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The mountains are calling and I must go, and I will work on while I can, studying incessantly.

- John Muir


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Focus

Oct 01, 2018

The Forbidden Zone: Mongols, to Your Horses

The rolling green hills, rocky passes, flower-laden meadows and clear streams of Gorkhi Terelj National Park in northern Mongolia is the birthplace of the Mongols. The Outdoor Journal spent a week on horseback with Stone Horse Expeditions in the heart of this country’s vast wilderness.

WRITTEN BY

Apoorva Prasad

Tdrihe Khan Khentii mountains stretched before us, from one end of the azure sky to the other. Tegri, the Great Sky God, watched us with his infinite panorama. From here, I could see miles and miles into the distance. This was the “Forbidden Zone”, that unknown wilderness where Genghis Khan was born. As a child and then again much later on, he hunted here, his true home, on a horse, sheltered in a ger or under the blue sky. When he was a boy, exiled with his family into the cold and harsh wilderness of the northern Mongolian hills, his only friends were what these lands contained. After he built an empire and died, it became a sacred and taboo zone, left to the deer and wolves. For decades the area had been closed off. The Soviets enforced it as a Highly Restricted Area to allow them to do what they wished with it – from logging and military exercises, to also countering any potential rise of Mongolian nationalism around the great Khan. Despite those years, the Area remained wild.

No wonder the Mongols worshipped it.

A day before, we had crossed fresh bear tracks. There were no signs of human presence apart from our train of horses and riders. And now, this vista lay in front of us, green and yellow grassy hills, long valleys, meadows of flowers stretching to higher mountains all the way to Siberia, some still snow-dusted despite the summer sun. Burkhan Khaldun stood further behind higher peaks. And that incredible sky. No wonder the Mongols worshipped it. We all lived once under this blue infinity. As we’d ridden northwards away from Ulan Bator, the city’s pollution had faded away long ago, the gray curse had lifted and my eyes had once again accustomed themselves to what they had evolved to do – see long distances, look for hares, deer, bears, navigate passes and ford streams, climb rocks, and watch falcons circle on thermals above. And over the last few days, we had done all these things.

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The weary horseriders arrive in the ger to refresh themselves.

We had left our last camp around mid-morning, some hours ago. One half of the party broke away to ride into another valley out west, while Keith and I wanted to ride up and to the pass in the range of hills that separated the Gorkhi Terelj from the Khan Khentii. We skirted the granite mounds which punctuated the ends of this valley, forded a marshy grassland below the campsite, fought off the bloodsucking horseflies that made our horses’ lives miserable for a little while, eventually entering a tall forest of larch and birch. The ground began to rise as we entered a narrow rocky trail that started to wind uphill. Jerry, my sturdy, stubborn little Mongolian horse plodded on. This easy gait was infinitely more comfortable than the long trots of our previous days in the saddle. Keith Swenson, a taciturn, the 64 year-old owner of Stone Horse Expeditions along with his wife Sabine Schmidt, showed none of the wear I felt – my skin of my thighs were quite literally raw after 50 kilometers of riding and trotting in the wilderness. After a few days Keith opened up with wisecracks. “People ask what do you do, and I say I’m a rider”, says Keith, punning on his American accent. “They think I mean ‘writer’, “and they ask, what have you written?” “So I say, Blackie, Brownie, Ol Dirty Face…”, naming his horses.

These lands, however remote, are important.

Halfway up the trail was a shaman’s totem, poles placed on the ground to make a conical structure, wrapped with bits of fabric and ribbons. But at the base, and near a tree, we also found broken shards of glass, vodka bottles drunk and thrown by unknown travelers who no longer respected their old ways. We’d been riding for an hour or so and we stopped for a short break in the little opening in the forest. It was quite warm in the strong sun, perhaps 30C like every day of the summer, but cold at nights, often dipping below freezing.

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These Mongolian horses play a huge role in making a trip across the steppe easy and fun for riders. Each horse has a unique personality. Big Dirty Face pictured here loves coffee and will drink it straight from your cup if you let him.

The Mongols invented the modern world*

The old ways are important. These lands, however remote, are important. The Mongols invented the modern world*. When, at the age of 55, Genghis Khan rode out into Asia and Europe, he created the largest empire known to humanity, as well as its first international postal system, and the largest free-flowing network of ideas, trade and culture. But today, Mongolia feels relatively isolated and far away, landlocked in the Eurasian continent. And getting there turned out to be a greater adventure than we’d expected. Instead of flying, we took the famous Trans-Mongolian from Beijing to Ulan Bator. At 11pm, the train pulled into the last station on the China-Mongolia border to change the undercarriage (the railway gauge is different in Mongolia). Three hours later we got back on the train and waited patiently for the Chinese guards to hand us all our passports back. Our intern’s passport was returned ripped from its cover. Before anyone could make a move, the train entered Mongolia… where the Mongolian border guard insisted that the 18-year old girl get off the train because she wasn’t allowed to enter on an invalid passport. Twenty minutes of arguing later, at nearly three am, we got off and watched the train leave without us.

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Mongolian cuisine is typically meat and dairy products. Vegans beware.

Fifteen hours later, after many phone calls and emails to various embassies and important officials, she was finally allowed to enter the country. The Trans-Mongolian having long gone, we finagled an eight-hour taxi ride across the great steppes (on a second-hand car coming off a goods train) for $45. Welcome to Mongolia.

REAL MEN TROT

I did not have much riding experience, but I usually don’t let a little thing like that deter me from a trip. Keith, once also a climber, agreed that anyone up for adventure would be perfectly fine on a Mongolian horse. They were sturdy and forgiving. We all gathered at their staging camp an hour’s drive from Ulan Bator – a Singaporean couple on their second trip with Stone Horse, their friend from Hong Kong, a French diplomat from Swaziland, our team of three, Keith, Sabine and their crew – Nyamaa, Buyana and Jackson, the American intern. Soon, our team of 16 horses and Stinky the Mongolian Dog, a most genuine companion if there ever was one, were off towards the north. Day one went reasonably well, with a short four hour ride to our first campsite inside the Gorkhi Terelj National Park. The other experienced riders asked me various questions about how I felt and whether my horse had cantered or galloped, and I said I didn’t know, but the horse seemed to know what it was doing. Apparently, they have many gaits.

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Nomads Yadmaa and Tavaasurn inside their summer ger, just outside Gorkhi Terelj.

I learned what that meant the next day.

The morning begins easily and we move along a gentle valley. At a stream, the horses bend to drink. They’re herd animals, comfortable only in their own numbers. Suddenly, there’s a commotion as one of the pack horses spooks and bolts. We’re unprepared, and good old Jerry decides to follow the bolting horse too, suddenly turning 180 degrees and galloping wildly. I have to pull firmly on the reins to stop him, while the teamsters have to get the other fella back. He’s bucking around wildly, his unshod feet stamping, his grass-eating brain telling him that that bee sting he felt on his hind was a wolf’s nip. Stinky ignores the commotion, running ahead happily back in his favorite hunting grounds, chasing ground squirrels to their holes. We continue, entering a forest and then riding uphill to a pass. On the other side, a wide open valley, and our first real gallop. Now I feel the sensation, riding with the animal as one, gently cycling my feet in the stirrups and gripping with my knees, all of it coming naturally to me and I urge Jerry on, on, on. Chhoo, Jerry, Chhoo! We stop at a babbling brook in the valley below where we wash our faces. Are we in paradise?

And then the long trot begins. For a horse, it’s the most comfortable way to move. But it’s bouncy. I try to “post” like all the real riders. Watching me grimace in agony, Keith smiled and said, “real men trot,” as he rode along comfortably with that rolling ankle movement to compensate for the horse’s bumpy ride. “Trotting is how the Mongols moved such vast distances. If you make him gallop, you won’t get very far, you’ll kill the horse”.

a melting pot of humanity and ethnicities

But Mongolia changed the course of human history since long before the great Khan and his riders, the ultimate, self-sufficient soldiers. Apart from the Mongols, it is also the original homeland of the Huns and the Turks. It is a melting pot of humanity and ethnicities, where thousands of years ago two language families met and separated – the Indo-Europeans and the Altaics – and possibly where the wild horse was first tamed, thereby changing the course of history. When men on horses first raced out of Central Asia, first ancient Mesopotamia, then Egypt fell. Europe’s original ‘mother culture’ and India’s Harappan civilization disappeared. Humans, moving incredible distances on horses, spread across Asia, from the western end of Europe to Korea, all the way down to Arabia and India, creating nearly all the cultures we know today. Some of the languages they spoke evolved today into English, and others evolved into Japanese, but some of their words have become so intermingled that it’s hard to distinguish which came from which. Hindi is an Indo-European language, but today the common Hindi word for “home” is “ghar” (from the Sanskrit “grhá”) which is nearly identical to the Altaic Mongolian’s word for home, ger.

When the Hunnu (“Huns”) fought the Chinese Hans, the clans that lost fled towards Europe, creating Hungary, as well as leading to the downfall of the Western Roman Empire. Centuries later, the Turkics originally from the Mongolian steppes came hurtling into Constantinople, wiping out the Eastern Roman Empire.

We ride through rocky hills and rock formations, up and down defiles, over passes and across shallow streams, through meadows of flowers and knee-high grass. We ride all day, and every evening set up our traveling camp like the Mongols of old. We sleep in modern-day lightweight tents, under trees or under the stars, breathing cold clear air, drinking from fresh rain-fed streams, eating atop rocks while falcons circle above and the horses graze.

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The Stone Horse team from left to right – Jackson, Keith, Buyana, Nyamaa and Sabine.

The world has continued to change, but horses and men will forever ride together.

One day we stretched out the ride to reach a farther campsite, a Hunnu gravesite. We set up our tents atop 2000-year old graves, low mounds of stones marking the places where men, women, children and horses were laid to rest. “I believe that these people would have loved us to be here, living like they did,” said Keith. When they hear our horses, they’ll feel alive”. The next morning, I pulled my horse off to a side and to a vantage point to shoot the group riding further down the valley. Jerry stomped and neighed angrily as the herd passed him by, but I held him back. When the group disappeared into the distance, I quickly packed my camera gear back into the saddlebags. Then jumping back on, I let the horse fly as he wished, back to his herd. Jerry, the funny but tough little horse, galloped madly a mile north over the gently rising slope. Our hooves rang out in the valley, as two large round mounds, Hun graves, emerged in front on the mountainside. Neither Jerry nor I needed to veer, and we galloped directly over the centre of the mounds, the sound of our hoofbeats gladdening passed Hunnu souls. Their ancestors, our ancestors, had once tamed wild horses, and together changed the world. The world has continued to change, but horses and men will forever ride together.

Images by Madhuri chowdhury.

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Athletes & Explorers

Dec 13, 2018

Steph Davis: Dreaming of Flying

What drives Steph, to free solo a mountain with nothing but her hands and feet, before base jumping? “Bravery is not caused by the absence of fear."

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WRITTEN BY

The Outdoor Journal

Presented byimage

In the coming days the Outdoor Journal will release an exclusive interview with Steph Davis, follow us via our social networks and stay tuned for more.

Do you have to be fearless to jump off a mountain? Meeting Steph Davis, you quickly realise: no, fearlessness is not what it takes. It’s not the search for thrills that drives her. She’s Mercedes travelled to Moab, Utah to find out what does – and to talk to Steph Davis about what it takes to climb the most challenging peaks and plunge from the highest mountaintops.

Steph Davis, getting ready to jump. Photo by Jan Vincent Kleine

At noon, when the sun is at its highest point above the deserts of southeastern Utah and when every stone cliff casts a sharp shadow, you get a sense of how harsh this area can be. Despite Utah’s barrenness, Steph loves the orange-gold landscape with its towers and elegantly curved arches of sandstone. But Steph is not here because of the natural spectacle. Here, in this area which is as beautiful as it is inhospitable, she can pursue her greatest passion: free solo climbing and BASE jumping.

Castleton Tower… Look closely. Photo by Jan Vincent Kleine

Today, Steph wants to take us to Castleton Tower. We travel on gravel roads that are hardly recognizable, right into the middle of the desert. Gnarled bushes and conifers grow along what might be the side of the road. Other than that, the surrounding landscape lives up to its name: it is deserted. Steph loves the remoteness of the area. “One of my favourite places is a small octagonal cabin in the desert that I designed and built together with some of my closest friends. It’s not big and doesn’t have many amenities but it has everything you need: a bed, a bathroom, a small kitchenette … and eight windows allowing me to take in nature around me. That’s pretty much all I need.” Steph Davis cherishes the simple things. She has found her place, and she doesn’t let go.

Whilst pictured with ropes here, Steph often free solo’s without any equipment at all. Photo by Jan Vincent Kleine

Castleton Tower is home turf for Steph. She has climbed the iconic red sandstone tower so many times she’s lost count. The iconic 120-metre obelisk on top of a 300-metre cone is popular among rock climbers as well as with BASE jumpers. Its isolated position makes it a perfect plunging point and it can easily be summited with little equipment – at least for experienced climbers like Steph Davis.

“It would be reckless not to be afraid. But I don’t have to be paralysed by fear.”

Steph is a free solo climber, which means she relies on her hands and feet only – not on ropes, hooks or harnesses. She loves to free solo, using only what’s absolutely necessary. She squeezes her hands into the tiniest cracks in the stone and her feet find support on the smallest outcroppings, where others would see only a smooth surface. Steph climbs walls that might be 100 metres tall – sometimes rising up 900 metres – with nothing below her but thin air and the ground far below. She knows that any mistake while climbing can be fatal.

Flying. Photo by Jan Vincent Kleine

The possibility of falling accompanies Steph whenever she climbs. Is she afraid? “Of course – it would be reckless not to be. But I don’t have to be paralysed by fear.” She has learned to transform it into power, prudence, and strength. “It’s up to us to stay in control.”

“You have to learn to face your fears and accept them for what they are.”

That’s what, according to her, free soloing and BASE jumping are all about: to be in control and to trust in one’s abilities. “It’s not about showing off how brave I am. It’s about trusting myself to be good enough not to fall. It takes a lot of strength, both physical and mental. You have to learn to face your fears and accept them for what they are.”

Touchdown. Photo by Jan Vincent Kleine

Steph Davis likes to laugh and she does so a lot. She chooses her words with care, and she doesn’t rush. Why would she? There’s no point in rushing when you’re hanging on a vertical wall, with nothing but your hands and feet. Just like climbing, she prefers to approach things carefully and analytically. That’s how she got as far as she did. “I didn’t grow up as an athlete, and started climbing when I was 18,” she smiles, shrugging. But her work ethic is meticulous and she knows how to improve herself. Whenever she prepares for an ascent, she does so for months, practising each section over and over again – on the wall and in her head – until she has internalised it all. She does the same before a BASE jump and practices the exact moves in her head until she knows the movement is consummate.

Steph loves the orange-gold landscape with its towers and elegantly curved arches of sandstone. Photo by Jan Vincent Kleine

“Bravery is not caused by the absence of fear.”

Would Steph consider herself brave? She says that she wouldn’t know how to answer that, you can see the small wrinkles around Steph’s eyes that always appear whenever she laughs. In any case, she doesn’t consider herself to be exceptional. “I’m not a heroine just because I jump off mountaintops,” Steph says she has weaknesses just like everyone else. But she might overcome them a little better than most of us do, just as she has learned to work with fear. “Bravery is not caused by the absence of fear. It is brave to accept fear for what it is, as a companion that you should sometimes listen to, but one you shouldn’t be obedient to.”

She slows the car down. We have reached Castleton Tower. It rises majestically in front of us while the sun has left its zenith. If Steph started walking now, she’d reach the top at the moment the sun went down, bathing the surrounding area in a golden light. She takes her shoes and the little parachute; all she needs today. Then she smiles again, says “see you in a bit”, and starts walking. Not fast, not hastily, but without hesitation.

All photos by Jan Vincent Kleine

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