Two weekends ago I went to Steppe Riders, a family owned tourist camp about an hour outside of Ulaanbaatar. The group of ex-patriot riding enthusiasts I went with is appropriately named the “CC and C Riders” which obviously for Chaps, Chicks, and Chinggis (Khaan). We convened in the morning outside of the Grand Khaan Irish Pub and loaded up into two vans.
As usual, the ride to the countryside was filled with massive potholes, close-calls with oncoming vehicles as both drivers tried to avoid said potholes, and the occasional gravel flicking up onto the windshield from cars in front of us. It was a true pleasure to meet both a New Englander and a Spaniard on the ride, both from places I’ve called home! I’m glad I had a chance to chat with both about their life stories and experiences of Mongolia so far!
Steppe Riders is in a beautiful valley nestled far enough outside of the city to ensure that the air is fresh and the views of the sprawling vacant hills are spectacular. With over a hundred horses, it’s not a small operation. The agency relies on seasonal temporary labor from English-speaking foreigners, who come from all over the world to volunteer there for weeks at a time. We met folks from Australia, New Zealand, and Seattle who had been there helping to prepare meals, serve guests, clean gers, groom and tack horses, and help lead rides for guests. Foreign volunteers pay $150 a week for the costs of room and board and get access to the horses and trails after guest rides are finished for the day. They even get to help lead overnight rides too!
Unlike the previous riding operation I went to, Steppe Riders supplied helmets, chaps, and English-speaking guides. They didn’t even whip our horses and try to herd us! In fact, they even made an effort to make us feel welcome by offering us tea and asking about our riding experience beforehand. They even suggested dividing us into groups based on experience! How refreshing from our last ride!
I think as a general rule in Mongolia here, if you want a decent horse you need to explain profusely that you are an experienced rider. Otherwise, most Mongolian tour operators will give you a clunker that has some temperament issues and doesn’t like to gallop. I think that, probably for good reason, every place I’ve ridden the herders have been very cautious to let any foreigners ride their faster horses. (Although I admit so far I’ve lucked out. I think that just because of my hat and cowboy boots people take me a bit more seriously!) In general though, in comparison to the locals in the countryside who ride day in and day out starting at age three or four, all foreigners lack experience!
Leaving the camp, we reach the expansive rolling hills. At this point, the divide between the beginner and more experienced riders becomes evident. It also became obvious who had a horse that liked to run and who didn’t. My horse liked to run a lot! My friend Katie’s horse also like to let loose and we raced our horses across the plains at a full gallop for a few hundred yards at a time before forcing our horses to take a breather and trot or walk.
For some reason, even among our student coordinators — who did a fantastic job leading us around the city during our first month — Mongolian guides don’t necessarily like to lead from the front. When you have open space and horses that like to race this means that you lose sight of the leader after turning into a crease in the valley. Our guides had no problem with us really opening up some space between the other riders, but often had to motion the correct direction for us to run in. There are no trails here and the horses as a result were not programmed to run on autopilot for most of our ride. It was nice to actually have the opportunity to practice some horsemanship skills though! (It was also great to not have to put up with a five year old screaming at us and whipping our horses too, although I missed our last guide!)
One of my favorite points on the ride was our last run up a dirt road when the guide looked at me with a “you wanna gallop?” expression accentuated by an arch of her eyebrows and a wide grin. “Of course!” We raced past the cows that darted off the road ahead of us and passed the Mongolian herd dogs barking and chasing at our heels.
Overall, Steppe Riders was a great experience! Although the ride could have been a bit longer than the two hours we were out, the service was wonderful and the horse I was given had some serious spirit. The scenery was gorgeous and the meal of tsuivan,” homemade fried rice noodles and veggies, at the end of the day was delicious and filling.
One of my highlights of the day was the ride back, where I got the chance to talk with my new Spanish friend in “Castellano” for an hour or so about everything from her hometown of San Sebastian to travel in India to Buddhism! Oh how I miss speaking Spanish every day! I suppose I came to the wrong country for that… but I have plans now for weekly Mongolian lessons.
(Continued from Part 1…)
Still in a bit of a fog from my visit with the shaman, I decide to investigate what’s cooking for the celebratory meal! The first course is already well underway. Beef noodle soup!
An older relative tends the wood-burning stove the family has brought along. The rusted eight foot chimney, originally designed for venting smoke from gers while cooking indoors, has been erected in front of a row of western-style camping tents. Like most traditional Mongolian foods, there are no spices added to the dish. The one seasoning I notice being sprinkled generously into the pot is salt. It seems to be doing the trick. It smells delicious!
Goat. It’s what’s for lunch!
Suddenly, my attention is diverted to the main course. “Baaah!” Gleefully, our host father hauls a charcoal black goat over to the outdoor stove. Straddling its front quarters, he wields an ax in his right hand. He means business! His son joins him in restraining the struggling animal. As he prepares himself for the first step in the recipe, he smiles at me with a “this is how it’s done!” look. Deftly and with immense force, he brings down the butt of the ax onto the crown of the goat’s head. “Bleeah! Bleeeah! Ble-“ it cries before the second and third blow quickly silence it.
Now that the goat is limp and unconscious, the father motions to his son to help him flip it over to expose its belly. In a matter of seconds, it’s on its back. The father kneels down and uses the blade of the ax to make a large incision in the upper belly of the beast. Reaching his arm inside the still breathing animal, the herder grimaces with concentration as he searches for something. Thirty seconds later he pulls out its heart! Is this really happening? With its heart resting on top of its upturned belly, this goat is done for.
Moments later the father expands the original incision and empties the contents of the abdomen into several metal bowls. Several younger relatives look on with interest.
Meanwhile, his nephew fires up a soviet-era blowtorch to singe the hair off the carcass.
After the innards are divided into three basins, two older women take the one containing the rectum and lower bowels and squeeze out the fecal matter inside of them.
Now that the blowtorch is fired up, the hair is burned and scraped off with a large knife. I’m not the only one who gets the ordeal on film!
While the three men continue with the labor-intensive endeavor, my host mother takes the massive pot of beef noodle stew from the burner and doles out bowls to everyone else. We kneel and sit cross legged around the same tarp used for the ankle bones game earlier. White bread is passed out and I help myself to several pieces. Offered another bowl by my host mom, I can’t refuse!
Finishing the first course, I watch as the meat with singed skin still attached is butchered and thrown into a cooking pot. The highly prized internal organs are saved for later meals throughout our stay. (Goat brains for breakfast, anyone?)
As I snap photos of the final steps of the meal preparation, I’m beckoned into the main tent by the older relative who has been diligently manning the stove top. Seated on the ground are two other elders with an opened bottle of vodka between them. Two more full ones lay on the ground nearby. My friend and interpreter absent, I’m left to fend for myself.
The men in the tent inspect me carefully and begin to chat in Mongolian as they finish passing around a red thermos cup full of vodka to one another. They’re probably debating how much this white guy can drink… Before I can think too much more about it, the man in charge pours between four and five shots of Chinggis Khan into the cup. That is a LOT of alcohol!
With keen interest, the three Mongolians watch intently as I’m offered the cup. “What’s he gonna do?” they’re asking themselves. This could be a bad idea, but… “Bottoms up!” Without hesitation, I down the entire cup. Whew! Grimacing and wiping away the drops of vodka dribbling down my chin with my sleeve, I quickly hand it back. Thankfully we just ate and this is not on an empty stomach.
Immediately the men’s eyes open wide with surprise. Smiling and shaking my head, I see they also have the biggest grins I’ve seen on their faces so far. Even the killing of the goat didn’t have this effect. They start laughing and punching each other on the shoulders. “I told you he would drink it all!” “Wow, you were right!” I imagine they’re saying.
Having proven myself, the next few rounds they pour less than a shot for me. Thankfully, my friend comes to rescue me soon. “Peter, your face is bright red! How much have you drank?” “I dunno, less than them!” I laugh. He’s offered the cup shortly afterwards. A non-drinker, he touches his lips politely to the cup, but our hosts are not very pleased with his lack of enthusiasm. However, I’ve proven myself enough to have a full on conversation with the men, with my friend as translator.
After a twenty minute conversation about the differences between Christianity and Shamanism, we get up to check on the main dish cooking outside.
After several rounds of salty milk tea with my new friends back in the ger – which thankfully cuts the edge off the vodka quite nicely – the main course arrives. The boiled meat is fairly tender and has a lot of fat on it, the best part of any meal for most Mongolians. Voraciously hungry, I help myself to a goat rib and part of it’s hind left leg. My hosts watch my efforts to cut small pieces off, and insist that I make several cross-cuts to be able to more easily rip it off with my canine teeth. The strategy works and, although I feel I’m eating like a caveman, apparently I’m doing it right.
There’s something very satisfying about this whole process, something elemental. How many times in the U.S. have I really seen where my food comes from? Especially meat! Here I know that the goat lived a full and free life on the steppe and was killed as quickly and painlessly as possible.
After the feasting commences and several more rounds of ankle bones and a small wrestling tournament (which I’ll write more about later) ensue, it’s time to go!
After the camp has been taken down completely, the elders in the family pay their respect to the spirits of the mountain and of their ancestors.
Thanks for taking the time to read a bit more about my home stay! Still plenty more material to come from that short but busy visit!
After over a half an hour of driving around aimlessly in a large valley, hopping from ger to ger, we finally find the first of four host families with whom we Fulbrighters will stay for the next three days. I suppose that’s one problem with arranging home visits with nomads in advance, they pack everything and move at a moment’s notice!
Our drivers help the first two Fulbrighters unload their gear and move it into their host family’s home. “Let’s walk from here,” our student coordinator, Erdene, suggests. “Sure, it doesn’t look too far,” I reply, nodding in agreement. We haul our backpacks and sleeping bags out of the back of the truck and begin to walk across the pasture.
Ten minutes later, we approach the next camp. Two gers stand side by side. “I think this is the right one, but I don’t remember! It’s in a different place this time.” Of course it is.
No one answers the doors when we knock. Peaking our heads inside, they’re empty. More worrisome, there were no livestock anywhere in sight. No sheep, goats, or horses. “Are they out moving the herd?” “No idea!” He looks as confused as I do.
Circling the back side of the gers, we find a baby goat tied to a broken down truck. This is a good sign! “Think that’s our dinner?” I ask Erdene, only half-joking. “No! We don’t eat baby animals here. You Americans are so weird – you eat baby sheep!” “Yeah, lamb is delicious! So tender and flavorful.” “Ew!” There’s no point in arguing, he’s just gonna have to come visit me sometime.
We sit patiently waiting until we remember the Frisbee Erdene brought. After a few minutes tossing around the disk, a rusty old Japanese truck pulls up and a teenager wearing sweatpants , a leather jacket, and Nike high-tops jumps out. “He says his family is having a mountain ritual today on the other side of the valley. Do we want to go?” Erdene interprets. “Of course we do!”
After hopping into the cab of the sputtering old truck we barrel along for a few minutes of silence. I try to ask a couple of questions through Erdene, but the kid doesn’t have too much to say. “We don’t have the idea of awkward silence that you Americans have. It’s normal here. He’s just very masculine.” And apparently I’m being a girl right now by trying to be friendly…
Eventually, we come across two men walking across the valley a few hundred yards apart. Our driver stops to speak with each and motions for them to jump in the back. After the second one hops in, we turn back towards the gers. “He’s going to give them airag. The family we’re staying with is famous for it.” Airag is fermented mare’s milk, a staple beverage among herders. As an airag fan, this is a very good sign.
After the young host entertains the neighbors back at the ger, it’s our turn to hop into the back of the truck.
After dropping off the neighbors at the biggest intersection around, the crossing of a dirt cattle path and a stream bed, we continue to the base of a large grassy hill. After parking by a cluster of tents and a ger, we climb halfway up the slope to where a group of people have gathered around a circular pile of rocks. A slender metal pole juts upwards from the middle of the heap. Colorful prayer scarves tied to the beam flap wildly in the wind. Getting closer, I spot cheese, cigarettes, and vodka bottles resting on West side of the shrine. Offerings.
Through my host brother and Erdene I’m introduced to our host mother and father. We shake hands and they smile a bit inquisitively. (Later I learn that I’m the first American they’ve met and the first white person some of their relatives had ever seen in person.) After introducing myself by my explaining where I’m from and telling them about my family, we eventually turning back to the proceedings.
The presiding spiritual authority is the family’s Shaman, a woman dressed in a traditional black “deel.” She sports a black mask and a headdress decorated with eagle feathers. [See photos below. I wasn’t allowed to take pictures at the sacred site on the hill.] With drum and rattle in hand, she greets us kindly and nods approvingly as we patiently observe. As I look on, each family member walks around the shrine three times, throwing a small pebble onto it during each pass. One man generously sprinkles vodka onto the rocks as he walks around it.
“We’re really lucky. I had no idea this was happening. I’ve never seen this sort of ceremony,” Erdene says. “Me neither!” This doesn’t exactly happen regularly in Boston or Seattle. As the last family members finish the rite, our hosts motion for us to pay our respects. I circumambulate the shrine, doing my best to imitate the family members. Then, kneeling before the altar, I bow low three times, accidentally placing my forehead into the pool of sticky, cheesy vodka. I doubt Smirnoff makes this flavor… probably for a reason! Thankfully, no one seems to notice the droplets rolling down my face. I carefully brush it off my cheeks and forehead and into my hair. Makes a good hair gel!
Satisfied with our efforts to honor the spirit of the mountain, the group marches down the hill to their day camp. The children in the family run around and play tag and the general demeanor changes from reverence to revelry.
“We just happened to show up for the biggest family celebration of the year, didn’t we?” I exclaim. “Yeah! This is amazing.”
Arriving at the ceremonial ger erected for the day’s activities, I sit next to the eldest relatives out of respect. A plump man doles out airag into a single bowl from a bright orange five-gallon gasoline container. After downing half of it and passing it to my friend, I pass the empty bowl back to my hosts, who seem quite pleased. Refreshing!
Taking stock of their strange white guest, the men motion for me to flex my bicep muscle and then point towards a younger relative my age. The oldest man makes the universal gesture for arm wrestling! Oh, it’s on! Seizing the chance to bond with my hosts, I roll up my sleeve and quickly approach the small stool.
While, surprisingly, I beat the first man quite a bit bigger than me, my arm is tired. I haven’t been training enough for this… His cousin, a full-time herder jumps right up and challenges me next.
After the arm wrestling match, I’m invited over to a large tarp where hundreds of sheep ankle bones are spread out. Relatives of all ages gather on the edges, kneeling or propping themselves up with their arms or elbows. I’ve seen ankle bones before but have never learned how to play. “There are many different types of games,” Erdene informs me. I kneel next to my host dad and quickly become engrossed in learning the rules.
[How the game worked: First, all players selected an equal number of ankle bones from the massive communal pile. It could be any number. In the first round I watched everyone took twelve. Naturally, when I was invited to play during the next round I took the same number but my host quickly added more to my pile. Like most things here, the rules are flexible.
Every player then contributed the same number of bones (generally 2 or 4) to the middle of the playing surface. One by one, players took all of the donated bones and, using both hands, cast them down onto the tarp. The ankle bones rolled and landed with one of four distinct sides facing up. The player who tossed the bones must then, using his thumb or forefinger, flick all the ankle bones into one another that have matching sides facing up. While this was quite obvious to herders who butcher sheep routinely, I struggled at first to identify the matching sides.
Once the player knocks two bones together, he adds both to his personal pile, thus winning them from his opponents. If he is skilled and is able to flick all of the matching bones into one another without missing or hitting any incorrect bones, then all players must again contribute to the pile. He then tosses them again and flicks matches together until he makes a mistake. Once he messes up, then the player to his left gets a chance to roll the bones and try his luck flicking the matching bones. The game continues until one player wins all of the bones from the other players. This can take a long time depending on how many bones each player starts with and how many players there are!]
During the middle of our match, gasps rise unexpectedly from the relatives. The shaman, who had left the game and disappeared into the ger, suddenly begins to beat her drum and dance rhythmically outside the main ceremonial ger. “She’s being possessed!” Erdene explains in a quick, very serious tone.
Family members quickly surround her with outstretched arms as she spins violently, rattle in hand. Then, as she careens out of control, they catch her before she falls and bring her gently down to a cross-legged position. Shortly, the eldest male in the family appears from the ger with a large platter of cheese, cigarettes, and vodka to offer to the ancestral spirit.
The shaman cackles and chants in an ancient Mongolian dialect. “No one knows what she’s saying,” Erdene comments. “How can that be?” “Only the shaman’s sister can comprehend the language she speaks,” he clarifies.
After receiving the offerings, the shaman invites the relatives, one by one, to approach. With heads bowed they kneel low before her. Some light cigarettes and insert them into the end of her long pipe. Others pour vodka into a small metal bowl for her. One woman sings a traditional folk song that prompts the possessed shaman to giggle in a very high-pitched tone and convulse violently with laughter.
Strangely, most of the men with whom I’d been playing continue their game, completely uninterested in the spectacle. Happens every year I suppose!
At one point, the wife of one player calls him up and, reluctantly, he walks over to the shaman and pays his respects.
“Peter, they want you to go up!” Erdene tells me. Doing my best to copy what I’ve just witnessed, I kneel low before the shaman. She whispers to me in a forceful, wheezy tone. Her sister, who also speaks some English, serves as an interpreter.
I’m told to bow before her. As I do the shaman places her hand on my back. Then, she has me sit up and place my hands in front of her open-faced so she can study my palms.
After a few nervous moments, she begins to tell me things about my past. Things she had no way of knowing! Then, seamlessly, she changes gears and advises me about my future. A shiver runs down my spine. I almost began to tear up. I’m still perplexed by the brief encounter and am not sure what to make of it.
Following local superstition, I will not share what the shaman has disclosed for fear of negatively influencing my fate. Let’s just say it was uncanny how much she seemed to know about me. I had not had a single conversation with the shaman beforehand, who spoke no English, and very little interaction with her sister.
(To be continued. Next I’ll focus on the food and drink during my outing!)
Last weekend I went on a horseback riding outing in the countryside with a group of French, Australian, Canadian, and American ex-pats. We met at noon in the famous Sukhbaatar Square in the heart of Ulaanbaatar.
After waiting for several stragglers who were running on Mongolian time we hopped into a large van the trip coordinator had reserved for us. After juggling seats and gear around for several minutes, we were off to the nearest convenience store – after all what’s a weekend trip without snacks and beverages!?
Unfortunately, we had the misfortune of getting caught in a nasty traffic jam shortly afterwards. We were stuck on the same kilometer stretch of road for almost an hour before reaching the outskirts of the city where things finally sped up. Unlike the weekdays, when cars with certain license plate numbers are banned from the roads at penalty of heavy fines, there are no restrictions on vehicle traffic on Saturday and Sunday.
After escaping the city and driving for an hour through the surrounding hills and valleys we reached the entrance to Terelj National Park, where an orange-vested man demanded a 3000 Tugrik fee from each of us. According the group members who make this trip routinely, this was either a very new policy or a profiteering individual dressed as an official… Regardless, the roughly two dollars were worth entering the park unhindered.
When we finally arrived at our guest ger camp it was nearly 2:30 and some of our group still hadn’t eaten lunch. After snacking, we began to saddle up for our afternoon ride and by this point it was around four o’clock. Having ridden two years ago in a traditional Mongolian wooden saddle and vividly recalling the awkward bruises it left, I was really hoping the rumor was true about this outfitter having Russian tack.
Upon inspection there weren’t any wooden saddles, but the ones they had looked a bit Frankenstein-like. Mine for example consisted of a tattered fake leather cushion stretched over a pokey metal frame. Other saddles looked like a hybrid between English and Western, but probably ones designed for children! And regardless of the saddle, all the stirrups were steel, circular, and extremely short – at least compared to the Western riding I’ve done.
For numerous reasons most of the stirrups were not adjustable either. I pleaded with my Mongolian guide to lengthen the stirrups by using nearly half my vocabulary to say “excuse me,” or ochlaarai. After getting his attention, I made some awkward hand gestures that to him looked like I was showing off my Western cowboy boots that I’d brought with me from the States. After a minute of intense boot inspection and apparent approval, he understood what I was actually trying to ask at which point he gave me a “you’re crazy, that’s how long they’re supposed to be!” look and quickly moved on to assist other riders.
Slowly accepting the fact that this ride would be very uncomfortable, I snapped a few photos of fellow riders who would endure a similar fate!
Looking around I was half-expecting our group to be led around a corral on pony rides! Mongolian horses are much shorter and often stockier than most Arabian varieties common to North America. In fact, the guide’s son, who must have been about five years old, was on a horse the same size as mine.
Setting off, I was surprised to see that unlike the trail rides that I was accustomed to the riders were not in-line along a set trail but spread out riding side by side. The guide’s main role was to herd our horses in this formation, and depending on how he felt he determined the speed we went!
Of course, none of us spoke excellent Mongolian and he spoke no English so we had no idea what was happening most of the time. The best form of communication was the long stick he used to whip our horses, and occasionally us, to get the herd moving faster. His piercing whistle and booming yells, usually employed as a threat to being whipped, would also get most of the horses trotting.
A few minutes into our excursion we rode through a river nearly three feet deep. While most of us got soaked from the knees down I managed to avoid getting wet by propping my feet up on the withers of my horse. Little did we know at this point, but the trip would be measured by river crossings. There were nine in total!
As we passed through the meadows and woods, we came across the hay fields that support the herd during the wintertime. Along the way, our herder paid a visit to one of the sites where the grasses were being harvested and stacked. The teenage boys were using scythes to cut the high fields down.
While the Mongolian horses weren’t quite as fast as the ones I was used to riding in the States, they had unbelievable stamina. I think I had plenty of company when I admit I stayed busy just trying to stay on mine!
The guide was whipping, yelling, or whistling at our horses every few minutes to keep up the pace! That meant most of us were trotting, and with the stirrups so short the group’s thighs were burning and knees aching after just an hour.
“I just can’t do this!” one experienced rider exclaimed. Resorting to riding without stirrups and cantering, he charged ahead then waited for the group to catch up.
The death trot was not an option for me either! One reason was that trotting meant the steel frame pounded my tailbone to the point where I would have some very awkward bruises for the next week.
Another reason was that my horse was a feisty fella and feared the herder’s whip more than the others. Using the long end of my lead rope which, oddly, was still attached to the harness, I whipped my horse into gear. “Cheww!! Choo!” I screamed in the same fierce tone as the Mongolian guides. It worked! Once my horse got started it took a LOT to slow down. It also really like detours too. While there was a general trail through the meadows, it liked to explore the nooks and crannies of the valleys at a full gallop!
As we charged across the plain, a flock of birds unexpectedly flew up a mere meter in front of my companion’s horse. Spooking, the horse put on the brakes! The rider clung to his horse’s neck as he surged forward. Wrapping his legs around the mare, he sloughed off to the left side, hitting the ground. Thankfully he was a real cowboy and got right back on. A very graceful dismount if you ask me!
On the way back, there were some more mishaps. Our group was tired after two and half hours of riding and it showed. One rider “got stuck” on a tree and the young guide had to come coax his horse down the mountain. Another led his horse off trail and it tripped in a marmot hole, causing him to fall off. A third rider ran into a bee hive and was stung repeatedly while his horse freaked out! He was able to dismount and walk his horse to the trail while the father and son team laughed their butts off and kept their distance. All of these mishaps were in the first five minutes of turning to go back home.
Amazingly, we all survived. While walking was very painful for the next couple days, it was entirely worth it!