Solo Across the Mongolian Steppes

When I was twelve I watched a movie about Ghengis Khan, starring Omar Sharif. That single viewing sparked a life-long dream to ride across the Mongolian steppes. I never had enough money or time to do it. There were so many other priorities in my family and work, how could I just flit off to little-travelled place and indulge in such a crazy fantasy?

A dorky movie spawned a  big adventure.

A dorky movie spawned a big adventure.

Then I turned fifty. Shazam. I realized that if I didn’t do it soon, my body would never be able to cope with days in the saddle and nights on the ground. And that I’d regret it forever if I didn’t make it happen. That’s a common theme amongst adventurers.

Once it became a priority, it was amazing how the whole thing came together. In fact this is often the case with dreams; once we give them importance we also find ways to make them happen, just like all the other things we accomplish in our lives. My husband minded our little kids, I pulled the money out of a savings pile, I found a specialist group that had managed to take an entire National Geographic team across Mongolian and could probably handle one small, competent horsewoman. Those weren’t small things, but they did turn out to be possible things once I had agreed with my family that this was a priority.

The result? The journey of a lifetime, every bit as breathtaking, fun, and spirit-enhancing as I’d ever imagined. A guide, a translator, a wrangler, our horses, and solo me.

Erstwhile guide and happy adventurer.

Erstwhile guide and happy adventurer.

Highlights: A vast landscape barely touched by the hand of man. Mongolia’s warm, hospitable people, who welcomed me into their gers and fed me salt tea, warm butter biscuits and other delights. My guide taught me how to sing a Mongolian song about horses and spring (in Mongolian, which sounds like cats spitting and is not easy to grasp). I taught him how to polka – while singing ta-da da dah, ta-da da dah as we had no instrument. Sharing highly potent yak’s milk vodka over campfires with the locals at every overnight stop, I sang ‘I’s The Boy That Builds The Boat’ more times than I can say, by way of cultural exchange (the vodka helped). I tore up the steppe galloping into a brilliant sunset and whooping at the top of my lungs with our young wrangler. Every night I witnessed a star-filled sky of unbelievably high-wattage clarity.

I was both wonderfully myself and wholly someone else entirely, compared to my normal life.

I met an old monk rebuilding a monastery that had been demolished in the time of Stalin and repressed for decades. That story became a novel I spent eight years writing (Pearls in the Ashes), an effort I never imagined when I first started on my Mongolian journey.

So much from one trip, dreamt of for four decades and realized over a two-week span. If I ever doubt my ability to make a dream come true, I think about this trip and understand I can do anything.

And that is the biggest gift of all.

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