Tuesday, Sep. 20, 2011

Mongolia by Horseback: Traveling with Genghis Khan's Descendants

For much of the year, Mongolia covers up under a thick layer of snow and ice, lacerated by glacial winds that make its frigid expanses as uninviting to potential visitors as they are punishing for the thousands of nomads who call the country's wilderness their home.

But for a few months each summer, that freezing grip disappears long enough for the warm, green bustle of life to return to the enormous steppes, sweeping hills and rushing streams of Mongolia's sub-Siberian outback.

It's during this brief period that outsiders can seize the opportunity to strike out into the far reaches of Mongolia's pristine heartland. Once there, they will experience the kindness and unhesitating hospitality of its nomadic inhabitants and partake in the centuries-old, equestrian-based culture that the nation's traveling horse breeders embody and honor as part of their daily activities. Our group of 10 riders did just that for two weeks in August, when we swapped our modern French routines for full immersion into the lives and passions of our Mongolian hosts.

Our adventure began in earnest in one of Mongolia's most isolated aimags (or provinces), Bayankhongor — some 340 miles (550 km) southwest of Ulan Bator, 4,350 miles (7,000 km) and seven time zones east of our Paris starting point. The absence of dense human populations nearby has allowed Bayankhongor to preserve its natural gifts so that they are nearly untouched. Indeed, the most visible human imprints we saw were left centuries ago by Genghis Khan and more recently (and in a limited manner) by his descendants, who keep the honored equestrian traditions he bequeathed to Mongolia alive in their daily work and lives. The irresistible appeal of this trip was its offer to allow us to temporarily share Genghis Khan's living legacy with his modern-day Mongol successors.

It was the first time that Cheval d'Aventure, a France-based specialized horse-travel group, had organized an itinerary with local operator Mongol Ethnic Land to that part of Mongolia. And the fact that this was an uncharted excursion made it all the more special to our group of riders, ages 28 to 53, and our three Mongol horse guides, cook, driver, assistant — plus two of their children.

To launch our trek, we traveled to an isolated point within Bayankhongor's already remote confines: the banks of the Baidrag River, where we mounted what the Mongols call "the horses of the wind" and then rode to Khokh Nuur, or Blue Lake, just south of the Khangai Mountains. From there, we crossed the region's immense steppes, traversed large mineral valleys and scaled mountains rising from 4,600 ft. (1,400 m) to 8,200 ft. (2,500 m), whose summits formed huge plains offering surreal panoramas of green expanses rolling off into the horizon on all sides.

Tucked within this spectacular natural landscape were traces of thousands of years of human history — monuments, markers and relics from the era of the steppe empires, as well as Buddhist and shaman memorials to departed souls dating to the Bronze Age and Xiongnu and Turkic periods.

As arresting and humbling as all this was, perhaps the most memorable part of our voyage was attending a traditional naadam, or festival, of Mongol nomads. The naadam we were invited to was held near Bayankhongor's Lun Ovoo — the most sacred local ovoo, or shamanistic cairn used to worship the sky and mountains that is found in the Mongol countryside. Like other naadam held around the country, the Lun Ovoo festival was organized by the region's itinerant horse breeders to honor their ancestors with races and other equestrian competitions, plus a tournament of wrestling — Mongolia's other national sporting passion.

Our group of riders were privileged not only to be the first outsiders to partake in the festival but also to be named its guests of honor by Bayankhongor's governor, who made the long trip from the provincial seat to preside over the naadam. He demonstrated his happiness in welcoming far-off visitors to the region by organizing other cultural activities for us — including a ceremony at Lun Ovoo with a local shaman and an evening of traditional dance and song.

Our more typical days were spent crossing Bayankhongor's vast, open spaces to the rhythm of the horses' gait, often going hours — or an entire day — without encountering other humans. Mornings began early with fresh bread baked in a pot by one of our Mongol chaperones, as well as dumplings and other delicacies. Lunches and camp dinners were simple and at times featured fish caught in nearby streams by our fellow riders — and on one occasion a marmot that was proudly served up by our guides as a local specialty. Periodically, we'd drop in on a local nomad family, whose members might wade into the herds of horses, sheep and yaks they raise (for sale or milk, food and wool production) and offer a lamb for dinner. But most frequently, these itinerant hosts spoiled us with dairy products made from their livestock, which constitutes the staple of Mongol life: cheeses of all kind, yogurt, cheesy butter, still more cheese and the archetypal Mongol drink arag — lightly fermented mare's milk, consumed just about any time on a steppe. Indeed, with horses so essential to Mongol life, arag was a culinary reminder of how you simply have to love nearly everything equine in nature to appreciate rural Mongol life. You just do. And we just did.

A Russian-made truck hauled tents (for those of us who used them), cooking materials and baggage for us during our long days of riding. Now and then, our Mongol expedition leaders would stop at nomad encampments, where we would invariably be invited to eat, rest and make our own yurt sweet yurt for the afternoon, evening or entire night. In doing so, our hosts reflected the incredible generosity and hospitality offered everywhere in Mongolia by people who tend to treat visitors less like temporary callers and more like cousins returning after long absences.

It's tempting to ascribe such unrestricted welcoming as a habit learned by people who for generations have spent most of the year largely cut off from others. But it's probably more accurate to view that hospitality as yet another aspect of Mongol culture and tradition, and the manner in which the country's nomads keep those elements alive by trying to live as their ancestors did. That means honoring everything human, animal and natural around them, and giving of their lives and lifestyle as a means of spreading and nurturing them. Which is one reason that many in our group felt that even after our time was up and we had to return to France, there was a part of us that would remain in Mongolia — and vice versa.