This is a brilliant guest blog post from globetrotter Stacey West, who joined us on a horse riding holiday to Mongolia in 2016 and put these wonderful words to paper about her experiences. Don’t miss reading Stacey’s diary of her time in Mongolia (part one and part two) as well. But for now, let’s get whisked away in our imaginations to Mongolia as Stacey paints a wonderfully vivid picture of the life and culture you too could be lucky enough to experience should you choose to come globetrotting with us!
How do I begin?
I guess I will start here – where I am right now. In an air conditioned office, surrounded by stale walls of a non-descript colour, daydreaming about a life I knew briefly, but wholly.
It began with a thought. Just a little niggle. I think I was watching or reading something that described Mongolia as a country built on horses. What, I wondered, does this mean? I googled. Yep, they had horses in Mongolia. I like horses. But where exactly was Mongolia? Somewhere between Europe and the rest of Asia. Oh, ok then.
This little seed blossomed without water. Images would flash in and out of my mind daily. Blue skies. Open spaces. Little ponies. I checked the Globetrotting website. Oh hey, they do Mongolia. What’s the harm in enquiring? Without having the finances to actually go, I booked, thinking it would somehow have to work out. I was completely joyless. Stuck in the mother of all ruts, trying desperately to find an escape. Apathy had set in, and I was just going through the motions in life, waiting for a boost I couldn’t see, and wasn’t sure I wanted anyway.
But then, I started taking active steps towards going, and it became real. I bought a duffel bag, I got a loan, I requested annual leave. I read the list of tips for Mongolian travel: BYO toilet paper. I chuckled to myself. What had I gotten myself into? I started to talk about going, and the more I talked about it the more it affected the people around me. People were impressed somehow, perhaps because Mongolia is not a mainstream travel destination. To me, it never seemed out of odds. It seemed like my only chance to experience the life I feel I should have been living.
All of a sudden I was on a plane. I cried, wept in fact. I cried because I was alone on my first overseas trip, going to a country I did not know (I had done zero research) and whose language I could not speak. I cried because I felt, for the first time in living memory, a little bit of excitement seeping through my skin, warm like sunshine. I cried because I felt relief.
I can’t pinpoint the moment Mongolia changed me. I suspect it was somewhere between eating young pine needles while riding for hours up a mountain, and shitting in a hole in the middle of a vast valley, hawks flying overhead and with sounds of the river rising swiftly. Just like a summer storm, change crept up on my soul and engulfed it without any heed for the rest of me, rolling over me and my apathy like a cloud heavy with hope.
It rained. Metaphorically and tangibly, lord how it rained. Rain in Mongolia is gentle and steady. Quiet yet persistent, it sweeps over the steppe, sometimes on its own and sometimes with chilling winds that push into your conscience. The very same are Mongolian people – sweet and soothing, and a welcome reminder of nature’s influence. Being with them, I unknowingly embarked on a journey I hadn’t prepared for: learning how to be me in Mongolia. What exactly did I learn?
1…There are no fences in Mongolia.
Actually that’s a lie, there are a few. Most of those are unmaintained and broken, some of them not high enough to constitute a fence. What struck me most was the openness of the land. Mongolia’s terrain varies frequently over the course of a few hours’ drive, but the only obstructions to your passage will be those caused by nature or weather. I was in awe being part of that endless landscape. Mongolians historically perform sky burials; bodies would be laid on the land and partially covered by rocks so as to be in touch with both land and sky. The overarching spirituality of the people fosters a connection with the wilderness that is unchallenged to this day. So deeply ingrained it is that the ruddy faces of Mongolians are as open as the lands on which they walk, forever a genetic expression of freedom. This openness was a challenge for me. I am closed. I am a book whose covers are firmly shut, and sometimes I won’t even let you read the title. My pages have been carefully guarded, a response cultivated over years of having them ripped out and trod on. So when it was necessary to shower with doors open, or pee into a long drop (which was essentially an open hole in the ground with no shelter), the sounds of children laughing only metres away, or make myself vulnerable to the sky gods at the ovoo, I baulked. Momentarily. Until I let it go. Only then was I able to open my eyes and see that…
2…Humans are indelibly connected.
It is customary in Mongolia for one of your crew members to give you a Mongolian name. It wasn’t too long before I earned mine. On the first day of being ridden, my horse Tex was, shall we say, a bit “humpy”. Not used to being ridden for much of the year, Mongolian horses can be a little cold-backed. So while Tex was giving it his best to avoid the bit and perform a little rodeo show, I couldn’t stop giggling at his sheer tenacity and cockiness. In the coming hours, Saikhnaa our horse wrangler and I developed a relationship based purely on slapstick comedy and “horsing around”. Much laughter ensued, and in those moments it only mattered that we were connected by the common thread of being human, of being people, and all the simplicities and complexities associated. He gave me the name Baysaa (BYE-sah); the joyful one. And in the continuous natural wonder of rural Mongolia, I truly was.
3…Women in Mongolia are tough.
Really tough. They have to be to withstand the harsh conditions they are born into. And they start them young. Our kitchen hand (of sorts) Duuyaa, was sixteen years old. She knows how to cook dumplings off a less than perfect camp stove, and she can peel potatoes quicker than I can eat them. She can build fires using nothing but her own know-how and some dry cattle dung (a fire which fortunately also keeps lurking mosquitoes at bay). She can fix a motorbike, she can mend a ger roof. One day after a long spell of cold rain, we mused how lovely it would be to have a fire after dinner. Enter Duuyaa – all 50kgs of her sinewy muscle and sheer willpower, lolloping down a mountainside carrying an armful of pine branches she had broken off herself. She’s a basketball champion, she can ride a horse but prefers dirt bikes, she giggles about boys and always wears her hair long. She teams army pants and boots with a hot pink jacket. She, like all Mongolians, loves to sing. But underneath her serious Mongol face (the face she shows you when she’s not sure if you are worth her effort), she has a quiet, unassuming and constant strength that carries her through a life that we as westerners can only begin to appreciate. She is caught between the traditional and modern Mongolias. I can tell you one thing though, this girl is the embodiment of Mongolian females – 50% worker bee, 30% nurturer, 20% chef. 100% woman, 100% badass, 100% of the time.
4…People are people.
And they really don’t care where you were geographically born, what colour your skin happens to be, how many Togrog you have, how you style your hair, or if you have a face full of piercings. Humanity is universal. Language is a construct societies developed and designed over time to make communication easier, but it is not always necessary, and especially not in a country whose national language is kindness. Mongolians are a people who know how to give. More than once did we stop in the middle of a downpour, our rusty Russian army vehicles sputtering in the wet only to find their doors sliding open and entire families of people piling in on top of us. “Sain Banuu!” we would call over the din, and the children with little beetroot moonfaces would stare wildly at us ‘Russians’ (white people) until the van once again stopped, the door would mysteriously slide open, and out they would all tumble. No questions asked, no explanation needed. Because giving strangers a ride over a river crossing is not only normal, but necessary so as not to upset the symbiotic lifestyle unspoken and lived by all Mongolian people. We were welcomed like prized ponies into every home we passed. It took me the better part of a week to feel at ease with entering family gers without so much as a knock or holler. To hesitate at the door would be to question your host’s hospitality, and this was a shame you do not want to knowingly place on your newest friends. The ger is like a heart, it is a home for all who wish to enter, and a place of comfort, sharing, laughter and shelter that holds you and surrounds you like an oversized winter deel. Once inside the heart, we were offered the best mare’s milk, the crustiest ash bread, the tangiest cheese curd, and the most Chinggis (vodka) anyone could consume. We took it because we were grateful, and because in Mongolia these things have a value surpassing material content. These things are tokens of a generous and fruitful life, two sides of the same coin – a notion which taught me that…
5…Life is simple if you choose a simple life.
Dirt. Sharing food. Yaks. Playing cards. Horses. Tossing ankle bones. Singing. Dancing. Drinking. More dirt. Napping – all of this in abundance in Mongolia. Family also takes on a broader meaning. Soon after meeting our guide Tuul, we would often be called together with “where are my children?”, despite the fact that some of us exceeded her age by decades. A Mongolian family is flesh and blood, yes, but also the people with whom you work, live, and travel. With these people is where you can consider yourself home. I found the role of caretaking the most disparate in Mongolian societies. There is the mother role and father role, of course very traditional and conservatively gender biased. But there is a secondary overtone of just general caretaking for each other’s wellbeing. I was deeply affected by the gentility and softness in the way we were treated, not as foreigners, but as people. I wondered what kind of a world we Westerners could create if we all were guided by this deeper understanding and benevolence that is part and parcel of Mongolia.
Mongolians live by the saying – meat for men, grass for animals. They respect nature as they have done since the conception of their culture, with the understanding that grass and plants nourish the livestock they eat to nourish themselves. While this is a vegetarian’s worst nightmare, there’s no denying that the simple logic of earth to table overarches and guides the survival of Mongolian people. They have learnt to thrive based on the very little their country offers them, and they do it without envy or complaint. They are thankful for everything nature provides them, and have evolved a great sense of stoicism and perseverance when faced with everything it doesn’t.
Mongolians also have their own theory of time. I took a crash course in Mongolian Time over the first few days of being there. The premise is to forget about the clocks, don’t rush, and that all will happen when it will happen. The result of Mongolian time is that you are better able to enjoy the ride. Both literally and metaphorically I found, for the first time in a long time, I was liberated from the binds of technology and social media, and was able to just revel in the ride. Moments, hours, days passed me by and all I did was ride. Sitting with yourself is probably the hardest thing you can do day in day out. But in Mongolia, with help from my little fat pony, I stopped thinking and was able to just be. I have to believe that this is what mindfulness is. I’m not into new age hippie shit, but I am into whatever reminds you to breathe. For me, toying with my roan gelding’s bristly mane while he dodged ground holes in a flat gallop was the epitome of being present, and of being free.
6…I want more, I mean less.
I want to know two things in life – that I can survive, and that I will. That’s all. I want to brush my teeth outside with my toes buried in the grass. I want to live in a round home, always facing the sun. I want to go wherever the wind takes me, and wherever the rivers allow me. I already know that one day I will re-visit Mongolia and ride across it on my own. I already know that I will do so because I have to, because that seed has been planted and will grow without any fertiliser. I want to only have to wear one pair of jeans for weeks or months, because it doesn’t matter if I do. I want to eat what is necessary to live (mmm all of the potatoes), and I want to drink water that has come straight up from the earth. I want to go back to discovering what it means to be a person of substance, of resilience, of strong heart and mind. For me, that has nothing to do with money or power, but is a well buried deep in northern Mongolia, where I can lie in the dirt with my reindeer, and let time pass without worrying why.
Until then, I daydream.