You grew up in Brooklyn and dreamed of seeing San Francisco, but never made it. You continually wonder what if anything lies west or east of the Hudson River worth exploring. From Tusker’s perspective there is a big, still exotic world out there and we have a distant land that will alter your perceptions and shake your soul. Mongolia!
Your first reaction is— you gotta’ be kiddin’. The most foreign thing you’ve done is eaten in a Szechuan hole-in-the-wall in Chinatown or seen Crouching Tiger/Hidden Dragon with subtitles. That’s a start, but let’s take this up a notch by planting the adventure travel seed in your sleeping desire to broaden your horizons and spread your wings. We all have a sense of adventure, it just needs a catalyst and that’s a trip to a primal place.
Even for veteran adventure travelers, Mongolia seems very foreign. Just the sound of it conjures visions of sword swinging men and women on horses rampaging over the Gobi desert through snowcapped mountains to conquer the 12thcentury world. And that’s what Genghis Khan’s Mongol army did. How did an undeveloped people, led by a previously enslaved underachiever conquer bigger more sophisticated civilizations? They had determination, guts and desire to see and learn what was beyond their horizon. Their sense of adventure catapulted them to greatness.
Mongolia: Myth or Reality?
The reason Tusker takes small groups into Western Mongolia is because it is so unspoiled it harkens back a century or two when the world was largely environmentally whole. This is a region where nomads live in felt lined tents (ghers,) their kids grow up on horses, and youngsters learn to hunt with golden eagles. This is a land of high-dry-cold with permafrost covering much of the country. That’s a good thing because this boggy tundra land makes it almost impossible to build roads, mines etc.
Tusker’s 15 day trek into Altai Tavan Bogd National Park of Mongolia follows the glacial melt rivers running through glacially carved valleys pockmarked with thousands of rock art petroglyphs recording the living history of this land. The perpetual snows atop the peaks make this 14,000-foot upper realm the perfect habitat for the mythical yeti or abominable snowman to leave its tracks in the powder. Is Mongolia a myth or is it real? It’s partially both, but it’s 100 percent adventure travel.
Most people’s first trip abroad is to Mexico or London or maybe even Thailand. All reasonable and worthwhile, but making your first trip abroad to Mongolia pushes the boundaries of your travel tolerance, curiosity and capacity for new experiences. The rewards are partially in the self-discovery of your sense of adventure. You will find it was greater than you anticipated now that it has been sparked by the rugged yak herders you will meet in the gher camps and by the smiling women who endure the world’s coldest winters by making yak butter and other survival staples. Their loss of fear and courage to deal with a harsh yet spectacular landscape can only instill a new degree of confidence in you.
Street tough Brooklyn can take you only so far, you need a dose of Mongolian strong to complete the package.
Land of horse and rider
Unlike all other Tusker trips where you trek long distances, Mongolia gives you the option to do the trip on horseback or hike. Tusker founding guide Eddie Frank heartily endorses the horse option and gives a riding clinic throughout the trek in the Altai backcountry.
Eddie recommends that you take riding lessons before the trip so you are comfortable on a moving horse. More time in the saddle pre trip will get your hindquarters adjusted to being in the saddle for long hours. You will spend 11 days traversing 60 miles on the trip. Horses are one of the best ways to travel over this boggy terrain and to ford the gushing White River that flows out of Mongolia’s largest glacier – the Potanin – where you will camp at the end of the trek.
All riders need to bring their own helmets that are available on line and are not expensive. Bring a ball cap to fit under your helmet to ward off sun. Riding gloves are essential in preventing blisters and Eddie recommends a trip to your local hardware store that usually carries goat skin gloves that are supple. Each horse has saddle bags and your small water bottles comfortably fit in them.
The Tuvan and Kazakh people who live in the Altai have been riding horses here for thousands of years so channel your inner Mongol and saddle up!
No cell phone towers, now what…
There are several challenges a Mongolia trip presents for the rookie adventure traveler. Just getting to Ulaan Bataar, Mongolia’s capital where the trip starts can be a hurdle for those who have never jetted across the world in economy class. If you have the bucks upgrade to business or first class as this is an 18 hour flight from Los Angeles or 23 hours from New York.
To break up the flight, getting off in your stop over city for a night or two and sampling Seoul, Beijing, or Istanbul might be worth it. It’s also a good idea to plan your arrival in Ulaan Bataar a day before the trip start so you can adjust to jet lag and be at full strength for the journey into the Altai. You will spend two nights in the city as part of the Tusker itinerary, but these will be busy days exploring the markets, shrines and restaurants.
Other than the stay in Ulaan Bataar this is a camping trip with some nights in a tent and some at the gher camp. Tusker has the best camping equipment, but still some familiarity with camping out before the journey will only make you more comfortable for the real thing.
If you’re a tech junky and can’t do without your cellphone or IPAD you may want to go “tech cold turkey” for a few days in preparation for Mongolia. Once you get deep into the Altai there are no cell phone towers as you have left the connected world behind. There are no hotels, restaurants or even a park visitor center where you are going. There are no roads, or signed hiking trails either. This is a place as natural as Mother Nature designed it. Bring a notebook with a few pens and write about your experiences or a small tape recorder with fresh batteries to record your impressions. Getting off the grid is a big part of this experience. Discovering your ability to hear and see wildlife and the bigger natural world around you occurs once you’re weaned from the distracting clutter of today’s technology.
From Brooklyn/Boise to Ulaan Bataar
If this all sounds like some sort of a dream, it is. This can be the trip and experience of a lifetime if you embrace the chance to be in a place few outsiders have experienced. You can crawl out of your cocoon and challenge your hardboiled assumptions of growing up in Brooklyn or Boise while learning how others have coped for centuries in a world where you have to be strong, smart and self-reliant.
You are not exploring Mongolia on your own, but with native guides working for a company, Tusker, that has pushed the adventure travel envelope for 42 years and is still pushing. We hope you share our sense of adventure. It was that sense of adventure that pushed us to Mongolia for the first time in 2006. We have been going back every July and we hope you join us.