The plan, the route, and some advice

Me and Max
Our plan was to ride horses in Mongolia. This we did, but for a shorter period than we had hoped for due to the approaching winter and shortness of grass.

Through a contact we bought horses in Moron, Khovsgol provence. This is located in northwestern Mongolia. Two Mongols rode with us for eight days. This meant that I had time to learn. We had one pack horse.

All in all, I rode 22 days in a 30 day period, covering a distance of about 400 km. This is not particularly far, and averages only about 5 km per hour, 4 hours per day. You could walk that fast on foot. But a horse is a lot more fun!

It was a fantastic time. In particular, the last 12 days, which I rode solo, left me with a deep sense of accomplishment. I had very limited horseriding experience before arriving in Mongolia, maybe less than ten hours in the saddle.

You can ride from ger to ger (yurt to yurt) and enjoy the hospitality of the countryside nomadic herders. So you don't necessarily need to bring a tent or a stove.

The route:

View horse trek in a larger map

Moron - Khatgal - Renchilkhumbe - Tsaatan Country - Renchilkhumbe - Tsaagannuur - Renchilkhumbe - Ulaan-uul - Toom - Bayanzurkh - Emt - Arbulag - Moron

At night, you find a plot of land that has the best, longest grass and stake your horse there. If you want, you can get up at 5 am and move your horse to another area. Horses are eating machines.

You don't want a pack horse. They are a big, big pain. It is very difficult to tie bags securely. Even locals have difficulty doing this. Inevitably you will have to stop to adjust them. Also, a packhorse is very difficult to control. It stops and goes when it wants. You cannot whip it, because you are in front, leading it. And, they get spooked by passing vehicles or anything, really. You may lose some of your baggage if this happens, as we did. So ride with one horse per person.

You must be in control of your horse. Do not let your horse do what it wants to do, like veer left or right, or stop incessantly to feed.

But sometimes you must yield to your horse. If the path looks dangerous to you (too steep or slippery, river bottom not visible) let your horse decide which path to take. In these situations, trust your horse.

Horses can be dangerous. They can kick, bite and fall. And you can fall, too! The cinches in Mongolia are very thin and easily loosen. Be aware of this. Tighten them regularly.

Watch out for scrap metal in towns. Your horse can cut itself on such objects easily.

If you are worried about horsethievery (and you should be in Khovsgol provence), the only solution is to have night watches. Of course, this is difficult or impossible with only one or two people. You can hire a local guide, but that is no guarantee your horse will be waiting for you at sunrise.

What to bring - when to go

What to bring

Buy topo maps in UB of the area you will ride in. They have a scale of 1 : 500,000.

Wet weather gear.
Riding boots.
Alternative footwear (i.e. tennis shoes, sandals)
Helmet (You probably won't find one in Mongolia. I did, but I was lucky).
Change of clothes.
Warm jacket. (the weather can change suddenly).
Knit cap and muffler
Sleeping bag. (You don't need a mat, you can sleep on your saddle pads).
Large tarp, as tent substitute

Russian saddle (Mongolian saddles look nice, but are wooden and uncomfortable). Russian saddles have a padded seat and metal frame. Be sure you have ties on your saddle, front and rear, to carry items such as sleeping bag and jacket.
Bridle, harness and lead rope.
Mongolian horses are not shod. No one brushes their horses.
Leather whip. (Lead rope does not work as a whip).
Stake (iron is preferable - it is easier than wood to hammer into the ground).
Stake tether (20 meters)
Extra rope to secure saddle bags
Tie two daypacks together to use as saddle bags. You cancarry a third on your back if necessary, but it is more comfortable without one).

Personal items:
Toiletries, medicines, bandages for sprains
Water purification tablets
Sewing kit
Camera and storage cards (Gers have car batteries for electricity, but no outlets. I don't know if you can hook up your camera battery directly to the car battery to recharge it. Any ideas?)
Journal and pen
Cell phone (but there is not always a signal)
Swiss army knife, hunting knife
Matches and lighter.
Mongolian phrasebook.

Carry enough food with you for a day or two. Aaryyl, the local cheese, is good for this purpose; it lasts a long time. Peanuts and raisins you can sometimes buy in countryside towns.

When to go:
Mongolia has three fine-weather months: June, July and August.
September is fickle. The first snow hits UB at the end of September.

Arbulag to Moron - the final day

Back in Moron I arrange with O's brother to come pick up the saddle. I will give it to him as a present for his family's hospitality. He arrives with his toddler son on his motorcycle, ties the saddle on the rear. I tell him to keep the saddle waiting for me; I will return next year.

My trip has ended rather abruptly. As fantastic as these days have been, I am left with a hollowness inside. I really wanted to continue another couple weeks, but I feared the impending winter and the lack of grass for Max. Originally, I had intended to ride a month through Arkhangai provence to the south of Khovsgol. But that will have to wait for another time.

Arbulag - Day 4

Awaa outside of Arbulag
Breakfast is finished. I ate all the bread. B. gets up and informs me that the uncle spoke with his wife about Max, and that they have decided against buying him. But B knows other people in town who may be interested, so wait and see.

The mother sits on the sofa watching a Korean soap opera. She is 55 and retired from her work of 38 years as a government secretary. Her office was in the big building, the hotel where B first took me looking for a room. The uncle told me yesterday that B's father helped build it, from 1968 to 1972.

The nephew of the family is angry with me: my transgression? rolling out the dough for shöl wrong. The bigger news is that I have sold Max, to an acquaintance of B. He did not dicker at all! He pulled a wad of cash from his deel and counted out the bills. B signed the bill of sale. I still have the saddle.
As we walked with Max to the buyer B tells me that probably the horse will be dinner in Russia in a short time. We walk on silently. What are you thinking? she asks. Yes, I am a bit sad to say good-bye to Max. He has been good to me. I can't blame him for being hungry these last days, stopping at the slightest release of the reins to sink his head to the earth.

No transport to Moron today, so I will depart tomorrow.

Today I walked to the awaa with a relative of the family. Three hours round trip. The awaa has a significant place in Arbulag lore. B's mother typed it up as part of her job for the school children. She shows it to me. Three hundred years ago a Mongolian hero warrior was fighting against the Chinese. He knew he would be captured, so he cut off his thumb and put it on the mountain. He was brought to Beijing and killed in a peculiar manner: 81 coins with holes in their centers were placed on his body and through each hole a vein was pulled and pierced.

Back home B wants now to go up the nearby mountain. Sure, why not? But my feet hurt from my boots. So we search for footwear and find a pair of sandals. Up the mountain we go, looking for ganga, an herbal plant that is used for washing hair. We gather the ganga in a bag. On the top of the mountain is a small pile of rocks of B's making. From here we can see the layout of the town. It stretches long, bordering on the lake. B says she sees her mother at her relatives' home.

B's family built their home only a few years ago. Beforehand, they pitched their ger on their plot of land. If you want to move to the town, the government will give you a plot of land, about an eighth of an acre. Such plots are the only private property in the country.

Arbulag - Day 3

Today's activities: study map, talk with the family about the awaa (the shrine on the hilltop), look at old coins, water Max at the lake with the uncle, go fotoing, play guitar, look at Mongolian herder's almanac (containing traditional songs, recipes for öröm, tarak, etc.), origami flapping bird.

The almanac is a treasure, but it is all in Mongolian, of course. As a sign of the changing times, the mother knows the songs, but not the daughters. She sings a couple for me.

I made an offer to sell Max to the uncle, but he has to talk with his wife who is in the hospital. The weather forecast says the next three days will be sunny, up to 22 to 25 C.

Arbulag - Day 2

Photo albums
The weather forecast turns out so far to be true. Rain and more. We are now waiting for transport to Moron. I will go with B. to return the computer. It had viruses on it, too. What will the day bring?

We go to a house, not a store front, to exchange the computer. We look at a different one. "Someone must have switched the other one," the saleslady says. After checking the new one, I was about to recommend to B. that she buy it, but she telephoned with her mother and they decided against it. There is no Internet in Arbulag. The family wanted a computer basically for the elder daughter who is a teacher.

As I make plans, my main concern now is the weather. O's father was spot on: in two days time the weather changed. Did he see the weather forecast or did he speak from his 50 plus years as a herder in the countryside? Today is blustery cold! No rain yet, but I am not ging to ride in this weather, especially if it should continue. And I guess that is the question: will it remain cold?

If so, that means I sell Max and move on. To Moron for a day or two and then back to UB.
Photo of forefathers
B. is a university graduate. She has only recently returned home from Erdenet. But no prospects here in banking, her field of study. She plans on spending a year here with her family and returning to Erdenet next year to find work. She dresses in western clothes, but her sister, just a few years her senior, prefers the traditional Mongolian deel.
The father has died. His portrait foto occupies a central spot above the triptych mirror to the left of the shrine. You must not lie with your feet stretching towards the shrine. I have been reprimanded twice already for doing so. But the TV is against that wall. So some sit while others lie on their bellies with their heads propped up on their hands

Arbulag - Day 12 Solo

Departure: 10:45
Arrival: 4 pm.
Tea break: 12:45 to 2:15
Riding time: 3:45
B. and her mother
The second person I talk to in Arbulag invites me to her family home. She is B., 21 years old. She tells me that I am the first foreigner they have had as a guest. What is more, they have grass for Max. Incredible. I asked her for a hotel. She brought me to it, but then invited me to her home.

Her mother has just returned from Moron with a new computer. I helped them set it up but a fuse blew. The uncle in the house was able to get it repaired (I knew my electrical tape would come in handy).

But guess what? The computer isn't new! There are games and documents stored on it from last year! So they called the store and the sales clerk turned off his phone. They called a second time and arranged to go see them tomorrow. I will go with them.
Boy comes to invite me to his ger
Today's ride included a boy riding across my path. He rode south towards a few distant gers, and I continued on the trail to Arbulag. O's father pointed over a hill. That is the direction of Arbulag. I followed his finger and rode up a low pass which gave me a grand view of the valley. An hour into the valley I met the boy.

A half hour later the boy, maybe 10 years old, returns. He beckons me to come with him to his ger. I hesitate. A storm is brewing behind me and I want to get to Arbulag before the downpour. But he persists, and after thirty minutes riding I find myself in his family ger.

Mother with phone
His mom had summoned me. Why? She can't figure out how to send a text message on her cell phone in Mongolian. She wants me to show her how! She has a written code that deciphers the Roman alphabet on the keys into Cyrillic. I look at it for a moment. Though I know the Cyrillic alphabet, it looks a bit confusing, . But then a stroke of luck - her battery runs out! So I am relieved of my duty. And after filling up on biscuits and tea, I am back on my horse.
As I find myself back where the boy met me, another man approaches on horseback. He rides up to me and I say hello. But he is silent. We ride together for only a few moments before he turns and heads back towards the pass. What was that all about? Safety is a big concern here, especially with all the talk of horse thievery. So far I have been lucky, but I wonder how close I have come to danger.