My Nepali Horse Oh-La and Grand Nepal
I could hear my horse’s hooves below making a pleasing clip-clop-clip-clop and his neckbell staying in time with a musical ding-ding-ding-ding. The dry high altitude air of Nepal was on my face causing the scarf covering my nose and mouth to flap. The horse’s movements I felt through the saddle. With my eyes closed, these were the only sensations I had.
Then I opened my eyes. The Himalayas rose above on both sides of the riverbed the horse and I were paralleling. Mountains exceeding 20,000 feet, topped with glaciers and snow, were visible everywhere with an azure hemisphere sky above. In front and behind me on the trail were my traveling companions riding calmly on their horses, each taking in the awesome vastness of Nepal. We were riding the pilgrim trail to Lo Monthang, in the Mustang Kingdom, to witness there the annual Tiji Festival.
Overlaid upon these sights and sounds were my thoughts, which were how this horse trek contrasted with the one the year previous in Mongolia. I had been on the trail a few days before I began to realize that Nepal and Mongolia were opposites. The terrain, horses, houses and traveling couldn’t be any more different.
Mongolian Horses and Nomad
Since I’m an animal-lover, in both countries it was the horseback riding I remember the most fondly. The Mongolian horse trek required lots of preparation. First of all, I was encouraged to take riding lessons before arriving, which I did. Then once in-country and at our base camp, it was then necessary to listen to a safety lecture before approaching the horses. Mongol horses I was told are half-wild, prone to kicking, biting, or bolting into a gallop with no warning. They were dangerous to the unwary, like riding a live hand grenade with fur and hooves and one hell of an attitude. When walking, trotting, cantering or galloping, these horses did so with their heads high. They were intense, proud animals bred for attack.
Me on Oh-La my horse in Nepal. Photo by Mindi Counts
Oh-La, my Nepali horse (Mongolians don’t name their horses so I named mine Spencer), however, was calm, always calm. No safety briefing required. Just get on him, take the reins and ride. He didn’t gallop or canter or trot but would walk and walk and walk all day without complaint. Once at a destination, and I was off his back, his head would droop, then his eyelids, and he would doze. His bearing was like that of a Buddhist monk. On the trail he moved with his head down studying the terrain ahead and under his hooves.
If he were human, I can imagine Oh-La reciting Buddhist sutras and serenely contemplating their meaning. Spencer the Mongol, however, would have played Grand Theft Auto video games and watched Fast & Furious movies.
On the trail and passing through villages I noted that buildings in Nepal were completely different from Mongolia’s. A typical Nepali structure was made of mud brick and sometimes rounded river stones and roofed with dirt and wood. The floor plan was irregular. They were stationary dwellings for a people who were born, lived and died in one place.
Mongolia’s nomadic encampments by definition were not stationary. The Mongolian nomad world was of change and movement and attention to the seasons and their homes reflected this.
Mongolian Nomad Ger
Their gers were disassembled, transported and re-assembled four times a year. Constructed of wooden poles they were arranged in a bicycle-spoke pattern covered in thick felt and over that a heavy white cloth. The apex was left open to the sky. They resembled a white Native American teepee but squat to the ground.
Cliffs and Caves in Nepal
The terrain in Nepal was rocky and dusty and without much greenery. This surprised me, these hues of brown and red, the rugged cliffs pockmarked with caves, the white-capped mountains. I guess I had in mind the rich colors and topography of the Swiss Alps. Everywhere the evidence of glaciers was apparent in the way the cliffs formed, the mountains cleaved and riverbeds formed.
The Mongolian landscape, conversely, was mostly rolling hills, some high rocky mountains but mostly flat plain, thinly covered in brown or gray-green grass. This area had been mountainous hundreds of millions of years before the Himalayas were formed but had been subdued by the force of time and the work of the elements. Mongolia’s flat plains seemed to me to be made for the horse and for the horse to gallop and gallop hard all day long. Aside from the occasional ankle-twisting marmot hole, the surface wasn’t hazardous to hikers, horses, riders, or tour buses, kind of like millions of square miles of Astroturf.
Getting around Nepal was a challenge. Our flight to Jomsom, our starting point where our horses and Sherpas waited, required risky mountain flying—low and fast through mountain passes. Sitting behind the cockpit and observing what the pilots saw and did, I could see that we were potentially seconds and a few hundred feet away from smashing into a mountainside. For the flightcrew, there was no sitting back, flipping on the flight director and letting the plane do the thinking and flying. The pilots were on full alert and hand flying it from takeoff to touchdown.
On the trail with our horses, the elevations we climbed were dramatic: up the trail hundreds of feet vertically with Oh-La lugging my fat American ass without grievance and then off him to scramble on foot downhill or alongside cliffs. While hiking I had to be totally absorbed on the trail condition. The dirt, gravel and rocks being the surface that would either hold me to the Earth or cause me to stumble off a cliff. Oh-La taught me never take your eyes off the trail while moving.
River Valley in Mongolia
Mongolia was easier to travel in at least one respect. There large areas were crossed by bus. However, the greatest challenge was the horseback riding, which we did for adventure and to get from camp to camp. Being astride a Mongolian horse morphed us travelers into aggressive beasts ourselves. Many times I enjoyed the exhilaration of galloping across the wide expanses, behaving not as mere travelers but as conquerors.
After several days of hiking and horsebacking, sleeping in chilly tents under crystalline dark skies we arrived in Lo Monthang for the annual Tiji Festival. The town was windy and dusty as all the others were but active with Festival preparations. From Jomsom, the elevation had increased from 9,000 to almost 13,000 feet, and with the change, the air got drier and cooler. Dust had penetrated my clothing, skin, sinuses and lungs and I already had a good start on chest congestion that would take a month or more to cure.
While traveling, Nepal engulfed and surrounded and towered over my fellow travelers and me and we relished it. The landscape was potent, sharp, harsh, and breathtaking. Moreover, at least I think in my case having the experience of Mongolia the year before, made this trek even more special, more vivid.
Horses in Nepal