Each month we will be interviewing the people that head up the teams that make our riding holidays the best collection in the world.
What better way to start than by interviewing, John Williamson who owns and guides our rides in Mongolia.
Jill / You’re from New Zealand, why Mongolia?
John / People ask me that question a lot – for years I used to tell people that one day I was going to ride a horse across Mongolia, and eventually I had to do it or risk being accused of being all talk! The whole thing started with an encyclopaedia I had as a child, showing the wild horseman of the Central Asian Steppe. That fired my imagination. My mother travelled when she was quite young, and now and then as a family we would watch her old slides, projected on to the lounge wall. I’m sure that gave me a taste for exploring exotic places too.
Jill / Has the country lived up to your expectations?
John / Mongolia really is everything I dreamed it would be and it can be truly described as ‘off the beaten track’. It’s been a rare privilege to spend the last 10 years getting to know a lot of wonderful Mongolia people and share their lives for several months each year. The key to our success is that we started by developing relationships with the local people, and were then able to set up our trekking operation in areas where there was no established tourism. We were able to create our treks exactly the way we wanted.
Jill / What are the horses/ponies like? And where do you get them from?
John / I think the Mongolian horses are fantastic, but then I can only compare them with horses I’ve ridden in NZ. I’ve ridden some great horses in NZ including my current boy Tussock, but he wouldn’t last a week in Mongolia. Many of our riders have trekked in numerous other countries, and they invariably love the Mongolian horses, so I have the impression that they are something special. They may be small, but they more than make up for it in toughness and character.
People talk about the Mongolian horses as being half-wild, which is true in the sense that they spend most of their lives running free in the wild. But they are easy to ride as long as you treat them with respect, and remember that there are some big differences from the horses back home. For example they do not need to be groomed!
We work closely with local horse-owning families from the areas where we ride, some of whom we have known for over ten years. When I think back to the shambles we often had when we first started, organising the horses now works amazingly well now. Our local horsemen, especially Tsoj and Dondov in Zavkhan, are experts at matching riders to the ideal horse. They understand now that not everyone wants something spirited, such as the Ginger Ninja!
Mongolians revere their horses and they are an integral part of the culture. They are certainly not pets, but are treated extremely well.
Jill / Is it still a very undiscovered, unchartered place to ride?
John / I think some people have always known about riding in Mongolia as a ‘once in a lifetime’ thing to do. When we started out it was common to have people say they had always dreamed of riding in Mongolia. But it is definitely becoming better known now as a world-class horse trekking destination.
The whole country in general sees relatively few visitors, and it’s possible to travel in remote regions that see no foreigners. You can still experience a traditional culture that has changed little in the past hundred years. Tourism is still unknown in these areas, so no one is trying to sell you souvenirs or a cultural show. Of course the lack of tourism does mean that there are no guesthouses so it’s wilderness camping only.
Jill / What are the people like that you meet while out riding?
John / The people are what really make Mongolia special. The nomadic herders we meet along the way have a culture of hospitality that ensures we are treated as honoured guests. It helps that most people along the way are friends or family of our local team. There are plenty of opportunities to learn about the local customs as we stop in for tea and sample the local delicacies (and yes, it is OK to politely decline that second portion of sheep’s eyeballs). We tend to be as interesting to the local people as they are to us, which makes for an enriching experience.
Jill / What kind of people come on your rides?
John / Our ‘typical’ rider (although no one who rides in Mongolia can really be called typical!) would be a woman in her 20s to 40s, travelling on her own, with an interest in adventure travel, who recognises that riding in Mongolia is the best way to experience the country. Most guests are either regular riders, or used to be. We also get quite a few people with little riding experience, who wish to see Mongolia from horseback.
Over the years we have become expert at leading groups with mixed experience. The more confident riders get the chance to gallop across the steppe, while those with less experience can stay at a gentler pace. Everyone gets to ride at the pace they are happy with.
We ride in remote wilderness areas with no tourism infrastructure, so the comfort level is basic (hiking tents, washing in the local river). This excludes a lot of people who can’t go without their creature comforts, and that’s just the way we, and our guests, like it!
Jill / What do you love most about riding in Mongolia?
John / That’s a difficult question because there is so much to love about it. The scenery is incredible, the terrain is perfect for riding, and the horses are great. But for me the thing that sets it apart is the sense of freedom when riding in Mongolia. With no private land, fences, gates or roads, we can ride for weeks in any direction. There’s always grazing and a stream to stop by at the end of each day. When the land is good for galloping, we gallop. When the trail is steep and narrow, or through dense forest, the sure-footed horses are as keen as ever. Horse riding heaven I reckon!
Stay tuned to my blog!
If you would like to find out more about the holiday that with John's help can become a dream holiday - Click on the 'More' button below!
This Altai Mountains adventure Holiday is an exciting horse riding holiday in Mongolia. Fascinating culture - meet the local people and experience their traditional nomadic lifestyle. As part of our Horse Riding Holidays Mongolia collection... Experience Level
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