go and get kitted out with clothes and boots suitable for horse trekking across the steppe of Mongolia!
We have both grown up riding horses and so the challenge of a horse ride was not completely unexpected. The destination choice of Mongolia was a bucket list destination for both of us!
Quickly, about Mongolia
Land size: 1,566,000 km2 (605,000 sq mi)
Religion: Buddhism (53%), Non-religious (39%), Islam (3%) Other (5%)
Highlights from Mongolia
Hustai National Park
For our first day out in Mongolia, we had an amazing day trip out to Hustai National Park. Through our hostel in Ulaanbaatar we found a driver to take us, and headed for Mongolia’s Töv Province. The park is a huge conservation area, known for its population of wild takhi (Przewalski’s horse) and its ger (yurt) camps.
Despite the language barrier, Gavin and our driver Tuvchuu, spent most of the two hour trip discussing every kind of truck brand that passed; and the pros and cons of each…
Whilst looking to the other side of the road, I admired the hundreds of horses, goats and Gers we passed. And the mountains that seemed to unfold forever!
The Przewalski horse, for which the park is famous for, are renowned as being the only surviving species of wild horse that remains; officially the last truly wild horses on the planet. It was surreal to be there and see them in the wild.
Riding across the Mongolian Steppe
That was what we had come for!
We booked a trek with SteppeRiders, and stayed at their yurt camp on either side of our trek. The first night of our trek we camped in Bogd Khan Uul National Park. The next nights we stayed in yurts with a nomadic herder family.
Our trek took us through forests and villages, emerging for a first night camped out in the forest near the ruined Manzushir Monastery. It was pretty awesome to wander the deserted monastery site, trying to comprehend the size of Buddhism in Mongolia before the repression.
We shared a Mongolian meal with the herders back at camp, and had to pinch ourselves that we were really actually here…
The next day we emerged from the forest out onto the infinite rolling hills of the steppe. It was like nothing we have seen before; there are no fences, no buildings, no boundaries, no borders in sight… Just the open hills, and the sound of your horse underneath you.
Staying with a nomadic herder family
Staying with a nomadic family was an unforgettable experience. Perhaps the best part of our entire horse trek in Mongolia. We hobbled our horses for the night and just hung out in the open spaces amongst the three yurts that the family had set up for their summer pastures.
It was breathtaking in vastness – there wasn’t a road for miles. And inspiring to see how they live so independently and self-sufficiently, making the most of their livestock and the routines that they had practiced for generations.
Playing Mongolian Shagai
Move over fidget-spinners… Our driver Tuvchuu introduced us to a whole new craze; Mongolian Shagai. Basically a very literal variation of knucklebones.
And dammit, I was beaten by both him and Gavin!
One thing that challenged us…
Although we rode in Russian-style saddles, the horsemen all used traditional Mongolian saddles. They sort of manage to perch above the wooden frame, and mostly ride standing up in the stirrups.
We had more basically styled Russian saddles. And, although they had more leather in than the herders’ ones; they were still very much made of wood… Let me tell you, that after three days of solid riding, the wooden framing becomes VERY noticeable! Plan ahead for your horse trek in Mongolia and make sure you are comfortable. (Trust me on this one!).
I was glad for having chosen riding jodhpurs that offered a touch more padding in the bottom region. But I was also very grateful for one of the horsemen noticing the uneven padding in my well-worn saddle, and adding extra to it on the second day. An appreciated gesture… albeit slightly too late by that time anyway!
Where we stayed
- Ulaanbaatar: Zaya Hostel [very well organised hostel in centre of town; nice common spaces; friendly and knowledgeable staff; breakfast included; airport pickup; walking distance to restaurants, supermarkets].
- Bogd Khan Uul Park: SteppeRiders [horse trekking agency from the outskirts of Ulanabaatar; well-organised, with great communication and a whole range of trek lengths/abilities].
Getting to Mongolia
We flew from New Zealand via Beijing, China. Make sure you check the visa requirements for whichever country you are entering Mongolia from. We flew to Ulanbaataar from Beijing, but our exit flight out of Mongolia went via Beijing AND Shanghai. Check ahead if you are visiting China to make sure you don’t need a transit visa. [You can read about that mistake here].
Ulaanbaatar Chingis Khan International Airport is approximately 20km from the centre of the city. It is easy to arrange a pickup from the airport from your hotel or hostel.