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Nobody’s River Navigates the Amur, the Onon and Cultural Class V in the Wild East
Posted on October 14, 2013

When the women from Nobody’s River set off to paddle the Amur and the Onon—the world’s third-longest free-flowing river system—through the vast heart of the Russian Far East and the Mongolian wilderness, we sent them gear and wished them luck. It was a bold undertaking for four Western women to journey through 5,000 kilometers of foreign lands and descend 900 kilometers of confusing, braided channels with only outdated Soviet-era maps and  serious motivation. We knew it would be a Nat-Geo-caliber adventure, but they dropped into a story of magnitude few of us will ever experience, and found the edge of the map at the ends of the earth. Their report details what it was like for them to discover soul-shaking rivers, vast, untouched wilderness, and cultural class V in the wild, untamed East. —LYA Editor

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Words by Amber Valenti, Images by Amber Valenti and Krystle Wright

We watched in awe, unsure if we should stare or turn away. It was an incredible display of the old wisdom that has long been lost in our culture—a raw visceral act. There was a hammer to the head, the slicing of the spinal cord, and the butchering of this little brown goat from the inside out with nothing more than a dull knife. Then the loose skin was loaded with hot rocks, freshly butchered meat, and potatoes—a nomadic pressure cooker of sorts.

We had only left the city of Ulan Bator that morning. And 12 bumpy hours later, we were sharing a meal with Mongolian nomads in this idyllic village. I knew Mongolia was no place for vegetarians. But participating in the killing and cooking of a goat in its own skin was another level completely—the type of experience we began to call “cultural class V” after that night.

When they sliced open the bloated goat belly, steam billowed out. We looked across the fire at the proud faces of the four Mongolian horsemen who would pack us into the Onon River headwaters. This trip was a big deal for them too. We would delve into some deep wilderness in the days ahead. And this was our send-off. The blood-stained hands of one broad smiling man handed me the first offering. I laughed at the irony and briefly imagined the intestinal hell that might await me. But my love of foreign food and bizarre cultural experiences got the best of me. I dug in without hesitation to some of the best greasy meat of my life.

We pitched our tent amidst red-roofed Russian log cabins, traditional Mongolian yurts (gers), bleating goats, and a gentle mountain landscape reminiscent of Idaho. The sun melted into the horizon in familiar soft shades of orange, pink, and indigo. And we fell asleep dreaming of the Onon River and the adventures that lay ahead. This place already felt very remote and we had days of travel ahead to just make it to the river. With recent heavy rains, no one knew if we would even be able to make it to the headwaters on packhorses, let alone paddle the river. Everything was unknown.

Most adventurers dream of climbing big mountains, dropping waterfalls, or skiing the steep and deep. I am not a talented athlete or wild risktaker. But I dream of falling off the map. And that is exactly how we found ourselves, four Western women, lost in the middle of the Far East on one of the wildest rivers left on our planet. In a world where the wilderness is shrinking, ice caps are melting, species are dwindling, and getting off the map is increasingly difficult, we found our own last-of-its-kind adventure.

We wanted to travel and document the length of the Amur River. The Amur and its Onon River headwaters comprise the 3rd longest free-flowing river left on this planet. It stands as a fleeting example of what rivers do when largely unaltered by human construction. And it also claims the title as the most bio-diverse watershed in all of Asia. It supports stunning species such as Amur leopards, Siberian tigers, red-crowned cranes, the prized freshwater taimen, and wild ginseng. When we first learned about this watershed, it blew our minds that so few people know anything about it. So we set out to change that.

What ensued was the most serendipitous and unusual journey of our lives across Mongolia and the Russian Far East, linked by epic Trans-Siberian train travel.

We slogged for three days on makeshift saddles through marshes and deep creeks with our team of four horsepackers, thirteen horses, one translator, and the four of us. When we finally saw her, set against the broad valleys of the Khan Khentii, no one said a word. We understood instantly why locals called this beautiful, peaceful river Mother Onon.

We paddled 22 days and 500 kilometers across wild Mongolia and the largest grasslands in the world. We watched the river change its beautiful nuance from the headwaters to the Russian border. The upper section of the river was a dream of stunning wilderness—double rainbows, bear prints everywhere, vast expanses of untouched forests, and a perfect, beautiful river that flowed through it all. We found not a single sign that humanity ever existed. The place was absolute magic—the soul-shaking kind. The lower section took us through less remote, though equally stunning country—huge towering cliffs, grasslands, shifting moody skies, and a whole lot of beautiful silence. Then all at once we were looking at Russia across the river.

We returned to Ulan Bator and changed gears completely. We began a different kind of adventure: traveling by Trans-Siberian railway across southern Siberia with an expedition’s worth of gear. It took nearly ten days, with a few short stops in between. And though we became more adept at “sneaking” onto trains with all our luggage while the train matrons cursed us, each load and unload was an epic adventure all its own.

It was a relief to finally land in Khabarovsk, the Amur River city where we began our river journey again. We launched in the industrial heart of Khabarovsk with the plan to paddle 400 kilometers to the town of Komsomolsk. We paddled nine indescribable days through the impossibly large and braided channels of the lower Amur River. This river stretches six kilometers wide in parts with hundreds of kilometers of floodplains and wetlands around it—unfathomable size, even when you are amidst it. It flew by in a whirl of wind, water, incessant bugs, insanity-inducing itching, 4 a.m. wake-up calls, 50- kilometer paddles, sleep deprivation, humid swamp living, perfect glassy mornings on the water, constant navigational confusion through braided channels, and sheer exhaustion.

Some 5,000 kilometers and two months down the line, we did finally reach the Sea of Okhotsk and the Amur River delta—by nearly every means of transportation you can imagine.  And as we touched those Pacific Ocean waters, I felt equally grateful and relieved to be at the end of this long, bizarre journey.

This trip was not our typical adventure—the kind punctuated with daily adrenaline.  It was endurance and daily struggle. Quiet, peaceful paddles. Awe and beauty. Sadness and raw reality. It was punctuated instead by outdated Soviet-era maps, raging monsoon storms, wild Mongolian ponies, the unexpected kindness of a Russian military officer, and the buzzing aliveness of the impossibly large and braided lower Amur River. These seemingly peripheral details are the real story—the faces we connect with, the hands we hold, the fears we overcome, the joy that explodes and transforms us. Adventure is only context. Expanding and learning about the world and ourselves is the real story. This is the reason we go. The reason we keep struggling. And the reason we should never stop finding the edges of our own maps.

Pick up the Eddie Bauer First Ascent duffels that transported the Nobody’s River expedition here.

Author: - Monday, October 14th, 2013
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