A two week riding vacation in Mongolia in August 1998

This was the first time for our group of eight Europeans (from Norway, Denmark, Belgium and Spain) to visit this magnificent country so far away from our daily routines in Europe, but still only eight hours flight away after Miat Mongolian Airlines earlier in 1998 begun operating an Airbus 301 on its direct flight from Frankfurt/Berlin to Ulaanbaatar. After getting the group together in Berlin on Sunday 2 August we arrived in the morning of 3 August at the Ulaanbaatar international airport.
Meeting our first Mongolian horse and rider.
We were met at the airport by Gereltuv (normally known as Gerel), a young student working for Nomadic Expeditions which had organised the two week stay and prepared a comprehensive programme for our trip. Gerel spoke excellent English and proved most valuable for us both as interpreter and general trouble solver for us during the whole tour.

After transfer by Nomadic's bus to Hotel Ulaanbaatar in the town centre and a full lunch we set out for our first sightseeing with Gerel as guide. We visited Mongolia's national museum with artefacts from stone age until present day (a copy of Lenin's office had been removed after the 1990 change of government to democracy).

We noted that early Mongolians appeared to have followed a very similar pattern of living to what took place in Europe during the bronze age and early iron age periods with rock carvings and cave paintings occurring at both places at about the same time in history.

After lunch the Nomadic bus brought us outside town where within a short bus ride we were indeed on the Mongolian steppe surrounded by nomads, their gers (tents) and livestock. We had included a visit to a nomadic family in our programme to learn how they live and work under the harsh climatic conditions of Mongolia.

We watched the process of milking the mares and tasted the result, which traditionally is kept inside the ger entrance in a big wooden cask which facilitates its natural fermentation.

We also got to try their horses and learned that Mongolian horses react to other sounds and reins than we normally use in Europe - as can be seen from the photos below.

Nevertheless, we remained optimistic that we would be able to get around for about eight days on such horses in the Saridag Mountains west of Lake Hovsgol some 500 kms north of Ulaanbaatar.

 Carmen, Gerel and our host inside the ger.



Oldest and youngest generation at the ger entrance.

In the evening we enjoyed a performance at the Ulaanbaatar cultural centre by traditional Mongolian dancers, musicians and throat singers.

Wednesday was devoted to our travel to our base camp at Lake Hovsgol. First Miat Mongolian brought us from Ulaanbaatar to Mörön. From there three 4-wheel drive cars brought us the final 150 kms to the ger camp at the shores of Lake Hovsgol. Although Gerel did his best to convince Miat that our overweight was due to Nomadic bringing along tents and other camping gear, he had to give in. So in order to get us all safely to Mörön an overweight charge of USD 54 had to be paid on the spot.

Both the flight and the drive in 4W cars went without major incident (only one flat tire) but we certainly can only agree that the road conditions of northern Mongolia are terrible. It took about four hours to drive the 150 km stretch. Before dinner at the ger camp some of our group went to test the waters of the lake. They proved quite refreshing after the long drive. The local nomads surely wandered about our swimming exercise but they also gladly volunteered to taste the special Danish bitter liquor that cousin Sven had brought along in ample quantity. The next day it turned out that these people would also be our guides during the coming eight days of horseback riding.

Badur showing us the Mongol style.

This fussy looking fellow brought us fresh milk.

So on Thursday 6 August we spent the morning getting our luggage ready and packed on four pack horses and trying out a horse for the first stretch of riding that day. The use of European stirrup straps brought along turned out to be a good idea since the stirrups on the available Russian army saddles were otherwise not easy to adjust. Only a few of us were familiar with the neck-reining technique, but it did not take long for us all to get adjusted to the pace of the Mongolian horse which were all very willing and easy to ride. Although none of them were four or five gated, their trot was fast and smooth, so any stride with sore bottoms turned out to be negligible. In the late afternoon we reached our first camp site in a pleasant valley near a dry river bed. A local nomad family was also camped nearby which facilitated our procurement of fresh yak milk for breakfast the next morning. During the evening we got to know better our three local guides and the cook . They were Badur, Hoiga, Dalai and Buggi, the latter our excellent cook who was able to produce most delicious food for our "not so used to Mongolian food" stomachs. We only supplemented by proper Norwegian boiled coffee, oat meal porridge and cod liver oil at some occasions during the trip. In the end I offered Buggi our Norwegian camp coffee pot and the remaining ground coffee; after myself, Buggi was the most ardent coffee drinker, especially in the mornings.
Riding further into the Saridag Mountains
Friday 7 August started with brilliant sunshine and we proceeded further into the Saridag Mountains, passing several winter pastures for nomads now staying at their summer pasture further down in the valleys. In the late afternoon the local version of our Nordic god of thunder Thor was about to welcome us and we made a hasty decision to pitch our tents near a small brook running deep in a wide ravine. During the afternoon our guides had been supplementing their fire arms so that a total of three rifles of different calibre were now with them. In the evening Buggi created some excitement when all of a sudden his handkerchief hanging out of his rear pocket caught fire, but Gerel managed to grab it and kill the fire before the whole Buggi caught fire. What a disaster that would have been, since none of us had any of his cooking experience!


Entering the park area

... where this view welcomed us.

But where did all the goats go??

The next morning we continued our ride across a mountain pass into the restricted area zone of the Saridag Mountains. In the morning we passed a sign clearly indicating this and the fines to be levied on any person or organisation which violated the rules for staying in this zone. We were now in the high mountains at around 2000 meters above sea level. In the afternoon the weather turned cooler and rain and even hail overtook us before we arrived at a very spectacular camp site at the foot of the 3000 m high Baruun Bor Khad Uul mountain. Luckily our Norwegian participants still knew how to do the "stop-the-rain" dance and we all arrived at the campsite reasonably dry, even if some had got wet feet that afternoon. We stayed two night at this particular campsite, thus allowing us to use the Sunday (9 August) for a ride without packhorses and our normal luggage. During that day's lunch break, rain started again, but our guides found a cave high up in the mountains where a fire was lit and water boiled for tea (no coffee for that lunch). In vain we were looking for wild mountain goats and other wildlife, but the view and the mountains were splendid. In the evening the weather had stabilized, and we enjoyed an evening around the campfire after a good day's riding and an excellent dinner prepared by Buggi.

Riding back towards lake Hovsgol

The next morning (Monday, 10 August) we left this spectacular campsite and continued our journey eastwards back towards Lake Hovsgol. We passed through a valley surrounded by castle-looking mountains, reminding us of the Rhine-valley in Germany, but without any vineyards along the river. Our lunch-break was next to a very attractive natural pool formed by the small river in the valley. After lunch Sven was responsible for some excitement when he scared his horse with his camera bag. However, Hoiga showed some of his riding skills, quickly catching the loose horse from horseback.

That evening we camped below a mountain pass with threatening clouds beyond the pass. During the evening the storm broke loose, and most of us assembled in our Norwegian lavo (traditional Samic style tent), lighting a fire in the centre of the tent and singing alternatively Mongolian and Scandinavian songs with Gerel busy translating the various texts.

He explained that most Mongolians sing about their mothers. One song was about collecting the morning dew for the mother because she deserves the best in the morning. Maja also played the flute for us that evening. During the evening we discussed the planning of the tour and the saddle tack used. Apparently the Hovsgol Ger Camp was considering buying new saddles for the tours starting at the camp. We thought that saddles similar to those used on Icelandic horses for tours in the Norwegian mountains might be a good alternative to buying the heavier US type western saddles which apparently were under consideration.
Visiting the Tsaatan Reindeer nomads

The next day (Tuesday, 11 August) Badur and Gerel would lead us to the camp of the Tsaatan reindeer nomads which was located in a valley west of the Ger Camp. We left the rest of the guides and the packhorses to find a campsite for the night while we continued over a high mountain pass and finally descended into the valley of the Tsaatan family. They were clearly very poor. Their few reindeer did not look very well, and they explained that they were only on display for the tourists from the Ger Camp and received food and some remuneration from the camp for this.

Gerel demonstrating how to ride like a Tsaatan.

Their winter camp was far away behind the Saridan Mountains where about 30 Tsaatan families with a total of about 900 reindeer fight for survival. We even heard rumours that import of reindeer from Scandinavia to supplement the heard of about 900 was under consideration.

At the Tsaatan camp we met three Austrians on a three month riding vacation in Mongolia. They had bought five horses (100 USD a piece) near Ulaanbaatar, and using their own saddles, had managed to ride all the way to the north of Mongolia, using a satellite based GPS system for navigation. Badur wanted to buy their horses for 16000 Tugrugs (20 USD) each in addition to bringing them to the nearest airport for their return to Europe.

Back at Lake Hovsgol

Next morning the sun welcomed us again and we continued our descent down the mountains to the shores of Lake Hovsgol, passing across the Table Mountain on the way (Uran Dösh Uul, 2792m). We enjoyed our lunch overlooking the lake from near the mountain summit (photo). The descent was very steep, and at one stage I got the feeling of being a higgis bear. When I told the story to Gerel of the higgis bear having longer legs to the left than to the right because it constantly follows the sun around the Sylene Mountain range in mid Norway/Sweden, he, being somewhat doubtful about the truthfulness of the story, suggested that this special species of bear must surely be protected. I responded by inviting him to come along to Norway where the local tourist stations display postcards with pictures of the higgis bear. I have seen them myself!

That evening we camped at the shore of the lake and before dinner enjoyed a good swim in its extremely clear waters. All tourists and Buggi and Gerel joined us for the swim in the lake. After dinner some of us enjoyed a bareback riding tour along the lake shore, and about a kilometer to the north we ran into the three Austrians who had also camped at the lake shore. We invited them to come and join us around the campfire later in the evening.


The next day we took a short ride north along the lake shore, and Badur showed how the nomads make hay for the winter. Sven and I joined him in his effort to swing the scythe. In the afternoon we broke camp for the last time and then rode back to the Ger Camp for our final overnight stay at Lake Hovsgol. That evening we had a special farewell dinner for our guides, presenting them with various gifts to commemorate the tour, including the handing over of the blue and yellow starred European flag to the Ger Camp manager as a sign of friendship and co-operation between Mongolia and Europe. The flag now decorates the inside wall of the Ger Camp restaurant, hanging next to the skin of the last bear shot by Badur in 1993.

After dinner local singers and musicians entertained us with Mongolian songs and music. We found their performance at the level of the performance done for us by the Cultural Centre band in Ulaanbaatar, indeed exceptionally gifted artists to be found so far into the Mongolian wilderness.

The Takh wild horse reserve

Friday 14 August was used for our transfer back to Ulaanbaatar with 4W drive cars and the domestic flight. The next day Gerel took us along to the museum of fine arts in Ulaanbaatar, where a young curator showed us around and explained all the exhibitions in the museum. In the end I bought a painting done by the curator who also had an exhibition of her own paintings at the museum. In the afternoon the Nomadic bus brought us to the Hustain Nuruu reserve where the Przewalski horses are being reintroduced into the wilderness of this mountain forest steppe reserve area some 100 km west of Ulaanbaatar http://www.treemail.nl/takh/. After a lecture by the chief biologist on the reintroduction project we visited one enclosure of the reserve where recently arrived "takh" horses were enjoying themselves. During that excursion we also watched many marmots near their holes who clearly did not feel threatened by our presence.

Ghengis Khan's Ger

In the evening Gerel took us to a big restaurant ger which is a reconstruction of the court ger used by Ghengis Khan. We enjoyed a pleasant farewell dinner with full service and with many special Mongolian dishes. Outside the big ger were several normal size gers, but constructed on wheels. Surely, these must have been the world's first camping trailers. Just a pity that people have started pulling them behind their cars in Europe. On the Sunday morning Gerel accompanied us the last stretch to the airport and the flight back to Europe where we are now all back at our daily routines, but certainly always remembering the wonderful horsetrek with our Mongolian friends in the Saridag Mountains in Northern Mongolia.

Enjoying a swim in Lake Hovsgol.

From the steppe around Hustain Nuruu.

In front of Ghengis Khan's ger and his "camper".



Copyright by

Svend Kræmer