Over the course of 24 hours, I twice mentioned my story of galloping across the Mongolian plains by moonlight. The first time was during a ‘what really cool stuff have you done?’ conversation and the second was during a ‘what was one of your scariest moments?’ conversation.
I could not ignore the juxtaposition.
I think I Khan. I think I Khan.
In high school, I did a report on Genghis Khan and became fascinated with a country that–armed with horses, bows, and bloodlust–managed to acquire the largest land empire the world has ever (or likely will ever) know.
That’s just badass.
Five years later (1997), while living in Japan, I remember thinking one day about the tenacity of the Mongolians (I mean, who doesn’t think, in passing, of Mongolian doggedness?) and I thought, ‘I should go to Mongolia.’ I then immediately thought, ‘I can go to Mongolia!’
Flights into Ulan Bator, expensive. Flights into Beijing, cheap. Trains to Mongolia (the Trans-Siberian to be specific), also cheap. Flight into Beijing, get visas, get train tickets, and get on the train. Easy enough.
One of my train-compartment companions was a French banker living in Hong Kong. He told me in near-flawless English he was ‘forced’ into a trip to Mongolia by his ex-wife who told him to go to Ulan Bator while their daughter Aurelee traveled around the country. We spoke of many other topics*. Conversation ebbed and I started reading.
*Like: what does a french banker in Hong Kong do in Mongolia? Answer: Get treated like a king by diplomats, local bankers, and other important dignitaries eager to have money flow into Mongolia.
After a few hours, I heard someone say, in French, ‘Hello papa’ from the door to our compartment.
I looked up and saw one of the most beautiful, non-famous women I’d ever seen in person. It was, of course, Aurelee.
She proceeded to sit down and talk with me and her father. She made fun of me for not being able to better understand my other cabin mate, a Japanese fellow. She asked me how I could go to Mongolia and not ride horses. She told me we should go find horses to ride together.
I immediately and completely agreed.
Before enlisting me, she’d enlisted a Dutch nurse (an extremely cool guy but, then again, I’ve never met an uncool Dane) to join her horse-riding adventure. I’m sure she used the same set of ethereal eyes to cajole him.
As we disembarked in Ulan Bator the following morning, I saw an Italian couple I’d met in Beijing. I pitched the ‘let’s go find some horses’ idea to them and they were most amenable. Together–French, American, Italian, and Danish–we formed what I affectionately started calling ‘The UN Committee’.
Steppe Learning Curve
By the afternoon of our first day in Mongolia, I made four observations:
1) Mongolia is indescribably beautiful and empty. The 4+ hour jeep ride west from Ulan Bator drove that point home: rolling hills, horizons literally as far as the eye can see, herds of horses in the distance, and seas of sheep surrounding our jeep (shepherds use the dirt roads/trails as well).
2) It took me under 10 hours to go from train to jeep to sitting on a horse. Talk about the power of transportation.
3) While I could claim experience riding horses, those experiences were with docile, old, ‘out-to-pasture’ critters on farms and in parks when I was quite young. This was totally different; these were working animals
4) Beautiful eyes make me do crazy shit.
The UN Committee was all mounted and our guide, Auk (totally guessing on the spelling here… pronounced like ‘ACK!’), was ready to take us out for a late-afternoon ride. We rode at a comfortable pace for a few hours, visited his sister-in-law, drank fermented mare’s milk (a surprisingly delicious mildly fizzy, lemony dairy drink), sat under our horses’ heads/necks as a rain storm blew by (you can see weather coming for miles), and took plenty of pictures.
The sun was setting and, even though we could see the camp several miles away (you can see anything several miles away), Auk suddenly had a clear sense of purpose: we needed to get back before it got too dark. He was clearly starting to worry about the horses hitting potholes or other obstructions in the waning light and therefore began to build a sense of urgency to our ride.
There were, however, a few minor issues.
- None of us were terribly adept riders. Well, Aurelee was an experienced rider… no surprise there. This didn’t seem to bother Auk though.
- My horse in particular was not pleased with the ‘size of his load’. Even though he was the biggest horse in the camp, Mongolian horses are smaller than usual (never tell a Mongolian that) and he was earning his oats carrying a big dude around for the day. As a result, he tended to linger. I’d affectionately named him Goober after he drooled green, chlorophylly slime all over my shoulder whilst I sat under his head, my back against his chest and forearms, weathering the storm. The name Goober seemed to fit both his propensity to slobber and the speed at which he approached life.
We set off at a trot and it quickly became very clear that a trot was not fast enough for Auk. The other horses picked up on this and started to trot fast… but not gallop. Cantor-ish speed I guess.
Goober, on the other hand, decided that I was far too big to carry quickly and continued on at full mosey.
Auk had an answer.
He galloped up behind me and slapped Goober on the ass with a leather riding crop. Let me be clear about something here: Auk gave me no warning that he was going to do this.
Goober, clearly inspired by his whipping, took off at a full gallop.
It is worth reminding you here of my disclaimer: I’d been on horses but, well, that’s about it. I’d never been on a horse running as fast as possible with a whip-cracking Mongolian on its tail. Fortunately, I’ve seen people galloping on film and television so I guessed at what to do: lay down on the horse’s back, wrap my arms around its neck, grip with my legs until they burned, and hold on for dear life*.
*I use that expression with a very clear understanding of exactly what it means.
The horse galloped as I looked through his mane for obstacles that might trip Goober up. I prayed he was doing the same. At one point, I noticed the largest full moon I’d ever seen in my life cresting the horizon to my right. It was huge and orange with the craters and seas clearly visible. I remember thinking: This is fucking cool. I hope I don’t die.
Auk returned every minute or so to smack Goober on the ass and keep up his breakneck speed*. I heard laughing (was I laughing too?). I heard pounding hooves. I heard the heavy breathing of the horses. I saw the gigantic moon. Time slowed and sped up at the same time. There was little daylight left. I thought about how far it was to Ulan Bator–and therefore the nearest hospital.
*Yet another term that means a lot to me.
Soon, Goober no longer needed the whipping to run at full speed. He started to associate the sound of Auk riding up on us with the knowledge that he was about to get smacked on the ass. His ears would flatten and I could feel a pausing tension shudder through his body… and then he somehow managed to speed up.
Yet I was still alive.
We came thundering into camp like a band of scouts announcing a coming army. The horses, recognizing home, slowed down and stopped, which just about sent several of us over the front of our horses. My legs were so sore and tense that I couldn’t dismount without falling down. I kind of slid off my saddle and hit the ground with a satisfying thud.
Auk and the other Mongolians in the camp thought this hilarious.
As I managed to get up on my hands and knees, Auk came over and slapped me hard on the back; I had a lot of sympathy for Goober at that moment. He slapped Goober on the ass and laughed. He had a very infectious laugh. I managed to get up and give Goober a hug. He was as sweaty as me in a North Carolina summer. I didn’t know horses could sweat that hard. I was just as sweaty. Racing death will do that to you I guess.
Maybe I should say Goober was as sweaty as me–scared-shitless and flirting with catastrophe–after galloping across the Mongolian plains by the light of the rising moon.
I thanked him for not killing me. I looked over at the rapidly ascending moon, still huge but now a milky silver. I laughed.
That night, over vodka by the fire, the UN Committee told me how it all looked from their perspective: Auk riding wide circles around us laughing hysterically , Goober quivering with tension and then seeming to literally shoot across the steppes, his hooves barely touching the ground, the rest of the Committee riding at a continually receding distance, laughing as they watched the big american cling to his horse like a rag doll.
No. Really. After some vodka and a meal, I too could laugh and concede that it was all much cooler than it was terrifying, I think, because I was alive.
It was good to be alive. It was good to scare the shit out of myself.