Ever since I was young I wanted to be a cowboy. Not a real cowboy, that’s a lot of work. But, the romanticized version of a cowboy- riding free, off into the sunset, cooking by the fire and roaming the frontier. That is what I dreamed of. The problem is, it doesn’t really exist anymore. Life is tricky for the modern wanderer. There is no more ‘frontier’ to ride your horse across, no more open, uninterrupted land for days on end. Instead, there is private properties, highways, protected areas, farms, and fences. Except, of course, in Mongolia. Land of the Nomads! Once out of the few and far between cities, the land is vast and inviting.
So we bought three horses, two to ride and one for packing, and set off on a lazily planned and meandery route in central mongolia. The Orkhon Valley was the real highlight of the trip, a UNESCO world heritage site. It is full of oxbowing rivers, larch forest, and open rich grassland for the horses to munch away at. There’s not much to “see” in Mongolia, in classical terms. Forty percent of the country’s population still functions in a subsistence economy, and the nation’s greatest hero, Chinggis Khan, was more interested in building an empire rather than monuments. This leaves the country with not ruins, but open, empty land with fresh air and clear rivers.
We rode about six hours a day, averaging around twenty five kilometers each. We followed rivers, dirt roads, forest trials, or whatever the horse’s fancy. We generally camped beside Nomadic families for the evenings. We would ride up to a gehr (yurt) and ask in shaky Mongolian, but confident charades, if we could stay the night. The answer was always “yes, no problem”. For us, it was nice to camp with Nomads for a number of reasons; we could truly experience Nomadic culture, gather local information, share food and drink, and our horses and gear were safe from opportunistic thieves that might happen by in the night. We showed each other photos, helped wrangle sheep, goats, yaks, cows, camels and horses, then helped milk said animals. It was fun, humbling and delicious work.
A Nomadic diet consist mainly of milk and mutton. Milk can be fresh, fermented, boiled and distilled, made into yogurt, cheeses, cream, butter and tea. Mutton is served however you can imagine, boiled, fried, grilled, or dried. That’s about it. You’d be lucky to find a few veggies here and there. It’s not my ideal diet, but when you move around a lot and have 200 head of sheep with various random livestock, it’s what you got.
Denis at Nomad Nutrition is always nice enough to support my expeditions with a little much needed nutritious goodness. I was amazed when he helped my team up Mt. Logan by providing food for our summit push! Turns out, in Mongolia, between the Kathmandu Curry, Indian Red Lentil Stew, Hungarian Goulash, and Irish Shepherd’s Pie I would get more plant-based nutrition then the average Nomad gets all year.
Mongolia is a place of juxtapositions. Horsemen herd their animals by motorbike these days. Gehrs have satellite TV. Goat paths show up on Google Maps, and solar powered street lights flicker on over dirt roads downtown. People cook on woodfire stoves while chattering away on their smartphones. Families pack up their gehr made of horsehair and wood into the back of a truck to relocate. This is the real modern Nomad. This is a people who live by the Earth and move with the seasons.
After five weeks of exploring Mongolia by horseback we had to pack it in and wake up from my boyhood dream. But the adventure wasn’t over. A quick stint out to the Western mountains, then down to the Gobi Desert rounded off the trip well. We started on horses, ended on camels, and had an incredible time seeing and experiencing life from a Nomad’s perspective. They’ve got it right; take care of your animals, eat healthy, and move with the seasons.