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Steppe by Steppe in Mongolia

From the November 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveler

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A nomadic herding family traverses a grassy plain in search of water, which will be transported on their bullock cart, in the north of Inner Mongolia.

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From the November 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveler

Outer Mongolia shaped my life years before I set foot in the country landlocked in Central Asia. In a long traveling career, across more than 50 countries, Mongolia was the journey that I had always wanted to make, and for a long time never quite reached.

I had the excuse of legitimate enterprise. Mongolia was a rare place—virtually the last place—where nomadic life still thrived. Across the vast grasslands of a country nearly two-and-a-half times the size of Texas, horses and tents and seasonal migrations remained a way of life. But my real impulse for Mongolia was more personal. I saw the journey as a matter of loyalty to my 12-year-old self. This is the journey he had dreamed of making: by horse in a virgin landscape. Other destinations came and went, but the dream of Mongolia persisted.

I was in my 40s when I finally came to Mongolia. I had decided to cross the country by horse, a thousand miles from the mountains of the Altay in the west to the forests of Hentiy in the east. I traveled in the spirit of the emissaries of Genghis Khan, changing horses and guides every three or four days, carrying all I needed on a packhorse, enjoying the open hospitality of the nomads when it was available, camping alone in high empty valleys when it wasn’t.

I had made horse journeys before—Wyoming, Argentina, India, Spain—but here at last was a place where such a journey was entirely natural, where horses were still the primary means of transportation, where you could ride for days without encountering a town or a road or a fence. The landscapes had a startling simplicity; Mongolia seemed to have been sculpted by winds. Here and there across the unfolding grasslands, round white tents sprouted as mysteriously as mushrooms. Between them horsemen cantered on distant horizons.

Childhood dreams can be dangerous things. But Mongolia was everything I had hoped, a dream journey. In the end I think it was a question of timing. I had waited half a lifetime for Mongolia only to arrive, fortuitously, at the moment I was best equipped to appreciate it. Any older, I might have found five months in the saddle too arduous. Any younger and I would not have taken such pleasure in those innocent landscapes, in the grasslands’ wonderful solitudes, in the rich hospitality of nomads. Nor would I have understood Mongolia as a kind of homecoming.

British writer Stanley Stewart is the author of In the Empire of Genghis Khan: A Journey Among Nomads.

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