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I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote

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Editor's Pick

Oct 18, 2017

BioLite: Changing the World with a Stove

BioLite Energy, a startup based in NYC, is on a mission to “bring energy everywhere”.

WRITTEN BY

Himraj Soin

Transforming the way people cook, charge, and light their lives off the grid, they develop and manufacture sustainable energy products for the outdoor recreational industry, as well as for emerging markets.

I walk into a quirky, hipster, quintessential Brooklyn building. I take a quirky, hipster elevator to a quirky, hipster office. This is Brooklyn, the air smells like fair trade organic coffee and kale. I’m here to interview the founder of BioLite Energy, an impressive company doing impressive things. His name is Jonathan Cedar, and he looks young. Dressed in shorts, a t-shirt, and Chacos, he seems to be the Casual Executive Officer. The office is massive, with an open space work plan. Jonathan doesn’t have a separate office—he shares a table with other co-workers. We sit down and he tells me his story.

The company was started by founders Jonathan and Alex, who were frustrated with the fact that almost all camping stoves required the use of fossil fuels. They had an idea to create a wood-burning stove that used thermoelectrics to create a smokeless fire. In 2008, they took their prototype to a combustion conference. This is when they learned they were onto something big, something capable of great change.

While there are other similar systems out there like Goal Zero’s solar panels and Jetboil’s (gas) stoves (both extremely commendable companies), Biolite’s mission, as well as their combination of cook, charge, and light is what makes them stand apart. Goal Zero helps with underdeveloped communities in Africa and provides them with charging solutions, as well as ways to lift themselves out of poverty. The Himalayan Stove Project is an organization that has a very similar mission to Biolite’s—to help reduce air pollution and to save lives by distributing clean cookstoves. An all-volunteer organization, it is based out of Nepal.

Half the planet lives in energy poverty, lacking safe and reliable ways to cook, charge, and light their lives; three billion people cook over smoky open fires every day, leading to 4 million premature deaths annually. These alarming numbers led Jonathan and Alex to create a business that provided safe and affordable energy to underdeveloped communities across the world—for those who needed it most.

TOJ: How did it all begin?

The Origin Story

JC: Half the planet lives in energy poverty, lacking safe and reliable ways to cook, charge, and light their lives; three billion people cook over smoky open fires every day, leading to 4 million premature deaths annually. These alarming numbers led us to create a business that provided safe and affordable energy to underdeveloped communities across the world—for those who needed it most.

I guess for me BioLite is a combination of many things that I’ve been interested in for a long time. I’ve always loved the outdoors ever since I was kid. I studied Engineering and Environmental Science in college. I was really into how energy sat at the intersection of a big engineering need but also a huge environmental impact. I was always curious about that. After college, I worked as an outdoor educator for a couple of years. I topped the engineering program for an oceanographic research program for college students. So I spent two years on ships in the Atlantic and the Pacific.

About two years into that, I read a book about product design and thought, wow, I’d really love to become a product designer. It was surprising to me that in my engineering studies, so much of what we did as projects for classes were product design problems but no one talked about product design as a profession. I was reading a book from the founder of a design firm called “Ideo” and it just made a lot of sense. I love solving these problems that you can hold in your hands and you can really feel like you understand the impact of your work on a fairly short timeline.

And so I went to work for a design firm in New York called Smart design. I spent about five years there helping companies basically invent new product lines for their businesses. I don’t know if you remember the flip video cameras—those one-button video cameras—we did the design work for those. We did a lot of work for a company called Oxo—they do ergonomic household products and helped them invent a line of office equipment—like reinventing the stapler and the scissor. We also helped them invent a line of juvenile products—like a high chair that transforms as your child grows. So instead of keeping it for six months and throwing it away, it works as a piece of furniture for five years. And so, it was a great experience in Design Process and also Design for manufacture. We helped our clients take things all the way from concept to manufacturing.

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TOJ: How did you come up with the stove?

The Idea

JC: It was at Smart Design that I met my co-founder Alex. He was a model maker in the model shop for the firm and was just an incredibly skilled craftsman. Really, this all started because I was excited to spend time with him learning his hands-on trade skills. He was also a pretty outdoorsy guy and so we talked a lot about skiing and backpacking. His brother had given him this tiny wood burning stove that used a battery powered fan. We just thought it was a very cool thing—but the product was really badly made. It didn’t really deliver on the promise but we loved the idea that instead of carrying petroleum with you camping, you could just find sticks and burn them and use a fan to promote better combustion. So we started thinking about how we could do that better. We knew we wanted to get rid of the batteries—so that it was truly an off-grid energy device. The combustion was okay from this thing but we read about these processes called wood gasification where if you heat the wood in a very particular way and blow oxygen in the fire you could cause it to burn like gas instead of a  smoky wood fire. So we spent about two years trying to put those concepts together. At the time it was really just for us as campers and engineers, maybe with a little bit of an environmental bend because it was nice not to be using petroleum fuels but just natural wood. And about two years into working on this, we took our prototype to an advanced wood combustion conference in 2008, and that’s where we were introduced to the fact that half the planet was still cooking on these smokey open fires. 

And the smoke from those fires was killing more people than HIV, TB, and malaria combined. There were no good technologies to address this—you think about how much work was done to address malaria with bed nets or HIV with retrovirals. There’s so much good work being done in technology for health. No-one really even knows that this is a problem. At least, no-one in the US was talking about it. And so, at the same time, we won the award for the cleanest stove they’d ever seen (which was kind of an accident but a happy one). We had this moment where we said, wow, maybe what we’re working on for the US may be beneficial for a much higher need for customers. It was that point in 2008 when we kind of decided that we would make this our business to try and create these stoves for rural communities. We knew it was going to take a long time to solve the needs of 3 billion people. Especially because, these are people with not a lot of money in hard to reach places, without well-developed retail networks. So if you looked at all that together, sure we had a really good technology, but all these other pieces were going to take a long time to build to a sustainable scale.

TOJ: How did you get into emerging markets?

The Stove

JC: “What if we build the camping product we originally set out to build and we used the revenue from that to reinvest in taking the rural markets to a scale that they could sustain themselves? We weren’t trying to be dependant on philanthropy because, sometimes people are interested in spending their philanthropy dollars here and the next minute, they’re interested in something else. It didn’t feel like that was the way to solve the needs of a few billion people. Whereas if we could really focus on market-based methods, understand how much value we could deliver to the end user, and work within the context of the market, we felt like if we could get that model right, then it could scale organically to reach a lot of people. A recreation business could give us the time and resources to do that whole incubation. And so that was the idea for the business. In 2009, I quit my job and moved to California and started working with academic communities that were doing technology for development. I also got accepted into a Mumbai based incubator called Dasra. I was the only non-Indian in the program which was great for me because the whole idea was to learn about the market, all with social businesses trying to serve the rural poor. So I spent a year and a half partly in this incubator, partly in this academic community in California, writing a more detailed business model for the company and getting to know our customers. I was spending more time in the village, showing them prototypes, and trying to understand what the distribution networks might look like for the product like this—how much people would pay for it and what kinds of food people cook. For example, it’s very different to cook chappatis then it is to boil rice. The stove had to operate differently to do both of those things.

At the end of a year and a half, I thought I had enough info to really start the business—we raised some money from some VCs and we got started. In 2012, we launched our first camping market product and it was a phenomenal success. We sold them just through our website—we thought we would sell a few 1000 of them and we sold 30,000 in the first 6 months. We didn’t pay for any marketing or advertising—it just sort of happened via word of mouth which spread quickly about the company. It was pretty amazing, by the beginning of 2013, REI had picked us up and did a huge marketing campaign for the company. We had orders coming in from 40 different companies (on the website), just through e-commerce. And by the end of 2013, we were probably in 50-60 countries with retail representation. And so the business was off to a really good start and that idea of having a strong enough recreational business that we could move capital into the emerging markets was really kind of playing out.

At the same time, we were refining our technology for the product we called the HomeStove, and so we spent from 2011 to 2013 getting that product right—it went through four major generations of prototypes and market tests. Finally in 2013, we took the product to market in Orissa, India. With a partner called Greenlight Planet, a solar lighting manufacturer and distributor, they ran a network of 7000 rural sales agents (not just in Orissa but across most of Northeast India—operating in five, six states). And then in Uganda with more of a traveling-road-show-market kind of approach. We learned a huge amount about how much people were willing to pay for the product, how they were using it, which features were working well and which could be improved but fundamentally, what we saw was great—people were excited to pay for a product that basically delivered LPG like cooking but at a very small fraction of the cost. And that was kind of the value proposition for our rural customers—save time and money collecting fuel, save a lot of time cooking since the stove is a lot more efficient, and have this aspirational quality that feels like LPG. Well up until the recent LPG schemes, it’s been really inaccessible to even low-income customers, even with subsidies. And so we could be this aspirational choice, but at a cost that was more similar to a cellphone than what you’d pay for an LPG connection. And so, I guess that’s kind of the origin story.

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TOJ: How do people in emerging communities afford this product? 

Very nice, how much? 

JC: We sell the stoves for a little over $50. One of the things that we’ve learned is that people love the product—that’s the great thing, we care about health, everyone cares about health, but when you have very little income, you don’t necessarily spend for health. Our customers are definitely not spending for climate change. Even we don’t spend for climate change. So really the customers are purchasing based on averted fuel costs, convenience of electricity, and access to charging mobiles—so you don’t have to walk to town to have to charge. Also the aspirational value—feeling you’re moving up the energy ladder as a family. We also found that most of our customers needed some amount of consumer financing and so we shifted our sales model and started to partner with microfinance organizations who can provide the loan capital to the end user. We work with a group called Fullerton, our main partner right now. Those are the guys who have the rural agent networks and who can do the collections, and the credit assessments of the end users. What we do is we work alongside with their existing loan operations and help bring a durable goods product portfolio to their network. And that’s something that the solar lighting industry has done a really good job of demonstrating. That’s largely our model for distribution now, not just in India but in Kenya and Uganda as well.

TOJ: How did you explain the concept to rural communities?

It’s all about flipcharts.

JC: We train the BioLite staff who work within these distribution and finance networks to tell our story—a lot of it is demonstration based. It starts with a picture of what your kitchen probably looks like now, stories like your phone’s out of battery, your eyes burn from the smoke, but maybe your family would be happier if you could keep your phone charged and nobody’s eyes burned of smoke and you could save wood—instead of using this much, you could use that much. We have these flip charts that they use to tell the story, and then they light the stove and everyone gathers around and asks questions. So it’s very much like a story-telling process. We spend a lot of time working with our sales staff on refining their pitch for the product.

The thing is 50 dollars is still a ton of money in these communities. We always try and figure out what the comparison is. I think it’s an imperfect comparison since $50 to a family that only makes $1000 a year is a much bigger deal than if you scaled it to someone else’s income. It’s not as big a purchase as buying a car for that family, but it’s not discretionary income either. We were thinking it’s sort of like purchasing a laptop. A purchase you think a lot about—you probably only make one, maybe two purchases like that a year in a wealthy home. So for the customers, they see it, they like it, our sales team follow-up, and they think about it for a while. Often times, they’ll see another demonstration nearby, a lot of the times we have to get in front of the customer two or three times until they’re convinced. But being able to have a loan is really helpful. Not just for the cash availability but also for the risk management. One of the things we have to overcome is that we’re an unknown company with unknown people. And this is a really big purchase, so you don’t want to feel like if you purchase it, and it breaks, what are you going to do and where are you going to go?

One of the ways we’ve really managed to keep customers happy is with our customer service. Our staff reach out to our customers two weeks after they’ve purchased the product and see how they’re doing and if they’re enjoying it. Then again several weeks after that. Then we’ll go visit them in person if they’re having problems or are unhappy.

TOJ: What are your plans for the future?

Going Off-Grid.

JC: One of the things that have been really valuable for us is the introduction of electricity to our products—that’s really been the most compelling need for under electrified communities. It’s our sense that the main families that were cooking on wood were the ones that didn;t have access to electricity. And so, we’re now trying to, over the next several years, create the off-grid home of the future. And so, what will your home look like, if instead of your government building all these large-scale pieces of energy infrastructure for you, water that comes out of a pipe, electricity that comes out of a wall, gas that comes out of a wall—what would that look like if the individual had to own the infrastructure to do that? And that’s what we’re working towards. So a few years ago, we introduced our first lighting products—LED, rechargeable lights that can be recharged by our stoves or by solar panels. We also launched solar panels. And, similar to the stoves, we launched them in the recreation market first, and then the rural markets. We’ve been selling our recreation market in limited test markets, in rural communities to try and understand the needs of the customer better. We want to help people cook, charge, light, refrigerate, have clean water—all these basic energy enabled services, and do it in a way where you don’t have to wait for your government to have enough money to build it for you. You can just build it and buy it at an affordable price for yourself.

Our Rajasthan program manager was just on TV with the minister of energy who was saying we really want to work together with you to bring this across India. My sense is that the need is so big and governments are trying so hard to keep up with the demands, that we offer a very inexpensive way to build access for citizens. So, mostly we’ve had governments really trying to help us.

1% of the off-grid markets own solar lanterns, and 0% own advanced cooking mechanisms. The need is so huge. I don’t think there’s anyone in the US that are doing the same thing. Certainly not anyone who is investing in recreational markets and emerging markets in the same way. I think one thing that really differentiates us from other product manufacturers, either in recreation markets or in emerging markets is that we’ve got an incredibly robust technology development team. With 20 engineers and designers on staff, we really get to invent more advanced technologies than other players are able to invest in. So that really differentiates the technologies that we bring to market, along with taking this “ecosystem” view of energy. Goal Zero is a solar company, and I have tons of admiration for them and BD (but BD is a climbing company)—they make headlamps and lanterns. MSR is a mountain safety company. I think we’re really the first people to say energy is a category of needs and we want to solve for energy holistically, in the same way that Camelbak solves for hydration holistically. We think that’s our opportunity and I don’t think anyone has quite defined themselves that way before. I think the same thing in the emerging markets context—we definitely make the most advanced stoves that anyone’s ever seen for emerging market customers. But there have been other stove companies and there have been plenty of solar lighting companies, some of which are doing very nicely now.

I don’t think anyone has defined the problem as saying energy poverty is what we are trying to solve for and so it’s not about cooking or charging or lighting—it’s about the way those things all work together to help keep people productive and safe and comfortable and entertained. It’s a different approach to the problem.

Photos ©: Himraj Soin  

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Oct 01, 2018

The Forbidden Zone: Mongols, to Your Horses

The rolling green hills, rocky passes, flower-laden meadows and clear streams of Gorkhi Terelj National Park in northern Mongolia is the birthplace of the Mongols. The Outdoor Journal spent a week on horseback with Stone Horse Expeditions in the heart of this country’s vast wilderness.

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WRITTEN BY

Apoorva Prasad

Tdrihe Khan Khentii mountains stretched before us, from one end of the azure sky to the other. Tegri, the Great Sky God, watched us with his infinite panorama. From here, I could see miles and miles into the distance. This was the “Forbidden Zone”, that unknown wilderness where Genghis Khan was born. As a child and then again much later on, he hunted here, his true home, on a horse, sheltered in a ger or under the blue sky. When he was a boy, exiled with his family into the cold and harsh wilderness of the northern Mongolian hills, his only friends were what these lands contained. After he built an empire and died, it became a sacred and taboo zone, left to the deer and wolves. For decades the area had been closed off. The Soviets enforced it as a Highly Restricted Area to allow them to do what they wished with it – from logging and military exercises, to also countering any potential rise of Mongolian nationalism around the great Khan. Despite those years, the Area remained wild.

No wonder the Mongols worshipped it.

A day before, we had crossed fresh bear tracks. There were no signs of human presence apart from our train of horses and riders. And now, this vista lay in front of us, green and yellow grassy hills, long valleys, meadows of flowers stretching to higher mountains all the way to Siberia, some still snow-dusted despite the summer sun. Burkhan Khaldun stood further behind higher peaks. And that incredible sky. No wonder the Mongols worshipped it. We all lived once under this blue infinity. As we’d ridden northwards away from Ulan Bator, the city’s pollution had faded away long ago, the gray curse had lifted and my eyes had once again accustomed themselves to what they had evolved to do – see long distances, look for hares, deer, bears, navigate passes and ford streams, climb rocks, and watch falcons circle on thermals above. And over the last few days, we had done all these things.

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The weary horseriders arrive in the ger to refresh themselves.

We had left our last camp around mid-morning, some hours ago. One half of the party broke away to ride into another valley out west, while Keith and I wanted to ride up and to the pass in the range of hills that separated the Gorkhi Terelj from the Khan Khentii. We skirted the granite mounds which punctuated the ends of this valley, forded a marshy grassland below the campsite, fought off the bloodsucking horseflies that made our horses’ lives miserable for a little while, eventually entering a tall forest of larch and birch. The ground began to rise as we entered a narrow rocky trail that started to wind uphill. Jerry, my sturdy, stubborn little Mongolian horse plodded on. This easy gait was infinitely more comfortable than the long trots of our previous days in the saddle. Keith Swenson, a taciturn, the 64 year-old owner of Stone Horse Expeditions along with his wife Sabine Schmidt, showed none of the wear I felt – my skin of my thighs were quite literally raw after 50 kilometers of riding and trotting in the wilderness. After a few days Keith opened up with wisecracks. “People ask what do you do, and I say I’m a rider”, says Keith, punning on his American accent. “They think I mean ‘writer’, “and they ask, what have you written?” “So I say, Blackie, Brownie, Ol Dirty Face…”, naming his horses.

These lands, however remote, are important.

Halfway up the trail was a shaman’s totem, poles placed on the ground to make a conical structure, wrapped with bits of fabric and ribbons. But at the base, and near a tree, we also found broken shards of glass, vodka bottles drunk and thrown by unknown travelers who no longer respected their old ways. We’d been riding for an hour or so and we stopped for a short break in the little opening in the forest. It was quite warm in the strong sun, perhaps 30C like every day of the summer, but cold at nights, often dipping below freezing.

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These Mongolian horses play a huge role in making a trip across the steppe easy and fun for riders. Each horse has a unique personality. Big Dirty Face pictured here loves coffee and will drink it straight from your cup if you let him.

The Mongols invented the modern world*

The old ways are important. These lands, however remote, are important. The Mongols invented the modern world*. When, at the age of 55, Genghis Khan rode out into Asia and Europe, he created the largest empire known to humanity, as well as its first international postal system, and the largest free-flowing network of ideas, trade and culture. But today, Mongolia feels relatively isolated and far away, landlocked in the Eurasian continent. And getting there turned out to be a greater adventure than we’d expected. Instead of flying, we took the famous Trans-Mongolian from Beijing to Ulan Bator. At 11pm, the train pulled into the last station on the China-Mongolia border to change the undercarriage (the railway gauge is different in Mongolia). Three hours later we got back on the train and waited patiently for the Chinese guards to hand us all our passports back. Our intern’s passport was returned ripped from its cover. Before anyone could make a move, the train entered Mongolia… where the Mongolian border guard insisted that the 18-year old girl get off the train because she wasn’t allowed to enter on an invalid passport. Twenty minutes of arguing later, at nearly three am, we got off and watched the train leave without us.

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Mongolian cuisine is typically meat and dairy products. Vegans beware.

Fifteen hours later, after many phone calls and emails to various embassies and important officials, she was finally allowed to enter the country. The Trans-Mongolian having long gone, we finagled an eight-hour taxi ride across the great steppes (on a second-hand car coming off a goods train) for $45. Welcome to Mongolia.

REAL MEN TROT

I did not have much riding experience, but I usually don’t let a little thing like that deter me from a trip. Keith, once also a climber, agreed that anyone up for adventure would be perfectly fine on a Mongolian horse. They were sturdy and forgiving. We all gathered at their staging camp an hour’s drive from Ulan Bator – a Singaporean couple on their second trip with Stone Horse, their friend from Hong Kong, a French diplomat from Swaziland, our team of three, Keith, Sabine and their crew – Nyamaa, Buyana and Jackson, the American intern. Soon, our team of 16 horses and Stinky the Mongolian Dog, a most genuine companion if there ever was one, were off towards the north. Day one went reasonably well, with a short four hour ride to our first campsite inside the Gorkhi Terelj National Park. The other experienced riders asked me various questions about how I felt and whether my horse had cantered or galloped, and I said I didn’t know, but the horse seemed to know what it was doing. Apparently, they have many gaits.

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Nomads Yadmaa and Tavaasurn inside their summer ger, just outside Gorkhi Terelj.

I learned what that meant the next day.

The morning begins easily and we move along a gentle valley. At a stream, the horses bend to drink. They’re herd animals, comfortable only in their own numbers. Suddenly, there’s a commotion as one of the pack horses spooks and bolts. We’re unprepared, and good old Jerry decides to follow the bolting horse too, suddenly turning 180 degrees and galloping wildly. I have to pull firmly on the reins to stop him, while the teamsters have to get the other fella back. He’s bucking around wildly, his unshod feet stamping, his grass-eating brain telling him that that bee sting he felt on his hind was a wolf’s nip. Stinky ignores the commotion, running ahead happily back in his favorite hunting grounds, chasing ground squirrels to their holes. We continue, entering a forest and then riding uphill to a pass. On the other side, a wide open valley, and our first real gallop. Now I feel the sensation, riding with the animal as one, gently cycling my feet in the stirrups and gripping with my knees, all of it coming naturally to me and I urge Jerry on, on, on. Chhoo, Jerry, Chhoo! We stop at a babbling brook in the valley below where we wash our faces. Are we in paradise?

And then the long trot begins. For a horse, it’s the most comfortable way to move. But it’s bouncy. I try to “post” like all the real riders. Watching me grimace in agony, Keith smiled and said, “real men trot,” as he rode along comfortably with that rolling ankle movement to compensate for the horse’s bumpy ride. “Trotting is how the Mongols moved such vast distances. If you make him gallop, you won’t get very far, you’ll kill the horse”.

a melting pot of humanity and ethnicities

But Mongolia changed the course of human history since long before the great Khan and his riders, the ultimate, self-sufficient soldiers. Apart from the Mongols, it is also the original homeland of the Huns and the Turks. It is a melting pot of humanity and ethnicities, where thousands of years ago two language families met and separated – the Indo-Europeans and the Altaics – and possibly where the wild horse was first tamed, thereby changing the course of history. When men on horses first raced out of Central Asia, first ancient Mesopotamia, then Egypt fell. Europe’s original ‘mother culture’ and India’s Harappan civilization disappeared. Humans, moving incredible distances on horses, spread across Asia, from the western end of Europe to Korea, all the way down to Arabia and India, creating nearly all the cultures we know today. Some of the languages they spoke evolved today into English, and others evolved into Japanese, but some of their words have become so intermingled that it’s hard to distinguish which came from which. Hindi is an Indo-European language, but today the common Hindi word for “home” is “ghar” (from the Sanskrit “grhá”) which is nearly identical to the Altaic Mongolian’s word for home, ger.

When the Hunnu (“Huns”) fought the Chinese Hans, the clans that lost fled towards Europe, creating Hungary, as well as leading to the downfall of the Western Roman Empire. Centuries later, the Turkics originally from the Mongolian steppes came hurtling into Constantinople, wiping out the Eastern Roman Empire.

We ride through rocky hills and rock formations, up and down defiles, over passes and across shallow streams, through meadows of flowers and knee-high grass. We ride all day, and every evening set up our traveling camp like the Mongols of old. We sleep in modern-day lightweight tents, under trees or under the stars, breathing cold clear air, drinking from fresh rain-fed streams, eating atop rocks while falcons circle above and the horses graze.

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The Stone Horse team from left to right – Jackson, Keith, Buyana, Nyamaa and Sabine.

The world has continued to change, but horses and men will forever ride together.

One day we stretched out the ride to reach a farther campsite, a Hunnu gravesite. We set up our tents atop 2000-year old graves, low mounds of stones marking the places where men, women, children and horses were laid to rest. “I believe that these people would have loved us to be here, living like they did,” said Keith. When they hear our horses, they’ll feel alive”. The next morning, I pulled my horse off to a side and to a vantage point to shoot the group riding further down the valley. Jerry stomped and neighed angrily as the herd passed him by, but I held him back. When the group disappeared into the distance, I quickly packed my camera gear back into the saddlebags. Then jumping back on, I let the horse fly as he wished, back to his herd. Jerry, the funny but tough little horse, galloped madly a mile north over the gently rising slope. Our hooves rang out in the valley, as two large round mounds, Hun graves, emerged in front on the mountainside. Neither Jerry nor I needed to veer, and we galloped directly over the centre of the mounds, the sound of our hoofbeats gladdening passed Hunnu souls. Their ancestors, our ancestors, had once tamed wild horses, and together changed the world. The world has continued to change, but horses and men will forever ride together.

Images by Madhuri chowdhury.

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