Mongolia: Journey to the Darkhad Depression
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.