A ride on the wild side in Mongolia

Mongolian horses live in the open and are free to roam when they are not rounded up for rides.
Mongolian horses live in the open and are free to roam when they are not rounded up for rides. PHOTO: TERENCE CHAN
At the Stepperiders base camp, horses roam just metres from the gers where tourists stay.
At the Stepperiders base camp, horses roam just metres from the gers where tourists stay.PHOTO: TERENCE CHAN
Animals such as goats roam the craggy slopes in Mongolia (above), and a tourist attraction near Ulan Bator – the 40m-tall Genghis Khan Equestrian Statue.
Animals such as goats roam the craggy slopes in Mongolia (above), and a tourist attraction near Ulan Bator – the 40m-tall Genghis Khan Equestrian Statue. PHOTO: TERENCE CHAN
Animals such as goats roam the craggy slopes in Mongolia, and a tourist attraction near Ulan Bator – the 40m-tall Genghis Khan Equestrian Statue (above).
Animals such as goats roam the craggy slopes in Mongolia, and a tourist attraction near Ulan Bator – the 40m-tall Genghis Khan Equestrian Statue (above). PHOTO: TERENCE CHAN

Mongolia's formidable horses nourished nomads for centuries and helped Genghis Khan forge an empire

The sun rises early on the Mongolian steppe. A cold light pierces through my ger. In my semi- dreamlike state, I fancy that I hear the soft thud of hooves outside.

Stumbling out of the door, I spy a flash of chestnut, a swish of a tail. Whirling around, I realise I am encircled by 60 horses. They look at me inquisitively. Barefoot in my pyjamas, I feel like Dorothy in the 1939 film The Wizard Of Oz when she wakes up in Oz and says: "Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore."

I am in a horse-trekking camp, just 30 minutes outside the capital, Ulan Bator. But the city's smokestacks feel like a universe away. We are nestled in an emerald valley flecked with white gers. There is no electricity or indoor toilet. To get a phone signal, I have to climb the nearest mountain. Goats, cows and sheep outnumber humans in these parts.

The Stepperiders camp (www.stepperiders.mn) is one of several in Mongolia that organise horse treks. A novice to riding, I plan to spend a day picking up the basics before taking a one-day trek to and from the nearby Bogd Khan Uul national park.

I immediately notice that there are no hay-filled barns at the camp. Mongolian horses are semi-feral. They bite and kick feistily. They run barefoot without horseshoes. They make their homes not in stables, but on the steppes.

Every morning, the camp's guides go to the hills and round up the horses they need for the day. But when the rides are over and the tourists are gone, the horses are let loose - free to roam, graze and sleep under the stars.

Living in the open makes Mongol horses fiercely independent. They forage for their own food and defend themselves from predators. They weather Mongolia's harsh winters in minus 40 deg C, pawing through the snow for fodder. They are tough. Fearless. Nothing like the My Little Pony variety, with sugary dispositions and rainbows for tails.

It is no wonder this camp attracts adventurers - wild dreamers drawn to wild horses.

There is Mitch, an American who plans to ride from Mongolia to China with no map, using only the stars as his guide.

There is Gonzales from Spain who is doing a four-week horse trek to eastern Mongolia with a friend. "We have no destination. We just plan to go as far as we can," he says.

My ambitions are more modest. First, I want to learn how to ride.

  • GETTING THERE

    There are no direct flights between Singapore and Ulan Bator, the Mongolian capital.

    MIAT Mongolian Airlines offers daily flights from Beijing and Seoul to Ulan Bator. Air China also flies daily between Beijing and Ulan Bator. 

    The Stepperiders horse-trekking camp (www.stepperiders.mn) has pick-up services to the camp for guests. Rates for horse treks start at US$75 (S$104) a day, including the horse, pick-up, three meals a day, accommodation, equipment and an English-speaking guide.

    Prices for customised tours are based on the number of days and the places you want to visit.

    E-mail info@stepperiders.mn for a quotation.

SINGING TO THE HORSES

Mongolian culture was built on the backs of horses. Sturdy steeds served commoner and conqueror alike. They provided nomads with transport, food and milk, and carried Genghis Khan across scorching deserts to conquer half the known world.

Today, horses are still an intricate part of Mongolian life. Horse racing is one of the three sports in the country's annual Naadam games, along with wrestling and archery. Many of the guides in my camp are Ulan Batorite teenagers on summer vacation. They slip easily from Calvin Klein jeans to the deel (a traditional overcoat) when on horseback.

I get a one-hour crash course in riding. On the harsh Mongolian steppe, the rules are drastically simplified: Say "chu" to go forward, and "hoosh" to slow down. Bring your reins to the left if you want it to go left, and vice versa.

"In Europe, there are many rules about how to sit and where to place your hands," says a Belgian travel mate. "But here...," she mimics waving the reins about haphazardly. In Mongolia, riding is about efficiency, not formality.

But the horses do not recognise anyone as master. Mine trots only halfheartedly when I say "chu", but mysteriously speeds up when my Mongolian guide, Hishig, appears wordlessly behind.

"Try singing to it!" Hishig suggests, before breaking into a lusty tune. I recognise the song with a start. It is U2's Beautiful Day.

REBELLION AGAINST NOVICES

Sadly, it is not a beautiful day when we set off for Bogd Khan Uul the next morning. The skies unleash a bone-chilling drizzle. But we press on, past mountains and valleys.

The horses have their own quirks. There is Speedy, a sprightly three- year-old that is always prancing at the front. There is Dreamy, an older horse that keeps drifting off the trail and slipping over rocks.

Mine is Greedy because he always stops to munch on grass. He breaks into a trot when the guides are nearby, but slows down to feed the minute they are out of sight.

The novice riders in the group soon have a rebellion on their hands. The horses are not listening. A Chinese woman is yelling "chu" repeatedly to her horse which refuses to move.

Dreamy's rider is whipping it with a strip of cloth to get it to move faster. It responds by unloading a gushing stream of urine.

My attempts to "discipline" Greedy fail. He tosses his head angrily when I tug the reins. He also learns to walk into tree branches - quickly chewing on the wild flowers while I am busy slapping twigs away from my face.

They obey only when our guides murmur softly to them. "How do you do it?" I ask in wonderment.

But these men have been riding horses since they were toddlers. There is a bond they have which I never will achieve.

FLYING WITHOUT WINGS

The guides often fall behind to help stragglers. But even with no one leading, the horses seem to have an in-built GPS.

At one point, I try to nudge Greedy back towards a dirt trail. He glances at me uncertainly as if to say, "Really?"

I soon realise that the path he has picked is gentler with fewer rocks. Eventually, I learn to trust his judgment.

For most of the journey, the horses alternate between a walk and a trot. But ever so often, they break into a gallop. And that is pretty magical.

It happens for the first time when we approach a vast stretch of grassland. Our guides start to trill and ululate. The high-pitched sounds excite the horses and without warning, they bolt.

Greedy streaks forward so quickly that I gasp. It is like going from a rickety bike to the purring engine of a race car. His jerky trot melts into a smooth, fluid, powerful motion. Every stride feels like a running leap. He glides through the air, lands and springs up again. The wind sings. The sky becomes a blur. I grip the reins for dear life as we fly across the steppe.

There is a Mongolian proverb: "A man without a horse is like a bird without wings." I fully appreciate its meaning then. At that moment, you do not ride. You soar.

Eventually, the horses slow to a trot. Mine throws me a look.

"Impressed?" he seems to say. Chastened, I let him duck down to munch on some grass.

We reach Bogd Khan after five hours. I am soaked and my muscles ache. But I must admit that Greedy has done most of the work, navigating ditches and mountains. The steppe is his domain. I am just passing through.

There is a certain hubris when humans say they have "tamed" a horse. As I lead my thirsty steed to a stream, I realise I have not really gone for a ride. He has taken me on one.

•Jeanne Tai, features editor of Her World magazine, is currently on a work sabbatical.  

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 20, 2015, with the headline 'A ride on the wild side'. Print Edition | Subscribe