I began having second thoughts about riding a horse through northern Mongolia right around the moment I slammed into the tree trunk.
Without warning, my horse had bolted toward it, and I had no idea how to regain control. The impact flung me through the air. I landed hard on the forest floor as my horse scampered into the bush.
Then a crashing sound came from behind — Chuka, the Mongolian guide who had been bringing up the rear of our group of four travelers, had been thrown off his horse too. A short, round man, he picked himself up and shook his head to bring himself back to his senses, or maybe just to blow off the cobwebs of a bad hangover from a vodka binge the previous night.
So even Mongolians get tossed off horses, I thought, somewhat comforted.
Once we had rounded up the prickly horses with the help of two local guides, we figured out that our seemingly irrational mounts had stumbled into a beehive in the middle of the forest.
It was an inauspicious start to what was to be a three-day horse trek last September in a wilderness area around Khovsgol Lake, a 1,713km2 patch of pristine blue water that lies just south of the border with Russia in the Siberian plain. My Lonely Planet guidebook said it was the deepest lake in Central Asia and the world's 14th-largest source of fresh water. Surrounding the lake are pine forests, subalpine meadows and undulating mountain ranges, scenery with more than a passing resemblance to the Pacific Northwest. It had taken three days of hard driving across bone-jarring roads (and sometimes no roads at all) just to get here from Ulan Bator, the country's capital and only real urban center.
There are few countries in the world where it is as easy to get lost, to be completely drawn away from civilization, as Mongolia. I had planned to spend a month exploring the corners of the desolate land from which Genghis Khan and his kin once rode forth to conquer much of Asia, and which remains one of the world's least populated countries, with many of its people still leading nomadic lives. I was accompanied by my friend Tini and two backpackers we had met in Ulan Bator.
The most efficient way for travelers to go cross-country is by car, so we paid Khoyga, a laconic driver with a Russian van, and Chuka, a talkative cook, to take us from the capital into the wild.
The plan was to rent horses and hire local guides after reaching Khovsgol Lake and strike out toward the Darkhad Depression, a mysterious plain of 300 lakes settled by the Tsaatan people, reindeer herders who still practiced shamanism. What could be more evocative than riding across the steppes of Central Asia, following the ghosts of the great Khans and meeting reclusive tribes? Horseback riding seemed to be the definitive way to see the countryside; even in the 21st century, this is the favored mode of transport in rural Mongolia, with nomads corralling sheep and other livestock while galloping beneath the endless blue sky.
Our original plan, though, was thrown off track as soon as we reached the lake. We were told that recent snowfall and resulting high waters in the rivers would make it impossible for inexperienced riders like us to traverse some of the mountains.
The campsite owner, Ganbaa, suggested taking the horses through a protected forest area called the Khoridol Saridag Nuruu, to the west of the lake. He arranged for horses and two guides to start with us the next morning. That night, after a day of hiking around the lake, we sat around a campfire and properly kicked off the journey in true Mongolian fashion, by feasting on mutton cooked using hot rocks, then downing shots of vodka. The Mongolians insisted that each of us sing a song before drinking. We all managed to belt out a tune, but none of us could compete with a Mongolian horseman who astounded us with traditional throat-singing.