A Ship Is Safe In Harbour But That’s Not What Ships Are Built For

“A ship is safe in Harbour but that’s not what ships are built for.”

Attributed to Various People

The Mongolian Long Ride

This is the last blog entry for a few months.  We aim to be writing again by November.  On Friday 28th June Tim and I set off on our Mongolian long ride.  On Sunday 30th June we celebrate 11 years together.  

The long ride starts in the Төв Аймаг, moving through Булган, Зaвхан, Хөвсгөл, увс and finishing in Баян-Өнгий Аймаг.  We aim to cover around 1, 500 miles and to conduct research into the prevalence of Laminitis and Equine Colic.

We are both feeling excitement and apprehension at the journey ahead of us.

Our published route is only an outline of our trip.  We do not know until we get to places whether we can proceed as planned.  For example, there has been talk on the local radio of a drought in parts of the Bulgan Airmag (Булган Аймаг) so we need to chat to Mongolians about our route and amend it accordingly plus the rivers may be too high meaning we have to detour to be able to cross them and so on.

Once we reach Bayan-Olgii Aimag (Баян-Өнгий Аймаг) we hope to sell our horses/find a good home for them (and deal with the inevitable heart break), secure a ride back to Ulaanbaatar, send our kit home and then fly to Thailand to rest and write up our research.

We met with John Williamson http://www.zavkhan.co.uk/about_us/page/10 on Sunday afternoon for a beer and chat.  John rode in Mongolia back in 2000 and has been a great help answering our questions.  He is out here running guided trips in Zavkhan (Зaвхан).  One of his customers was with him and commented to Tim and I that after this trip we would feel so flat.

We both smiled as we think we will feel relief.  Relief that we can do something else after seven years of only thinking about this.  Some of the things on hold are mountaineering in the Alps, walking/wild camping across the Scottish Highlands, walking the length of the UK and studying horse training techniques the Parelli way http://www.parellinaturalhorsetraining.com/.

Flat? Maybe.  Bored?  Never.


Customs Cleared

On Monday afternoon our kit arrived at our apartment via DHL.

In Mongolia DHL have a Customs Liaison Office that sit together with Mongolian Customs.  This ensures packages get through with the minimum amount of fuss.  We were advised to declare only our saddles as the custom’s tax would be very high if we declared everything – around 1, 000, 000 tugruk.

A DHL representative spent a few hours running between four counters getting us to fill in various forms before we were presented with a pink post-it note with four numbers on it.

The first number was the tax we had to pay.  We asked about the other three and were told with a shrug “You just have to pay these.”  They were small amounts, around 4000 tugruk, so we did not see the point in arguing.

We were directed out of the Customs/DHL office to the Miat building a few hundred metres away and told to go the Golomt Bank on the first floor.  At the bank we paid our fees, received four receipts and walked back to the Customs/DHL office.

A few more visits to three more counters and the DHL representative had smoothed the way for our boxes to be released.  Result!

The previous day we had visited the Black Market, also known Naran Tuul to buy our bridles (xазаар), bits (aмгайвч ) reins (жолоо), stirrup irons (дөрөө) and some extra hobbles (чөдөр).  We were really pleased to see that some of the selection of bits were made with copper and this is what we went with.  Tim also brought a pair of Mongolian riding boots.

The bridles are made of rawhide and soaked in тараг (pronounced “tarag”, meaning yogurt). Why?  We don’t know.  One issue with rawhide is that it can crack and break when it gets wet so we may have to switch to homemade rope bridles during our ride.

Customs – Hurdle Number Two

We are hoping to leave the city on Friday 28th June.  We plan to spend a few days with Densmaa and Badrakh deciding on horses.  We met with Densmaa on Monday to discuss the next step and to negotiate the cost of four horses.


Our kit is in the country – yipee.  Our kit is stuck at customs – Oh no.

I think we all know what’s coming next.  We have had to supply some paperwork; Tim’s passport, a passport copy and an inventory (even though there’s one on the outside of each box, inside of each box & with the courier) and of course it would not be right if we did not have to withdraw lots of money from the ATM.  So far the ‘customs tax’ is around 800,000 tugrik.  When I called the company Wednesday morning it was 630,000 but by the time we walked to DHL in the centre, three hours later, inflation had increased.  We have to visit the out of town DHL office to fill out some forms.  The good part is this is where we predicted the first hurdle to be.  We’ve worked hard to get here, to spend all this money and supply this stack of paperwork.


The Spanish have mañana, the Mongolian’s маргааш (pronounced Margaash).  It means tomorrow and rather than signify laziness it really signifies that Mongolians like to take things slowly.  Another word we find oursleves using a lot is байх (pronounced bekh).  As with most Mongolian words it has a large number of meanings but one can add it to the end of a sentence to signify uncertainty.  We find ourselves doping this a great deal when Mongolians ask about our trip.

The city is warm, with a cooling breeze most days and we have had a couple of storms that brought needed rain.  There is a lot of pollen in the air that comes off trees.  The pollen gets everywhere – it looks similar to dandelion fluff.  We have been told by Mongolians that the city were meant to plant the trees in rows of one male, one female but planted rows of male trees instead.

While we wait for our kit we have been studying maps of the seven aimags we plan to ride through.  What has been of interest to us is the discovery of springs and wells in the areas without obvious water supplies.  The wells can be dry so one cannot be assured of finding water when one gets there.

The Long Rider’s Guild have put us in touch with Colonel John Blashford-Snell who is coming to Mongolia next month.  We hope to meet with him but our itineraries may not allow us.


No News Is…..Err Well No News

That’s right, it is now Wednesday 12th June and we are still without passports, visas and valid registration ID cards.  Our previous registration cards ran out on 1st June so for all we know we are illegal immigrants.

I would love to be able to update all on what exactly is happening but I do not know.  We received an email on Monday from Alta to say she had been busy last Friday so had not contacted immigration and that is all we have heard.

Our kit is still in the UK although we have paid for and ordered it to be flown out to us.  The flight is booked but no details have been received yet so if all goes wrong we may still be able to stop it coming.

Although our Mongolian language lessons have now finished we continue to study daily using a fantastic free online program called Anki.  It is great for flashcards and during our time here Tim has set up eight different flashcard sections for us.  http://ankisrs.net/

Hardest word so far? “Hybrid”.  The Mongolian word is

“олон төрлийн элэментээс тогтсо зүйл.”

уяач. Meeting With A Famous Race Horse Trainer

Friday came and went and we heard nothing to suggest we could go and collect our passports and ID cards from immigration.  We will continue to wait and we hope to hear on Monday.  Boring isn’t it?

Last Sunday Tim and I met with Badrakh and Densmaa, a married couple who run a ger camp 140km south of Ulaanbaatar (улаанбаатар) in Bayan-Önjüül (Баян-Өнжүүл) within the Central (TөB) Airmag.  Their camp is at Arburd Sands. This place is at the northern most tip of the Gobi and extends for 20km across the steppes.

Badrakh and Densmaa are locals and we were told they are related to one third of the entire nomadic population in the surrounding area.  What is of interest to us is that Badrakh’s family are keen horsemen.

Badrakh was a jockey at the age of five and spent three years in Japan working with race horses. His father was an excellent horseman by all accounts and has passed his skills and passion onto Badrakh.

The links below are to a book written by a Swedish photographer exploring what connects people to horses in different societies around the world.  It was penned ten years ago and features Badrakh and his father.  We have read the book and thought it well written and illustrated with some wonderful photographs.


Badrakh agreed to teach us the Mongolian way of travelling with horses and we set off with him, his wife Densmaa and one of his brothers (Badrakh has twelve bothers and sisters and Densmaa is one of eight children!) to their camp Tuesday morning.

The three hour drive was lovely.  The city gives way to rolling hills and mountain ranges, with large families of horses just a short distance from the road.  We saw sheep and goats in herds of 50 plus as well as groups of horses exceeding 40 in size.

We followed the tarmac road until we had to turn right onto a dirt track. Badrakh is a great driver and because we were in a Land Cruiser the bumps and dips of the road were smoother than if we had been travelling on a Russian mini bus.

After an hour and a half on the dirt track the ger camp came into view.  In front of us were thirteen gers that varied in size nestled in a dip.  On one side was steppe and the other sand dunes.  There were large herds of sheep (хонь) and goats (ямаа) in the distance.

We stayed until Thursday evening when we returned with Densmaa and Badrakh to Ulaanbaatar.  Their camp is spotless and even has a shower ger.  There is a covered toilet, called a жорлон, pronounced Jawlong.  This has a western toilet facade rather than the normal hole in the floor that one squats over and is the fanciest жорлон either of us have ever and probably will ever see!

The camp has a large kitchen ger and a new dining room ger that was being set up when we arrived.  The camp’s power is supplied by a number of solar panels dotted around the place and on Thursday a wind turbine was erected that will supply the kitchen/dining gers with 400 watts of electricity.

On Wednesday we were driven over the steppe to Batbayar’s ger, one of Badrakh’s older brothers.  We were shown into the ger and left with Batbayar’s wife while two horses were saddled up.  His wife was nervous to have two foreigners in her house but we were able to chat a little with her to diffuse any uncomfortableness.  She understood everything we said, unfortunately we couldn’t understand her!   Their ger was small, with two beds on opposing sides, a mini twin-tub washing machine stood to the left of the door and at the back was a Malchin fridge.  Malchin (малчин) is Mongolian for herder and this fridge was designed to run on 12v; a car battery and that’s exactly what they’d hooked it up to. http://www.malchingroup.mn/.

We were given two bowls of milk to drink and then ushered out to the waiting horses.  One of Badrakh’s younger brothers was going to show us around and assess our riding ability.  The three of us set off with Tim on a chestnut who was around seven years old and me on a grey/dun with a dorsal stripe along it’s back around ten years old.  Both were geldings.

We had a fantastic couple of hours, herding horses, which caused some fun and games when we turned our riding horses away from their family group!  We herded around 1000 sheep and goats to a spring and walked, trotted and cantered to prove to Badrakh’s brother we could ride.  It paid off and later that day and all of the next day we were given free rein (no pun intended – OK maybe a little one) with the two horses.

Tim and I rode every morning until lunchtime, again after lunch and on Wednesday we had a beautiful sunset ride to the north of camp on a mission to find a well.  We didn’t succeed that night but only because I had misunderstood Denmaa’s directions.

In Mongolian left is Zoon (зүүн ) and right is Baroon (баруун). To tell a driver to turn right you add the word for hand after баруун, same for left.  When in the countryside the word for left becomes east and right becomes west and one normally adds the word талд (no idea what it means) or just say left or right. The words for north and south are harder as they can also mean behind or in front of a ger and north and south have different words although one will sometimes get understood.

We found the well Thursday morning, Tim brought water up and filled the adjoining trough for the horses to drink from.  We were were told to loop the lead rope around the horses necks, take the bridle off, remove the bit from their mouths, reattach the bridle and let them drink.  Mongolians can do this quicker than I can explain it.  We cannot.  This left us in the uncomfortable situation of having two horses drinking without a bridle on and just a loop of rawhide around their necks.  If they had of spooked, highly likely, we would have lost them and our credibility.  The horses were distracted whilst drinking and we were able to get their bridles back on just before a motorbike came tearing up the road with two Mongolians on it.

The horses both shied and then stared intensely at the Mongolian man and woman who came over to the well.  We exchanged pleasantries and then they showed us how to use the well properly – we had done it all wrong apparently. The guy then insisted on taking control of my horse and tightening the girth.

The girth on the saddle I had was rubbish and very difficult to re-buckle.  The Mongolian man discovered this by accidentally pinging the buckle against my horse’s stomach which in turn freaked the horse out.  I grabbed hold of the horse and soothed him, stocking his neck and saying “зүгээр, зүгээр” a word that has a vast number of meanings one being to become OK.  The Mongolian man was spooked himself by my horse’s nervous disposition and initially didn’t understand that he was the cause of it.  After a few tries with the girth he looked up at what I was doing and awkwardly patted the horse’s neck.

His wife was laughing and telling her husband to leave us alone as I kept telling this man that I didn’t need his help and I was fine but he insisted on taking over.  After Tim and I remounted, we were asked if we wanted to come and see his livestock (I can assure you this is not Mongolian for “Would you like to see my etchings?”)  We politely declined and he shot off on his motorbike and began herding a couple of thousand sheep/goats towards the well.

Tim and I were able to ride among the sand dunes, follow a flock of camels, although I was too scared (sensible) to get very close to them and we were shown how to hobble and ground tether our horses.

We had an amazing three days with Badrakh and Densmaa.  They are charming, knowledgeable people who spent a few hours sitting down with us going over our planned route and helping us make adjustments.  They have offered us help at our destination and along the way if we require it.  They told us the word for well and how to ask for a ferry across a deep river.  We have had loads of Mongolian language practise and even managed a long conversation with a driver who spoke no English who was dropping off an American tourist.

During our time with them we were fed three meals a day, each at least two courses and catered to western tastes.  Their camp is not an inexpensive option but we would recommend a couple of nights with them.  Below are links to two companies that deal with them.


To finish this entry I want to write about Mongolians and mobile phones.  I sent an email to a friend moaning about a Mongolian not getting back to me with some information I was waiting on.  The friend replied that maybe Mongolians don’t have the same understanding of mobiles as we do in the west.  In Ulaanbaatar no-one has a postal address so all bills are sent to their mobiles and in the countryside all the gers we visited had a number of mobiles, normally old Nokia’s due to better reception, wedged in the wooden slates of the ger’s roof.  Most Mongolians, like most westerners have a mobile phone and most young people here spend their time staring into the phone’s screen, even when they are behind a counter in a shop.  I think it’s fair to say they understand mobile phones!