We’re starting to lose daylight. My face is covered in a layer of dirt where my helmet lets in the brisk air. My hands are callusing over from gripping the throttle so tightly, as we dodge potholes and the occasional cow or horse. And it’s only day one of our six-day journey. Early this morning we left the comfort of paved roads for the Mongolian steppe of Erdensant, a tiny soum not far from Ulaanbaatar. We’re heading into hour-nine of today’s ride, and it’s slow going. Racing against the setting sun, we continue our battle against uneven terrain, the occasional stream, rocky hillsides and one too many feral dogs for my liking. We’re heading towards the Mini Gobi where there is no roads, no cell phone service, and only nomadic families to rely on. No worries. What can go wrong?
I am obsessed with remote destinations and finding the world’s most badass adventures. There are two of us on this exploration through the Mongolian steppe. My friend, Eric Cooper was born and raised on a horse farm in Missouri and was riding before he could walk. His dream was to race in the Mongol Derby, and he fulfilled that dream a few years ago. Now, he is sitting in the sidecar of our motorcycle, a 1980 IMZ Ural. I’m driving.
We purchased this Russian motorcycle back in Ulaanbaatar just for this purpose. It has its fair share of, let’s say, character, but it will get us into the most remote parts of the steppe. Eric and I are looking everywhere, yelling at each other over the engine of the bike, “Where the hell have these nomadic herders moved to?”
With Eric’s expert navigational skills and our GPS coordinates, we finally spot the ger we’ve been searching for in the distance. We’re happy to see it settled peacefully just before the hillside turns into an ominous-looking mountain. We’ve partnered with a Mongolian NGO, Steppe and Hoof. They offer Native Horse Preservation, Help-A-Herder programs, and Veterinary Education programs.
Many herders have left the nomadic life to live in the cities. Repatriation programs are underway to encourage their return. We’re delivering veterinary and medical supplies as well as lending a helping hand to herders who don’t readily have access to these supplies.
Serod and his family welcome us with hugs and the customary “Sain bana” like we’re friends they haven’t seen in ages. Although this is my first time meeting him, I am embraced as part of the family. Eric has known Serod for years thanks to the annual 1000 km Mongol Derby, the longest and most challenging horse race in the world. The course follows the mail delivery route of Ghengis Khan. It’s a dangerous, demanding adventure, riding semi-wild horses across the Mongolian steppe. Only the fearless dare apply. (Each year, one or two Canadians are accepted to race.)
After his quick inspection of our curious-looking motorcycle we’re ushered into their ger without any hesitation. There will be plenty of time in the next few days to fuss over our bike. They find our vintage motorcycle as interesting as we find their nomadic way of living–and that is exactly why we brought it here. It is our way of creating a connection since we don’t speak each other’s language.
It’s immediately clear that Serod and his family aren’t your typical nomads. They have a freezer, solar electricity, a TV, car, and motorcycle. Serod is a legend in this part of Mongolia for his horses. The Mongolian horses have not changed since the time of Ghengis Khan, and have adapted so completely to the extreme cold that they are a curiosity of science with their short, stocky build and extremely long hair that must be clipped every spring.
During the long winter, their metabolism drops to preserve energy. They do not lie down even once during the eight-month long winter and are considered to be in a state of standing hibernation. Serod breeds and trains racehorses, and the trophies in his ger confirm that he’s one of the best. He grew up here. Horses are his life, and he continues to live in the steppe because it’s the only thing he knows. In this unforgiving mountain world, horses bring security, wealth, transport, meat and milk. While we see it as a grueling and remote lifestyle, he’s a jolly man, at one with the land.
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At days end, wearing his traditional Mongolian deel, we laugh and, using playful hand gestures, ask questions about each other, his horses, and the spread of food his wife sets before us. She offers us suutei khiitstei tsai, a warm tea made with fresh goat milk from this morning’s milking. Mongolians are lactose intolerant, and cannot drink raw mare’s milk until it goes through a fermentation process. Classic fist-sized soup dumplings, or buuz, filled with mutton and vegetables, are hearty, and followed by a bowl of boorstog, small pieces of dough fried in a wok.
Dried cow droppings fuel the stove—yet another way to live off the herd—because trees do not grow in the high-Arctic Tundra. Our final course is a soothing bowl of mutton and noodle soup. While I have already eaten my fill, it is rude to decline food here. Surprise: a bowl of candy is passed around the table, signifying an honour to guests. Pulling out all the stops, Serod opens a bottle of Chinggis Gold Vodka, and gracefully pours shot-sized measures into a single silver bowl, which he passes to each of his guests until the bottle is empty. This signifies it’s time to build camp and go to bed. Tomorrow begins the first of our five days with the herders.
We trim the horses’ wild manes, herd cows during the day and goats at night. We even put our veterinary supplies to good use. Immersing ourselves in this family’s culture is one of life’s soul-satisfying experiences. Alas, we say goodbye and embark on a journey to the Tsataan tribe, the last tribe that herds and rides wild reindeer. As they say in Mongolia, “Man’s happiness lies in vacant steppes.”