Forty excited riders nervously wander over to the horse line to pick their very first horse for leg one of the 1,000 kilometer Mongol Derby. It’s a hot day. The harsh Mongolian sun is beating down on the Steppe and it beats into my head like a hammer. My eyeballs are hanging out of my skull. My mouth is dry and the stink of vodka and airag drips from the sweat of my forehead.
I look into the eyes of a light-colored palomino gelding that looks a little stronger than the ribby bastards tied on the horse line next to him.
“Look after me mate. I’m in a world of pain.”
He nods his head…probably at the flies but I’ll take what I can get. I choose my first horse and before long the 2014 Mongol Derby is underway.
They say the Derby is the longest, toughest horse race in the world, a title it holds in the Guinness Book of World Records. In preparation for doing something so ridiculous I’d gotten in contact with a past rider to gain some knowledge and advice. One thing that stuck in my mind was “after three days you get used to the pain and it all gets a bit easier to endure.”
Five days in and I’m starting to think she was taking the piss! I’m in pain alright! I fucking stink like mutton and airag spew. I’ve been stuck in a bog, bucked off, crashed into a marmot hole, chased by feral dogs foaming at the mouth at the thought of devouring my smelly corpse, and I’m tired…I’m really fucking tired.
I’m in the leading group; there are nine of us.
Bonnie is an American that finds retired racehorses a new home. I’d started riding with her after we left a horse station during a hailstorm and, as we were pelted by hail the size of golf balls, both our horses pretty much bolted with us the entire way to the next station.
Barbara is another American that owns her own stud farm and is 60-years old! She checks her goddam maps every five seconds but she’s a fucking marvel!
Mary Lee is the other yank in the group. Some sort of fashion queen. She’s a demon in the saddle, and truth be told, she scares me a little.
Then there’s the Poms…
Rob Skinner, former special agent of some sort, the kind of bloke you need to be near if shit gets a little too fucked up!
Jamie Peel, polo player, gun rider and all the girls favorite—from crew to riders to Mongolians. “Perfect Peel” is the people’s choice!
“Maudes” is an ex-jumps jockey and your everyday whinging Pom. He looks like shit, seems to hate Mongolia and refuses to eat mutton or yak butter—a recipe for disaster!
“Cat” is a proper Pom with a posh accent; she’s overly friendly and never shuts up!
Then there’s Sam Jones, a fellow Aussie. Hands down the most competitive human I’ve ever met! She’s here to win and she generally leads us in and out of every station.
“Brentski, do you care about winning anymore?” Maudes asks.
“I just want to go home,” I reply.
“What’s your favorite part of Mongolia, Maudes?” Jamie pipes up.
“The fucking departure lounge!”
The Steppe was getting to us…
We ride through a massive expanse of nothingness—no homes, no roads, no cars, no fences, nothing. Mongolia is like stepping back in time. The nomadic herders have a Ger with nothing other than something to sleep on, something to cook with and ribbons and trophies won by their very best horses to decorate the walls.
The herder’s family usually consists of his wife in the Ger brewing up some mutton soup, a couple of children that can sit on a horse with more natural skill, balance, and brilliance than any of the 40 Derby riders, a savage dog out the front sleeping with one eye open, and a herd of the toughest, hardiest horses in the world snorting, neighing and fidgeting whilst tied to what looks like a washing line.
Vet penalties, various falls, slow horses, getting hopelessly lost on a mountain and everything else the Derby throws at you broke that leading group up over the last two days of the race. However, the nine of us were still the first nine to finish, just at different intervals.
I was riding with Barbara towards the finish. During one of her breaks from checking her maps, we were chatting away about my total disregard for the kit list and my way of thinking Aussies don’t need sunscreen when out of absolutely fucking nowhere my horse’s head, neck, then shoulders disappear! BANG! Face plant straight into the dirt.
I do a Van Damme type roll and I hold on tight to the long rope attached to the horses bit.
“Don’t let go, don’t ever let them go!” I say to myself.
The horse picks himself up out of the marmot hole and drags me for a bit as I lay in the dirt looking up at the scorching sun, gripping that fucking rope like it’s stopping me falling to the depths of hell! I can’t help but smile.
“Brent, are you alright?” Barbara asks.
What the fuck am I doing here? Why did I come here? What sort of mad bastard calls this a good time?
“I’ve never been better, Barbs!”
This time every year the Mongol Derby changes about 40 peoples’ lives forever. It’s never far away. I lay awake in the dark of the night and I think of the things we went through, the horses I rode, the airag I drank, the people I met, the nomads, the mutton, the spew, the smell, the falls, the pain and the nothingness of The Steppe. Every single day I remember Mongolia.
More from Mongolia | How I Survived the Mongol Derby
About the Author
Brent Albuino rides horses, drinks too much, and travels the world occasionally to do silly things like Race The Wild Coast and The Mongol Derby. He’s 33 years old from Western Australia and trains Thoroughbred Racehorses in a shithole called Muchea to pay for his beer. He lives with his only friend, a dog named Bart.