Monday, August 01, 2016

Mongolia on Horseback Part 3: Riding and Trekking in the Altai Tavn Bogd National Park

This is part 3 of an ongoing series that I am writing about my recent travels through Mongolia. If you haven't read part 1 and part 2 yet, I'd recommend going back catching up before proceeding. It'll help put the trip in context and give you a better frame of reference for the entire experience.

After spending two days in Mongolia's capital city of Ulaanbaatar, then the better part of a day traveling to the remote town of Ulgii, followed by another full day in SUV's driving dirt roads just to reach the start of our journey, I think it was safe to say that my companions and I were ready to truly get our adventure started. We had all come to Mongolia to go horseback riding through the Altai Tavn Bogd National Park with Tusker Trail, one of the best adventure travel outfitters in the entire world. But, we had no idea how much of an adventure we would have before even climbing into the saddle for the first time. It was all part of the plan – and part of the fun – of course, but after camping for two nights on the edge of the spectacularly beautiful Khoton Nuur lake, it was time to get riding at long last.

After a hardy breakfast, we broke camp and began preparing for the day ahead. Our first full day in the saddle would be roughly 5-6 hours in length, and cover 22 km (13 miles). Not a bad start to the trip, giving all of us a chance to get comfortable on horseback before pushing into the longer days that would lie ahead.

One of the best parts of Tusker's Mongolia itinerary is that you can choose to either ride the trails, hike the route, or mix it up and do both. Most of travelers had come to ride – after all we were exploring the home of arguably the greatest horsemen that have ever lived. But some felt more comfortable on their own two feet, and each day they would head out with a trekking guide just ahead of those who were on horseback. I personally wanted to experience both riding and hiking, so I alternated my time in the saddle and on foot for parts of the journey. Ultimately, I would end up riding much more than hiking, but for the most part I was glad to get the chance to see this beautiful country in either fashion.


On our first day of riding there was a nervous anticipation in the air. Everyone was eager to get started, but most of us had never spent a full day on horseback before, and some had never ridden at all. This brought a sense of uncertainty about what to expect, as a horse certainly has a mind of its own and can do unpredictable things at times. This happened more than once throughout the trip, with our mounts occasionally stumbling, getting spooked and acting erratically, or being stubborn enough to do what they wanted, despite the best efforts of their riders. In my case, I even had my horse decide to lay down in the grass while I was still in the saddle. Fortunately I was able to dismount without a significant loss to my dignity, but as a somewhat inexperienced rider myself, it was a lesson learned to be sure.

For the most part though, the horses were well behaved, extremely sure-footed, and easy to ride. After a day or two most of the riders became comfortable with their mounts, and the trust grew between both the animal and the person on its back. In fact, anyone who joins this Tusker excursion will most certainly come home a better rider, and by the end of the trip we were all doing things in the saddle that would have seemed unlikely at the beginning.

Setting out from our camp at Khoton Nuur we were soon ambling along at a steady pace with the warm sun overhead, the placid waters on our right, and the snowcapped peaks looming in the distance. While we rode, conversations waxed as waned as the riders were sometimes outgoing and gregarious, and other times were lost in their own thoughts. The mood was light, the weather was wonderful, and the views were amazing. It was everything you could ask for in an adventure, and more.

While our travels were conducted both on foot and horseback, the logistics of moving our camp from one location to another was handled by camel train. The two-humped Bacterian camels that are common in Mongolia seem well suited for life on the Steppe, and served as incredibly strong pack animals for our expedition into the Altai Mountains. Each day, our team would load a wide variety of bags, packs, and containers onto the backs of the camels, and off they'd go to our next destination. Often times they would pass us on the trail each day while we were enjoying lunch in some idyllic setting. More often then not, they would arrive at the new campsite well before we did, and we'd find our tents awaiting us. On occasion, the travelers themselves would be a bit quicker, and we'd all lend a hand in helping set up camp that evening. The entire operation, while time consuming, ran very smoothly, and was a testament to how well staffed and organized Tusker truly is. It isn't easy shepherding 13 clients around the wilds of Mongolia, let alone keeping them well fed, protected from the elements, and comfortable along the way too.

Our days out on the trail generally passed in this fashion. We'd break camp and begin riding (or trekking!) by mid-morning, stopping for breaks on occasion to allow the horses to rest and the riders to stretch their legs. Around noon or 1:00 PM each day, we'd find a comfortable, and usually very beautiful, place to stop for lunch, which was always simple, but very tasty affair, catered by the Tusker guides and delivered by a lone camel charged with sticking with the travelers throughout the course of the day. In the afternoon, we'd tend to press on a bit longer in the saddle, reaching our next campsite by early evening where we would enjoy a little reprieve from the trail, swap stories of previous adventures, and relax in the spacious dining tents. Snacks, drinks, and dinner were always a very communal affair, with the entire group laughing, getting to know one another, and developing deep bonds that would forever link them to one another. It was a thoroughly enjoyable and engaging experience.

The first couple of days of riding were relatively easy, with trails that were clearly marked and free from any serious obstacles. On those days, the riding was straight forward and only helped to reinforce the connections between the horse and rider. In the days that followed, things would get a bit trickier, especially as we moved up into the mountains where the air thinned, the paths narrowed, and a bit more skill and attention was required. I'll have more to say about those experiences in a future post, but at the onset of the trip, it was very easy to get comfortable with the ride.

Within a day or two we fell into a good rhythm on the trail. The days were filled by riding and trekking in one of Mongolia's most spectacular outdoor playground, while the nights began with increasing camaraderie amongst the travelers, and ended with by crawling into a warm sleeping bag to get a good night's sleep in a quiet, peaceful setting. It was a wonderful was to explore a place that few foreign visitors get the chance to ever see. A place were nomads still roam as they have done for generations, and horses outnumber people by a considerable margin. There aren't many other places on Earth like that anymore, which is just one of the many reasons this trip was so special.

More to come in the next installment.

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