by Joel CaldwellPhotography by Joel Caldwell

Imagine crossing an immense, undeveloped, grassy plain. The sky is equally massive and a deep, glorious blue. Cloud fortresses make their way across, lending depth and captivating the senses. The route is a rough collusion of singletrack, often splitting wide and heading in many directions, occasionally, temporarily, coming together to form a primitive road. Though these trails have worn the tracks of man and beast for some 4,000 years, it was only very recently that tire tread appeared along it’s dusty contours. The land is brown, drought stricken, but river crossings are surprising, verdant oases. Here, travel is at your own speed. You pick your own path. There are no rules. You’re in Mongolia.

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Ulaanbaatar

It’s July in Ulaanbaatar.  Twenty motorcyclists from around the world gather at a no-frills, downtown hotel, ironically called “Home.” Each rider has purchased a new 200cc Yamaha dirt bike with funds raised in their home countries. For the next two weeks we will ride over 1500 miles through the Mongolian highlands, along the Siberian border, ultimately delivering the broken-in machines to twenty park rangers at Lake Hovsgol National Park.

Nearly half of Mongolia’s three million person population reside in Ulaanbaatar and the hallmarks of a developing city are everywhere—dark brown diesel exhaust, sprawling cracked concrete, a few drab high rises, and the oppressive smell of industry— the marks of an old country finally, grudgingly, adapting to the way things have to be.

After a whirlwind tour of the capital—the Buddhist monastery, museums, and a visit to the massive Genghis Khan Equestrian Statue—the group visits Yamaha Mongolia to inspect the new bikes. Anticipation for the ride has been growing for months and seeing the shiny machines lined up in a row is an emotional experience for more than one rider.

30% of Mongolia’s GDP disappeared at the time of the Soviet collapse in 1991. In an attempt to escape economic ruin, half of Mongolia’s virgin lands were made available to foreign development. Without proper oversight, lands were exploited for maximum profit, leaving Mongolia’s heretofore pristine environment threatened. Recognizing the inevitability of development, the Mongol Ecology Center (MEC) was established to conserve the natural resources, environment, and heritage of it’s people.

Part of MEC’s mission is to train and equip park rangers to better patrol Mongolia’s national parks. While extensive parks exist in name, the government gives very little by way of resources to protect or preserve them. Corruption on the national and local level continues to be a problem, making these beautiful expanses susceptible to profiteering.

 

Now in it’s second year, Rally for Rangers has brought twenty new riders to Mongolia. They are ready to ride.

TIME TO GO

The motors kick over and begin to purr. It’s immediately clear that the Yamaha AG200 is unlikely to strike fear into any hearts. Here, you’re wise to surrender your vanity and choose a motorcycle that can survive a beating. Rough trails lie ahead and after a short time in the saddle, I get the feeling that the AG could run forever with little more than an oil change.

We meet the Mongolian Choppers at Sukhbaatar Square. They escort us out of the city, due west. Except for brightly colored roofs, everything is brown, including the air. I develop a headache from breathing exhaust and it’s a relief to pass the final coal-fired power plant that marks the boundary of the city.

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We are camping along a scenic bend of the Selenga River 200 kilometers from UB. Dinner and a few warm beers riverside put most of the group down well before the unrelenting summer sun fades to night. After a long windy day of pounding pavement, we’ve ridden nearly all of the asphalt of the entire trip. Now for the good stuff!

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Day two and the off-road riding begins in earnest. The more experienced riders respond with wide smiles and enthusiasm—this is what we’ve come for—but the less experienced wear tighter smiles and white knuckle the handlebars. Primitive roads give way to deep sand, posing problems for more than a few riders. The first bikes lose a little paint. Eventually the sand relents, and we blast, gleefully, along a series of meandering canyons. A technical, rocky section slows us down and we sweat under the high noon sun.

A late lunch finds us on the steppe, grassy vista of near fifty miles. Enjoying my first hot dog in seven or eight years, I look up to find that two young boys on horseback have appeared and are studying me. The quiet scrutiny lasts for what seems a full minute. They allow me a photo, whirl, and gallop off. The younger of the two, handling the horsewhip, glances shyly over his shoulder and waves. The winds pick up, signaling the end of lunch. We race northward toward the Siberian border, as ominous storm clouds build.

Mongolian countryside is almost entirely without infrastructure and so travel by dirtbike is ideal.  The following day we encounter our first river crossing. I proceed ahead of the others in order to photograph them from the opposite shore. I’m nearly across when my front wheel find the seemingly largest, roundest stone within five river miles. In slow motion, the bike falls and submerges. I manage to kill the engine before any water is sucked inside, but am left straddling my downed bike with a sheepish smile on my face, as the other riders loudly discuss my technique.

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Eventually we find ourselves briefly back on tarmac. If I was pleasantly surprised by the performance of the Ag off-road—though more torque and a longer suspension wouldn’t hurt —it’s a real snoozer on the highway. Entering Moron (More-own), the capital of the province, it seems preposterous to be confronted with stoplights, albeit not many. At a supermarket we exchange a fistful of Tugrik for three-litre plastic bottles of beer, milk chocolate, Chengis Silver vodka, and supplementary foodstuffs. The mental exchange rate from US dollars to Tugriks, as far as I can tell, goes like this: subtract three zeros, divide by two, celebrate how little money you’re actually spending.

110 kilometers up the road brings us to the village of Hatgal and the entrance to Lake Hovsgol National Park. Hovsgol contains 70% of Mongolia’s freshwater, 1% of the world’s. The park was established in 1992 in response to the overwhelming number of visitors and lack of infrastructure. The heavily forested park encompasses the entirety of the lake and at 1.2 million hectares is larger than Yellowstone National Park. Water entering the northern end of the lake can take 500 years to exit, past Hatgal, through the southerly Eg River.

At the entrance to the park, Tom— veteran rally rider and a ranger at Yosemite— is reunited with his ranger and bike from the previous year. Despite a few welded modifications the bike seems to be in good working order. Tom smiles and a few tears roll down his dirty cheeks.

MEC’s paramount mission is to emphasize the global significance of Lake Hovsgol. In recent years, annual visitors have doubled and illegal commercial fishing, logging, and grazing have become rampant. A new paved road provides easier access to the lake but no facilities exist to accommodate this influx of visitors. MEC aims to provide infrastructure.

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Leaving Hatgal and continuing up the western shore, I count nearly fifty ger camps, over half of which operate illegally. The lake is beautiful, but here the shore is crowded and dirty. A few kilometers north, as the road grows increasingly primitive, the ger camps are replaced by meadows of wildflowers, white rocky beaches, and crystal clear water mirroring the sky. The beauty of the lake, undisturbed by humanity, is breathtaking.

 

 

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The two-track undulates along the lakeshore, smooth and grassy atop it’s convexities, abruptly muddy and rooty where it dips along the water. Startlingly lush, especially when compared to the austere nothingness of the steppe. Here, the water is said to be clean enough to drink though I don’t put it to the test. Kent, a rider from San Francisco, tangles with a tree and goes down. It’ll be another ten days of riding before x-rays reveal his leg to be broken. I never hear him complain once.

Leaving the lake we climb into the rain, up and over Jigleg Pass. The steep westerly descent is loose river rock, making for a hair-raising two-wheeled glissade. The landscape opens up and we clip along, choosing our own path from a complex tangle of singletrack.

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Coming up on a ger, I kill the motor and coast to a stop. Hans, already off his bike, is passing a volleyball back and forth with a teenage girl. A woman approaches, offering me a wooden cup. With my left hand supporting my right elbow, the polite way of accepting gifts, I accept. The cup contains a white cream with congealed clumps of what looks like butter or fat. A few dark hairs float among the denser bits. I pause to consider: (a) what this ominous looking concoction is and (b) the likelihood of gastric hell. The flavor is surprisingly sweet and inoffensive. I make to return the Airag, fermented mare’s milk, only to realize that not finishing the offering would be gravely impolite. Hans, telltale cream dotting his week’s worth of beard, smirks, clearly enjoying my predicament.

THE RAINS

Entering the Darhad Valley, we hit a wall of rain. Several deep river crossings and ten kilometers of wet river rock beats the hell out of us. Morale is crashing. Eventually we reach camp, thoroughly soaked, and begin the fairly miserable task of erecting tents in the bitter downpour. The next morning arrives and the storm continues to rage. I venture out of my tent to discover the two rivers we’ve camped between are swollen to five times their normal height and are swiftly eroding the riverbank. We are going nowhere today.

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We’ve camped next to a small one room ranger station with a roaring wood stove. The party crowds inside, out of the rain. Twenty-six year old Ranger Davaadalai spends 300 nights a year here. The manual labor required to survive in an area of this remoteness, entirely alone, is astonishing. The area, a migratory thoroughfare, is strictly protected. No one is allowed through, but a special exception is made for us. It’s fitting that of all places, the storm strikes here and now, forcing us to stop and appreciate the awesome beauty of this river valley.

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Despite any language commonality, I find myself joking often with Ranger Dava. I show him how to throw a frisbee during one of the brief respites from the downpour. He’s terrible. He puts me to the test cutting firewood and says, through a translator, that I saw “like a child.”

After nearly two days on “Storm Island”, we decide to make the dangerous crossing. Dava and two drivers, tripled up on a bike and push it slowly into the river. Midway across progress slows and for one terrible moment it looks as if the bike will be lost. The men regain their footing and make it to the other side. Motorcycles are stuffed into a Russian UAZ, a soviet era van, which at the moment looks ludicrously like an oversized floatation device.

After the bikes, we load into the UAZs. One van, ten soaking riders. The driver eases into the river and I am suddenly hyper aware of our precarious situation. But the van plows through the rushing, sediment filled water without faltering.

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Back on the bikes! We navigate a green bog unlike anything we had seen thus far. One UAZ sinks up to its axle in mud and the drivers winch it out. Underway again, the sky appears to be lightening in the west.

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A buckled wooden bridge is our final crossing of the day. The extreme weather, down to -40 degrees celsius in the winter, coupled with hot summers, wreaks havoc on such structures. We pull into the Saridag Inn just as the sun breaks through the clouds. Spirits rise along with the temperature. Everywhere, gear is hung out to dry and we sit in the sun. It feels like deliverance. An impromptu bar is set up outside my tent. Kiwis, Yankees, Germans, Mongols, Japanese, and Russians make up the circle of patrons. Vodka passes from hand to hand and Boro, our intrepid driver, introduces Mongolian snuff from a silver case. Tonight, we feel no pain.

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Boro is another character who I have grown to love, despite the language barrier. Our friendship starts simply with Mongolian hip hop and big smiles. Without fail, if I need something from the Land Cruiser that Boro pilots, it speeds away just as I am a step away, a joke I’ve often played myself. In Moron, Boro had taken us to his home and introduced us to his wife and three children.

Now at the Saridag, I offer him a drink. Politely accepting with both hands, Boro first dips his ring finger into the vodka, flicking droplets towards the sky in a blessing, before bringing the cup to his mouth. Producing a harmonica from his pocket, he begins to play whie all the drivers serenade us. Walking out into the steppe, immense red sunset to the west, I marvel at my new friendships. The soul speak a universal language.

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Just before I turn in, I take advantage of the first indoor plumbing we’ve encountered to do laundry. Finishing up, I head inside the Inn. The drivers are playing cards but stop to help me hang my clothing to dry. Boro offers me shot. I copy him, flicking droplets of the vodka into the air, smile, and take down the contents of the mug. Boro says something in Mongolian. Gighee, the videographer, translates, “he says he loves you.”

Naadam

Naadam is the annual midsummer celebration of the three manly pursuits: archery, wrestling, and horse racing. Halfway through the trip, we attend a Naadam outside of Hatgal. I am absolutely captivated by Mongolian wrestling. The wrestlers dress strangely; tiny jackets, colorful underwear, and tasseled, pointy caps. Facing each other, the men slapped their thighs front and back, then turn to the crowd and repeat the movement. Formality completed, the wrestling begins and the men grip arms. First to go down loses. Most matches I see are over quickly, often due to a drastic disparity in weight. The victor performs a sweeping eagle dance, arms outstretched as wings.

After many matches, a young, cocksure giant of a man has become the clear favorite. Then, out of the crowd, comes a considerably older and much smaller man. Bare chested and wearing jeans, with only the pointy cap to indicate his intention, he makes for an unlikely challenger. The young stud engages the older man hard, attacking viciously and nearly forcing him to the ground within the first few seconds. Astonishingly, the man keeps his footing, time and time again, as the brutal offensive continues. The young Goliath, now breathing hard, suddenly lunges high. Lightening quick, the older man ducks the grasp, grabs his adversary’s overextended legs, and sends him tumbling over his shoulder, to sprawl on the ground.

The crowd surged to their feet, myself included. Wailing music blares out of speakers at full volume. The victor lunges in a wide circle, flapping his arms exultantly while the crowded cheers. Evidently, the love of the underdog is universal.

 

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I witness a Naadam horse race outside of Moron, hanging out the window of a speeding Land Cruiser. Children as young as five and six ride half-wild Mongolian horses. Whooping men on motorcycles and 4WDs herd the racers sixteen kilometers to the starting point. A play of emotions cross the children’s faces—pride, exhilaration, fear, outright panic. Without ceremony the race begins! Horses run flat out. Men scream from speeding SUVs. Our 4WD leaves the ground more than once crossing the uneven terrain. In the final 300 meters the second place horse passes the long time leader for the victory. It’s over. Every child I see cross the finish line breaks into tears while the men crowd around the champion horse, gathering it’s sweat in their hands to spread on their faces and bare arms.

 

 

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Yak Naadam is something of a specialty in the midsummer festival lineup. Like other Naadams, competitions include wrestling, archery, and horseracing, but only here can one behold the pure madness of Yak Jumping. Men climb atop bull-sized yaks, some shaggy-haired and long-tailed, held in place by five or six men. Bareback, gripping onto their coats, they are loosed! Nobody has much luck. Each ride ends in a spectacular crash, and the yak darts into the crowd at full speed. Post crash, one furiously fleeing yak is lassoed expertly from behind and a cowboy is drug down the steppe like a water skier behind a jet boat.

 

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The Mongolian Faux Pas | Look Before You Leap

I sit with a couple of riders and Ranger Dava at the bend of an unknown river. We are waiting for a ferryman to pull our entourage by hand, five at a time, across on a raft made of rough-cut logs and other odd bits of lumber. There is a cable anchored to the far riverbank and he pulls without any appreciable sense of urgency. Dava, the ranger that hosted us during the storm, has learned the word “grandma” and is mischievously aiming it at a female rider sitting amongst us. He and I have loosely scheduled a bout of Mongolian wrestling sometime in the near future. I crack some joke, as best I can, about my strategy to beat him and am rewarded with a deep belly laugh. It’s a beautiful afternoon, the rains have passed, and I am reveling in the new friendships I have formed with Dava and Boro, despite the language barrier. After eight days of riding, inclement weather, and a few inevitable personality clashes, we are beginning to approximate a well-oiled machine. I am finding that I like each rider and that there is a familial sense of well being in the air—surprising in a group this big and diverse.

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With the ramshackle ferry slowly approaching our shore, we split up to prepare the bikes for the crossing. Walking down the hill towards my bike I notice Baasankhuu, driver of the Russian van and a friend of Boro’s, sitting alone, talking on his cell phone. I jog and leap over him, thinking I’ll surprise him and give us a good joke to share. Mid-air, as I pass above the unsuspecting man’s head, some innate sense alerts me that I have  just committed a terrible gaffe. Dropping his phone, the man yells at me angrily, taking a few steps down the hill in my direction. Dropping to my knees, I apologize as best I can. A few minutes later, I do the only thing I can think to do, and bring him a bar of chocolate I’ve been saving for just the right time. He shakes me off, angry and dismissive.

Mortified, I carry an awful feeling throughout the rest of the day’s ride. Eventually, I am able to corner Gighee, the videographer. To my horror, he confirms what I instinctively know to be true. Mongolian people believe that there are spirits on their shoulders and it is gravely disrespectful to put anything over someone’s head, or, to touch them on or above their shoulders where these spirits rest. According to Gighee, by leaping over the top of this man, I had simultaneously disgraced him and stolen his manhood. Historically, those defeated on the battlefield were either executed or forced to pass between the victor’s legs.

Worst case scenario. I enlist Gighee to help me make my third apology after dinner. With a shot of vodka in my mug, I approach Baasankhuu, seated alongside Boro. I say five words— Gighee translated five words. Haltingly, I profess my ignorance of Mongolian culture and explain that I had no reason to think that what I was doing may be offensive. I promise that I would never intentionally humiliate him and hope that he will be able to forgive the insult. I finished by offering him the vodka. He pauses, looks at me hard, and then accepts the gift. He blesses the sky with a flick of his ring finger, drinks, and returns the mug.

I catch Baasankhuu staring icily at me over the next several days. Though Boro’s continued warmth indicates at least partial forgiveness, I continue to feel guilty and embarrassed. Examining my impulse for jumping over the man, I realize that in the face of extreme language and cultural barriers, I could have played it safe—which might have removed the risk of disrespect but also preventing any real connection. Instead, I took a risk, made a leap, with the hope of sharing a moment of humanity.

The final night in Ulan Uul, I hear the jaunty rhythm of Boro’s harmonica coming from between the parked Land Cruisers. Walking over to investigate, I find a group of Mongolians and riders enjoying a drink. Baasankhuu, typically reserved, is singing a ballad and clapping along to the music. Boro finishes his tune and both men turned to me. Baasankhuu pours a hefty shot of Chinggis vodka and offers it to me. My breath catches as we face off. “Joel…Joel…” Boro says in his thick accent. Then he draws a big heart across his chest and points at me. Baasankhuu nods solemnly.  I exhale slowly, at risk of losing my composure. I accept the gift, dipping my ring finger and blessing the sky. My God, Mongolia…

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The Showdown

We’ve reached our final destination of Ulaan Uul, and find ourselves with time to spare—a first since the deluge on Storm Island. Still eager to ride, a small group follows Tumersic— head ranger, gifted orator, deeply spiritual man—on a short pilgrimage up the mountain.

Parallelling a steeply eroded riverbank, we fan out, keeping Tumersic’s Land Cruiser within view. There’s a sense that each rider has progressed in some way; we’ve each overcome personal obstacles and are more able to enjoy the ride. Today’s out-and-back with Tumersic proves to be the most playful and exploratory of our rides, as if we’re all attempting to pack a bit more Mongolia into an already saturated experience.

After twelve consecutive days in the saddle, the WR250 feels like an extension of my body. Twisting the throttle back, I catch air over a roller before turning to pursue a loping herd of wild yaks into a stand of trees. Slaloming through the woods, I feel myself processing an expanding freedom, recalibrating to accommodate this new experience. This is what it feels like to be free.

The mountain commands an incredible view of Ulaan Uul and the surrounding area. Following Tumersic’s lead, we make offerings at a shrine, walking the prescribed five laps. Kent drags his injured leg like a mummy escaped from the crypt. I look out at the view. Mongolia is so vast relative to its number of inhabitants that standard rules of transportation do not apply. Roads require maintenance and travelers, both of which are scarce. Here exists near-absolute freedom because there are so few people. And things might continue to exist this way indefinitely, as long as population remains low.

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On our way back to camp, Ranger Tom and I stop to watch a woman milk a mare. Tumersic chats with the family and the three of us are invited into the ger. Removing helmets and jackets, we duck under the low doorway, careful to avoid offending our hosts by stepping on the threshold. Sitting on low, three-legged stools, my second encounter with fermented mare’s milk, Airag, goes more smoothly and I find myself enjoying its sweet flavor. Delicious, thick-cut sourdough bread is slathered in yak cheese and passed around. This is followed by a mysterious salty soup that Tumersic describes as “tea.” The final round is a dried cheese the consistency of jerky—so putrid I surreptitiously slip it into my pocket in order to avoid eating more than the initial nibble.

The ger is sparsely furnished and beautiful in detail. A family of four lives here, with all of their possessions amounting to less than I have in my East Village studio apartment. Toothbrushes are tucked between the latticework and the felt ceiling. Three chests, mattresses adorned with brightly colored bedding, and a few decorative items occupy the space surrounding the central stove. A drying sheep carcass hangs next to the entryway, gruesome in appearance, but inexplicably inoffensive to the nose.

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Realizing that the food will continue as long as we remain, we say our thanks and exit the ger. Helmets off, we ride the few kilometers back to camp, in the softening evening light. Riding upstream, a herd of horses are the the only witnesses to the final kilometer of our journey.

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Walking up the hill towards the dinner tent, I find our gathering has swollen to include the US Ambassador to Mongolia and her entourage, dignitaries from the European Union, as well as many local townspeople. The next morning the riders will officially hand over the bikes. Today they’ve spent several hours detailing and performing routine maintenance. Lined up and gleaming, I notice more than one bent handlebar guard, a few dents and scrapes, and my favorite custom job, a handmade wooden gas cap, fashioned by Boro a few days earlier to replace the missing original. All in all, the bikes make for an impressive spectacle, lovingly cleaned and unique in their imperfections.

Just then, Dava approaches. He drops into a crouch and feints as if to tackle me. I accept the challenge by making the universal bring it on gesture— arms out wide, palms up, fingers beckoning. We begin to circle each other, smiling.. “They’re going for it!” someone yells and a group begins to form a large circle around us.

I feel the need to point out that I’m probably about thirty pounds heavier and seven inches taller than my opponent, which is the only reason I entertained wrestling the scrappy young ranger in the first place. On the other hand, he has continually wrestled since he was a child and prides himself on his quickness and ability to take down larger adversaries. Besides, he probably does more physical labor in the span of a week than I do in a year.

Around we go, Dava feints left and right. Then we lock arms and he attempts to pull me off balance. My god he’s strong! Out of the corner of my eye I notice that the circle has swelled to around forty, including my fellow riders and Mongolian drivers, but also folks from the EU retinue and the Ambassador’s entourage.

The hilarity of the situation and Dava strike me at nearly the same moment. Using some Mongolian devilry—one moment I’m standing, legs wide apart for balance—he roughly flips me over his shoulder. I remember a single frame, an instant where I have to look up in order to see the ground—ass over teakettle. Somehow I twist around, right myself, and land on my feet.

Dimly, I hear an appreciative roar from the crowd. Dava advances a second time. We lock arms again, but this time I use my longer reach to keep him at a distance. He attempts to get in close, I stiff-arm him back. Forcibly, Dava pushes my arms wide and presses in on me. Without thinking, I grab him around the waist. I twist and allow myself to fall backwards, picking him up in the process and body-slamming him over my shoulder. Hard.

For just the briefest moment I fear I’ve hurt him. I jump up to see Dava climbing to his feet with a big smile on his face. Pointing to his chest he indicates himself as the winner. I remember, then, that in Mongolian wrestling, the first combatant to go down is the loser. By body slamming Dava, my back had hit the ground first. I was first down and therefore the loser.

The now sizable crowd hoots their approval as Dava gives me a big hug, clapping me on the back. I realize that this is the perfect outcome— a good show, with the better wrestler emerging the victor. Plus, had I won, one of the bigger Mongolian boys may have stepped up and taught me a bit of humility.

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After dinner everyone sits in a large circle. Small cups are passed around, then vodka. The Mongolian women pour generously, and there seems no way to say anything but “yes” and “thank you.” At one point, Ian, a Kiwi rider, puts his hand over his cup as a polite refusal, only to have vodka poured on his hand. No issue, I’m not in a mood to say no anyway.

After a concentrated period of drinking, and without ceremony, a switch is flipped and something like reggaeton comes blasting out of massive speakers— as loud as possible. Everyone starts to wiggle and groove, people from four continents getting down.

And so we danced. Elias Bikahi, Michelin chef from San Francisco; Mike Britton, expedition motorcycle leader from Hamilton, New Zealand; Motoki Watanabe, Yamaha marketing department in Shizuoka, Japan; Batsaikhan Buyandelger interior designer from Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia; rangers from remote areas of north central Mongolia; townspeople from but a few kilometers away.

The evening passes in a blur of dancing and the staticky beat of overtaxed speakers. I dance as hard as I can but am still unable to match the pure exuberance of Gunther Haase, senior forestry expert at the German Development Bank. At some point I remove the chain around my neck, two Saint Christopher medals I’ve been wearing for eight years, and hand them to Dava. He responds by removing his deel, the traditional Mongolian costume worn for centuries, putting it on me, wrapping the belt several times around my waist.

The next morning I awake to the realization that I have given away one of my most prized possessions. My sisters had given me those medals and I rarely took them off. Feeling the loss acutely, I struggle up the hill in a fog of redemptive suffering. The first person I see is Dava, showing a fellow ranger his new medals. Looking at me, as a MEC employee translates, he tells me he will wear them forever.

Wrapping Up

I’ve found that, during these sixteen days of travel, what I had previously considered normal didn’t apply in Mongolia. Weird examples, but here they come; My nails grew disproportionately fast. My strict eight-year vegetarianism was temporarily suspended with absolutely no consequence. My energy seemed nearly limitless. And (perhaps most awe-inspiring) hangovers that had been consistently worsening with age did not touch me in Mongolia. I won’t say that the morning after the mighty dance party I arose totally unscathed, but what should have been a full day of misery was instead banished by a thick cup of cowboy coffee.

Today, under the blazing summer sun and endless blue sky, each rider hands off a motorcycle to a ranger who had been anticipating this moment for most of the year. Words are spoken and translated. Riders and rangers alike break down. Photographing the exchange, I give up attempting to stem the tears and let them roll down my cheeks.

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The US Ambassador gives a speech commending the efforts of the riders and the importance of conserving Mongolia’s natural resources. This segues into the sister-park signing between Lake Hovsgol and Yosemite National Parks. Ranger Tom, dressed in his US park service uniform, cuts a dashing figure alongside Tumersic, as they hold aloft the signed agreement. Tumersic gifts the Ambassador a spirited racehorse, which attempts to eat her hat.

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I don’t know that there could be an appropriate end to a trip of this magnitude. I race from one person to another, promising to see them again, to stay in touch. At this moment, I prefer not to face the reality that the trip has run its course, nor the high probability that I won’t see these people again, even though they have come to feel like family.

As the twenty riders load into Land Cruisers I swing a leg over the WR. I had decided to forego my flight back to Ulaanbaatar, preferring to ride back with a small group of Mongolians— Munkho, Batsaikhan, and Oggie— and three Japanese in a Land Cruiser— Koji San, Indo San, and Watanabe San. We plan to travel much more quickly, reaching UB in four days. Barring mechanical failure, I’ll be just in time to catch my flight home.

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Impatient with my many goodbyes, the rest of the group leaves me behind. Saying a final farewell to Boro while promising to send him a new harmonica from New York, I start my bike, give a big wave, and shoot off in hot pursuit.

My new travel companions speak little English and give me a much needed opportunity to process what had transpired over the past couple weeks. Racing across the steppe, green grass below and enormous blue sky above, I take in my surroundings with new eyes. Yaks play like dogs. Goats, cows, sheep, camels—the healthiest livestock I had ever seen. I behold that which is nearly impossible to find in my own country— a people living sustainably in the world and leaving their environment no worse off than they found it.

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In the evening twilight we reach a river, deep from recent rain. Two herders on an old Chinese motorbike sit talking on the shore. Batsaikhan bums a smoke and asks directions, the typical form of navigation in a country without road signs. In short order, we are invited to stay the night with their families and cross the river, one at a time.

The herders redline their old bike for five kilometers as the sun sets, leading us to two gers and a small one-room wooden cabin. The place is humble, situated on beautiful pasture just up from the river. There are countless animals dotting the green landscape. I set up my tent before total darkness descends. The extended family comes to inspect me and my motorcycle, snacking on yak cheese and lobbing random English words my direction.

I wake early the following morning. The herders have already killed a marmot that will be prepared for our send-off meal. A fire is started and the marmot is butchered and skinned at my feet. Red hot rocks from the fire are nestled into the animal’s stomach. The rocks cook the marmot from the inside out, in the traditional fashion called boodog.

Sitting in the shade of the cabin and contemplating my imminent return to New York, I struggle to reconcile these two worlds. Can it be that these nomad people, with their practical skills and sustainable way of life, will shortly disappear from our world? Progress trumps simplicity and technology is an insatiable beast, created by few, but consuming of all.There is so much to learn from traditional lifestyles and I am grateful for this glimpse.

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Swinging my leg back over the bike, I say goodbye, hopefully not forever.

Rally For Rangers

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About the Author: Joel Caldwell

Joel is a lifestyle and adventure photographer based in Brooklyn, NY. www.Joelcaldwell.com