Videos from Mongolia

So after a few hiccups with internet restrictions in China, we finally found a way to upload our video clips from our time in Mongolia. Includes highlights from our horse riding in Lake Khovsgol and around Amarbayasgalant Monastery.

Lake Khovsgol Horseback trek

Racing horses near Amarbayasgalant Monastery


Hula Hoops and Smiles in Mongolia 

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People stare at me and my luggage when I walk through an airport. Their attention is drawn to what looks like a big shiny neon yellow and orange ring that is hanging over the handle of my pink carry on bag. My hula hoop.

Teeba, one of my good friends and a passionate hooper, suggested I try hooping as well. We both love to dance and besides being a great workout, hooping is a form of self expression and, if done to music, a form of dance. Her wedding present for me: a collapsible hoop that I could take with me on our world tour! I love it.

One of my goals on our journey is to get better at hooping (but more on that at a later point as I’m still in the beginner’s stage). However, so far the hoop also had another, unexpected effect on our journey. It helped us connect with people around us, bridging any cultural or language barriers. This shiny toy attracts attention. It sparks curiosity. From little kids to older people, without us prompting, they come over, pick up the hoop and just play. It’s as if the hoop brings out their inner child.

Here are a few impressions from Mongolia. The hula hoop helping us meet new people and creating lots of smiles.


Discovering new kinds of dairy in Mongolia


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Mongolian cuisine is very much defined by the limitations of nomadic living. As a nomad, you can only really eat things that can travel easily with you. Think cows, yaks, sheep, goats and horses. You have a limited ability to grow crops as a nomad, and not a lot of space in your Ger (tent) or on your carriage to be lugging around elaborate spice racks. So what’s left is diet rich in meat and dairy, without a lot of fresh veggies, and generally quite basic flavour profiles. That said, within these limitations the Mongolians have devised a very creative diet, particularly when it comes to dairy. Our guide, Ashley, told us that Mongolians have very white teeth because they eat so much dairy. Although I’m yet to verify this causal relationship, it is true that Mongolians do seem to have white teeth and they definitely love their dairy.

Our closest encounters to traditional Mongolian cuisine, and the omnipresence of dairy, came on the few occasions when Christine and I had a chance to visit nomad families inside their Gers. On arrival, we were met with an almost identical ritual each time: milk tea was poured out of a tall furnace into small ceramic bowls; homemade bread was pulled out of a tin and cut into slices; and from underneath a table came out a very large bowl of whipped butter cream and a basket of curd chips. All of these were gently offered to us, and following Mongolian custom, we accepted each item graciously.

The milk tea seemed to be simply milk infused with a tiny bit of black tea and it tasted quite good. The whipped butter cream, which is meant to go with the homemade bread, tasted like the stuff I’ve made when I accidentally whipped cream for too long and it became butter-like. So in this case, the taste was quite familiar. That said, I was taken aback when I saw how much butter they typically spread on: “You like a bit of bread with your butter?” However, the curd chips tasted like nothing I’ve ever had before. I was told that they are made from skimming the curd off the top of yogurt, and leaving it out to dry out in the sun. The chips come in a range of shapes and sizes. Some are round with a small hole in the middle, kind of like a big button. Some look like big potato chips. Others are small, odd shaped pieces that kind of look like popcorn. Despite the variation in appearances, they all kind of have the same funky, sour taste of “off yogurt”. The first one I was offered, I obligingly ate it all. In the next Ger camp when I was offered it, my stomach could only manage to eat half of it before I quietly placed the remainder in my pocket. The times after that, I politely accepted the chip, pretended to take a bite and then subtlety placed the whole chip in my pocket.

Yet these were the tamer side of our dairy discoveries in Mongolia. On the more exotic side was fermented horse milk (airag), which is popular in Mongolia and believed to have medicinal properties. The thought of drinking the milk of a horse initially sounded off putting, although Christine and I were pleasantly surprised that it didn’t taste too bad.

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However, the prize for our most interesting dairy discovery goes to yogurt vodka. Yes, that’s right. Vodka made from distilling yogurt. Once upon a time I liked tequila until I had a really big night on it when I was 18-years old, and ever since then the smell of it or the tiniest sip will make me squirm. That’s pretty much the immediate reaction I had when I tasted yogurt vodka.

While I won’t be rushing to my local supermarket to seek out any of these new “delights”, I have a huge appreciation and admiration for the Mongolian people in their adaptation of foods to their environment. Mongolians have created a truly unique food culture.

Oh, and on the topic of food in Mongolia, here’s a video of me swallowing a live fish we caught in a river:


For experienced riders only

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I had an uneasy feeling in my stomach. Was this really a good idea? Or would I regret this later? Or worse, even come out injured? It was a brisk but clear and sunny morning and I was standing next to “our” horses that would carry us across Northern Mongolia over the next seven days. And there were many of them. Ten in total. Six for us to ride on (Christian, myself, our tour guide Ashley, our cook Segi and our two horse guides Jagaa and Galaa) plus four pack horses. The horses looked restless, pacing back and forth in the realm of their ropes. Not very comforting that they were also kicking at each other once in a while! I hadn’t realized what “half wild” meant. Had that even been mentioned in the brochure when we booked the trip? I guess it must have been. My thoughts were interrupted as Jagaa, the main horse guide, called for me. It was time to get up on my horse.

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Several months ago, when Christian and I started to plan our big trip, we both had a few “must dos” on our personal wish lists. One activity on mine was a multi-day horse back trek in Mongolia. I was excited by the thought of traveling through the least densely populated place on earth – on a horse and only with a tent. That sounded like the ultimate sense of freedom and adventure (and something to do before we would have kids). I found a great option. A French tour company, called Randocheval, offered a 20-day Mongolia trip: two horse back treks (one seven days, one five days) in different parts of the country with ger camp stays, hiking and monastery visits in between. The only catch: the description said “for experienced riders only”. I felt a bit unsure. I had some horse back riding experience from three day-long trips I did over the course of the last 10 years. Christian was a bit more experienced than I was. However, the classification “experienced rider” would be a bold exaggeration for both of us. I dropped the tour operator a line and got back good news. As long as we were both healthy, physically fit and had been on horses before we should be fine!

So here we were at Lake Kovsghol (in Northern Mongolia very close to the Russian boarder) and I was wondering if my enthusiasm and romanticism of a horse trek had gotten the better of me when booking this trip. Ashley, our tour guide, gave us a few quick instructions. Well, three to be exact. #1: always approach the horses from the left hand side (otherwise they might freak out), #2: say “choo” if you want the horse to go faster (and do so loudly conveying control), #3: never let go of your reigns. Really, that was everything I needed to know? What should I say if I wanted the horse to stop? But there was no more time for questions. Jagaa helped me get up (from the left side) onto my new buddy for the next week. So far so good. My horse seemed to be fairly calm. Then another thought crossed my mind: “Horses can feel if you are nervous”. Isn’t that what people always tell you? Great. My horse was probably already working out a grandiose master plan on how to play me. I kept telling myself “this feels good”, “I can do this”, hoping to convey confidence. Suddenly my horse started moving, following the horse guides and the pack horses up onto our first hill. Off we were on our trip!

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Over the next two days I grew closer with my horse as we were walking and trotting along the lake over open meadows, passing through dense woods and seemingly endless valleys. Christian and I decided that our horses needed names. He named his “Pferdeknoedel” one of the first words he learned in German (the meaning is similar to “horse poo”). I baptized mine “Clumsy”. It kept tripping over stones, roots and there-like. It seems that horses can’t really see very well which is kind of scary to be honest. And Clumsy seemed to have a higher incidence rate of tripping than the rest of the pack which freaked me out at times (it feels like your horse might fall and you with it). Day 3 was a highlight, in more ways than one. In the morning Segi, Ashley, Christian and I took off, leaving the pack horses behind and cantered (kind of like a slow gallop) through a broad valley. It was a beautiful feeling (first time I cantered!) and it felt like I had made a big jump in my horse back riding skills. Just before lunchtime we were crossing a swamp with a small stream of water. I was on guard as our horses seemed easily scared by water (and anything unexpected that might be in it). I was right behind Segi’s horse, trying to make Clumsy cross the stream slowly. And then it happened. Segi’s horse got spooked and jumped back. Seeing this, Clumsy lost it. He made a leap forward, overtaking Segi’s horse. Then kicked both his back legs back before he jumped up in the air with his front legs up. It felt like riding a very aggressive bull. I was scared to death. Everything happened in slow motion (or so I believed, as according to Christian the whole episode probably didn’t take longer than six seconds). And I only had one thought in my head: “Don’t fall of the horse”. I was so afraid that I might break a bone or even have something worse happen to me… My dad got thrown of a horse when he was young and broke his collar bone. Even though he had been an experienced rider he’s never gotten back onto a horse after that. I must have somehow internalized that story. With my right hand I held onto my saddle as strongly as I could. After a few seconds I must have realized that I also still had the reigns in my left hand. In a moment of clarity I pulled back the reigns as strongly as I could and just screamed “brrr” and “stop” (that’s what riders say in Austria to stop a horse; stopping a horse in Mongolian hadn’t been part of the intro for this trip). The horse was still wild. After a couple of seconds it calmed down and stopped. I was in shock. I couldn’t move and was just sitting there until Jagaa arrived and got a hold of the reigns. I stumbled off the horse and realized how much I was trembling. But, I had not fallen off. Somehow my survival instinct had kept me on that horse. Everything was ok. It felt like a miracle.

The afternoon and next morning were interesting. We continued the trek. There would have really not been any other option, plus, getting back up on the horse immediately seemed like the best way to get over this incident. Jagaa and Galaa were impressed that I had managed to stay on the horse and manage to calm it down. So the good news was that I had been able to deal with the situation despite my limited horse back riding skills. The bad news: what if it would happen again? I must admit that I lost trust in Clumsy. What would freak him out next? A fly on a random meadow? So I decided to exert more control. I was alert every single second, held the reigns tight, kept scanning the ground for any stone or hole that might trip him up and steered him around it. It was exhausting and not very much fun. Clumsy didn’t like it much either. Neither did Christian as I turned into a tense and somewhat unhappy companion. So what should I do given we still had three full days ahead of us? The more I thought about it the more I realized that being on guard every second wouldn’t change much. What had happened was serious and I learnt from it but one can’t really foresee such incidences. Plus, I had shown that I at least have a chance of dealing with such a situations. So that made me feel a little bit better. Secondly, the incident had nothing to do with my horse in particular. Mongolian horses are half wild so they are by nature a bit more uncontrollable. So I tried to change my mindset and relax my rules of “controlling” the horse the next morning. It worked. Clumsy was much more calm and I was able again to enjoy the experience and take in the wonderful scenery.

Reflecting on our time in Mongolia, I’m really glad that we chose to do the trip. The incident was dangerous and rattled me. That said, we achieved what we had envisioned when we set out to do this trip. We got our fair dose of adventure. We had a true feeling of freedom. And I also took my horse back riding skills to the next level. In the second leg of our horse riding trip around the Amarbayasgalant Monastery we actually spent most of our time cantering and galloping! That said, I wouldn’t call myself an “experienced” rider quite yet 🙂


Snapshots of Mongolia


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What we learned on the history

Our visit to the National Museum of Mongolia in Ulaanbaatar was the perfect way for us to get a great overview of Mongolia’s rich history. From there, our Lonely Planet and our tour guide, Ashley, were able to fill in many more of the details. Here’s what we learned:

For thousands of years (and even today), the Mongolians have been nomadic people. The nomadic lifestyle defines many aspects of Mongolian culture from the food they eat (based largely on the meat and dairy products of the animals that can travel with them) to their incredible hospitality to strangers (a necessity to ensure mutual survival as people traveled across the vast country).

Over the course of history, there have been 3 major dynasties in Mongolia that have extended beyond their own country. The first was the Hun empire which began around 200 BC (the famous Attila the Hun of 5 century AD was from this lineage). The second major dynasty was the Turkic dynasty which began in 6 century AD. And the final dynasty was the largest, and most renowned, the great Mongol dynasty of Chinngis Khaan in the 13th century. From a small nation with a relatively small army, he was able to conquer the greatest armies of his era. The empire he created was one of the largest in history stretching from China to Hungary and from India to Russia. Although renowned for being merciless in battle, he is better known in Mongolia as the great law giver. One major factor that facilitated the success of his vast Mongolian empire was from the laws he established from religious tolerance, to free-trade zones to diplomatic immunity.

In more recent times, Mongolia has gone from communist republic to a thriving democracy. In 1924, Mongolia’s desire for independence from China saw them siding with the Russian Bolsheviks and embracing communism. During this time, the Soviets imposed a huge degree of influence over Mongolia. One positive byproduct was the standardization of education and increase in literacy, which before communism was lower than 5% and by 1990 was greater than 95% (hence why Mongolia today uses the Cyrillic alphabet).

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 80’s, Mongolia went through its own transition away from communism to a democratic republic in 1990 and has since then gone through a period of rapid modernization. We experienced the modernized side of Mongolia in the capital Ulaanbaatar, seeing the new building constructions, getting caught in intense traffic and tasting the polluted air. However, it was only a short drive out of UB that showed us how the majority of Mongolians live on the country side, many in Ger tents, with strong ties to their nomadic heritage. This was the most interesting side of our Mongolian experience.


Lake Khovsgol and Horesback Trekking Part I 

Picture a seemingly endless, dark blue lake surrounded on one side by steep, grey rocky mountains and green, rolling meadows full of Edelweiss on the other. Sounds like the Austrian Alps and the Sound of Music, doesn’t it? Well, I’m actually talking about Lake Khovsgol in Northern Mongolia and the place we spent the first 7 days of our adventure (and yes, Mongolia is covered in Edelweiss!).

Our typical day looked something like this: horseback riding throughout the day across a scenic landscape (including some scary moments with our horses), camping in the wild without anyone in sight (except the nomads and their livestock of course, who are the main inhabitants in this region), getting the run down on Mongolian history from our guide Ashley over dinner while enjoying a meal of potatoes, noodles, rice, fresh cucumbers and canned/ jarred vegetables (and all the possible combinations thereof), learning how to play Mongolian card games during down times (and a few Mongolian words, however, Cyrillic pronunciation is really hard to remember), listening to scary camp-fire stories about shamans (the main religion of most steppe and taiga tribes) and wolf attacks (not helpful if one needs to sneak out of the tent in the middle of the night to go the “bathroom”), cuddling up in our tent (wrapped into multiple layers of clothes to weather the freezing temperatures at night), waking up over breakfast with instant coffee mixed with milk powder (not like our beloved espresso, but hey, thank god we have coffee!), packing up camp, saddling our pack horses and off we go again.

And on one of the days during our trip we had the luxury to camp next to a hot spring. Wash day for us and our clothes!


Reindeer People

One day we visited a family of Tsaatan people (Reindeer people). In contrast to the other nomadic ethnicities with their livestock, the Tsaatan live off reindeer. We were welcomed into their yurt (which is a tipi-like tent and different than the round ger tent that other nomadic tribes live in) and were struck by how bare bones it was. No beds (one of the sons was sleeping on the floor while we were there), no stools, no stove… really nothing. The family came down south to Lake Khovsgol in the hope to earn some additional income from tourism. They sell hand-made bags and souvenirs. Tourist camps pay them to stick around the area as a tourist attraction in the summer season (that said, we’ve unfortunately heard that coming so far south is to the detriment of their reindeers). One of the unanticipated highlights of our meeting with the Reindeer people family was kicking around a ball with their 4-year old son. He was a little bundle of energy and happiness.


Amarbayasgalant Monastery and racing horses across the steppes

Amarbayasgalant monastery is one of Mongolia’s national treasures. Built in 1737 and fortunate to have survived the former communist regime, the monastery is a beautifully designed Buddhist temple in a remote and spectacularly beautiful setting deep in the steppes of Mongolia.

We arrived here at the start of the 3-day annual prayer festival, where thousands of prayer goers flock and camp nearby (seeing the camping and the procession of cars entering along the dirt road kind of reminded us of Burning Man!). Lonely Planet said that this was the best time to come to the monastery; however, this is one occasion where I have to disagree. Once the festival was over, Christine and I really got to experience the awe of the place which is accentuated by its remoteness and peacefulness.

Starting from the monastery, we began our second horse-riding adventure. And while we would have thought Khovsgol would be hard to top, this was by far and away our best horse-riding experience. Each day we spent literally hours racing our horses, cantering and galloping through the beautiful steppes. It was simply exhilarating. At times we got concerned that we would wear out our horses but our horses never seemed satisfied to just walk or trot, and our horse guide, Zorig, assured us the horses could handle it. I guess they bring them up tough here in Mongolia!


Nomadic living

Nomadic living is the hallmark of Mongolia. While it was born out of necessity to sustain ones life, many today chose the freedom and independence as a lifestyle (over urban life in the capital city Ulanbaatar). Christian and I got to experience this first hand, spending a day and night with our horse guide Zorig’s extended family. Nomads have a summer and a winter camp, so the place we camped at was their summer residence (their winter places have more stable, wooden houses than their ger tents and better shelter for their livestock).

We were put to work immediately. Our first task: rounding up baby cows and bringing them back to their stable and collecting dozens of dispersed sheep and goat (so that they don’t mix with livestock of neighboring nomad families). This was really fun and a good way to test our newly acquired horseback riding skills. Next up was milking cows. Sounds straightforward but isn’t. Well, Christian seems to be more of a natural talent on this one. The next morning we helped prepare the milk for further processing which meant aerating the cooked milk to get rid of bacteria. Dairy is a crucial part of the nomadic diet and milk finds its way into every meal. After that it got dirty: collecting cow dung and piling it up for drying (the dried dung will be used for fire during winter). Admittedly not my favorite activity 🙂 Many times during the day I had to think of my mum who grew up on a farm herself.

In our breaks we kicked around a ball with the kids or observed them trying to capture squirrels. They were on summer break and typically stay at a boarding school during school time.

If I’d summarize our observations from the day, I’d say: nomads work hard (and we have a new appreciation for all the work that goes into every cup of milk tea or curd chip we were offered), they are incredible hospitable and live by a mantra of helping one another out, and despite having a very simple lifestyle they seemed very satisfied and happy.