We assumed traveling around Mongolia would require a lot of time in a van, and we were right. Luckily we had read up on places to see and do that would break up the driving. One of the things we did was trek for 3 days through the Orkhon Valley which was recommended to us by the Ulaanbaatar Guesthouse, and it turned out to be one of the highlights.
The Orkhon Valley lies in central Mongolia, about 350kms south west of Ulaanbaatar and is one of the three UNESCO world heritage sites in the country. The Orkhon river starts in Russia’s Lake Baikal and flows into Mongolia making it Mongolia’s longest river. Many nomadic families and farmers live in this region, close to the river and the Eight Lakes (Naiman Nuur).
First things first, we had to find our horsemen who were going to guide us on the tour. This proved harder than expected because our tour guides Togi & Nara hadn’t been to the area for a year. Since nomads are rarely in the same place year after year, we spent a good 2 hours visiting other nomad families along the way asking for directions. Finally we arrived at the camp and met the 3 families who resided there. The grandparents, their 2 children and their respective families.
We set up camp for the night and the plan was to leave early the next morning to make the most of the day. We were up and ready by 8am even though we had already learned prior to this that there is a thing called Mongolian time. To have a laugh we would always ask Nara if we were meeting at ‘our time’ or ‘Mongolian time’. It was always Mongolian time and that meant you could be waiting for another couple of hours, depending on how lucky you were. That morning was the latter. We were up, packed and roaring to go but only the women and kids could be seen at the camp. Where were our horsemen? Out looking for wild horses to accompany us apparently. It was going to depend on how long it took for them to go walking around searching for 5 wild horses. Not only find them but also catch them. Incredible. These were true horsemen. I couldn’t wait to meet them.
They finally came back a couple of hours later satisfied with the 5 horses they had caught. Putting saddles on and mounting the horses proved more difficult but with a little persistence it was a done thing. The two men plus our guide Nara were going to ride in front of us while pulling 2 other horses who (poor things), had to carry our luggage, (not all of it! most of it we had left in our van with our driver Togi and he was going to meet us at the final destination – the Orkhon waterfall) gas cooker, food and our tents.
We were off. What an amazing trip! We hiked for 5 to 6 hours a day through mountainous valleys, grassland, forests, swamps, up mountains, down mountains, along the river, by the lakes, camping along the way. The scenery was incredible but you can find further details on the region by googling it.
Instead I want to tell you about our horsemen. They were grandfather; a gentle soul with light hazel eyes, kind, attentive and full of knowledge of the area, and his son in law; young, shy at first but later showed his playful side, strong, hard worker. These two men with not one word of English, took us under their wings and led us on an unforgettable journey through their terrain.
For those 3 days walking side by side them, it was as if we were living in a magical, nomadic world. By the time we had reached the Orkhon Valley Waterfall where our ‘adventure’ was finishing, it was like the bubble had burst and we were forced back to real life unwillingly. I had taken them for granted! Seeing their smiley faces at breakfast and sitting by the campfire eating our dinner at night while exchanging curious looks back and forth. Such different walks of life thrown together for 3 days out of a lifetime.
When it was time for them to leave and ride back to their families, I felt a huge wave of sadness come over me. As if i had to say goodbye to a dear friend that I would one day cross paths with, yet these men I would probably never see again. It’s the ‘never’ that brings so much heartbreak when saying goodbye. Especially when you’re a person that likes to keep in touch as myself. I’m a curious soul. What can i say? When I meet people I like, it’s difficult for me to let go.
Without the help of our horsemen; gathering wood for fires, water for cooking, setting up camp, loading our luggage on the horses, their company, smiles, laughs, seed fights and guidance, our trip would never have been as amazing as it was. I know some people would say that this is their job and they were hired to guide us, but as we all know, and as Forrest Gump says ‘Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get’. We definitely got the triple choc of the box!