Mythical Rides: Challenging the Mongolian Terrain

Sandwiched between Russia to the north and China to the south, Mongolia is adventure defined. Under the legendary stewardship of 20-year-old warlord Genghis Khan, the Mongolian empire sprawled from Southeast Asia to Finland at its 13th-century zenith. An independent communist state throughout most of the 20th century, the country underwent something of a cultural revival following the collapse of the Soviet Union, with many Mongolians returning to their nomadic roots after years of totalitarian stricture. Ger, or tent suburbs, have emerged all around the capital city of Ulan Bator, people again practice Lamaaist (Tibetan-style) Buddhism, and roaming horsemen once more dominate the landscape. In fact, there is no better way to experience the full vastness of the 610,740-square-mile country than atop a galloping steed.
Outfitted trips, supplied by lumbering yak caravans and led by local herdsmen, set out from the country's eclectic capital, seemingly still trapped in a 1950s Soviet time warp; the season, your schedule, and personal tastes will dictate the direction and extent of your expedition. Terelj National Park unfurls to the northeast of Ulan Bator, while the fabled Gobi Desert extends southwards, consuming almost 30 percent of the country and briefly accessible in early fall when temps aren't too brutal. In Terelj's Hentiji Mountains, horse-bound explorers pass through a dramatic sweep of topography, transitioning from windswept plains to taiga forest to sky-scraping mountains that top out at a towering 9,200 feet. Trails will be shared with elk, lynx, brown bear, and wolf, while nights will be spent under canvas in much the same way that nomadic clans have done for centuries.
Some 500 miles northwest of Ulan Bator, accessible via road or air, lies the gargantuan, 1,080-square-mile Khövsgöl Nuur, the world's 14th-largest freshwater lake and Central Asia's deepest. If Mongolia's "dark-blue pearl" doesn't impress, then the flanking gallery of 6,500-foot mountains and marching alpine forests are sure to have you whooping from the saddle.
The prevailing nomadic lifestyle is generally welcoming to outsiders, Mongolians long ago having learned that a spirit of cooperation and hospitality helps dull the bite of a distinctly severe climate and environment. Local herders help with the horses and nearby camps will provide travelers with local delicacies such as reindeer milk. That said, the hard-fighting, hard-living traces of Mongolian life of yore still manifest themselves from time to time, adding to the Wild East spirit that infuses any horseback expedition trotting out across the windblown Mongolian steppe.

Published: 11 Mar 2003 | Last Updated: 4 Dec 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


Sign up to Away's Travel Insider

Preview newsletter »