Sarah Cornellier getting in a gallop on Mandal Mountain. © Stan Pengelly

The poor foreigner,’ he said, ‘has been acquainted with our grasslands but for four short days.’

‘We must pity him,’ said the old man with feeling.

‘How hard it must be,’ commented the woman, ‘not to be born a Mongolian.’

‘To be sure,’ said the old man, ‘the fellow is most unfortunate. But how blessed he is to have found his way to us!” ― Fritz Mühlenweg, from the film, The Cave of the Yellow Dog.

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Riding at the edge of the forest with wildflowers in full bloom

Blessed indeed.  I found my way to Mongolia five years ago, this year, 2016, will be my sixth summer returning.  I remember my first trip to Mongolia, after about a week of being there when I was sitting on a log nestled in the willow trees by the river and I knew it in my bones that I’d be back, that I’d found a place so special, so magical that I’d return.
Right around Valentine’s Day in 2011 I booked my first horseback riding vacation to Mongolia, signing up for National Geographic Adventure’s Mongolian Horse Trek.  It would be a two week trip, starting and ending in Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia’s capital.  The first day was spent in the capital visiting a museum and a monastery which was lovely.  After the long flights to get to Mongolia it felt good to be on my feet walking for the day.  Prior to the trip I hadn’t given much thought to Mongolia’s history or religion, all I had wanted to do was ride.  I certainly knew of Chinngis Khan but on this day I learned so much more of Mongolia’s rich and fascinating history.  Interesting?  Absolutely.  But get me to the horses.  The second day we left the city for Kharakhorin, the ancient capital of Mongolia, to visit Erdene Zuu, a Buddhist monastery.  I appreciated these two days more than I thought I would as they added to the big picture of Mongolia that would develop over the next couple of weeks.
In the late afternoon of the third day we arrived at Lapis Sky camp in the Arkhangai provence of Mongolia, east of Ulaan Baatar.  Our bus drove up to a little saddle between mountain tops and stopped.  We were told we were just about to camp and our guides suggested we walk down the other side of the saddle to the camp to stretch our legs.  Excellent idea.  As we crested the saddle and looked down at the valley below we were all completely captivated.  The crooked and narrow valley below with the river running thru the middle, lined with willows and cottonwood trees, was unbelievably beautiful.  I already wanted to stay much longer than scheduled.

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A rest stop for horses and riders during the horse trek

The next week and half flew by, everyday was filled with something new and wonderful.  We visited nomadic families in their homes, we enjoyed a concert put on by local school children who sang and played traditional Mongolian music, we were visited by a shaman, we took photography lessons from our guide Thomas Kelly, a professional photographer, in the mornings we took yoga classes from our other guide, Carroll Dunham, we went to Naadam which is an athletic event with wrestling and horse races where children are the riders, we hiked, we fly fished…and of course we rode.
Everyday while in the countryside we rode, usually once before lunch and again after lunch.  We rode on horseback thru forests, to mountain tops with spectacular views, we crossed rivers and rode thru meadows filled with wildflowers.  We rode in a herd, the guides, the translators, the guests and six local horseman (whose horses we were riding), a large group of around twenty-five people.  We would naturally get strung out as some folks wanted to take it slow to absorb their surroundings and others would want to, as Carroll says, get their ya-yas out by going a little faster.

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Looking down into the Bunkhan Valley at Lapis Sky camp

At Lapis Sky camp our rooms were gers, the typical, round nomadic dwellings constructed of wood, wool and canvas. They were simply furnished in traditionally painted Mongolian furniture and I found mine to be cozy and comfortable and perfect.

In the center of each ger was a fireplace which was greatly appreciated since we were living completely off the grid.  No electricity.  The staff would make fires for us in the mornings before breakfast and in the evening during dinner but sometimes I would do it myself, I appreciated the chance to reacquaint myself with building a fire and keeping it going.  The nights were chilly, the temperature would dip into the low 40’s and once even into the 30’s, but tucked into my down sleeping bag I was very comfortable.

We were able to keep our cameras and other various electronics charged as Thomas had a charging station set up using solar panels.  There also was no running water (which meant we had to use outhouses) but with the camp being set up next to a river we were never short on water.  In the forest was the shower, a ger with a hand-laid rock floor and a fireplace which kept the ger toasty warm and heated up the water which was put in shower bags and hung from the ceiling to use for washing up.

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Mongolian horse trek

After a couple of days at Lapis Sky camp it was time for our horse trek.  We packed our bags and put them in the jeeps that transported them for us, said good bye to our gers, the next three nights we would be sleeping in tents. We mounted our horses and headed out.  In the next four days we would ride a round trip of over forty miles, taking one full day to enjoy the beautiful location at Mandal Mountain, a sacred mountain in Mongolia.

The day at Mandal Mountain was spent hiking to the top after breakfast and participating in a wonderfully touching and beautiful ceremony at the top led by Carroll.  After lunch there was free time to rest, relax, go fishing or ride.  This particular spot was perfect for getting in a great gallop and after a few days of getting familiar with my horse that’s exactly what I did.  The last day of the horse trek, the return to Lapis Sky camp, was our thunder hoof day.  That day we rode the full 20 miles home, riding thru a canyon, over a mountain, down thru a forest and out thru a valley.  The horses were headed home and they knew it.  The day was glorious, filled with energy and spirit and lots of running.
I grew up outside of Washington D.C. riding in an arena.  I was fortunate enough to have a fabulous teacher who gave me an excellent foundation in horsemanship and riding.  I moved to Montana for University and it was there I began trail riding in the mountains.  But galloping in the countryside of Mongolia was an exhilaration I had not previously experienced.  I had certainly ridden in gorgeous places but there was something extra in Mongolia, something primal, something wild, something free.

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Ankhaa and me, our camp’s wonderful neighbor and the provider of the delicious yak yogurt we have for breakfast every morning

I also fell in love with the locals.  The Mongol nomads tend to be a quiet people but they are some of the warmest and most generous people I have ever come across in all my travels.  They are proud but not arrogant.  I found sitting in their homes and talking while drinking and eating some of their traditional drinks and foods to be so comfortable and comforting.
At the end of our tour I was heartbroken to be leaving.  I had fallen so deeply in love with Mongolia – it’s land, it’s people and culture and it’s horses.  I remained in contact with Thomas and Carroll after the tour ended and I managed to talk them into letting me return to help out for all of the next summer tours.  I suppose they found me useful as I have been returning to work every summer since.

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This is a guest post by Sarah Cornellier a guide with National Geographic Expeditions in Mongolia. All photography courtesy of Sarah Cornellier except the top photo which is of the author, taken by Stan Pengelly.