When I told colleagues I was taking my children on a horse-riding trek through rural Mongolia, hundreds of kilometres from the nearest road, telephone, toilet or doctor, in a poor developing country whose primary role model is the medieval Hun chieftain Genghis Khan, and to top it off, that none of us had ever sat on a horse before, you could hear the eyeballs scraping the tops of their skulls. I thought of this as my own eyeballs rolled like dice, bouncing and rattling in the back seat of a Russian four-wheel drive. We had travelled for hours along a dirt track that was little more than a jagged score in the earth, through an endless expanse of sand and bushes. The car's suspension, if it ever existed, had given up the ghost long ago. I felt every pebble and rut in the road. The driver clicked his tongue and the jeep bucked like a horse then ground to a halt. Dashdorj, a fit 50-ish former communist official who now runs a tour company, smiled and shrugged. 'Time for a break,' he said. Break indeed: the transmission cable was damaged, the brake fluid was leaking and the front axle was bent. We squeezed into the supply vehicle, which had turned around to find us, and continued the journey. Breakdowns aside, the first challenge of any visitor to a nomadic family is finding them. Mongolian herders move as many as 36 times during the warm months in search of good grazing. We stopped at several nomad camps where we were told yes, they knew the family, and thought they might be camped beyond such-and-such hill, or past this well or that rock formation. We eventually pulled into a homestead of three gers (traditional Mongolian tents) surrounded by herds of braying horses and sheep. Dashdorj welcomed us to his childhood home: everyone at the camp was his brother, sister or cousin. The Yondon family greeted us with warm smiles and bowls of fresh goat's milk. If you're going to sit on a horse for the first time, there can be no better choice than a Mongolian horse. For one, they're small: ponies by western standards. They are also calm. Our training consisted of a guide riding next to each of us, holding the reins, for all of one hour, showing us simple commands and teaching us the all-important word for giddy-up: 'Tschoo!' After that, we were on our own. Our entourage included Dashdorj's brother Dandov and several other relatives. For them it was a family outing around their backyard; for us, a 10-day expedition around the centre of Mongolia. At first glance, the Mongolian countryside is little more than wide expanses of crew-cut grassland, scattered with low rocky hills, a few birds flying beneath broad blue skies dotted with stationary clouds. Its grandeur is in its emptiness, without a fence, sign or wire in any direction. Yet it is precisely this lack of grandiose landmarks or saturated colours that allows you to notice the details. Each hill becomes a promontory from which to view seemingly hundreds of kilometres in every direction, through air so dry and pure it acts like a magnifier. Each small depression in the landscape is a community of rodent burrows, grass-hoppers and armoured beetles, and an amazing variety of wildflowers of every hue. It was a primordial landscape so unspoiled I half expected to see mastodons. The fragrances change noticeably with the terrain. Our first day brought us through sandy fields with tough shrubs and a lush, buttery odour one could almost taste. Only after dismounting the horses and looking closely did we realise the steppes were bursting with pea-sized buds of chamomile. Later, we climbed gradually onto a low plateau that looked like a page from a child's colouring book: an unbroken carpet of fluorescent yellow-flowered shrubs, peppered with purple and white polka dots and drenched with the mouth-watering tang of onions. The purple dots were the onion flowers. We gathered several onions for that evening's meal. The weather on the steppes is dry, with occasional short rainstorms. What little water is to be found comes from scattered wells, most of which consist of a hole in the ground surrounded by truck tyres split open to act as troughs. For us, there was bottled water to drink, but the horsemen had plastic bottles of airag (fermented horse milk). It tastes more like cider than milk, is mildly alcoholic and definitely an acquired taste. After leaving the plateau of wild onions, we saw below us the rapidly flowing Tuul River, flanked by shade trees and tall grasses. After two days of dry heat and no washing, the children were happy to roll up trousers and wade into the water. I wondered why there were no herders in such a lush place. That evening, swarms of biting insects answered my question. Dandov explained that they would come in late summer and gather the tall grass to store for winter. We wanted an early start the next morning and we would have had one if the horses hadn't run off. Mongolians don't hobble their horses at night. We worried that they had run back to rejoin their herd at the ger camp. While the horsemen searched the fields, we hiked up a hill for a better look. On top was an ovoo, a shrine consisting of a pile of stones and cast-off objects, topped by blue banners. We had passed many ovoos and, like travellers had done for centuries, circled each clockwise while adding stones to the pile to ensure a fortunate journey. This time we did so with extra conviction, not relishing the thought of a several-day walk back to camp. Two hours later the horses were found, snuggled together for a nap on a hidden riverbank. The next several days' journey took us through the Elsen Am desert and on an unscheduled side trip to a busy well to water thirsty horses. We rode past the graves of ancient Mongolian kings and into the Zotol Hairhan Valley, carved in a V-shape between mountains that looked like piles of flat rocks stacked by giant children, then galloped wildly along the shores of Harii Nuur, a salt lake swarming with birds. That night, by the shores of the lake, beneath a sky smeared with stars, Dandov told us legends of the time Genghis Khan based his army where we were camped. The horses snorted as they tore at the sparse stalks of grass, night herons and grey 'Mongolian flamingos' fluttered low over the water and meteors drew lines in the sky. There was a magical sense of timelessness. There wasn't a trace of the 21st century around us. And did it matter? This feeling summarised our trip so far: travelling through a wild, unfenced land with people who lived, dressed, ate and sang the same way their ancestors did 700 years ago. Was it just some modern traveller's fantasy? Dandov was a perfect example of modern Mongolia. He was born into a herder family. Under the communists, all livestock were government property and herders were 'hired' to care for them. Those with other skills were sent elsewhere. Dandov, after two years in the army, was assigned to be a driver in a nearby township, a job he kept for 12 years. When the new democratic government took power in 1992, each citizen was given 10,000 tughriks ($70). Dandov bought horses with his allotment, turned his back on urban life and returned to the family ger camp and the traditional customs, as did tens of thousands of people around the country. Dandov and his family spoke with passion of their love of the land and of their ancient culture. It was almost as hard to say goodbye to the horses as to the people. After 10 days of living with the Yondon family we felt like old friends. Following an exchange of gifts - they gave us a supply of airag and dried goat-yogurt chips - we left for the city, where we would enjoy the novelty of hot showers and mattresses. But we each left a bit of our hearts behind among the grass, gers and free-spirited people and horses of the steppes. Getting there: Korean Air operates a daily flight to Ulan Bator, via Seoul, as does Air China, via Beijing. Independent horseback trekking: Several companies, local- and foreign-owned, offer horse or camel treks in Mongolia. The foreign-owned companies offer greater comfort and loftier prices. Visit the EcoTravel Mongolia site at www.ecotravelmongolia.com , Nomads Tours at www.nomadstours.com and Happy Camel at www.happycamel.com .