Friday, December 26, 2008

Horsing around in Mongolia

Pam Street joins National Geographic photographer David Edwards on pack trip through “forbidden wild

Express Staff Writer

Pam Street wears a Mongolian hat she picked up last summer in Ulan Batur as she prepares a yurt for the Sun Valley Trekking Co. Photo by Willy Cook

Former ski racer and Sun Valley native Pam Street practiced the skills necessary for surviving in the Idaho backcountry while guiding skiers and trekkers to isolated winter camps in the mountains around Sun Valley.

Her wilderness experience came in handy last summer when she was asked to join National Geographic photographer David Edwards on a three-week horse-packing trip to one of the most sparsely populated regions on earth—western Mongolia.

"The government owns all the land in Mongolia, but nomads can move anywhere they want for as long as they want, except for the forbidden areas," said Street, who cooked meals for nine riders as they explored the peaks and valleys of the Altai Mountains.

Street was born in the Sun Valley Lodge back when it housed a hospital. Her mother worked as a nurse for Dr. John Moritz and her father was head pastry chef for Sun Valley for 24 years.

Street had a successful ski racing career, winning a place on the junior national and national ski teams and eventually qualifying for the National Olympic Training Team. After a year racing in Europe, she returned to the Wood River Valley and raised three kids. For 18 years she has worked guiding and skiing in the Idaho backcountry, for Bob Jonas and then Sun Valley Trekking Co.

A few years ago Street was introduced to Edwards by Hailey resident and high school Spanish teacher Matt Wells, Edwards' partner in "First Contacts," a horse-trekking company specializing in trips to Mongolia.

Like Idaho, Mongolia is a prime destination for those in search of wide-open spaces. There are sheep, wolves, cattle and elk there, but also Yaks, ibex, shaggy Bactrian camels and the occasional snow leopard.

"A horse rider in Mongolia could travel a distance equivalent to the distance between Washington, D.C., and Colorado without ever getting out of the saddle to open a gate," said Edwards, who has led several expeditions to the region, photographing tribal Kazakh falconers and indigenous shamans.

On this, his most recent expedition, he traveled to a part of the Bayan-Olgiy Province on the Chinese border, officially designated a "Forbidden Wilderness."

The area is protected from grazing and hunting by the Mongolian government and usually off limits to Mongolians and Westerners alike.

The group flew into Ulan Bator, the largest city in Mongolia (population 1 million), where Street saw a mix of modern and Third World amenities.

"There were construction cranes and skyscrapers everywhere, but no sidewalks, very little water and no landscaping," she said. "The manhole covers had been stolen for scrap iron, leaving holes in the street."

Street befriended a 10-year-old street singer and visited a ger (yurt) factory in Ulan Bator, then visited a Tibetan monastery in the hills above the city. She said the black market on the outskirts of town was the best place to find good deals on supplies.

"Mongolian women wear high heels, jewelry and make-up in the city," she said. "Once you get out in the country they are wearing traditional felted-wool dells (long embroidered robes).

After flying two hours west to the town of Ulgii, near the border of China, the group loaded into jeeps for an eight-hour drive to an outpost where Mongolian soldiers lived with their families in portable gers, the homes of choice for Mongolian nomads for centuries.

They were far from town, but not necessarily out of touch with civilization.

"Each of the gers was outfitted with solar panels and satellite dishes," Street said.

The explorers then loaded a string of small, sure-footed horses for a 19-day ride over rocky terrain, forest and rolling hills of knee-high grass. Three Mongolian soldiers escorted the group. Soldiers regularly patrol the area for poachers and intruding Chinese.

Edwards' group was the first non-Mongolian group allowed to explore this area, which had many plant species familiar to Street, including edible berries.

"Pam made some great dishes with what she found along the way," Edwards said.

Though the area is known to have large herds of deer and elk, Edwards found hills and valleys nearly absent of animal life, perhaps due to poaching.

At one point in the journey, the Mongolian soldiers who accompanied Edwards' group encountered a Chinese military commander and his family fishing in the Bayan Ulgii, and kindly asked them to leave the area.

"There should have been 200 or more elk and deer in this area," Edwards said. "We only saw a couple."

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