Last weekend I took a ride out in the countryside to visit the very much hyped Winter Horse Festival – organised for the third year running by a local NGO, it aims to showcase the Mongolian herdsmen culture. Since a stallion picture taken last year during the very same festival was named one of the best animal photographs of 2016 by the Daily Telegraph, I just could not resist to test out my zoom lens in the field with hundreds of (semi)wild horses.
I decided to sign up to a tour organised by a local travel agency which guaranteed an overnight stay in a nearby village which would mean I could go there on Friday night instead of settling for an early morning Saturday ride. Given my experiences so far, I really did not know what to expect from this “tour”. It turned out to be a weekend full of adventures.
Friday Night and the Bus that wasn’t
It all started on Friday when I showed up at the indicated pick-up point 10 minutes early and proceeded to walk up and down a pretty seizable square to pinpoint my group and the bus that was supposed to take me to the village. After 30 minutes, I made a very wise decision to go down to the tour operator’s office and ask why there was no bus. The reception lady, who clearly had no idea what was going on, made a couple of calls and announced in an apologetic voice that the bus had left long ago and that I was late. I must have looked really exasperated at that point as she offered to fix me a ride with someone else going to the festival. I was going to travel an hour later (which turned out to be two hours later) but the driver did show up and, to my relief, could say a few words in English (even if only to apologise for his very bad English). On the way, apart from getting stuck in the infamous UB traffic (the nothing-really-moves-at-all kind), we made a detour to pick up some documents and other passengers. The 50 km drive took us good 2 hours. Once we gone past the city boundaries, everything turned pitch black; I couldn’t not see anything apart from the stars far above which resembled a shiny lace on the silky night sky – it was so strangely exhilarating.
When we arrived at the village, it turned out that we were going to stay overnight at a local school. It was actually pretty incredible because the school looked untouched by time since 1949. The wooden floors and the metal beds reminded me of post-war and Soviet movies. Our room had even a medicine cabinet with some outdated drugs. I got two meet two very cool German travellers who were staying in the same room. After asking them how they got to the school from UB, I could safely conclude that there was, in fact, no bus – my German friends got called up on their mobile at the time of the departure and taken up in a passenger car with a couple of Mongolian grandparents.
Falling asleep turned out to be easier said than done – our Mongolian neighbours decided to have the usual vodka party which involved a lot of shouting and screaming, and running up and down the school corridors. There were some other noises and loud banging which I could not quite identify until the next morning when I found one of the rooms without the front door.
Saturday and the Thousand Horses
If you want to travel in Mongolia, there is only one thing you need – infinite patience. No, that’s not true, you need two things – infinite patience and a big smile on your face. It really helps when you are surrounded by Mongolian grannies with big cameras and mobile phones, who want to take selfies with you at any opportunity. These grandmas were probably the most technologically-savvy 70-year olds I have ever met.
We ventured out to the festival (which was located precisely in the very middle of nowhere, and when I say nowhere, I really mean nowhere) in the morning and kept driving for what felt like an eternity but turned out to be only 1 hour and 20 minutes. This is how long it took us to plough through the snow and ice across the steppe, the entire 10 miles. These 10 miles felt like the most remote place on earth – there is only snow and ice out there, and miles of hills and mountains around you. I was truly impressed how good Mongolians are at navigating through the countryside without any signposts or navigable roads.
All these efforts were well-worth it once we got out of the car and saw the most beautiful horses, period. I will never forget their sight and how gracefully they moved around and galloped through the snowy fields.
Throughout the day, we managed to see the herdsmen tame the horses with Mongolian lassos, perform riding tricks and parade in their best traditional costumes. A member of parliament graced the festival with his presence as well as a number of singers and dancers performing horse-themed songs and dances. It was a true Mongolian festival – both in terms of the free nature of the events taking place and complete lack of following any kind of schedule. I just loved how at 4:23pm the Mongolian just all got up and told us – that’s it, we are done. Time to go home.