The Rally for Rangers

Two weeks, 20 riders, and 1,500 miles through the wilderness of Mongolia's Lake Hovsgol National Park
December 3, 2015Words by Joel CaldwellPhotos by Joel Caldwell

After twelve consecutive days in the saddle, this motorcycle is beginning to feel like an extension of my body. Twisting the throttle back, I catch air over a roller before turning to pursue a loping herd of wild yaks into a stand of trees. Slaloming through the woods, I feel myself processing an expanding sense of freedom, recalibrating to accommodate this new experience. Here, there are no rules. You travel wherever you wish, at whatever speed is comfortable. This is what it means to be free. 

It’s July and I’ve been riding across Mongolia for nearly two weeks as a part of Rally for Rangers — a twenty-person, 1,500-mile overland motorcycle adventure put on by the Mongol Ecology Center (MEC). The goal: to outfit the rangers with bikes to help them patrol three of Mongolia’s enormous national parks.

Mongolia has taken my mind, stretched, inverted, and shredded it, and returned it with an already greater appreciation for the sheer scope of humanity.

Since leaving Mongolia's capitol, Ulaanbaatar, we’ve ridden through flooded rivers and deep sand. The weather has fluctuated from brutally hot and dry to a thirty-six hour continuous downpour. I’ve witnessed men riding yaks and children as young as six racing half-wild Mongolian horses. I’ve eaten boodog, marmot stuffed with hot rocks and cooked from the inside, and drank airag, fermented mare's milk, just as they did in the days of Genghis Khan.

Mongolia has taken my mind, stretched, inverted, and shredded it, and returned it with an already greater appreciation for the sheer scope of humanity — and the importance of preserving these unique pockets of it.

A late lunch finds us on a grassy vista nearly fifty miles long. Enjoying my first hot dog in seven or eight years, I look up to find that two young boys on horseback have appeared and are studying me. The quiet scrutiny lasts for what seems like a full minute. They allow me a photo, whirl, and gallop off. The younger of the two, the boy handling the horsewhip, glances shyly back over his shoulder and waves.

The winds pick up, signaling the end of lunch, and so we race northward toward the Siberian border as ominous storm clouds build behind us.

Without proper oversight, those lands were exploited for maximum profit and minimal conservation, leaving Mongolia’s pristine environment threatened.

In 1991, thirty percent of Mongolia's GDP disappeared when the Soviet Union collapsed. In an attempt to escape economic ruin, half of Mongolia’s untouched lands were made available to foreign development — and from there, you can probably guess how that story goes. Without proper oversight, those lands were exploited for maximum profit and minimal conservation, leaving Mongolia’s pristine environment threatened. Which is exactly why the MEC was established: to conserve the natural resources, environment, and heritage of its people. 

My fellow riders are from all over the world — Germany, New Zealand, Lebanon, Russia, Mongolia, the United States — and in the months leading up to our departure to Ulaanbaatar, each of us raised funds back home to purchase a new Yamaha dirtbike to bring with us across the world. Why? Part of MEC’s mission is to train and equip Mongolian park rangers to better patrol the country's extensive national parks, to which the government gives very little in terms of resources to protect and maintain. After two incredible weeks of riding through Mongolia with the Rally for Rangers, we will donate all of our bikes and gear to the rangers so they can patrol their territories.

But now, I’m still in these two weeks of joy riding. Coming up on a ger, a traditional Mongolian yurt hut, I kill the motor and coast to a stop. My buddy and co-rider Hans, already off his bike, is passing a volleyball back and forth with a teenage girl. A woman approaches and offers me a wooden cup; with my left hand supporting my right elbow, the polite way of accepting gifts, I take her offering. The cup contains the aforementioned airag, a white cream with congealed clumps of what looks like butter or fat, with a few dark hairs float among the denser bits.

I pause to consider (a) what this ominous-looking concoction is and (b) the likelihood of it producing gastric hell. I take a tentative sip and the flavor is surprisingly sweet and inoffensive. I make to return the cup only to realize that not finishing the offering would be gravely impolite. Hans, telltale cream dotting his week's worth of beard, smirks, clearly enjoying my predicament. So down the airag goes.

This year is made extra special by the sister park signing between Lake Hovsgol National Park and California’s Yosemite National Park.

Now in its second year, Rally for Rangers has brought twenty new riders to Mongolia this summer. This year is made extra special by the sister park signing between Lake Hovsgol National Park and California’s Yosemite National Park. The US National Park Service (NPS) is recognized throughout the world for its stewardship of natural and cultural resources, and this sister park agreement increases information sharing through direct park-to-park contacts and provides consultation from NPS superintendents. 

Lake Hovsgol is, in a word, stunning; there's no doubt as to why the nomads of Mongolia call it "the Mother Sea."

MEC’s paramount mission is to emphasize the global significance of Lake Hovsgol National Park. Established in 1992, the park encompasses the entirety of the lake, which, at 1.2 million hectares, is larger than Yellowstone National Park. Hovsgol contains 70 percent of Mongolia's freshwater (that’s one percent of the world’s freshwater) and the surrounding area is heavily forested and incredibly biodiverse. Water entering the northern end of the lake can take 500 years to exit through the southerly Eg River.

It is, in a word, stunning; there's no doubt as to why the nomads of Mongolia call it "the Mother Sea." But in recent years, annual visitors have doubled and illegal commercial fishing, logging, and grazing have become rampant. A new paved road provides easier access to the lake but no facilities exist to accommodate this influx of visitors. The sister park agreement, we hope, will begin to change this, especially since Yosemite has dealt with similar issues as numbers of visitors skyrocket.

In the Mongolian countryside, which is almost entirely without infrastructure, travel by dirtbike is ideal — most of the time, anyway. When we encounter our first river crossing, I proceed ahead of the others in order to photograph them from the opposite shore. I’m nearly across when my front wheel finds the seemingly largest, roundest stone within five river miles. In slow motion, the bike falls and submerges. I manage to kill the engine before any water is sucked inside, but am left straddling my downed bike with a sheepish smile on my face, as the other riders loudly discuss my technique behind me.

Outside of Hatgal, we witness our first Naadam festival, an annual midsummer celebration of the three manly Mongolian pursuits: archery, wrestling, and horse racing.

I am absolutely captivated by Mongolian wrestling. The wrestlers sport tiny jackets, colorful underwear, and tasseled, pointy caps. Facing each other, the men slap their thighs front and back, then turn to the crowd and repeat the movement. Formality completed, the wrestling begins and the men grip arms. First to go down loses. Most matches I see are over quickly, often due to a drastic disparity in weight. The victor performs a sweeping eagle dance, arms outstretched like wings. 

It seems the love of the underdog is a universal thing.

After many matches, a young, cocksure giant of a man has become the clear crowd favorite. Then, out of the crowd, comes a considerably older and much smaller man. Bare-chested and wearing jeans, with only the pointy cap to indicate his intention, he makes for an unlikely challenger. The young stud engages the older man viciously, nearly forcing him to the ground within the first few seconds. Astonishingly, the older man keeps his footing, time and time again, as the brutal offensive continues. The young Goliath, now breathing hard, suddenly lunges high; lightning quick, the older man ducks his grasp, grabs his adversary’s overextended legs, and sends him tumbling over his shoulder to sprawl unceremoniously on the ground. 

I surge to my feet along with the rest of the crowd. Wailing music blares out of speakers at full volume. The victor lunges in a wide circle, flapping his arms exultantly while the crowd cheers. It seems the love of the underdog is a universal thing. 

Here, away from people, the lake is clean enough to drink.

Leaving Hatgal, we continue north. The two-track undulates along the edges of Lake Hovsgol, smooth and grassy, and the path turns abruptly muddy and rooty where it dips too close along the water. I count nearly fifty ger camps along the shore, over half of which operate illegally; the lake has been a protected area since 1986.

Just a few kilometers north, the camps are replaced by meadows of wildflowers, white rocky beaches, and crystal-clear water mirroring the sky. Here, away from people, the lake is clean enough to drink.

Mongolia is so vast relative to its number of inhabitants that standard rules of transportation do not apply. A traditionally nomadic culture, there is no private property to speak of, no fences to interrupt the ride. Roads require maintenance and travelers, both of which are scarce. Instead, a web of single track exists throughout the steppe. So we cross our fingers, pick a thread, and keep heading north; with a bit of luck, we’ll end up at our destination. 

I witness a Naadam horse race while I’m hanging out the window of a speeding Land Cruiser. Whooping men on motorcycles and 4WDs herd the racers, some as young as five or six on these half-wild horses, the sixteen kilometers to the starting point. A play of emotions cross the children’s faces — pride, exhilaration, fear, outright panic. 

And without ceremony, the race begins! Horses run flat out. Men scream from speeding SUVs. Our 4WD leaves the ground more than once as we fly over the uneven terrain. In the final 300 meters, the second-place horse passes the longtime leader for the victory. It’s over.

Every child I see cross the finish line bursts into tears as the men crowd around the champion horse, gathering it’s sweat in their hands to spread on their faces and bare arms. 

The moment that the Mongolian rangers have been anticipating for most of the year is finally here — under the blazing summer sun and endless blue sky, each rider hands over our motorcycle. Words are spoken and translated. Riders and rangers alike shed tears. Photographing the exchange, I give up attempting to stem the flow and let them roll down my cheeks.
                    
The US Ambassador to Mongolia, Piper Anne Wind Campbell, gives a speech commending the efforts of the riders and the importance of conserving Mongolia’s natural resources. This segues into the sister park signing between Lake Hovsgol and Yosemite National Parks. Ranger Tom, dressed in his US Park Service uniform, cuts a dashing figure alongside Tumersic, head Mongolian ranger, as they hold aloft the signed agreement. Tumersic gifts Ambassador Campbell a spirited racehorse, which promptly attempts to eat her hat.

Barring mechanical failure, I’ll be just in time to catch my flight home to Brooklyn.

As I stand there, I can’t quite figure out an appropriate end to a trip of this magnitude. I race from one person to another, promising to see them again, to stay in touch. As the twenty riders load into Land Cruisers I swing a leg over the WR. I had decided to forego my flight back to Ulaanbaatar, preferring to ride back with a small group of Mongolians: Munkho, B​atsaikhan, and Oggie. We plan to travel much more quickly, reaching Ulaanbaatar in four days. Barring mechanical failure, I’ll be just in time to catch my flight home to Brooklyn.

In the evening twilight we reach a river, deep from recent rain. Two herders on an old Chinese motorbike are sitting on the shore, talking. Batsaikhan bums a smoke and asks directions, the typical form of navigation in a country without road signs. In short order, we are invited to stay the night with their families and cross the river, one at a time.
                        
The herders redline their old bike for five kilometers as the sun sets, leading us to two gers and a small one­-room wooden cabin. The place is humble, situated on beautiful pasture just up from the river. Countless animals dot the green landscape. I set up my tent before total darkness descends. The extended family comes to inspect me and my motorcycle, snacking on yak cheese and lobbing random English words my direction. 

I behold that which is nearly impossible to find in my own country — people living sustainably in the world and leaving their environment no worse off than they found it.

I wake up early the following morning, and the herders have already killed a marmot that will be prepared for our send-­off meal. A fire is started and the marmot is butchered and skinned at my feet. Red hot rocks from the fire are nestled into the animal’s stomach, and the rocks cook the marmot from the inside out in the traditional Mongolian fashion called ​boodog.​
                        
Sitting in the shade of the cabin and contemplating my imminent return to New York, I behold that which is nearly impossible to find in my own country — people living sustainably in the world and leaving their environment no worse off than they found it. Can it be that these nomadic people, with their practical skills and sustainable way of life, will shortly disappear from our world? Progress trumps simplicity, and technology is an insatiable beast that’s created by few but consumes everyone. 

There is so much to learn from traditional lifestyles and I am grateful for the glimpse I’ve been afforded, in this moment and over the span of these past two weeks. So I swing my leg back over the bike and I say g​oodbye —​ just not, I hope, forever. [H

Joel Caldwell is an expedition photographer based out of Brooklyn, NY. His chief interests lie at the intersection of lifestyle and experience — the spirit of adventure.

 

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