At first I was not convinced. I had never been interested in horse riding at all, nor did I even plan on mounting a sturdy white mare upon arrival to Mongolia’s Gorkhi-Terelj National Park. And despite everyone indulging me with horse maxims like, “to ride a horse is like to ride the wind,” or “no hour of life is wasted that is spent in the saddle,” I still associated the pastime with priggish bourgeois social classes and the boring equestrian events of the Summer Olympics. Even as a boy I was thoroughly bored with Wild West and Cowboys and Indians movies; and need I even mention the dancing Lipizzaner Stallions of the Spanish Riding school in Austria, which to me, are parodied of their true abilities and groomed to look like pearly “My Little Pony” toys for children.
But after ceaselessly goading me on the prospect of a mini-adventure within the greater one, to explore the vast, unfurled carpet of green before us that was the Mongolian steppes, my fellow travelers had succeeded in getting under my skin to a positive, “yes, okay, I’ll do it!” Anyhow, the thought of wind through my greasy, tousled locks may have been the closest thing to a “natural” shampoo and conditioner in the three weeks I had been backpacking.
The tour guide was a Mongolian nomad named Sukh. Contrary to the stereotype of a Mongol being stolid, intransigent and blood-lusting, our nomad had an inviting and comical side to him. When we met him for the first time he began pointing to himself as if we suddenly commenced an impromptu game of charades, and motioning a giant axe; hell, by the large sweeping arm movement, it might have been a halberd he was swinging. We didn’t know why, or even what, he was gesticulating, and the language barrier between us may have been what the Berlin wall once was. Did the tour finish off with an animal sacrifice? Was it an invitation to a beheading? Was it supplementary and did we have to pay extra? We wore dumb looks on our faces until one of the children broke away from milking a cow, ran up to us quickly for the cow’s teats had been softened and its owner antsy, and in our suspended state of mental density she yelled out, “Axe! his name…Sukh, means ‘axe’ in English.” We nodded our heads and felt slightly relieved. We still felt dumb in the spectacle, just a downgraded dumbness.
As everyone sat atop their horses waiting for me to mount, I was quickly reprimanded derided for sticking my left foot in the horse’s right stirrup—how foolish of me! I nearly stumbled over and the horse nervously danced away, a reaction questioning what in the world I was doing.
“Marius!” Lise shouted, an exchange student from Norway and an avid equestrian, “you mount on the nearside, the left side; horses don’t like riders mounting on the offside, particularly Mongolian horses.”
“I just can’t get a good grip, my shoe is falling apart, too.” In defending myself with such lame words, my face put on the colors of the Mongolian flag—I was truly embarrassed. Of course, I was hoping to lie my way through looking like an idiot and even to get exempted from such titles, but, unfortunately, the former excuse was transparent and, well, the latter was true but hardly a reason why I couldn’t mount a horse. My shoe was on the verge of becoming furloughed for good, its sole was completely unpeeled from the leather and was flapping around as if it had suddenly learned to speak and be a deceitful and unreliable scoundrel…could you believe the cheek? For a shoe to speak lies because I was just trying to enjoy myself and mount a Mongolian horse.
As Sukh shook his head in disappointment, calling the horse back and holding the reins tighter, I tried again, and finally, with some –difficulty—as to be expected from a –beginner—I managed to climb up...on the nearside.
As I nestled my rear into the high and narrow wooden saddle, things suddenly became different. Maybe the air was different? Maybe this was the first step at experiencing an unfettered sense of freedom? All in all, life indeed appeared so much better up high then down below. I think a cool, mutton-smelling wind was starting to pick up as well from the nearby ger camp. As the maxim goes, I was ready to ride the wind.