Genghis Khan and polo? Horseback tours in Mongolia
As the northern Asian country opens up, an adventure travel entrepreneur offers horseback tours that show off its sunnier side.
ULAANBAATAR (FORTUNE Small Business Magazine) - "Polo is a snake!" roared the aging French movie star, flourishing his mallet above his head. "You must ride at the tail of the snake, behind the ball!" It was a rebuke: Once again I was hopelessly out of place. I had drifted out on the left wing, which is good positioning for soccer but not polo.
In polo you ride behind the ball so that you can whack it downfield if the teammate in front of you misses a shot. But this was the first polo match I had ever played, and it was all I could do to manage reins and mallet without falling off my tough little Mongolian pony. I watched helplessly as an 11-year-old Mongol boy tapped the ball through a pair of crooked wicker posts for a goal.
It was late afternoon at the Genghis Khan Polo Club in central Mongolia. Our playing field was a saddleback ridge in the Orkhon Valley, a seven-hour drive from the capital, Ulaanbaatar. All the great nomadic empires of High Asia got started here on the grassy steppes of central Mongolia. Genghis Khan's Mongol cavalry erupted out of these quiet valleys in the 13th century, conquering territory from the Korean peninsula to the plains of Hungary within a few decades -- the largest land empire the world has ever seen.
Today Mongolia's economy is dominated by mining and animal herding; the country has nine million horses but only 2.8 million people, spread over land roughly the size of Alaska. But tourism is beginning to take off. The country first opened to Western travelers in 1991, after the collapse of communism, and in 2004 welcomed some 200,000 tourists. Now a handful of Western outfitters lead horseback tours in the Mongolian outback. "It's like finding Montana 150 years ago," says Kent Madin of Boojum Expeditions, a firm based in Bozeman, Mont., that takes small groups on riding, fishing, and kayaking trips all over Mongolia.
My host in the country was another outfitter, the rakish Hamid Sardar-Afkhami, 40, an Iranian-American explorer and scholar of Tibetan Buddhism who runs an adventure travel firm called Wind Horse Expeditions. Sardar-Afkhami leads custom horseback tours that start at around $3,000 a person, not including airfare. (For more options, please see the resources box.)
I first met Sardar-Afkhami at an Ulaanbaatar nightclub, where a packed crowd of young Mongol hipsters were banging their heads as a visiting Filipino rock band ground out the surly power chords of "Smoke on the Water," by Deep Purple. Minus the black miniskirts, backward baseball caps, baggy jeans, and Fila T-shirts, it was easy to imagine these kids on horseback, wearing leather armor with bows and quivers on their backs.
I flashed back to the year 1256, when the Mongol general Hulegu ordered the caliph of Baghdad to throw open the gates of the city and acknowledge the Mongols as his overlords. When the caliph refused, Hulegu laid siege to Baghdad, burning most of it and slaughtering some 800,000 residents, including the caliph, who was rolled into a carpet and trampled to death by horses. The Tigris River flowed red with the blood of the slain. As the song says: "Smoke on the water, and fire in the sky." Today the Mongols are back in Iraq: Some 200 Mongolian soldiers serve in the U.S.-led occupying force.
Sardar-Afkhami and I left the nightclub and drove out to his riverside camp near Ulaanbaatar, where I spent two days testing my riding legs and watching fearless small boys racing their horses around the valley. Riding with Sardar-Afkhami is about as close to luxury as you can get on horseback in northern Asia. My friends and I sat astride padded Western saddles instead of the wooden torture racks favored by Mongol horsemen, which lift the rider nearly a foot off the animal's back. (Even so, I survived the trip only with heavy doses of Tylenol.)
Three jeeps drove ahead each day with our luggage, a talented Mongol cook, and two smiling teenage girls who served our meals. A comfortable camp awaited us at the end of the trail, complete with a dining tent where we ate savory roast mutton, pasta, and salad, accompanied by single-malt whisky and excellent wines courtesy of the former French ambassador to Mongolia, whose cellar Sardar-Afkhami had recently bought. We slept on camp beds, bathed in clear river pools, and used a chemical toilet that squatted discreetly in a little nylon tent.
After three days we ventured west to the grandly titled Genghis Khan Polo Club: about a dozen white felt tents, or gers, strung out along a grassy ridge in the middle of the Orkhon Valley. The club is the brainchild, or perhaps the folly, of Afkhami's friend Christopher Giercke, a German entrepreneur who visited the country ten years ago and fell in love with it. Today Giercke, 59, is married to a Mongolian woman and finances his polo operation by selling Mongolian cashmere to Hermes. He buys the wool from local herders and hires Nepalese weavers in Kathmandu to manufacture the finished shawls and blankets. (Mongolian goats produce the finest cashmere in the world, and the economics of cashmere rival those of cocaine: A kilo of wool that costs $50 in the Orkhon Valley sells for $5,000 in the boutiques of Madison Avenue. )
Giercke's polo club attracts an exotic crowd drawn from the fringes of the international jet set, as well as the ranks of entrepreneurs. Our fellow guests included an Asian-American fashion executive from Hong Kong, a French explorer who was driving across Mongolia with his family, and the French film star Guy Marchand, a flamboyant man in his late 60s who liked to gallop through camp wearing gaucho boots, a red beret, and a silk scarf -- trailed by his gorgeous young Eurasian girlfriend and a photographer from Paris Match.
Polo was a popular sport in medieval Asia. Princes from China to Persia played it as a diversion, and Genghis Khan used polo to train his cavalry. But it died out in Mongolia centuries ago and was revived only in 1997, when some English players brought a ball with them, carved mallets from willow branches, and started playing in front of Mongol herdsmen. Polo caught on among the horse-mad Mongols. The Mongolian Polo Federation was founded in 2000, and the first national championship was held in 2002.
After a day of pickup polo we shared an outdoor feast of boiled marmot floating in its own broth. Marmots are shy, furry critters, about the size of a miniature schnauzer, which burrow into the steppe. After I had eaten my fill, I learned that many Mongolian marmots carry the bubonic plague bacillus. There's no easy way to tell an infected marmot from a healthy one. As with so much else in Mongolia, you simply take your chances.
We left Giercke's camp the next morning and rode east up the Orkhon River. The short-cropped turf was dotted with marmot holes and white edelweiss blossoms. The air was fresh and scented with wild thyme, and life seemed perfect until Saadi Soudavar fell off his horse. Soudavar, 29, was an Iranian-American banker who had traveled out from London with his friend Tamara, a young Lebanese art expert.
An inexperienced but brave horseman, he cut a dashing figure in his shiny new English riding boots and black Stetson hat. Two days' ride from the polo club, Soudavar's horse shied at a full gallop and he flew straight over its head, landing on his left shoulder. We found him lying on the ground with his head on Tamara's lap, hyperventilating while Sardar-Afkhami gently probed his scapula. "Tourists always forget that the horse is a wild animal," said Sardar-Afkhami ruefully.
In a surreal development, two yellow taxis appeared in the distance, bumping over a rough track in the middle of the steppe. Sardar-Afkhami and I jumped on our horses and galloped after them, hoping to flag one down for Soudavar's use. But the drivers said they were off duty, having just driven from the capital for a drinking party with Orkhon Valley relatives. The teetotaling, vegetarian Soudavar spent an uneasy night in a nearby ger where the resident Mongol family plied him with vodka and cold mutton while a visibly drunk shaman muttered spells over his throbbing shoulder. The rest of us continued on to our next camp.
On the way Sardar-Afkhami and I stopped at a ger to drink fermented mare's milk. Sardar-Afkhami exchanged ritual Mongolian pleasantries with the herdsman's lean wife while I flopped down on a bedstead and pulled off my riding gloves. Like all gers, this one was supported by two central posts that framed a wood stove with a tin chimney poking through the roof. On a bureau in the back of the ger I spotted a glass-fronted shrine containing two pictures of the Buddha, a dog-eared photograph of the Dalai Lama, and a dollar bill. Since the end of communism, it seems, many Mongols have adopted George Washington as an avatar of prosperity.
"How is your summer?" asked Sardar-Afkhami. "Are your mares fat?" The mares were fat indeed, our hostess replied. I slurped up another mouthful of the tangy, slightly sour milk. Then we got back on our horses and rode eastward, in the hoofprints of Genghis Khan.
The main Airport in Mongolia is in the capital, Ulaanbaatar. (U.S. citizens don't need a visa.) Korean Air flies from the U.S. via its hub in Seoul -- 20 hours from New York City, $2,435. Other carriers connect through Beijing or Moscow. Here, a few companies specializing in the country:
Wind Horse Expeditions offers nicely catered custom horseback tours of rural Mongolia at about $3,000 a person for a ten-day trip, not including airfare. E-mail the founder, Hamid Sardar-Afkhami, at email@example.com.
Boojum Expeditions in Bozeman, Mont., leads fishing, kayaking, and riding boojum.com; 800-287-0125.
The Genghis Khan Polo Club (near Karakorum) provides lodging in traditional Mongolian gers, polo instruction, matches, and riding tours. E-mail founder Christopher Giercke at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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