Cutting the Cheese Mongolian Style
Story and photos by Marco Ferrarese



A tour of the countryside of Mongolia involves riding horses: whether you or the horses are able is beside the point.


Mongolia horsemen

I realized how important riding was in Mongolian etiquette only when my horse launched on a mad gallop towards the cliff. In Mongolia, children start mounting ponies as soon as they can walk. But in my case, this was the first time I ever sat on a horse. With my legs clutched around the animal's sides, I rocked up and down as if I were a crash test dummy on bad drugs. My life's movie started to unfold before me. What did I do to deserve this?

Simple: I traveled with adventure tour guide Shana and a group of other four on a twelve day tour of central Mongolia and the Gobi desert. In a country that only has one paved "highway" connecting the current capital with ancient imperial hub Kharakorum, one hasn't many options to travel extensively if not on a tour. We rolled out of Ulanbaatar in a converted World War II Russian jeep on our way to the Nadaam, the glamorous summer festival where the best of archery, horse riding and wrestling kindles the pride of this wild nation.

sleeping boy

On our second night, we stopped at a yurt nestled in-between a series of scattered hills and a small river. Herds of grazing yaks with curled horns and hair down to their hooves beaded the grasslands all around, while dense clouds floated as crispy as king-size popcorn buckets in the blue sky overhead. Such an idyllic scenario forecasted no predictable signs of my upcoming ride with death…


Mongolian Hospitality, the Hard Way
The yurt's door opened firmly and Shana came in holding a steaming pot of it-might-be-anything-but-smells-like-mutton. She leaned forward to secure it over the stove's hot plate, and then dug with both hands into a metallic basket to extract a few pieces of dry cow dung and feed the fire. Barely into her thirties, she was a petite woman in an intense love affair with her rugged land. She led tour groups for as long as foreigners could stand the Mongolian winter's frostbite, and spent the rest of the year with her unemployed husband and their two baby girls in Ulan Bator.

yurt

"Please eat. Later we can enjoy some activities," she said putting a steaming bowl and a cup of fermented milk right before my face.

kids

It was all part of the rural Mongolian hospitality ritual: first, they offer food and a sour drink made with fermented goat's milk, which most first-time visitors find hard to swallow. Then, they reach under their beds and take out wooden planks covered in chunks of stone-hard, homemade cheese. One has to suck and chew it for ages to make it edible. At last, if you are male, the family men and kids will want to wrestle you down, winning without a doubt. The ultimate perk is a splendid horse ride in the direction of the sunset, one glorious way to end up any day in the steppe.

The Mongolians released a group of tired mounts from a wooden pole. I had zero riding experience, but since everybody around me seemed extremely relaxed, I agreed to give it a go. I hesitated for a moment as the animals, tilting their heads nervously before us, seemed to tell me that riding wasn't the greatest of ideas.

"C'mon, get on this one, it's very tame," Shana pulled my arm and directed me towards the other Mongolian men who helped me on top of a small white horse. I found it hard to balance on the saddle, a real declaration of unsafety: it was a simple piece of cloth slung on top of the animal's back, kept together by two curved iron bars and a few strips of leather.

"Grip this tight and never let go," Shana instructed me. One of the men shoved a rough leather bridle tied to the animal's mouth into my hands, and we all thought I was set for the ride.


A Ride with Death
"Hold on tight," Shana slapped my horse on its flank and it started carrying me away. I knew I had better listen to her, so I gripped the leather string until my palms went numb, but my horse didn't respond very well. As I tried to establish frigid contact and govern my stubborn mount, the other people were still getting on theirs. I noticed that the French woman in my group was having trouble getting on top of a fat brown horse. Its stomach was so bloated that she couldn't reach the stirrups at the other side. At last, one Mongolian boy shyly pushed her over the animal's back and she sat on her flimsy saddle.

"Is this horse pregnant?" she asked balancing on top of the bulging creature.

"No pregnant, don't worry," Shana's prompt answer reassured all of us.

scene

I started getting acquainted with the rebounding movement of my metal bar would-be-cantle, which hit constantly against the small of my back at every horse step. I rode uncomfortably until we reached a river and followed its course towards a cliff where the water dived into a deep gorge, creating a majestic waterfall. I remained behind because my stubborn horse preferred to graze peacefully in the grass instead of reacting to the pulls of my bridle as I wished. I saw the others reach the far end of the horse path, where they dismounted to continue on foot towards the base of the waterfall.

But I couldn't see the bloated brown horse anymore. Where was it? I turned around and noticed that the same French woman was trying to get off a different brown horse: this was really thin. I observed how she brought her right leg to the ground, and how her bemused horse ducked its head when she landed. It was when she pulled her left foot from the stirrup, that the saddle slipped sideways and hit the animal right above the knee. And all hell broke loose.

All of a sudden, the former-overweight horse reared up and neighed. It froze in the air for a moment before it whacked the ground with its front hooves and dashed forward. Upon hearing the noise, my hungry mount lifted its head from the grass, took a peek, and got seriously inspired. It reared up, spun its hooves in the air like a jabbing boxer, and almost threw me off its back and against a bunch of sharp rocks. I felt as though someone had just muted the audio track in my life's movie. I gave a quick glance to the rest of my group, and saw an array of silent mimes staring back at me and performing a slow-motion of no-nos with their open mouths.




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