Mongolia‘s long history owes much to a certain gentle beast of burden – the horse. Under the auspices of the Great Emperor – Genghis Khan – it was on horseback that 12th century Mongol forces captured much of Eurasia and built the most expansive empire in the history of the world. At the time, an efficient mail relay system, called the Yam, also relied on equine power; postmen regularly covered 200-300 kilometres per day – faster than any record set by the United States’ Pony Express. Well into the empire’s 13th- and 14th-century heyday, mounted Mongol warlords were revered as master riders, striking fear into their enemies’ hearts.
Today, horses and horsemanship remain an important part of Mongolia’s traditions and culture. The country is home to approximately 20 million steeds, while the number of Mongolians is barely 2.8 million.
Contemporary tourism has not been blind to the appeal of horses in Mongolia. Cultural activities such as overnight stays with nomadic herdsman are popular among travellers, while horse races capture the imagination of locals and foreigners alike. Of course, the pristine landscape of the Land of the Blue Sky is heaven on horseback – and the country’s vast steppes, dunes and mountains combine to make an unparalleled destination for those looking to get away from it all.
Ride the Wild Steppes
Located just 75 kilometres west of the capital city of Ulaanbaatar is Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, an easily accessible escape for nature lovers. Spanning nearly 300,000 hectares, it is ideal territory for horseback riding.
The riding is moderately challenging and terrain unfamiliar, so hiring a guide is highly recommended, whether on day trips or lengthier adventures. Common routes take riders through open valleys and low hills, and take in scenery that features interesting rock formations, glacial lakes and natural hot springs. The park’s main attractions include the Aryabal Buddhist Monastery and, of course, the wildlife of bear, ibex, wolves and over 250 species of bird.
A look at the singular terrain of Mongolia
Overnight stays in tourist camps are also possible within the park. Continental meals can be served, but some excellent traditional Mongolian dishes include buuz (steamed dumplings), huushuur (fried meat dumplings), tsuivan (stir fried noodles and mutton), bantan (flour and mutton cream soup), banshtai shol (lamb broth with dumplings) and tsai (salted tea).
Experience Nomadic Life
For a real taste of nomadic culture, there’s little like a few nights actually living with a family of nomadic herdsman. The whl.travel local connection in Mongolia, Felt Nation, routinely helps travellers arrange stays with nomadic families. At the ger – a felt-covered Mongolian yurt – travellers gain firsthand knowledge about the importance of horses to the nomadic way of life. During their stay, visitors are encouraged to participate in activities like the herding and grazing of sheep, goat and cows, all while riding horses. At the end of a busy day, a taste of airag, a traditional alcoholic beverage made of fermented mare’s milk, is always in order.
The award-winning Ger to Ger project also arranges rural and responsible cultural homestays, as well as trekking and horseback riding expeditions involving local people. Programmes allow travellers to support nomadic heritage through the practice of traditional skills such as horse training, archery, embroidery or playing the morin khuur (Mongolian horse-head fiddle). Staying with a family also provides an invaluable source of additional income to nomadic herders, nearly 65% of whom live at or below the poverty line.
Encounter Endangered Horses
Filling the western edge of the Mongolian steppe, the world-famous Khustai National Park is just 95 kilometres west of Ulaanbaatar. Established as a protected area by the Mongolian government in 1993, the park is a primary base for a successful wildlife conservation effort to reintroduce the wild and endangered Przewalski horse to its native habitat.
The project, initiated by a Dutch couple – Jan and Inge Bouman – has achieved international acclaim for its success. Today, more than 300 of these rare and beautiful animals roam free across the park’s wild forests and steppes.
The Przewalski horse – or Takhi – is a national symbol of Mongolia. Shorter and stockier than their domesticated cousins, the Takhi have a primitive look with erect manes that resemble Mohawk haircuts. Day-tour travellers interested in seeing the Takhi will have the best luck in the company of a knowledgeable local guide.
Get Hyped About Horse Racing
Mongols worship horses and at no time of the year is this more evident than during the annual Naadam festival. Held each year from July 11-13, the ancient celebration features fierce competitions in sports such as archery and wrestling. The main event – of course – is horse racing, but it bears little resemblance to the western spectator sport.
Instead of being on a track, races are held on the vast open steppe of Khui Doloon Khudag Valley (Valley of the Seven Wells of Khui), approximately 40 kilometres west of Ulaanbaatar. At each race, 200 to 300 horses can be seen riding in a straight line, covering immense distances of 30 kilometres and kicking up a great deal of dust. The event is raced entirely by young riders, some as young as six years old!
Visitors interested in witnessing the races can choose from a variety of viewing locations. Watching from a platform in the middle of the racing lane affords exceptional photo ops, while at the starting line, spectators are treated to the spectacle of hundreds of horses! For some real excitement, stadium-like seating is also available near the finish line, where the cost of admission is free and the thousands of cheering local fans are!