Jared and I sat on the couch in Ulaanbatar’s Khongor Guesthouse, flipping through their book of tour options.
“Ooh, this one,” I said. “Central Mongolia two: Kharkhorin, Orkhon Waterfall, eight lakes and Mongol sand dunes with nomad family.”
He leaned over my shoulder to read the details.
“Lauren, that’s five days on horses.”
“Uh, I know,” I said. “Five days of awesome.”
I could see it all now: five days of galloping across the desolate Mongolian plains, drinking in the natural beauty and forging a relationship with my horse that would make Dr. Dolittle jealous. We’d stop at ger camps along the way and learn to brew airag, a traditional drink of fermented horse milk, before diving into a pristine lake to wash off.
I couldn’t wait.
“Have you ever been on a horse?” Jared asked, breaking into my reverie. “Really been on a horse?”
When I was eight, I took horseback riding lessons for about a week.
“Yes,” I said stubbornly. “Sort of.”
Eventually, I agreed on CM-4. Eleven days through central Mongolia with two days on horseback and an optional third day at the end. We joined the tour with an American friend and a Dutch couple. I eagerly anticipated our arrival at the White Lake, where my horseback riding dreams would become real.
The first thing I noticed about our horses was their size.
They were tiny, like ponies. Strong, sturdy ponies, but ponies all the same. I was worried, and remembered a time when I was younger and sat on a collie dog. It had looked sturdy, too, until it collapsed under my weight.
Hopefully the ponies were a bit more robust than the dog, which I feared was never quite the same after the incident.
Seven ponies had been fitted with saddles, which were actually blankets topped with wooden planks and covered by a bean bag. The bean bag was sewn over a curved metal bar that was ideally positioned for direct contact with my coccyx.
Our tour guide, Tushig, translated for the horse trek leader, a tanned, wrinkled man in a shiny maroon wrap.
“If you want to go fast, say ‘choo’,” Tushig explained.
He didn’t tell us how to say ‘stop.’
“Choo,” we grunted. “Choo. Choo.”
The horses turned in lazy circles, ripping grass out of the ground and totally ignoring us.
The leader cackled and whacked his horse on the rump. “Choo!”
It took off instantly, and the other horses jerked into motion.
I jammed my feet into the stirrups and winced as my tailbone banged against the metal bar with every hoofbeat. My new goal was clear: survive.
The scenery was beautiful, but the six-hour ride was grueling. My thighs burned. I had a good idea of what my knees would feel like in fifty years, and my calves were bruised from pressing against knots in my stirrups. Worst of all, a disgusting rash had erupted across my butt.
And I had wanted to do this for five days?
The White Lake stretched out to our left, the rolling hills to our right. A gentle breeze rippled through the long grass and the horse’s coats shone in the sun.
It would have been pretty close to my initial fantasy had it not been for the butt rash and unrelenting muscle pain. After three painful hours, we finally arrived at our lunch destination: a nomadic family settlement.
Without phones or internet, the nomads were clearly not expecting us. I felt horrible, sitting uninvited in their family home, surrounded by sheep parts and dried yogurt snacks, as they chopped meat on the bed and molded noodles from scratch for my lunch.
To ease the awkwardness, our hosts offered everyone a bowl of homemade vodka.
It was like drinking rubbing alcohol. I took a few sips and passed it to the next person.
Our horse guide, however, skipped the bowls and went straight for the bottle. By the time we got back on the horses, he was well drunk and chuckling like a maniac.
“Choo!” he cried, circling our horses and slapping their flanks. “Choo choo! Choo choo!”
And the horses choo-ed. For two and a half hours, the horses choo-ed. We bobbed around like kernels of popcorn on a hot stove, trying desperately not to die.
Every time I pulled back on the reins, the guide materialized.
“No choo! No choo!” I shouted.
That made him laugh harder. I gave up and held tight, cringing in fear every time I heard the word ‘choo’.
Afterwards, when we were all shivering after rinsing off in the algae-dotted White Lake, three Israeli tourists stopped by to say hello.
“Horses?” they asked.
We nodded, still miserable. I could sense my butt rash getting worse.
“We understand,” one of the men said. “We just completed a nineteen-day horse trek.
All five of us snapped to attention.
“It was horrible,” he said. “For the first three days. After that, you get used to it.”
And just like that, I realized what a wuss I was. It had been two days and I was carrying on like I’d been beaten and tortured.
Even still, when the ‘optional’ day of riding rolled around, I declined.
I may be a wuss, but I’m not an idiot.