“In my imagination, the steppes of Outer Mongolia were miles and miles of flat, scrubby land with no relief. Not a bit of it!
The pitted tarmac road from Ulaanbaatar became a dirt track and we bore off to the left towards brown, rolling hills. The ger (yurt) camp comprised 10-12 gers, a loo and shower room down some steps. The following day we rose in a freezing ger, log stove dead, a white-out blizzard with drifts piled up against the door, foot long icicles hanging off the loo block and visibility down to about 10 feet. It was minus 10 degrees! The horses we were meant to be riding had all run off into the hills for shelter! Instead I walked with Tumee, our guide, up the nearest hill. We climbed for about an hour to the summit with black vultures circling over the shrine of stones and flags. We walked around it three times and made a wish (a Buddhist custom), took some photographs and hurried back down into the snow bound valley and the warmth of our ger stove.
The following day we travelled off to find the famous (and very elusive) Przewalski or Takh horses. With four chromosomes fewer than our modern horse, these wild creatures are believed to be a completely different species). We did find some of them — with their zebra striped legs, stocky pale bodies and dark short Mohican manes and tails. Although very cold, the blue skies stretched forever over a rocky, mountainous landscape of dried grassland slopes and herds of sheep and goats. A lone herdsman cantered around them in his long green coat belted with the distinctive, wide, yellow cummerbund and felt trilby-style hat.
We spent a whole day cantering across this landscape, stopping to tether our horses to the lower branches of three lone larch trees whilst we sat on the hard ground to eat our packed lunch. Three of us alone on this beautiful, wild landscape. Tumee would occasionally gallop off and up the nearest hill to be seen silhouetted against the endless blue sky. The horseman would look back at me grinning as I got the hang of this new riding experience (and pretty agonizing fast canter!).
Our last day saw us canoeing down the river Tuul — stony islands, shallow rapids and silence bar the bubbling water over the stones; goats and sheep grazing and drinking at the edges. We were so wrapped up against the cold we could barely fit on the life jackets. I think everyone thought us completely mad. Two old biddies getting into a canoe on this remote river in the middle of nowhere!
I wonder if this gives some idea about which I am still dreaming. A landscape that can be harsh and completely unforgiving but so, so beautiful. Nomadic peoples living hard, simple lives, happy with their freedom and a nature which they know and love. Wild horses; araig (fermented mare’s milk), freshly made yoghurt, strange hard cheeses hanging inside little round felt gers that are homes to families of six to ten people and mutton stew for breakfast, lunch and supper!”