Planes, Paragliders, and 4x4 Vans in Mongolia
By KEEN Ambassador Nick Greece, with KEEN Ambassadors Krystle Wright and Jeff Shapiro
After reading about Roy Chapman Andrews' exploration of Mongolia in the 1930s while studying at the same university he attended in Beloit, Wisconsin, the country remained on my lifetime adventure bucket list. Andrews, sent by the National Geographic Society, found the first-ever protoceratops, oviraptor as well as the velociraptor and the modern world's first glimpse of dinosaur eggs.
Our mission, albeit nearly 100 years later, would be to explore Western Mongolia for the first time ever in paragliders, visit Golden Eagle hunters, and enjoy traveling through the Altai with great local guides.
Here's a short film about our adventure:
Off-the-charts off the grid
In this connected age we live in, many of us often try to find locales that allow us to get a break from the fast-paced world we now reside in. If I had to describe Western Mongolia in two words as a western traveler they would be: deafening silence.
With one person per hundred square miles and a landscape where massive Mongolian marmots thrive despite a complete and awe-inspiring lack of cover from trees or any other larger fauna to hide from massive continuously circling birds of prey, the silence is pure. As soon as you leave a center of population in Western Mongolia, it is impossible to not notice a complete void of clicks, whizzing, buzzing, spinning and all general forms of noise that accompany our electric lives.
If I had to describe Western Mongolia in two words as a western traveler they would be, deafening silence.
We traveled for four days to get from San Francisco to the start of our hike into the Tavan Bogd National Park—San Francisco to Beijing, where we had a 12-hour layover, to Ulaanbaatar, where we had another 12-hour layover, to Ulgi on plane. When we landed in Ulgi, there were no connecting flights, taxis home, or any onward travels to rush off to. We all had arrived and the fact that we were suddenly not in motion any longer was profound. Very rarely in my life have I arrived somewhere with such finality.
Until, that is, we hopped into a Russian-made 4x4 minivan for the 10-hour drive ahead. It was an interesting journey as we slowly clamored over tracks made by other vans through the tree-less environment to get even more remote in this remote land.
For a glimpse into our rollercoaster-like adventure, watch our video!
Quote of the trip: Eagle hunter’s wife, Mrs. Bobat, to eagle hunter Bek Bobat, after he was working with Jeff Shapiro for a few hours. “Alright, enough playing with your eagles. Go milk the cows!”
Ready to Go to Mongolia?
If you decide to follow in our tracks—and make some of your own—here are a few tips to keep in mind for the long, remote journey ahead:
Bring a great inflatable neck pillow and eye mask, as over-landing in this country is very time consuming. In a pinch a shoe will work, but a neck pillow is a much better solution.
Make sure you have a lot of podcasts to share with your traveling partners while in the car and a small speaker to play them. I recommend Everything is Alive for a real entertaining experience that will also create a shared vocabulary on your trip and fill some of the silence as you transition into the wilderness from the constant buzz of travel.
Bring a good book and a great headlamp. It is one of the most untouched areas of the world in terms of light pollution so it's dark at night, and just like in old times, once the sun goes down, you’re going to want a good book. Also must-haves: cards, a good bottle of whisky from duty-free to share with your new friends around the table in the evenings, Patagonia Provisions smoked salmon for special treats and to diversify your diet while there, wet wipes for just about everything, and a Garmin Inreach to have as an emergency back up in case you need help because there will be no cell phone reception.
Be prepared to walk a long way to use the toilet. If you are in a remote area without any facilities the long walk to use the restroom is real. There are very few if any trees in most of the Western part of Mongolia so you can see FOREVER across the terrain. If you’re a Golden Eagle looking for smaller marmots that is great! But if you’re trying to get a little privacy, not so much.
Drink fermented mare’s milk. It’s worth a taste, but don’t go too deep too quickly or you have a decent chance of being ill.
Be a good traveler. There are numerous guiding outfits that offer incredible experiences and an opportunity to interact with the culture in a sustainable manner. We used Altai Expeditions, who were top notch. I would recommend checking out a bunch of them, reaching out, and picking the one who resonates most with you in their responses. Most are based out of Ulgi and it seemed that they all had about the same level of comfort. Utilizing locals to engage their environments and interact with the National Parks responsibly is great for everyone involved. More info on the group we worked with: https://altaiexpeditions.com/
KEEN Ambassadors support the values of the brand and believe in our mission of caring for the earth, building stronger communities, and inspiring adventures outside. In an effort to protect the places where we play, and give back to communities in need, these KEEN Ambassadors have raised money for the Mongol Ecology Center Junior Ranger program. Following the release of this film, a donation will be made to the MEC. If you are interested and would like to contribute, check them out at https://mongolec.org/.