Living Like a Mongol: The Genesis

At the introduction dinner our G Adventure tour guide Oyuna asked us why we chose to come to Mongolia. Mine was the lamest answer. Perhaps closely followed by my partner Alex, who had come because I asked him and he’s always up for a random adventure. It was not something on my non-existent bucket list, I had not been drawn to the country by any particular image I had conjured up in my mind about Mongolia, it was simply because it was conveniently on Korean Airlines flight routing, and I figured ‘why not’. It was definitely not as romantic or thought out as some of the other tour member’s reasons but sometimes it’s exciting to go somewhere you have no idea about.

Tour welcome dinner. Clockwise from left: Oyuna, Philip, Michael, Sarah, Scott, me, Alex

When I say I have ‘no idea’ about it I am being very literal. I didn’t really even read the ‘Nomadic Life’ tour description as I figured it could only be fun as otherwise it wouldn’t exist as a tour. The only aspect I had taken note of was the 24km horse ride we had to endure one day. That’s a long way. That’s a long way when you kind of hate horses and being on one fills you with terror but you try to remain calm because you know that the horse knows if you aren’t in control. That’s a long way when you know it’s just waiting for you to slip up so it can throw you off and play castanets with your head against it’s hooves. That’s a long time to pretend to be calm and in control…

The realisation about how truly little I knew about Mongolia, and this trip in general, came to a head once we hit the road on the morning after our greeting dinner. We were venturing out into the countryside; the barren Mongolian countryside where there was no phone service, and if I fell off a horse I would probably be left to die by the side of a river so animals could come take a nibble on me, in between refreshing sips of water. Finally I would be found by a Mongolian family, and they would just sigh and say ‘there goes another one’. My anxiety continued to increase the further our little van drove into the sparse undulating hills of nothingness.

Entry to Gorkhi-Terelj National Park. Photo: Alex Smith

It was a motley crew of nomads. There was Scott, the American cowboy who, in his 60s, could have bench pressed me with his pinkie finger whilst shooting a bow and arrow with the other hand, and at the same time side-straddling a horse. He seemed to be accomplished in everything: owned and trained horses a few years back, wrestled in his youth, and hunted for animals with his bow and arrow still to this day. He didn’t relay this information in a showy way either, it was just who he was.

He had brought with him on the trip his son Tyler and Tyler’s wife Kathleen. Tyler was like Alex’s U.S bro, and they would often stand away from the group vaping, and discussing cars and other manly things that manly men do. Kathleen was an interesting character. She was quiet and shy upon first meeting, and you could easily mistake this for meekness, but underneath the shyness resided a very capable and strong woman, who could probably even give Scott a run for his money.

More of the motley crew. From L to R: Alex, host, Philip, Jillian, host and his son, Tyler, Kathleen, Oyuna, Lena, Miriam, me, Scott, Suzanne

Then there was Jillian, the New York pocket rocket of enthusiasm, who seemed like one of those people who would try anything once, even it is was reprehensible to most. Jillian was in her mid twenties but transcended the age barrier through her self-confidence and gregariousness. Of similar age was Philip, the Swedish engineer with a quirky sense of humour. Philip was of Chinese descent so as well as English and Swedish, he could also speak Mandarin and another dialect of Chinese. There was a wonderful lightness about Philip that made him easy to be around.

Alex and I were not the only tourists from Brisbane, and we were joined in that status by the easy-going and affable couple Sarah and Michael. They were the most prepared of all the group (well, this statement would probably be disputed by Philip, who, when I would exclaim how I didn’t know we needed to bring this or that, would not hesitate to inform me that it was in fact ‘on the list’ that G Adventures posted). Regardless, Sarah and Michael were well equipped and ready to roll as not only did they have the foresight to bring a mosquito net, they had also taken horse riding lessons for several months prior to the trip. I couldn’t help but admire their forward thinking. I sometimes wondered whether it was possible that my thinking was actually moon-walking backwards at high-speed compared to other people.

Herd of horses near park entry. Photo: Alex Smith

Lastly, there were the German teachers, Miriam and Lena, and fellow Australian Suzanne, the statistician, who all seemed to be a little bit more removed from the general group but helped to form our eclectic pack of amateur nomads.

Leading the helm was our lovely quietly spoken native nomad Oyuna, who, before we even got on the bus to leave Ulaanbaatar, informed us of an important Mongol concept: a little thing called Mongolian time. Essentially there is no definitive time in Mongolia, and approximate figures will be very much that, just an approximate. There’s no clocks in the countryside as people work within the realms of the sky, when it’s light they work, and when it’s dark they sleep. Alex decided I must have been a Mongol in a previous life.

Alex looking like a superhero with his pet vulture at an animal handling pit stop. Photo: Alex Smith
Me hoping the eagle wouldn’t claw my face off. Photo: Alex Smith

Several hours into the bus ride we parked at the entry to Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, and prepared ourselves for the ox cart ride to take us across the river. Sarah, Jillian and I needed to go to the toilet so we made our way to this ramshackle wooden contraption that we were informed was the toilet. Jillian wandered in then promptly out again, I poked my head in and then straight back out, but Sarah said the need was too great. Our toilet warrior handed me her bag, adjusted her face to a grimace and made her way in. As soon as she was in the faeces zone she let out an anguished yelp, which made Jillian start to run down the hill. It appeared Jillian must have thought the toilet had come alive in all its grossness to claim Sarah. If this were true, there would have been no survivors.

Eagle with shrine in the background. Photo: Alex Smith

The group was divided between two ox carts and we set off across the river. Well, one group did successfully. Our group made it halfway across and our ox decided we could all go cram it with walnuts, and refused to move. I understood. I’d feel the same way if I was pulling six big Western tourists and had a ring through my nose, which was being tugged. I’d get up on my hind legs and put my hand on my ox hip, and deliver some ‘tude, whilst waggling my hoof. However, the other ox cart made it’s way back to rescue us (from the 30cm high water, might I add), and we arrived safely on the other side of the river, ready for our adventure to really begin.

#oxlife… no wonder they occasionally crack it! Photo: Alex Smith

For part 2 click here

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