Whilst saner students were off taking a break from the rigours of schoolwork during the National Holidays, those of us who chose to undertake the Silver IA were instead engaged in battles of will and wit with our horses by day, and enduring subzero temperatures in Mongolian yurts by night. Nonetheless, we did so happily and with boundless vigor, for it was our choice to partake in it, and oh what a wonderful choice it was.
We set off early Saturday morning in high spirits, bursting with excitement for our trip. We landed in Xilinhot, Inner Mongolia without any major issues, and were promptly treated to our first meal of genuine Mongolian cuisine by our guide, Colin. One could say this was our first taste of Mongolia, and every single bite was as rustic and delicious as we imagined. We bedded down for an early night not long after, and after a spot of sightseeing in Xilinhot the next morning, we set off by bus to Hexigten, where our campsite and horses were located.
All of us were giddy with anticipation at this point, unable to wait any longer to meet the horses whom we would be befriending and spending the week with. Alas, it was not to be. An unexpected road blockage, detours, and getting the bus stuck on a particularly bumpy length of road composed an excellent recipe for our late arrival, and we stumbled into the campsite well after the sun bid us farewell and the moon was shining with mirth at our bus’s plight. Quite fortunately for our spirits and rumbling stomachs, however, steaming food was available, and we gorged ourselves upon the platters of palatable roast lamb and a succulent variety of vegetables. We then retired to our tents for the first time, most of us dreaming of riding on the morrow.
The sun shone down from a cloudless sky as we staggered out of our yurts, joints stiff from the chill night, and rubbing sleep from bleary eyes. A hearty breakfast perked us right up, however, and after safety gear was donned we finally got the chance to get up close and personal with our horses. Let me just say, it was not quite the magical bonding experience most of us were secretly hoping for. Mongolian horses aren’t just animals to be broken and ridden. They may be saddled and reined, but they are still wild and spirited, with a unique yearning to run, to gallop, to chase the gusts of prancing winds skirling through the dunes and gentle slopes of summer-green grass. We were quite wrong to assume they were mere animals. We had much to learn.
Fortunately, the coaches were all patient beyond belief and they were all so familiar with the horses that they could tell apart every single horse and knew their personalities inside out. We can’t thank them enough for the abundance of help and guidance they gave us. After a few practice laps around the ranch, we were bursting with confidence and raring to go out. It was not to be, for our plans were waylaid by our starving bellies and the smells of a tantalizing picnic. After stuffing our faces with yet another scrumptious meal, we struck out on horseback for the first time, trotting out the ranch gates into the great Mongolian Plains.
Our first trip out on horseback was fairly uneventful. During a short jaunt that spanned roughly eleven kilometers on even ground, most of us spent the time getting used to our mounts and barely thought to spare a glance at the vast Mongolian scenery around us. Before we knew it, we had ridden back to camp and were tying up our horses, basking in the warmth of the setting sun; a fitting ending for our first day of riding.
After supper, most of us chose to return to our yurts for an early night, but a few of us remained in the campsite’s communal field, transfixed by the timeless beauty of the Mongolian night.
The next morning was an unholy amalgamation of stiff backs, aching muscles, and sore behinds! The riding had taken quite a toll on our inexperienced muscles, and we were now paying the price. Dragging ourselves out of bed at six in the morning proved to be a Herculean labor, the chill stabbing into exposed flesh with every step and the warmth of our tents beckoning enticingly with every backward glance. A hearty breakfast with steaming coffee and fresh buns amongst the variety of delicacies soon set us right, and we grabbed our gear to set off at nine AM, ready for our first full day of trekking.
Our aches and sores were soon forgotten, blown away by the gentle breeze. We managed to reach a slightly higher pace than our first afternoon, which was a good start to our day. Our path took us through forests and plains, and even across swift streams that we would never have dared to ford on foot. Our mounts, however, soon dispelled our worries with every sure-footed stride, and we splashed our merry way across. Lunch was a simple affair of hot tomato soup with bowls of steaming rice, and there was nothing more satisfying than the feeling of a full stomach after a morning of exertion. Some of us even managed to snag a nap under the gentle afternoon sun.
Our mounts got a well-deserved break in the afternoon when we slowed the pace down to navigate a tricky trail and take in the breathtaking sights of the Mongolian grasslands. The horses, now used to our inexperienced reins, settled down somewhat and we got the chance to look around without the fear of our horses bolting. And look around we did, for the sights were novel to us city dwellers. Many of us were smitten with the beauty of Mongolian nature and at the purity of it all. There wasn’t a building to be seen, nor a car horn to be heard. Only the rustling of auburn leaves, ruddy from autumn’s kiss, and the streams briskly flowing through the grasslands.
The next few days were a blur. The morning chill was our nemesis, always threatening to drive us back into our tents, but thoughts of the steaming breakfast awaiting us lent strength to leaden legs, and our bundles of thermals and jackets a stalwart shield faithfully warded off cold’s evil bite. We rode and we learned. We managed to learn how to saddle our own horses after a fashion, and could get on them well enough, albeit with none of the suave ease our coaches displayed. Time proved to be the central ingredient for our equine relationships, and our horses grew closer to us and we to them with every ride. We stopped fighting with our equine friends and we were duly rewarded with their peaceful cooperation.
We grew braver and our reins more confident, moving from trots to canters, and even gallops. We rode with the winds, when they once left us in the dust. Streams became a thing to look forward to instead of the trial they were to cross once, our mounts splashing across gaily when they once stooped to slake their thirsts as we dragged on the reins desperately.
Our nights were as exciting as our days. We feasted upon all the cuisines Mongolia had to offer, and even had a barbeque. We were more adept at barbeque than we ever would be at riding, I’m afraid, but that dinner was absolutely masterclass! We even got the chance to listen to authentic Mongolian throat, and watched a bowl-on-head dancing performance as well.
Landing back at Shenzhen, we were once again back among the familiar crowds of people, rows of buildings, and roaring traffic. The stark contrast between the serenity in the plains and the metropolis brought back bittersweet emotions. Memories of our time in Mongolia flooded our minds—the sweeping grasslands, the warm-hearted people, and, of course, the horses. All stories must come to an end, but the spirit of the open wilderness will be forever etched into our hearts.
This trip was no easy vacation, but a test of our true mettle, and we are glad for it. Our one true regret for this trip was the inadequate time we spent on the plains. One must be content with the pleasures afforded to us, however, and we will look back upon this journey with fondness for years to come. Personally, I’d jump at the chance to go again.