500km, 2 horses, 3 camels and one faithful dog. That was quite simply my life for a month. Mongolia is all about extreme simplification and this is a lesson which, coming from a life of endless complication and anxiety, I still haven’t quite grasped. I am a woman of over-complication, of synonyms and flourishes and spectrums of colors with every hue. My mind races constantly with a thousand different thoughts, a dozen little stories or sentences being composed at any given time before somersaulting away to ponder something completely unrelated. I am a bonfire of a girl and every part of my life back home is so multi-faceted that it would put a diamond to shame. My goal? To survive a month in the harsh Mongolian Altai mountains. Ride, camp, repeat.
To strip away, to boil down, to get to the very marrow of life is an alien concept to the chaos of my world. But new perspectives breed new ideas and this journey was all about pushing myself well and truly outside my comfort zone. In the end, when you strain away all the detail, the magic, the heartache; it all boils down to 500km, 2 horses, 3 camels and one faithful dog. I was following in the footsteps of the nomads.
The Mongolian steppe is a truly unique place, full of juxtaposing contrasts. Time is fluid there. Minutes can trickle into hours and hours into days and yet you are still on the same endless expanse of land, one foot in front of the other. Over 30% of the population of Mongolia is still nomadic and as a result, this is a land without boundaries, borders or fences. Permanent dwellings are few and far between with the traditional yurt or ger housing herders and their families during the summer months. Some find loneliness on the steppe whilst others find family. Some find redemption, whilst others lose themselves completely. But the nomadic lifestyle is not one to be romanticized and life in the wild is not a gift that is given indiscriminately. Wealth is measured not in money but in the health and numbers of the family herd. A particularly harsh winter can cause immense suffering, destroying the lives of both livestock and families.
Bayan-Ölgii is home to Mongolia’s only Kazakh and Muslim majority, with over 90% of the population being Kazakh. A small and unremarkable city, I remember thinking it was quiet and unexciting. It was from this wild west town that my exploration of the Mongolian Altai began and it was the last pocket of sedentary society that I saw for almost 5 weeks. Little did I know that on my return, Ölgii would seem like a teeming metropolis filled with a buzz of human activity, so much so that I would feel quite overwhelmed simply walking down the street.
I had the very good fortune to meet a dog early on in my wanderings, the day I left Olgii. At first I was hesitant to approach her as I’d heard that dogs in Mongolia can be dangerous, often being kept by nomads to protect herds from wolves and theft. However this pup took the initiative and approached me with her head down and tail wagging timidly, looking up at me with the sweetest eyes I’ve ever seen. She put her head under my hand and from that moment on, I was smitten.
She ended up being my faithful companion and together we traversed 500km on hoof and paw, earning her the name Hangirgan which means Lost in Kazakh. She followed everywhere, over mountains and through rivers with no challenge too great for her.
I quickly decided that my horse on this journey was to be named Janbir (meaning rain in Kazakh), chosen because he was dapple grey and the word had a nice ring to it. I did not know it at the time but as the days wore on, I came to realise how well this name summed up his temperament. He had spent most of his life either wild or as a racehorse, a career which ended after he broke his back right leg. Never have I met a creature with more spirit or character. He had days when he was sweet and gentle akin to a refreshing, gentle drizzle on a spring afternoon. But then there were days when he was half wild, bucking and kicking, all fury and flying hooves like torrential rain in the midst of a summer storm.
All of that aside, I loved him and all his quirks because, my god, that horse can run. Racing across the steppe on his back, completely alone and completely free is without a doubt my happiest moment. He could run so fast and so smoothly that it felt like the world was being ripped out from underneath us. My bones moulded around the shape of a saddle, my skin became as rough as bark and my heart learned to thump in time to hoofbeats. Though the days were difficult, they dripped away; lazy and golden like honey.
The weeks that followed were spent following and eventually crossing the mighty Tsaagan (Mongolian for white) river on its path through mountains. The river takes its name from the unique opaque white colour of its water and it has to be one of the strangest yet aesthetically pleasing rivers I’ve ever seen. It was like torrents of spilt milk tumbling down from the mountains and winding their way through the valley.
The rugged and ever-changing terrain meant the riding was a constant challenge and whether it was fording an icy river or climbing over the highest mountain pass in Mongolia, my faith had to be entirely in the hooves of the unpredictable animal beneath me. There were times when the path was as wide as a ribbon with steep slopes tumbling down on either side or where the only way down a mountain was to ride in the river, the slippery rocks causing the horse to stumble every other step. Other days, the challenge was sticky, cloying mud which would sometimes reach halfway up Janbir’s legs and every step had to be slow and measured lest we be both swallowed by the swamp.
After crossing the Altai, I began to descend to lower altitudes and the landscape changed dramatically within a matter of days. Gone were the swollen river crossings which left me soaking in freezing ice melt and gone were the terrifying moments riding along string thin paths on high ridges. The jagged peaks that I been grasped in the fist of for so long opened up to outstretched palms of vast plains scattered with lakes and rivers of every hue. Here I could gallop for hours and still not meet the horizon. I basked in the glory of being so completely free and at peace with myself. For the first time in my adult life that I can remember; the gnawing monster of social and general anxiety in the pit of my stomach was quiet.
The days trickled through my hands faster than I could hold on to them. My final memories of the Mongolian Altai were in a lush valley summer camp on the Chinese border, full to the brim with nomadic families. This is where the man who rented me my horse and camels lived with his family and animals during the summer months. An accomplished eagle hunter and horseman with endless awards and medals, Dalaikhan is a man of many talents and is truly one of the most incredible humans I’ve ever met. I have so much respect and admiration for that man. He welcomed me into his home and I became a part of his family. As a parting gift, he and his wife gave me the most gorgeous and ornate traditional Kazakh vest which I will treasure forever.
When the time came to say goodbye to Hangirgan, I took her head in my hands and rested my chin upon it. I told her she was jaqsı ït (good dog in Kazakh), shed a few tears and gave her the biggest hug you can imagine. It was one of the hardest goodbyes I’ve ever had to say.
This trek was truly my baptism of fire, my dive into the deep end; not of a pool but an ocean. Some people remember their travels with trinkets or novelties, not me. My souvenirs are permanently emblazoned on my skin. My arms and face have become a road map of my travels; every new freckle is another pin in the map, each new scar is a silver highway. Mongolia has made her mark on me and my sun-kissed skin is brimming with mementos.