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Home » Featured, Logistics

Should TME be solo or guided?

Submitted by on August 9, 2010 – 12:00 pm17 Comments

When I first started planning TME back in January, my plan was to do this whole trip solo. As I began to think more and more about the logistics, I realized that I would feel more comfortable traveling in a country for which no accurate map exists if I had a guide.  Since then, everything I’ve been planning has been under the assumption that I would have a guide during the entire trip.

Recently though, the solo adventurer in me is balking a bit at the idea of having someone with me throughout the whole of this ordeal, and I’m now considering making a only portion of the trip with the assistance of a guide.

My plan for TME has always been to start off my trip by spending around a month living with a Mongolian family I have found that offers instruction in horse training and Mongolian language in exchange for helping to teach their guides English.  I think that with enough instruction in Mongolian, enough experience dealing with Mongolian horses, and a few 3-4 day solo trips from my “base camp” with the family, I should be able to accomplish most, if not all, of this trip alone.

Mongolia is a big, largely empty place, but there have been many folks who have done trips across its great steppes on their own.  It has been done on foot, on horseback, and in entirely unsuitable carsI feel that a solo trip would be much more effective than a guided trip, and with the right amount of preparation, it would be almost as safe. Plus, the goal of this trip is to help raise awareness about Mongolian culture and the issues it is currently facing, and I think the publicity the project would get from a solo trip would far exceed that which it would get from a trip in which I would be accompanied by a guide.

What do you think? Is riding a horse across Mongolia solo a completely batty idea or just a somewhat batty idea?  Do you think I should use a guide the full time?  None of the time?  Only in extreme risk areas like the Gobi?  Would you, as a viewer/reader/consumer be considerably more interested in a project undertaken solo than you would in a project undertaken with a guide?

[Photo by David Gee]


  • Kate C says:

    Guided. I know your views on solo travel. But guided travel can still allow you to be on your own but be safer and better informed as you go. Plus guides are your personal friends- they serve a defined function and essentially are working for you. I had guided trip across Western Turkey. My guide was Mustafa (yes like the Lion King) and he was great and very professional. I learned so much just because he was there. He wasn’t our friend but served a vital professional function.

    Also that trip was just me and my aunt, but we had a group of tourists that came and went throughout the trip with Mustafa. I enjoyed meeting the newcomers, but didn’t feel like they interfered with my aunt and my goals on the trip.

    • admin says:

      One of the problems is that due to the nature of this trip, I would need to find a guide who could work for me for at least three months, and thus far, that is proving virtually impossible. If I use a guide, they will be there pretty much only as backup in case of an emergency and as something of a language crutch. As such, I’ve been feeling recently that my reasons for paying for a guide are mostly reasons based in fear, and fear is rarely a good method for making decisions.

      • maria says:

        As a solo traveler myself, I completely understand your desire to go it alone, as well as your reluctance to give in to fear. However, in such desolate terrain, I’m not sure it’s completely wise. It’s never a good idea to hike/camp/climb alone even in the U.S., and in a place like Mongolia, without any infrastructure, I think it’s an even worse idea. At the least, I would suggest using your homestay to get contacts whom you could visit, and go from nomad family to nomad family. It’s important that someone expects you to show up, and I could imagine that in the traditional nomadic culture, people would feel responsible for your well-being. Don’t confuse fear with a sensible dose of caution! I think backup in case of emergency is a completely valid reason for a guide. As a solo traveler, I’ve been in some hairy situations myself where only blind luck saved me from a terrible fate, and luck only works so long…

        • Kelsey says:

          Well, the thing is that to do all the things you list, I don’t necessarily need a guide. The plan all along has been to stay with random nomad families along the way, as that’s the way it has been done by every other Mongolian traveler I’ve read about. Mongolian culture has a code that it is extremely impolite to deny food and shelter to any visitor, stranger or otherwise, and folks just tend to go from yurt to yurt. Having a guide doesn’t really help with that. As for emergencies, I will be carrying an air rescue GPS beacon which can be activated in a real emergency, as well as a satellite phone.

  • et says:

    How much Mongolian do you speak?
    If you speak enough to get around perhaps w/o guide is a better idea. Or go and decide once you get there.
    If none, perhaps you should put your trip off until you learn enough that self sufficient travel is an option. Otherwise you will be held hostage to the situation.

    • admin says:

      As of right now, I speak none, though I am hoping to find a tutor here soon. When I arrive in Mongolia, I plan on spending my first month living with a Mongolian family, which should help my language abilities considerably.

      However, I think you raise a good point that without language abilities or an interpreter, I may not be able to actually achieve the goals of this project.

  • GK says:

    Where to begin.
    I’ve probably advised at least a dozen young women on solo horseback travel across Mongolia over the last 15 years. I’ve tracked their efforts and can give you the following advice:

    1. Do not buy horse, rent them. Start with a herding family that has at least a couple of sons in their teens. Rent a horse from them and hire the teenager as your guide. Include in the rent an offer to teach the young lad some basic English. Travel a couple hundred klicks and have the teenager help you meet a new local family (that also has a teenage son), send the first horse and guide back, settle in for a few days with the new family, then proceed with new horses and a new guide from that family. In fact, you could cross the country being passed from one relative to another or at least from relative to school chum to school chum’s relative, etc. That chain of connection is your single greatest safety net. Hopscotch this way and you emulate the actual way that Mongols would travel. It’s so bloody stupid when people buy a horse and imagine in some romantic fit that they are going to end up in Olgii with old dobbin by their side. The horses are used to local feed for one thing but more importantly, when they get loose, and they WILL get loose, they head home even if that’s 150 kilometers. Care to walk that far? (The other option is that they will join a local herd and the herder will quickly notice and if there is a market town nearby that horse will be butchered and sold in 24 hours…well, unless it looks like a really good horse.. but the chance you will be riding a really good horse is low.) Horse rental to tourists hangs around 5k tugs per horse/day. Longer rides or for people who aren’t in the business of renting horses and where there is English tutoring tossed in could get down to 2000/3000 per day. Maybe you think that’s too expensive, but look at what it includes in the way of safety net, guidance, security, reliability, good horses, good company and a narrative that links you as the common denominator across 1000 miles or more of herding families. If you bargain too hard, you’ll end up on either old three legs or zagalgan (lighting) and pay the price in saddle sores or broken bones.

    The advantage to the hopscotch method is that the family is responsible and the guide, for the horses. They know those particular animals well and they won’t want to send you and their son out on bad nags. And the guide will be your best marketing when you show up at a new family’s ger. In the first 10 minutes the new family will know what kind of rider you are, whether you are a kind, warm hearted person and will generally do all the introduction work and explain your purpose. He will also let them know what you paid to rent the horses and if you’ve become friends, he will be on YOUR side in the negotiations for new mounts.

    Language: Here’s the deal, you could be a psycho moron babbling a steady stream of gibberish and a herding family will treat you with respect, feed you tea, smile and nod. So learn a good amount of basic Mongolia BEFORE you leave, unless you want the same treatment afforded a psycho moron. Just imagine if a Mongolian came to your house in suburbia and consumed the better part of your day observing you, engaging you in high energy but generally disappointing games of charades. It actually gets old fast. Herders aren’t two dimensional cutouts that just sit in place until some traveler comes along. They have lives and responsibilities and tasks and chores. and by the way… start out offering to do the most basic chores..insist on helping gather dung for fires or drying, hauling water, cutting firewood (please tell me you know your way around an ax with a very short handle). If you don’t want to be treated like a space alien, you have to go out of your way not to act like one. Don’t base your interactions on showing off all your whiz bang gadgets, at least not until you have actually proven your worth by doing the basic, daily chores. A foreigner is ALWAYS shown respect and also represents some potential danger, not that you’d hit anyone on the head, but having you in the ger makes you their responsibility. If you want to get past that veneer of being the foreigner/space alien then DON’T always make yourself and your kit and your questions the center of attention. Try blending in and that takes investing time. When they see a foreigner, unasked, pitch in on chores and do them like it was just a normal part of being there, then they begin to see you through different eyes. And if you are doing the chores wrong, they’ll teach you. Don’t ask permission to do chores, just spend a lot of time watching what goes on and the rhythm of events, then quietly join in. If they try and tell you no, because you are a guest, just be persistent.

    If you really want to do something interesting, throw away the bloody gps. Mongols manage without them and your guides on each segment are far more accurate than any electronic device. Commit yourself to traveling the way people have traveled long distances for eons, relying on local knowledge and guides, getting a feel for the landscape. A gps after all is down right dumb when it comes to terrain, it just gives you straight lines which are essentially impossible in Mongolia. That would actually be a first, to travel a long way in Mongolia WITHOUT all the whizbang stuff. Leave the high end camping clothes and electronics behind and go native. If you actually have the right stuff and more importantly, the right perspective, then you’ll do fine. Mongols do it everyday without Rough Rider Pants or expensive chronometers. And the fact is that cell phone coverage is pretty much everywhere now. If not right where you are, a canter to the highest local hill will often pick up a signal. Your local guide will know which hill.

    Read up on Manduhai and the other famous women in Mongolia. If you actually get to learn some Khalkh then talking about them with locals will strike a very positive chord. Look in UB for books, I think there may even be some illustrated kid type books on Mongolian historical figures.

    Call Jack Weatherford. Better yet, spend the ticket money and go visit him for an afternoon. Read his books first.

    Stop talking about safety. Imagining bad things happening is like imagining falling when you’re rock climbing. It does no practical good and probably makes it more likely that the thought will be precursor to the deed. Remember that out in the countryside, everyone knows everyone so it’s pretty hard to be an anonymous bad guy. If you meet people who make you nervous, make a point of admiring their saddle, horse, elements of their clothing, introduce yourself or better yet, ask one guy the other guy’s name. Chinii naizni ner yuwain? They are checking you out and when they know you are checking them out, they realize they will be easy to identify. Ask about their family, the location of the ger. Learn to say “mal sureg targan tavtai uu” like a local.

    If you want insurance, let people know that your friends, or better yet your two brothers are meeting you down the trail.

    If you do travel alone, ALWAYS stay with a family at night. The only reason people in Mongolia camp out away from the obvious places for gers are if they are cutting winter fodder or hunting. Otherwise, people camped up high away from other people are probably doing something that they don’t want others to see. So you invite curiosity and even some suspicion. Forget the western idyll of camping out with your little tent and horses high on the ridge surrounded by solitude. Bad idea.

    Exception to the above. If you arrive at a ger and the man of the house is already drunk, or he isn’t there but is coming back soon and one of the family members thumps their throat with their middle finger in reference to Dad, mount up and move on. Learn critical words like sogto (drunk) and mu, muhai (bad, ugly).

    And be low key.. Don’t be loud and huggy and excitable and flamboyant. Don’t say “thank you” more than once a day and that’s actually probably too often. Wear long sleeves and make a point of rolling them down before you shake hands with people (except little kids, that’s ok). If you wear short sleeves, make a point of pantomiming rolling your sleeves down just before you shake hands, (like brushing dust off your arms). Always use “ta” until someone suggests you can use “chi”.

    If you smoke, take roll your own materials. Ready mades will disappear fast and you can’t look stingy. Roll your owns are a wonderful social event and people will roll skinny cigs so as not to deplete your supply, but ready mades are well… ready mades and they have to be handed around until everyone has one. Those that don’t smoke will take one anyway to be polite. You’ll know the non-smokers because they’ll put the cig behind their ear.

    Learn to say. Arkhi dorgui ( I don’t like alcohol) if you are offered vodka but DON’T refuse airag or milk vodka. Just sip a bit and hand the bowl back. If pressed to drink vodka, take the cup, offer some on your index finger to each direction and then just touch some to your lips. After that, you can be firm about not drinking the bowl.

    I’ve probably used up my allotment of text. Good luck and if you get into trouble, call Anya at 99115929. Tell her that Bozeman said you could call for advice.

    and don’t forget to have evac coverage.

    • admin says:

      Thanks for all your advice, and here’s my responses to your various tidbits of wisdom:

      My plan was to start off with a month of living with a family that I know there who is looking for someone to come and trade providing English lessons for their guides in exchange for room and board and horse training lessons. I will be working with a Mongolian tutor over here stateside, but I am hoping that that initial month will help polish my in-country manners, teach me a bit more about how to fit into their culture, etc.

      My reasons behind buying horses, as opposed to renting them, has more to do with logistics than anything else. Because of the camera gear, etc, that I will be carrying, I will need a pack horse as well as a riding horse, which makes your given method a bit more difficult. I have a good friend in-country who has offered to make sure I buy good horses, and he has been working as a guide there since he was one of the ger-dwelling teenage sons you mention. ;) However, you do raise a good point about horses returning home, so I would be curious to see what your solution to this problem is.

      As I mentioned in my post about “Mongolian GPS“, I do plan on going from ger to ger as a method of navigation, rather than using a real GPS. I feel that having a local introduction in the form of another local will go a long way toward getting folks to open up to me, and I was already considering something along the lines of what you had mentioned.

      I am hoping to learn a decent amount of Mongolian before I go. I live in an area with a high population of Mongolians, most of whom are first generation immigrants, and I’m hoping to trade English lessons for Mongolian lessons with one of them. I’m a certified English teacher, and I’m hoping that that will help me find someone. I also used to live on a rural island in Korea where I was one of only three people who spoke English (and I rarely ever saw the other two), and I am very, very used to interacting with folks through a language barrier while not seeming like an idiot monkey.

      Your statements about doing chores – I would hope that such behavior would be obvious for anyone with an interest in doing a trip like this! If you want to get people to open up to you, you have to “go native”. Whenever I shoot a group of people, I prefer to spend a long time getting to know them before I even take the camera out of the bag – if you don’t, you won’t get shots that accurately depict the people you’re photographing, because you won’t know what the people are like! And by “getting to know them”, I don’t mean asking a ton of questions – I mean engaging in their lives and being involved in whatever task is going on. Believe me, “blending in” and helping out has been my plan from the start.

      I wasn’t planning on using a GPS. As I said in the entry I linked to before, I plan on navigating via either a guide or by going from ger to ger. The only GPS I will be carrying is a “SPOT” GPS, which is not used for navigation. It only has two buttons – one that updates a map online with a dot that shows where you are and that you are okay, and the other that shows a dot where you are and that you are *not* okay. I only plan on using it to keep the folks back home updated on where I am, as well as to have something to act as a marker in case of an emergency.

      I also don’t plan on going “high tech” with this, and I’m curious where you got that impression from (especially since I have yet to discuss gear yet). I will be wearing the same damn pants I ride in on the weekends (which are normal, hard-wearing carhartts, nothing special), I will be wearing the Mongol boots that I *also* ride in, and I plan on getting a plain, average deel made in UB before I head out to use as my outermost layer. I was a tall ship sailor for a lot of years, and I know that wool is better than anything with fancy names when it comes to keeping you warm and dry. I am also a historical reenactor in my spare time (not sissy shit either – I have slept on bare ground in nothing more fancy than a wool overcoat when it was 25 degrees), and I am very aware that what the locals use is generally the best suited to a given area. I frankly have never really understood the appeal of high-price, high-tech travel gear when the locals usually have the best solutions for whatever you actually need. The only “whiz-bang” stuff I will be carrying will be my camera gear and related items.

      I’ve read both of Weatherford’s books, as well as several other books on Mongolian history (both ancient and modern) and memoirs of folks who have lived in Mongolia. I’ve pretty much exhausted anything Amazon has on Mongolia at this point.

      I’m not sure where you got the idea that I was all that concerned about safety. Mongolia isn’t a particularly dangerous country as long as you’re not being stupid while you travel. However, I do have very concerned friends and family, so I do have to say *some* things to appease their fears. I’m not all that concerned, myself. I’m pretty confident that I can do this. As you said, worrying about things generally does little more than like them more likely to happen.

      I’m a relatively subdued person, and while I’m normally a bit talkative, that’s a moot point when I’m not among people I can speak fluently with. I generally prefer to sit and observe and occasionally interact, which seems to get good responses from the Mongolians I do know.

      As for cigarettes, I don’t smoke myself, but I do plan on buying a decent supply (as well as candy for children) in UB for use as gifts. I know better than to show up empty-handed and I know well the social lubricant that cigarettes can be.

      Thanks for all your advice so far and I hope that I continue to hear from you!

  • emilia says:

    A few more comments (I realize that a few things I mentioned in comments on other posts are moot points, e.g. about getting a good horse, since it seems you have a contact to help you with that).

    I will probably add more as things occur to me, but about the candy: candy isn’t great for kids’ teeth, and the dentist doesn’t live around the corner.

    As far as buying vs renting horses goes, I’ll reiterate what I mentioned somewhere else: it’s important that you consider the well-being of the horses: the longer you ride the same horses (which you’ll be more inclined to do if you buy horses than if you rent them), the skinnier they will get, and the less likely it is that they’ll survive the winter. While Mongolians often ride long distances, it’ll more often be long distances covered in a couple of days, so the horses then have a lot of time to recover. Riding more slowly and over many more days will mean your horses spend less time eating. You might have thought about all these things, but I figured these are things better considered too often than not at all…

    Also, there are parts of Mongolia where I would not ride around alone: anywhere you cannot be sure to run into water several times a day is a place where you want someone who knows the area well to tell you where to go. Parts of the Gobi would definitely be on my list of such places.

    • admin says:

      The only reason I mentioned candy is because it seems to be recommended by most folks as something other than batteries or cigarettes that you can bring. But, both you and GK raise good points about teeth.

      Yeah, I’m still really torn about buying vs. renting. Renting seems easier, but it also completely precludes me from doing any solo travel at all. I am a very solitary person, and I know that I will *need* a break from being around other people every once in awhile.

      Water is definitely a concern. At this point, I think I have decided to limit myself to 4-5 areas to visit, and some of them will have more water access than others. What I may do is do solo travel in areas with more water and a larger population (such as up near Khovsgal and down in Orkhon), and travel with a local in areas with more sketchy conditions. I may also be meeting up with Davenport’s Gobi2011 Expedition for a couple days to a couple weeks for the Gobi section of TME.

  • GK says:

    Emilia is a knowledgeable cookie.

  • GK says:

    Interesting to note that when Tim Cope returned to visit a herder with whom he had left one of his purchased horses he found out that it had been eaten that winter! (Horse meat keeps you warmer in winter)
    Not that eating horses is a bad thing per se, I’ve dined on a few myself, but the point emilia makes is well taken if you are a typical Westerner who tends to anthropomorphize horses. Better to rent, travel with the horse’s owner (or owner’s representative) and trust that they will have the horses welfare more in mind in the long run than you will. You’re just passing through, after all.

    • admin says:

      I think I can safely say that I’m not someone who tends to anthropomorphize horses. They’re working animals, not pets. I grew up helping my mother to photograph the working cowboys (the real ones, not the rodeo types) who live in Wyoming, Montana, and Nevada, and I’ve never been the typical “horse girl” that seems to be so common in western culture.

      I ate dog when I lived in Korea despite the fact that I love dogs, and frankly, the idea of a horse being eaten doesn’t really phase me. It’s just a fact of life.

  • emilia says:

    Sure, eating horses is obviously not bad per se, but all horses can be eaten, while good riding horses are more scarce — it seems like a waste to make sausage out of a horse you can eat pine nuts on. Also, not all horses that die during the winter get eaten (unless you count the wolf).

    And while you may not (and should not, Mongolian horses are not cuddly :) ) be interested in pampering your horse, you probably do want to avoid riding a horse with back pains due to insufficient muscle/fat for long. Mongolians certainly don’t pamper their horses, but they have tons of experience telling where the line between a horse healthy enough to ride and one that needs rest goes.

    Another plus of approaching gers together with a nearby family’s kid is that you might attract much less attention (in a good way). If you want to talk with people about their lives, you might not want half of your conversations to center on whether or not you are (or, in my experience, whether you should be) scared riding around alone (the wolf! the horse-thieves! etc).

    Additionally, I sometimes had people send their kids racing after me to return the candles/pain killers/batteries that I had left them, because they decided that a girl riding around alone had more use for them. By contrast, when I rode around doing surveys with a Mongolian colleague, the same kinds of gifts were much appreciated. While nomadic traditions in no way require you to give anything to your hosts — as you know, they will feed you and house you without expecting anything in return — you are after all not going to be around to return the favor, neither to them nor to any other Mongolian household. I think it’s important to think carefully about how one can minimize the extractive nature of “nomadic tourism”.

    Do you like singing? Practice some songs to share on dark nights and long hauls across the steppe.

    • admin says:

      I think you have a good point about using “a nearby family’s kid” to help get folks to open up. I should speak beginner Mongolian by the time I go (I’m currently working on finding a tutor here, as there are tons of Mongolians in this area), but having a native speaker around would help not only with communication, but would also keep the topic of discussion *off* me and *on* them, as they’re the point of this trip, not me.

      One of the reasons that I would prefer to have a pack horse and riding horse, as opposed to just a single horse with saddle bags, as GK suggested to me, is that I want to be able to carry enough stuff to give out to the folks I come across. Ultimately, the purpose of this expedition is to help nomads, so it would be kind of ridiculous for me to show up empty-handed.

      • GK says:

        A couple of things:
        “Ultimately the purpose of the expedition is to help nomads”?
        In what fashion? To relieve their chronic state of candy deprivation? I think if that truly is your ultimate purpose, then you need to do some very clear thinking on just what you think they need from you and what you can actually offer. In terms of material substances, the people you meet would have been just fine if you’d never come by. You’re not Santa Claus, after all. Are you carrying in your bag a solution to the modern conundrum of how to maintain the qualities of the nomadic lifestyle when the tools needed to become something other than quaint window dressing for tourism are all based in the cities, like education, health care, communications access? Have you got a way for them to use traditional skills and materials to create new products that create cash to support them in the lean times, exportable to at least UB or even further?

        I am a bit leery of an expedition which on the one hand professes a vague purpose like “helping the nomads” and in the next breath expresses the need for personal solitude. I expect that your interest in this trip, like so many, is some sort of voyage of personal discovery which is a perfectly valid purpose in and of itself. But if you want to help nomads, figure out what they really can’t get for themselves or what would facilitate them getting critical things. Buy a horse and one guy is happy and will probably drink up the better part of the cash. Rent horses (and figure out how to give the cash to the lady of the ger) and you spread cash along your route that is going to be more likely to end up as school supplies or vet or people meds instead of vodka.

        And while I am sure it was a physically demanding event, please don’t look to Ripley Davenport’s example as something to emulate. His professed “benefit” to the children of Mongolia has never been enumerated although the benefit to his paid speaking calendar is touted loudly on his site. He somehow managed to cross most of Mongolia without reporting a single instance of human interaction in a culture whose core, forged by the tough conditions, is hospitality and community that shares across the longest distances. Ripley’s walk was a “stunt” plain and simple which had essentially nothing to do with Mongolia besides the cliches about the toughness of the environment. It’s a tough environment if you chose to do something pointless like tow a high tech pram for a thousand klicks on an arbitrary timeline. That is the essence of hubris and disrespectful of the landscape and the culture. But if you pay attention and mould to the climate and landscape, it’s entirely liveable, even pleasantly liveable as the locals have proven for thousands of years.

        I would suggest that if this is about helping nomads, you need to figure out how that’s different from being a traveling candy man. Have you actually been to Mongolia already?

        • Kelsey says:

          It seems to me that you have not actually done much reading on this site about what TME is. It is a journalism project with multiple goals (read the two entiws titled “what do you hope to accomplish?”), one of which is to help raise awareness of the struggles that nomads are going through in a time of increasing modernization. I think it would help you understand this project a bit better if you read the sections of the site which explain it.

          This is not a “voyage of personal discovery” or whatever bullcrap that is. My need for solitude atoms out of the fact that frankly, I’m not a “people person”, and I don’t deal well with being around people for long periods of time (when I lived in Korea, I spent 6 weeks without speaking to another English speaker, despite living only 200 yards away from one -it was lovely). The sparse population appeals to my hermit side, and being in such an empty place without being able to enjoy the isolation would drive me nuts after awhile.

          I have noticed that most of your comments have a somewhat negative and condescending tone to them. Is there any real purpose behind that? If not, if appreciate it if you’d knock it off, because your tone makes me less inclined to listen to you and mote inclined to write you off as someone with too big a hip on their shoulder. I’m hoping that is not the case.