I had seen adverts for horseback riding before and they were a bit pricy but this was very affordable and Matt had rounded up a dozen expats to go along. The drivers from Steppe Riders picked us up in the city center about 9:30am (anything before 10am is considered "early" by "Mongolian time") and a van and car drove us the 25+ kilometers into the countryside in nearby Tuv province . I sat next to Ashley who had arrived after 1:00am after a delayed flight but was game to go riding after only a few hours sleep (Mongolia brings out the sense of adventure in some people). Some 45 minutes later we abandoned the paved roads and wound across the semi barren land with tufts of pale green grass alongside the dirt track.
Our destination was a ger camp nestled in the hills hidden from any view of the roads. They warmed us in a Ger with coffee and tea while we strapped on chaps and adjusted our helmets. Did I mention it never got above freezing on this bright sunny day? The horses were all saddled and tied to a long rope strung between poles. They offered two choices "slow horse or fast horse". I opted for a black and sturdy fast horse while Lisette went to find her favorite mount, a beautiful chestnut with kind of a golden mane. I was grateful for the leather saddle instead of the wooden one I had years ago. There was no saddle horn but at least a protrusion that I could hang on to. The Mongolians rode along side to spur on the horses of the newbie riders who preferred to graze and lick up snow instead of moving ahead. All of them did it at times. Elliott said that the week before had been a couple hours and just on the surrounding hills. We headed off over a hill and into a flat area where our mounts could do what Mongolian horses do best "run". For some three hours we trotted, cantered and broke into a full gallop again and again. The air was frigid but the land of the blue sky lived up to its name and the scene was glorious. Riders spread out to left and right and some like Matt fighting to keep from galloping off into the next province. What an experience.
Eventually we made our way back the Gers and dismounted for a lunch of hot soup and comparing stories. I knew many of the riders (from several countries) but met some new people as well. After lunch some gathered for a game of cards and a few of us less sane souls mounted up again to tour the nearby hills for a short outing. The horses were happy to climb to the hilltops but reluctant to go downhill so it was an interesting challenge. As I descended I saw Emily walking back to the camp. Seems the rope holding her saddle broke and she and the saddle parted company with the horse. Fortunately she rolled and came up bruised but intact. A reminder that these spirited animals are not tame toys but a force to be respected.
The next morning I found out about muscles I had forgotten I had as they screamed at the excesses I had put them through. You can't just sit and let the horse do all the work, it is hard work. But all in all a great break from the smoggy city and a reminder why Mongolia can be so alluring.