Mongolia river shuttles are half the adventure

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Feeling better after my two-day bout with the Yak-dung-water funk, I walked down the far side of a pass with Bulgaa. He told me this was the place where his mother died. Bad brakes on an old Russian firewood truck, it was easy to see how it might have unfolded. All life is uncertain, but the edge is a little closer here in rural central Asia. Bulgaa’s father, in his sixties, is one of five survivors from a family of eighteen. We paused, and gazed at snowy ridgelines forming the Chinese border.
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By afternoon the vans were climbing over worsening boulders toward 10,500-foot Red Pass—the highest in Mongolia. Our van got high-centered on a rock at one point, requiring several of us to pull sideways on a rope attached to the roof rack so the van wouldn’t roll as it was extricated. By now we were accustomed to such tactics, standard Mongolian driving, really. Most of us walked down the other side of the pass. It was less violent than riding, and just as fast.
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Driving in Mongolia is a lot like off-trail hiking in the States, sometimes you merely follow a route between a series of rock cairns. And if the locals tell you this is the way, this is the way. So we went, weaving from cairn to cairn through boulder studded alpine meadows. When another valley opened before us, it was again all riders out for the treacherous descent.
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There were no gers in this valley, a refreshing surprise. The vacancy made it feel like Alaska, and we camped straight in the middle of it, beside a gurgling tributary of the Buyant River. Among green meadows splashed with white and yellow wildflowers, Pat sat with his back against a drybag and made notes while sipping a beer. “I live for this shit, man,” he said grinning.

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Arriving in the land of Ghengis—Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia

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Although many Americans might have a hard time pointing to Mongolia on a world map, upon arriving in the country foreigners are swiftly reminded of Mongolia’s former empire. The wall map below is displayed at entrance to the immigration office.
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While much of the Western world associates Ghenghis Khan with barbarism, he is revered in his homeland principally for uniting the Mongolians, but also for many other forward-thinking achievements. American schoolbooks fail to tell us that it was ancient Mongolia which established some of the first public education. Brutal and effective as their warfare was, Mongolian khans executed fewer criminals than the United States does today. Ghengis Khan even established the first officially recognized hunting seasons. His statue overlooks Ghengis Khan Square in the center of Ulaan Baatar, the capital city.
Ulaan Baatar is a booming metro of well over one million residents, nearly half of Mongolia’s total population. Autos and paved roads have seen rapid construction here in the past decade. A government waiver on import taxes for Toyota Priuses has produced a plethora of the little gas savers. They buzz around the city with other shiny new cars, a strange juxtaposition of affluence in a city where a dinner out costs less than six bucks. Architecture in UB ranges from gers (yurts) and adobe structures—standard Mongolian fare—to Soviet style apartment blocks, modern high rises, and newly popular wood frame houses.
But I did not come to Mongolia for city life. After almost a week there making preparations for travel to western Mongolia with Pat Phillips and his Mongolian River Adventures, it was time to penetrate The Countryside as the Mongolians call it. Open steppes, roaming herds, horseback herdsmen, and lonely gers, this was the Mongolia I’d heard rumor of, the Mongolia beyond the fences; traditional, true.

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