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Riding into Mongolia’s winter

Courtesy of Lucas Beard

Khisgee, the ger camp horse guide, rides in the Altai Mountains of Mongolia.

Editor’s note: Lucas Beard is a Durango High School graduate who is traveling in and writing about Mongolia for a year as a Fulbright Scholar.

Khisgee, the ger camp horse guide, watched me with a bemused smile as I applied layer upon layer of long underwear. If I was going horse riding in 30-below-zero weather, I would be wearing every shred of clothing I own.

Tourism in Mongolia has rapidly become one of the most important industries in this developing country. Blessed with natural bounty and the world’s lowest population density, Mongolia lends itself well to trekking, eco-tourism and horse riding.

During the country’s socialist period, travel to Mongolia was restricted by the central government, though since becoming democratic, the number of visitors has been steadily increasing. While travel to Mongolia remains a boutique adventurer’s choice, there is evidence that the country’s beautiful landscape and increasingly comfortable accommodation will attract a more mainstream audience.

Khishgee had picked me up for the weekend in an old, rear-wheel-drive Hyundai that slid along the icy streets. After an hour of careening across country roads, he took an unexpected right turn through a snow bank and continued to rev the engine up a mountain. As we climbed through the snow, I realized there were no roads leading to our destination. I was going to a ger camp, an assortment of felt tents assembled in the countryside for city Mongolians and foreigners to escape the smog of the capital city for a few days.

A weekend at a ger camp bears a slight resemblance to an American ski-weekend getaway. However, instead of sleeping in a cabin, visitors stay inside domed tents with coal-burning stoves, and outhouses affectionately termed “long-drops.”

When I first arrived in Mongolia last summer, the green hills rolled though the countryside like verdant ocean waves. After fading to a sickly brown as autumn came and went, the steppe has now been whitewashed by snow. Unlike the patchwork colors on display in Colorado’s mountains, Mongolia appears seasonally monochromatic. As Khisgee and I drove across the steppe, we were swallowed into the downy whiteness of the Altai Mountains.

“Choo, choo!” I bellowed at the horse. Khishgee laughed while I failed to get my horse to budge. I sounded like a dying steam engine failing to move a train. I hollered a final “choooooo” with sincerity and managed to convince the stubborn pony to begrudgingly step through the high snow. My horse was small and dun colored. Though easy to mount, he was hard to communicate with. After my repeated verbal harassment, he even attempted to turn his neck and nibble on my leg. Our relationship didn’t get off to a flying start.

In Mongolia, talented riders motivate their horses into swift gallops with the slightest whisper into their horse’s ear, while novice riders like myself are stuck screaming obscenities to encourage any movement whatsoever.

Despite the lazy horse and laughing guide, the ride was mesmerizing. With each step, the horse’s hooves tossed little sparkling clouds of powdery snow in his wake like peaceful firework displays.

We finally cajoled the horses into a canter. Running a Mongolian steppe horse through knee-high snow makes a person howl in unadulterated passion. It’s barbaric in the best sense of the word.

With sore legs and frozen toes, Khisgee and I returned to warm ourselves in front of the coal stove. Despite the often-felt frustrations of living in Ulaanbaatar, it is these moments when I feel real joy from living in one of the most remote places on Earth.

lucasbeard@gmail.com

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