Reports say more than two dozen horsemen raced across the finish line in Mongolia this month after a test of endurance that would have impressed even legendary conqueror Genghis Khan.
The international group of riders pounded 860 kilometers (530 miles) across the Asian country's vast grasslands in the 10-day Mongol Derby, which organizers call the world's longest horse race.
AdvertisementSouth African architect Charles van Wyk, 28, tied for first with local rider Shiravsambuu Galbadrakh, leading home a field from 10 countries including Argentina, Australia, Britain, New Zealand, Spain and the United States.
The Adventurists, a Britain-based organization that dreamed up the derby, designed the race as a way to promote Mongolian tradition and culture, while raising money for charity.
Participants changed steeds every 40 kilometers or so at urtuus horse relay stations patterned on those used during Genghis Khan's time to deliver post across the Mongol Empire, from the Pacific Ocean to the edge of Europe.
"Modern life is changing the steppes but that does not mean they are all coming to the city," Van Wyk told AFP.
"In fact the quality of life is quite good on the steppes and even the foreign riders longed to go back after we returned to the city."
Nomads in traditional gers, or round felt tents, manned each station, providing riders with boiled mutton and fermented mare's milk, a common drink in Mongolia. But on some nights, they slept in the open.
"There were days when I wondered why I had even started this race because I was so tired. But then I would get back into the rhythm of things and press on," said Van Wyk.
A total of about 700 horses were used during the event.
"Having been in Mongolia for the past seven years we came to understand how important horses are to the local culture," said The Adventurists' director Tom Morgan.
"There is nowhere else in the world with so many horses and so much space, so it seemed like the perfect place to do it."
The Adventurists also organize the annual Mongol rally, a race from London to Ulan Bator in dangerously small vehicles, but Morgan said he experienced a nervous moment when the horse riders set off.
"There was a lot of apprehension because we had never done anything like this before. But in the end it was a great success, thanks largely to the great network of nomads in Mongolia and some really good horses," he said.
The riders emerged relatively unscathed from the marathon ride, with only a few scrapes and bruises, and one minor concussion.
That result surprised horse trainer Yundenbat Unenburen, who helped set up the urtuus for the Derby.
"I didn't think they would even get halfway. But when they all crossed the finish line I had to admit I was wrong. They proved that they are the bravest, hardest and toughest people," Unenburen said.
Every competitor was handed a special tablet modeled after those used by ancient urtuu riders, which allowed them free access across the empire.
But modern forms of communication were never far out of reach of the riders, with herders using mobile phones and with satellite dishes affixed to some of their gers.
Most of the money raised went to Mercy Corps, which supports poverty alleviation programs in Mongolia, one of the most impoverished countries in Asia.
Morgan says plans have been laid for a similar event next year. Riders must fill out an online application (www.mongolderby.theadventurists.com) and have proven skills in both horse riding and wilderness survival.
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