On this trip you get to enjoy the wild beauty of the Altai Mountains, including ten days of riding and a introductory ride, with the added bonus of attending the Eagle Festival in Ulgii or on the shores of Lake Tolbo. This horse riding holiday takes you to a remote Mongolian province, riding through open steppe, forested valleys and mountains, and visiting the lakes and desert in the west of Mongolia. The two-day Eagle festival really is one of the world’s great cultural spectacles. If you think you've seen some strange and interesting festivals elsewhere, this is sure to impress even the most jaded festival-goer.
This is an adventurous wilderness ride, staying in temporary campsites each night and cooking over an open fire. The ride has a flexible itinerary, allowing new routes to be followed on each trip. Mongolian horses are very hardy and full of character. The hosts work closely with local nomadic families who can provide a range of horses suitable for any level of riding ability.
This riding holiday is organised by a New Zealand/Mongolian partnership and of a very high quality - the guiding, back up vehicles, camping and food are a well above average for this adventurous destination. After 11 days in the saddle you witness the nomads come together to showcase their hunting skills. The contests on display range from archery to a local version of ‘tug-of-war’, all on horseback, and of course the eagle hunters themselves.
Please Note: The opinions expressed in these reviews are the author's and do not necessarily reflect the views of Unicorn Trails Ltd. These reviews are "directly from the horses mouth" and unedited. Unicorn Trails may make additional comments for clarification clearly identified in red.
Review received from HB of Wolverhampton on 13/10/2018
Arrive in Ulaanbaatar. We will meet you at the airport/train station and take you to our hotel. You are free to explore this fascinating city before we gather for an evening meal and meet your fellow riders.
Fly to Ulgii the main town of Bayan-Ulgii aimag (province). From here we drive south to Altai sum (village), on the edge of Altai Tavan Bogd National park (4hrs), and meet the horses. We start with a safety briefing and pointers about the local riding style, and then begin matching you to your ideal horse. A ride around the local area in the evening will allow you to decide if this is the horse for you.
Set off riding across arid open plains, stopping for lunch with our wrangler Hatran's family at their summer camp along the way. Camp on the shores of Chigertei Nuur, a lovely freshwater lake.
Climb up to Jalanash Pass, snow-covered for much of the year, and over into a hidden world of alpine meadows, forests and fast flowing streams. Camp near a pair of ancient khun chuluu, or man-stones, from the Bronze Age.
Ride through a military checkpoint and in to the border zone. Keep your passport handy, and your camera lowered. Reach our base camp, beside a fast-flowing mountain stream and nearby forest.
A day ride to explore the local area, following game trails up through dense forest to reach alpine grasslands. The views west in to China are spectacular. Keep a watch for elk and ibex.
Days 7 - 9
To explore further we need to load up the packhorses. Follow horse trails used by the border patrol to head down-river, establishing a second base camp for the next two nights. This is remote and spectacular country - Mongolia has a lot of beautiful places, but there is nothing quite like this. We ride up high again, through lush meadows and forest, following narrow game trails. Horse trekking paradise we like to call it! By Day 9 we return to our first base camp, riding high above the river valley this time.
A rest day for the horses - it's hard country even for these amazingly tough horses. You may be ready for a rest yourself. Relax and read a book, or go for a hike in search of wildlife.
It's now time to start making our way back out of the mountains, via the Pass of Death. It sounds ominous, but that's just the name we gave it when we first came this way many years ago. A series of steep switchbacks drops you down to the valley below. By September, snow is likely. Camp beside Khunt Nuur (Swan Lake).
Ride down the valley and over to Shar Gobi Gol (Yellow Gobi River), where we first met the horses right back at the start. We make the most of the wide flat valley to do some fast riding, after all the mountain trails. For those who are keen you will find out just how fast these horses can really go.
In the morning we have an informal mini-eagle festival and horse games, and then drive back to Ulgii. Stay in a ger camp outside the town, and prepare for the festival.
Days 14 - 15
Attend the Eagle Festival in Tolbo (5th Sept departure), or Ulgii (19th Sept departure).
Fly back to Ulaanbaatar. Depending on the flight time, we may be able to see the sites of Ulgii, including the local market, a women's craft cooperative, and the provincial museum. Meet in the evening for our final group dinner and a well-earned drink.
We will help with finding any last minute items to take home for friends and family, and if there is time you can see some more of the city. Finally we take you to the airport/train station and say goodbye.
We recommend that you stay in Ulanbaatar for an additional night before flying home. This gives you more time to explore the city and allows for any disruptions in the domestic flights on Day 16. We are happy to give recommendations for accommodation for this.
Please follow this link for a map of the start point of this itinerary: Eagle Festival
The most common route to Ulaan Baatar (ULN) from Europe is via Moscow (SVO) flying with Aeroflot (£500-£800). An alternative option is to fly to Beijing (PEK), serviced by many international airlines, and to then fly or take the Trans-Mongolian train to Ulaan Baatar.
The Ulgii eagle festival is bigger, located near the province capital of Ulgii. There are also many more international visitors, making it quite the spectacle not only of local talent, but international photographers and souvenir selling. The earlier festival (smaller) is a bit more down to earth, in 2021 it will be held on the shores of Lake Tolbo. Either festival is truly fascinating and a good demonstration of traditional skills and gaming.
Even by Mongolian standards this area is off the beaten track, and riders are unlikely to encounter any other western tourists. Local nomadic families are not used to seeing foreigners, but are very welcoming, which makes for a rewarding cultural experience. The itinerary of the trips is flexible, allowing for more riding time and less time in the desert if the group decides as a whole. If riders would like to see Przewalski horses (the world’s only true wild horse), a day or overnight trip from Ulaan Baatar can be arranged (before or after the trip, at extra cost).
The four-wheel drive support vehicle allows participants to have a level of comfort which is not possible with pack horses (food, camping equipment etc). However to avoid this detracting from the ‘adventurousness’ of the trip, you meet the vehicle at the end of the day, while during the day you follow routes accessible only on horseback.
For riders arriving in Ulaan Baatar before day one of the trip, or staying longer after the trip, we can assist with arranging accommodation. Due to international arrival/departure schedules, it is often necessary to include an extra day or two in Ulaan Baatar before or after the trip. Small saddle bags are provided for each rider, which will hold a raincoat, water bottle and snacks for the day.
Please note, we will require a copy of your passport (photograph or scan of the ID page) to arrange internal flights, park permits and boarder permits. There is a 15kg weight limit on luggage for the internal flight. If your luggage exceeds this limit you will need to pay for the excess on site (approx. US$4/kg). It is possible to leave items at the hotel in a secure lock-up before setting out for the tour if necessary.
We're avid readers here at Unicorn Trails and have selected several books connected to this ride. If you're interested in reading more about the area before you travel, or want to get into the cultural background, here are some suggestions that may inspire you. Click on the links for more information.
On the trail of Ghengis Khan - Tim Cope
Hearing birds fly - Louisa Waugh
Genghis Khan, Life Death and Resurrection - John Man
Amka and the Three Golden Rules (2014) - movie about contemporary small-town life. Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_C8FDm17l1k
Nomads of Mongolia (2016) - short film featuring the nomadic herders and eagle hunting. Full movie: https://youtu.be/JsKNIeuKDrE
Please note: All itineraries are given for your guidance only and it may be altered on the ground and in accordance with the prevailing conditions by the organising team.
Even if you are an experienced rider, there will be a lot that is unfamiliar when it comes to Mongolian horses. Your hosts will take plenty of time to go through everything, and make sure everyone is comfortable with their horse before you head for the mountains. You are welcome to bring your own riding helmet. Although it is not usual to wear one in Mongolia they are compulsory on this ride.
The horses are local working horses, used by the local nomads for herding their livestock when they are not used on the trails. Because they are working horses, they are fit and kept in good condition. The hosts work with several local horse-owning families and have access to an almost unlimited number of horses. With so many horses available, the hosts are able to match horses to rider ability, from quiet horses (‘nomkhon mor’), through to more challenging ones for experienced riders. The horses are well-trained and responsive, but are not ‘broken’ to the same extent as horses in the West. As such they need to be treated with respect. They respond to western-style neck-reining. Saddle bags are provided.
Mongolian horses are small but extremely tough, ranging in size from 12.2hh to 14.2hh, average 13.2hh. The tack is Basic Mongolian tack, with ‘Russian style’ saddles (more comfortable than the traditional Mongolian design). Riders will be fully instructed on how to handle and ride Mongolian horses. Less experienced riders will be helped with basic riding skills where necessary. Participants should be prepared to ride 4-5 hours per day, although there may be longer days when necessary. The pace of riding is dependent on the terrain, and the ability of the group members, but in open country there may be the opportunity for confident riders to gallop (the group can split up during the day).
The day’s riding tends to start with a morning ride, followed by a good lunch break, and then 2-3 hours before making camp in late afternoon. Terrain is highly variable, including open grass steppe-land, forested mountains and valleys, and arid desert. All trips are accompanied by an English-speaking guide, a wrangler/guide from the local area, and an English speaking interpreter.
Local wranglers are responsible for looking after the horses, but riders are more than welcome to assist and learn local techniques. Meals will be prepared, but riders are encouraged to help. Pitching of tents is the responsibility of the rider. Riders are expected to contribute to camping activities such as gathering of firewood. Riders are encouraged to assist when deciding on potential routes while riding.
This ride can be adapted to riders of all ability from beginner to advanced, although you must be able to mount and dismount unaided. They also need to be familiar with camping, as this can be fairly strenuous. The usual minimum age for this ride is 15 years of age, although younger children will be considered if they are experienced enough. Please enquire. Much of the trip is in a remote and mountainous region with demanding terrain. Riders should be fit and active, comfortable in the outdoors and willing to take on a challenge. All trips are accompanied by a well-trained western guide as well as local guides and support staff, including an English speaking interpreter.
Riders also need to be familiar with camping. This can be fairly strenuous and therefore not suitable for children under 15 years of age.
Please note, we will require a copy of your passport (photograph or scan of the ID page) to arrange internal flights, park permits and boarder permits.
The weight limit for this ride is 220 lb/100 kg, please enquire if you are an experienced rider exceeding this weight.
In Ulaan Baatar you will stay in multi bed rooms (4-8 people) with ensuite. Twin rooms can be arranged on request. Two nights in an Ulaanbaatar hotel, two nights in a village guest house, ten nights camping, with the option of sleeping in our ger some nights. While driving between Ulaan Baatar and Tosontsengel you will stay in multi bed 'gers' (comfortable Mongolian felt tents). While riding, we will be camping, with 2 clients expected to share a 4 person hiking tent, so there is plenty of room. Clients are not expected to share a tent with a member of the opposite sex (unless they choose to). Campsites will have a natural water source for washing, and a solar shower will be available. Toilet facilities will be basic.
Simple hearty meals are cooked over an open fire. We carry staples (rice, pasta) with us, and support the local nomadic people by obtaining fresh meat and dairy products from them along the way. Fresh fruit and vegetables are not available in the countryside, but will be carried with us from Ulaan Baatar and available in the first few days. Delicious wild berries are available at certain times of year, and there are fish in the streams. There will be plenty of opportunities to sample local delicacies such as airag (fermented mare’s milk) and oorum (Mongolian clotted cream). A typical day’s meals: Breakfast: porridge or muesli with fresh yak’s yoghurt. Lunch: home made bread, local cheese, salami and spreads. Pickled vegetables. Fruit. Dinner: mild Indian-style lamb curry with rice. Snacks: chocolate bars, biscuits, tea, coffee, various local snacks.
Vegetarian or other dietary requirements can be accommodated with advanced notice. Please contact Unicorn Trails with requests.
Please note that it is your responsibility to ensure you have the correct documentation in place for your trip. If Visa’s are required the requirements can change from year to year depending on diplomatic relations. Please request information from the appropriate Consulate in your home country. Unicorn Trails will assist with any questions you have or supply any necessary supporting documents as required by the consulate on request.
All British and European passport holders must have a Mongolian visa. A Mongolian visa (for up to 30 days stay) is normally valid for six months from the date of issue and should be obtained from your nearest Mongolian Embassy before travelling. Your passport must be valid for more than six months after the date you intend to enter Mongolia.
Mongolian embassy in the UK can be contacted at:
Address: 7 Kensington Court, London W8 5DL, Telephone: (020) 7937 0150, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Website: http://www.embassyofmongolia.co.uk/
In the UK the British Foreign Office gives travel advice on 0207 008 0232/0233 or at www.fco.gov.uk.
The British Embassy in Mongolia can be found at: 30 Enkh Taivny Gudamzh, (P O Box 703), Ulaanbaatar 13, Mongolia
Telephone: (976) (11) 458133
Office Hours Local Time:
Mon-Thurs: 0830-1300 & 1400-1700, Fri: 0830-1330
Mongolia has an extreme climate, with short hot summers and long cold winters. The best time to ride is the late spring/summer/early autumn period, from May to September, when the days tend to be warm and sunny. Nights are clear and cold even during summer, providing spectacular starry night skies. Showers can occur at any time, but are usually short-lived.
In spring/early summer the wildflowers in the mountains are spectacular, but mosquitoes and other bugs can be abundant at this time of year. At the height of summer, temperatures are warm but not unpleasantly hot. By September, the forests are showing their autumn colours and it is possible to get early snow showers. Winter in this area is extremely cold, with temperatures often falling below -30C. Mongolia is a dry country with low humidity.
For up to date information on specific health concerns please contact the Medical Advisors For Travellers Abroad. Their website can be found at www.masta.org. You should also consult your G.P.
Mongolia is a relatively healthy country, with no vaccines needed other than the usual ones for travelling in the developing world (typhoid, tetanus, hepatitis A, polio). We suggest taking a small personal medical kit as above. A comprehensive group medical kit will be carried at all times.
We recommend that you visit a travel medical specialist such as Nomad Travel Store and Medical Centre www.nomadtravel.co.uk (in the UK), or your GP, prior to departure. They can give the latest advice on recommended vaccines for Mongolia, and suggest what to have in your personal medical kit. John is trained as a Wilderness First Responder (for situations where help may be some days away, as opposed to just first aid), but if you have medical training yourself please let us know. Most small towns have medical facilities, and while basic, in our experience they are of a reasonable standard
Electricity is 220 volts (U.K is 230) and most appliances can be plugged in with appropriate adaptors.
Your hosts now have an invertor which runs off the vehicle battery and produces 230V, into which any UK mains electric appliance can be plugged (good for charging camera, ipod etc). There is also a battery charger, which can charge ordinary rechargeable AA and AAA batteries.
Good quality film and batteries are only available in Ulaan Baatar. The support vehicle has a cigarette lighter which fits a standard adaptor, allowing cameras to be recharged. The ride will meet the suport vehicles every evening so there are many opportunities to re-charge batteries. Mobile phone calls can be made in Tosontsengel, but NOT once you are riding.
Ulaanbaatar is quite a ‘wired’ city, with numerous internet cafes, and even a free wireless network covering the city centre. If checking bank accounts etc, it is best to use the internet service in your hotel. There is cell phone coverage in UB, and some smaller towns which we will pass along the way. Once we start riding, there will be no coverage.
Sleeping bag and liner (good quality 3-4 season)
Riding / Camping clothes:
Riding hat. These are not supplied.
Chaps are supplied but riders may like to bring their own
Boots / walking shoes
Comfortable trousers or jodhpurs
Shirts / T-shirts
Spare shoes / sandals
Thermal tops and leggings
Jersey / polar fleece
Raincoat and water proof over-trousers
Riders need to bear in mind that there is a large temperature range between day and night, it’s recommended to bring several warm layers for the evening.
Personal first aid kit:
We will have a comprehensive first aid kit for the group, but we suggest riders have their own kit containing items listed below:
Diarrhoea - Imodium or Lomotil
Constipation – mild laxatives
Headache or other mild aches and pains - paracetamol or disprin
Respiratory infections - nasal decongestant, throat lozenges
Skin care - sun block, after sun cream, lip balm
Wound care - betadine solution or prep pads, Neosporin ointment, Plasters, gauze, tape
Insect repellent and after-bite cream
Other useful things:
Camera (and lots of spare film, batteries, memory cards)
Plastic bags for keeping gear dry
Photo album (to show the local people your family etc.)
A pair of binoculars will be available as are sleeping mats.
You will be provided with personal saddle bags which are big enough to fit lunch, camera, water bottle, sun cream etc. A raincoat or warm jacket can be tied (securely!) to your saddle.
You will definitely need plenty of warm clothes. The basic problem with temperature in Mongolia is that it is highly variable, between day and night and from day to day. In June/July/Aug it is likely to be warm during the day, but could be below zero at night. By September it can start to get cool during the day. It tends to get cold sitting around the campfire in the evening at any time of year. So you need to bring light clothing for warm days, and plenty of warm clothing for the evening. A down jacket is good, because it squashes down when not being worn. A good 3-4 season sleeping bag and therma-rest type sleeping mat is essential. It is unlikely to rain a great deal, but you do need a good waterproof coat in case. A light pair of waterproof over-trousers is also a good idea. We have also been snowed on at all times of year, but they tend to be brief falls! You are much more likely to get sunburnt, so bring a wide-brimmed hat, or cap, or your favourite cowboy hat (with a cord to hold it on if riding fast).
It is a good idea to bring more clothes than you think you will need. It is possible to leave gear at your hotel in Ulaanbaatar, if you decide you have too much, and to leave the clothes you flew in. We have large bags to put your gear in, so you can leave your travelling bags in UB if you wish. If you do forget something vital, it is possible to purchase outdoor clothing and gear in UB, but it is not recommended (much of it is fake, or more expensive than back home). Traditional dels are not cheap but are very warm and look great!
We find that people tend to underestimate how much warm clothing they really need. We can confirm that what you intend to bring will be adequate, if you send us your proposed clothing list. If you find yourself short of clothing or equipment, hiring from a place such as www.trekhireuk.com or similar is a good option.
You can get away with just one pair of light hiking boots, which are good for riding in and for hiking, and also for wandering around the streets of Ulaanbaatar. No need for serious hiking boots, or ones which are particularly waterproof since if they get wet they will dry quickly. The stirrup irons are wide enough to take light hiking boots. Some people do prefer to take a pair of short riding boots, which are also fine, and keep another pair of boots for around the camp, or a pair of sandals (depending on the time of year). Chaps are provided, so there is no need to bring long riding boots.
Duffel bags are provided to put your personal gear in, so you can leave your own bags safely stored in UB. Alternatively you are welcome to take your own bags if you prefer
This is a 17 day/16 night programme with 11 days riding available on set dates in September.
2022: September 18.
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Edge of Blue Heaven, by Benedict Allen (1999) (ISBN 0563383755). An entertaining account of this intrepid Englishman’s horse and camel trek through Mongolia.
Mongolia Lonely Planet, by Michael Kohn (2005) (ISBN 1-7459-359-6). The essential guide to Mongolia.
Genghis Khan – Life, Death and Resurrection, By John Man (2004) (ISBN 0593050444) Vividly brings to life the ancient Mongolian Empire.
The Story of The Weeping Camel (2003), film about a family in the Gobi desert.
Amka and the Three Golden Rules (2014). Great little movie. Everything you need to know about contemporary small-town life and a parable to warn Mongolians about greed from the mining boom. Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_C8FDm17l1k
Nomads of Mongolia (2016). A wonderful short film featuring the nomadic herders and eagle hunting culture from the Altai Mountains where we ride. Full movie: https://youtu.be/JsKNIeuKDrE
'On the trail of Ghengis Khan' - about the epic journey of Tim Cope from Mongolia to Hungary
'Hearing birds fly', Louisa Waugh - a fascinating description of a year spent living in a village in Bayan Ulgii, in the west of Mongolia, near where we will be.
Gantsara, by Ian Robinson - wrote this book about his ride across Mongolia in the 90s. Ian sometimes leads these trips now.
For history, this is great, but you need plenty of time: http://www.dancarlin.com/product/hardcore-history-43-wrath-of-the-khans-i/
Hunting with Eagles: In the Realm of the Mongolian Kazakhs Photographer Palani Mohan
Non-riding companions are welcome to travel in the support vehicle, during the ride, meeting up with the group at the end of each day. This is a great way to meet the local people as the driver stops and visits his relatives along the way. There is also the opportunity to hike, and to fish in the rivers and lakes. The cost of the trip for non-riders is the same as for riders (they would be part of the maximum 10 people group size).
The area has traditionally been rich in wildlife, but in recent years hunting pressure and over-grazing has taken its toll on the local wildlife population. In the forests there are still wild boar, deer and wolves, and local people say there are ibex and rare argali sheep in the mountains. Out on the steppe you will see numerous raptors, demoiselle cranes, and other birdlife. In spring there is an amazing profusion of wild flowers in the mountains. Mongolia is home to the world’s only true wild horse, the takhi or Przewalski’s horse. Once extinct in the wild, it is now making a comeback after successful reintroductions. Herds of domestic yaks, camels, sheep, goats and of course horses roam at will.
Please note, we will require a copy of your passport (photograph or scan of the ID page) to arrange internal flights, park permits and boarder permits.
The Ulgii eagle festival is bigger, located near the province capital of Ulgii. There are also many more international visitors, making it quite the spectacle not only of local talent, but international photographers and souvenir selling. The Sagsai (earlier) festival is a bit more down to earth. Either festival is truly fascinating and a good demonstration of traditional skills and gaming.
Washing: There is normally the opportunity to have a hot shower on the day before starting riding, and after, although this can't be guaranteed. There are also opportunities to swim in the rivers and lakes if the weather is warm enough. We always camp by a water source, so there will always be water for a wash, and plenty of firewood to heat it up a little if necessary.
Customs: You will have the opportunity to stop in and drink tea with the local nomadic people in their gers. Ger etiquette is a minefield, so your hosts will explain the do’s (eg. place your right hand under your left elbow when receiving or giving things) and the don’ts (eg. touch another person’s hat).
Participation required: Local wranglers are responsible for looking after the horses, but you are more than welcome to assist and learn local techniques. You are encouraged to help with preparation of meals. Pitching of your tent is your responsibility, with assistance when needed. It is hoped that you will contribute to camping activities such as gathering of firewood. We welcome your input when deciding on potential routes while riding.
Gifts: Your hosts carry various useful things to give to people when they think it is appropriate, such as notebooks and pencils for the kids, which they get in UB. Not sweets unfortunately. You do not need to bring gifts with you, although things which you can share with people when visiting are good, rather than simply handing something over. An example is snuff, which is often ritually shared between men when they meet (and honorary ‘men’ from foreign lands!). You should be able to buy small tins of flavoured snuff in your country (menthol is particularly popular). A few photos showing you riding or doing something interesting back home are also useful.
Visiting Ulaan Baatar: When people ask about staying in Ulaan Baatar it is suggested that two extra days is the most you would want to allow. That will let people see the Natural History and National History museums, which are both excellent, Gandan Monastery, the Bogd Khan's Winter Palace, and Zanabazar Fine Arts Museum, which are the main sites of interest. Hanging out in Sukhbaatar Square, a classic Soviet-style expanse, and watching the people is great too. There are some excellent cultural shows in the evening, including throat singing.
A day trip out to Khustai National Park to see the Przeswalski horses is a good idea, or even overnight (there are comfortable ger camps to stay in).
Overall, one day would get you the highlights, two would cover it completely, and by day three the traffic, crowds and pickpockets will be too much!
Mongolia is a huge landlocked country, more than six times the size of the UK, sandwiched between Russia and China. It is also one of the highest countries in the world, with an average elevation of 1580m. Mongolia can be divided into six distinct zones including desert, steppe, mountain and taiga. The southern third of Mongolia is dominated by the Gobi Desert.
The name 'Mongolia' has always stirred up visions of the untamed - Genghis Khan, camels wandering the Gobi Desert and wild horses galloping across the steppes. Even today, outside of Ulaan Baatar you may get the feeling you've stepped into another century rather than another country.
Mongolia is seven or eight hours ahead of GMT depending on which part of the country you are in. They use the metric weights and measures system, so kilometres and kilograms instead of miles and pounds. There is approximately 1.6 kilometres in a mile and 2.2 pounds in a kilogram.
The major religion is Tibetan Buddhism.