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Mongolian trotting.

Trotting on ice; strides short and balanced, as we rode on unshod, stocky ponies through herds of yaks who were lumbering across the lunar-like landscape of Mongolia. December, minus 14C, causing not only our breath to freeze but the insides of our nostrils and what felt like the top layers of exposed skin. The only warmth emanating from the briskly moving shoulders of the solid animals beneath us.

Our guide across this sepia coloured land was Bat. His broad, regal face grinning as he explained, |In Mongolia there are thirty-two words for snow'. We learnt how to say horse, yak, wolf and one word for snow, the basics of Mongolian vocabulary.

Great care is taken of these small |horses'; for hundreds of years they have been of vital importance to the economy and communications of the country - a lack of technology maintaining this status. The people believe themselves to be |born and bred' on horseback. A critical eye of our riding skills was cast by each passing herdsman.

Our journey took us to a dense, reservation style of village. Yurts - great, white circular tents, were clustered together; white smoke coming from each causing a haze of frozen air to hang, guarding the village. It was deserted. We halted outside one of the smoking yurts.

|Tea,' announced Bat, who smiled, leapt off his pony and wandered inside. His pony, untied, didn't move. We copied.

Into the warmth. Inside and seated we were given Mongolian tea - sour and milky - and yak butter biscuits. At the centre of the warmth was a black boiler, the chimney leading to a hole in the roof and the structure of the ceiling resembled the inside of a Chinese umbrella - each spine painted and decorated to perfection. A crude gun was propped up against a chest that had Genghis Khan painted on each panel. A flame flickered next to the Buddha with a background of black and white family photographs. Four children sat huddled staring at the two foreigners wearing brightly coloured jackets drinking tea from their shallow wood and brass dishes.

A broad grin. |Now vodka,' and we were handed a |for export only' Scottish vodka bottle. It looked, and tasted, like salty water - made from yak milk we discovered; we were shown a barrel of brewing |vodka'. A Scottish bottle that would never be empty.

The day outside had begun to depart. Much warmed, we remounted. Maybe it was the vodka or maybe it was the sound of wolves in the forests above us but the journey through the ice cut valley seemed much more enchanting on the way home.

Colder, darker and still. The yaks no longer lumbered; they were motionless rocks on the earth's crust. Only we moved with the same briskly moving shoulders beneath us. We saw the thirty-two colours of snow.

Landlocked between the once USSR and China, Mongolian mythology says it is the centre of the world and, in turn, the centre of the universe. An empire, under Genghis Khan, that once stretched from the Pacific to the Black Sea. The Great Wall of China built to halt marauding, nomadic Mongols.

The image of a fiercesome Mongol was dispelled in my mind every time I saw those proud faced people in fur coats walking the cold, grey streets of the capital, Ulan Bator. People too dignified to eat potatoes and chickens because they taste of earth and rubbish.

The Mongolian Secret History is 750 years old. I couldn't help but think that maybe there is a good reason for this enigma.
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Title Annotation:personal narrative
Author:Hynes, Patricia
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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