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Planes, Trains, Ball and Chains: The Mongolian Diaries

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Day 1: Key Lime Hills

In the short morning flight from the capital Ulaanbaatar to Murun in Northwestern Mongolia, we set goals for the following week-long excursion. We called them mon-goals. Rachel and I, by the way, were met by three friends of ours from L.A. — three brave souls who wanted some adventure in one of the last wild frontiers on earth. Indeed our mon-goals were varied, but all five of us buzzed with anticipation as we looked out the windows upon the infinite landscapes below.

Top mon-goals included but were not limited to: holding a bird of prey on an arm. Riding a yak. Hugging a reindeer. Pushing a reindeer’s nose (to see if it glows). Riding a white horse into the sunset. Riding a horse naked without a saddle (aka bareback-bareback). Surf the top of our vehicle. Somehow, it all seemed possible. Everything in Mongolia suddenly seemed new and invigorating. We would be nomads for a time in this ancient nomadic nation.

Our driver, Olga, and guide, Inke, met us on the ground with our ride: a 4WD Russian combi-van. It was like a VW bus on steroids. Inke is an amazon of a woman with fire in her eyes and although she doesn’t say much, I feel like with a campfire and couple of vodka shots, she’ll break out of that big shell soon enough.

After barely 30 kilometers of paved road, Olga suddenly took a random turn off the asphalt and drove the remainder of the day on dirt tracks through dense coniferous forests, vast valleys, over alpine streams and shallow river beds. We bounced around within the van but the lifted Russian combi handled like a tank on cocaine. Along the way, we rode through every shade of green in the book and when the dirt track faded into the grass, we just charged through the steppe toward the falling sun.

We set up camp and started a fire with dried wood and yak dung, climbed up the nearest hill, drank vodka at an 11pm sunset and invented seven more mon-goals.

Day 2: Over the River and Through the Woods

We continued on toward the village of Tsagaan Nuur where we would eventually find our horses for the trek to the remote Tsaatan reindeer tribe. Along the way, the Mongolian countryside continued to bug our eyes out and we’d stop every so often to run with herds of dreadlocked yaks, or to watch wild Bactrian camels wander across the steppe, or to help random Mongolian families push their beat-up Honda civics out of the mud.

I swear there were three different occasions when our savage van-pilot, Olga, used the golden yellow sash off his coat as a rope to tie our van to the designated car in distress. Which worked brilliantly every time. This unconventional tool became known as The Magic Sash.

Above us, the entire way, eagles and falcons soared and dipped, swooping prey and looking typically badass. At each vista and hilltop, we’d see wicked looking “ovoo,”  ancient shamanistic offerings to the sky gods. The road was still bumpier than ever and made us feel like we were already galloping.

We finally made it to Tsagaan Nuur with a few hours of light left, lugged our gear into the yurts, grabbed towels and bathed in the cool lake behind the property. Indeed, the only difference between Tsagaan Nuur and a “one horse town” is that this town has, like, 400 horses, yet sleepy as it was, we found a shop with cold tall-boys, took them to a mechanic garage-turned pool hall and played 8-ball until the sun went down. Tomorrow we would ride.

Day 3: Suddenly, Tepees in the Distance

The horses were a lot gassier than we’d anticipated. As in, every step up that trail through forest, mountain, taiga and plain: major flatulence. With nearly a dozen horses in our caravan, we were trotting to an utter symphony of farts. Who knew?

It took a full 10 hours of riding to reach the fabled Darkhad Depression, a vast valley near the Russian Siberian borderland only accessible by horse or foot, the legendary summer-grounds of the nomadic Tsaatan reindeer herding tribes of north Mongolia.

We walked those 10 hours through dense alpine woods, through knee-deep rivers, over rocky passes and under a sweltering sun before we saw the first signs of them. We gave our steeds custom-monikers — mine was Cosmic Dangerback — and we listened to one of our cowboy guides whistle a native song that sounded uncannily like the X-Files intro. And then suddenly…tepees in the distance.

Yes, easily collapsible for folk on the move like the Tsaatan tribe, spread out on the golden valley were various settlements of tepees. The Tsaatan greeted us and gave us permission to stay in their guest tepee. After introductions and courtesies — and some ballin-ass timing on our part — the tribe’s herd of a hundred reindeers galloped in, corralled by half-wolf dogs, to rest after their day of grazing. We mingled with these fairytale-like beasts, touched their furry antlers and even checked off a mon-goal with a reindeer-ride. But the sound of those reindeer herds running, that deep, clicking rumble of hooves, there is nothing like that sound on earth.

The hours before dusk were a dream. We collected potable water in a fresh water spring in the valley below their camp then came up and played volleyball with the tribe. The sun was at that exquisite, far angle again, making the reindeer’s fuzzy horns look like they were gilded and glowing. We fell asleep in the tepee smelling like smoke with our minds blown from this place that seemed out of a children’s book.

Day 4: Cosmic Dangerback is Under the Weather

We awoke with intentions to leave the Tsaatan tribe but one of our horses (mine, actually) was apparently ill, or had a hurt foot, or maybe it was a fever; it was hard to tell with the language barrier. Regardless, the guides said we’d have to feel it out after lunch, which made the return to the bottom of the mountain seem like an impossibility, as it took a full-day to get there.

Not that we were bummed or anything, as life with the Tsaatan was surreal and made you feel like a kid at Christmas again. After more reindeer games, we followed two of the village boys to a river to fish with them. Not many on tap, but it was still cute watching one of them interact with a little girl crossing the river by reindeer-back to her teepee across the way. The little boy slapped the reindeer on the butt, a 10 year old boy’s version of flirting.

After lunch, Cosmic D. was apparently well enough to ride halfway, so we trudged those 5 hours and set up camp at another magical little valley along the base of a flowing stream. We all agreed that it was the most gorgeous campsite we’d ever slept at and after we ate, we played with the light that made everything and everyone seem outlined in gold.

Day 5: Sun Up to Sun Down

Day 5 was brutal and never-ending. Awaking an hour before first-light, we packed up the horses halfway from the reindeer tribe and made our descent. Going downhill was surprisingly harder for the horses than up, their hooves slipping on the loose rocks, making them noticeably frustrated by the harsh trail. On one difficult trail my horse faltered and fell to its side. Somehow I dismounted by jumping off Cosmic D just in time before he may have crushed me. Falling off a horse was not a mon-goal of ours by any means.

But the handsome cowboy kept whistling his eerie tune and four hours later, we got to the bottom of the mountain, barely able to stand by the end of it. What followed was a 10-hour van ride to Lake Khovsgul, nearly all of it on dirt roads that rattled the bones within our bodies. Far too bumpy to remotely enjoy the cold beers we had purchased to congratulate ourselves for making it down the mountain. We got to the lake by sunset (still 11pm), and took a short speedboat to our yurt camp, collapsing in a pile on the shores of the lake.

Day 6-7: Bar Harbor, Mongolia

Okay so maybe there were a few less amenities than Bar Harbor, but Lake Khovsgol looks like Acadia National Park in coastal Maine. Thick, dark pine forests surrounding glistening meadows with sparkeling lake coves and beaches around every turn. In a way our yurt camp reminded us of summer camp, or maybe Camp Anawanna from “Salute Your Shorts,” but was still a slice of heaven after that 20-hour death-haul from yesterday.

After a couple days of lounging by the lake, playing tag with baby yaks, and healing our ride-wounds, we took a speedboat into town to explore the joint. The ferry zone looked like it didn’t know that the USSR had collapsed and vendors sold exotic handicrafts like bear claw necklaces and pouches of Mongolia’s national game, (a fortune-telling dice game made of sheep ankle bones). We treated ourselves to pizza at a cafe called Garage 24, an absolute delicacy after a week of exhausting every combination of potatoes and mutton you could come up with.

Before getting back on the speedboat to camp, we finally discovered where everyone was getting their ice cream from and invaded an old Mongolian woman’s house by the lake, (that doubled as an ice cream parlor) pretty much wiping out her entire supply. She thanked us graciously with a toothless grin as we sped off across the water. Luckily, on our last night we discovered that the yurt camp had a sauna so we fired up the coals and sweat off the ‘cream in the wee hours of the morning, dashing into the freezing lake between sessions beneath a million blinking stars.

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