At first I wasn’t quite convinced. I had never been interested in horse riding at all, nor did I plan on mounting a white mare at Mongolia’s Gorkhi-Terelj National Park. Despite everyone indulging me with horse maxims like, “to ride a horse is like riding the wind,” I still associated the passtime with priggish social classes, not to mention the dancing Lipizzaner Stallions groomed to look like pearly “My Little Pony” toys. But, I gave in. The passing of wind through my greasy locks might be the closest thing to a shampoo I would get in three weeks of backpacking in Mongolia.
The guide was a nomad named Sukh. When we met him for the first time, he began pointing to himself, starting an impromptu game of charades. He was motioning to a giant axe. We didn’t know what he meant. Did the tour finish off with an animal sacrifice? Was it an invitation to a beheading? We wore dumb looks on our faces until we found out later that "Sukh" also meant axe in Mongolian.
I mounted the horse and nestled my rear into the wooden saddle. “Go!” I said. The horse stood idle. I squeezed my legs against its belly but it began pawing the earth. I soon learned that, "Chooo!" (as in "choo-choo train") meant go, and "Brrr!" (as in, "Brrr, it’s cold!") meant stop. With these commands, our horses entered a pleasant and steady trot and we began our adventure.
For a few hours we were circling a rocky valley, prancing around leisurely. Skulls and bones littered the seemingly endless steppes. The sky was immense and blue. I was getting very comfortable and this level of comfort was bringing me closer and closer to boredom.
I gave Sukh a head nod and suddenly we were racing. The green fields were zipping by as though I were watching them from the Trans-Mongolian rail. My long hair was blowing in the wind and my beard dancing on my face. Suddenly, I starting veering off to the side and while trying to regain control, the saddle’s buckle broke and before I knew it, I was airborne.
News Flash: “Dumb Foreigner Dies Racing the Greatest Jockeys in World History.”
I was sprawled out on the grass. My side was bleeding. I open my eyes and looking down at me was my white mare. Miraculously, I stood up and felt no pain whatsoever.
We when we arrived at the ger camp Sukh let out a loud “halloo,” to herald a rush of children in my direction. I showed them my wounds and everyone lit up with warm smiles and cheers. What was happening?
Sukh said something that was soon translated as: “You know how to fall off your horse, but you also know how to get up. It’s just like life.” The meaning of those words froze me in my place. I left the crowd thinking about what was said and went into my ger to lie down.
Maybe there really was something to those horse maxims after all. . .
Away from the riding plains of Mongolia, Mariusz can also be found spelunking in the Philippines or dancing salsa in Cuba. You can follow him at www.mariuszstankiewicz.com, doing what he loves to do best, which is to shutter press and to scribble about his travels. His twitter name is @TravelMarius.