Not everyone has the urge to go on a months-long trips to different countries, but one local traveler did just that earlier this year.
Duvall’s Lynnea Zuniga recently returned from a five-month journey into and across Mongolia. She made it through several landscapes and provinces in the country, all between May and September.
A trip like that was made possible through experience. This wasn’t her first long-term, long-distance travel. Zuniga said she grew up adventuring in the back woods of Duvall, dirt biking and horse riding. Being so close to the outdoors and away from some of the larger urban areas informed her personal interests when she went to Northwest University where she studied environmental science, international development and sustainable agriculture.
When she was 17, Zuniga went on her first trip to the island of New Guinea, where she lived with two native tribes. A few years later she completed a solo bike tour from Hungary to Germany and Switzerland. Her experience travelling inspired her to keep finding new places. Traveling to Mongolia, however, was recommended to her by a friend.
“One of my good friends said in passing ‘wouldn’t it be amazing to ride a horse across Mongolia?’ and from that instant I knew that I was going to do it some day,” she said.
In 2015, she began research and preparation into traveling Mongolia, and used the time to save up some money to fund her trip. In her research she came across a subculture of long-distance equestrian exploration, The Long Riders’ Guild. The group provided her with resources and access to other riders who had done similar trips across the country. After asking questions and finishing her research, Zuniga left for Mongolia in May.
On her flight into Ulaanbaatar, the capital city of Mongolia, Zuniga spoke with the woman sitting next to her and they discussed her upcoming journey. When Zuniga told the woman she didn’t have any plans on where to stay once she arrived, the woman offered to house her.
“She said you are coming home with me,” she said. “She took me home and I ended up living with her for two weeks and we became really close. This was my introduction to Mongolian culture.”
Mongolian culture, she found out, was incredibly friendly and hospitable. During her time in the city, she went to work with a local guiding company for two week to get used to the horses. As someone who could speak English, she helped with their horseback trips for tourists.
It was at this company that she met Tamar Valkinier, a Dutch traveler who had planned a similar trip to ride across the country. The two quickly became friends and after working at the guiding company they left together to start their journey near the Altai mountain range.
After a three-day bus trip to the city of Olgii where they were able to buy some more gear, the pair needed to get horses and camels to begin their trip.
“No one in the west uses horses as pack animals, they ride horses, but they never pack equipment on them, they use their camels for that,” Zuniga said.
They spent some time with a man named Dalaikhan, who helped them acquire horses and set them on their way.
“He kind of adopted us and we still feel like he is family. He took us in immediately and taught us the traditional way of packing the camels,” she said.
After a month and a half in Mongolia, Zuniga finally began her journey across the country. The duo started in the southern section of the west region and traversed the Altai Mountains up all the way to the Northwest corner of Mongolia. From there, they traveled Northeast, and back South again to the Yamat Valley.
“It’s a very diverse landscape, sometimes we were walking through deserts and we wouldn’t know when we would find water, sometimes we were wading through grass that was taller than our camels,” she said. “Most of Western Mongolia is at elevation 9,000 feet or above, so it’s all alpine.”
One of her most memorable stories came from a dangerous encounter. Zuniga said she and Valkinier tried to take a shortcut over a mountain, but found themselves wading through a dangerously deep alpine swamp in a boulder field.
“Any time we stepped in between you sunk three feet in mud. Our camels had such a hard time,” she said. “It took us eight hours to go less than a mile, it was rough.”
Zuniga was worried that the animals could have been injured or killed, but the group was able to pull through in the end without any injuries.
They traveled for months before Zuniga’s travel visa had run to its limit and it was time to return home.
One of the biggest things she learned from her trip was that, despite some friends and family worrying about her safety during the trip, she found every person she met to be kind and helpful.
“One of the biggest take-aways for me is reflecting on the idea that people are really scared of people. When I went on this trip everyone was really worried for me. Mongolians said the same things ‘you can’t do it, it’s dangerous,’” she said. “But I felt 100 percent safe the entire time.”
Now that she has returned to Duvall, life goes back to normal. But Zuniga is planning to travel again, possibly back to Mongolia, and hopes that she may be able to support her work by writing about her travels professionally.
“Dalaikhan, he has this dream of going to India to see the monkeys,” she said. “So I think I’d like to go with him to ride to India.”