“If I never ride a horse again I will be a happy man,” Martin uttered in exhaustion. To be fair Martin was coming off a three-day horse trek to reach a remote Tsaatan tribal village close to the Russian border, as far north as you can get in Mongolia. It was no leisurely trek as we were expecting, but multiple days of full on trotting and galloping that would last well past dusk. I have been riding since I was a little girl, so I was quite comfortable on the horses and could not stop grinning from ear to ear. To be here riding on the Mongolian steppe had been a dream of mine for a very long time. But I knew that when our guide Byamba got a smile on his eyes, it would soon be followed by a whooping noise and we would take off galloping. I was in heaven. I tried to be responsible by peeking back and seeing if Martin was OK, but he just kept bouncing along like a champ. I did not know whether to burst out laughing or hold my horse back and check if he was handling the riding OK. So with a giggle I kicked my horse to race Byamba. Martin would survive.
My head was spinning when I was trying to pack for Mongolia; the weather reports seemed minimal at best and did not calm my anxiety at all. Anywhere from over 70 to minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit—how do you begin to pack for that? Layers, layers, layers. And more layers since I am always cold. We knew that the 10-day journey to visit the Tsaatan reindeer herders would be the biggest challenge on our trip. No showers, toilets, or electricity, and long days of driving and riding with rain in the forecast. Even to sign up for this trip we had to present proof of evacuation insurance and sign on the dotted line stating that we knew what we were getting ourselves into. Hmm, whatever does not kill us makes us stronger, right?
During the days leading up to the trip, everyone we talked to said, “You are going north? It will be very cold up there!” When Mongolians say it is cold they mean it. They are used to extremely cold winters with temperatures commonly dropping to 40 below. With a last minute panic we organized our bags and headed out to UB to add an extra layer to our collection. The best thing I did all trip was buy a pair of sheepskin winter boots. Every time it was cold on our trip I would wiggle my toes with great pleasure at my ingenious decision to buy these fabulous boots. There is nothing worse than cold feet.
The plane landed in Murun just as the most amazing sunset imaginable was lighting the sky. “I hope we are ready for this,” was my initial thought. Regardless, it would be too late now, as we were hitting the road. We were greeted by a big warm smile followed by flawless English: “Hello, I am your guide Byamba. It’s great to meet you.” We could not have chosen a better guide if we had all the options and knowledge in the world. Byamba has been guiding for more than 20 years in Mongolia. He was the cultural advisor for the Marco Polo Netflix series (which I am a huge fan of) and one of the founders of the Tsaatan Community Visitors Center, a nonprofit set up to ensure the local community profits and benefits from tourists coming to visit. I was instantly awed by his passion and knowledge. We normally do not use guides and fixers, mainly due to the cost, but Byamba would clearly show how important it is to have a guide, especially in Mongolia. This trip would not be possible without the help of our tour company, Boojum Expeditions, and our guide, Byamba.
“So we are really going to just pull up to someone’s Ger and crash on their floor?” I hesitantly asked. “Yeah, it is the Nomadic way. They could easily be in the same situation next week and need a place to stay,” Byamba explained. I had heard about Mongolian hospitality for years, but nothing quite prepares you for the cultural differences when you are in the heart of it. We were welcomed by warm smiles and a steaming hot cup of milk tea by our host family who generously got out of bed in the middle of the night to greet us as their guests.
As dawn broke we were awakened by the gentle sounds of livestock restlessly moving, ready to start their day. We thanked the family for their incredible hospitality and turned our trusted Russian truck towards the mountains. The drive was spectacular. We would drive through valleys, cross raging rivers, and pass through the most beautiful fall foliage on our way to the outskirts of the taiga forest, the biggest forest in the world. Our driver, Odbaya, has been living in this region for years and effortlessly navigated our truck over the treacherous terrain. Being a driver in Mongolia means you also have to be an exceptional field mechanic. Every time we would stop for a pee break or a cup of tea, he would be under the truck fixing something. A little (or a lot) of maintenance goes a long way. For me, riding in that bumpy truck on rough dirt roads for 10 to 12 hours a day was way more difficult than riding the horses. I feel at home in the saddle and love being outside riding.
I could feel the excitement kicking in, as I knew we were getting close. I would get a quick glimpse of a shadow or movement and knew that it could only mean one thing: we were almost there.