Many people come to Mongolia for the horses. There are around three million horses in Mongolia – more than the number of humans – Mongolia being the most sparsely populated country on the planet. The Mongol horse, a breed believed to be unchanged since the time of Ghengis Khan, lives wild, finding its own food and used by nomads as riding animals.
We met many tourists who were taking horsing riding tours. One young English guy was trying to buy a horse to take on a month-long hike around an enormous lake in the north. I asked him if he had ever done anything like that before. He said no. Nor did he have any experience with horses. No wonder he was finding it hard to find someone willing to sell him one, considering the Mongolian people believe the horse sacred and their deep relationship with the animals is famed.
Mongolian people say that a man without a horse is like a bird without wings. Ghengis Khan said that the world can be conquered from the back of a horse. Certainly it is believed that the Mongols’ expert horsemanship was the key to their success as conquerors. The reach of the former Mongolian empire is astounding. During the 12th to 14th centuries it spanned as far as Vietnam in South East Asia right across Mongolia, Tibet and Russia to Persia (Iran).
Seeing wild horses galloping across golden grasslands is one of those iconic moments on this trip that I will never forget. The wonderful thing about Mongolia is that it isn’t a rare site. The horses were everywhere. We saw white, black, grey, chestnut pony-sized horses running alongside our jeep, grazing by the lake in front of our ger or just quietly walking along a mountainside trail.
As much as I was thrilled like a nine-year girl by the sight of horses, for me the real highlight of our Mongolian animal encounters were the yaks. I don’t know what it is about these enormous hairy beasts but I find them absolutely adorable. Some are so huge with long horns that I felt a bit nervous walking past them. But seeing a little baby yak running made my heart ache with its “cuteness”.
One animal I didn’t see, but would have loved to, was the Mongolian Reindeer. A nomadic tribe of Mongolians living in the northwest of the country called the Dakah tend the animals in the mountains and bring them down to the large freshwater lake that we visited. There apparently was one nomadic family at the lake during the time we were there, but the only way to see them was through a guided tour that was way out of our budget. I later read that these people’s way of life is greatly under threat as deforestation has dramatically reduced their food supply, to the point where they have had to sometimes resort to eating their precious reindeers.
One animal that we thought we saw but I am very glad we didn’t was the black bear. The forest where we were hiking is known to populated by these enormous bears and a German hiker we met said he saw bear foot prints that day. Roberto saw something very large and black in the distance. It could have been a tree stump or it could have very feasibly been a bear. Considering it was the end of winter and I am sure the bear would have been very hungry I am glad we made a quick backtrack just in case!