Saddling up in Mongolia

“Where they Went” by Diane Daniel
(published Jan. 6, 2008, in the Boston Globe)

From Di’s eyes: I first heard from Randy in 2005, when his family was on a round-the-world trip. I couldn’t write about him then, but asked him to keep in touch. He emailed me the next year about his trip to Mongolia. His wife and teenage daughter decided to do their own thing in the States, and Dad went solo on his remote overseas adventure. When Randy returned, he sent me a whopping 50-page trip report. My eyes rolled — until I started reading it. It was full of description and dialogue. “Are you planning on writing a book?” I asked. He was working on it, he conceded. Keep at it, Randy!

WHO: Randy Schacher, 46, of Newton, Mass.

WHERE: Mongolia

WHEN: July and August 2007.

WHY: “I was looking for a country that would be remote, something adventurous and not in the 20th century,” Schacher said.

WORLD WANDERER: Schacher is no stranger to exotic travel. In 2004 and 2005 he and his family traveled around the world. “I’m a contract engineer for computers and I can take jobs that interest me for the period I need,” he said. For his solo trip to Mongolia (which also included stops in Japan, China, Thailand, and Germany), Schacher knew he wanted to go on a horseback ride. “Historically, the Mongols are avid horseback riders. That’s how they conquered Asia.”

SURVIVING THE SADDLE: A travel agent set up Schacher for a private trek over the steppes. “I had a guide, interpreter, and a luggage person, so we wouldn’t need pack animals.” Schacher hadn’t ridden a horse since college. “I started riding again in Acton for a couple weeks.” What Schacher didn’t know was that the Mongolian saddles were wooden, making them much harder than leather ones. “You stand in the stirrups when you’re riding. If you don’t, you bang your knees against the hard wooden saddle. But when you’re standing, your legs and arms are under stress,” he said. “Every day I got better. It was pretty much the adventure I was looking for; I was happy that I survived it.”

Ganaa (L) and Randy(R) in front of Temple Tourist Ger CampSTEPPE BY STEPPE: They stayed in gers, or yurts, sometimes in encampments with other tourists, mostly European. “We rode to several sites, a temple in the mountains, to huge rock formations, and through the countryside, over hills and through ravines,” Schacher said. “The steppes are just so vast.” They encountered yaks, sheep, stray camels, “and an occasional Mongol nomad riding his herd of a hundred horses.” His assumptions were challenged. “So many things in my preconceived notions were wrong,” Schacher said. “Like, about 95 percent of the country reads and writes since Russia took over. [Mongolia won its independence from China in 1921 with Soviet backing.] And there’s cellphone access everywhere.”

Randy with traveling companions of stuffed penguinsDRIVE, DESERT, DUNE: After the horse trek ended, Schacher joined a three-week driving tour, along with four other tourists, a Spaniard, a Briton, and two Russians. “The Gobi Desert was the most interesting and less developed,” he said. “We went to a dune bordering the valley called the singing sand dune, where the sand below the dunes is so compacted that it makes this vibration while you’re climbing.” They visited Kharakhorum, the ancient capital of Genghis Khan’s empire. “It was a beautiful place with lots of ancient rocks that were from the time of his grandchildren, with their names on it.”

ANCIENT GAMES: Schacher timed his trip to be in Ulan Bator, the capital, for the annual Naadam festival of archery, wrestling, and horseback riding, in competitions little changed from centuries past. “There are these big hulking guys in tiny blue and red suits,” Schacher said. “In Ultan Bator there’s a big festival; the locals scurry away to smaller ones in the country. We went to the opening ceremony, where they march to the stadium and have a huge band and bring out the nine flags of Genghis Khan. Later we went to the horse racing area 30 miles in the country. It was one long traffic jam.”

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