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Our First Horse Rides on the Mongolian Steppe

Lapis Sky Ger Camp

Finally, our first day in Lapis Sky Ger Camp! We awoke to see what our ger looked like in daylight.  It included two cots, a sink with a river water dispenser, some shelving and hooks for our clothes, a table and a wood burning stove.  The furniture was quite colorful.  The door as usual faced south to protect from the cold of the winter wind.  The cart-wheeled shaped opening at the top of the ger known as a toon was covered by an örkh which could be opened and closed via ropes from the ground.  We opened ours so we could see given the ger lacked electricity.

Pranayama Yoga

Breakfast wasn’t scheduled until 9:30am as we needed to wait for the yak milk to come from our nomad neighbors.  In the meantime, several activities are offered.  I tried Pranayama for the first time beneath the cottonwood trees by the river.  Two yoga oficionados and me…hmmm.  I crossed my legs and my knees were supposed to touch the ground.  That was a joke! 

I required rolled up yoga matts beneath my  rear cheek bones as well as beneath both knees to simulate resting on the ground.  I don’t know how my counterparts could sit with their feet in their crotch with their knees touching the ground.  Even with practice, I’m not sure I could succeed at that.  Anyway, we practiced a few breathing techniques, which I did backwards.

By the second breathing exercise of the thirty-minute session my left leg was asleep and my hips and back were aching.  Clearly, this was not the exercise for me, but at least I tried it.

After Pranayama, it was time for our photography walk.  Our guide Tom Kelly is a National Geographic photographer which is quite impressive as that is tough position to acquire.  His son Liam, who was born and raised in Katmandu and now attends Prescott College, is quite an accomplished photographer as well. 

Yak Milking

We walked with him to the neighbor nomads where we got to photography Ankha milking the yaks.  The yaks are milked once a day, the goats and sheep twice a day, and the mares four times a day!  Needless to say, the women are very busy in the summer and clearly have the technique down.  I, on the other hand, gave it a try and managed to eek out a few dribbles.  If it depended on me to deliver the yak milk for breakfast, we wouldn’t be eating today!

Breakfast

Eventually, it was breakfast time.  A simple meal of bread, pancakes, oatmeal, and fermented mare’s milk yogurt which was extra sour.  The breakfast was provided in buffet style.  I’m so used to eating eggs and fresh fruit in the morning, that this breakfast of mostly carbs was a bit challenging to me, but it is not an easy feat to get any food to these camps.  Regardless, we filled up our bellies and prepared for our first horse ride and assessment of our journey.  Our group of tourists ranged from never having ridden a horse to professionals, so our experience ran the gamut.

me trying to milk a yak

Mongolian Horses

Mongolian horses are small and compact compared to other breeds.  They have a quick gait and are known to spook.  The Mongol cowboys brought their horses over the hills from different camps for us to ride.  When my handler Jagi led his horse from the hitching post to me to mount, I asked his name.  My horse’s name was Mojo, and it was the only horse of the entire group that had a name as Mongols don’t name their horses.  Instead, they have 56 words for brown!

Mojo

Feeling special, I wondered how I ended up being assigned the only horse with a name, and I was curious to know how he earned it.  There had to be an iconic story.  Sarah, a staffer from Montana who came to manage the cowboys after being a guest on the trip seven years ago explained, Galen, Tom and Carroll’s younger son, came up with the name because he had a lot of energy.  Somehow, I think there is more to the story than that, but they probably didn’t want to scare me.

me on Mojo
Me on Mojo

Ride Through the Valley of Teel

After everyone mounted their horses which required a staff member or cowboy to stand by the horse so it took a while, we headed away from the camp through the beautiful green Valley of Teel.  We stayed on flat terrain and mostly walked as we familiarized ourselves with the horses and vice versa. 

Getting back on a horse after a twenty-five year hiatus was fun.  Mojo was responsive, though spent most of his time shaking his head and kicking at the atrocious flies.  Fortunately, he didn’t spook ten-feet sideways at a patch of wool resting on the ground like Page’s horse did.  Without “riding legs” which use completely different muscles than any other sport, I may have hit the dirt.  Given Page still rides regularly, she remained seated!

Lunch and Shower

Lunch came next and then a quick shower.  I opted for an afternoon shower while it was sunny and warm as the evening air cools substantially when the sun goes down.  Having said that, I think I will be showering sparingly as the make shift shower house with solar bags filled by heated river was crawling with earwigs.  While bugs don’t bother me much, sitting my bare butt on an earwig or having them drop onto my head didn’t appeal to me.

Second Ride Across the Tamir River

Our second ride took us across the Tamir River next to camp, through the valley, across the river again, and up and down a hill before we returned to camp.  We got to go a little faster.  We trotted a little and a select few galloped up one hill.  At the top of the hill was a deer stone believed to be erected by nomads around 1000 BC.

We also circled an ovoo which seem to be all over the place. I guess it is very important to worship the sky gods so that rain will come and the grass for the herds will grow.

Each of our rides were about two hours across simple terrain.  They will become more demanding each day.  I’m looking forward to more.

Archery at Camp

Upon our return, we tried out our archery skills which were rather lacking! With an off balanced, man-made bow, we drew the arrow back on the outside as the Mongls do since it is quicker to load the arrow this way while on horseback.  The arrows rarely flew straight, but eventually, the few of us that tried our hand, finally hit the target.  Our success rate was about one in ten attempts.

Mongolian Nomads

From archery, we entered the dining ger and met with Badambazar and Doljin, grandparents who once lived as nomads, but now live in town.  We discussed the life of nomad with them.  Nomads tend to move about four times a year in order to feed their herds which rely on the natural grass.  They pack up their ger to move to their summer, spring and fall camps and settle into a more stable structure with their ger for the winter.

Most nomads raise yaks, goats, sheep and horses.  Owning diverse herds of lifestock ensure the nomads won’t suffer a complete misfortune should their animals succumb to a hard winter known as a zud which cause animals to starve to death from the inability to graze.  Today, a nomad is considered successful by the number of animals in their herd.  The benchmark is 1,000.  This, however, is tough on the land on which the animals live, and some believe it might be better to own less, but healthier herds.

Most nomads have several children at a young age.  Badambazar and Doljin had eight!  The kids go to boarding school during the week and come home on the weekend, weather permitting.  Interestingly, the animal herds go to the youngest child rather than the oldest, and the herd is not split up among the children.  As such, the youngest stays a nomad while many of the other children will move to the city in search of better opportunities.  Because men must attend to the herds, women tend to hold the skilled jobs in the city.

Chicken Dinner and Music

We had a nice conversation with them, though I’m sure they sat wondering about our terrible ger etiquette.  Virtually everyone sat with their legs crossed…a no no!  Anyway, it was finally dinner time. and we enjoyed great chicken and pineapple along with several sides.  Little did we know how hard it was to get chicken.  It is too cold in the winters for chicken in Mongolia, so they are imported from China!

After dinner, Liam’s girlfriend, Emma who is Irish, played Irish tunes on the ukulele and sang beautifully.  She even belted out a Britney Spears’ song.  What fun!  Not only is she a talented musician, she was the resident massage therapist for the trip and made a mean muesli.  The Irish really know their muesli.  It was some of my favorite when I visited Ireland.  Overall, we enjoyed a nice day in the countryside.  ETB

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From Kharkhorin to Lapis Sky Ger Camp

Page thought far in advance and packed a red, white, and blue shirt to celebrate the fourth of July.  I was quite impressed, and it made me feel festive!  What a way to appreciate our freedom…learning of the struggles the Mongolians have endured.

Kharkhorin

After a breakfast of eggs, pancakes, bread and toast (Mongols like just bread, not toast), we piled into our bright yellow bus and our driver took us into town.  Kharkhorin, was established in the mid-13th century by Chinggis Khaan who used the area as a supply base.  Soon, his son Ögedei, constructed a capital and declared Kharkhorin the capital city which thrived for forty years until Kublai moved the capital to present day Beijing.  With the demise of the Mongol empire, Kharkhorin was abandoned and subsequently destroyed by the Manchurian soldiers in 1388.

Kharkhorin Museum

But first stop in Kharkhorin was at the Kharkhorin Museum.  I wasn’t expecting to see a biker gang parked outside!  Here we learned about several archaeological digs and finds which have been as recent at 2011.  The museum is very well done and fully air conditioned (an added bonus compared to the museum in Ulaanbaatar)!  The tour was interesting, though I think I got my fill of artifacts the previous day and was ready to get out to the country.

Erdene Zuu Khiid

From the museum, we carried on to the Erdene Zuu Khiid, the first Buddhist monastery in Mongolia, constructed in the 16th century. At its peak, the monastery included 60-100 temples, 300 gers inside its walls, and 1,000 resident monks.  As with most other monasteries, it was mostly destroyed during the Stalin religious purges.  Only three temples survived.  Today it is considered one of the most important monasteries in Mongolia.

Erdene Zuu Khiid is enclosed in a walled compound.  108 stupas are evenly spaced along the white wall.  The three temples which survived the communist purges are called Baruun Zuu, Zuu of Buddha and Zuun Zuu and are dedicated to Bhudda’s three stages of life: childhood, adolescence, and adulthood.  In addition to these temples, the complex includes other structures such as the Golden Prayer Stupa built in 1799 where a photo shoot was taking place, as well as a Tibetan style, white temple called Lavrin Süm.

We visited Lavrin Süm to see the ceremony which takes place around 11am daily.  This time photos were permitted inside!  Once the monks perform their ceremony, however, the cameras must be put away as they do not like their photos taken inside the temple.  Outside the temple, however, is a different story. We were free to capture their image as they sat on the steps or signaled the call to prayer by blowing in conch shells.

Basansuren

After the ceremony, we had the privilege to meet with the head lama, Basansuren.  For the head lama, he was considered young as generally much older men are in this position.  This is due to the religious purge that I mentioned previously.  Before the late 1930’s there were 60,000 monks.  During the communist times, all the old monks (around 20,000) were killed, the middle-aged monks jailed, and the young monks asked to remove their robes and sent to the fields to be nomads.  

While Buddhism continued to be practiced underground, when religious freedom was restored in the 1990’s there were very few monks.  This is how Basansuren came into his position.  The monk population has steadily increased to 4,000 and now remains stable. Basansuren told us Erdene Zuu was one of the five monasteries out of 2,000 that survived the 1937 destruction.  Today, the monastery count has grown to 300. 

Basansuren, head lama
photo courtesy of Page

Spirit of the Horse and Other Simple Beliefs

He also spoke of the Spirit of the Horse (khiimori) which is very important to Mongolians.  Each person’s “wind horse” is the strength of spirit inside. When things go wrong or someone seems tired, Mongols might say, their wind horse is weak.  If someone has much success and is happy, their spirit of the horse is considered strong.

The head lama also spoke of simple concepts.  Basansuren felt if everyone thought like a child, the world would be a happy place.  Children laugh hundreds of times a day while people over 40 laugh about four times a day.  Kids, despite where they are from, what language they speak, or what color they are, will play with one another.  They have no preconceived notion of others.  Adults should emulate children and treat others the way they want to be treated as we reap what we sow.

Nomin, our translator did an excellent job passing on his message. Nomin’s English is excellent and easy to understand.  I’m very impressed with her accomplishments at such a young age.  I can’t imagine the pressure of translating the head lama’s message to visitors especially since he actually knew English and had spent some time in the United States!

A Golden Eagle

After our meeting, we had 45 minutes to wander around the temple, visit the shops outside, or to hold a golden eagle for $1.50.  I lingered around the temple a bit longer, before I went in search of the eagle.  The owner raised this 20 year old bird since it was an eaglet.  He motioned to me to move my arm up and down to get it to spread its wings.  The eagle got pretty heavy after a while! 

We could also dress up in medieval clothes and hold the eagle.  Ingrid, who lives in rural Idaho and is a real go getter, was perfect candidate for this.  She strapped on all the garb and fit right into character, posing as a warrior!

It’s amazing how fast the morning passed.  It was already time for lunch by the time we left the dirt parking area filled with cars, tourist buses, and even a pick up truck with horses loaded in its bed. 

Cafe Morin Jim

We stopped at Café Morin Jim for a small bowl of soup supplemented by our bus snacks such as cheese, crackers, pickles, peanut butter and even crab flavored Pringles, which I don’t recommend!

Cafe Morin Jim in Mongolia
cleaning our spotless bus at the lunch stop!

Tsenkher Naadam Horse Race

Soon, we piled into the bus and headed toward Lapis Sky Ger Camp near Bulgan Sum.  On the way, we drove up aside a Naadam horse race that was just starting!  Naadam is a traditional festival in Mongolia which includes three sports; horse racing, wrestling, and archery.  Each of the 333 towns in Mongolia holds these festivals around the time of the official celebration (July 11-13) which is a national holiday.   Being July 4th, the town of Tsenkher held theirs slightly early.

We got to see the five-year old horse race, which is considered the most important.  The horses mounted by children jockeys, aged 5-13, burst out of the start gate.  They galloped cross-country over a 25K race course to the finish line.  The race was quite the spectacle.  Cars and motorcycles were stationed in different areas of the course to make sure no horses cheated by entering the race late.  Many also drove alongside the pack that was now spread out over the distance.  We raced with them for a short time and then inquired from an official race car the whereabouts of the finish line to which our bus driver sped.

Tsenker Naadam Horse Race in Mongolia

The Finish Line

We joined the crowd, some mounted on horses, some standing by their cars, and many in traditional dress, all waiting to see who crossed the finish line first.  With the lead race car out front, the jockeys encouraged their sweaty horses forward with the swing of the reins and consistent kicks. The jockey’s faces, flushed red from the heat, were coated in dust. 

Once an avid equestrian, I’ve never seen an event quite like this.  The outfits were and gear were priceless.  Some kids rode bareback, others had a saddle.  Some were in sweat pants and sneakers while others donned boots.  The helmet rule did not apply, though a few riders wore one (and some were meant for a bike).  Most, however, sported a nice jersey or cape!

While the jockey is important and chosen for the race, the race is considered a test of the horses.  There are a few different horse classes: stallions, two year olds, three year olds, four year olds, five year olds, and six and over.  The length of the race is determined by the age of the horse.  As mentioned previously, we saw the last and most significant race of the day. Five-year old horses are considered the strongest and most special. 

The First Place Horse

The grey horse which led at the beginning kept its lead the whole way, though the chesnut almost caught him at the end.  The winning horse’s sweat is considered lucky, so bystanders scurried over to touch his sweat as soon as he crossed the finish line!

winner of the Tsenkher Naadam Horse Race

The prize money for the winner was $90 and a rug.  The top five horses, each collected by the five judges in robes at the finish line, earn the title of airgiyn tav, and the top three receive gold, silver and bronze medals, respectively.  The winning rider is named tumny ekh (leader of ten thousand).  In the two-year old race, the last place horse is acknowledged as well.  It is called bayan khodood which means “full stomach”!  A song, wishing the horse luck to be next year’s winner, is sung to the bayan khodood.

judges at Naadam horse race
judges

Last Place Horse

We stayed until the last place horse came galloping to the line. The horse looked happy, but the young jockey looked exhausted! At the end, we weaved through the crowds to check out the scene. It was really cool to see the culture. Men congregated on horses and motorcycles while jockey untacked their horses.

last place horse at naadam horse race

Awards Ceremony

After the race, we walked across the street to the complex where the wrestling was being held.  We had hoped to catch a few of the single-elimination rounds of wrestlers in bikini like outfits trying to knock the other to the ground, but a ceremony was being held for the winning stallions and two year olds that raced earlier in the day. Men in their boots lined the seating while children played in the around the arena. Women sat in beneath the tent where food was on display, but not for eating.

The winning horses were dressed in fancy headgear and their forelocks were tied up between their ears in a topnot.  During the presentation, the jockey and handlers (or owners) were given a bowl of airag, an alcoholic spirit made with fermented mares milk which they flicked on the horse first and then sipped.  They also passed a snuff bottle around, one of many Mongolian rituals. The ceremony took so long, that we didn’t have time to stay for wrestling, as we still had some distance to cover to reach camp. Regardless, the awards were fun to see.

On the Way to Lapis Sky Ger Camp

Our drive, which was several more hours, included a stop to pick up a musical instrument and some cake at Fairfield Cafe and Bakery in Tseterleg to give to a family on the steppe.  We made “our drop” to the family on the side of the dirt track in the middle of the field!  It felt so clandestine.  The recent rains slowed our bus driver to a crawl across the damp, rutted road, but the slow progress was worth it for the view of a FULL DOUBLE rainbow!  They were so big, we couldn’t capture the ends of the rainbow in our photos.

Lapis Sky Ger Camp

We eventually reached the Lapis Sky Ger Camp at dusk, much later than the original plan.  The road down to the valley has been washed out for years, so we exited the bus and walked into camp after rounding the Ovoo atop the hillside three times in a clockwise direction.  An ovoo is a pile of rocks and wood and is considered sacred.  It is placed on top of mountains to honor the sky gods.  Mongols place a rock, a khata, or sweets inside as a form of offering to their ancestors.

Upon reaching camp, we were greeted in traditional ceremony.  First we were presented vodka.  The keeper of the vodka fills a shot glass and hands it to each visitor.  The visitor accepts the glass in the right hand.  Then using the right ring finger, the guest dips the finger into the vodka and flicks it upward to the sky. 

A second dip is flicked over the shoulder.  A third dip is flicked to the ground and finally the guests sips from the shot glass or places a fourth dip on their forehead.  The shot glass is then handed back to the host with the right hand who adds vodka to the cup and then hands it to the next person.  This ritual is then followed by the same ritual with airag, fermented mare’s milk.  Germophobes would have a tough time in Mongolia!

Dinner was served around 9:30 pm after which we settled into our electricity free gers.  Lit by a few solar lanterns, we could see that it was cute, but in the dim light at this late hour, we figured we’d get a better glimpse in the morning.  ETB

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Journey Across the Mongolian Steppes to Kharkhorin

Today we finally left the city, its noise, and its smog. Though I must say not nearly as many drivers honked as they did in Beijing, and at least we could see blue skies.  None the less, I’m excited to head toward the countryside.

We loaded in our yellow bus with relatively comfortable seats and prepared for a five hour journey to Eden Camp.  The main road was paved though rather bumpy.  It took us past rolling green hills as well sandy ones that were still waiting on the grass to grow.  Mongolia has been in a drought thus the vegetation for the horses has been limited much to the dismay of the nomads.  The few brief showers over the last three days with the start of rainy season has brought the landscape to life.

TAKE THE JOURNEY!