I think it's good to do hard things because they are hard. Those are the stories that are remembered. Everybody has their imagined limits and it's a great feeling to smash through those, given the opportunity. Spending 10 days training at the Chinggis Khan warrior school seemed to fit that bill.
But, as it happens, this wasn't the thought running through my head as I walked from the tent where I'd changed into my Mongolian wrestling costume - pants that could generously be described as speedo-like; a top consisting of sleeves and a strap that is tied tight under your belly (these are open chest because one time a woman posed as a man and won the tournament, so now the costume ensures the manly men competing in the manly sports* only have to worry about losing to other manly men!); and a gown with a split that comes up to just below the pants so that as you walk it looks like you're wearing nothing underneath - except for your bottled rage, I suppose.
Thankfully (mercifully?) I was convincingly beaten in two rounds - in the first I got knocked off balance before I really had a chance to think about it, but in the second I made the mistake of grappling and pushing (it's a while now since I was a loose-head prop) which saw me quickly flipped onto my shoulder and squashed, spared more serious injury only by the fact I had about 10cms and 20kgs on my opponent (and even more if they had waited a few days - I swear we were being fattened up for the coming winter the way we were fed on this trip). :-/
And, later in the week, it definitely wasn't the thought that first came to mind when we stopped for lunch on the third day of horse trekking at the ruins of the Gunjin monestary in Terelj National Park (built to house a political prisoner from the Qing Dynasty). Instead, as we lay in the grass I reflected on my very sore knees and pummelled buttocks and considered how far and fast we'd ridden - 70-odd kms, easily doubling the total distance I'd travelled by horse in my life to date - I resolved that if I made it out in one piece I'd be happy to never trot again.
But tonight I sleep in a bed in Ulaanbaatar. Life is looking up. When we get to Tokyo I'm going to find an onsen and I'm going to go and soak in it for as long as they'll let me.
(* the other two manly sports are archery and horse racing, which featured elsewhere in our training)
Our time in Mongolia is definitely a candidate for the best place so far. It was just so amazing, and we had such a great time. I think the reason for this is that we sort of strayed from the devout tourist mode. We spent our first day in the capital, Ulaanbaatar. Then it was out into nowhere for a three day training program to become Mongolian warriors. This included archery, wrestling, beheading, cooking, singing, horse riding and eating (more food in one day than I would have needed for two!) Then we hopped on our horses and rode (actually, sped off at a fast canter) 40kms into the wilderness to set up camp by the Terelj river (no big deal, just a normal day in Mongolia) for the night. The next morning we were off by eight for our next camp, a disappointing 20kms away, upriver from the previous camp, when the Terelj river was still only two meters wide. Here Kieran and I swam in the river, made a fire pit with our Mongolian friend Bilgvvm Bek** and burnt everything we tried to cook on it, and to add to it all, Mum's horse decided it was sick of us and made a runner. Then it was off to our sleeping bags for most of us, except Kieran and Dad, who climbed up the 65 degree cliff behind our camp, and woke the rest of us up by screaming "Jacob, look! We're on the top of the cliff!". The next morning we rode 30kms to some ruins of an ancient monastery destroyed by the new communist government and back to the camp. Then we got in the all terrain ultra truck and drove past the first camp to our final camp, where the Terelj river was so wide and strong that the experts were hard-pressed to get across on horseback. This camp was surrounded by shrub and trees, which provided a perfect hide and shoot arena. By the time this was over, it was time to go to sleep. The next morning we packed up and shipped out for our final ride. We went back to a small town we had passed on day five, and with tips and hugs, said goodbye to our driver, our chef, our horse guide and Bilgvvm, as they were going to herd the horses home. Meanwhile we boarded a small van that is entirely unsuited to the terrain it is driving on, and headed to the Chinggis Khan statue, which is the largest mounted statue in the world. After paying and climbing up the horse's left hind leg, we emerged unceremoniously from the doors situated in Chinggis' crotch and climbed up the horse's neck to see the view around the statue. Then we got back in the van and drove back to Ulaanbaatar for two days of heavy schoolwork and to catch up on things. Then it's off to the the airport to board our flight to Tokyo...
(**Bilgvvm (Bill-goom) was the boy from the next camp over from ours during the training. Although our conversations were limited to onomatopoeia and sign language, since neither of us shared a language, we still managed to become friends while the adults were drinking Mongolian vodka (fermented from milk) and we were good friends by the time it came to leave, so he came with us. He has not done the trip before, so it was an adventure for him as well.)
Mongolia was the most hands-on experience of the trips so far and hopefully it will be for the rest of the trip. The reason why it was the most hands on was because it wasn't very touristy places. There were only two other people who came to the ger (Mongolian tent) camp. We also did a lot of riding and before we had even started our long trip we had already made friends with Bilgvvn and his brothers. We made a three person crossbow that went really far.
We really enjoyed doing the archery although I couldn't hit the target until I moved to the mark for 8 year olds. Then I got it past the target. We also saw some wrestlers and Daddy did some wrestling. He had to wear an open shirt and little undies. Sadly he didn't win.
The long horse trip we went on lasted 4 days and for the first day we had Baatar's dogs following us. Bilgvvn came on the trip too. None of us fell off, which was good. When we started I was going by myself and I was always falling behind so Bilgvvn led me by tying my horse next to his. I liked going through all the rivers except the one where water got in my shoes (that was the first one). On the first day I rode for 25km then went in the truck for about 15km and on the second day I rode for maybe 15km and went in the truck for 10km. On the last two days I rode without any lead rein or truck!
It was sad to have to say goodbye to everybody. I definitely want to come back to Mongolia and I have told them I would. Not next year, because we'll be sick of travelling. But maybe when I'm 20.
In a year of amazing experiences, Mongolia is going to stand out as something special. It wasn't originally on our short list, but then in the early stages of planning how the year might look, friends joked that we should try the national sport of each country we visited. "Like wrestling in Mongolia?"
Somehow, that joke turned into us booking a tour where we learned to become Mongolian warriors: staying in a ger camp; dressing in traditional deels; trying our hand at archery, dumpling cookery and wrestling; mounted cabbage-decapitation; and to top it all off, riding more than 100km over the course of three and a half days, a distance Chinggis and his men would cover in a day.
The ger camp was a wonderful place to spend three days, especially after our time in the cities of China. It overlooked the Tuul River valley, there was power and indoor plumbing (including the best shower I've had in months) but no internet, and for most of the time, we were the only guests. We had hands-on activities and demonstrations of traditional skills scheduled regularly, but there was enough downtime for the boys to make friends with some of the local kids and for Rowan and I to relax and have a breather.
Which was good, because the next three days were hard work. I'm not unacquainted with a saddle, and the boys rode at least once a week at home, but Rowan had maybe ridden for 10 hours in his life, so this wasn't the thing he was most looking forward to this year, especially as we were warned these weren't your average pampered ponies, but semi-wild horses who'd bite or kick. We were given "tourist" horses to ride, but even then we were told not to assume they were calm - for example, I was under no circumstances to use my heels on my horse, but to use voice commands to get him to go. None of them had names.
But we finished each day safe, sore and satisfied with our achievements. Our first day was the longest - 40km over a couple of big hills, through three rivers and with some epic canters along valley floors. The scenery reminded me of the Mackenzie Country, with the addition of free-roaming herds of cattle, sheep, horses and yaks, including one new-born yak, still struggling to stand as we came upon the herd. We camped by a river in the Terelj National Park - no power or plumbing, but we still had a three course dinner.
Next day was only about half as long, further up the river valley to another campsite under a rock cliff. We had a bit of excitement that evening, as my horse broke his tether rope and led our guides a merry chase for half an hour or so as they tried to catch him. It made me really appreciate fences!
From that campsite, we did a 30km return trip to the ruins of a Buddhist monastery on the third day. The monastery is famous for being the burial place of a Qing Dynasty princess, although the tomb has also collapsed. It was a very peaceful place in the forest to stop for lunch before heading back to the camp. This leg of the ride was also the first that Kieran rode the whole way without being led in the canters - yay for him! Then we bundled into the support truck and were driven back 15km or so towards our first night's camp so we'd have a shorter ride out the next morning.
Our last day was wet, but better the last day than the first, and it eased up before we got really going. This was our fastest day, cantering about a third of the distance, and trotting most of the rest. We only went about 15km or so, but our horse master Baatar and his assistant Bilguun, were doing another 30 back to the ger camp with the horses, and they wouldn't be doing it slowly. Most of the horses would be classified as underweight in NZ, but they'd outlast just about all of them in an endurance race.
So we learned lots about Mongolian traditions and culture, we all had great achievements in terms of our riding, and we saw some beautiful scenery. But the highlight has to be the people we met. Everyone was friendly and eager to share their knowledge and culture with us. Not many of them spoke much English, if any, but they were warm and welcoming and Mongolia is definitely high on the list of places I'd like to return to.
And baby yaks are the cutest.