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The lawless wilderness, whose name loosely translates as "Red Forest," sprawls along the northwestern frontier with Russian Tuva.
Although it was once freely traversed by migratory Tsaatan reindeer herders, who foraged and hunted and grazed their animals there (and dabbled in a little horse rustling and smuggling themselves), Mongolian authorities booted everyone about 30 years ago and declared the region off-limits except by special permit.
This time, I was joining what Sardar called "the most difficult and treacherous expedition in Mongolia."SARDAR SCHEDULED OUR TRIP for the end of July, allowing us to dodge the frenzy for internal flights during the Naadam festival in Ulaan Bator, which celebrates Mongolia's Three Games of Men: horse racing, wrestling, and archery.
We'd also be out of the high country well before it turns into a giant deep freezer.
Cosmopolitan and well-connected, Sardar grew up in privileged circumstances in the Shah's Iran and, after his family fled the 1979 Iranian revolution, in France and the Unites States, attending prep school at Choate Rosemary Hall, in Connecticut.
But in the extremes of Mongolia's outback he's as tough as boot leather. from Harvard in Sanskrit and Tibetan studies and has been a practicing Buddhist for nearly 25 years, pursuing a rigorous tantric discipline called Dzogchen.
He could be a model for Indiana Jones, right down to his beat-up Stetson fedora. Sardar's explorations have taken him to the far corners of Tibet and Mongolia to investigate occult mysteries of Central Asia's supernatural landscapes.
These demanding odysseys have been carried out in the spirit of religious pilgrimages, or what Sardar calls "Buddhist adventures," the idea being to embrace danger and fear as a path to self-awareness.
Inspired by the work of Edward Curtis, who photographed the great tribes of the American West, Sardar is on a mission to make a visual record of Mongolia's nomadic people before they vanish into the 21st century.Mongolia had changed a lot in the 20 years since my last visit.