Mongolia – Land of the Nomads

March 23, 2010

by Virginia VanderVeer

Last June, we took a small group of horse-lovers to the land where the horse originated – Mongolia, the land of the blue sky. Many people said to me, “Where is Mongolia?”  It is a democratic country, sandwiched between China and Russia.  We had a rare glimpse into an ancient culture and the last unspoiled wilderness in Asia.

Guided by Urnaa and Terbish, our wonderful Mongolian guides, we visited the friendly and hospitable nomads, still living in their colorfully decorated tents called gers.  The nomads live with their huge herds of horses, cashmere goats (this is where cashmere comes from!), yaks, camels and sheep. It is a vast country with traditions dating back to the time of their hero, Genghis Khan.

In the Gobi Desert and steppes, we rode a Mongolian horse, a Bactrian camel (a 2-humped, docile beast!), we hiked to ancient monasteries and into a valley with a glacier – in June!   Wildflowers and large birds – many eagles and hawks, were everywhere.  We saw wild antelope racing away.

We actually saw a nomad family milking a mare, from which vodka is made.  A visit to a camel-herding family included seeing camels milked.  In Hustai National Park, we saw a herd of the last remaining descendants of the original horses.

Mongolia is still today, a horse-based culture.  Every child learns to ride from the time they are three years old.  The domestic Mongolian horse is somewhat smaller than our horses, but they are docile, tough and have endless endurance.

Their national festival, Naadam held each year in July, feature horse races over the country-side for many miles.  The “jockeys” are children, as they are lighter in weight and the horse can go faster with a lighter load!  It would be great to import a Mongolian horse to use in our endurance racing in the U.S.  What a disappointment to learn that Mongolian horses are considered their national treasure and may not be exported!

It is generally accepted that the horse originated on the steppes of Mongolia.  The so-called “Przewalski” horse, or Takhi as the Mongolians call it, and ancestor of today’s horses is alive and well in Hustai National Park, southwest of the capital, Ulaanbaatar.  In the last century, the takhi were hunted almost to extinction.  In an effort to preserve the race of the original horse, foresighted Europeans took some mares and stallions to Europe.  Early in the 1990’s the Dutch decided the horses belonged in their homeland.  Today there is a herd of over 200 under the protection of Hustai National Park, where they are studied by scientists, assisted by eco-volunteers.  I served as a volunteer there last summer.  This was a fabulous experience and offered many hiking opportunities.

The Takhi at Hustai form “harems” consisting of a stallion, several mares and foals.  During the day they are off in the hills, happily grazing.  In the noon-day sun, they often stand in the shade of rocky outcroppings or go into the forest.   At dusk, they come down to a green valley with a stream to drink.  This is the time when we see them easily.  They spend the night near the stream, guarded by Park Rangers seeking to protect the foals from their major predators – wolves!

The Takhi or native Mongolian horse is a small, sturdy animal with a short neck.  Apart from a dark stripe running along the top of its body, it is sand-colored.  The mane and tail are brown and the legs have stripes like a zebra.  It is a meaningful experience to see these creatures that are considered to be the ancestor of all horses.

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