1. Horse trek
We set out with two Mongolian Nomadic Horseman for our 5 day trek through the mountains. Gloria was a bit scared because her last time riding a horse (5 years ago) she had been thrown, but she was up for the challenge…as long as someone led her on a lead rope. Unfortunately, that person turned out to be Uka and unfortunately Uka turned out to be horrible at leading someone on a horse while he himself was on horseback and unfortunately Gloria got led into several trees along the way. =( poor girl was having a rough time. For me though, this was a dream come true. The horses were all so good and well mannered, stout and trusty. The scenery was so beautiful wide open grassy spaces that flowed right into rolling hills and then climbed into rocky mountains covered in fir trees with the sparkliest, flowing river winding its way along side us the whole time. The saddle took some getting used to since it was a lot harder and smaller than a western saddle. But at least they hadn’t given us the real traditional wooden seat saddle with iron stirrups that the horsemen used. We rode slowly and made camp for the evening. The next day we stopped by a natural hot spring and had a bath and washed our hair. So refreshing. The whole day as we got on and off our horses, Gloria always needed an extra boost to get up and there wound up being a whole lot of butt grabbing going on all for the sake of getting Glo on and off the horse. At one point, Uka was trying to help her get on and in a way that only Gloria Ibarra could pull off, she hoisted one leg over the horse’s back, wound up not upright but on her belly hugging the horse’s back, and the next thing we knew she had gone up and completely over on the other side. The horse in confusion stepped on Uka’s foot who then let out a loud scream and all of us spectators and Gloria included burst out into raucous and unending laughter. Gloria, still jolly, hoisted herself on again and almost fell off again because she was laughing so hard but we managed to get on our way…laughing all the while. But by the end of that day, Gloria had been led into one too many trees by Uka and had had enough of the horse trekking part of the program so we decided to head back to the ger camp early, where Glo could stay on her feet and I could go out and ride by myself.
2. The Fall
All of the horses were well-mannered except one, the horse that our young horseman rode. He was high-strung and temperamental and we were warned to stay away from him. My horse, well-mannered as he was, was what they called “a good Mongolian horse”…which meant that he was fast and that he loved to go fast. But for most of the trek, I made him go slow to stay at the same pace as Gloria’s slow-poke horse. On the last day, Glo decided to walk back, and I made my horse walk behind her. After a while he decided that pace was WAY too slow and he started getting antsy. At that point, the young horseman rode up and told me to switch horses with him so that he could let my horse run fast for a while. I was a little surprise3d since we had been told to keep away from his horse but I went along anyways…After all, I’ve never been scared of any horse before. The young horseman took off and I kept his horse going at a walk. Then I felt it coming. The test. Every high-strung horse tests a new rider for the first time. So I let him trot but at a controlled pace. One problem though. This was my first time in a traditional Mongolian saddle which literally looks like a small wooden seat with a wooden panel in the front instead of a saddle horn, and with iron stirrups. When the horse started to trot, my ankles were banging against the iron stirrups and my thighs hitting the wooden panel. Not comfy. I tried to adjust and figure out how to sit in the saddle when the horse realized his opportunity to break away. And so he did. And there we went galloping across the wide open Mongolian grass. Nothing in front of me to stop my horse. And what they say is true. Mongolian horses are fast and powerful. I’ve never gone so fast before. The wind ripped my baseball cap off my head even though it was fastened with a pony tail. I knew the horse would keep going until I was off it’s back but I was intent on staying on, bad footing and all. I pulled up as hard as I could on the reins and let out a loud and low “HAI” which means stop for Mongolian horses. Then I brought the reins up tight and yanked as hard left as I could to force the horse into a tight circle. Circles always slow a horse down. And sure enough, he slowed to a bumpy trot, throwing his head the whole time, and twisted into a small circle, for which my footing just wasn’t ready. I slipped slowly and gently off to the left, holding onto the reins the whole time. A painless fall and I jumped on my feet immediately and my horse was suddenly calm. I put my hand on its head and asked it to stop and it did. The young horseman came riding up at that point and asked if I was ok and I said yes. He went back to retrieve my hat and I got back on my horse. The test was over as soon as I got back on. He had to know I wasn’t scared of him if I got back on. And I wasn’t. Though there was adrenaline coursing through my veins from the thrill of riding that fast in a wide open space for such a stretch. My horse was grumpy but done with his antics.
I was a little embarrassed that the horsemen had seen me fall. But apparently I shouldn’t have been. Because the next day, the young horseman approached Uka and told him that he had fallen in love with me on account of my riding skills and was prepared to try to make me his girlfriend. Uka told him not to waste his time because I lived in America and we couldn’t even communicate in the same language. Too bad for the horseman but at least I felt like my riding skills had received the ultimate stamp of approval.
3. The Babies
Babies in Mongolia are fat and beautiful. Nomadic children play all day outside and grow up in their family’s ger. They help with whatever they can…the girls washing and hanging the clothes by hand, bringing firewood into the ger, and other small tasks. Boys help the men ten the animals and we were impressed to see the ten year old boy of our host family working all day herding their goats and sheep. One day, three little Mongolian children who looked to be ages 3, 4, and 5 made our day as we watched them gallop swiftly across the plains, their little legs butterfly kicking their horses fervently even though their feet didn’t even reach the horse’s belly. One had a wooden paddle in tow and swatted his horse’s neck and we were pretty sure it felt like a mere neck massage to the horse. The other had a rope in hand and from time to time would swat his horses behind. The littlest rode in back and took care of yelling at the top of his lungs as the thundered around in great jubilation. It was clear how much Mongolian horses respect their tiny riders. A beautiful sight. Gloria and I made good friends with the two little girls that belonged to our host family. It’s amazing how little you actually need to know of each other’s language in order to be friends. Especially with kids. We dressed them up, shared our candy and cookies, climbed on rocks together, and they loved us.
Our driver was called Erdenhu, though if you ask him his name, he will list a bunch of names in a language for each culture that he has met people from. Erdenhu was our anti-Uka and we were so glad to have him along. He daughters our age and he knew evry road in Mongolia and most of Russia and many parts in Northern China. He has been driving for 20 years. He is also a pilot and flies to see his daughter in Europe and his other daughter in Beijing. Erdenhu spoke very broken English but somehow we were able to communicate with him better than we were with Uka many times, granted it involved a lot of body language and laughing. Erdenhu was a jolly man and we all shared a similar sense of humor. He, Gloria, our cook (who spoke and understood zero English), and I all got along famously in the universal language of hand gestures, physical humor, and making fun of Uka.