For a short time, we are living a little bit like the nomads of Mongolia, 300 miles west of Ulaanbaatar in the area around Bulgan. We are a 90 minute drive from anything you could call a road. At our base camp, Lapis Sky, we live in tents called gers. We ride the descendants of horses that carried the Mongolians who, 900 years ago, conquered most of the known world. We watch the thrilling spectacle of 40 children racing “thunderhooves” across the steppes. We sip vodka from the same small cup and sample “airag,” the yogurty fermented mare’s milk the Mongolian nomads prize.
The wind and the sky are everywhere. The land spreads out in green pastures and rolling hills, then juts up unpredictably into rocky cliffs. There are no signs, no televisions, no internet services but there are new ways of seeing and moving. There are three outhouses, each with a red flag out front. I remember to put the flag up and usually forget to put it down.
Flashing spears of sunlight cross the encampment in the mornings, silent except for a yak’s mow or the pounding pulse of a horseman flying along the base of the cliff above the gers. Some of us climb to the top of the hill to see the river wind through the valleys. I close my eyes when 21-year-old Liam leans out over an outcropping on the cliff as he takes our picture. Back down in the valley, we watch Ankha milk the yaks.
We will ride a lot in the coming days. The first rides orient us to the land and the horses as if we are in training for new jobs. The horses know we do not ride like Mongolians, who stand in their wooden saddles and wave their whips. We are told to be aggressive, which is not how we learned to ride at home. However we ride these horses, they figure us out quickly and are accepting. On the first ride, my horse hangs his head between his knees and bends it around to rest his nose on the toe of my boot. I don’t understand these gestures and tell the horsemen he cannot be happy. I am worrying too much. I adjust. I pet him when he bends his head around and I pull on the reins when he leans over too far. I give him lots of rein in return and we relax into our 10-day partnership, which will be too short for how much affection I feel for him.
When we get to the top of the hill, we stop at the ovoo there. An ovoo is a pile of stones and a naked tepee of poles. The poles are covered in colorful scarves called “khatags.” The horses know we will circle the ovoo three times. Mine stops each time we reach the corner overlooking his ger camp at the bottom of the hill. He moves on while I am thinking about asking him to move on.
One evening, we ride to the riverside for a picnic under the cottonwood trees. It is our first canter across the valley, for me a thrilling rite of passage. My horse is so small he draws on the power of his haunches and shoulders to keep up. At the river, half of us are American, half are Mongolian except Emma who is from Ireland. She has brought her fiddle. After dinner, she and Boynaa alternate Mongolian and Irish tunes. Boynaa’s Mongolian guitar finds its way through “Brown Eyed Girl” and several Irish ballads. As the moon rises through the cottonwoods, Nomin, a native Mongolian and fluent English speaker, announces that Gonbold, one of our horsemen, has invited 70-year old Ingrid to dance. We applaud and laugh and join them while Emma plays “Soul Sister.”
Carroll and Thomas are our hosts. They have spent the past dozen summers leading horse treks in this part of Mongolia and most of the rest of their adult lives in Kathmandu and the mountains of the Nepali Himalayas. Carroll is an anthropologist and writer. She connects the whole world in a few sentences no matter where the conservation starts. Her intellect and knowledge remind me of my hero, Joseph Campbell. She is tall and thin and blond. If she had lived a different life, she might have been a fashion model. Instead, she is aging with joyful eyes and the body language of a dancer. Thomas is a well-known photographer who has investigated human smuggling in Asia, lived among the sadhus in India, and engaged the Dalai Lama. Among many other things.
After a few days at Lapis Sky Camp, we pack up for a more rustic type of camping. Our horses take us through the steppes and over hills that feel like a more expansive Montana. Several hours later, we arrive in a sacred valley where we set out tiny orange Marmot tents along a small river. The daytime weather has been perfect for riding and camping, breezy and warm. The nights and early mornings are chilly.
At the camp, our Mongolian hosts set up community tents and a fire pit, and then invite us to observe the slaughter of a white-fleeced sheep. The technique they use is bloodless and silent. I consider joining the group to honor Mongolian culture and my own curiosity. Several years ago in Morocco, I watched the slaughter of sheep and goats for the feast day of Eid. I decide I can’t watch again and return to my tiny tent to unpack. I am not like the nomads, who know the moment-to-moment consequences of the way they live. It is all right there with them.
Mongolian food is a lot of meat. Lamb, goat, beef, horse. I have never seen what Americans would call “barbeque.” Mongolian nomads boil their meat or cook it in a large sealed metal container. I try to understand why they eat the animals they love so much and ultimately realize the obvious — that their culinary choices are related to actual survival. The Mongolian diet is also heavily dairy. Yak butter. Yak clotted cream. Yak yogurt. Mare’s milk. Cheese, cheese, different kind of cheese. Every ger smells like ripening cheese. Our Mongolian hosts find it strange that we want to eat vegetables. Like farm animals! Still, the cooks accommodate my vegetarian diet with delicious salads, soups and pasta dishes. Sometimes there is fresh fish from the river that is cooked over the coals with ginger and onions.
At our campsite, the horses are either hobbled or tied to other horses that are hobbled. The horses are calm and relaxed as they always seem to be. Two of them manage to break lose for a dip in the river. No one runs to retrieve them. A few minutes later they return to the herd.