Since I was a little girl riding ponies, I was fascinated by the thought of galloping through the green steppes of Mongolia. As we planned our Mongolian trip, horseback riding stood high on the list. Less than 36 hours after our arrival, the dream came true and we were riding our Mongolian horses through the open landscape of the Gorkhi-Terelj National Park.
The Gorkhi-Terelj National Park is located about 40 kilometers (25 miles) and two hours away from the city and is a great day trip from Ulaan Baatar. One of the 14 national parks in Mongolia, visitors tend to see just a tiny part of the park but multi-day horseback riding can be organized to explore further.
Our guide Tuvshin had arranged a tour from Ulaan Baatar and we soon reached the park located about two hours from the capital. We reached the ger camp of a nomadic family managed by an elderly woman named Puuje (GrandMa). The older daughter of the family head welcomed us inside one of their gears and served us hot milk tea. She quickly brought us our lunch composed of traditional dumpling soup, sun-dried yogurt “aaruul”, hard-bone dried cheese “byaslag”, and homemade butter “urum”. Tuvshin explained to us the different “cooking” process for each of these dairy products and provided great insights about the traditional ger culture: the order in which food was served, starting with the “head” of the group seated at the “head” of the table, the “family” member at the right side of the table, and the “guest” on the left. We were all guests but our host proceeded to follow the same order.
It was soon time to mount our horses which were awaiting for us. Our horses were relatively well taken care of and had a mind of their own though they followed our lead. This is not a nose-to-tail ride, though it can be if you want. In fact, our horse guide thought I was a beginner (I guess because I had a problem mounting – blame a tight pant, a large waist pouch, and the recent lunch…) and led my horse on a rope. I quickly told him I was fine and gained full control of my horse. Those of us who love to gallop will have plenty opportunities to do so. I slowly got acquainted with my horse named Gigic Harlag, which translated to Small Pie horse thanks to its dual color pattern.
Our ride started through an open valley surrounded by high hills, some covered with pine trees, others barren. Though we visited at the end of August, the landscape was still very green and we could not keep our eyes from the amazing landscape. Gers were spread throughout the plains, and we could see herds of sheep, cows, and horses in the far distance. Our horse guide took us up on a gentle slope up the mountain, which gave us the perfect opportunity for our first gallop. One word: thrilling! Mongolian horses are short and stocky and their gallop is not what I would qualify the smoothest. Add to that un uncommon saddle – a mix of English in the shape but some Western too. That first ride was an experience for sure! I confessed I held the saddle horn tight as these short horses have no neck I could grab on to.
We passed by a winter camp. Most herders move away with their livestock to a nearby city in the winter or have a different job there like our horse guide Byrat who is an electrical engineer for that half of the year. One family usually stays in the winter camp made our wooden structure, where humans and sheep will spend the cold months. The location on a flatter part of the hill was picture-perfect, the buildings nestled among trees. But I can’t imagine the conditions in deep winter with sub-zero temperature and long dark nights.
Tuvshin shared his knowledge of the Gorkhi-Terelj National Park as we discussed wildlife and park exploration. He mentioned that one can do a 3-day horse trek deeper in the park and camp by a lake. This sounded very appealing and I could see us planning for such a trip another time. In terms of wildlife, the park has a small population of black bears and wolves, though these are not a major concern for the residents, both humans, and livestock.
We rode the next hours in awe as we climbed hills, passed through several forests of black pines, and went down rocky slopes and high grasslands. We galloped several times, though Bruno’s horse needed a lot of encouragement to do so. I was gaining confidence in my little horse and started to enjoy the face pace more. We stopped for a break at a high pass, where we enjoyed breathtaking views of two separate valleys. The horses took the opportunity to snack on the green grass, as they did on every occasion when we would stop. The joy of having permanent food nearby!
It was soon time to return and we descended a few steep areas with rocks. Our horses were very cautious and went very slowly. Bruno and Tuvshin even dismounted for a particularly rocky section. Knowing I might have a hard time going back on, I stayed on my horse but was careful on the descent.
The weather had changed from the sunny afternoon to stormy conditions and we even got several drops of rain. I feared a downpour that would leave us soaked but luckily it was nothing serious, more refreshing than really bothering. Tuvshin told us it had heavily rained in the past week, which swelled the rivers and turned some of the roads and trails into muddy paths as we would see later on. But that regular rain explained how green Gorkhi-Terelj was.
As we neared back to the central “village” where most gers were, we could not believe our eyes as we encountered another herd of sheep but most especially a herd of yaks! We even galloped alongside, passing by gers… It was bliss, the dream came true of riding a horse in Mongolia.
Before we reached our final destination, we crossed muddy trails and a few rivers. Most of them were actually little creeks horse-knee deep, but the last one was the larger and deeper Tuul River, which leads all the way to Ulaan Baatar. The cold and swift water reached the shoulders of our horses and we had to lift our feet and knees to avoid getting wet. Bruno was forced to pull even higher since he is taller than me. For once my short stature was a benefit as I barely had to lift my boots.
It was the end of our ride, the whole afternoon had been pure magic. I still could not believe I just rode in the Mongolian steppes…
As we drove back to Ulaan Baatar, Tuvshin was once again a great source of information on Mongolian life and culture, and his perfect English helped give nuances to explanations and historical details. Both Bruno and I love our horseback riding tour in Gorkhi-Terelj National Park from Ulaan Baatar, and can’t recommend the experience enough.
If you wonder where to stay in Ulaanbaatar, options cover about every budget.
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Our horseback riding tour in Gorkhi-Terelj National Park was courtesy of Rara Avis through Viator to experience horseback riding in Mongolia. I would recommend their Mongolia tours.
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