Mongolia Must-Reads: Rough Magic by Lara Prior-Palmer

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Mongolia Must-Reads: Rough Magic: Riding the World’s Loneliest Horse Race by Lara Prior-Palmer

 What’s it like to compete in the world’s longest and toughest horse race? Lara Prior-Palmer was nineteen when she competed in and won the Mongol Derby and became its youngest and first-ever female winner. She describes her personal journey in our latest series of Mongolia Must-Reads: Rough Magic

Rough Magic book cover

The Mongol Derby is essentially a 1000km horse race that follows the history of Chinggis Khan’s 13th-century horse messenger system when messengers, using a network of horse stations – ‘morin urtuus’ in Mongolian –, could gallop from Kharkhorin (the capital of the Mongol Empire), reaching the furthest reaches of the empire in days. The Mongol Derby takes 10 days and competitors change horses, although transfer saddles,  at regular intervals at a modern-day version of a ‘morin urtuu’ (spaced every 40km). Riders are also restricted in the time they can ride each day and how hard they can push their horses too. It’s essentially, the rider and their horses vs. the wild.


Not everyone will get on with the writing style of what is very much a  coming-of-age story of a somewhat privileged ­teenager, but the descriptions of Mongolia and riding across its vast landscapes (“This seemed more of a space than a place, shapeless and free.’ … ‘A plain so vast it would be silly to carry on thinking we matter.”), Mongolia’s culture (“Mongolian ballads known as long songs’ are said to translate the contours of the land into verse. If the steppe had a tongue, these might be her sounds.”) and her depictions of everyday life in Mongolia (“If there is one piece of furniture crucial to imagining the Mongolian steppe, it’s the ‘ger’, meaning ‘home’ in Mongolian.”) make Rough Magic a worthwhile read.

Mongolia Must Reads: Rough Magic writer Lara Prior Palmer winning the Mongol Derby

Mongolia Must Reads: Rough Magic writer Lara Prior Palmer winning the Mongol Derby. This image is from The Telegraph newspaper. “She had signed up seven weeks before the start, about 10 months after every other competitor, and was ignorant of the most basic practicalities. From forgetting to pack toilet roll and naively asking the organisers, “Will anyone be waking us up in the mornings?”, tampons and the contraceptive pill fell pretty low on her agenda.”

Rough Magic is also a great read for anyone thinking of exploring Mongolia on horseback especially as it shows not only the culture surrounding horses in Mongolia but also the (in)famous characteristics of Mongolian horses.

“We ride only geldings and stallions, the male ponies, because the mares around here are reserved for milking and breeding.”

“Like any horse, he lacks speech and makes up for it with his strengthened sensitivity to the unseen.’ … ‘Horse’s eyes miss nothing. The slightest crinkle of our rain jackets, and they’ll shudder, spook, and ping away.”

“In Mongolia, there are, apparently, more love songs about horses than about women. Ponies who come last in races are sung commiseration songs because no one wants them to feel bad. There’s a sense of in which your horse is an extension of you. A Mongol without a horse is like a bird without wings – so goes the proverb. Even horses’ skulls are sacred. They’re made into musical instruments, whose sounds comfort mourning souls.”

Temul. It’s the Mongolian word for the look in the eye of a horse charging down its own undrawn route.”

There are also some great, almost philosophical, musings about travel (“Like any human, I’m, a traveller, but I’m better suited to the gradual pace of footsteps and hoofsteps than the leaping motion of planes, which severs me from the land.”) as well as some pretty realistic descriptions of small-town life in Mongolia (although Rough Magic was published in 2019, the author competed in the 2013 Mongol Derby and elements of small-town life have improved since then!).

“Beyond the capital city, facilities in the local towns are dilapidated shells of another life.”

“Apparently the Soviets introduced the soums in an attempt to settle the nomads but had minimal success. Families tend to leave the soums for gers out on the steppe in summer and some live out all year round. Now, in August, it feels as if a flood has swept through and carried life away.”

If reading Rough Magic makes you want to ride across the Mongolian steppe then why not use our guide for further inspiration Alternatively, look at the horse trekking experiences we offer in collaboration with the horse herders we work in long-term local community partnership with – For more books on Mongolia –
Jessica Brooks
Jessica Brooks
I'm Jess Brooks, the founder of Eternal Landscapes Mongolia and the voice behind EL's blog posts. For more than a decade, since 2006, I've been based in Mongolia, working closely with my beloved Mongolian team to advocate for a tourism approach that brings about positive change.. What sets our blog apart is our deep understanding of Mongolia—our home. Unlike content from influencers or creators, our posts prioritise authenticity and firsthand knowledge as guiding principles.
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