Packraft Mongolia – Where Few Tourists Venture, Class II Rapids abound, and the Rivers Run with 3-Liter Bottles of Beer
Photos and story by Gregg Mikolasek, Project Manager at Mongolia Fixers
While Mongolia might be a strange place to first discover packrafting, that’s where I learned. I discovered a river I really wanted to check out (the Delger), but it lay well off the path where most tourists here venture. When I say there’s no infrastructure, I mean there is literally, virtually nothing; you have to bring in everything you need. So I had no way of getting there.
But, a friend from the United Kingdom was doing some consulting for an extreme adventure tour company that wanted to know what was available in Mongolia. I suggested the Delger as a possibility. We borrowed a couple of packrafts, and off we went. My Mongolian accomplice had never rafted and, in fact, did not swim.
Our first trip on the Delger started with being harassed by border guards as we were putting in. While we were talking with them, a full, sealed three-liter plastic bottle of beer came floating down the river from Russia. To this day I still want to thank whoever it was who lost that. We had a good laugh and a toast with everyone and set off, with me promising to save my friend if he got into trouble. For the record, he was a rockstar for a first timer! He only portaged once around a little Class III.
As it turned out, the river was not exciting enough for this company in the UK (pretty sure they were looking for a Class IV-V), but we loved it! Plenty of Class II rapids provided a touch more excitement to keep things interesting, and we found many places to float or paddle where we could just take in the incredible beauty of the place.
After our first trip in 2015, we couldn’t wait to get back and more friends and some clients wanted to join us. Now we’ve purchased six Alpacka packrafts, and this winter will be picking up a few more. Welcome to our Mongolian packrafting guide service.
Why Packrafts? Why Mongolia?
Mongolia is not exactly known for its extensive road network or riverside cafes. The rivers we explore wind through some diverse and remote terrain. We’ve gone days without seeing another human being. It’s also difficult to get support vehicles into certain areas, so packrafts are ideal for being able to transport in necessary supplies.
Weather tends to be unpredictably unpredictable, changing from sunny to story with dime-sized hail within 15 minutes. The breakdown paddles sure come in handy at that point to shield your head! So far, we’ve explored everything from lakes to a few rivers, including the Selenge, the largest river in the country.
I first traveled to Mongolia in 2007 to film a documentary about the first scuba diving to be done in one of the purest bodies of water on the planet. Subsequent trips took me from one adventure to another; I usually ventured off somewhere with a friend to find remote and/or wild spots. Normal tourist areas never interested me.
After sometime, I became more involved with logistics and project management for visiting film crews. Things grew from there. My partners and I gradually figured out how to get things done in a place where it’s quite challenging to get things done. The packrafting, trekking, and mountain biking that our team offers was just a way to unwind in between fixing for film project. However, with more and more people expressing interest in joining us, it became a side of our business we enjoy.
Doing Business in Mongolia
As a business owner, Mongolia is both a wonderful and intensely frustrating place to be. But it’s a land ripe with possibilities, and adventures can take off like wildfire. As an example, though tough to find a decent coffee in the city just a half dozen years ago, you can now throw a rock from one coffee shop to the next. And great ideas take off. But at the same time, you must be prepared to be copied very quickly if you see any degree of success. I like the challenge of working in a true frontier market.
Our clients are usually TV production industry people. In the past few years we’ve worked on documentaries, TV shows, commercials, short films, fashion photo shoots, content for web apps, and several expeditions. In terms of our rafting and other adventure tour clients, that’s a more recent addition.
We certainly don’t do what we do because it’s easy.
Whether it’s a film project or one of our packraft itineraries, the logistical hurdles can be a real nightmare, mainly because we don’t do what’s normal; we don’t trod the beaten path. So we always have a lot to handle behind the scenes with permissions, etc.
We often travel to protected areas, border zones, and, in general, to the middle of nowhere. Thus, we always have to make sure we’re prepared to show the right docs and be ready to help ourselves if we have any problems.
We go to places with no social media or even mobile coverage, where people have no choice but to unplug and hopefully be in the moment in nature. These days, with everyone living there lives through social media and text, this is definitely special. I enjoy being with people when they mentally transition to accepting and enjoying that.