Last year I spent 12 days on an adventure tour in Mongolia. We spent these days in an ex-Russian army van driving along dirtpaths (roads don’t really exist in Mongolia) which is somewhat akin to trying to stay seated inside a washing machine.
We left the capital, Ulan Bator, and despite the discomfort of the transport one became distracted by the landscapes. Mongolia is a nomadic country. As such there are no fences; the sky and rolling hills create the horizon. One has the feeling of a giant park, seeing only horses, yaks, sheep, goats and occassionally a white round tent known as a Ger. These are the tradicional Mongolian nomadic home.
We would make stops along the journey to walk through valleys of dinosaur relics, – drinking the traditional Mongolian alcoholic beverage of fermented mare’s milk (an acquired taste, not for everyone) – and listening to the van drivers’ mix tapes; a mix of mongolian traditional throat singing and George Michael’s greatest hits….
At the southern-most point we reached the Gobi desert where we rode a camel. The camels in the Gobi are the only ones in the wordl with 2 humps. This leads to a very confortable seat as the rider is abkle to lean their back against one hump and rest their arm on top of the hump in front of them. Although the stride of the camel is not exactly fluid, and it’s scent is not as romantic as tolerable as that of the horse.
Going up the west side of the country we reached a beautiful lake where we spent a night with a family of sheep and goat herders.
We were a group of 13 people, with 6 men in the group. But it turned out that I was the only person in the group with enough horse riding experience to be able to ride unsupervised. The majority of the group, therefore went for a ride with 2 Mongolian shepherds who spoke no English at all. I had been given a small but incredibly agile and energetic horse. One of these 2 shepherds signalled to me that he wanted me to do a little gallop. Once he had observed my riding ability and assured himself that I could ride well he nodded his head in the direction of a large hill where there were some sheep and goats grazing at the very top, he started to gallop towards them and signalled that I should follow.
We then had a little race to the top of the hill. My horse was too fast and so with little effort I enjoyed the experience of galloping at full blast. When we reached the top of the hill I used a little experience that I’d had in England to help the shepherd herd the sheep and goats back down the hill. When we reached the bottom the shepherd nodded his head and touched the brim of his hat in a note of approval of my efforts. It was one of the moments of the proudest moments in my life. Knowing that this work is generally reserved for men only made it all the better.
That same day we returned from the ride to have dinner with the whole shepherd family. They decided to kill a gota for our dinner. The men in the group were immediately curious to watch the ritual of the slaughter of the animal but the Mongolian men were not very happy at the event being photographed. I wasn’t particularly interested in the slaughter, I have witnessed plenty as the daughter of someone who hunts a fair deal of game, but I was feeling quite weak from anemia and wanted to indicate that I wanted to eat the liver. It was to the Mongolian men’s great surprise that I indicated correctly towards the liver in the animal’s body. Apparently the slaughter and butchering of the animal is another role reserved purely for me and the Mongolians were very impressed by my knowledge.
That night I was invited to eat the liver in the smaller Ger which was reserved for the use of the family only. It was an honour that touched me a great deal and left me wanting to return to the country to spend more time with the nomadic familias such as these.
In the last few days of the journey we rode horses some more, tried to fish in the lake, hiked to an abandoned Buddhist temple. On our last day befote returning to the capital we visited another temple during a religious festival.
The warmth of the people, the immense views, the sensation of an eternal landscape and the starlit nights of ephemeral silence, (interrupted only occasionally by the sound of wind emitted by a passing goat) created one of my favourite trips in my life so far.
WRITTEN BY NATALIE PILATO