During my eight days completely out of the modern world to live a nomadic life, I leisurely strolled on horseback through 150km of the Mongolian Gorkhi Terelj national park amidst a splendid golden autumn, experienced shifting temperature from -5oC to 30oC, slept in tent, had no electricity, no phone, no bath and “natural” toilet. It all sounded like a grueling trip, but it was one of the most incredible and unique experiences I’ve ever had.
Dream comes true
When listening to my friend’s dream of conquering the vast grassy Mongolian steppe on horseback, at first, I burst out laughing and thought that “it sounds wonderful but unrealistic”. Then every time we met, she kept talking about it and shared troves of information that she had collected. It piqued my interest, sounded practical enough and not as impossible as I had thought.
Gradually, I and two other friends indulged in that imaginative dream and truly felt as if it had been our own dream. Together, the four of us made our common dream come true in the autumn of 2016, marking the brilliant milestone of reaching our forties.
I still have fond memories of galloping through endless grassy meadow with full of wild flowers in the magnificent blanket of fall and low hovering clouds. It was amazingly incredible, AS FREE AS THE AIR.
From amateur horse rider
Registering and depositing the tour 6 months in advance without any knowledge of horses and horse riding was the way we committed to the trip. We started searching how to learn horse riding in Saigon where there is no space even for transportation, let alone a space for horse-riding. Maybe we ought to head to Da Lat? Fortunately, there is a pony club for foreign children in District 2. Since then, every weekend for 6 months, we gathered there, tried being horse riders.
In horse-riding class, everything appeared as new to us, from the basic steps like walking the horses, feeding them, holding the bridle to climbing on horseback properly. We were super excited to gradually become capable of controlling the horses and mastering major skills such as trotting, pacing, galloping and hurdling.
Most importantly, we had learned how to speak with the horses via body language. There were several main signals, consisting of holding the horse’s mane tightly to gallop, pushing the horse’s flank to run faster or patting them on the butt to give a compliment. As our bruises, scratches and falls decreased our joys and happiness increased thanks to the new experiences and knowledge. Reaching the date of our journey, we felt well prepared and confident both physically and mentally to conquer the massive Mongolian steppe.
To true horseman and new friends
After days of waiting, the journey had officially begun. Our destination was Gorkhi Terelj national park, located east of the capital Ulan Bator. With a total area of more than 2,800 km2 (bigger than the area of Ho Chi Minh City), at an altitude of 1,600 m above sea level, this national park is famous for its magnificent mountainous landscape, giant granite blocks with both unique geological structures and diverse shapes of formation. The wildflower-rich grasslands that wove into vast forests of pine and spruce were incredibly beautiful.
The park is home not only to traditional nomadic families but also countless species of birds and animals, mostly mink, squirrels, wolves and foxes. Our 8-day trip was only spent in a small part of the park, but it was enough for us to admire the freshness and wild beauty of Mongolian nature.
After a free day in Ulan Bator, we were picked by van to Darkhid valley which was about 40 km from the city center. In this place, we met the other members of our tourist group, including a Japanese woman, an American woman and a Belgian couple. Keith and Sabrina, owners of Stonehouse Travel Company, were also our main tour guides and two Mongols oversaw horse care and trip logistics. We got to know each other quite quickly and realized that the four of us were the least experienced riders of the group.
After a brief orientation on Gorkhi Terelj Park, safety regulations and protection of the natural environment, as well as the 8-day itinerary, we received personal equipment and transferred our belongings from our suitcases to plastic bags for transportation separately by horses.
It was a moment filled with excitement and the eagerness when we met our new friends. Mongolian horses wore finely-trimmed manes, their soft hair and muscular bodies were leisurely grazing under the tree shade. Horses were assigned to us based on our height, skill and experience. My horse, named Zay, was the most handsome of the group thanks to his copper-yellow mane. He was also well-known for being calm and obedient.
The first two days were a little tough for us as we became acquainted with our new companions. What we learned at our horse school was completely basic, moreover, we had never ridden for more than two hours at a time with our practices in the small yard. In Mongolia, we sat on horseback all day, from 6 to 8 hours. Facing an infinite sea of clouds and rough mountain roads, it took courage to get through forests and wade across streams. Balancing on horseback when climbing down a steep mountain was extremely stressful. My body ached after the first two days due to the wrong posture for sitting on horseback. Luckily, Zay was obedient and was familiar with less experienced riders like me. Sometimes, I let Zay freely chose his own path when I was clueless on how to overcome obstacles.
Day by day, my body gradually adapted to the new conditions. Although my pain did not completely disappear, I felt more relaxed and began to feel confident with Zay, now able to enjoy the surroundings. We had pleasurable moments together trotting in the untouched pine forest or galloping on the wide-open grassland. However, there was also tension when it came to overcome muddy roads, climb high slopes or cross large rivers where the water rose above Zay’s belly.
During the journey, not once was I ever disappointed by Zay. We became closer and began to understand each other more. I knew that he loved the grass next to the red wildflowers, so I took the initiative to get off the trail and find them. With regards to him, he was keenly aware of my interest for taking photographs; whenever I held the horse guards tightly, he immediately stopped and stood still. In times of galloping, he and I were always in the last group, partly because he ran more slowly than the others and I was fond of recording every image of the whole group, thus not pushing him faster. I felt fortunate enough to have a like-minded and reliable partner like Zay, making me believe as if I was a real horseman.
Living a nomadic life and enjoying autumn’s beauty to the fullest.
I’ve been to many parts of the world in the fall but the experience of enjoying autumn on horseback in a setting separated from the outside world was incredibly different. The enormous, seemingly empty sky stretched out to infinity. The pine forests spreading across the mountainsides blended with the crystal blue sky and white clouds, offering an awe-inspiring background that accentuated the fall yellow-orange bushes and red wildflowers in the valley.
At first, we assumed that 8 days of only visiting the national park would be boring. However, the journey proved us wrong. Constant natural wonders surprised us during every step of our trip.
Incredible scenes unfolded, like when a herd of wild horses ran through the meadow, spraying grass into the wind.
One day, we decided to race through a vast prairie. When everyone had already departed, my Zay and another horse would not start galloping but strolled down to a nearby patch of grass. They ate voraciously, leaving us to yell at them to continue the race.
Another day, we tied up the horses and climbed up a high mountain to see the valley as a vivid canvas.
It was fun when the horse crew met a group of police on routine patrol to check for proper papers. We jokingly said that we might be kept for speeding!
It was the first time in my life that I had lived so close to nature, granting me a more thorough understanding of the nomadic life of the Mongols. Eight days without electricity, phone or internet, riding on the back of a horse -roaming every morning and then finding flat land on the riverside to set up the tents and camping in the wilderness every evening.
My most favorite moment of the day was to live slowly and peacefully in the early morning. Awakened by the chilling wind blowing to my face when i first opened the tent, I slowly watched the thin layer of frost on the roof of the tent that was melting in the early morning sunlight. Then I filled my lungs with a deep breath of fresh air of mountain woodlands and made a cup of hot tea, quietly listening to the birds singing along to the murmur of nearby streams. Those are the kinds of moments that I found so precious, moments that I normally don’t pay attention to such details in my modern life.
Bathing and personal cleansing in that wild nature was a big challenge. I still remembered the shivering feeling of wading in the cold stream to bath after a “record” three days without showering. “Natural” toilets were our fancy way of saying “solving personal business” while enjoying beautiful landscape. The most important thing was to always bring a lighter to burn used toilet paper and to ensure the paper was thoroughly extinguished. This was a simple but effective way to protect the environment. Otherwise, this park would become a mountain of waste in a few years.
The fifth day of our journey was the happiest, the moment we were in a Yurt – a traditional Mongolian house with warm beds and a heater inside. That was also the time I treasured taking a shower in hot water, a routine from daily life I had taken for granted.
Waking up early in the morning, admiring the gorgeous sunset on the meadow, enhanced by white smoke coming out of the Yurts, was an unforgettable moment.
Only such extreme experiences helped us understand that nomadic life was not only full of marvelous nature but also harsh environments only for those who cherished and nurtured what they had in life.
MONGOLIAN VISA (Tips for Vietnamese)
Visa to Mongolia is not hard to get. The most important thing you need to have is the invitation from Mongolia. If you book a tour, it can be provided by the travel agency (like in our case). If you travel by yourself, you can get the invitation thru many agencies with a handle fee of 30$-50$/ invitation.
The requirement is quite simple, you just need your passport, a photo of 3×4, application form (issued by the embassy) and the payment receipt (after you pay the visa fee to the bank account of the embassy at Vietcombank). The documents can be submitted to Mongolian Embassy in Hanoi or the Mongolian Consulate in HCMC. It will take around 1 week and the visa will valid for 90 days from the day granted with single entry.
HOW TO GET THERE
- Flight from Vietnam to the Ulan Batar capital is not a very long journey, about 8-12 hours. There is no direct flight, we have to transit in either Hongkong or China or Korea. We bought tickets from Cathay Pacific, transited in Hongkong which was the cheapest price at that time (705$ round trip), as well as having the most reasonable time.
- Other airlines may be chosen such as Mongolian airline, Air China or Korean Air.
PACKING LIST FOR A HORSE RIDING TRIP
The autumn weather in Mongolia varies considerably, sometime it’s hot to 30oC during the day, but at night the temperature can drop to -5oC. Moreover, we traveled most of time by horse, hence selecting the right but light-weight essential gears was critical and took a lots of our time.
- Equipment provided by travel agency for each passenger: riding helmet, water container, 3 compartment saddle bags to put personal things that you need during the day, 8 kg waterproof plastic bags to put all of your belonging which will be loaded separately on the pack horses together with sleeping bags and tents.
- Personal gears:
- Comfortable loose or stretch long pants and long sleeve shirt for easily getting on and off the horse, as well as avoiding scratches when passing by high bushes. Hiking clothes also work well.
- Heat-tech base layers/ long underwear since the temperature can drop to below zero at night.
- Comfortable riding boots or lightweight hiking boots with a flat heel (to hold the saddle)
- Gloves to avoid blisters since you will hold the bridle for many days
- Light jacket, wind/rain suit, tops/bottoms separate (must have item)
- 3 pairs of wool or polypro socks
- Hat, multi functional scarf (to protect your face from the harsh sun when needed), sun block
- Flashlight, head lamp is even more convenient
- Flip flop/ Sandal for around camp at night
- Other things: Camera and lots of batteries (enough for 8 days), toiletries, insect repellent, instant tea & coffee, dry food or snack.
COST OF THE TRIP
Total cost of 10 day trip is 3,800$, including 8 days horse riding tour in Gorkhi Terelj national park of 2950$, round trip flight ticket 705$, and other expenses.
Traveled in Sep, 2016