Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, Mongolia
Four days? I thought our horse trek in Gorkhi-Terelj National Park was only supposed to last three days, but sure enough, it would be four. Yikes. Given that an hour or two of horse riding sounded like more than enough to me, the prospect of four days was daunting. I rode horses sometimes as a kid, but I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been on one.
Marie, on the other hand, was thrilled. She loves riding and would have happily gone for a whole week. Duration aside, both of us were fired up to see Terelj, a large national park just 35 miles east of Ulaanbaatar. With tree-covered mountains and green river valleys, the landscapes would be a big change from the Gobi.
Tourist season in Mongolia still hadn’t quite started, and Daka – the woman who’d organized our trek – said we’d be the first tourists to ride in Terelj this year (but only by one day). Daka met us at our hotel along with the similarly-named Dada, a middle-aged mother and part-time accountant who’d agreed to be our cook as a way to take a break from city life.
On the way to Terelj we stopped at the giant silver statue of Genghis Khan, a relatively new tourist attraction adjacent to the national park. The museum at the base of the statue didn’t do much for us, but it was fun to climb up to the deck right under Genghis’ massive head.
Daka spent most of the drive sharing her perspective on Mongolian history and culture. When communism fell in the early 90s, she told us, millions of Russians who’d been living in Mongolia seemed to simply vanish overnight, leaving behind huge amounts of stuff. Some of Daka’s friends made a lot of money by swooping in and scavenging from the abandoned facilities.
Daka said she started working in the tourism industry about 12 years ago, when the early waves of foreigners arriving in Mongolia tended to be pretty hardcore – a mix of people on a mission to visit every country in the world with people who’d been studying Mongolia for years and were elated that the country was finally open. There weren’t any ger camps yet and almost nobody had phones or Internet access, so to arrange a tour Daka had to visit the destinations herself and find local families who would agree to host tourists. Locals would regularly try to sell foreigners dinosaur fossils and Bronze Age artifacts.
“Did you like it better back then,” I asked, “or is it better now that there are more tourists and the infrastructure is more developed?”
“It was more fun back then,” Daka said. “But so much easier now.”
“How do Mongolians feel about the Russians these days?”
“We like them!” Daka went on to explain that Mongolia, with its tiny population and precarious location between two major world powers, feels more comfortable when Russia and China counterbalance each other evenly. Concern is growing that China’s rise relative to Russia may make it more inclined to interfere in Mongolia without worrying about the potential Russian reaction. So at this point Mongolians tend to approve of anything that makes Russia seem stronger, including – ironically, in my mind – the recent takeover of the Crimea.
Fear of China is also playing a role in Mongolia’s ongoing discussions of land ownership. Rural land in Mongolia is still owned by the state, but some are pushing for the government to grant nomadic herders ownership of the land they use. Daka views this as a terrible idea, mostly because she predicts the Chinese would quickly find ways to wrest the land away from the nomads. Chinese firms would start by offering loans that use the land as collateral, and then whenever a nomad couldn’t pay the Chinese would seize the land. Mongolian law currently prohibits foreigners from owning land, but Daka said the Chinese would have no problem operating through local proxies.
Daka, like many of the Mongolians we met, paradoxically combined humility with a deep-seated sense of superiority. Foreign businesses and products are perceived as far more prestigious, seemingly due to nothing more than the virtue of their foreign-ness. But at the same time there’s clearly a huge amount of pride in belonging to a people who once built the largest contiguous empire in history. At one point Daka said she believes the land in Mongolia – especially outside of the cities – emits an energy that enhances abilities and raw talent. As evidence she cited some kind of international brain game competition, where about half the finalists were Mongolians from the countryside. (Based on a little digging I think Daka was referring to the World Memory Championships, where Mongolians have in fact done very well.)
“Do you think Mongolians have more natural talent than other people in Asia?” I asked.
“Oh yes,” Daka declared emphatically, also claiming – as Bold (our guide in the Gobi) had – that the Buddhism practiced in Mongolia is more advanced than any other form of Buddhism. She went on to say that Southeast Asia, in particular, practices lower-level Buddhism. “The weather in Southeast Asia is so hot and humid, we believe the people who live there are being punished, which means they were less evolved in their former lives.” Wow, that seemed like a strange argument from a citizen of one of the most desolate, barren countries in the world!
“We also believe that women are less evolved than men,” Daka continued, “because they’re forced to give birth to earn more good karma by giving life to others.” Wow again! I suspected that Daka’s logic might not play well in Western countries.
Daka was quick to acknowledge that Mongolia suffers from serious problems, including government corruption, income inequality, and urban pollution. But overall she’s highly optimistic about the country’s future. Mongolia has extensive natural resources and a young population with talent and drive. The key, Daka believes, is education. If the younger generation can get a first-class education, Mongolia will make huge strides.
From the giant Genghis Khan statue it was a short, bumpy drive to the banks of the Tuul River, where we met Badam, our guide for the next four days, and Otgo, a friend of Badam’s who had some free time and decided to tag along. Tied up nearby were our six horses, one for each of us to ride and two to carry our gear.
Badam, a 68-year-old nomad who looked much younger, gave me a hearty handshake and immediately started laughing. He held up my hand and said something to Daka, who translated: “He says your hand is very cold. You would never survive here.” It was the first of many good-natured shots Badam would take at my toughness (or, more accurately, lack thereof).
Daka helped Dada prepare a quick picnic lunch before driving back to Ulaanbaatar, which left us without a translator. Dada knew a few words of English, but more often than not we had no idea what she was saying. Badam and Otgo spoke no English at all. Communication would obviously be a challenge, but after nine days of listening to Bold we were more than ready for some quiet time.
Badam and Otgo helped us up on our horses, which – consistent with Mongolian custom – had no names. After a while Marie decided to call her horse Roose, in part as an amalgam of two names (Rick and Bruce) that she’d confused in a way that I’ve been forbidden to write about, and in part because, like Roose Bolton in Game of Thrones, her horse seemed to be a troublemaker and wanna-be leader. I named my horse Jack after his less-than-smooth gait kept bringing the word “jackhammer” to mind. And off we went, wading through the river and into the park.
A pattern soon emerged that changed little over the next several days. Roose went first, refusing to let the other horses in front of him, and Jack settled in at Roose’s flank. Jack interpreted my commands as suggestions, which he usually chose not to heed. Marie looked comfortable and happy, and I was just relieved to make it to our next stop without falling off.
I pride myself on being good with animals, but Jack – while willing to tolerate me as a rider – resisted all my attempts to befriend him. At one point I went over to say hello when he was tied up during a rest break, and as I approached he positioned himself to deliver a kick if I got any closer. I was confident I’d eventually win him over, but when our trek ended I’d made zero progress and Jack was still giving me the evil eye.
We only rode for a couple hours on our first day before stopping to camp along the river. After we set up our tents Badam suddenly yelled my name and took up a wrestling stance. Did he really want to wrestle? I thought of the Seinfeld episode where the 80-year-old Izzy Mandelbaum kept challenging Jerry to weightlifting competitions. “Ha ha, OK Badam,” I said without getting up. Badam shook his head in disappointment. First the cold hands, and now I’d failed his wrestling test. Badam was not impressed. Smiling jovially, he pointed to me and held up his pinkie, then pointed to himself and held up his thumb, earning a round of laughter from the group (the first of many).
That night the temperature dropped so dramatically that Marie and I struggled to stay warm in our sleeping bags. With near-constant horse noises outside our tent, we also struggled to stay asleep. The horses neighed, whinnied, grazed, snorted, and stomped. At first light we rose shivering from our half-daze. “How did you sleep?” Marie asked, realizing the ridiculousness of the question about halfway through. We both burst out laughing.
“That’s like asking a plane crash survivor, ‘How was your flight?’” I said.
In the middle of our ride that morning Jack stopped and refused to follow the other horses. When all my attempts to move him failed, Badam had to ride back and collect us. Dada explained that Jack wanted to go the other direction because it led to his home, which did very little to diminish Marie’s immense enjoyment of the fact that I had to be rescued. “Why do people still ride horses?” I asked. “They’re like slow cars with really buggy controls that need constant maintenance and occasionally go full speed without warning.”
Marie’s gold-star day continued to improve. As we ate lunch Badam pointed to her and made a comment, which Dada translated as praise for Marie’s horsemanship. Badam remained conspicuously silent about my riding abilities, making it clear that Mongolians also subscribe to the maxim “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”
We reached our second campsite in the mid-afternoon, and after the tents were set up Otgo volunteered to take us out on another ride. I passed, hoping to rest both my sore backside and my bruised ego, but Marie jumped at the chance.
As Marie and Otgo rode off, Badam came over to take another look at my cold hands. He held his callused palm up to mine, pointing out that, while our hands were basically the same length, his fingers were almost twice as wide. He then showed me all the different scars on his hands, which I countered by using sign language to tell him that the scar under my right eye was from a dog bite. That earned an approving nod, making it the one and only time I scored points with Badam.
Marie returned from her ride with tales of high-speed galloping, beautiful scenery, milk tea in a local ger, and playtime with an adorable puppy. “Definitely my favorite part of our trek so far!”
Of course. “Badam and I compared hands,” I said.
Dark clouds rolled in, leading Badam and Otgo to decide we should pack up our tents and spend the night in a ger with a local family. Dada, Marie and I shared the ger of a nomad couple, the same place Marie had visited during her ride with Otgo. The nomad couple woke up at dawn to take care of their many animals, including two sick cows that came to the ger’s door looking for their special breakfast.
Frozen air shocked us fully awake us as we left the stove-heated ger to start our day’s ride. The temperature had dropped dramatically and the wind was blowing hard. We set a fast pace and trotted more often than not, at one point breaking into a full gallop. My hands and feet were bitterly cold and I began to feel light-headed. It was almost surreal when we passed a horse that had given birth just minutes earlier and watched as the foal took its first steps, the gusts of icy wind offering an appropriately harsh welcome to life on the steppe.
At mid-day we reached a small group of gers owned by Otgo, where, we realized later, we’d be staying the night. We didn’t know it yet but the ride that morning had been our last, which turned out to be good timing for me. I was feeling increasingly nauseous and had no appetite for lunch, and as the afternoon went on I developed chills and a fever. I had to admit I was genuinely sick, likely from something I ate or drank, and that night I took an antibiotic. I felt worse than I had in over 10 years. Marie, thankfully, seemed to have dodged whatever it was that knocked me so low.
I woke up the next morning feeling slightly better. I even had enough energy to make friends with Cujo, our name for a sinister-looking dog chained to a tree near one of Otgo’s gers. A dirt circle around the tree marked the limits of Cujo’s reach, and within the circle lay an ominous collection of scattered bones. Cujo had been silently intimidating when we walked by him the previous afternoon, but when I went over to say hello that morning he gave signs of being friendly, and eventually I decided it was safe to reach inside his circle and give him a pat. Immediately all his toughness vanished and Cujo whimpered happily as he licked my hand and wagged his tail. It didn’t take away the sting of failing to win over Jack, but at least I bonded with one animal on the trek.
Badam, smiling broadly as always, stopped by to say goodbye before heading out to meet other tourists. He ended up giving us each two bear hugs, one before we tipped him and another one after. Badam had been a fun, fascinating character and we’d really enjoyed having him as our guide, even if he remained highly unimpressed with my horsemanship and toughness.
Later that morning one of Daka’s drivers showed up to take us back to Ulaanbaatar. I was eager to return to the city, but first we had one more stop to make: the Aryapala Meditation Center. Half-heartedly, Marie and I hiked up to the temple for a quick look. We just didn’t have the energy for anything more.
That evening in Ulaanbaatar we showered for the first time in four days and then headed to a pub for Chinggis beer and French fries, the only food I’d eaten in over 24 hours. It was our last night together in Mongolia. I still had two more weeks before leaving, but Marie’s flight back home took off the next morning. Our experiences in the Gobi and Terelj had been amazing and I wished we didn’t have to say goodbye so soon.