When you think of Mongolia, you might imagine endless, rolling steppes or the sweltering sands of the Gobi. Or horses, or yurts. (They’ve got those, right?) Lush alpine forests and fuzzy-antlered reindeers don’t typically make the cut. But we had heard of an area in the far north of Mongolia that straddles the Russian border. An area where a nomadic reindeer-herding tribe dwells for the summer months. An area called the Darkhad Depression, only reachable by foot or horseback. We had also heard that you could hire a guide, hop on horses, and visit this place.To get there, I flew with four friends from Los Angeles to the Mongolian capital, Ulaanbaatar. After a quick domestic flight, we were met in the town of Mürün by our guide and driver in a Soviet-era Russian-made UAZ Bukhanka, which literally translates to “bread loaf.” The thing looked like a VW camper van on ’roids.After barely 20 miles of paved road, our stoic driver, Olga, took a random turn off the asphalt and down jarring dirt tracks toward the horizon. The scenery alternated from dense coniferous forests to vast valleys to key-lime hills to dried-up riverbeds. That handle I’m hanging onto in the van ripped off within four hours.We probably would’ve made better time getting to Tsagaan Nuur, the starting point for the horse trek to Darkhad, but we made Olga pull over nearly every 20 minutes to check something out. Like this roaming pair of wild Bactrian camels.
We set up camp next to a stream on the side of the road and started a fire with scattered wood and yak dung. Our guide, Inke, had fire in her eyes and wasn’t much for small talk. Dinner was pasta and beef—so was pretty much every meal.
We didn’t hear a car pass our campsite the entire night. The country felt immense and limitless, with not a fence post in sight, like you could camp anywhere and no one would notice, let alone give a damn.We dashed onward in the Soviet bread loaf. At each vista and hilltop, we’d see wicked-looking ovoo, ancient shamanistic offerings to the sky gods. We stopped at this river for lunch and tried to fish a little—we had heard of the mighty taimen—but no cigar.Now and then we’d pass another bread loaf tumbling toward us, but mostly we’d come across locals who’d bit off more than they could chew and were stuck in the mud. Our driver, Olga, wore a nifty yellow sash as a belt on his coat that doubled as a tow rope. He would tie it to the distressed car’s bumper and pull it out of the mud. We saw a lot of yaks, too.We pulled over to watch some camels again, and then looked back to see this gent galloping toward us. He seemed to be breaking a new horse because it looked to be bucking wildly, but when he got closer, we could tell he was just putting on a show.After spending the night in a small town by a turquoise lake called Tsagaan Nuur, we woke up bright and earlier the next morning to meet the horses for the trek to the Darkhad Depression. The horses were smaller than we’d anticipated (and a lot gassier). We loaded up each steed, added a couple new guides and a cook to the party, and ventured on to where cars could not go.
Thick mountain woods transformed into snow-dusted alpine passes, which then revealed golden taiga beckoning us on the other side.After about ten hours of riding with barely three rest stops, the firm Mongolian saddles were on their way to defeating us all. By “all,” I mean us five foreigners, but regardless, we were begging for a sign of arrival. Then, suddenly, around a bend, with the 7 p.m. sun beating down on us without reprieve, grey tepees flashed in the distance.We had reached the massive valley of the Darkhad Depression, the summering grounds for the few dozen nomadic Dukha families of reindeer herders commonly known as the Tsaatan. Unlike many Mongolians who reside in gers (yurts), the Tsaatan move and live in tepees (ortz). Far beyond the tepees, we could see about a hundred reindeer drinking from a stream. The Tsaatan, who number around 300 total, live off their herds. With permission, we began to set up our tents, but they asked if we’d rather sleep in their guest tepee. We thought they’d never ask.A quick passing shower rolled through while we were getting acquainted with the neighboring family. Then we heard a sound—a deep, low rumble—and looked behind us to see the 100-odd reindeer galloping in for the evening, corralled by sheep dogs that looked to be half wolf. At once, nearly every member of the few families (man, woman, child, and toddler) got up and grabbed their reindeer, one by one, and tethered each to a ground peg.This little chap was a real go-getter and would pick up where the wolflike sheepdogs left off.While almost totally subsisting off the reindeer—for milk, cheese, yogurt, curd, and occasionally meat—the Tsaatan make a little spare money selling crafts made from reindeer bones to visitors. We brought them some supplies we were told they might need: batteries, lighters, flashlights, raincoats, and notebooks and pencils for the kids. This man of the house, however, was most impressed with a cigar.
We followed the precocious reindeer-herding boy to a nearby river to fish with him and watched as he approached two girls from a neighboring camp. He slapped one of the reindeer they were riding on the butt—a ten-year-old’s version of flirting.