Minister swaps Belfast for Mongolian wilderness

Forget photo opportunities on a rainy British beach. One Cabinet minister is about to set off in the hoof prints of Genghis Khan on a gruelling race across Mongolia for his summer holiday.

The Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson is to compete in a horseback race across the steppes of one of the most sparsely populated countries. Conditions will be primitive: according to Paterson, he and his wife Rose will be eating "something called koomis, which I understand is fermented mare's milk".

Swapping inner-city Belfast for Ulan Bator to take part in the Mongol Derby, the couple are to cover more than 600 miles in 10 days. The race is based on the route of the horseback messenger system established by Genghis Khan to communicate across his vast 12th-century empire.

Mr Paterson said: "It's going to be quite rough – in 10 days the only place we get to wash is when we cross a river."

Preparations for the trip, which will raise £50,000 for charity, have not been without incident. In his efforts to lose weight – he has lost 11 pounds – he came off his bike last weekend, giving himself a black eye.

The route involves traversing mountains, marshes, forests and desert, and they have been warned to expect rabies, ticks and severe chafing, among other hazards.

Paterson said: "It is starting to sink in that we are going to be riding 60 miles a day for 10 days on semi-trained horses, which is quite a daunting prospect."

The Mongolian horses they will be riding have been described as "semi-wild, diminutive, fearless, exceedingly tough, and have changed very little over the centuries".

Such characteristics may remind the minister of some of the rioters in Belfast this summer.