I am hanging on for dear life hurtling across the vast Mongolian Steppe in the back seat of an aging Soviet Jeep. I have journeyed to this mysterious country in search of its legendary horse culture and to experience the inhabitants nomadic lifestyle.
Four days continuous driving away from the capital, Ulaan Bator, and we are well and truly off the beaten path. As dusk we draw up to a cluster of four white Gers - circular tented structures and home to the Mongolian nomad. Our driver, Baga Toirun cuts the engine and we descend the jeep. Toirun is warmly greeted and with familiarity by the camps residents and we are all soon ushered into one of the Ger. Entering through a small vibrantly painted wooden doorway the space inside is surprisingly open and airy. Solid wooden furnishing, also brightly painted, are placed around the perimeter. At the center, a large cauldron simmers on a pot belly stove.
Bowls of steaming stew appear, apparently we have arrived just in time for supper. I receive a bowl of hot milky broth, plain flat noodles and chunks of a gristly meat. Main course is followed by a communal bowl of arcarac - fermented mares milk.
Further into the night I am intrigued when a TV set extracted from a wooden chest. Most Gers are connected to electricity, in the form a solar powered banks of batteries. It provides families with just enough energy to power a single light bulb, mobile phone charging and the occasional use of radio, TV or computers. As the screen comes to life it appears to be a show about archery and not, thankfully, the latest installment of Eastenders.
The next morning I wake to a truly spectacular sight. Hundreds of horses descend from the surrounding hills and stamped across the valley floor, thundering past our camp, pulling up dramatically at the rivers edge. The livelihood of this particular camp revolves around an enormous heard of horses. Stocky and short legged they are bred for stamina and survival. Some will be trained as general riding horses, the fastest will be kept for running in the countries notorious endurance races. Mares will be milked and this milk will in turn will be used to produce cheese A rock hard cheese which will sustain the family through the long winter. Other horses will be butchered for their meat. Horse meat stew is the staple diet for this community. Above all else the horse is worshiped. Each Ger I visited within the camp had a shrine to the horse, small alters, candles, photographs of horses, trophies too.
The four days living beside and with this small remote community have given me a rare glimpse into another world entirely. Observing the horses and dazzling displays of horsemanship, helping and sharing in the preparation and eating of meals, entertaining the children. I am in danger of developing a heavily romanticized view of this nomadic lifestyle. The reality is that winter will soon be approaching, temperatures will plunge to -30 degrees, the diet will be monotonous and it will be a struggle for man and beast to simply survive.
The time for departure is all too quickly upon us and I am reluctant to leave. I bid my hosts an emotional farewell.