Riders across the Steppe discover the meaning of 'post-haste' in the time of Genghis Khan, Minty Clinch writes On August 22 last year, 25 riders weighed in for the inaugural Mongol Derby. The challenge was to cover nearly 1,000 kilometres from the start outside the old capital, Kharkhorin, a five-hour drive west of Ulan Bator, the present capital, to the finish in the Buryat village of Dadal, reputedly the birthplace of Genghis Khan. The route starts in Steppe country, grassy plains stretching into infinity, and ends among lakes and forests near the Russian border far to the north.
The derby is a multi-horse event, with each competitor riding a horse for up to 40km from one checkpoint to the next before changing mounts, and is now established in the Guinness Book of Records as the longest horse race in the world. The game plan requires 700 horses, selected from an estimated three million roaming semi-wild over the steppe. In some cases, semi-wild means hardly ever saddled. For the contestants, the luck of the draw that decides their first mount is crucial.
The riders emerged from their gers (yurts) at dawn on the day of the race, their faces tense with anticipation and the fallout of the party the night before. Amid the firelight and an impromptu concert masterminded by travelling bagpiper Jock Munro, a Scottish aristocrat in his 50s who lives in Denmark, they'd joked about their upcoming ordeal. Now they had a job to do, starting with a final equipment check - vital, as the rules designed to protect the horses are strict.
With a rider limit of 85kg, this was not a race for fatties. "I had to lose 12kg," said 30-year-old Australian Dave Murray, now a 1.88-metre beanpole walking nervously towards the scales manned by technical trainer Richard Dunwoody. A former champion steeplechase jockey and Grand National winner, there's not much Dunwoody doesn't know about white-knuckle confrontations with weighing machines, but he was under orders to show no mercy. For Dave, the needle hovered ominously, then stopped below the line. He was in.
Next up was Juan Pepa, dressed in a beret and poncho like a film star gaucho from his native Argentina. Now a Mayfair banker, Mr Cool strolled casually up to the scales that held no fear for him, but not as nonchalantly as Shirausamto "Stig" Galbadrakh, a Mongolian nomad whose lack of gear made everyone else seem ridiculously over-equipped. Age? Even when the question was translated, he looked doubtful, but he smiled shyly, then and at all other times. Few of us doubted he would win. One who did was 29-year-old Charles van Wyk, an endurance specialist from South Africa, though even his icy sense of destiny was a bit dented when his first horse tossed him off while he was trying to mount.
Tom Morgan, the 30-year-old founder of the Adventurists, a groundbreaking 21st-century company that organises off-the-wall events with a built-in charity element - the annual Mongol Rally from Europe to Ulan Bator and the Rickshaw Run from one end of India to the other are already market leaders in this field - found the inspiration for the derby in Genghis Khan's postal system. The great campaigner has a bad press in the West, but in his native Mongolia, where heroes are thin on the ground, he's the gold standard.
When Genghis came to power in 1206 aged 44, he created an empire that stretched from the Sea of Japan to the Caspian, conquering more land in the 21 years before his death than the Romans did in 400. He gained his gory reputation by killing rival tribal leaders, but lesser folk thrived under laws and an education system that were enlightened for their time. He controlled an area larger than Africa by devising a relay system between morin urtuus (horse camps), insisting that messages should take no more than 13 days to reach the most distant outposts. His own priority dispatches were inscribed on silver tablets and his riders were issued with silver tubes to suck re-energising blood out of their horses' necks while on the move.
This approach is barred in the Mongol Derby, as are spurs and whips. Like Genghis's posties, the competitors ride between morin urtuus, 23 in all, signing in at each one. Vets from Britain, New Zealand and South Africa are on hand to check each horse for abuse or misuse on arrival and impose time penalties on anyone whose mount has a dangerously raised heartbeat. As soon as the horse is passed fit, the rider is free to pick another one- first-come, first-served - for the next leg.
Call this a holiday? Amazingly, the competitors did. They came from all over the world, roughly equal numbers of men and women united only by a fierce sense of adventure. At 65, New Zealand film-maker David Coddrington was the oldest; Matilda Branson, a 21-year-old Australian student, the youngest. In between were Saskia van Heeren, a glamorous international art dealer from South Africa; Paul Chew, who made a fortune out of the versatile Buzz neckwarmer cum hat; Holly Budge, a no-nonsense Brit who was the first woman to skydive over Everest; and Julie Burridge, who lived in Singapore with her racehorse trainer husband.
The message was that anyone could do the derby so long as they could ride a horse and operate a GPS. The start was preceded by three days of training that included advice on endurance riding, medical and vet briefings, and instruction on route-finding. Top tip one: hang on to your horse. If you don't, it will depart with your saddle and all your gear, refuse to be caught, run away and join the nearest herd, leaving you with no option but to retire ignominiously. Top tip two: hang on to your GPS or you will be stranded in the middle of nowhere. The Adventurists' organisers follow the race in 4x4s , but stay well out of sight in order to give riders the sense of being alone in the wilderness, so instant rescue is not an option. Top tip three: if you have doubts on either of these points, team up with others so you can look out for one another.
People who would tackle such an adventure tend to have low boredom thresholds, and several of the riders were going stir crazy by the third day of training. The Mongolian steppe looks empty of entertainment but it can lay on equestrian events at the drop of a bandana. The Kharkhorin Polo team rode out to the camp to take up a challenge laid down by Team GB, a lively game with a number of falls that could have put any of the players out of the derby. Next up, a naasdam, a 15km steppe horse race for children riding two-year-olds. The derby contenders weren't eligible but they were out there to cheer, bet on the outcome and present the prizes.
The next day, a group of lama monks provided soothing music at the start line, then blessed the riders as they sat with varying degrees of certainty on the first of 22 steeds that would take them to Dadal. A few words of caution and encouragement from Dunwoody, riding the first leg with them, and a few more from Tom. Then the gun boomed and they were off. Literally, in the case of Juan - a man who rides like an angel but couldn't get his horse to go more than 100 metres without stopping dead in its tracks.
Within half an hour, the lone Argentinian rider was back, minus the GPS he'd attached too insecurely to his saddle. He was lucky to get a second chance but retired later in the day. Next out was a rider from Sweden, who fell and hurt his back. With a possible 14 days to complete, Jock and David decided to take a relaxed view from the rear, chatting and enjoying the scenery, while more driven rivals forged ahead.
Riding stopped promptly every evening at 8pm. Rumours of wolves - allegedly backed by sightings of their footprints - discouraged sleeping under the stars in the back of beyond, so most people gathered in the last urtuu they could reach before the deadline and rolled out their sleeping bags in gersoccupied by Mongolian families. Some guests found themselves hijacked by the festivities surrounding an all-night Mongolian wedding. The wiser ones carried little treats - a jar of Marmite for example - to provide diversity from mutton and goat stew, the default meals for Mongol herdsmen. As for washing, who needs it? Most people, as Horse & Hound blogger Katy Willings discovered when she came across children bathing in a water hole. Did she lose time, strip off and join them? You bet she did.
The passing days developed their own rhythm, with Stig, Charles, Paul and Cambridge vet Sabrina Veryjee establishing a lead they extended heroically with a 170km stint on day seven. They finished within three minutes of each other midway through day eight, with the bulk of the pack arriving on day nine and the oldies on day 11, in time for the father and mother of all celebrations. When the final calculations were completed, Charles and Stig were declared joint winners. Satisfying for them, no doubt, but this race is all about taking part.
The flight Return flights from Abu Dhabi with Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) via Beijing, connecting to Ulan Bator with Air China (www.airchina.com), cost from Dh8,753, including taxes The hotels Double rooms at Ulaanbaatar Hotel (www.ubhotel.mn; 00 976 320620 ), a traditional-style 1950s building with high ceilings, elaborate chandeliers and a marble staircase, cost from US$143 (Dh525) per night, including breakfast and taxes. Double rooms at Bayangol Hotel (www.bayangolhotel.mn; 00 976 312 255), twin towers (with Malay and Indian restaurants as well as a business centre) located in the heart of the city, cost from $157 (Dh575) per night, room only including taxes The event The 2010 Mongol Derby takes place from August 7-18. The fee per person is $9,500 (Dh34,893), plus a $1,000 or more charity donation (which can be raised). To register, www.theadventurists.com and fill out the application form. The cost does not include flights or accommodation in Ulan Bator