Sporting a beret like a gaucho, the Argentine polo instructor squats on the grass, checking on the flayed sheep that is getting grilled on an asado cross. Next to him is a young Mongolian on standby to carve the sheep once it is taken off the cross. Just steps away, a motley crew of different nationalities and ages are milling around, either standing or perched on tiny stools painted in a luminous turquoise or orange, as they (the adults) sip wine or guzzle beer.
Beyond the ridge on which this hive of activity takes place is a plateau fringed by forests of willow, larch, and pine. Between us is the Orkhon River, shimmering like a belt of molten silver. As the party gains tempo and the guests eat the cut sheep served with chimichurri sauce, the sun slinks behind the far ridge of the distant hills, dusk spreading out across the backdrop.
Reconvening with nature
This is just a typical dinner at Genghis Khan Retreat in Orkhon National Park, a seven-hour car ride (helicopters are an option) from Ulaanbaatar. Some evenings, we dine “indoors” in the dining ger (yurt). Other evenings, we dine out under the stars — when a visiting polo instructor decides to make his national dish for everyone. The retreat is a tented camp of gers that pops up like mushrooms in this valley every June and gets taken down by the end of August.
During this time, the camp plays host to families and groups of friends, or sometimes strangers who become friends. Most of us connect over a love for nature and usually, horses. After all, Mongolian culture is inextricably linked to horses. And most of us have come here for the horses.
What began more than 25 years ago as a German man’s gift to his Mongolian wife and their children as a summer camp — so that the latter can connect with the other half of their heritage, has now become a hospitality outfit with a huge CSR agenda. Over the years, a community has grown around it. So has a summer camp for Mongolian kids who want to learn English, polo, and other sports under a charity programme called Young Riders of the World operated by the camp.
Christopher Giercke, founder of Genghis Khan Retreat and owner of a cashmere processing plant in Nepal that supplies luxury brands like Hermès, has taken a back seat in recent years. His second son, D’artagnan Giercke, director and also general manager during the season, holds the fort together with a close family friend, Ang Tshering Lama, a Nepalese hotelier.
First known as Monke Tengri then Genghis Khan Polo Camp, the camp was rebranded just before the pandemic. The name “Genghis Khan Retreat” better reflects the range of activities (not just polo or horseriding) available at the camp. These run the gamut of yoga, kayaking, rock climbing, fishing in the Orkhon River, biking, archery, and also excursions to places like the ancient city of Karakorum, a 30-minute drive (or a 90-minute gallop) away.
When the camp first opened, it was really open only to the senior Giercke’s extensive personal network. During my first trip to the camp in 2019, D’Artagnan shared that until recent years, the camp was mainly funded by his father and donations from some guests.
A close-knit group
Given the dynamics of the camp — many activities and facilities are communal — it is important that guests get along with one another, including the staff as well. “Making money is not our most important objective, although we aim to be sustainable,” says the younger Giercke.
While the camp is open to the public, Giercke still has some sort of control over the kind of guests who come here; most of them have some “references”. “The equestrianism and polo communities are small. Someone who comes here somehow knows someone we know or has been here before. We are more concerned about having people who understand that this is a shared experience for everyone,” says Giercke. “And also understand that none of our staff has received formal training in hospitality.”
So while Genghis Khan Retreat attracts high calibre guests, some of whom are of high society (Patrick Guerrand-Hermès is said to have bought out the camp on previous occasions), they are the sort who seek more than material comforts in their travel experiences.
During my time there, I met a Czech commodities trader who has returned five times. “I am here to defend our championship,” he says, referencing his last visit in 2022, when the team he was playing for won a polo tournament (there are a few at Genghis Khan Retreat every season). He has brought along two friends, one of whom is a newly divorced venture capitalist. “I need to work on my issues because apparently I am difficult,” the Briton confides in our group after a few days of bonding over horse riding, vodka, and spontaneous karaoke sessions after dinner.
Indeed, he is not alone in seeking the healing qualities of nature, which are limitless on the steppes. Then there are the three German brothers who work together in their generations-old family business and bring much laughter to the camp with their self-deprecating humour.
At Genghis Khan Retreat, one will not find the usual reference points of luxury, such as a Dyson hairdryer or Frette bed sheets. Luxury here is understated and hidden in the details. The gers are lined with thick layers of sheep wool to insulate against the harsh Mongolian wind while one sleeps under the finest cashmere blanket produced by Giercke’s factory.
Unlike the average ger hotel in the country where guests have to walk to an outhouse, there is a Porta Potti (camping toilet) in every ger should you get a nature call in the middle of the night. In 2023, the younger Giercke introduced flush toilets so that guests could enjoy their private moments overlooking a glade. There are also outdoor showers overlooking verdant vistas and lacquered Japanese bathtubs in heated gers.
The food here is also exemplary. The kitchen is helmed by Mingmar Sherpa, a Nepalese chef who turns out pasta with morels (the chef brings bags of the highland fungi with him) with as much finesse as he whips up Mongolian dumplings.
Every evening, a bevy of young Mongolian girls from families around the valley make sure there are platters of jamon iberico and cheese in the dining ger during the aperitif hour while world-class pianist Odgerel Sampilnorov (whose exceptional talent was discovered two decades ago and was then sponsored for overseas study) plays Chopin’s nocturnes.
In between activities, guests take turns seeing the massage therapist for sore muscles (from riding). There is also a resident shaman, Shiva, who also takes care of the aftermath of horseriding accidents with his bone-setting skills.
And of course, horseriding and polo — whether instruction, stick-and-ball sessions, or chukkas — are the biggest activities here. Just as one can imagine, horseriding on the Mongolian steppes is as epic as seen on TV.
Some days we canter through endless expanses of grasslands. Then we race up and trot down an undulating valley full of wildflowers of all colours imaginable. The air is pungent with edelweiss and sweet grass crushed by the hooves of the horses. We ford rivers and ride into pastures with hundreds of sheep and goats with their fluffy kids. What happiness it is for an animal lover to be surrounded by these creatures and their soft bleating bouncing off the lush glade.
Another day, a rider and I ride ahead and venture into unfriendly territory. Taking us to be intruders, two fearsome dogs give chase while snapping at our steeds’ hooves as they run for their dear lives. Our horses gallop across sharp rocks, sending pebbles flying. Overcome by the adrenaline rush, I laugh when we reach safety. It feels scary, but strangely exhilarating!
On my second last day, we ride at a gallop for most of the 90-minute ride to Karakorum, 30km away. The city was the seat of Genghis Khan’s power when Mongolia stretched from the Sea of Japan to Central Europe at its peak — until his grandson, Kublai Khan, moved the capital to Dadu, present-day Beijing.
As one of the guests in the last group for the season, I get to partake in the closing party, which started with a day of activities such as a horse race between children from the valley (while we gave chase in a car to cheer them on), Mongolian wrestling, and a polo tournament.
In the evening, all the nomads and their families who have worked or helped out at the camp show up together with the guests for a feast of bodog, a disembowelled goat stuffed with heated rocks and slow-cooked for hours from the inside out. As the evening progresses, the drinks flow and the guests take turns singing while passing a bowl of airag (fermented mare’s milk).
Even from my ger, a good 100m away, I can hear a nomad’s plaintive singing. My heart swells to become as expansive as the vistas I have galloped across. And I want to relive this feeling.