Features & Stories

Story by Trudy Frisk
Photos by Roger Hicks

Roger's hostess and her grandchildren
The post card in Roger Hicks’ photo album sums it up. “Mongolia’s a great place.  Two million horses can’t be wrong.”

“I’ll never forget looking out of the train watching hundreds of wild horses running across the plain.”  Roger’s eyes get a far-away look as, in memory, he sees those magnificent, free horses.

In 1994 Roger was on a journey.  He’d left his home in Valemount, B.C., Canada to travel by train from Beijing, China, through Mongolia and Siberia, then across Russia to Moscow.  He wasn’t traveling on the famous Trans-Siberian Express.  His trip was on the little-known but far more important Mongolian Trader Train. On this train Mongolian traders brought Chinese goods to the people of Siberia and Russia’s other Eastern holdings.

So far it had been interesting.  Roger and his back- pack had navigated both the Beijing airport and train station.  There was a twelve hour delay at the Mongolian/Chinese border while workers changed the entire undercarriage of the train.  The rail gauges are different  on each side of the border to prevent invasion of China by rail.

Now, on the dusty railway station platform in Ulan Bator, Mongolia’s capital, Roger thought about those horses.  He decided there’d be another train along later.  He was going to spend some time in Mongolia.

In 1994 the Russian empire had started to crumble.  The Russians, to most Mongolian’s great delight, had left Mongolia..  There were no Westerners in the country, except for a few U.N. staff in Ulan Bator.

Traditional ger
A Mongolian man heard Roger talking English at the train station.  He came over and introduced himself.  He was a structural engineer, educated in Czechoslovakia.  “Where are you staying?  What do you want to do?” he asked Roger.

“What I really want to do is get out of Ulan Bator, go some place up in the mountains, and ride horses.”  Roger told him.

Easily done.  The Mongolian fellow said his family had a little guest place at their sheep camp in the mountains.  He’d line Roger up with them.  The next thing Roger knew he and some others were on a flatbed truck usually used to haul livestock, headed for the mountains.  It took forever to get there on the narrow dirt roads.

The village, when he arrived there, was more of a traditional sheep camp than a resort.
The guest ger, (yurt is a Turkish word for these tents, ger is the Mongolian term), was built like all the others with a high floor, cross pieces underneath so there was good air flow.  There were beds and a wood stove.  It was very comfortable, if a bit smoky.

Roger stayed there for ten days, resting, riding horses and getting to know the people  “It was so peaceful.  There was no traffic.  It was away from trains.  I heard one motorcycle.  It was so quiet.  There was dead silence except for the sheep. When I got up in the morning, I could hardly realize where I was.  I’d look out the door and see just sheep, horses and gers. “

Looking after the sheep, he soon realized, was shift work.  People took turns doing sheep duty.  “When the sheep were moved, people took down the felt gers and moved out onto the plains.  There were gers all over the plains.  Just like RV’s in Quartzite. “

“The horses weren’t very tall, but they were tougher than hell.” Roger recalls.  “At first I felt guilty riding the horse, it was so small.  As days went by and I rode up into the mountains, I realized the horses were in good shape and really strong.  The Mongolians are really good riders. Both men and women ride.”

The last ger in Ulan Bator
These horses and their riders are descendants of the Mongolian cavalry which, beginning in 1210, swept out from their homeland to eventually conquer Central Asia, Northern Iran, China, Afghanistan, Georgia, Bulgaria, Kiev, and Moscow.  They had defeated several Hungarian armies and were knocking on the doors of Vienna when word came that their leader had died and they returned home to select a new ruler. They never forgot their homeland.  Stories go that Genghis Khan’s victorious armies were happy to return home from China to their high, cool pastures and nomadic life.

Fourteen years later the kindness and hospitality of the Mongolian people are what Roger remembers most.  When he first came to the camp he was welcomed by the engineer’s mother and extended family. It was the mother to whom he paid rent for the guest ger.

This woman had been born and spent all her life in her family tent, out on the plains. 
When Roger asked if he could take a picture of her and some of her grandchildren in
front of her ger, she proudly dressed up in her best clothes.

The family treated Roger more as an honoured guest than a tourist.  He was invited into their ger and given a drink of fermented mare’s milk in an old silver bowl.  It’s very important that the guest drink the whole bowl of milk.

“These are good people.  They are very hospitable.  Even though they don’t have much; and they are very poor; they share food, drink and shelter with their guests. “

On day ten the livestock truck reappeared and Roger loaded onto it for the dusty ride back to the city.  He had time to take in the night market in Ulan Bator.  This torch-lit market is strung out for a mile.  “Anything you may want, you can buy at the night market in Ulan Bator.  Everything from sheep’s noses to Kalashnikovs is for sale there. “

He also had time to mail a post card home to his son in Salmon Arm.  The post office was an old shed. The post card got there, though. 

Then it was back on the trader train headed for Siberia.  Roger and an Englishman were the only non-Mongolians on the entire train, except for the Russian guards.  Roger’s two weeks in Mongolia and his cross-continent trip on the train with them, gave him a deep respect and admiration for these people, trying to keep their traditions alive against powerful forces. 

Roger Hicks riding a Mongolian horse
Sadly, it’s uncertain if they can succeed.  In the 1990’s the Han Chinese brought twenty-five million goats into Mongolia, to provide cheap Chinese cashmere for the international market. Mongolian nomads always rotated their herds of cattle, horses, sheep, camels and goats through different pastures. Intense over-grazing by the Chinese goats had a devastating effect on grasslands. Desertification became a concern to the government.  Although much of it was caused by the recently arrived cashmere goat farmers the Chinese government blamed traditional Mongolian herders. In 2002 that government officially ended the Mongolian’s way of life.

It uprooted them from their ancestral lands, confiscated their herds, and forced them from their gers into small, crowded houses in instant towns. They’ve lost their freedom and their culture.  No longer can they pack their gers and travel with their herds to fresh, green pastures.  Nor can they kill an animal to welcome guests with fresh meat. Since 2001 more than 800,000 Mongolians have been relocated.  A self-sufficient lifestyle that lasted for two thousand years seems doomed.

Roger was fortunate to have seen those great herds and gotten to know those good people. 

Other articles by Trudy Frisk

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