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Mongolia’s Steppe Nomads

At a GlanceItineraryDetail

Mongolia’s Steppe Nomads

Introduction

Grassland like the steppe used to make up a quarter of the world’s dry land habitat; today, the pampas in South America, parts of the North American prairie, the puszta in Hungary and Ukraine and the steppe is all that remains; the rest has been ploughed to feed the world’s population.

Mongolian guide

Mongolian guide

The high elevation of Mongolia creates unusually clear air and starry nights year round. It’s an overwhelming visual experience of emptiness and vastness to ride into the great Mongolian void. The silent, treeless steppe, completely devoid of fences stretches away into the distance: no trace of human activity except for the pastoralists and their herds. This ride explores surprisingly contrasting habitat; water sources are patchy but where there is water bird life and wildlife is abundant. Wolves may be heard calling at night during the summer months, but they are rarely seen.
The ride continues in true nomadic style, without vehicle support: luggage and collapsible ger lodges will be loaded onto camel carts and moved with the assistance of local nomads. The lauuage caravan takes the shortest route, while we ride a more circuitous trail over mountains, steppes, forests, fording rivers and through wooded meadows, and reach the new camp in the evening. Two nights are spent in each location.

No need to bend yourself into a sleeping bag or tent, the gers have cot-beds and bedding is supplied; they are heated by a pot-bellied wood-burning stove and are really cozy.

Itinerary

Day 1:  Ulaan Bator

Arrive in Ulaan Bator; we’ll meet your flight and drive you to your hotel. Tour briefing followed by dinner and a little light entertainment, Mongolia style!

Accommodation: Shangri La Hotel (or similar)
Meal plan: Dinner
Time in the saddle: 0

Day 2: To Hustai National Park

In the morning drive east, leaving the city behind. Civilisation gradually thins out and the drive to Hustai takes about 2 hours (110 km). The Hustai Trust has a simple interpretation centre and attached restaurant where we’ll take lunch. Settle in to the ger and towards late afternoon we’ll take a game drive to try to see the Takhi, also known as Przewalski Horse, named after the Polish explorer who first identified them. They are back from the brink of extinction and today there are breeding populations here, in China and France. They are the only true wild horse in the world; in case you were wondering, they have 66 chromosomes, rather than 64 which all other horses have! Their Mongolian name “takhi” means “spirit” and is a clue to how revered these animals are.

Accommodation: ger lodge
Meal plan: full board
Time in the saddle: 0

Camel cart, Mongolia

Camel cart, Mongolia

Day 3: To the grasslands

We drive through the national park to reach the southern gate, a little-used access point. En route there is a good chance of seeing the Mongolia version of red deer (Cervus elaphus). Having left the park behind we follow the Tuul River to the remarkable 6th or 7th century A.D Neolithic graves of Öngöt. We cross the Tuul River and just beyond reach the small mobile luxury wilderness gers (yurts) camp, which has the most amazing 360° pastoralist landscape. Our crew are the steppe nomads of this area and will have brought their horses and camel carts.

We can saddle up and try the horses.

Accommodation: ger lodge
Meal plan: full board
Time in the saddle: 1½  hrs

Day 4: Hoyd Önjuul

Ride west towards one of the highest peaks in the area, Hoyd Önjuul (1,855 m). There is no surface water in this area and the sheer rock faces combine with the arid habitat to create a stark beauty. This area is seldom visited, even by the nomads, and perhaps that’s why the populations of red deer and Argali sheep, the world’s largest Big Horn sheep, are high. This is the very edge of the Gobi Desert. Return to camp across the sparse grasslands.

Accommodation: ger lodge
Meal plan: full board
Time in the saddle: 6  hrs

Day 5: Ride to the Ikh Zorgol Hairkhan Mountains.

Today we strike camp and all gers, provisions and personal luggage is loaded on to the camel carts. The camel caravan makes its way directly to the new destination at the sacred mountains of Zorgol; meanwhile we ride a circuitous easterly route across the fantastic grasslands to Bayan Mountain, home to Siberian Ibex (Capra Siberica) and Argali Sheep (Ovis Ammon). Both species are skittish, but the chances of seeing them during daylight hours are good. Gazelles are more numerous, and live in small herds in this area, and they are more likely to be seen. There is also a remote chance of seeing the nocturnal wolf, but they are uncomfortable in the presence of man and tend to make themselves scarce.

Rendez-vous with the ger camp at at Zorgol Hairkhan whee we spend 2 nights.

Accommodation: ger lodge
Meal plan: full board
Time in the saddle: 7 hrs

Day 6: Ikh Zorgol Hairkhan Mountains

The trail in this zone of the Gobi is variable: this is a “transition land” between the steppe that sweep down from the country’s interior and the desert that begins here. During the day we’ll ride across grassland, semi-arid areas and in amongst massive rock formations which stand in front of the Zorgol Hairkhan massif. The rock formations are several hundred meters high and are the central feature of the steppe/desert interface. This area is the home range of the Cinereous Vulture, the largest of the Eurasian vultures, and the equivalent of the Giant Condor of the Americas. Their nests are low lying on rocks and in small trees and very visible.

An unusual plant grow here too: locally called Bloo Sudaii Am, which means the “Valley of Great Burnet” (Sanguisorba officinalis) which is a plant with medicinal properties. It is used to make a traditional medicine for stomach problems.

The Zorgol Hairkhan mountains are is mentioned in the “Secret History of the Mongols” by Urgunge Onon, which talks about the life of Genghis Khan. The khan himself is said to have overwintered here in the 1200’s while in conflict with the competing leader, Toril Khan.

Accommodation: ger lodge
Meal plan: full board
Time in the saddle: 6 hrs

ger lodge

The mobile ger lodge – luxury in the wilderness!

Day 7: Move camp to Saikhan

Camp is dismantled and loaded aboard the camel caravan which rumbles off making a bee-line to Saikhan, skirting Baga Zorgol Hairkhan Uul on the way. “Baga” means “small” as opposed to of “Ikh” which means “big”. This is a popular area with nomads, mainly because of the reliable water supply at Haariin Nuur “Remote Lake”. This is another excellent spot for birdlife. Our wilderness camp of private gers will be set up at Saikhan, on the lakeshore.

Accommodation: ger lodge
Meal plan: full board
Time in the saddle: 6 hrs

Day 8: Uushig

The trail ride today crosses an arid zone to reach Uushig, which again is an uninhabited area with a small spring of crystal-clear spring water surrounded by spectacular rock formations. There are establish populations of Argali Sheep, Cinereous Vulturesand  Saker Falcons. This is one of the best places to see some of the petroglyphs which Mongolia is so famous for. Ride back to Saikhan.

Accommodation: ger lodge
Meal plan: full board
Time in the saddle: 6 hrs

Day 9: To Arburd Sands

Today the camp will be broken for the last time and we ride just half a day across the Gobi grasslands, to reach Arburd Sands where there is a seasonal ger camp. Instead of picnic lunch we will enjoy a hot lunch at camp. In the afternoon we’ll ride a short distance to some seasonal steppe lakes which retain their water due to the underlying permafrost. This area attracts nomads with large huge herds of cattle and cashmere goats and we’ll have the chance to visit them and watch them going about their daily chores. Return to Arburd Sands Ger Camp for the night.

Accommodation: ger lodge
Meal plan: full board
Time in the saddle: 4 hrs

Day 10: Explore Arburd Sands

There’s a fantastic 20 Km trail that loops around the Arburd Sands where there’s a light covering of grass overlying a sandy soil – ideal for horses! Return to camp in the early afternoon and this is where we say goodbye to the horses. Remainder of the afternoon free.

Accommodation: ger lodge
Meal plan: full board
Time in the saddle: 4 hrs

Day 11: Return to Ulan Bator.

After breakfast we jump into ther jeeps for the 3 hr drive back to the capital. Check in to the hotel and the rest of the day  is free; we’ll meet for a farewell supper in the evening.

Accommodation: Shangri La Hotel (or similar)
Meal plan: Breakfast and dinner
Time in the saddle: 0

Day 12: Departure

After breakfast transfer to the airport, railway station or your next Mongolian destination. We can recommend extensions within Mongolia or in neighbouring Russia and China.

 

Included in the price

Local leader (English speaking)
Meals as detailed.
2 nights hotel and 9 nights in ger lodges.
All camping equipment and  all  local  transport. (No need to bring a sleeping bag or pillow)
Local medevac coverage for evacuation to Ulan Bator.

Excluded

Lunch in Ulaan Bator day 11.
Air or train tickets in and out of Mongolia.
Visa fee.

N.B. The Nadaam Games
This sporting festival takes place in Ulan Bator once a year in August. If you would like to include it you need to add an addition two days (3 nights) in Ulan Bator making a total of 14 nights. The price is for the additional 3 nights and festival ticket is £420.

Branding

Branding

Practical notes.

Each rider will have saddlebags to carry things like water bottle, camera and wet weather clothing. Your main baggage is carried from camp-to-camp on a wooden yak cart. You won’t have access to your main baggage at lunchtime.

Accommodation: we use gers on this ride which are large enough to accommodate several people sleeping on camp cot-beds. You do not need to bring your own sleeping bag

Staff: an English-speaking Mongol guide will accompany the group at all times. A cook will follow, with an assistant. In addition, the services of the local herdsmen will be hired along with their horses. The horsemen will come from Badrakh’s family with whom we have worked in earlier years. The Badrakh family follows a traditional lifestyle in the areas where we will be riding.

Meals: The meals will be prepared by our cook; western, vegetarian and Mongolian meals will all be produced during the ride. For breakfast we can usually buy fresh yogurt from the herdsmen in the local area to go with the supplies we carry with us.

Minimum riding ability: you need to be fit and capable of riding at all paces confidently over varying terrain, for several hours on consecutive days.
Horse Breed: the horse in Mongolia is the Mongolian Horse! What its origins are, are less easy to pin down. Records go back to 2,000 BC making it one of the oldest breeds around. Genetic research shows this breed has the greatest genetic variety of all horse breeds, which suggests an ancient strain with minimal human selection. Furthermore, its genes crop up in a large number of modern breeds. Despite is modest stature (14 hh to 14.2 hh) it is a horse, not a pony. It is also tough as tin tacks, sure footed and faithful. There are all sorts of anecdotes about this breed, but the one that most surprises me is that during the horses races at the Nadaam Festival, where the jockeys include children as young as 4 yrs, the horses are trained to gallop for 35 Km, which is staggering. Even more surprising is that if a jockey is dislodged the horse continues at full speed. The owner would rather have the winning horse, than the winning rider! Interesting philosophy on teaching kids to ride!
Whilst on the subject, and because we’re going to Mongolia, we ought to mention Przewalski’s Horse, which comes from the Asian steppe and is a true wild horse, as distinct to a feral horse. It was extinct in the wild but has been reintroduced to Khan Khentii from breeding programmes in China and southern France. We should see them on this trek.

Tack: we decided not to use the traditional Mongolian saddle – which is made of wood! The tack is based on English tack. Some western saddles available.

Rider’s involvement: you may groom and tack your horse; untack during breaks if you wish. Guides available to advise and assist as necessary.

Rider’s weight: 90 Kg max.

Best season for ride: June to end Sept.

Transport: Mongolian families frequently move from one  pasture to  the other  using  traditional wooden carts.  These are drawn by whatever animals are available in the region. Here we will use camels. A few local herdsmen will be hired by the expedition and they will provide us with their animals.

Staying on

We can happily extend your visit to Mongolia by adding additional nights in the capital. Here are a few suggestions:
•    Travel by train (the final leg of the Trans-Siberian Express) to China, or westwards to Moscow.
•    Hustai National Park and see the re-introduction Przewalski Horses. It takes the best part of a day to drive there from Ulan Bator. There is an excellent hotel there called the HS Khaan Ger Resort.

Please enquire for any of these combinations; we can provide a seamless travel solution.

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