Going native in Mongolia

A horseback journey across the Mongolian steppes becomes an odyssey through time.


Julie Vallone
October 19, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

"Chinggis! Chinggis!"

The cry intrigues the Yellowheads, who shift their heads to watch the Mongolian horseman tear up the mountain on his short but scrappy steed. His arm, extended, cuts through the air with a long wooden spear.

It's a Shirley MacLaine moment. "Looks like we have the warrior king himself here," I whisper to Tina, my fellow Yellowhead -- as our Mongolian guides have dubbed us Caucasian tourists. Tina concurs. It's the 13th century, and we are in Khan's army, braced at the edge of world domination.

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"Chinggis!" Tseye bellows once more, until his cries dissolve into raucous laughter. He slows his pony -- uh, horse -- to a feisty trot. (Mongolian horses usually stand less than 58 inches high at the withers, so they're technically ponies. Calling them ponies, however, is a dangerous breach of etiquette and may incite their proud owners to admonish -- or even beat the hell out of -- you. After all, they may be vertically challenged, but their equine ancestors did conquer the known world.)

Tseye trots back toward a second wrangler, Janchiv, who sports his traditional robe, called a del, accessorized with a fedora and a perpetual cigarette butt dangling from his lips. Khan meets Sinatra.

Tseye hands Janchiv the spear, which we see at closer range is not a spear at all, but the well-known uurga, a herding pole with a goatskin lasso at its end. Janchiv usually carries this pole, an observation that has inspired the Yellowheads to nickname him Uurga Man. We've grown highly attuned to his penchant for coming up behind us and tapping our horses on the rump, sending them flying forward with unsuspecting riders holding on for dear life.

We're on Day 3 of our week-long horseback riding trek across the steppe, and we've already been lulled into timelessness by the khokh tenger, Mongolia's endless blue sky. Unlike Ulan Bator, Mongolia's burgeoning capital, where crossing the street is a big game of chicken, time has not had its way with the yurt-dotted landscape of the Arkhangai province. Here, a pristine, wide-open countryside and an ancient nomadic lifestyle have for the most part remained intact for millennia. Not a modem for miles.

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We notice a group of teenage Mongolian riders dressed in ornate dels and pointy hats descending the mountain opposite us. They're gorgeous boys with round faces, high cheekbones and stunning light brown eyes. Tseye trots over to me and points in their direction. "Moir uraldakh." Horse racing. They're headed to the county seat to partake in one of Mongolia's favorite spectator sports.

I nod, thanking Tseye for the tip. He returns my appreciation with a seductive wink. "Goi." The word seems to have evaded my phrase books, but Tseye's ogle provides a hint. I review the vital stats of my pony-perched Casanova -- married with four kids, comes up to my chin, kills marmots for fun -- and reply with my most benign, perhaps-in-another-lifetime smile.

Tseye snickers, clears his throat and trots off, his powerful pipes soon emitting a Mongolian folk song that echoes through the distant hills. Like many native songs honoring the landscape, this one pays tribute to Bogd Mountain, which lies just outside of Ulan Bator. The mountain is one of the country's first protected areas due to a bit of early environmental intervention by a 10th century king who forbade cutting trees or killing animals there. It's one of the marmot hunter's favorite numbers.

At the conclusion of his rousing performance, Tseye twists his lips and elicits an eerie, tonal vibration, something you might expect from a large, pissed-off, mutant fly. Throat singing. We don't know what it is, how it's done or when the tentacle is going to come flying out of Tseye's mouth, but we're impressed.

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Tseye notes our admiration, beams and breaks his horse into a canter. "Tchoo! Tchoo!" he shouts, bidding his horse to accelerate. "Chew! Chew!" cry the Yellowheads in pitiful attempts to mimic the command. "Oh God, here we go again," says Tina, voice tinged with fear as our horses surge into a lightning-fast trot, herd mentality overtaking any concern for their riders' wishes.

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The herd mind-set doesn't stop at the horses. The psychological void left by the lack of blaring cell phones, deadline-delaying downloads, Lewinsky-watch and Frogurt has been filled to the brim by the subtle mental conditioning of our wrangler guides. In a country with 28.5 million head of livestock, the Yellowheads -- most considered fairly independent on the other side of the planet -- have begun to accept, and even embrace, the herd instinct. We follow the leader; we eat when and what we are fed; we ask permission to pee.

Beth and Angela, our D.C. contingent, make just this request when we reach the top of the mountain. As Uurga Man slows the herd to a stop, we all dismount to stretch our legs; the two women head for the woods, desperately clutching a roll of toilet paper.

I negotiate my way through the herd to find Rick. Having ridden only twice in his life before this trip, and with a stomach still back flipping over last night's questionable repast of boiled mutton pies, my companion is holding up remarkably well.

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"My butt hurts."

"You're sitting too far back in the saddle," I conclude, brutally
unsympathetic. I scratch the muzzle of his horse, Rilke. Mongolians think of their horses as transportation, and don't name them. The Yellowheads -- whether attempting to characterize a familiar equine demeanor or jumping at thenchance to control a creature symbolically -- have taken on the task.

Tseye has disappeared, probably off hunting squirrels or hitting on Beth and Angela. When his head finally pops up in the distance, he and the other wranglers motion to us. "Boroo!!!" Rain coming. Move out.

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I pull my horse, Fabio, away from the mare he's nuzzling and step up in the stirrup. Thud! I feel the impact of something hard. Thud! Thud! Two horizontal hooves kick to my right. They belong to Tina's horse, Lollipop, who is giving Fabio a licking.

I suddenly find myself attached by one leg to a bucking, thrashing fiend who ultimately propels me through the air into a poetic swan dive onto the steppe. As I lie supine on the grass staring up at the khokh tenger, my brain swims with the memory of a pre-trek lecture on horsemanship delivered by our German guide and riding expert, Christoph Schork: "Your horse knows what you are thinking," he is saying in his thick, sexy accent. "If you are afraid, they'll have their way with you. If you know you're in control, they'll obey. Once they get to know you, they'll even respond to thoughts you don't know you have." Reviewing my thoughts of the past 15 minutes, I reject blame for the incident in question; psychological control is irrelevant when you're standing in one stirrup and your horse is being kicked in the ribs.

The morning's tumult fades into a serene afternoon as we traverse the steppe through fields of edelweiss, rhododendrons and blue thistle. At 4 p.m., our Yellowhead leader, Ed, breaks the momentum. The catalyst is a yellow, Gore-Tex jacket that has come loose from Ed's waist and crackled onto the rump of his horse, Buick. The result: pandemonium.

Buick rips through the grassy field, leaving in his wake a sea of bucking ponies and airborne riders. Determined not to augment
the pain from my previous plunge, my urban cowgirl kicks in, gluing me to my saddle.

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After a seeming endless bout of bucking, Fabio gradually cools down, blowing the phlegm from his nostrils. I glance back at the war zone. The dust is just beginning to clear, revealing four riders on the ground, including Rick, clutching his dislodged saddle pad with a vengeance.

Just before dusk, we ride into camp and find our Mongolian cook and crew waiting for us in a beat-up Russian Army truck. There's no river in sight, which means this is a bathing-free zone. Beth and Angela look despondent. I sense yet another thing crawling through my hair. There shall be no cuddling tonight.

Near the truck, two bare-chested wranglers wrestle on the grass, surrounded by hooting Mongolians and intrigued Yellowhead spectators. Gongor, our young Mongolian translator, peruses a wrinkled newspaper, the first I've seen in a week.

"Can I read that after you?" I ask.

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"If you want," he answers.

"How old is it anyway?"

"About a month."

One of the crew members breaks from the crowd, picks up a shovel, walks 200 feet to, as usual, a far-too-visible spot, and digs a hole. As he places a roll of paper beside it, feminine frustration surges. I can't pee on stage. The woods look inviting. Beth, Angela and their roll are already headed
in that direction.

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I return to find Marlene, the youngest of our group, slowly rubbing her hands over her face. "The goat's gone," she says, her eyes fixed on the truck. I nod, having foreseen the inevitably painful outcome of befriending the charming creature that accompanied the crew up until now. Especially for Marlene, a vegetarian. And especially for one whose petite frame has earned her the wrangler nickname "little kid goat."

"We bonded," she laments. "I'm gonna be sick."

Although the nausea is contagious, I decide to suck it up and investigate the fate of the goat. I should see this. I've watched footage of Mongols killing their livestock before. The 20-second procedure -- a quick thump between the horns to knock the animal out, a slit in the stomach and the squeezing off of blood from the vena cava -- is a far more humane way to provide food than some methods used back home to render the shrink-wrapped dinners on our grocery freezer shelves.

I consult with a wrangler, who directs me to a clearing in the woods. Taking a deep breath, I make my way back up the hill.

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It's worse than I suspected. The animal is already slain, its body hanging from a tree by the neck, from which the skin has been removed. Tseye plunges down into the torso with his knife, digs out the innards and puts them in a metal bowl. Gongor, who has beaten me to the scene, explains. "First they
scoop everything out. The liver, the stomach, the intestines, everything. Then they put it all back in with spices, potatoes, vegetables and hot rocks, and cook it in the skin. Nothing is wasted."

According to Gongor, Tseye is one of the few living individuals to have mastered this ancient cooking technique, once used by Khan's warriors in the absence of pots and pans. His moves are quick, systematic. Animal to animal. Predator to prey. My initial horror gives way to an unfamiliar respect as the goat's body islowered, beheaded and carried down to the fire pit for the evening's feast, a true Mongolian barbecue.

On the morning following a smoke-filled night of goat roasting, folk singing and vodka, we crawl out of our tents to begin our final pass. As Beth and Angela carefully apply lipstick and eyeliner, Christoph outlines the day's agenda. We'll ride to the ger (a word preferred by Mongols to the Russian term yurt) belonging to our wrangler, Tumennasan. There we'll be given a taste of Mongolian hospitality, the law of the steppe, but predicated on certain codes of conduct. Although we've visited other gers and have been carefully briefed on the intricacies of Mongolian manners, I'm anxious.

Etiquette isn't my forte.

Upon reaching our destination late that afternoon, we enter through the colorful door and, as instructed, move to the left of the circular felt tent, careful not to point our feet at the hearth or lean against the walls. With its collapsible wooden frame and relatively simple layer structure, a ger can be whipped together in a couple of hours, and taken down even faster, allowing Mongolia's nomadic families to move several times a year in search of better pasture land.

At the far side, two bureaus display a mosaic of family photos, horse racing and wrestling awards and medals. One of the latter reads "Honored Mother," commending a woman for giving birth to five children. It's a vestige of the Russian effort to increase the country's population during its 75-year rule, which ended in 1990.

The bureaus are flanked by two beds, one of them occupied by Tumennasan's mother. When not sucking the life out of her cigarette, the blind, withered matriarch is delivering orders to her son and daughter-in-law as the Yellowheads take their seats, and wide-eyed children swarm in and out of the ger.

Tumennasan's wife, Gnhtsetseg (I reluctantly give up on the pronunciation), approaches the group with a bowl of fermented mare's milk called airag. As instructed, I accept the offering with both hands, discreetly remove two bugs floating in it and feign a sip. (During previous ger visits, my body had rejected the offering; a counterfeit sip out of respect for our gracious hosts was in everyone's best interests.) Suddenly panicked, I appeal to Rick. "How do I hand it back?"

"Right hand," he replies, hardly moving his lips. I return the bowl to Gnhtsetseg. The airag is passed to Rick, who takes a long, healthy sip and receives an approving nod from Tumennasan and family. Kiss ass.

After drawing the last possible drag from her cigarette, the matriarch exchanges the butt for a set of Tibetan prayer beads, fingering them tenaciously as she recites her spiritual appeals. I wonder if we'll disappear.

Gnhtsetseg brings the next two delicacies: a plate with 10-inch strips of dried, rock-hard milk curd called aaruul, accompanied by a pasty butter-cream topping, orom. I botch the hand maneuver again, and try to break the strip with my right alone. As this proves impossible, I decide to take the whole strip, to the amusement of my hosts and others.

"Think ya got enough there?" Rick teases.

"Shut it," I reply. Even with two hands, I can't break it. A laser gun couldn't break it. I stick a corner of it in my mouth and try biting down. The teeth go nowhere. A survey of the room reveals a whole lot of gnawing going on; I decide to pocket my portion, to be deployed the next time I'm walking home late at night. "Back off, punk, I've got aaruul and I know how to use it."

Tumennasan fills a bowl with vodka and hands it to me. This is familiar territory, my big chance to redeem myself. I accept it correctly, slurp down the whole bowl -- it has the same horsey taste that pervades the rest of the food -- and return it with my right hand.

The wranglers approve, nodding as I subtly wipe the sweat from my brow. Tseye is poised on a bench near the door of the ger, humbly clearing his throat. Conversation ceases as cast-iron vocal cords pierce the air with a thunderous tone, resonating through the ger, and sending ripples through the vodka. The tone slips into an intoxicating concoction of notes and lyrics spinning together images of horses, mountains, family, loyalty and lost love.

The ode concludes with two breath-defying minutes of throat singing, followed by Tseye's signature close, "Cuckoo!"

Applause thunders through the ger and the vodka moves in Tseye's direction.

Marlene, a music critic by trade, leans toward me. "Guess he brought the ger down."

The clamor begins to subside as each of us realizes the meaning of our last supper. In two more days, we'll be back in Beijing, ducking traffic and gasping for oxygen.

Ed suggests one final charge across the plain before we relinquish the horses to the wranglers. Having waited all week to employ his video camera, he now sees his chance. Several Yellowheads are too drunk, tired or principled to ride again, leaving plenty of potential videographers to coerce.

I wobble out of the ger, searching for Fabio through my vodka haze. He eyes me in disbelief. I nod. "I know. I'm going down."

I mount nonetheless, for old time's sake, and follow the herd to one end of an adjacent field. There, the mounted Yellowheads have gathered to give Tina, our newly designated camerawoman, a panoramic backdrop.

"Here we go!" Ed shouts, breaking his horse into a gallop. "Chew! Chew!" The command echoes through the pack of inebriated equestrians -- "Chew! Chew! Chew!" -- who nearly trample Tina and the camera.

"Cut! Hey! Cut!"

The filming stops, but the charge continues across open field. The wranglers watch from outside the ger, rolling their eyes. Yellowheads. A few of us notice, but we don't care. We're too busy conquering the world.



Julie Vallone

Julie Vallone has written for the San Francisco Examiner, Investor's Business Daily and Rhode Island Magazine, among other publications. She is currently living, working and recovering from her riding bruises in Soquel, Calif.

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