The team (L to R) Amber, Sabra and Becca check the GPS to figure out the mileage they need to paddle before stopping for the day.
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The team (L to R) Amber, Sabra and Becca check the GPS to figure out the mileage they need to paddle before stopping for the day; Photograph by Krystle Wright
The team (L to R) Amber, Sabra and Becca check the GPS to figure out the mileage they need to paddle before stopping for the day.

Nobody’s River: Adventures in Hospitality, Navigation, Milk Moonshine

Nobody’s River is a an all-women expedition on one of the world’s greatest and least known free-flowing rivers, the Amur.  The goal of the two-month, 4,400-kilometer project is to travel, document, and collect data on this incredible river from its remote Mongolian headwaters near the birthplace of Genghis Khan, across the vastness of the Russian Far East, to the Pacific Ocean Delta. The team received a National Geographic Young Explorers Grant for this project. Follow their progress here on our blog.

It was amazing to watch the Onon River, or “Mother Onon” as the locals call her, change from its headwaters as we paddled 500 kilometers to the Russian border. So much nuance—new plants, birds, animals, weather, ever-changing landscapes, and more and more and more water.

Two weeks after leaving Ulaanbaatar (UB), we met up with our herdsmen friends from our horsepack in, and they hosted us in their humble and cozy cabin for two days in the village of Binder, the only town along this stretch of river. They brought us our resupply food bag and took us to a Mongolian horse race and wrestling match.

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As steep cliffs surround the river banks, Amber Valenti paddles the section of the Onon River; Photograph by Krystle Wright

Then we continued on another couple of weeks through more incredible country—huge towering cliffs, shifting moody skies, and a whole lot of silence. We had an encounter with a sketchy electrical storm one night under the towering Diggin Giggin cliffs. It was right over head for 30 minutes and striking within a couple of hundred yards. We anxiously crouched in the willows next to our camping spot on a very exposed cobble bar for nearly an hour. I love to watch lightning from afar, but I hate the helpless feeling of being in an exposed place during an electrical storm perhaps more than anything else. The raw energy and power is something to be admired, but as it finally passed, I was so happy to have my heart rate come down to something near normal again!

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Amber Valenti checks the stove and overall view of campsite; Photograph by Krystle Wright

In typical Mongolian fashion, no one could really describe or direct us to the elusive takeout when that day finally came, 22+ days after leaving UB. Somehow we found it by pure intuition, of course. We were within two kilometers of the Mongolia-Russian border, looking at Russia across the river, and all the things we had been told about the takeout—that there was a local family living right on the river and an obvious road—were nowhere in sight. We had that sinking feeling of an epic about to begin.

We stopped at a random cobble bar, hiked up an even more random dirt trail, and 40 despondent minutes later, in this vast wild place, we caught sight of our purple Russian minivan romping across the uneven terrain. We laughed, jumped around, and hugged our big-bellied driver more times than was probably necessary. Despite all the doubts, we had made it all the way from the headwaters to the border—four very dirty, weather worn, wild women and one wide-eyed translator named Mangi.

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A local family welcomes the team into their ger on the steppe during the journey back to Ulaanbaatar; Photograph by Krystle Wright

We drove four hours and stayed that night with a local family out on the steppe. It was really cool to hang out in a ger, a yurt lived in by nomads, and be with other people again after so much time on the river. In my usual style, I ate every questionable thing they put in front of us—milk tea, weird dried yogurt things, homemade bread and butter (delicious), dried meat soup, and some kind of funky mutton … even though I don’t typically eat meat or much dairy. I think I actually did okay with all of this, but the seven teacups of homemade milk vodka was a no-go. We had the best time hanging out in the ger, laughing with everyone, singing songs and enjoying such a sweet moment of connection.

When we left the ger, everyone was good and drunk and having a blast. Then all of a sudden I became violently ill. Becca and Sabra pulled me out onto the grasslands away from the ger and the sleeping family. I heaved everything I had in me onto the steppe. And as I was reminded the next morning, I also gave quite an amazing monologue to the camera just before bed. Priceless. The next day we drove 14+ hours on the bumpiest dirt roads in of Mongolia, or at least it felt that way. I was so green. It was pure misery. I took 12mg of Zofran, and it still wasn’t working. So we pulled over every few hours so I could puke it out on the steppe. Finally after 16mg of Zofran, two Dramamine, and a little more time, my head quit spinning quite so violently, and I was able to sleep fitfully the next seven hours back to UB on the laps of all the ladies, bouncing and jarring the entire way.

The only conclusion we can come to is that milk-based liquor = poison in my body. Maybe seven teacups was a bit over the top for someone who doesn’t drink milk? All the other ladies had the same thing and same amount and didn’t get sick at all, so who knows. But it certainly makes for a good story and my shaky stomach is slowly making a comeback and I know one thing for certain: I never, ever need to drink Mongolian mare’s milk moonshine again.

I write this as I am in Russia, after more epic travel push, this time by rail. More on our adventure on the train soon, but for now, we’ll fall asleep with dreams of the magical Upper Onon and Mongolian moonshine dancing in our heads.