Horses, Genghis Khan and… polo? Breanna Wilson discovers why Mongolia is becoming a destination for the polo obsessed.

It’s a beautiful August morning when I begin my journey from Ulaanbaatar westward, my navigation set to the Orkhon Valley, a beautiful and historically significant part of Central Mongolia. Along the way, the landscape begins to open itself up, slowly revealing the things the country is most synonymous with. In the distance, white yurts, the traditional felt structures nomadic families still live in year-round, dot the landscape. Semi-wild horses roam freely across the landscape, and cause drivers to pay caution as they not only rule the landscape, but also the road. It’s all part of the magic that is Mongolia.

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My destination is not one you’d readily associate with Mongolia. Tucked away in the beauty of the Orkhon Valley, 25 kilometres south of the ancient Silk Road city of Kharkhorin, I’m heading to the Genghis Khan Retreat and Polo Club, an upscale yurt-style camp that has called this part of the valley home for almost 30 years. It also happens to be one of the country’s best-kept secrets and the place to stay if you’re looking to experience a more sophisticated side to Mongolia, without losing the essence of what this place is. “Being in the Orkhon Valley cultural landscape, especially since it’s surrounded by momentous events in history, makes the region very special,” says GM D’Artagnan Giercke. “Open, vast and endless, it’s a place where the mind can wander freely.”

Horses, Genghis Khan and… polo? Breanna Wilson discovers why Mongolia is becoming a destination for the polo obsessed.

Founded by Christopher Giercke and his wife Enkhe, who grew up right here in the valley, along with friends Jim Edwards (who also founded Tiger Tops in Nepal), his son Kristjan Edwards, Dr. Celia Temple, Deirdre Livingston, and Col. Raj Kalaan, the retreat grew out of love, friendship, and respect. Giercke’s son D’Artagnan now handles daily operations, including the club’s Young Riders of the World programme, a youth education and polo training initiative solely supported by revenue from the retreat.

Initially, the retreat was a place only for family and friends. In recent years, however, the group has opened its doors to guests. This presents more employment opportunities with a year-round wage for locals in the valley, something that isn’t common in Mongolia given the tourism season typically only runs from May to September.

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The retreat is also proudly fully self-sufficient, utilising solar and wood power and a well, which is fed by a mineral spring. More notably, at the end of each season, the entire camp is packed up and stored for the winter, leaving almost no trace of its existence behind. It’s a practice that’s common in Mongolia’s nomadic culture, but almost unheard of anywhere else.

Glamping on the Steppes

During the months when the retreat is fully up and running, the guest yurts, or gers as they’re called in Mongolia, are elegantly designed glamping-style tents. Traditional handmade Mongolian furniture and beds, cashmere blankets, a wood-burning stove for the country’s notoriously chilly nights, gravity sink and ensuite compost toilets complete the experience. There’s no electricity or running water available inside the gers; the idea is to really embrace the nomadic style of living and do like the locals do. However, a “tech ger” is available with solar batteries to charge phones, laptops, and cameras, and there is limited wifi for essential emails. There are also stand-alone, wood-enclosed, gravity showers overlooking the Orkhon River in addition to three bathing gers, each with two wooden Japanese-style bathtubs inside.

Horses, Genghis Khan and… polo? Breanna Wilson discovers why Mongolia is becoming a destination for the polo obsessed.

With all this free time to enjoy the surrounding nature, guests can acquaint themselves with the riding and polo horses (there are more than 100) cared for by the retreat. Discover the hidden wonders of the valley on horseback or jump right into some polo training and join the stick-and-ball training and polo sessions available each afternoon led by world-class polo players and coaches including Nico Curto, the Indonesian national team coach and manager.

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World-renowned players and coaches like Curto come to the valley each summer to be a part of the retreat and feel the spirit of the sport once again run through the valley’s veins, just as it did back in the days of Genghis Khan, when his warriors used polo to train for battle and to keep themselves entertained.

While the sport lost popularity over the centuries, it’s the Giercke’s goal to bring polo back to the steppes, something they are slowly and steadily doing thanks to the repeat clients who come back to visit the retreat year after year, from all over the world.

For aspiring or competitive polo players, the retreat’s international polo tournament, held annually in late August is a must-see. It’s during this time when guests can pit their wits on the pitch against local and international professional assassins, like Curto and D’Artagnan – who’s also played professionally – in a competition for the camp cup. Paired with great weather, a spectacular end of season energy, and the highs of watching chukkas unfold, it’s one of the most exciting displays of polo you’ll find in High Asia all year.

Horses, Genghis Khan and… polo? Breanna Wilson discovers why Mongolia is becoming a destination for the polo obsessed.

Off the pitch and off the saddle, guests can jump into activities such as an afternoon kayak down the Orkhon River, a high-octane mountain bike ride through the valley, or get their adrenaline going by rock climbing their way through the nearby cliffs.

Exploring the Silk Road

For a lesson in Mongolia’s Buddhist history, a day trip to Tövkhön Monastery, which dates back to 1648, is a must do, as is spending a day exploring the ancient city of Kharkhorin, once a prominent stop along the Silk Road. At the country’s oldest monastery, Erdene Zuu, you can listen to the chants of monks before stepping back in time at the Kharkhorin Museum. This is where the area’s artefacts are proudly on display, not only explaining the history of the area, but also providing insight into what life was like during the days of the Great Khans.

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These slow but fulfilling travel days make the quiet mornings back at the retreat even more special; they’re the perfect time to partake in one of the daily guided yoga classes or to visit to the full-time masseuse inside the retreat’s massage ger. Guests can book a 30-minute session to relieve whatever’s causing them discomfort.

Each day ends with wine, beer, and hors d’oeuvres outside, magically timed for that perfect moment when the sun just starts to disappear across the valley.

In the dining ger, dinners often start with a short concert from Mongolian pianist Odgerel Sampilnorov before chef Mingmar Sherpa’s multi-course meals take the stage. Hearty, warm vegetable soups are followed by plates of tenderised meat and glass noodles, and plates of Mongolian dumplings called buuz, appear. As the food disappears, so do the guests, as they retire to the comfort of their ger for the evening.

The Genghis Khan Retreat has found a beautiful balance of bringing an ancient sport back to its roots, while still putting Mongolia and its culture and tradition front and centre. Ultimately, they’ve found a way to bring polo back to the steppes.

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