One of our must-dos in Mongolia was horse riding, mainly as a way to get more in touch with the real traditional Mongolia. We had met a few other travellers who had bought horses and done independant horse treks for weeks through the Mongolian countryside. But after hearing their stories of horses running away or struggling to cross rivers that were too deep we decided an organised horse trek would be better for us, especially since neither of us have loads of riding experience. We looked into a few tour companies but in the end opted to arrange our tour through Gaya’s guesthouse (thanks for the tip Gillian and Howard). Our tour was from Kharkhorin to the eight lakes area and the Orhkon Valley.
Kharkhorin was Ghengis Khans capital of Mongolia just 350km south west of Ulanbataar. The bus journey takes around 6 hours and again we had the same DVD of Mongolian music for the duration. Most of the journey went smoothly but we were unlucky enough to be seated close to a boy who suffered from motion sickness and vomited down the central ailse of the bus and then said nothing to the driver. Thankfully it wasn’t too much further before we arrived and were collected by Gaya. Gaya’s guesthouse is homely and we had the choice between a traditional ger or a room in the main house. We opted for a little bit of creature comforts in the house before our horse trek. That evening we met a lot of people and our trekking partners for the next 5 days.
The horse trekking route included a drive to the Orkhon waterfall, where we met our horses and rode to our camp for the night. The 3 hour drive from Kharkhorin to Orkhon waterfall was half on tarmac and half off-road. We were pretty surprised when our driver happily drove his estate car through some fairly deep rivers and over piles of volcanic rock. The scenery was interesting with something new to see around every bend. The Orkhon valley is a wide valley with worn volcano-shaped mountains, old lava flows and a snaking river. Along the way we saw lots of yaks, sheep, goats and cows and every now and again a ger or tourist camp. At the horse guide’s camp there were a few horses saddled up ready to go but due to the addition of 3 more people to our tour we had lunch and waited in the sunshine for the other horses to be rounded up and brought to the ger.
Mongolian horses are shortlegged and stocky like ponies rather than thoroughbreds. They are very versatile and tough, capable of walking long distances or speeding along at full pelt for a long time. Either way they have the attitude and stubborness to match their environment. The horses spend their time between work roaming free and can sometimes take a little convincing that their free time is over for a while. All of our horses were saddled up with what Mongolians call western-style saddles. To us they were more of a hybrid western-Mongolian saddle which took a little getting used to. The Mongolians guides rode with traditional wooden saddles which are very short, upright and fairly high above the horse. They also rode sitting to one side and then the other to make it a little easier on their derières. Once we were all ready and the packhorses loaded up, we set off.
Our first ride took us up along the valley and the first challenge we encountered was crossing a couple of rivers. The first large river was the point where 4 of the horses decided the grass was not greener on the other side. After about 15 minutes our Mongolian guide had to come back and shoo the horses across the river. Thankfully that was the hardest river crossing and at the next the horses were a little more responsive. Unfortunately, we happened to see a lone horse saddled up and walking along the valley with us and our guide had to leave us and catch the horse. He returned it to the group of riders behind us who were in the process of searching for a mobile phone. This delayed us by an hour and we spent the rest of the ride racing the setting sun. It was a tough ride mainly because the horses have a strong herd instinct and a healthy fear of Mongolians. This meant that every time one horse galloped the rest started too or when a Mongolian rode up behind you your horse set off at speed, sometimes in a different direction to the others.
Three hours of riding later we arrived at our camp with very little daylight left and fairly battered behinds. The ger was a welcome shelter from the wind and once the fire was going it was toasty. Our all inclusive tour included dinner from the nomads in the camp and we tucked into Tsuivan (noodles with beef and vegetables). Our riding companions had opted for the self catering option and despite the tiring ride had to prepare dinner.
Our first nights stay in a ger was both extremely hot and pretty cold as the fire wood burns so fast that you need to be adding wood every 45 minutes to keep the fire alive. In the morning we packed up and set off to reach the next camp. Surprisingly our route took us across some of the lava flows and up a fairly large hill. The horses were fantastic at navigating the difficult terrain and even recovered from the occassional stumble. It wasn’t the most comfortable ride up or down the hill but the views were stunning with the larch forest in autumnal colours. After 4 hours riding we stopped for lunch but unfortunately our guide had stayed behind to help his sister with her pack horse (with a different group) and we only had Mongolian speaking guides. Our best attempts to ask and mime for cups to drink out of only achieved a smile and nod which was a little frustrating. Our guide finally turned up around 4pm and finally we had some tea to drink and rehydrate us.
Our camp for the night was an even larger ger so both of us got or own beds and a little more space to stretch our achy muscles. It was perched on a hill overlooking the first of the eight lakes and we had plenty of time to walk around the lake and admire the views. Our dinner was mutton with rice, potatoes and carrots which was very yummy. We were starting to wonder how we were going to eat all of the food Gaya had provided us with especially since we discovered that our noodles, potatoes and vegetables had been packed into a different pack horse and suddenly appeared halfway through the trek.
The next morning we set off around the lake and along another valley. We passed another of the eight lakes and after an hour and a half of riding made it to the third and final lake we would be seeing. We stopped for a break and hiked up the hill to get an even better view. Sadly it was a really windy day so we didn’t stop for very long before we had to mount our horses and ride on. We slowly walked back to the ger we had slept in the night before but almost everyone on our group had some kind of problem with their horse or saddle. Zoë’s saddle started to come loose and one of the guides had to stop and tighten it. The worst mishap was to our Romanian friend who was daydreaming as her horse rode her into a low hanging horizontal branch.
Thankfully she wasn’t hurt as the branch snapped and she fell from her horse. At this point we all thought we would definitely be safer wearing hats but there weren’t any on offer. We all made it safely back although Zoë’s horse plodded along at the back for the last 500m and only just made it up the hill. After lunch we set off back to the previous camp. This meant going back along the valley and over the mountain we had crossed two days previously. We were a little apprehensive at the thought of going down some quite steep gravel slopes but we had to trust our horses. Zoë’s horse was quite creative about which path to follow and often made it’s own way through the trees and over large rocks. This was quite amusing as all the other horses blindly followed it and had more of a challenge than on the actual path. Running down some of the steepest sections was pretty scary so we all breathed a sigh of relief when we reached the valley. Around 30 minutes later we arrived at our first camp again and got out of the freezing cold wind for the night. Matthias volunteered to get water for the horse guides and was back out in the cold to find the river. He found the river around 1km away through a dense forest which made the water cart fairly useless. We were all wondering where on earth he had got to when he finally came in the door sweaty and cold. Thankfully we had the fire on and our ger was nice and cosy. We really enjoyed the company of our fellow riders and we were all still wondering where the waterfall was that we were meant to see on the first day.
The following day we found out that we were riding back to the ger camp where our drivers had dropped us off and from there we would walk to the waterfall. It was a pretty cold day and Zoë had picked up a cold and fever. We knew we had about 3 hours of riding to do which was managable but in the bracing wind it wasn’t going to be very enjoyable. Two and a half cold hours later we arrived at the ger and our horses seemed keen to be loose again. We were invited in for tea and soup which was very welcome. Then we were shown to our ger for the night and our guide pointed the way to the waterfall which was somewhere between 200m and 1km away. We all set off for a walk to the waterfall which was probably 1km away. We hadn’t expected the valley floor to open into a huge canyon all of a sudden and so we walked along the edge until we found the waterfall. We walked down a rocky path into the canyon and along the river until we reached a large deep pool with a fairly sizeable waterfall. Then we decided to view it from above before we set off back to the ger to make dinner. We had noodles and sauce before our guide turned up with a yummy vegetable soup. We were even happier in the morning when our guides brought some freshly fried bread for breakfast. Then we set off in the car back to Kharkhorin, which our speedy driver managed in just over two hours.
Back in Kharkhorin we had a few days to relax and see the sights. Most people come to see the Erdene zuu monastery and museum. We had a look around and were impressed by the detailed artwork but sad that much of the monastery was destroyed by the communists. We also walked up the hill to see one of the four stone turtles and also the phallic rock. Sightseeing done we had to recuperate before our next adventure. We had just two days back in Ulanbaatar before we set off on our workaway adventure. We signed up to workaway to meet some local people and reduce our costs. We wrote to a couple of hosts via the website (workaway.com) but only recieved one reply. We managed to arrange ten days living with nomads in the east of Mongolia and book a driver but the rest was set to be a surprise.