“Imagine crossing an immense, undeveloped, grassy plain. The sky is equally massive and a deep, glorious blue. Cloud fortresses make their way across, lending depth and captivating the senses. The route is a rough collusion of singletrack, often splitting wide and heading in many directions, occasionally, temporarily, coming together to form a primitive road. Though these trails have worn the tracks of man and beast for some 4,000 years, it was only very recently that tire tread appeared along its dusty contours. The land is brown, drought stricken, but river crossings are surprising, verdant oases. Here, travel is at your own speed. You pick your own path. There are no rules. You’re in Mongolia.” —Joel Caldwell
Caldwell’s trip was an assignment for the Mongol Ecology Center, or MEC, a non-governmental organization dedicated to preserving Mongolia’s pristine and expansive wildlands.
For some quick context, consider that ever since Mongolia spun off of a collapsing Soviet Union in 1991 it has suffered severe economic recession and mismanagement of its natural resources. More than half its interior has been opened up with little oversight to foreign development. Unchecked mining, fishing and foresting—plus an influx of tourists that doubles year-over-year—all have conspired to pose a serious threat the county’s environment.
The natural heart of Mongolia lies along the country’s rugged northern border in Lake Hovsgal National Park. Larger in size than Yellowstone, it recently was named a sister park to Yosemite, a crown jewel of the U.S. park system by any estimation, and an indication of its sense ecological prestige. This park’s namesake lake is 85 miles long and one of the cleanest in the world. It supplies the majority of Mongolia’s drinking water and efforts to preserve it have only just begun.
Park rangers here must patrol enormous swaths of land, and a well-equipped motorcycle is a critical tool in doing so. Recognizing this need, MEC has since 2014 been organizing fund-raising effort called Rally for Rangers to deliver motorcycles to the park rangers here.
Enter the Yamaha AG-200. The “AG” stands for agricultural, and this noble beast of burden was designed for hard work in remote areas with oil changes few and far between. It comes with full-complement racks, an enclosed chain, very long service intervals and a generally bombproof disposition.
The 2015 Rally for Rangers program drew in participants from the U.S., UK, Europe and Australia. Using their personal networks for fundraising, each of the riders paid his or her own way—collectively covering the cost of delivering a fleet of 20 of these motorcycles to rangers in Hovsgal and the surrounding parks.
After flying into the Mongolian capital city of Ulaanbaatar, these 20 riders traveled 1,500 miles overland to the National Park in the north. The riders dealt alternately with flooded river crossings and deep, dry, wheel-sucking sand. Blazing hot temperatures and 36-hour thunderstorms.
“After twelve consecutive days in the saddle, the bike feels like an extension of my body. Twisting the throttle back, I catch air over a roller before turning to pursue a loping herd of wild yaks into a stand of trees. Slaloming through the woods, I feel myself processing an expanding freedom, recalibrating to accommodate this new experience. This is what it feels like to be free”—Joel Caldwell
More than just a mind-boggling number of miles along punishing dirt trails passing for roads, traveling by motorcycle here afforded Caldwell an unfettered view of an incredible landscape. As a nomadic culture Mongolians maintain no private property lines, and they welcome having their photograph taken. Caldwell found he could go anywhere he wanted to point his wheel, and with a camera slung on his back he did just that.
He came back with these stirring images of the people and places he encountered. These photos are currently on display at the store, and they also are available for purchase as high-quality prints. All proceeds will be donated to MEC.
Click through the photos below to purchase a print. Captions provided by Joel Caldwell. All proceeds go towards the Mongol Ecology Center.