Crossing Mongolia for Charity
By Tania Millen
Photos by Heidi Telstad
From May to August, 2022, 17 adventurers aged 27 to 70, rode over 3,640 kilometres across Mongolia in 84 days as part of the Blue Wolf Totem Expedition. It was the longest charity ride in recent history and combined exploration, fundraising, and adventure.
Five Canadian riders, including Heidi Telstad, took part in the ride which was organized by Julie Veloo, another Canadian. She’s the founder of the Veloo Foundation which supports impoverished children in Mongolia.
“The expedition wasn’t just about riding from one end of Mongolia to the other and taking the shortest route possible,” says Telstad, an endurance rider based in Langley, British Columbia. “It was about trying to see something special every day.”
“Almost all of the zigzaggy points on the map are a place that somebody on the team had never been,” says Veloo. “We weren’t thinking about the length of the ride [when creating the route], we were thinking about the beauty, about special places to visit.”
Mongolia has extensive human history but many of the country’s historical locations haven’t been researched. So, when planning the trip, Veloo drove around the country asking local people about significant and historical places in their area. She also asked the Mongolians involved in the ride — guides, herders, and their families — what they’d like to see and which areas of the country they’d like to visit. Then she’d research the location and add it to the planned expedition route.
The route of the Blue Wolf Totem Expedition took riders 3,640 kilometres across Mongolia from the southeast to the northeast in 84 days.
Altered Routes and Long Days
“We were supposed to start in the Gobi Desert in southeast Mongolia where it was nice and warm,” says Telstad.
But a few days before the ride started, there was an outbreak of hoof-and-mouth disease, which meant the horses couldn’t be trailered into the Gobi Desert.
“The whole plan went out the window,” Telstad explains. “We had to completely reinvent the first 30 days.”
Subsequently, the trek began just outside Mongolia’s capital city of Ulaanbaatar, where it was still very cold. The horses and riders endured regular snowstorms, wind, and rain during the first weeks of the trek.
Horses waiting out the sandstorm.
“A lot of us weren’t prepared. But Julie had lots of deels — long Mongolian coats — so we were all wrapped up like Starship Troopers,” Telstad says.
The riders had to cover a minimum of 700 kilometres every 14 days, to stay on schedule. “We rode 50 to 80 kilometers a day, depending on whether we got lost or not,” Telstad says.
In addition to the 17 riders there were 15 to 17 support crew including herders, guides, a translator, cooks, drivers, and a doctor. They travelled in three or four vehicles ahead of the riders, behind them, or on different routes altogether. There were also about 40 loose horses so that the riders could swap horses regularly.
Two of the guides and members of the support crew, Munkhjsaikhan (left) and Ryan Kertanis.
“The loose horses got a break [from being ridden] but still did the same mileage,” says Telstad. “However, because we didn’t start where we were supposed to, there wasn’t a lot of forage. Everything was still brown from winter. So, we often took long breaks during the day.”
Everyone woke up at about six in the morning, and while the riders ate breakfast, the guides walked or drove out looking for the horses.
“The horses wandered so far at night trying to find feed that we didn’t get on them until between 10 and noon,” says Telstad. “We wouldn’t have lunch until three or four in the afternoon.”
The long days meant sometimes the support vehicles’ headlights were needed to guide the riders into camp.
“We still had to finish out the miles whether we were tired and exhausted or not,” she explains. “Some days we’d be lucky and everything would work like clockwork, but those days were very few.”
Changing the route on the fly meant that the original camp locations changed, too.
“Sometimes we didn’t meet up [with the support vehicles] where we were supposed to,” she says. “So, our support team would be driving around the countryside trying to find the camp.”
Found mainly in Mongolia and Siberia, deer stones are ancient megaliths carved with symbols depicting flying deer.
Supporting Mongolia’s Poorest
Although the trek was a grand adventure for participants, it also raised over $128,000 US for the Veloo Foundation’s Children of the Peak Sanctuary Project. The project supports 150 children and 250 families who live on and scavenge through Ulaanbaatar’s garbage dump to survive.
A kindergarten, community library, and outdoor playground now provide education, meals, and social interaction for children five days per week, so they’re not left in unheated gers (canvas tents) all day.
“It’s a really disadvantaged neighborhood,” says Telstad who visited the kindergarten along with other trip participants. “The ride was more about raising money for building the school and stocking the library than riding horses.”
“The funds will go towards feeding, caring for, and educating children who would otherwise be scavenging at the garbage dump,” says Veloo. “Some of it will go towards a summer camp for older kids and a youth horse program. Some funds will support ongoing programs — alcohol and child abuse prevention — that make families safer and stronger.”
Raising funds for the children and awareness of the Veloo Foundation’s projects was the main reason Kendle Leitz, a 35-year-old rider from Victoria, BC, did the trek. “It’s a cause I’ve been supporting since Julie started [the project],” says Leitz.
A lunch break with “The Arch Where You Are Reborn” in the background.
Cultural Experiences While Seeking History
The trek was Leitz’s fourth time riding in Mongolia. “I just love the culture and horsemanship, and the respect they have for their horses, livestock, and each other. The people are very genuine,” she says.
“Wherever we went — it didn’t matter how poor or rich the person was — if we knocked on their door, and said, ‘Hey, can we huddle in your ger for an hour and have lunch because we’re really cold?’ people would just let in 17 strangers,” says Telstad. “It’s really neat how warm and welcoming people out on the steppe are to complete strangers.”
The riders also visited many deer stones erected throughout Mongolia.
“They just seem to be a place of recognition, a place that has a lot of energy or spiritual meaning,” says Telstad. “In any other country, they would probably be fenced and protected but [in Mongolia] they’re just out in the middle of nowhere.”
The stones’ histories remain unknown, but it’s understood that the monuments originated in the Bronze Age approximately 3,300 to 1,200 BC. That was when writing, the wheel, and bronze were invented, successfully advancing civilizations beyond the Stone Age.
“Some are burial sites, but the majority are not,” says Telstad. “You can feel the energy of certain ones. The hairs on your arm stand up a little bit — it feels kind of electrical.
“The deer that are carved into the stones look like these big loopy long creatures,” explains Telstad. “There are usually about 10 or so on one deer stone. I wondered how they were carved so many years ago.”
There was present day cultural exchange, too, when the expedition’s horse managers learned about shoeing horses from their countrymen.
Early in the trip, when expedition riders had asked whether Mongolian horses were ever shod, they were told they weren’t. But late in the journey, when the expedition reached northwestern Mongolia, horses at a festival were shod. After the expedition’s horse managers discussed the benefits of shoeing with local farriers, all the expedition horses were shod.
“They just started laying them down because the horses don’t know how to have their feet held up,” says Telstad. “The shoes come in small and medium sizes, and they don’t do a lot of adjustments. It’s not very precise and there’s nothing pretty about it. It’s all about function.”
Above: Heidi Telstad with a local friend, Batsumer.
Horses loaded up and ready to roll.
Resilient Horses and Enthralling Reindeer
The horses were certainly tough.
“When we rode up to see the reindeer on the Russian border, we went through these crazy deep bogs,” says Telstad. “They were up to the horses’ chests, our feet were dragging in the mud, and the horses just hopped through it like it was nothing.
“But everybody has to ride a reindeer once in their life,” Telstad says. “They’re so smooth and gentle. They have this little string wrapped around their antlers and with just a little wiggle of the string, they turn to the left or right or stop or go. It was quite magical.”
“Everybody has to ride a reindeer once in their life,” says Heidi Telstad, who describes them as smooth and gentle to ride, and guided by string wrapped around their antlers.
The horses were supposed to be replaced every two or three weeks but due to the altered schedule that didn’t happen. It was something Telstad and others struggled with.
“[The organizers] were trying really hard to get fresh horses for us but they weren’t successful, especially in the beginning, and the horses were getting tired,” says Telstad.
The ambitious schedule, tired horses, and exhausted riders meant that when the horses tripped in ground-squirrel holes, the riders fell off.
“We had lots of falls,” she says. “It was really stressful. My riding style changed because I was ready for my horse to stumble at any time.” But Telstad was lucky. “I think there were only three of us that never fell off our horses throughout the whole ride,” she says.
Hobbled horses with grain bags. At night the horses wandered far in search of forage, which was scarce.
Broken Bones and Buying a Horse
The expedition’s doctor picked up riders with his vehicle if they were either too tired to ride or had fallen off. One of those riders was Noemie Plante-Nappert, a trail riding guide from Quebec.
“About 1,000 kilometers before the finish line, I got bucked off my horse,” she says. Plante-Nappert was in a lot of pain but continued riding. “When I came back [to Canada], I went to the doctor and I have broken ribs, a broken collarbone, and dislocated shoulder.”
Arlene Rees wasn’t so lucky. She’s a 70-year-old rider from Victoria, who says the expedition was a perfect fit. “I’ve committed my entire life to helping at-risk children, have a lifetime of experience with horses, and an adventurous spirit,” she explains.
But on day 29 of the trek, Rees’ horse nosedived in what she says was “a horrific cold storm” and she fell off, flat on her back. “The ride doctor said ‘You’re not going to be able to ride. You’re going to have to go home,’” says Rees. “He knew I had broken ribs.” Five days later Rees flew home in excruciating pain and subsequent x-rays confirmed broken ribs.
After an unexpected change of route, snowstorms, wind, and rain during the early weeks of the trek caught many riders unprepared.
But Alysha Knoflook, a 33-year-old rider from Ontario, has a different story. She’s ridden since age four and has wanted to ride in Mongolia for a long time. After starting the trek, Knoflook says, “Being able to ride different horses every day was a cool experience. But I really missed riding a horse that I had a connection with.”
Knoflook asked Veloo if she could buy a horse to ride for the whole trip. “Originally it was a joke and then it kind of became a worm in my brain that I couldn’t stop thinking about,” she says. The search began.
“Then, one day [the head herder] showed me a picture of what was probably Mongolia’s only morbidly obese horse,” says Knoflook. She bought him for about $750. “We picked him up along our ride that day and he ended up going about 1,400 kilometers.”
Knoflook named him Blue, after the expedition. At the end of the ride, she donated him to a fundraising auction for the Veloo Foundation where another expedition rider bought him. That rider subsequently donated him to the Veloo Foundation to be used as part of the youth horse program.
A custom-made Mongolian saddle.
Related: Salute to Saddle Makers
A Transformative Adventure
The expedition was life-changing for many.
“When we crossed the 3,600-kilometre mark, we were all really emotional,” says Veloo. “It was an absolutely gorgeous place and people were hooting and hollering, crying and sobbing because it had been such a big challenge.
“People changed in wonderful and inspiring ways,” says Veloo. “[During the ride] we had time to let go of the crap that we don’t normally have time to work through in our life.”
One rider who was wired all the time became very calm. Another is completely changing what she wants to do in life.
Transporting horses across the water by ferry – an audience of birds on the rope keep an eye on what’s happening across the water.
“Almost everybody reached some really inspiring level of Zen,” says Veloo. “By the end of the trip it didn’t really matter what happened. A lot of riders have had a hard time adjusting back to their world because it’s hard to be this mellow in a world that runs on clocks.”
“I learned to let go of control,” says Knoflook. “The universe will provide.”
“The idea that ‘simple is more’ is always going to stick with me,” says Telstad. “Being comfortable with yourself without the desire to be entertained. You can get by with a lot less than you think you need.”
“I suffer from anxiety, but I didn’t have a moment of anxiety when I was on the trip,” says Leitz. “So it made me more aware of living in the moment as opposed to worrying so much about any sort of future.”
Plante-Nappert fell in love with Mongolia and its people and is going back in November. “The trip changed my life.”
For more information on the Veloo Foundation, visit: www.VelooFoundation.com.
Related: Surviving the Gobi Dzud Winter
All photos are by Heidi Telstad.