Mongolia article in Time Out Mumbai


Asia adventures

Get some thrills
Riding in Mongolia

Shebana Coelho finds that she's more than just a steppe away from being a nomad.

Tomorsukh, the local guide, was short, jolly and puzzled. "Why do you want to stay with a nomadic family along the eastern shore of Lake Hovsgol?" he asked.

"Because I'm in Mongolia on a US Fulbright research grant to do just that," I explained. "I want the everyday experience of nomadic life. Plus I grew up in India, our Mughals came from your Mongolia and I've dreamt of Chinggis Khan and galloping hordes since forever and I want to explore..."

"Fine, but do you know the road along the eastern shore is terrible, maybe even the worst in the country? By jeep, it's one day of excruciating up down right left pain."
"I've heard."
He grinned. "Forget the jeep. Go by horse instead. For one thing, it's a great way to see the countryside. For another thing, you don't know how to ride, you've said you want to learn so how about you go for three days on a hundred-plus kilometre journey. That'll teach you."
What I'd learnt is that if you're open to adventure, it finds you – especially in Mongolia. Some of it has to do with the immensity of the space – 1,564,100 sq km of steppes, mountains, deserts in one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world. Then, there are the people, who practise a hospitable culture rooted in an ancient nomadic heritage. Finally, there's the dynamic feeling of a country in the midst of transition, a new democracy of 2.5 million, with rapid urban development and migration that is affecting the lifestyles of nomadic herders who account for about 40 per cent of Mongolia's population.

So I said yes to Tomorsukh's idea and he set everything up: three horses and two licensed guides, Baatai, and his son Zorgoo. They had no English, I had some Mongolian and we set off early one morning across the northern province of Hovsgol.

Every day, we rode about five to six hours. Every day, my knees were always the first to start hurting, followed by the insides of my thighs, one buttock cheek, then another, and then my wrists from clutching the reins so tightly.

A swarm of flies and bees often accompanied us with glee. I ignored them, but my horse was not so Zen and broke into sudden trots. When confronted with green meadows, he was kind enough to wait a few seconds so I could prepare myself. Then, he hurtled across the steppe. When we galloped like this, all the pains disappeared and I knew this must be the reason why men got on horses in the first place.

On the final evening, we set up camp on the lake. Baatai boiled tea; Zorgoo unpacked the tent. It was fine to have men set up tents and cook tea for me. Despite the pain, it was fine to be on horseback. Really, this is the way to be in Mongolia, riding through stellar scenery, sometimes meeting other riders who stop and chat. What a welcome sight to spot a white "ger" house in the distance, to dismount, tie your horse to the hitching post, and, with children and dogs at your heels, pull open the orange ger door and enter, saying, "Sain bain uu, hello, how are you?"

"Sain yavaad irsen uu, how did you travel" – like this, you are greeted and given hot milky tea, suutei tsai, and bread.

There's a popular Mongolian saying that goes, "Er hunii jargal ezgui heer nutag." Happiness is the wide open steppe.

How to get there
From Ulaanbataar to Hovsgol, there are buses (about 18 hours) and flights (about 1.5 hours) to Murun, the provincial capital of Hovsgol. From Murun, take a taxi or tourist van to Hatgal (about 3 hours). Camps in Hatgal offer hiking, birding, horse-riding and kayaking excursions. Western-style bathrooms are rare – generally, you'll have outhouses. See

Mongolian Consulate
Camlin, 48/2 Hilton House, Central Lane, MIDC, Andheri (E) (2836-0302). Mon-Fri 8.30am-5pm.
Source : Time Out Mumbai ISSUE 15 Friday, March 21, 2008