"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.
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The Yamaha AG200. Specifically built for humanitarian and agricultural use, these bikes can take a beating and keep on riding. Twenty were donated to the rangers of three of Mongolia's National Parks.[/caption]
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Eating lunch on the steppe I turned around to find these two boys regarding me. The older in front, handled the reins. The younger brother, wearing the stars and stripes hat, handled the horsewhip. Whirling and riding away, the younger boy on back waved shyly over his shoulder.[/caption]
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Elias rides through one of innumerable river crossings on our way to Lake Hovsgol.[/caption]
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Mongolian wrestling is one of the three "manly pursuits" in Mongolia. Archery and horseback riding are the others.[/caption]
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A ramshackle ferry, pulled from shore to shore by hand along a steel cable, was our only way across this particularly deep river crossing.[/caption]
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TJ wheelies the AG, showing what this workhorse can do.[/caption]
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It's not uncommon to see entire families traveling on a single motorcycle in Mongolia. I was constantly amazed by how gratified most people I met were to have their photos taken.[/caption]
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Camp on Lake Hovsgol National Park[/caption]
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Two rangers collecting firewood. Motorcycle is the preferred means of travel in Mongolia.[/caption]
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A Ranger’s old Chinese motorcycle. These beasts of burden are used daily. The Yamaha AG-200’s donated by MEC will be put to good use.[/caption]
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A gathering of the rangers preceding the dedication ceremony for the Yamahas. Tumersic, center in blue, is the leader of the group. The land patrolled by these men is so vast they might only see each other a few times a year.[/caption]
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A boy in traditional Mongolian roundhouse where we stayed.[/caption]
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Naadam horse race- children as young as six years old are pressed into service racing the community's fastest horses in an all out sprint across the steppe. After the race men swept the boy off the winning horse and gathered the sweat off the animal with their hands and spread it across their own bodies.[/caption]
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Naadam "yak jumping"— after a rider was thrown, the yak was expertly lassoed from behind. Berserk yak drags man down steppe without slowing.[/caption]
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Naadam Yak Jumping— nobody lasted more than a couple jumps with each ride ending in a spectacular crash.[/caption]
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Tumersic is the Park's lead ranger, poet and a gifted orator. He is the incorruptible backbone of the rangers and true steward for the land.[/caption]
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Naadam Horse Race— I photographed the race while hanging out of a speeding Land Cruiser that left the ground more than once. Men screamed at the top of their lungs urging on the terrified riders.[/caption]
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Bumming a smoke and asking directions is the typical form of navigation in a country without infrastructure, roads, or road signs. Works well, if you speak Mongolian.[/caption]