The start of my trip round Mongolia had unintentionally become a case of chasing Vinnie Jones. He was doing a “SKY” travel documentary. And he was at every camp I turned up at. The film was primarily about Vinnie horse riding, but he did not, by all accounts like horse riding, he wanted to fish, but that didn’t make exciting viewing. His demeanor was constrained compared to the press stories back home, but the constant scowl on his face suggested he could turn at any moment.
The film crew insisted that the group I was travelling in remain out of shot at all times. So on this occasion we stood by, waiting for Vinnie to appear to lasso his horse for riding. Of course it was a Mongolian horse handler who actually caught the rather feisty little horse.
Mongolian horses are left most of the winter to roam the snow covered steppes the way nature intended, wild and free. Come the spring they are corralled in and then domesticated for the summer, but they never really lose that untamed feral nature, which is why I wanted to ride one, I guess. To really experience a horses true wild spirit.
So I waited for the bad boy of football (Was it Fulham that first signed him up all those years ago?) to ride off into the wild Mongolian steppes. But he was obviously not going to so with the same flair and gritty confidence of John Wayne in one of his old westerns. Or by the look on his face as he trotted by, with much good humour.
“Come on Vinnie, give us a smile” one of my travelling companions Saphira good naturedly shouted as he went past. Later that evening she would unsuccessfully attempt to get into his sleeping bag. Needless to say he didn’t oblige her with a smile; in fact I am sure his scowl intensified as he went by.
It came to my turn to mount my horse. Mongolians have two speeds of horse, slow for elderly women with young children and fast for everybody else.
Until I had planned this trip to Mongolia I had only ever been on a horse once, add a few donkey rides on Bognor Regis beach on summer holidays and that was the sum total of my horse riding abilities.
I had taken a weekly horse riding lesson on a rather grumpy old horse at a local
stable back in Epsom. And over the weeks learned to love his character, and could see a world weary old man in him. Sometimes he just didn’t want to get up out of bed to have some silly woman ride him round the training arena. But I learnt it was all about me persuading him, not the other way round. Rather like telling your grand dad it was good for him to come out and take a walk with you.
Now, here in the land of the Mongols, I wasn’t sure I was up to a fast horse, and so I had somehow been able to explain I wanted a slow one. The kind for the old and the infirm.
Another thing about Mongolian horses is their size. They are on the small side. Many people have despairingly called them ponies. But they are not; they are extremely sturdy and feisty horses.
So, I climbed on to my very short horse and kicked him in the flank and he slowly trotted off, slow being the operative word. My two new travelling friends Isabella, a French tour guide on holiday and Saphira, the granddaughter of a Prussian princess, were both adept riders. They had chosen fast horses and had already disappeared into the remote landscape. I meanwhile was left looking most ungainly on the back of the slowest horse in town. And believe me its was a very small town.
With somewhat random hand signals I eventually pointed to my horse and then to the now rapidly disappearing figures of Saphira and Isabella. With a curt nod the horse handler showed he immediately understood. Another little brown horse was saddled up, looking remarkably like the one I was on previously.
But when I kicked him in the flank, he was off like a rocket. I sped off with a brief moment of euphoria, brief moment because I suddenly realised I was going off in the wrong direction to where my friends where headed.
How could I stop him?
I pulled on the rope that represented the reigns and it snapped in my hands. We continued at a gallop and it was then that I realised there was nothing between me and the Chinese border, which I hazarded a guess, was fifty miles, maybe more away.
No trees, no homes, no roads, nothing, to impede this almost feral animal’s journey.
Suddenly the beauty of the big space called Mongolia – land of the blue skies – became unnerving. The lush green steppes that would in a few months be layered with thick white snow could see me lost forever. Would he stop before the border?
I then- in a flash of inspiration, tried my first words of Mongolian – Zogs ! (stop).
The horse stopped, literally, nearly sending me over the top of his head. My first attempt at the Mongolian language had been a success, albeit with a horse. And I concluded that on first impressions, riding had not been a total disaster. I was after all still on the horse! Although slightly bemused what to do next.
Just then galloping up with more aplomb then I could ever hope to muster, came my trusted Mongolian horse handler. In my head I had already called him “Genghis”, simply because it was the only Mongolian name I knew.
He jumped off his horse, whilst it was still in motion, strode forcefully towards my horse and inspected the reigns. From out of the pocket of his tunic he pulled another piece of rope, which he tied to the broken piece attached to my horses head. And I was back in control of the reigns, if not the horse. Without further ado, Genghis enthusiastically whacked the rump of my horse and we went back on the gallop, this time going in the right direction.
Finally after weeks of lessons in riding back in leafy suburbia I was riding a Mongolian horse across the green steppes and I felt exhilarated. This would be the closest I would ever come to being on a real wild horse.
We rode at a pace and I caught up with Isabella and Saphira down the in the valley, resting their horses in a meadow. I stared for a few seconds slightly disorientated; we were in an English meadow of flowers. Flowers of every colour, cornflowers, poppies, marigolds daisies and the aroma of sweet marjoram and wild strawberries wafted up from under my horses’ hooves.
When we got back to camp a few hours later I was all fired up with my success at riding a Mongolian horse. But the main topic of conversation was Vinnie’s riding abilities. By the sound of things he had not enjoyed his first experience as much I had. I tried really hard not to gloat really I did.
Saphira and I commandeered the last bottles of wine on the camp site and probably in all of Mongolia and we celebrated the start of our journey round the land of blue skies. I was of course blissfully unaware of just how much my muscles would ache the next morning.
But I did have the added bonus of seeing Vinnie Jones walking like John Wayne when he came in to the main tent for breakfast. Still with a scowl on his face though. I couldn’t suppress a cheeky grin. Ride Vinnie ride!