As I’ve been writing this series on my trip to Mongolia back in July 2015, I realised I had some things to share with others who are considering something similar, based on my experience and questions I’ve been getting from friends. These are also things I’d like to keep in mind for when I go back!
This will obviously be specific to my experience with Stone Horse Mongolia – I don’t know what it would be like with another organisation but I imagine many of these tips would also be applicable.
- Choose a reputable tour operator: Sorry to state the obvious, but this is the most important decision when planning your trip and is going to make or break it. I chose Stone Horse based on their excellent reviews on TripAdvisor and also my email correspondence with Keith, who seemed very experienced, knowledgeable and happy to help with my many queries. One point that was critical to me was the type of saddles used – a reviewer on TripAdvisor mentioned that unlike some of the other tour operators, Stone Horse uses Western-style saddles handmade by Sabine herself. Now, in case you didn’t know, traditional Mongolian saddles are much smaller and made of wood – not exactly the most comfortable for a full day of riding, let alone 8 – 10 days. So please check what type of equipment you will be given! I find TripAdvisor very useful in making these kinds of decisions and always read as many reviews as I can.
- Bring waterproof (not water-resistant) clothes: and, if going in the cooler months (I went at the height of summer), bring warm clothes as well. Basically, just read the packing list. Even in July, it could get pretty cold at night – I’m not good at estimating temperatures so I would say the coldest I experienced was maybe 8-15deg C – and I was very glad that I brought my fleece. And waterproof clothing is critical, as it rained practically every day and we still continued riding rain or shine. Stone Horse do provide a giant poncho which helpfully covers the saddlebags as well, but I brought a rain jacket and rain pants from Decathlon which were excellent at keeping me dry, plus the rain jacket had a hood (unlike the poncho). You should make sure that your purportedly waterproof clothes are in fact waterproof, though. One way to do this is to stand in the shower with it on. You might feel a bit silly, but it’s better than finding out too late that your clothes are not that waterproof.
- On toilets : All you need is some privacy, toilet paper, a lighter (for burning the TP), hand sanitiser and, where necessary, a shovel. Keith taught us on the first day what to do and how to use the shovel, and they also gave us a little ziploc bag with all this stuff for convenience (except of course the shovel, which was carried by one of the packhorses and made easily accessible when we made camp). You can also wash your hands back at camp where they have a little system set up for washing hands. If you are horrified at the idea of going to the loo without an actual loo, I would say this: you’d be surprised at what you can get used to, and it actually didn’t feel dirty (I’ve been in dirtier toilets). Humans are highly adaptable creatures. Sure, the first few times it might be awkward and uncomfortable (and it was for me too) but chances are you’ll get used to it quickly and it will just become normal. This acquired skill (if you can call it that) also came in super handy recently when I was trekking through a jungle in Thailand and needed to crap really badly! That said, with the stop at Princess Lodge halfway through, it is quite possible to hold out until you get to a toilet, although I wouldn’t recommend it.
- On showers: This is not impossible while on the trail – Stone Horse have a shower bag which can hold quite a bit of water and they can set up a shower for you if you wish. If memory serves me correctly, I think hot / warm water might be available, as in they could boil water before putting it into the bag. I was really lazy and made do with dips in the river, the shower facilities at Princess Lodge and dry shampoo (and felt fine), so I didn’t get to try it out, but will definitely try to be less lazy and do so next time!
- Consider low-cut riding boots: I brought the boots I used for riding lessons, which are the classical English-style kind which go all the way up to your knee, almost. While they are undoubtedly excellent for the actual riding, in a camping context it was difficult to put them on and take them off when seated at the edge of your tent. Next time I might invest in a low-cut pair – or maybe just another pair of boots with heels.
- Don’t pack too much: You get a 20-litre dry bag to put your things in addition to your saddle bags, where you would put things that you are likely to reach for during the day, such as repellent, sunblock, and water bottles. 20 litres is not a lot. If you bring too much, you’ll probably have to leave some of it behind at the cabin. Also, if you are prone to hangnails like me, bring a nail clipper. I moisturise my hands as much as possible but it doesn’t prevent hangnails entirely. The hangnails got so long that they started to bleed and I had to tape it up using a bandaid.
- Consider taping your knee / ankle: I’m not sure if this works, but it’s something I will try the next time. Hopefully it will minimise the knee and ankle soreness from trotting for hours (which is an unnatural and uncomfortable position for most). It wasn’t too bad for me but it was worse for Ian. Stone Horse do bring medication for that sort of thing though, so I would consider this good-to-have but not essential.
- Bring good insect repellent: If you are wary of DEET, like me, be prepared to reapply frequently (and also on your butt!). It also helps to wear long-sleeved tops and a bandanna so the buzzing bothers you less. Stone Horse provide a netting you can drape over your helmet so the flies don’t fly into your face.
- Talk to your horse: We used a “hobble” – a rope which is tied on each end to a leg – on the horses to prevent them from wandering too far off when we stopped for a break or made camp. They can still go pretty far though! I was nervous about this, because even though the hoses were exceptionally mild-tempered it was still at least a theoretical possibility that I could get kicked while putting the hobble on for Brownie. I dealt with this by talking to Brownie non-stop during the process, hoping to calm both of us and to let him know where I was working based on where my voice was coming from. It may not have been necessary (nobody got kicked anyway) but it certainly kept me calm and helped me establish a rapport with Brownie.
- Be alert: It’s not a good idea to let the reins get too loose because sometimes horses do spook and run off. I didn’t fall in Mongolia, but I have fallen before when my horse suddenly changed gait and I wasn’t prepared. Reins are your brakes – use them.
- But above all (and this is bonus tip #11): have fun! It’s going to be awesome.