No taller than my thigh, the boy with coal-dark eyes swings himself easily onto my white horse. Feet dangling high above the stirrups, he gallops along the shore of a frozen lake, turns, rears and dismounts with a grace that brings to mind his distant ancestors--the Mongol warriors who swept across Asia.
Dang. The only thing that came to mind when I rode was the pressing need for more padding under my duff. But I was happy to be among the few Westerners who have had a taste of Mongolia, the rocky, remote north-central Asian country with few fences and fewer roads--the realm of Genghis Khan and a political tug toy of China and Russia until well into the 20th century. Since the Alaska-size former Soviet satellite gained independence in 1990, it has opened to travelers seeking adventure in breathtakingly pristine country. A dearth of such conveniences as electricity and phones makes Mongolia a challenge, but that's part of the attraction. A growing number of outfitters supply amenities that range from adequate to near opulent for adventures like hiking and fly-fishing in the Altai Mountains, traversing the moonscape of the Gobi Desert by Range Rover and exploring the Flaming Cliffs, one of the world's premier dinosaur-fossil sites, in the company of a paleontologist.
"It's on people's lists," says Simon Moyle, founder of 4th World Adventure, a tour operator based in London. He started the company after falling in love with Mongolia on an independent bike tour. "It's not like Kenya, where people have been there and done that. It's still so distant--not even on this planet. Once you've been to Mongolia, you feel like you've achieved something."
Case in point: four of us have chartered a driver and guide to take us cross-country from the capital, Ulan Bator, to the northwestern Lake Hovsgol in a Swiss Alpine--like region of reindeer herders near the Russian border. Though the trip is scheduled for two days, it takes four to grind over dried-out riverbeds and slog through mud bogs between hills that roll like waves and crest into craggy rock. The land is so empty at times that a mere stand of trees is welcome relief.
The occasional gravel road proves bumpier than the hundreds of dirt paths snaking across the grassy valleys. No road signs and few inhabitants outside the capital mean reliance on other markers. "It's best to follow the telephone lines," our driver says. "They always go someplace"--in our case, straight into a big gold mine where giant earth-digging machines belch fumes and wildcatters pan in acrid ditches. (Mining is Mongolia's most valuable industry, though most Mongolians work in agriculture. Pollution is a problem around Ulan Bator, especially from the burning of soft coal in power plants.)