Sam lay on the floor of the ger, dead to the world. The vibrant wall hangings and handmade ground rugs swam around him in a kaleidoscope of colors. In my periphery, an elderly Kazakh woman ladled kumis from the communal jug and motioned for me to accept more. The other members of the nomadic family who had accepted us into their home talked among themselves and investigated our strange two-wheeled steeds.
I could hear Joey dry-heaving outside. As a wave of nausea engulfed me, I turned my stare to my bowl of kumis. A faint, scraggly face reflected back at me off the pale surface. I could make out the chapped lips and wind-burnt skin, casualties of 12 days in the Mongolian backcountry. After all we had been through, the Russians had nearly killed us.
Mongolia–the name conjures images of Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire, the largest empire the world has ever known. It is a land of extremes; home to the coldest capital city in the world and the intense heat of the Gobi Desert. Mongolia is one of the most sparsely populated countries on earth, yet it has a rich and ancient history. The unique culture and astounding natural beauty have a mysterious allure, and we felt ourselves drawn to it.
At 4:30 a.m. the alarm went off. We had just spent our first night out in the Altai Mountains. The Milky Way could still be seen across the sky. Our objective for the day was to climb Malchin Peak, located on the northern Mongolian border with Russia. The earliest morning glow illuminated the summit, still shrouded in cloud. It looked as far off as the moon.
We had been dropped off on the edge of the dramatic landscape that is the Altai Tavan Bogd National Park. We were here for the adventure of a lifetime: Three childhood friends setting out into a remote wilderness filled with glacier-wrapped peaks and hardy nomads.
I grew up with my two companions, Joey Schusler and Sam Seward, in Boulder, Colorado. Our friendship was bred through challenge and elation in the outdoors, and I couldn't imagine better adventure mates. Joey and I have been doing dumb things and having fun together ever since we met on the first day of kindergarten. In recent years, Joey has slowly weaned himself from racing mountain bikes by undertaking several self-supported bikepacking missions to far-flung mountain regions around the world, documenting the biggest ones in short films. Sam has joined Joey for his most ambitious bikepacking expeditions, and for good reason. Sam is the kind of guy who, if you ran screaming at him with an amputated arm, would calmly sit you down and fashion a workable prosthetic out of broken tree branches and his titanium camp spork.
Bikepacking trips are usually relegated to the land, but in Mongolia we wanted to travel down rivers as well as trails. To accomplish this, we brought along new tools: lightweight, inflatable packrafts. Though we had never attempted a bikepacking-to-packrafting journey, we nevertheless decided it was a great idea to travel to one of the most remote places in the world to try it out. Our plan was to reach the summit of Malchin Peak, then traverse south through the heart of the Mongolian Altai by singletrack and river. On Google Earth, at least, it looked doable.
We left our overnight gear and began the push for the summit minimally loaded. Glacial streams cascaded down from rocky heights, converging into a deep gorge at the center of the valley. We were pushing our bikes through marshland and desperately needed to find a trail.
Suddenly Sam doubled over and started throwing up. He puked four times, emptying the contents of his stomach and then some.
"You alright man?"
"Yeah, I'm okay," he replied, and trudged on. We cut across a glacial moraine, carrying our bikes over boulders. As the sun rose, there was still no sign of a trail. Sam, usually the strongest, was lagging behind. Finally we spotted a small dirt path mercifully winding its way through the rocks toward us.
"I'm done," Sam said, collapsing onto the ground. "Go on and get it. There's no way I'm making it today. I'll wait here."
This was not the optimal way to start our expedition. We made sure Sam had enough food, water and extra layers. Then Joey and I reluctantly rode off without him.
We wove around camels loaded with mountaineering gear headed to basecamp for Khüiten Peak, the highest point in Mongolia. On the spot, Joey decided that camels were his second-favorite animals, behind penguins. We could see our trail winding its way alongside the Potanin Glacier, approaching Malchin Peak. To our amazement, it was buff singletrack with no tight switchbacks. If we didn't know better, we could have been convinced it was built for mountain bikes.
All too soon, we were at the base of the mountain and were forced to start the hike-a-bike. It quickly became apparent that Malchin Peak was basically a giant pile of scree. We slid a half step back for every two steps forward. About a quarter of the way up, I started sucking air from my water bladder. It was dry.
"Joey, how much water do you have?"
"Oh, I left mine with Sam." The top didn't look that far. "Let's ditch the bikes here and bag this sucker." Several false summits later, we were standing on top of Malchin Peak. Surrounded by massive glaciers and vertical peaks, it felt like we were closer to the Himalaya than the flat steppe of Mongolia. We could see into China, Russia and the mountains of Kazakhstan. The summit celebration was short-lived, when a wind gust nearly blew us off the mountain. It was time to get back to Sam.
As we clambered down, we kept glancing at the huge snowfield covering the Russian half of the mountain. "Too bad we don't have skis, or an ice-axe to glissade" Joey said, laughing.
We continued down the rocky ridge, trying our best not to sprain an ankle hiking through the boulders in our riding shoes. The snowfield looked more and more appealing.
"Let's give it a go." We sat down next to each other and slid a few feet, jamming our elbows into the snow to stop. It seemed to work pretty well. We lifted our elbows and away we went, sliding faster and faster. "We're poaching Putin's powder!" Joey yelled. We eventually reached the bottom, soaked and stoked.
The massive Potanin Glacier feeds the Tsagaan Gol, the first river we would attempt to packraft. Laden with white glacial silt that looked more like milk than water, the pale river wound its way through the valley like a serpent, entering the shadow of an ominous gorge. The three of us rode along the rim of the canyon until we could peer into its depths, and saw the milky water crashing over boulders in a melee of waves and foam. The steam from the base of a 20-foot waterfall rose up toward us. We would surely be killed if we attempted it.
We continued downstream, hoping for the river to mellow. Eventually, the rapids seemed more manageable, and we stopped for the night.
When we were packing at home, it had seemed like a great idea to save space by not bringing sleeping pads. We would pay for that decision. As I lay awake, attempting to optimize my hip position between two rocks, my mind wandered to the nomadic people who live here. We thought we were bad-asses for being out here during the warmest time of the year, while the humble Kazakh herders roam here through the brutal Mongolian winters, relying only on their herds of sheep, goat, horse and yak. Several days earlier, en route to the start of our expedition, we had spent the night in a Kazakh family ger to experience firsthand the unique traditions and legendary hospitality of these welcoming people.
The golden eagle fully extended its 8-foot wingspan to stabilize itself in the breeze, digging its talons deeper into Bashakahn's gloved right arm. The elegance and ease with which the massive bird of prey shifted its large frame only hinted at its deadly power. I couldn't help but imagine how fast those talons could shred our packrafts into ribbons.
Bashakahn belongs to a small enclave of Kazakh nomads in the isolated region of Bayan Ölgiy who continue the ancient practice of hunting with golden eagles. It's hard to imagine anything more regal than a seasoned Kazakh nomad in full traditional garb with a golden eagle perched on his outstretched arm. The prime season is in the dead of winter, resulting in the thick fox and ibex fur that makes up his flowing coat and hat. We all took turns with the eagle but failed to appear anywhere as majestic.
A ger is a round, portable structure that can be built in a matter of hours, yet can withstand the harshest of winters. The plain exterior of Bashakahn's ger didn't hint at what lay within. Intricately embroidered tapestries lined the walls, along with the prize medals and fox skins of the champion eagle hunter. We were beckoned by the matriarch of the family to sit on the floor pillows, and what appeared to be goat's milk was ladled from a gigantic wooden bowl into small personal bowls. As the milk touched my lips, I was taken aback by the tart, sour flavor.
"Kumis," Bashakhan said, pointing to the milk. A spread of various breads, cheeses and butters was laid out before us. Three generations of eagle hunters lived together in the ger: the elder Bashakhan, his son and his two young children–both of whom will handle the eagles in due time.
It seems to be an unspoken rule in Mongolia that any passerby is to be graciously welcomed into your home and offered a warm meal and kumis. Perhaps this is a result of living in a region where your nearest neighbor may be over a mountain range, but it was a refreshing change from the feelings of isolation that can exist in our own overpopulated cities. Though our conversations consisted mainly of smiling and laughing, everyone's friendliness and ease with one another was contagious.
At one point, Sam ducked in through the door from outside after answering nature's call. "So I think I saw someone milking a horse … is that even possible?" he asked.
Bashakhan smiled and said, "Kumis." Apparently, kumis is fermented mare's milk.
Freezing glacial meltwater surged past us, the waves peaking one instant and crashing down the next, sending frothy water up onto the banks. We reluctantly packed up our tent and warm sleeping bags. This would be the first time our fully loaded packrafts had ever seen whitewater. The tiny yellow crafts looked even punier than normal next to the chaotic water rushing by, but we summoned the courage to slide off the bank and were immediately swept into the center of the current.
Joey and Sam both had open-deck boats and were soon rocketing down the river in ice-cold inflatable bathtubs. The rapids were continuous and eddies were few and far between, making it nearly impossible to stop to empty out the water we were taking on. I glanced over my shoulder and saw Joey plunge through a hole, on the verge of getting sucked back in. Thankfully, we all stayed upright through the worst of it as the channel flattened out.
A chilly breeze blew up the valley, and we noticed for the first time that the sky had clouded over and there was no sign of the sun. Soaked to the bone and freezing, we decided to stop for the day. As we struggled to get out of the packrafts, we realized just how hypothermic we were. We stripped off all of our wet clothes and put on every article of dry clothing we had, including our sleeping bags. It took half-an-hour to stop shaking.
There is no doubt that bike handling was negatively affected by the deflated packrafts strapped to our handlebars, but riding was still surprisingly fun. Starting up Takalbai Pass, our next objective, we were enjoying spinning our legs, having transitioned from the packrafts that morning. Sam had stopped ahead, and when we reached him he pointed out an odd sight.
On the grassy plateau in front of us were what appeared to be silhouettes of people standing in lines, completely still. As we rode closer to investigate, we realized they weren't actually people, but vertical standing stones, exquisitely carved into figures holding raised goblets and wearing solemn expressions. The carvings were well over a thousand years old. There was no road or even a dirt path leading to this place. Marveling at the artistry of the ancient people who created them, we wondered what they meant.
Nearby, we discovered a vast array of images etched into the dark bedrock. These petroglyphs spanned a period of thousands of years, some dating back before 2000 B.C. Horses, elk and mountain sheep vied for space with hunters carrying longbows or spears and caravans of yak. People from many cultures who explored this place in the millennia before us had left these signs, the landscape then much as it remains today.
Inch by inch, we pushed our bikes up and over Takalbai Pass. After seemingly endless switchbacks, the other side of the pass revealed a narrow ribbon of pristine singletrack descending as far as the eye could see. Not holding back, we charged into the turns. The trail felt blissfully endless. That night we camped with more descent ahead of us.
I was jarred awake by a flash of light piercing my eyelids. Thunder rolled across the valley. Four more flashes occurred in quick succession. Even with my eyes closed I could see the shape of each bolt burned into my pupils.
We were wide-awake and scared. Helpless to do anything but wait, we hoped there were targets elsewhere in the valley more appealing to the daggers of voltage than our feeble tent. Three more waves of lightning passed as our tent was buffeted by the wind and rain.
The morning was eerily quiet, without even a birdcall or the sound of the breeze blowing through the valley. We slowly unzipped the rain fly to reveal a world of white. Our tent was encased in snow. Several inches blanketed the ground, melding into the thick white fog engulfing the valley. Winter had come early to the Altai. We re-zipped the tent and buried ourselves deeper into our sleeping bags.
While cooking hot oatmeal and coffee, we contemplated our predicament. There was nothing to be done but descend and hope the snow had not reached the bottom of the valley.
We packed up and rode off with frozen toes. Rolling fast, we lost elevation quickly. The snow thinned, and we found ourselves on tacky singletrack ripping through the fog. Suddenly we dropped out of the clouds, and below us was the greenest landscape we had seen on our journey. Trees were scattered across the far side of the valley. Peaks with a fresh dusting of snow rose into the clouds. A thousand feet below us on the valley floor lay a braided river, grey-blue with glacial silt. This was our first glimpse of our second river, the Postigiin Gol.
The trail dropped onto the best section of singletrack we had ridden thus far. Our tires tossed loam into the air as we ripped down to the river. When we reached the bank, the clouds broke and sun poured over us. We inflated the packrafts in disbelief, enveloped in warmth that had been unimaginable that morning.
We spent several days in the Postigiin Gol valley, enjoying the sunshine and simplicity of drifting through the landscape on the river's mellow meanders. Our peaceful daydreaming didn't last forever, however, as we rounded a corner and heard the rumble of whitewater.
A horizon appeared across the river with foam splashing up from the unknown. We pulled over to scout the rapid. The channel narrowed and dropped into a boulder-choked mess of crashing water, but I thought I saw a seam through the holes and boils. Sam set safety with a throw bag and I returned to my small craft. As I tightened the strap holding my mountain bike to the front of the packraft, I became keenly aware that all of my gear, including my rations to survive the next week, was loaded into what was essentially a glorified inner tube. I shoved off and let the current pull me toward the lip of the drop. Somehow the packraft stayed upright through the surging waves and momentum-halting holes, and I let out a scream of pure elation as I glided into the pool below.
The canyon walls dropped away and the valley widened. We had come to the end of our time on the river.
People waved to us from every ger we passed. Children ran out to intercept us and inspect our bikes. They rode them around, laughing and falling over, while we showed off our wheelie skills. The joy of bikes is universal.
On our final day of riding, we ate the last of our food. We slowly pedaled in silence, trying not to worry about what would happen if our shuttle driver didn't show up at our predetermined meeting place. We rounded a corner, and I have never felt such euphoria at the sight of a car. Not only was our driver Bulat there early, he was holding a bag of snickers and a case of beer. We hugged him and showered him in praises that he couldn't understand.
It was then that we noticed the Russians. Three men had set up camp next to Bulat, and they didn't seem pleased to be sharing the space with a few young Americans. They seemed gruff and standoffish, and at first we kept our distance.
Several hours after we arrived, I struck up a conversation with one of the men. It turned out we couldn't have been more wrong about them. Friendly and generous, they invited us to join them for a feast of meat, cheese, bread, fruit, soup and grilled fish that had been caught that very day. Along with dinner came the vodka. Shot after shot was passed around, and we quickly realized these guys were not drinking amateurs.
The drive to Ölgiy the following day was the most brutal time of the trip. We stopped at a ger as Bulat insisted that kumis would cure us of our misery. As I sipped the fermented mare's milk, I couldn't help but grin while looking at Sam on the floor and listening to Joey retching outside. Adventures are only as great as the people with whom you share them.