Notes From The Upper Onon: Getting Lost And Found in Mongolia

Jul 11


The Onon River, or “Mother Onon” as the locals call her, was everything we could have imagined… And more.

It was amazing to watch the river change from it’s headwaters, paddling smoothly 500 kilometers to the Russian border. So much nuance—new plants, birds, animals, weather, ever-changing landscapes and more and more and more water. As we left the most remote part of the journey on the upper section, 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.

Yet again they took amazing care of us, brought us our resupply food bag, and took us to a Mongolian horse race and wrestling match… an entirely different amazing story that I will tell you all sometime. Until then, here’s a photo…


Then we continued on another couple of weeks through more incredible country—huge towering cliffs, shifting moody skies and a whole lot of beautiful 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. Any who have been in a lightning storm with me know how I feel about being anywhere near it. I love to watch it 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, we were so happy to have our heart rates come down to something near normal again!


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. But somehow we found it, by pure intuition of course. We were within two kilometers of the Russian border, looking at Russia across the river, and all the things we had been told about the takeout (local family on river right, 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… absolute magic. 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.

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 drug me out onto the grasslands away from the Ger and the sleeping family, and I heaved everything I had onto the steppe… over and over and over again. 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 think that is the sickiest I have ever been… and that says a lot with my habit of eating sketchy food in the developing world. 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, 2 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, 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.


    LOL!!! The wrestling outfits are adorably awesome! I think they shave their legs for it :)

  • saylor

    Love getting the updates ladies. Thinking about you more than you know. Love you all… Saylor

  • Carol in Alaska

    This is Carol, your Anchorage connection. Your posts and photos are fantastic, I am so enjoying this blog! And hoping I can be of assistance as you make your way to and beyond Alaska. Just let me know when the time is near.

  • pat

    Good on ya ladies! glad the mongolia portion of your journey went well, and was enjoyed so much (‘cept for the airag!). you definitely should be proud of your accomplishment- Mongolia can be a hard place… thanks for sharing the beautiful images and amusing and inspiring experiences- good luck downstream!

  • familydennis

    Wade says, “Ger, do they live with bears?”

  • Peter Fong

    Congratulations on completing the first part of the journey! And very, very glad to hear that the river was good to you. Looking forward to more stories . . .

    • Amber

      Thanks Peter! You all are so very lucky to spend as much time as you do out there! What an incredible place.