Rolling with Thunderbolt
In which you mount a horse and follow a charismatic Iranian-American visionary into a Mongolian no-man's-land known as the Dark Heavens. Watch out for the bandits, don't give the shaman too much vodka, and hold on for dear life.
Hamid Sardar-AfkhamiSardar in the frontier hamlet of Ulaan Uul
The Darhad DepressionThe Darhad Depression, with the Khoridol Saridag Range in the background.
Anyone roaming around in Mongolia’s vast and forbidden Ulaan Taiga can reasonably be assumed to be either a smuggler, a livestock rustler, or a bandit, and probably well armed.
The lawless wilderness, whose name loosely translates as “Red Forest,” sprawls along the northwestern frontier with Russian Tuva. Although it was once freely traversed by migratory Tsaatan reindeer herders, who foraged and hunted and grazed their animals there (and dabbled in a little horse rustling and smuggling themselves), Mongolian authorities booted everyone about 30 years ago and declared the region off-limits except by special permit. Criminal gangs in Tuva couldn’t have cared less, and their cross-border raids have persisted. Today the Tsaatan’s ancestral homeland—as much a physical realm as a parallel spirit world known to shamans as “the Dark Heavens”—is a perilous no-man’s-land where shootouts between mounted rangers and Tuvan desperadoes occur regularly, particularly along a notorious trail that intersects the border at a sacred mountain called Uma Tolgoi. This was to be our expedition’s objective.
We would be a large team of 23 people and 38 horses under the leadership of Hamid Sardar-Afkhami, a rakish 44-year-old Iranian-American scholar and documentary filmmaker who divides his time between Mongolia and Paris. Cosmopolitan and well-connected, Sardar grew up in privileged circumstances in the Shah’s Iran and, after his family fled the 1979 Iranian revolution, in France and the Unites States, attending prep school at Choate Rosemary Hall, in Connecticut. But in the extremes of Mongolia’s outback he’s as tough as boot leather. He could be a model for Indiana Jones, right down to his beat-up Stetson fedora. He has a Ph.D. from Harvard in Sanskrit and Tibetan studies and has been a practicing Buddhist for nearly 25 years, pursuing a rigorous tantric discipline called Dzogchen.
Sardar’s explorations have taken him to the far corners of Tibet and Mongolia to investigate occult mysteries of Central Asia’s supernatural landscapes. These demanding odysseys have been carried out in the spirit of religious pilgrimages, or what Sardar calls “Buddhist adventures,” the idea being to embrace danger and fear as a path to self-awareness. During the 1990s, for example, he and author Ian Baker made repeated forays into Tibet’s three-mile-deep Tsangpo Gorge to explore a hidden land called Pemako. They never found its fabled innermost sanctuary, but in 1998, after thrashing around the leech-ridden jungle for weeks, they did locate a thundering waterfall that had been rumored to exist for more than a century. The discovery made headlines around the world (EXPLORERS FIND ELUSIVE SHANGRI-LA IN WORLD’S DEEPEST KNOWN GORGE), but to Sardar the hoopla missed the point of a pilgrimage, which is all about an inward journey.
I first met Sardar in Nepal in 1999, and I later traveled with him in Tibet. We stayed in touch only sporadically afterwards, and not much at all after he moved to Mongolia’s capital, Ulaan Bator, in 2000 to start a cultural-immersion program for American college students. He remained something of a mysterious character to me even as he discovered his calling as a filmmaker and ethnographic photographer. His first three films earned top honors at the Banff Mountain Film Festival, and his large-scale platinum prints command upwards of $5,000 in Paris art galleries. Inspired by the work of Edward Curtis, who photographed the great tribes of the American West, Sardar is on a mission to make a visual record of Mongolia’s nomadic people before they vanish into the 21st century. Outfitting groups like ours and operating an exclusive tented camp is just a “summer hobby,” he says, but also a “skillful means” to achieve his ends.
We would be among the first Western adventurers to explore the Ulaan Taiga since Mongolia drew back the Iron Curtain in the late 1980s. The expedition he proposed was a challenging two-week pack trip, starting at his isolated camp west of Lake Hovsgol, in a valley where the grasslands rise up to meet the taiga (alpine forests). From there we would ride to a Tsaatan encampment of tepees and hook up with a shaman and several hunters, then head off into a shadowy world inhabited by bear, elk, moose, and wolves… and the ghosts of Tsaatan ancestors. Only the shaman would know the way, and he’d have to divine our route to avoid hazards.
Our goal—geographically speaking, anyway—would be to traverse the Ulaan Taiga’s high country, a sponge cake of peat bogs, lakes, and streams enveloped by forested mountains. This is the watershed for five major rivers, as well as the portal to the Dark Heavens, which Sardar describes as “a twilight world of lights, sounds, and voices.”
After a week of riding we would establish a base at the foot of Uma Tolgoi, which represents the earth mother in Tsaatan cosmology. There our shaman would enter a trance state to seek the counsel of spirits and ask them to guarantee our safety. As a finale, we’d celebrate back at Sardar’s camp with cigars, cognac, hot baths, and massages before heading home, cleansed of our neuroses and possessing clear vision.
“The ingredients are gathering to make this either one of the greatest or strangest expeditions to a sacred mountain,” Sardar e-mailed me in the run-up to the trip, “especially since we will have no real guide except for a little shaman who bears an uncanny resemblance to a jovial Gollum.” Our day-to-day plans were likely to “change completely,” he warned.
But to my mind there was one certainty: Venturing into the Ulaan Taiga would complete a journey I’d started 20 years earlier, when Outside dispatched me to a newly emerging Mongolia to explore the last best frontier in adventure travel. The highlight of that trip was supposed to have been a horse-supported trek into the taiga west of Lake Hovsgol, but the state-run Zhuulchin National Tourist Organization had bungled logistics so badly that the trek was reduced to a day hike. This time, I was joining what Sardar called “the most difficult and treacherous expedition in Mongolia.”
SARDAR SCHEDULED OUR TRIP for the end of July, allowing us to dodge the frenzy for internal flights during the Naadam festival in Ulaan Bator, which celebrates Mongolia’s Three Games of Men: horse racing, wrestling, and archery. We’d also be out of the high country well before it turns into a giant deep freezer.
Mongolia had changed a lot in the 20 years since my last visit. Ulaan Bator, a drab, Soviet-style city in 1989, had since acquired the trappings of a capitalist metropolis: flashing neon billboards, traffic jams, a glut of restaurants, and a thundering nightclub called River Sounds. After Mongolia’s Communist government collapsed, in 1990, the economy stalled, unemployment and poverty soared, and the new leaders went hat in hand to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank looking for a bailout. Still, the tourism sector has been a consistent growth area and now accounts for roughly 10 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (although copper and gold mining in the Gobi Desert is poised to far outstrip that). Whereas Zhuulchin apparatchiks processed about 10,000 tourists in 1989, today some 530 independent tour operators compete for the business of nearly half a million visitors.
Indeed, Mongolia is becoming the Patagonia of Central Asia. You can spend six grand for a week’s fly-fishing on the Uur River or $4,500 to play polo at a deluxe camp near the ancient capital city of Karakorum. There has also been a proliferation of $15-a-night guesthouses in Ulaan Bator, where your bunkmate is apt to be an Australian backpacker crowing about the deals he scored in Naran Tuul’s black market.
Sardar’s niche is the high end. Yet because my budget was skimpy, he agreed to cut me a half-price buddy deal: $2,000 for two weeks. In return, he teased, I might have to play “tent bitch.”
During my layover in U.B., I hooked up with two other arriving members of the expedition, Gil and Troy Gillenwater. Land investors from Scottsdale, Arizona, the brothers, 56 and 49, respectively, were old pilgrimage pals of Sardar’s. I’d met them in the mid-nineties, and we’d often talked about getting together for an adventure but had never settled on one until now.
Sardar’s camp is situated at the gateway to the Ulaan Taiga, where the Khug River spills out of the mountains into the Darhad Depression, a grassy basin that once may have harbored a massive glacial lake. We took an early-morning flight into the provincial airport at Moron, where we met Sardar’s driver in a Land Cruiser to begin the eight-hour drive, stopping at nightfall in the frontier town of Ulaan Uul.
We found Sardar the next day lounging on damask-covered pillows in his watchman’s yurt—ger in Mongolian—at the head of the camp’s access road. He’d ridden out to meet us with several wranglers and three mounts. Tanned and glowing with good health, Sardar was dressed like a country squire out for a day of riding, in a worn cashmere sweater over jeans, beat-up rubber boots, vintage Ray-Ban aviators, and his slouchy, caramel-colored fedora. He grew up riding at his grandfather’s estate on the Caspian Sea, on horses provided by the local Kalmyk herders. They told him thrilling tales about their Mongol ancestors, a tribe of warrior nomads who’d migrated to the Caspian steppes in the 17th century. When he moved to Mongolia, Sardar chose the name Wind Horse for his camp as an homage to Mongolia’s coat of arms, which depicts a wind horse.
We mounted up and took off at a trot, crossing the Khug then following it upstream, toward a luxuriantly green valley hemmed in by darkly forested uplands. Tributary creeks rushed out of side canyons to join the main stem, which appeared to pour out of a distant notch in the peaks. It was late July, but already the moors above timberline were sporting fresh snow.
Soon the camp came into sight. A dozen white gers, looking like rounds of Brie cheese, were scattered down the face of a grassy hillside. At the highest point, six yellow banners mounted on spear-like flagpoles rustled in the breeze. Horses grazed amid the wildflowers, but the valley was otherwise deserted.
Two “horse boys” ran down to take our reins while Sardar led us to the kitchen ger. His cook was busily preparing a dinner of pumpkin soup, pasta with pesto, grated beet salad, and freshly caught sautéed grayling.
“I can put up with just about anything as long as I eat well and have a hot bath,” Sardar said. The bathhouse—he calls it a “spa”—was up the hill in a carpeted ger equipped with a pair of kidney-shaped fiberglass soaking tubs. A massage? Sardar introduced us to a visiting bariachi, or bone-setter, a substantial woman with an iron grip. For the full purge, he recommended drinking a cleansing concoction of mare’s milk before she worked us over. The combination would unclog our “subtle anatomy,” improve our circulation, and detoxify our livers, skin, and colons.
Sardar’s wife, Nara, and nine-month-old boy, Rohan, had come out from Ulaan Bator to spend a week in the countryside before our expedition left. During his bachelorhood, Sardar had become a seasoned ladies’ man (he joked that he learned Mongolian from “six months of intensive pillow talk”), but he fell for Nara after the two met in an Ulaan Bator Internet café in 2007. She was 24; he was 41. A former television reporter, she’s a radiant beauty whose full name, Narangel, translates as “Sunlight.” They married the following spring, and Rohan arrived that fall.
Sitting in the kitchen ger over tea, Sardar cradled Rohan in his lap and sang a Tuvan lullaby. The name Rohan comes from The Lord of the Rings, in which the land of Rohan appears as a lushly pastured realm of Middle-earth guarded by fierce horsemen. In Mongolia, it seemed, Sardar had found just such a place to enact his own fantasies.
WHEN SARDAR WAS an undergraduate at Tufts, near Boston, studying history, he had a series of vivid dreams about a pristine landscape dominated by a perfectly shaped pyramidal mountain. A Tibetan warrior riding a white horse galloped up, gestured at the mountain, and commanded, “Go!” The prophetic nature of the visions didn’t become clear until after he moved to Kathmandu in 1987 for a semester-abroad program and met the academic director, Ian Baker. The two grew to be fast friends, and Baker suggested that his own guru, a revered Tibetan yogi named Chatral Sangye Dorje Rinpoche, might consent to interpret the dreams.
Sardar traveled upcountry to meet the rinpoche at his monastery. “When I came into his room,” Sardar recalls, “we both instantly recognized each other. It was he who had been in my dream. He roared with laughter and invited me to sit with him.”
Chatral Rinpoche agreed to be Sardar’s teacher and proposed that he go to the Neysarpa Valley, in the Himalayas, to meditate. Sardar spent a month trying to quiet his chattering mind. At first he went through a deep depression, but it suddenly gave way to bliss. “Chopping wood or carrying water—it was all bliss,” Sardar says.
The rinpoche gave Sardar a Buddhist name, Lekdrup Dorje, meaning “Effortless Thunderbolt.” By the end of the semester, Sardar was conflicted. Should he forsake Western civilization altogether or go back to school? “It’s OK,” the rinpoche said. “You can be a secret Buddhist.”
At Harvard, Sardar studied filmmaking while also pursing his doctoral work in Tibetan studies. On breaks, he and Baker would disappear into the Tsangpo Gorge and surrender themselves to whatever happened. It was a paradoxical paradise—spectacular landscape but with leeches, unceasing rain, and hideously steep slopes—and it had a transformative power.
“The point of an existential pilgrimage is not to overcome the contradictions but use them as a kind of creative tension,” Sardar says. “The forest becomes a mirror of our own inner paradoxes if we approach it in the right frame of mind.”
He moved back to Kathmandu in 1999 to direct the School for International Training (SIT), the semester-abroad program that he’d attended as an undergrad. In 2000, he accepted SIT’s offer to establish a Mongolia program. He moved to Ulaan Bator and began a series of “amazing journeys” into the hinterlands, ostensibly to meet potential host families for his students. What he found was “a vision” for his first film.
He took a sabbatical to make The Reindeer People, which follows a Tsaatan family on their seasonal migrations. When it earned a jury prize for Best Film on Mountain Culture at the Banff Mountain Film Festival in 2004, the sabbatical became permanent. His next film, Balapan, Wings of the Altai, about a 14-year-old Kazakh who aspires to be an eagle master, won similar praise at both Banff and Telluride Mountainfilm in 2006, and Tracking the White Reindeer took the Banff award again two years later. The films were successful partly due to his vision as a filmmaker, says Sardar, but mostly due to the “subject matter, and the unique transporting nature of these nomadic cultures.”
Sardar had a $300,000 budget for White Reindeer and teamed up with French cinematographer Laurent Chalet, the director of photography on March of the Penguins. The film follows a Tsaatan teenager who longs to marry a beautiful girl. To prove his worth, he must recapture a valuable stud reindeer that has escaped into the frozen taiga. The crew shot in winter and routinely saw temperatures drop to minus 30 degrees. It took 12 days to find the Tsaatan, who were moving their camps.
The French stayed three weeks before they had to return to Paris. Left alone with the Tsaatan and their animals, Sardar improvised the script as a love story. “Everything you see is real,” says Chalet, “but Hamid made the situations in which the Tsaatans played their roles naturally.”
At one point, a hot-air balloon Sardar was using to shoot aerials caught fire. “The pilot cried out, ‘Fire!'” Sardar recalls. “I told him, ‘Look, you deal with it. I’m filming.'” The basket crashed to earth and was dragged along the frozen ground. Sardar and the pilot were scraped up but not badly injured. “The footage was great,” he says. In the end the film was a hit, described by The New Yorker‘s film blog as “stunning in its simplicity and entirely otherworldly in its visuals.”
Balapan and White Reindeer are similar stories in that both feature young boys facing rites of passage. I suggested to Sardar that perhaps the characters are his alter egos. Perhaps so, he said, recalling his childhood on the Caspian, where he hiked with his father in alpine forests populated by bears and leopards. His father always hunted with a guide named Nader Gholi Khan, or “Bear Catcher.” Once, when Sardar was walking ahead of the two of them, a bear came charging out of the forest straight at him. He heard a pinging sound over his head: his father’s rifle shot. The bear fell dead and skidded to a stop at Sardar’s feet.
“I have lost a connection to the wild,” he said. “We all have. People hunger for a spiritual connection to the landscape and to animals. It’s a primal state that I’m trying to recapture. We’ve become virtual men living in a virtual world. We can only become whole again by reconnecting to the wild. This is what people who come on my expeditions get.”
SARDAR’S ORIGINAL ITINERARY had us departing his camp on the fourth morning, and I’d thought our team would include only one other paying member: Adrian Ruthenberg, director of the Asian Development Bank’s Mongolia operations. Sardar had described him in e-mails as “a Navy SEAL type” who would bring his wines and fly rods. That was true enough, but Sardar hadn’t mentioned the rest of the guy’s entourage.
Ruthenberg—cigar-smoking, built like a tank, and outfitted to the nines—arrived in his own Land Cruiser. He’d brought his ten-year-old son, Georg, and a pile of friends from Germany. There was Thomas Lutz, an economist and water-systems consultant, and his son, Ben, a solemn, bookish boy of 12. Wolfgang Vandré, tall and mild-mannered, sells books for a living. Rachel Agmase, a sunny half-Ethiopian, half-German girl of 16, had persuaded her parents (friends of Ruthenberg) to let her come along. In a second Land Cruiser was Martin Marschke, who directs Mongolia operations for the German development-aid agency GTZ.
Our team also included Alona Kagan, a buxom, spiritual fifty-something art dealer from Paris who’d been ensconced in camp when we arrived. She’d met Sardar at a gallery show of his photos, and he’d invited her to come along, thinking that she would add a “grace note.” She had never slept outdoors and referred to the expedition as “a camping trip.” From time to time, she would go off alone and chant resonant mantras to balance her chakras.
By the fifth day in camp, the Gillenwater brothers and I were getting antsy, but Sardar had his own agenda. He’s never one to play the eager tour guide; he’s more a gatherer of friends and people he finds interesting, glamorous, or politically advantageous. He maintains a small seasonal office staff in Ulaan Bator, using a travel agency to book hotel and flight reservations. If Sardar receives inquiries from anyone who seems high-maintenance, he might not respond.
In any case, he’d double-booked part of our visit, inviting Peter Morrow, the American CEO of Mongolia’s biggest commercial bank, and his retinue to the camp for a two-day pow-wow about the future of the Tsaatan people. Another policymaker, Rogier van den Brink, the World Bank’s lead economist for Mongolia, had brought his wife, Natasha, and their two children for a holiday in the taiga. The American ambassador had passed, but even so, the dining ger was packed with 30 people one night.
Half a dozen Tsaatan tribal leaders arrived on reindeer one afternoon to join the forum. We gathered around a coffee table in the shade of a towering larch tree—the Tsaatans, economists and bankers, and a linguist friend of Sardar’s from Ulaan Bator, who translated for the Tsaatans. The conversation centered on the Tsaatans’ meager standard of living and their uncertain future.
With fewer than 400 Tsaatan still living a traditional lifestyle, Sardar thinks the culture is probably doomed. But the taiga must be sacrosanct, he insists. Besides the threat of exploitation by international mining consortiums, there is the more immediate concern of wildcat gold miners he referred to as “ninjas.” They come up the Khug Valley in twos and threes wearing green plastic mining pans on their backs, resembling Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Sardar thought there could be 4,000 of them in the region—the “desperate members of society,” he called them: failed herders, criminals. I wanted to see one of their camps, but Sardar refused. “It’s a dark and violent place,” he said. “There are karaoke gers, prostitutes, everyone drunk, smashing their vodka bottles, shitting all over the place.” According to Sardar, the ninjas and their camp followers poach wildlife with impunity, depriving the Tsaatan of game, and graze their horses on pastures vital to families who’ve lived in the Khug Valley for generations.
Sardar wants to see the whole of northwestern Mongolia turned into a conservation area. “Let the big mining companies have the Gobi, but keep them away from the north,” he said. “If these rivers and lakes are polluted, the whole country is fucked.”
There was some cocktail-hour kidding about Sardar becoming a Mongolian Walter E. Kurtz, the rogue colonel from Apocalypse Now—a messianic demigod, dug in far upriver with his minions, defending his empire.
But later that evening, in the dim candlelight of the dining ger, I glanced over at Sardar, reclining on a bearskin with Rohan in his lap. At that moment, the whole Kurtz scenario seemed utterly implausible.
FOLLOWING THE TSAATAN summit, Sardar learned that our shaman-guide had gone on a colossal vodka bender and would be a no-show. Without telling us, he’d decided to scrap our ride to the Tsaatan encampment altogether. To save time, we would drive to the trailhead while the wranglers and horses took a roundabout overland route. He grew increasingly preoccupied and prowled around in a pair of baggy drawstring pants and a white tunic, hands clasped behind his back.
On the sixth day, we loaded the cars and took off—only to have Sardar’s Land Cruiser break down. He sent the Germans and Kagan ahead, while Sardar, the Gillenwaters, and I spent another night in Ulaan Uul. When at last we regrouped at the trailhead and mounted up, Gil burst out, “Well, it took us eight days, but look at this valley! I can’t believe I’m riding in Mongolia.”
We set out from a log-built corral at a border-patrol outpost, protected by three tough-looking patrolmen with AK-47’s slung across their backs. Riding single file, we stretched out into a convoy a quarter-mile long: 11 clients, two cooks, six wranglers, three guards, 15 loaded packhorses and spare mounts, and Sardar.
It was a crisp, sunny morning when we began, but as we neared a mountain pass, a massive black cloud leaped over the ridge to the south. The wind rose and a cold rain began pelting down. Sardar dismounted to put on his rain jacket, and the rest of us followed suit. In the commotion of gusting wind and flapping Gore-Tex, Wolfgang Vandré’s horse spooked as he was remounting. Teetering in the saddle, rucksack askew, wide-eyed with terror, Wolfgang blurted, “Brrrrrrrr [German for Whoa!].” Then he hit the ground hard.
No one moved. Vandré grimaced in pain, holding his lower back. But he was OK, just bruised and badly shaken, and with a dislocated pinkie, which the guard corporal snapped back into place and splinted with two twigs.
“I cannot emphasize enough the importance of not spooking the horses,” Sardar said gravely. “Do not let your jackets flap.”
Right at that moment, the rain turned to hail. “Hold your horses,” Sardar yelled above the gusting wind and hissing of hailstones. “Hold on to them!”
Pea-size at first, the pellets grew larger. They pounded down furiously, leaping off the ground like popcorn. “Last month,” Sardar hollered, “there was hail the size of tennis balls near my camp. It killed nine camels.”
I turned my horse rump-first to the storm. Behind me, little Ben Lutz squatted down under his poncho, gripping his reins and screaming hysterically.
Then it was over; the storm ended as abruptly as it had started. A wrangler returned with Vandré’s horse. About 20 minutes later, we crested the pass, then settled into a campsite beside Targhan Nuur, a small lake that teemed with voracious, one-cast lenok, a Siberian equivalent of brown trout. Ruthenberg and his son caught a dozen fat ones on wet flies, while Sardar—off by himself for four hours—bagged six more on lures. The guards came up with another ten, a gift from a squad of border patrolmen who were coming off their shift.
“Brown trout en papillote with wild-onion-and-piñon stuffing!” Sardar announced with delight when our husband-and-wife cooking team, Odgoo and Chimgee, served dinner by the bonfire. There was plenty for the wranglers and guards, who stayed in a satellite camp with their own fire but no tents. They slept wrapped in their heavy, ankle-length woolen tunics and covered themselves with tarps or slickers.
I had a six-person dome tent all to myself, and a folding cot. When the rain started up again, I shivered inside the thin, damp, flannel-lined sleeping bag that Sardar had provided. It was a big storm, and it seemed to be stuck right on top of us.
WE RODE ALL the next day in a cold drizzle, heading west toward Tuva across boggy, treeless alpine tundra. A faint trail led us through swamps of sucking mire and up into wild gardens of blue and golden poppies growing among the lichens. The horses struggled and bucked to free themselves from bogs, whereas reindeer, with their wide, splayed hooves, would have danced across the muck. During the frigid taiga winters, their spongy footpads tighten, allowing them to dig down through snow and ice to get at the lichens, their main diet.
My backside was barking after six hours in the saddle, but we kept pushing on, looking for a campsite. Sardar sent three wranglers on a scouting mission. Following their intuition, they went straight to the highest spot around and found an old Tsaatan campsite. Whoever had been there last had cleared out in a hurry. They’d left tepee poles and footlong carved tent pegs, and a tin cookstove that had long since rusted out. Soon we had a crackling fire going and everyone pressed near, our clothes and boots steaming in the heat.
“This camp was last used probably in the late seventies or early eighties,” Sardar said over a bowl of hot soup. “Some of the Tsaatans had turned to banditry by then. They stole horses and sold them across the border in Tuva to their cousins. The leader of their gang was named Gombo, a master shaman who caused bad weather to cover their tracks. Another member, Gostya, was known as ‘the bandit shaman.’ He spent time in jail. One time, after he sold some rustled horses, he bought a Russian motorcycle that he dismantled and packed across the border in pieces. The cops saw him roaring around the streets of Ulaan Uul and said, ‘What’s up with this?’ That was the start of the campaign to rid the taiga of Tsaatans.”
But this was not the oldest campsite we found. Several days later, while Sardar was again fishing by himself, he came across a secluded glen visible only from the river. Beneath a smoke-smudged overhanging rock he uncovered an arsenal of what appeared to be Neolithic hunting weapons—weathered bows and arrows, a dagger-shaped carved antler, a bloodstained cobblestone. Holding the granite sphere in the palm of my hand, I envisioned a hunter using it to crush the bones of a recent kill in order to suck out the marrow, the way our wranglers sucked on roasted sheep bones. Overcome by temptation, I took the rock as a souvenir and brought it back to camp for show-and-tell.
“In shamanic belief, you’ll be cursed if you take rocks from a river,” Sardar deadpanned. “The nagas will follow you,” he said, referring to serpent spirits associated with water.
“You don’t want to fuck with the nagas,” Troy Gillenwater said, drawing back and shaking his head when I offered the stone to him. “But that’s a really cool rock. You could put it on a shelf at home.”
“Yes, take it!” Sardar said. “To hell with the superstitions of these local people.”
They were having fun with me, but still, I replaced the stone and asked the ancestral hunters for forgiveness and protection. Two days later, when we reached Uma Togloi, the sacred mountain, I received their answer.
THE MOUNTAIN WAS shaped more like a bread loaf than the gleaming pyramid in Sardar’s visionary dream. We set up camp in an idyllic meadow beneath its brow, about a mile east of the Delger Moron River, which defines the Tuvan border. We were saddle sore and running low on food, so Sardar declared a rest day. He and Ruthenberg would catch our dinner while the rest of us amused ourselves however bloody well we could.
The Delger Moron is famous for its taimen, a gigantic salmonid that can grow to more than six feet and weigh upwards of 200 pounds. Known as “river wolves,” they hunt in packs and are voracious predators, consuming ducks, rodents, and even each other. Taimen are a threatened species, and they’re protected in Mongolia by catch-and-release regulations, but not in Tuva. Sardar had hooked one upriver and released it, but he now had a bad case of taimen fever. The cure was across the border.
I asked to tag along, but Sardar wouldn’t have it. “This is a war zone,” he said. “It’s a shoot-on-sight border.” Trigger-happy guards on the Tuvan side take potshots at the Mongols. The Mongol guards target anyone they suspect of being a bandit. Sardar wanted to travel fast, and I would slow him down.
It was a fine, clear day, so I threw in with the Gillenwaters, who were taking one of their regular long day hikes. They proposed climbing a ridge closer to the river, where we’d have a panoramic view of the valley and the fluted gray peaks in Tuva.
About a half-mile from camp, at an empty border-patrol log cabin, we waded across a creek and began bushwhacking through tall brush, heading for the base of the ridge. Someone yelled at us.
“Hoi!” he called.
“Who the hell is that?” Troy said. “I can’t see anyone.”
We picked up our pace and made for a stand of larch trees.
“Hoi, hoi!” The summons was more insistent.
“Get behind the trees,” Gil whispered. “There’s somebody out there.”
I spotted a figure crouched down in the brush. It was hard to tell, but he appeared to be directing someone behind him to flank us.
“He’s got a gun,” Gil said.
“Bandits!” all three of us blurted simultaneously.
We were in a bad spot. Troy proposed that we run for it—straight up the 30-degree slope at our backs. Bad idea, I said. We’d be fully exposed on the hillside and make easy targets. We were pinned down, without an escape route. “This is not good,” said Gil.
The armed man we could see motioned again to his hidden partners. One of them stood up and sprinted through the brush, heading to our left flank. They were closing in. Suddenly the flanker broke into a clearing. “Fatigues,” I said. “He’s wearing military fatigues.” In a flash, I realized they were border patrolmen and stepped out from behind my tree, holding my arms wide.
“Amerik!” I shouted.
The Gillenwaters thought I’d lost it.
The crouched ranger was 50 yards away. He didn’t move. I walked into the open and waved at him to come forward.
He stood up. He was indeed a Mongolian ranger, and he had his AK-47 pointed straight at me. He was built like a rottweiler, with a thick neck and ropy forearms, and he wore a mean look. He motioned for me to approach him, keeping his rifle trained on me.
The three of us walked forward with our hands in the open. The flanker had moved into place but stayed ten yards behind us, with his rifle aimed at our backs. I gestured toward our camp, pointed to their shoulder insignia, and held up three fingers—a feeble attempt to sign that we were with three patrolmen. But it helped. The men lowered their muzzles.
“What… is… your… name?” the flanker asked in halting English. You could feel the tension evaporate.
As they marched us back the way we came, a third ranger appeared on horseback. He was the ranking sergeant. In camp, Alona Kagan spoke to him in Russian, explaining that our permits were with “our commander” and that he would return from fishing in the evening. They said they’d wait.
Sardar’s right-hand wrangler, Dawa, rode out to find him. When the two came into camp about an hour later, the rangers saluted Sardar and he saluted back. But after studying our permit, the sergeant announced that he would have to contact his superiors by radio. In the meantime, we were not to leave.
Chatting the rangers up about how they’d stalked us, Sardar burst out laughing. “They thought you guys were Russians sneaking across the border,” he said. “They’d been sent here to investigate reports about horse thieves operating in the area, and they thought you were the ones. This guy here”—he pointed at the sergeant—”was hiding in the brush with a sniper scope trained on you. He says he’s shot five bandits in four years.”
The patrolmen left us to spend the night at their cabin. That night around the campfire, we finished off the last ounces from a bottle of vodka that Ruthenberg had packed.
“How about that Mike?” Gil said as we passed the cup around. “He walked right out and spread his arms open. It was like he was saying, ‘Come on, motherfucker. You want a piece of me?'”
But that was the only logical option once I’d seen the flanker’s uniform, I said.
“Well, you can put that interpretation on it if you want,” Gil said. “As far as I’m concerned, Mike McRae saved my life today.”
THE RANGERS’ COLONEL rode into camp two days later. He and his aide wore polished combat boots and pressed uniforms. Our permit was invalid for what he called Sector 26. (I later learned that anywhere within two kilometers of the border is strictly off-limits.) Nor had he been alerted to our expedition. But we were stupid foreigners and seemed like nice people, so he would levy a nominal fine—5,000 tugriks apiece, or about $4. For $100, we’d be free to go and most welcome to return anytime. They’d show us all the best taimen holes in a canyon downstream, provided we released our catches.
We decamped and followed the outlaw trail east. On the outskirts of the special protected area, we came across the first ger we’d seen since starting. The family had a modest flock of sheep and some yaks, and they were just the kind of herders that the bandits prey on. In one incident, the outlaws burst into a ger at midnight and opened fire. They killed the parents, shot up the oldest boy, and made off with 68 head of cattle and two horses, vanishing into the night.
Here, though, the family reported no trouble. The wife invited us in for tea and biscuits with fresh yak butter and sold us a sheep for 50,000 tugriks ($40). While Odgoo and Chimgee cooked the prime cuts for dinner, the wranglers and guards amused themselves by wrestling bare-chested in a creekbed next to our camp, and the family’s young son and daughter drove their animals down to the stream for an evening drink.
“This is the quintessential Mongolian experience,” Sardar said with a Nikon pressed to his eye.
Possibly, but for me the defining moment of the expedition came the following day. We trotted for eight hours, through rain, sleet, hail, and finally snow. Sardar sent two horsemen ahead to find our drivers, who were to meet us at a prearranged spot that afternoon. The scouts were still gone when the light began to fade.
We reached the next ger, in a forested canyon, at nightfall. “We’ll stay here tonight,” Sardar announced. He greeted the family and explained our predicament, but it went without saying that they would welcome us. Come in, sit, have tea, they said. It was like having 21 strangers show up at the door of your one-room flat and invite themselves to spend the night.
Inside, we stripped off our sodden packs and clothes and hung them to dry from the lattice frame and roof poles. Not knowing any better, I reached up to hang my rucksack from the tonno, the circular crown above the stove, and Sardar freaked out. “Mike, what are you doing? That’s a sacred part of the ger. Only the husband can touch it.”
Floor space was at a premium, but Sardar’s men brought him a campstool and draped a reindeer skin over it. He chilled out and had a cup of tea. The family would have gladly fed us, but dinner was on us: mutton and wild onion samosas, which Chimgee and the lady of the ger deep-fried in a wok. While they were cooking, the neighbors dropped by to have a look. We were now a crowd of 25, and I worried that we were exceeding the occupancy rate for a standard ger, if not wearing out our welcome.
“No, no,” Sardar said, acting as lord of the banquet on his throne. “This is good. This is our life in Mongolia.”
ONE MORNING at the Wind Horse breakfast table, I had asked Sardar why he’d moved to Mongolia. He went on for 20 minutes.
“What we all love about Mongolia is the spirit of the frontier,” he said. “I can gallop for a month here without seeing a fence. I’m here trying to protect my freedom.
“Mongolia isn’t some fantasy; it’s about the art of living that we’ve forgotten. I go back to Paris and find everyone numb. They’ve lost their heroic aspect. We’re all living in hell, which we try to perfume with iPhones, vacations, the next fast car. Either you choose the path of liberation, seeking enlightenment, or of samsara, seeking happiness, which always depends on having something: the promotion, the job, the second home, the child.”
He paused to look around for something on the table, frowned, and walked to the ger’s door. “Where’s the yogurt?” he bellowed down to the girls in the kitchen ger. “Where’s the butter? The milk? The jam?”
End of teaching.