The massive scale of grass steppes, valleys and thin riverine forests in the Khan Khentee protected area in northeastern Mongolia are better suited to horseback riding than to walking, but on this day I was a happy biped moving slowly through dung-maculated valleys full of the bleached skulls, spines and other stray bones of departed animals.
Mongolia, once the largest empire the world has ever suffered under the rule of Chingiss Khan, is now the least densely populated country in the world, and under the boundless sky here in an area known as Terelj, it feels like it. I was here to spend two weeks writing, hiking, riding horses and staying in a ger with a nomadic family of herders. On my fourth day, the quality of light and scale of the landscape inspired me to undertake an epic yet approximate walk, off that way, marking time by the sun.
Several things of human interest happened along the way, but the nature was better: Through alpine tundra and over great loping hills with statuesque stone outcroppings at their peaks, marmots emerged from holes in the ground and darted into other holes. I passed yak, cattle and horse aplenty, but saw no wolf or roedeer, though both are common to the area. And the birds: Daurian redstarts, Siberian blue robins and black kites flew close, perching on rocks and branches near enough to reach with my hand, looking inquisitive and unafraid. Steppe eagles and hawks kept their circling distance, above.
After rolling hills, and with the sun hanging low on the horizon, I descended and picked my way through lowland marsh, where tufts of loamy earth had to be stepped on like lilypads to avoid sinking to the knee. I arrived just before night fell, and my host family brought hot milk tea and stoked the wood stove in the ger for the night. I sat drinking tea while I watched the last blue of the sky fade in the circular hole in the center of the ceiling.
Read the full story of Brian’s epic trek: Foolishness and Generosity in Gorkhi Terelj, Mongolia.