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2019 Högsvöl Mongolei

2 weeks through the endless expanses of Mongolia on enduring, hard-working Mongolian horses. A journey into the past.  


We arrived in Mörön on July 10, just in time to take part in Nadam in Hagtal on Lake Högsvöl. Nadam is a traditional Mongolian festival week. Horse races, wrestling matches and archery competitions are held throughout the country at this time. Over the next eight days, we ride north on Mongolian horses with knotted halters. 25 km before the Russian border, we have to cross a 2700 m pass before we descend into the valley to the racing animal nomads. It is a journey back to the century before last. There are 20 tepees scattered around the valley on a shrubless area. Reindeer calves lie tethered on the ground, while a few reindeer graze in the surrounding area. Smoke rises from the tipis, some of which have chimneys. The tent walls are cotton and the tipis are spacious enough to accommodate several guests. There are still around 100 people and 200 reindeer taking a well-earned break here during the very short summer. The snow melts here in mid-June and winter returns in mid-August. The reindeer don't like mosquitoes, so they move to the mountains and only come down to the valley for milking and watering in the morning and evening. In winter it's -35 degrees here and it gets warmer when it's only -25.

10.7.

We fly from Munich via Moscow to Ulan Batar and then on to Mörön. At the airport we are picked up by Saraa's driver and taken to Hagtal on an adventurous road. At Saraa's house I find my equipment again, which I had given to Berdibek when we rode in Bayan Olgi. He made sure that all my equipment was brought here to Hagtal. We sorted everything out and everything is still there. My MCLelan saddle, my western saddle, the rain ponchos and the stirrups. We then drive with all our luggage to Suuley's farm, where we can use his horses. He will ride along as a translator. It is a simple house with a shed next door where he stores his saddles, panniers and dried meat. His wife is milking the cows, which are standing close to the penned calves. Later she will make cheese from the milk. His 13-year-old daughter is busy practising English with us and is very eager to learn.

11.7.

We arrive on time for the local Nadaam and spend the next day watching the 30 km horse race, the wrestling matches, the archery and the dance performances. The horse race is celebrated with great spectacle, as the prize money is enormous by local standards. On the evening before the race, the horses are

30 km out into the pampas and tethered there without water or food. The next morning, the parents drive their riding offspring out and put them on the horses, usually without saddles. They then set off on command and the horses race back as quickly as possible to where they can find food and water. The winning horse is praised and awarded prizes and the rider is showered with gifts. The wrestling matches and dance performances are all characterized by tradition, so the winner of a wrestling match leaves the ring dancing and flapping his wings like a bird.

a bird. We see someone with a beer, but he has brought it himself. We make do with tea and local fast food (a kind of dumpling filled with mutton) and the young woman who serves us is so enthusiastic about practising English with us that she gives us the food as a gift.

12.7.

The next morning we saddle up and I have to fit my own stirrups as the ones attached to the saddle are far too short for me. Tina and Gudrun also get a European set of stirrups. Tina rides a white horse, I ride a bay dwarf and Gudrun a bay. Suuley insists that we take a cousin with us, but I haven't planned a meal for him. So be it, he comes along, but apart from doing all the work for Suuley, he's not much help to us because he doesn't speak a word of English. Suuley's vocabulary is limited to a few words and real conversation is hardly possible.

The landscape is hilly and very damp, alternating between good grass and swampy terrain. We ride at an altitude of around 1500 m and the horses do their usual routine, but this time we don't have to push them as we did on our last tour in Mongolia. The horses are reasonably attentive and willingly obey us. Only the packhorse trotting along behind Suuley is very stubborn, as we discover later. We stop for lunch and Suuley builds a small fire to make tea, placing a stand made of angle iron over the embers and putting the pot on top. We ride about 40 km through deserted terrain and set up camp at a place Suuley has indicated. There is water and the horses have plenty of grass. We discuss the day's schedule for tomorrow and, in view of the expected temperatures, we decide to wake up at 6am. We boil our water to warm up the freeze-dried food we brought with us, and Suuley later cooks dried meat cut into small slices in the water for himself and the helper. We give them some of our food so that they don't fall off the meat on the ride.

Today we saw another group of riders on the way and approached them. They were two young French women from Paris who wanted to know if it was ok to ride alone with the old guide. They didn't know that they wouldn't be back for another 14 days and also didn't know that they would have to share their food with the guide. I gave them my cell phone number so that we could stay in touch if necessary. We met them again a few days later and everything seemed to be fine.

13.7.

In the morning, Suuley can't get out of his tent and I'm more than a little annoyed when he doesn't crawl out of his bed until 8am. This was not agreed and I make it clear to him that I will not tolerate this any longer. I explain to him that we need the morning coolness while the horses are still fresh to escape the heat of the day and that I will ride off at 7 a.m. tomorrow, regardless of whether he is there or not. I don't know if he understood me, but

we saddle up and ride off. We cross a few shallow riverbeds and follow a wagon track through the wet meadows. It gets very swampy and as Suuley is riding far ahead of us, we decide to ride around the swamp and catch up with him when he stops for tea again. We fight our way along the swamp and realize that we have to cross it, up a hillside, to get back on the planned track. It's only 50 meters, but it's a tough one, the horses have to gallop to get through it. Finally we make it and see Suuley waiting for us, sitting on the plain below. The terrain becomes flatter and we can make good speed as we ride through sparse forests. Tina finds wild rhubarb and we can sweeten our dinner with a rhubarb compote.

14.7.

Early this morning, I put the pressure on and got Suuley out of the tent at 6am. He was pissed off, but I didn't care. It wasn't just about getting up, it was also about who was in charge and I wasn't prepared to let him take the butter off my bread. After a few heated verbal arguments, where neither I nor he understood what the other was saying, we saddled up and rode off. According to the GPS, we were supposed to cross a pass today and reach a place the day after tomorrow. We rode along a dried-up river for a long time, saw some teepee poles and passed meadows with beautiful spring flowers. On the pass there was a tower piled up on stones, decorated with blue ribbons and the bones of bulls' heads as offerings. One of the bulls had 4 horns and Suuley explained that this was a sacred offering. The mood was now good again and we took some photos and then led the horses down the pass. Even Suuley dismounted when I dismounted to lead my horse. We had covered about 90 km in total when we set up camp in a wooded valley and let the horses out to graze. That evening we went for a swim at the river and on the way home I took a photo of a bear track, but Suuley didn't believe me and laughed at me. He was right, it was fake.

15.7.

There was no more discussion today. Suuley was dressed for breakfast at 6.30 and seemed to be in good spirits so far. We passed through hilly terrain again, following a river course and a wagon track, the terrain was now drier and wooded. We came back to civilization, as there were signs and information hanging from the trees, the meaning of which eluded us. Later we reached open terrain. In the distance we saw herds of cows and towards evening we came to a village called Ulan UUl where the individual houses were surrounded by high wooden fences. We rode to the house of a relative of Suuley and were able to let the horses graze in the fenced area as well as set up our tarp. There was an official guest house in the village where we could use the shower by arrangement. There was no woman there, so the man of the house was allowed to cook for us. We struck up a conversation with the neighbor, who proudly introduced us to her baby, who was just a few months old. Her husband then showed us his greenhouse and garden and all the different vegetables he grew. Later, the host explained to us how he makes leather from jackhide by tanning it with lard and wood ash and proudly showed us his saddlebags, which he had made himself. I bought a hide from him so that I could later make saddlebags myself.

16.7.

We ride along meadow paths through open countryside and see cows and horses grazing in the distance. We stop off at a farm that Suuley knows and are served tea. There are many rivers and lakes to ride around and at one point we have to use a wooden float to cross between two jetties. No problem for the horses and the raftsman did his job with complete confidence. Today we trotted at an average speed of 7.1 km/h and covered almost 60 km. It wasn't even really strenuous.

17.7.

for a few days now we have had the company of a dog that has simply followed us, and while Suuley alternately tries to chase him away and then feeds him dried meat again, Gudrun has really taken him to her heart and is thinking about taking him back to Germany. I vehemently refuse to support this plan and try to make it clear to her that she has no chance of taking the dog home. We are in the village of Rechinikhube. There is a bank and a petrol station where we can get fuel for our stove. There is a restaurant where we go to eat.

Again, we are accommodated in a guest house, where we can shower and wash our clothes by hand. Jacks and cows are in the area, we set up our tarp on the edge of the village.

18.7.

We leave the village and ride on through open country, without fences or other boundaries and can let our horses run free again. On the way we have to cross a river over a wooden bridge, but this also goes without a hitch. In the evening, we put the horses in a paddock and I find the owner of the pen up on the hill. I go to visit him and he is happy for us to spend the night with him. In the same horse we meet the two French women again, who now get on well with the guide without saying a word.

Suuley has now got used to the fact that I want to have a say in when we take a break and where, and the only thing I can't make clear to him is that he should wait at the river crossings until everyone is over, and that if one of the ladies has to dismount to pee, he shouldn't just ride on, but should wait at a suitable distance. But he doesn't want to or can't understand what I want. In the evening, Tina and I see him putting black shoe polish on his pony's back. We go over to ask what he's doing. His horse has an open spot on its back and this is the first time we've seen it. Suuley explains that he had seen Tina putting toothpaste on a festering mosquito bite on her horse and he thought the shoe polish would help his horse too. We suspect that the wooden saddle is the cause of the wound and ask him to fetch it for us, which he reluctantly does. We put the saddle on and now he also realizes why his horse has a wound there. The new wooden saddle he had bought was not properly shaped at the front, so that the right-angled edge of the saddle flap had caused the wound. Using our knives and an axe, we worked on the saddle flap until it was reasonably round and then decided to place my MCLelan saddle, which was lying on the pack animal, on the damaged back so that the wound could heal. Suuley was visibly pleased that we had found a good solution for his horse.

19.7.

After a week in the saddle, we reach Gurvanseikhan in the Tsagan Nur valley, having covered around 230 km. There Gudrun hands the dog over to a couple where we had dinner and pays them to keep the dog back when we leave in the morning. We camp outside the village and ride into slightly hillier terrain. It's only about 20 km as the crow flies to the Russian border and we ride steadily up the mountain towards a pass. On the way, we see another large group of riders coming towards us. Some of the riders are quite overweight and look correspondingly exhausted.

We get up to the pass and at the top we see the first racing animals, all with a rope around their necks. They feed on the lichens that grow up here and up here, where the wind blows, they are spared the tingling midges. Down in the valley, the tepees, covered with reindeer skins or cotton, stand like white dots in the landscape.

The Tsaatan reindeer nomads (also known as Dukha) are part of the Tuva, an ethnic group from Russia. They moved from southern Siberia in the early to mid-20th century when they were caught between hostile fronts. As a result of the Russian Revolution and the collapse of the Chinese Empire, the Mongolian People's Republic was formed. In the 1920s, a border suddenly cut through the Tuva's habitat. Many reindeer nomads also left the region in Russia in the following decades to escape the horrors of the Second World War. It was not until 1955 that the Tsaatan nomads were granted Mongolian citizenship. Today, only around 30-40 nomadic families (around 200-300 people) with around 600-1000 reindeer still live in Mongolia. The governor of Tuva has visited the families and sent reindeer from the north to Mongolia in a crisis situation to ensure the survival of the families. The Dhuka tribe is threatened with extinction.


20.7.

we ride down to the camp shortly after midday and are greeted warmly by the head of the family. Communication is very sparse, however, as Suuley doesn't really understand him and translating into English is another huge hurdle. Fortunately, a French photographer and his wife are present, so we can hear more about the Tuwa and their customs from them. The camp is located in a small valley and the tipis are set up on small grass islands. For whatever reason, the photographer assumes it is because of the plants that grow here, there are no mosquitoes for 50 m around the tipis, whereas if you leave this area, you will be eaten up by biting midges. The protected area is also home to the reindeer, some of which are free, while others are tethered. The reindeer are milked and the milk is used to make drink, butter and cheese. The meat of the slaughtered reindeer hangs on the poles of the tepees to dry, alongside all kinds of herbs and dried plants. There is no petrol or electricity and no corresponding equipment; at night, a small smoky fire and a few tallow candles burn in each tipi. We have brought flashlights with crank chargers and leather gloves, which are gladly accepted as a gift. In exchange for a few Mongolian banknotes, we can buy pieces of carved reindeer antlers dyed with blood and we are served a soup made from reindeer meat and noodles for dinner. We sleep in one of the guest tipis and spend the evening talking to the two photographers. They tell us about the very short summer grazing period, more or less the month of August, from September it snows here again, and that the Tuwa then go to lower-lying, forested regions where they are better protected from the -30 to -50 degree temperatures and the animals still find their food. The Tuwa break down their tepees as soon as the first mushrooms appear in late August, because the reindeer go wild for the mushrooms. However, because there are also some whose substances can trigger hallucinations, it becomes really dangerous to handle the animals.


21.7.

we pack our 7 things, say goodbye and saddle up, leave the valley with the reindeer nomads and climb back up the pass. In the meantime, the reindeer are also back up here, chewing their lichen with relish. At the summit of the pass, my phone suddenly starts ringing like crazy and all the messages I have received over the last 9 days are downloaded. There's also one from my son-in-law asking me to call him back urgently. So we let the horses graze while I use my Swiss number to dial a call to Colorado in the USA just before the Russian border. It's about a piece of land that my wife likes and that my son-in-law wants to buy for us. He needs my approval so that my brother can release the money to buy it. After he confirms that my wife likes the property and the house, I agree and 3 months later I can go and see the purchased property in Colorado for myself. The call cost CHF 380.

We lead the horses down the valley and mount up to ride back to Tsagan Nur. However, we only ride as far as the bridge and camp nearby at a swamp infested with mosquitoes and flies. It would have been drier just a few kilometers further on, but we didn't see that until the next morning. When I ask why we are not spending the night in the village, it turns out that Suuley doesn't want us to be bothered by drunks. As usual, we let the horses graze freely after unsaddling, and I'm just about to set up the tarp when I notice that my horse Pumukel is lame. I go over to him and notice that he has a swollen, hot tendon on his left front leg. He must have been kicked, there's no other explanation for the situation. I call Tina over and together we go to Suuley to talk to him about the situation. We decide that Pumukel will be given painkillers, which I have with me, and that he will have to walk along as a packhorse and I will ride the packhorse if we can't find another solution. But Suuley thinks he might be able to trade a horse from a local neighbor. We finish our dinner while Suuley is on the phone and a few hours later a rider suddenly appears at our camp, promising to bring a horse the next morning and take Pumukel home. We are reassured and go to sleep under the tarp.


22.7.

We get up at six, eat our porridge and saddle the horses. It's 8 o'clock and the rider still hasn't arrived. Suuley calls him, but in vain. We wait another hour and then set off. So I ride the packhorse while Pumukel, medicated and lame, shuffles along with the luggage. There's another farm 12 km away where we can swap horses, my Suuley. I have a lot of trouble with the packhorse, which has never been ridden and doesn't want to leave Suuley's brown horse's tail. It gets on my nerves and I force the bay to submit to me, which he does reluctantly, but every time I don't pay attention, he darts back over to the lead horse's tail. So I have something to do while we ride to the next yard. Once there, we get tea, but we don't swap, simply because there is only one horse available. So Equi again and on we go, and Pumukel gets better every time. We ride on until we reach Renchinikhumbe again, where we set up camp. It's around 60 km and Pumukel seems to be doing well because the swelling has gone down and is less hot. We ride into the village and Suuley has found someone who wants to sell him a horse, but he doesn't have the money for it, so he asks me to get the money from the bank and lend it to him. So I go to the bank, where I withdraw 400 US dollars and give it to him so that he can get a replacement horse. When he comes back and I see the horse, I'm not very happy about his purchase, the hooves are far too long and he has an unclean gait. I let him know this, but Suuley is convinced that the horse is good. So we repack and Pumukel can now walk along without any luggage. In the village, we eat at a friend of Suuey's who makes Mongolian saddles, which we also take a look at. We set up camp and all hope that tomorrow will be better.


23.7.

we get up as usual, have breakfast and saddle our horses. Suuley decides to ride the new horse and I get his lead horse. The packhorse takes over his load again and Pumukel, once more supplied with Equi, will run freely behind us, which is already going much better. After just a few kilometers, it is clear that Suuley will not get any further with this horse, as it stumbles every few meters and is simply no fun. Suuley finally reaches the owner around midday and he is ready to get the horse back. We reach our camp and at around 9.00 pm we hear hooves clattering. The owner comes and takes the horse to ride back. It's about 40 km, but he doesn't seem to mind.


24.7.

we are definitely back in civilization. There is a path along the lake and we keep seeing wooden houses and other buildings. A group of Russians come towards us on their mountain bikes, pushing them through the tough scree on the shore. They probably won't get very far this way. Our horses are much more elegant, they don't care about a bit of mud or scree. We reach a tourist village and there is an inn where we put up for the night. There is smoked fish for sale and we buy a leg of lamb to make an assado. Today we sleep in a really civilized way in a yurt, freshly showered and with washed clothes, and another guide comes to see what we are cooking on the fire. We get talking and enjoy the evening.


25.7.

on the way the next day, we pass a religious meeting place and approach the village of Kathgal from the north. We stop at the first houses, enjoy a local beer and watch another group of riders ride past. Among them is a girl who could have come from a US Native tribe, with feathers in her hair. We buy some souvenirs at a bazaar set up in the forest, but as Suuley has once again not noticed that we have descended, we can't stay too long. So we climb back up and I follow my GPS trail in the hope that Suuley has taken the same route. An hour later we meet up with him, he has taken a siesta and made himself a cup of tea. We ride on together until we arrive at his farm at around 4 p.m. and unsaddle the horses for the last time. We are picked up and sleep in Saraa's guest house.

26.7. the next day we go back to Suuley's farm with her and have to wait because he is treating a girl as a shaman. During this time we talk to his daughter and she wants to know how it was for us. Later, Suuley sits down with us and I am somewhat surprised at how positively he speaks about me and us as guests. He asks Saraa to translate and apologizes to me for not being cooperative. He had realized that I was a good guide and that he could learn from me. Wow. That is true greatness. He gives me my money and I settle up with Saraa, making sure that he also gets his share with a generous tip. Saraa is prepared to store my stuff with her again. At dinner, Saraa asks if it might be possible to organize a seminar for the local guides at which I would teach.


27.7.

the next morning we are ready for our return flight and are taken to the airport. It was a great tour that we want to repeat. Unfortunately, Covid has put a spanner in the works for the seminar option the following year, but what's not yet is still possible.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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