Horse Trekking in the Tsagaan Nuur Wetlands, Mongolia
We set off early that day, waking to that cold, damp air that lingers within one’s tent and we emerge into the world renewed; like butterflies from their cocoons. The wranglers are up already, preparing stoves for our breakfast of porridge: always porridge. I note that they never seem to sleep, as our waking hours become theirs and there never seems to be a moment of overlap where we are alone in their presence. One raises his head to reveal a smiling face beneath an orange baseball cap. We share few words, and yet with a look we can convey our thoughts; “Good morning. Why am I still tired? Feeling the chill this morning. You’re well? Yes, good, me too.” The open grassy plains synonymous with Mongolia wrap themselves around our camp; a nucleus at the epicentre of a great wilderness. But today our campsite is different, thanks to the magnificent presence of the Great White Lake which sleeps, still and calm; reflecting the white-blue of the pale, morning sky.
As our daily habits have dictated, our camp is packed-up in routine formality. Our belongs are packed unceremoniously onto a trailer to be towed by a dinky, mustard-yellow truck, as we continue our journey on horseback. The grass is lusher by the nurture of Mother Nature alone than any lawn you can find in the green green grass of home. I have named my quasi-wild Mongolian pony, ‘Lightning’; a Palomino and Chestnut cross, standing out from the crowd with his unusual colouring. His mane is cut short, making it stand on end, resembling the thick, bristly tips of a dusty broom. Despite his slender form, he plods slowly, maintaining a rocky, lazy pace at the back of the pack; the increasingly royal blue lake extending on our left hand side into the distance beyond.
The morning passes, our voices echoing off the far-flung hillsides, the gentle breeze picking up dust from the horses’ coats and the dry grassland beneath our feet. Before us, a weather-front closes in fast, and with begrudging anticipation, we fasten our waterproofs; unable to escape the elements. Looking up, I notice the once blue sky has been filled with a jigsaw of grey clouds that offer a growing, ominous feeling of pathetic fallacy; lending the group to a quieter, pensive and even slightly depressed mood. I give Ligtning a gentle kick in the sides, trying to coax him forwards, his head lifted slightly as he quickens his pace for a mere step or two, before returning to his prior docility. Suddenly, I notice the head of the lone white horse at the front of the pack raising and shying at an invisible obstacle, the wind simultaneously tormenting our bare skin, its cold, whipping speed picking up sand from the lakeside. The dust fills the air, forming a cloud of age-old sediment that makes our eyes water and the horses begin to turn. From the back I foresee the impeding stampede as horse upon horse ripples, revels and turns towards me, their forelegs lifting as they prepare for the canter.
Fleeing the unknown spirit that has been set before him, Lightning turns too with the tide, his head raising defiantly as we gathered speed, now galloping relentlessly back to our campsite. I could feel his coat shuddering beneath my legs, his ears pricked to attention, adrenaline now coursing wildly through both of our bodies. I dig my heels into the stirrups and muster enough strength to stand, jockey-like over the fore-half of his body, the reins gripped in my raw-rubbed hands. I shout in anger, Lightning’s ears turning in response as I pull the reins tight towards me, with the result of his head swerving to one side with crazy, wide eyes as his legs continue their straight, determined course. I give him slack, letting him run as my helmet slips over the back of my hair; now hanging perilously around my neck. ‘Shhhh’, I hush in a stage whisper, raising my voice above the wind; only realising a moment later that ‘Shhhh’ sounds all too close to the word “Choo”, used for ‘Go’ in Mongolian. We draw level with another girl on horseback. An inexperienced rider I can hear tears in her voice and I call words of strangled advice and ill-informed composure. Lightning seems to push harder, galloping at the pace of the neighbouring horse, spurring his legs into super propulsion.
Lightning’s ears, still pricked to attention, turn left, right, backwards, and with an odd, de-sensitized relief I realise that our pace is slowing. We slow and jolt to a stop before taking up a strange dressage-like trot, as we take in our surroundings. The sound of the air becomes clear in my ears and with a strange clarity it becomes evident that the pair of us are quite alone. A stray wrangler appears over the brow of the hillside, shouting for us to dismount our horses. I rub Lightning’s neck with my hand, offering him calm reassurance as my own heartbeat slows, before refitting my helmet with an ironic smile.
Photographs courtesy of Aleka Gürel Photography