Editor’s note: This article was published before the coronavirus pandemic, and may not reflect the current situation on the ground.
What do you do when you want to sail 300 kilometers through a landlocked country? For adventurers Falcon Riley and Amber Word, the answer was simple: You grab $200 and you build a land sailing cart.
When adventurer Falcon Riley was sailing across the Pacific in late 2016, traveling from San Francisco to Guam over a span of 18 months, he pondered the idea of an entirely different kind of sailing adventure: A voyage across Mongolia.
Mongolia had fascinated him ever since he was a child and wrote a school report on Genghis Khan. And since sailing a boat in a landlocked country would prove rather tricky, Falcon concluded that land sailing would be the next best thing. “I spent hours on the boat coming up with concepts to make something that could sail on the land,” he explains. “I did some research, but no-one was making anything you could sleep inside.”
When he eventually arrived in Guam in February 2018, he met traveler Amber Word at a dock. The pair became inseparable and, soon after, a couple. And once Falcon relayed his grand land-sailing plan to Amber—who’d similarly felt Mongolia’s pull since she was a teenager—their next adventure was set.
Fast forward to April 2018, and Falcon and Amber find themselves in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. They’re trudging from shop to shop, armed with just a rough sketch of a box-like cart with crudely-drawn tires.
They were looking for materials to build their land sailing cart. The cart needed to be sturdy enough propel the couple across the Mongolian countryside over the course of nearly a month—using nothing but wind power—yet robust enough for them to sleep in and carry their gear. “Amber and I wanted to find a way we could carry ourselves through a landscape while also living there,” says Falcon. “We wanted to create a legitimate home. And like the traditional local gers (semi-permanent tents used for centuries by Mongolia’s nomads), which are made from natural and renewable materials, we wanted our vehicle to be as naturally made and naturally powered as possible.”
Not knowing the Mongolian language didn’t make ticking items off their obscure shopping list any easier. “As you can imagine, the hilarity of some of those cultural interactions cannot possibly be recreated,” says Falcon. They gradually learned the words for plywood (fanyer), screwdriver (khaliv), and other essentials, and eventually—after almost a week of searching—managed to cobble together the materials.
“Some people choose to express themselves with fashion choices—Amber and I chose to build a wooden sailing kart. It’s the same principle.”
They met a carpenter and welder who let them borrow some of his tools and use his shop north of the city—where local carpenters were manufacturing gers for export—to assemble the $200 worth (the couple spent just $900 during their entire time in Mongolia) of plywood, bearings, screws and tires they’ve purchased. “He became our fairy godmother,” says Falcon.
All told, construction of the cart took about three days. The cart was two-and-a-half meters long, just under a meter wide, the mast nearly three meters high, and it would be their home for the weeks to come. They’ll pack in clothing as insulation from the cold, and they’ll sleep on a thin piece of foam. “We had just enough room to sleep shoulder-to-shoulder inside,” Falcon says.
The couple hoped that by traveling in such a fashion—simply, naturally—their values would be evident to anyone they met. “We thought that people would be able to readily grasp what manner of human we were,” says Falcon. “Some people choose to express themselves with fashion choices—Amber and I chose to build a wooden sailing kart. It’s the same principle.”
Cart in tow, Falcon and Amber caught a ride to Ulaanbaatar’s far north to begin their journey. They lacked lights, license plates and other on-road essentials, so they launched their wind-propelled sailing cart from a quiet dirt road. Over the next 46 days, they covered over 300 kilometers—and roughly 70 of those kilometers were navigated on a single windy day.
But sailing didn’t always come so easily. Their vessel, loaded down with food, nearly 100 liters of water, clothing, and everything else needed for an extended trip through the wilds of Mongolia, wasn’t the most aerodynamic of beasts. “When we left Ulaanbaatar, we took enough food for us to live on for six weeks,” explains Falcon. “We wanted to try and avoid towns, and to immerse ourselves in rural culture, but we didn’t know how many people we would find along the way so we had to be prepared.”
“In many ways, the trip itself was an adventure in learning how to trust. We couldn’t plan for everything, yet somehow things seemed to work out.”
In total, their load came in at around 225 kilograms. The cart was too heavy to push when there was no wind, and trying to push against a headwind was utterly futile. But when the breeze picked up, the humble homemade cart flew. At least, until it hit a gopher hole.
Gophers may be little critters, but the holes they dig posed a legitimate risk to the cart’s relatively small wheels, and Falcon and Amber suffered through a number of gopher hole-inflicted crashes during their 300-kilometer journey. Mechanical issues abounded too; at one point, much to the adventurers’ dismay, their front wheel assembly broke. “We were lucky enough to find a guy living in a ger close by,” says Falcon. “He was one of the nicest people we met. He helped us weld it back together and we were back on the road 16 hours later.”
Contrary to their assumptions, Falcon and Amber met a wide range of people along the way—up to 20 a day, they reckon—most of whom were intrigued and perplexed by their very presence. After all, it isn’t often locals would see two foreigners flying towards them on a land sailing cart. It made for a good conversation starter, and many families invited Falcon and Amber into their homes to eat and rest. “Practically every single person we came across stopped and talked to us and wanted to learn about what we were doing,” says Falcon. “Through those exchanges, we learned a great deal about Mongolian culture, and the lives of Mongolian people.”
Inside the gers, the couple were invariably greeted with cookies made of fried dough, tea, noodle soup, meat dumplings, and bone broth. As a way to earn their keep, they helped the families with animal husbandry as best they could, and spent time herding goats, wrangling lambs, mucking stalls, feeding horses, and even butchering some animals.
“The most difficult task of all was trying to coax a mother and baby yak back to a ger,” says Falcon. “It involved carrying the ‘baby’—definitely an understatement, given its size—for a kilometer back to the ger, while keeping a wary eye on the horns of the following mother.”
As well as the various difficulties with their cart and equipment, they also suffered some health maladies along the way. During one crash, Amber slammed into the heavy cart and badly bruised her ribs. She soon contracted bronchitis, and every cough was agonizing. Luckily, the couple encountered a doctor who was able to provide a salve that helped ease her pain.
Amber kept a diary of the adventure on her her Instagram account. She notes that while they went into the trip knowing they couldn’t plan every aspect of it, people would come along at just the right time—be they welders, healers or just friendly, curious locals. “In many ways, the trip itself was an adventure in learning how to trust,” she says. “We couldn’t plan for everything, yet somehow things seemed to work out. It was an incredible way of letting go.”
Kristen Pope is a freelance writer and editor who writes about outdoor adventure, travel, science and wildlife. She is a media member of the Adventure Travel Trade Association and is always planning her next adventure.