This Is the Ultimate Trip to Mongolia

This Is the Ultimate Trip to Mongolia

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Local herder children compete in a horse race at Mongke Tengri.
Local herder children compete in a horse race at Mongke Tengri.

On the vast, remote steppe of central Mongolia, an unlikely adventure camp has been created by an equally improbable visionary. Welcome to Mongke Tengri.

I first heard about Christopher Giercke from my uncle, who lives in Gascony, not far from the birthplace of D’Artagnan, the fourth of the Three Musketeers. Hence the name of Giercke’s second son, who was born in 1997 while the family was staying with my uncle. It seemed deliciously eccentric to me—naming a son D’Artagnan—until I met Giercke myself, and realized that a predilection for fantastical worlds (and names) was just one aspect of a man who lives far beyond the boundaries of convention.

Giercke is German, though by now only nominally so. He spends most of the year in Kathmandu. From June to October, he relocates from Nepal to a camp on the Mongolian steppe, traveling lightly between the two with a beat-up canvas-and-leather tote. His library includes books on Tibetan Buddhism, Sanskrit, paleontology, and the history of perception. He smokes Cuban Robusto Cohibas. His hat is a white panama from Borsalino. He wears only two outfits: One is a bespoke black linen suit—long frock coat, plus fours—with purple silk buttonholes and purple lining. The other, worn on special occasions, is the same but in white.

How he ended up in this part of the world is all the more curious. Giercke was a child actor in mid-century East Berlin, and later, in exile, a film producer (he worked on Apocalypse Now and produced Cocaine Cowboys, featuring Andy Warhol). In 1993, while scouting film locations on the Central Asian steppe, he fell in love with a young Mongolian woman named Enkhtsetseg Sanjaardorj and married her two years later. Relinquishing his peripatetic life in the movie business to raise their three children—Ich Tenger, now 20; D’Artagnan, 18; and Kristina-­Alegra, 11—Giercke changed careers again to become a “precious-wool hunter” (his description), deriving most of his income from Mongolian cashmere. The wool is hand-spun, -woven, and -dyed in Nepal, and the finished products—scarves, blankets, coats, dressing gowns—are delivered to his principal client, Hermès. Wearing Giercke’s cashmere is the closest approximation to being dressed in clouds. “I’m working on an endless thread,” he once told me. “Technically, it is possible,” he added, as if I might question the notion of infinity.

Mongolia’s seemingly limitless expanses suit Giercke. He prefers “to live in big spaces, with the universe above me. I like to say aloud what I’m thinking and shout it into the Milky Way. Only then do one’s thoughts—which might seem rather good at the time—begin to feel overwhelmingly tiny.”

Mongke Tengri, Giercke’s seasonal camp, sits within Mongolia’s Orkhon National Park, 200 miles west of Ulaanbaatar. I first visited in 2001, when the camp was raw and wild and fueled by moonshine vodka, buckets of caviar, and a rotating set of glamorous adventurers—from the art patron Francesca von Habsburg to Hamid Sardar-Afkhami, a formidable Sanskrit and Tibetan studies scholar of Iranian descent.

Back then, the camp was open only to friends and friends of friends—and Giercke certainly has plenty of those. But starting last summer, for the first time in Mongke Tengri’s 20-year history, he decided to open the guest list beyond his social circle, to both individual travelers and groups who would book up the camp exclusively. Furthermore, 30 percent of earnings would now go toward supporting local education, as well as Giercke’s long-standing vision of bringing polo back to the steppe.

Christopher Giercke in the camp library.
Christopher Giercke in the camp library.

Mongolia is, of course, a culture inextricably linked to horses. “Herder children can ride before they can walk,” Giercke told me. “Nearly every Mongolian child still living on the steppe, however poor, has a string of ponies.” His polo dream was not about European elites foisting a newfangled sport on the locals but about restoring deep-rooted social traditions. “Eight hundred years ago, a form of polo was used as a training game for the Mongol cavalry,” he noted. “I’ve always felt Mongolia needs to hold on to that part of its history—and to compete in polo on the world stage.” Since its inception in 1996, the Genghis Khan Polo Club, founded by Giercke and based a few hundred yards down the hill from Mongke Tengri, has trained some 400 children. Youth teams have competed in Singapore, Thailand, China, Korea, India, France, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. (In 2014, the Mongolian team beat Harvard.) “You just have to watch the children play,” Giercke said, “to see the determination and horsemanship that once made Mongolia’s cavalry the most powerful on earth. With an army of just 100,000, the Mongols ruled over territory equal to the size of North and South America combined.”

Last August I returned to Mongke Tengri, joined this time by my sons, aged 11 and 8. We flew 12 hours from London via Frankfurt to Ulaanbaatar, where we paused for a night at the gleaming new ­Shangri-La Hotel, an emblem of the astonishing new wealth, mainly derived from minerals, now swirling around the capital. From there it was a five-hour drive west, on new asphalt roads, to Giercke’s camp in the Orkhon Valley. Along the way we passed Rashaant, known locally as Cosmos, after the town’s most famous son: a herder turned cosmonaut named Jügderdemidiin Gürragchaa, who in 1981 made history as the first Mongolian in space.

Fifty miles on, we took in the ruins of Karakorum. The boys knew the stories—how, starting in 1220, Karakorum was the center of Gen­ghis Khan’s Great Mongol State, which stretched at its height from the Yellow Sea to the gates of Vienna; how, in the 1260s, Kublai Khan, Genghis’s grandson, moved the capital to Dadu, present-day Beijing. Like most kids, my sons gaped at the horrors of the genocide without absorbing the numbers: tens of millions wiped out by the Mongol rampage across Central and North Asia, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe. Nor did they appreciate the more benevolent side of Genghis and his descendants: In 1234, Karakorum was described by a French missionary as one of the most religiously tolerant cities of its time, with 12 Buddhist and Taoist temples, two mosques, and a Christian church all thriving within its walls. (Meanwhile, across Asia and Europe, the Crusaders were waging a holy war.) The Mongols may have had a penchant for impaling heads on stakes, but their violence was motivated by secular dominion, not religious zealotry.

Fathoming these contradictions from the ruins of Karakorum proved an imaginative leap too great for my children. All that was left was a run of whitewashed stupas, a small museum, and the 400-year-old monastery of Erdene Zuu, once home to several thousand monks, now dwindled to about 60. But today it was dead quiet: no music, no blowing of conch horns, just whistling wind and the bleating of goats.

I felt my sons’ excitement collapse. To them, the one thing worth traveling here for—all the glory and drama of Mongol legend—had been swallowed up by a sea of grass. We’d been driving across open steppe for the better part of a day, and the landscape kept rolling out ahead of us. I worried that perhaps this trip was a mistake—that I’d pushed their limits of inquiry, that the poetry of lost kingdoms didn’t move my children the way it moved me.

Then we passed over a high ridge crenellated with rocks, and all at once, like a grand piece of theater, Giercke’s world opened up.

Guests arrive at Mongke Tengri.
Guests arrive at Mongke Tengri.

Beneath us spread a wide plateau cupped by mountains fringed in willow, larch, and pine. A silver river threaded through the Orkhon Valley. In the distance, a dozen horses charged across a bowl of grass; in the honeyed light of late afternoon, the dust thrown up by galloping hooves was as delicate as plumes of pollen. At the valley’s heart sat Giercke’s camp: a cluster of round tents, or gers, on the bright-green steppe, like mushrooms that had popped up after rain.

We dropped down from the ridge and traced a rough track to the edge of the camp. Giercke, who had traveled with us in convoy from Ulaanbaatar, emerged from the first car clad in his usual ensemble—the black one. A gaggle of herder children came running toward us. Giercke stood amid the throng like the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Over the children’s heads he passed us a welcome drink: fermented mare’s milk—an unpleasant beverage I recall pretending to like before—in hand-carved bowls of maplewood and beaten silver.

Tsogt Tsede, the camp’s archery master, lifted my youngest son into the air. I remembered Tsede from my last visit: a bear of a man, and a Buryat Mongol (Buryats claim they are descended from Genghis), he was also a Paris-trained opera singer with a habit of breaking into song after dinner. The boys noticed a row of mountain bikes across the field and a line of kayaks on the riverbank, and they scampered off in their excitement, only to be reprimanded for running over what looked like piles of stones. “Those,” Giercke informed them, “are actually 4,000-year-old tombs.”

In the distance I heard music—the tinkling of a piano coming from the largest ger, above the river. And so it happened: Giercke’s beautiful vision that I had remembered from last time started to come alive again, although now everything was somehow brighter, more colorful than before, with our arrival heralded by a retinue of 30 staff, all dressed in embroidered silks and wools.

“It’s like a movie,” I remarked.

Giercke fixed me with a hard stare. “Fiction makes me angry,” he replied. “There’s no need to make it up.”

Then I noticed the half-smile creasing his eyes, and recognized an unspoken irony: This was the man who named his son after a character in a Dumas novel.