When I was little, I always used to make half-baked plans to attempt to escape the monotony of life (little did I realise just how good I had it…) and jet off to various places; the most frequent of which was the Mongolian Steppe. My plan was to run out of the house with all my savings, which probably amounted to about a fiver, and head to the airport where I would stow myself away into the hold of a plane heading to the US. I figured that there I would find a job and make enough money to buy a plane ticket to Ulan Bator; from there I would hop on a train and head up into the hills where I would live in a felt Gur, buy a horse and live out the rest of my (so far, very short) life there, galloping across the plains and drinking yak’s milk tea with no questions asked. Clearly, an exceptionally flawless plan…my 8 year old brain saw no problems to any part of it; however, I do wonder how I was planning on completing this mad venture with no passport in hand…
This was my dream after I had actually been to Mongolia with my mother back in 2005 and lived for a few days in exactly the way I planned to do after my grand ‘escape’. Though I was very young at the time of my trip to East Asia, the memories I formed in this country will forever remain seared into my mind, and I will always yearn to return there.
The first thing I remember was the change in temperature as we crossed the Gobi Desert after the heat and humidity of China, and entered a barren, windswept landscape of hills and rocky pastures. Travelling through the step, every now and again we would pass a herd of camels or yak wandering doggedly on to goodness knows where…the only signs of civilisation we could see were the occasional huts dotted through the valleys.
It was clear that these were the main sources of food for the Steppe inhabitants; when we arrived at our campsite of felt and cloth gurs (yurts), we were immediately greeted with a tray of the local food, consisting of yak’s milk tea, a strange kind of bread with yak butter and curd… you get the idea. I’m sure that had I gone there as an older traveller and not at the naive and fussy age of 8, I would have been more adventurous with the food; as it was, I took one sniff of the odourous milk and instantly turned up my nose. To be honest, even my mother could barely struggle through the meal, and she is never one to reject unusual food!
I always remember coming across a huge pile of stones, with long wooden poles wrapped in multicoloured cloth sticking out of its centre, on one of our many walks. I was told it was a religious monument, and accordingly I picked up 3 stones, walked around it 3 times and after each circuit I threw a stone onto the pile. It was supposed to be for good luck, I think, but I was just interested to wonder how many people had journeyed there and done the same ritual as I had done. Considering it looked like hundreds of people had contributed to the stone pile, I assumed that this must be rather a sacred rite and statue for the Mongolian people.
My favourite part of that particular adventure, however, was when my mother and I found ourselves galloping madly across the plains on two small, rampant horses, being led by a man who I’m pretty sure knew no words of English at all. Health and safety would have had a field day; no protection or proper riding gear and accompanied only by a strange Mongolian yak herder? I’m not quite sure how it happened, but I’m jolly glad it did, as to this day I still remember it being one of the best experiences of my entire life. We simply galloped for hours. I think he was so surprised that we could actually ride (he normally had to just walk around with complete novices) that he took the bull by the horns and gave us a damn good day of galloping wildly about the Steppe. I remember that the English translation to my horse’s name was ‘Wild Mane’ which was rather fitting; I’ve never seen a more crazy-looking horse to his day- and his temperament certainly matched his appearance. I didn’t want to let him go.