It’s been almost six weeks since I finished my horse trek in Mongolia and my mind is still reeling. In a good way.
I thought with 3 weeks offline learning to ride and having adventures, I’d have more than enough to fill the pages of this blog and then some. But where to start?
My experience with Zavkhan Trekking in Mongolia was life changing in many ways, some profound, some not so profound, but all helped me in one or another.
There are so many things I learned during my time there, I have actually struggled with coming back to reality and adjusting to the rest of the world again. Going from the organized peacefulness of New Zealand to the insanity of Hong Kong to the emptiness of Mongolia back to the insanity of Bali was certainly a jolt to the senses.
Here are 10 life lessons I learned in Mongolia:
1. Don’t be afraid!
Ok, ok, let’s not exaggerate TOO much here, how about I learned to be LESS afraid, because, if we are perfectly honest here, there are so many things that could go wrong in Mongolia.
While this is a topic for another day, the sudden creeping in of fear ever since I hit my mid-twenties has been nothing but a pain in my backside. I still have all the enthusiasm of a fearless teenager but when it comes down to the actual fear-facing event, I freak myself out. Mongolia was no exception.
Let me just say, the evening on the first day of the trip I had to get on a horse for the first time since I wiped out epically in Jordan last year – I was terrified. Me and four legged creatures, with a mind of their own, don’t have the best track record.
I ended up on a superfast horse that tried to bite me and pick fights with the other horses, thoroughly terrifying me. That night when I went to bed I actually thought to myself I wouldn’t be able to finish the trip, that I would actually fail at the expedition and I would be THAT girl that sucked royally.
But the next day I switched horses to Chewy, and things only got better and better, and I became more and more confident at riding. The terrain we were riding over was not exactly what you’d call easy. Tall grasses hiding marmot holes, dense forests with no trails, crazy river crossings and mountain passes made for an intense but beautiful and challenging journey.
By the last day I was even galloping with the group and keeping up with the fast Kazakhs, something I couldn’t even imagine on day one, which goes to show you that perseverance triumphs.
2. Kazakh Mongolia is actually a place
Before I arrived in Mongolia, I knew very little about the country. I brought a few books with me to read while I was there, but limited my advance research in the hopes of being surprised – also, full disclosure, I was lazy.
Our trip took place in the Altai, which is the far west of Mongolia on the border with China. It’s also home to a large ethnic Kazakh community that moseyed their way over 200 years ago. Because Kazakhstan was under Soviet occupation, much of the traditional nomadic culture has been lost there, instead surviving in Mongolia.
This meant that our horse wranglers and team were actually Kazakh and not Mongolian; they speak a different language, have a different culture and religion, and even look different, all coexisting together in the far reaches of the Eurasian steppe.
While Mongolia is still very, very remote for most people (Mongolia, WHERE?) Kazakh Mongolia is even further afield, I was stoked that Zavkhan has been able to set up a trek in what might be one of the most hidden parts of the country. I was also very excited to spend time getting to know a culture and group of people that few others ever have the opportunity to.
I first heard about this part of Mongolia in a BBC article a few months ago about a 13 year eagle huntress. As if Mongolia wasn’t awesome enough, the Altai is one of the last places in the world where people still hunt with eagles on horseback.
The 3 weeks I was there was a crash course in Kazakh culture, learning about everything from how to ride like a wrangler to the 100+ uses for yak milk. By the end of the trip I could confidently point to things like saddle and sky and yell the word in Kazakh, a roaring success in my opinion.
One of the main reasons I loved Mongolia was because of the Kazakhs, and it’s one of the reasons I can’t wait to go back one day.
3. Toughen up and calm down about personal hygiene
I wouldn’t call myself a delicate flower by any sense of the word or even a city girl ever since I moved to New Zealand a year ago, but until Mongolia I felt like I had never truly been tested.
This trip was tough, in more ways than one, but it was a challenge I was really looking forward to.
17 days of no showers, no hot water, no being inside, sleeping on the ground, going to the bathroom in a communal hole, and in general working my butt off. I was both excited and terrified. Would I end up being *that* girl that just couldn’t handle it? We would soon find out.
The first night I woke up to the biggest clap of thunder with the tent shaking violently from the pouring rain and my friend Echo grabbing my leg in the dark saying “holy crap is the world ending?” It was a good introduction to break us in. Disclosure – according to our guide and Kazakhs it was the worst storm they ever encountered, and it was sunny skies and no rain for the rest of the trip.
I really thought I was going to struggle with getting back to the basics but it was really surprising just how easy it was to adjust. I didn’t notice my dirty hair, going to the bathroom outside also didn’t bother me unless one of the horses cornered me in the makeshift toilet tent which actually did happen more than once. Wearing the same clothes in and out also didn’t faze me.
Sometimes when I rolled up my sleeves, I’d think, wow, my hands and wrists have gotten really tan! Nope, just dirt.
On our afternoons and rest days, it was great relaxing by the river washing our clothes on the rocks and attempting to wash ourselves and our hair. It was a great bonding experience, especially with Amangul and Jibek, the Kazakh girls.
Every dirty, uncomfortable moment was canceled out by the sheer awesomeness of what we were getting to experience. Not only getting to visit an area of the world very few get to, we also had the chance to be welcomed into a shy and remote culture that few ever have the chance to.
That’s not something to be taken lightly.
For example, the rivers were so clean and fresh we drank straight from them! I don’t even get to do that in New Zealand!
No matter how hard things got, there was always a brightside or something so special that it made you forget about it. Usually it was one of the Kazakhs laughing or smiling about something.
4. When a Kazakh offers you a sheep’s head, you don’t say no
So this one time, I ate a sheep’s face. Voluntarily.
This is actually one of my favorite stories from the entire trip. So we had a sheep with us on the trip. I named him Walter (a la Breaking Bad). He was tied up behind the Furgon most evenings and during the day he got to ride on the roof! Lucky!
Buuuuuuut about halfway through the trip we ate him, sorry Walter!
Circle of life people!
In the Altai, when the Kazakhs butcher a sheep, thye salt his meat and hang him up around the ger for future meals. It was actually pretty incredible to see how many people a sheep can feed – a lot! They last for a long time, especially in the harsh winters.
But the same day they boil the organs and the head to be eaten straight away since it won’t last.
Now I made a very big effort to bond with the team (my Kazakh family by the end of the trip), and I just so happened to be hanging out with them in the ger while this was going on. We (us foreigners) had already eaten of fresh mutton vegetable stew, and everyone else was out and about except for me.
I was sandwiched between Moetkhan and Khadaran, the two wranglers who taught me how to ride, and who basically took me under their wings, when lunch was served. A big beautiful platter of plain boiled sheep innards with Walter’s head perched on top.
Suddenly the feast began with all of the Kazakhs swooping down with their knives and fingers, and a complete free for all took place. Mesmerized, I sat watching them tuck in to this meal, and before I knew it Moetkhan and Khadaran when cutting off pieces of the face and dropping them in front of me, papa bird style.
It goes without saying it’s incredibly rude to turn down food in this culture.
In all honesty, it wasn’t so bad as long as I didn’t look at poor Walter’s head while I was chewing. Lucky for me they gave me the choicest pieces of the head, and there was only one small moment when they gave me part of the stomach that I, well, almost couldn’t stomach. I’m just gagging thinking about it. YUK! Luckily they knew that’s not exactly a desirable part and laughed heartily at me trying to smile and swallow it down at the same time.
It was a beautiful moment where I felt like I had passed a test and I was really welcomed in by them, and I say in complete honesty I am truly proud of myself for not barfing in front of them all!
5. Coffee Diaries and my favorite Altai sunset
I feel like every single moment no matter how big or small on this trip was special in one way or another, but I still have a favorite, and that was in a valley where we camped one evening.
Not particularly special but in a really beautiful location, we arrived early in the afternoon and it felt like we had most of the day to just sit back, relax and enjoy the sunshine.
Packhorsing, we didn’t have the ger with us so we built a campfire and cooked our trademark mutton soup over it before relaxing under a golden sunset.
Swapping stories and laughing, we boiled up some water for more tea and coffee to warm ourselves up and enjoy the last hour or so of light before the sun disappeared and everything turned frigid. After a long snooze in the afternoon, I was preparing myself to stay up late to shoot the stars over the valley, so I grabbed a pack of my Starbucks VIA® Ready Brew Pike Place® Roast to wake back up.
Passing around some of the Starbucks VIA® to the Kazakhs, we all were crouching down around the fire chatting. It made me so happy to see how much Khadaran and Moetkhan loved the vanilla lattes.
One of my favorite rituals on the trip was afternoon and evening tea. There is just something so nice about sitting down after a long days ride and enjoying a cuppa with the group. This time we got down to business and were discussing the next day’s journey down the infamous Pass of Death.
Suddenly Khadaran whooped and made a loud noise, and all of the Kazakhs were clucking and buzzing about with excitement while the rest of us were left going, “wait, WHAT?!”
Somehow he had managed to spot a party of elk on the side of the mountain. Seriously, he must have superman eyes because only he and a select few could actually see them.
It took me approximately 10 minutes fidgeting with binoculars to be able to see them. Barely. I am still impressed.
For the next hour everyone was jittery with excitement about some serious wildlife spotting, and Khadaran being the total prankster that he was, tried to convince everyone, including the other Kazakhs of other rare spottings, frequently yelling out about a rare mountain goat in the distance or even wolves.
Words cannot express how much I love these guys.
That is still one of my favorite moments of the whole trip, and it makes me smile thinking back on it.
6. Everything is open to interpretation
One of the biggest surprises about Mongolia was not everything meant what you thought it should mean, sometimes due to translation error, sometimes not. I’ve found over the years that occasionally things just can’t be translated, know what I mean?
While most Kazakhs know Mongolian, they usually communicate in Kazakh, so oftentimes we would find ourselves hearing a translation of Kazakh into Mongolian into English – my, my my, that leaves no room for misinterpretation!
I started to realize this early on when we visited the ger and the family of the chief wrangler. I was talking to Amangul, the trip manager who told me that his elderly father was almost 90, only to hear Ian our guide whisper in my ear that the last time they were there (years ago) he was only in his 70’s.
By the end of the trip I learned to take what I heard with a grain of salt, and a smile.
7. Horse toots are hilarious
I like to think I am a classy, sophisticated world traveler and refined lady, but let’s be honest here, when a horse farts, it’s funny, no matter how old you are.
Even the Kazakhs would laugh at them!
Sometimes on a long day, baking under the hot sun, we’d be riding single file over a mountain with aching legs, knees, bums and everything else under the sun, everyone would be dead silent and grumpy just waiting for one of the guys to stop and call for a break when suddenly the horse in front of you just lets one.
I laughed every time. Nothing puts a smile on your face quite like a frisky pony tooting in time to his trots.
8. I don’t actually need the internet to live
One of the things I was most excited about in Mongolia was going offline for a long period of time – 3 weeks to be exact. I think the longest I signed off before that was 3 days, and THAT was a struggle.
This was either a sink or swim test for me.
I remember frantically trying to schedule out posts and answer last minute emails up until we boarded the plane in Ulaanbaatar before finally accepting my fate and turning it off.
I didn’t look back.
I don’t remember one moment on the trip where I wished I could log onto my Facebook or check my Instagram. That blissful freedom allowed me to thoroughly enjoy every single moment of the expedition and truly focus again. I haven’t traveled that way in almost a decade, and boy did I miss it!
I also think being disconnected allowed me to become better friends and bond with the Kazakhs and team members in a way that I might not have otherwise, something I am so grateful for.
There is beauty in disconnecting from virtuality and reconnecting with reality.
Of course coming back to reality and 3,000+ emails (kill me now) was like getting attacked by a bear, and even now I yearn for those long filthy days filled with wild horses and no 3G. Can I go back now?
9. Sitting is overrated
If you ever plan on visiting Mongolia, crouching down will become your friend. You will crouch all day every day.
Lost in the land without chairs, you’re left with 3 options, standing, sitting, and crouching. If you’re inside the ger resting, it’s standard behavior to sit or sprawl, in my case, or if you’re helping out or cooking, crouch.
A lot of the times you don’t have time to sit down on the ground or you might just not want to, which leaves the good old crouch. Same with the 5 star ladies room. Be prepared.
10. Mongolian beauty is unparalleled
If Walter’s story wasn’t enough to convince you of the incredible Kazakh culture, I could tell you a hundred other little moments where I felt welcomed by the different Mongolians and Kazakhs I was lucky enough to meet and travel with.
These guys are seriously the most incredible people I’ve ever met!
A place where simplicity rules and material things don’t equate to happiness, Mongolia is amazing for so many reasons, it’s hard to name them all!
A wild land that hasn’t changed much since the time of Ghengis Khan, I was constantly amazed at just how large and overwhelming it seemed. They say that the skies are bigger in Mongolia and I believe it 100 percent!
Sometimes when we would stop riding at the top of a valley, and I could see a motorbike or horse in the distance I had to pinch myself that this was real. How can a place just seem big?
Mongolia is undoubtedly a beautiful land, but it is also so much more than that. The people and the various cultures make it even more special, and I already am planning a return trip. I think that speaks for itself.
Is Mongolia on your bucket list? Did you know about the ethnic Kazakhs there or was it a surprise like it was for me? What’s something you’ve learned while traveling?
Many thanks to Starbucks and Zavkhan Trekking for hosting me in Mongolia. Like always I’m keeping it real, all opinions are my own, like you could expect less from me!