The van lurches downward into the sudden dip at speed throwing me into the seat in front me, then tossing me backwards as it launches out of the ditch, spitting rocks and a cloud of dust that floats through the wide open windows. We have a thirty second respite before the country road and our Mongolian driver, grin plastered on his face, again demonstrates the laws of physics with a gut wrenching plunge into a hurricane of dirt. My tank top has become a second skin melded to my torso through a mixture of sweat, sunscreen and dirt. After a few hours it feels like I’ve been locked into a tanning bed, spun around ten times, told to hold my vomit then pummeled by a pro boxer. Day 3 in Mongolia. Day 3 in the same clothing. Day 3 without running water. Day 3 of baby wipe showers. Day 3 of holes in the ground for toilets. You’d think this would be a slow death with nearly another week to go.
Let’s turn this back a few days.
It’s my first morning in Mongolia after 26 hours of travel and a handful of hours of sleep. I’m reaching for a slice of toast in the multi-hued common room of the hostel, questioning my internal clock and my sanity. This is what passes for multi-tasking In my sleep deprived, jet lagged form. I hear a garbled noise. Then I hear it again and realize in my dazed state that a young, darkly bearded Italian guy sitting with a couple of blond smiling Americans and a friendly looking Dutch girl is asking me if I just arrived. I nod, exchange names that are quickly forgotten then reach for my coffee. It’s my first day, so terrible first impressions are permitted. The Americans, a brother and a sister, are chatting about their trip to the Gobi Desert that starts in half an hour. Dormant ears perk up and sleepy eyes dilate as my mind kicks into a higher gear, my mouth moving before my brain can stop it.
“Would you guys mind if I join your group”?
And this how a story starts.
Khongor Sand Dunes
The massive sand dunes loom above the barren plains, casting shadows across our camp and bathing it in an early darkness. The shade is a much needed respite from the blistering sun, but even that isn’t enough as me and Luca, the bearded Italian sit on our beds in the protective ger.
“I do not fight the desert,” he comments as I curse and brush the pervasive sand from my toilet paper roll. “You cannot win.”
He’s right of course, but I don’t let it go. I already have to do my business in a hole in the ground and I’m not using sandy toilet paper when it has to get done.
An hour later our motley group finds itself slogging up the second highest point of the dune mountains. My initial awe is replaced by exhaustion from burning lungs. My quads and calf muscles feel like they’re going to cramp up and rip through my skin. It’s a stair master from the depths of hell, pushing me down a few inches for every foot gained. Martina is ordering us forward and upwards, putting distance between Manuel and I. Luca is taking a break on all fours fifty feet behind us, while our guide Galman and driver Tuwsnin are barely recognizable below in the distance. Quitting crosses my mind briefly before I can push the insane thought out of my head. This is getting done now, not the next time I happen to be on this side of the world. I push on and crest the ridge with Manuel, Martina already taking panoramic photos. I’m breathing heavy, laying across the sand and trying not to suck in too much sand. I finally look up and see the most beautiful scene I’ve encountered during my travels.
Sand dunes stretch into the distance below us, reaching across the land in an uninterrupted sea of golden waves that stretch across the horizon to the distant mountains with the sun slowly working it’s way across azure skies.
I’m suddenly lacking for breath for a reason other than the sad state of my cardio. This is why I’m here. These are the moments that remind me why I quit my secure desk job. Me and Manuel laugh and holler, dancing along the ridge while the wind whips sand into our grinning faces. The sand mountain divides two worlds: one forged of shadows that loom across the arid plains and the other an ever shifting paradise built from the finest gold. Half an hour later we’re all on the summit, our joyous expressions still painted on our faces but exuberance replaced by companionable silence as the sun creeps towards the horizon until it’s a sliver of light in the darkening sky, bidding us farewell to say hello to different people.
The desert always wins, but there’s no loser here today.
Somewhere near Tsagaan Suvraga
Thousands of stars surround us, tiny pinpricks of white painted against an indigo canvas on a night made clear by the lack of ambient light. Manuel, the wiry American with an awkward humor that can make the most impassive stone crack is using an app on his smartphone to identify constellations. The irony isn’t lost on me. His sister Martina, an energetic bundle of energy that never misses the opportunity to make a timely joke is writing out a message in the open air using a red light torch while Luca records it using the time lapse function on his camera. Me and Rianne, the Dutch girl with a warm smile and wisdom beyond her 30 years, follow Manuel as he points out the the Little Dipper.
The celestial bodies awe us into silence, thoughts flowing through us like the solar winds drifting in the darkness of space high above.
We feel insignificant and meaningful, infinitesimal and powerful. Most of all we feel grateful that we’re in the company of a pantheon of gods. The surreal feeling of standing on the plains of Mongolia under the gaze of the universe is overwhelming, yet as I look at the astonished faces of my fellow world nomads I take comfort knowing that I’m not alone in the feeling.
Somewhere near the Yoliin Am Canyon
I stand on the peak of a lush rolling hill overlooking the ger camp, arms outstretched to caress the gentle wind. Tendrils of lavender float through the air and surround me in an aromatic embrace that only nature can give. I’d probably look pretty weird to anyone looking up at hill. Luckily I’m in the middle of nowhere and a combination of insomnia, wanting to see the sunrise and beer the night before had conspired to get me out of my bed at 5 AM. I left home to leave the incessant, never ending flow of emails and messages behind. I sought remoteness to make me reflect, reset and maybe even forget. It was a mission that should leave me with moments of loneliness, but my motley crew of travellers have been a constant reassuring presence of laughs, smiles and wisdom. Each has their own unique story of where they’ve been, where they’re going and what they left back at home to be here.
As if on cue, Margy exits her ger and starts up the hill. Margy is the heart of our group: a solo travelling, hitchhiking Australian grandma in her 60s that has 4 adult children and has led an incredibly interesting life. She’s full of energy, tastefully lewd jokes and sagely advice when it’s needed most. We spend an hour on that hill, sharing the breeze and details of our personal lives as the sun starts its daily task of clearing away the darkness. Without me saying it, Margy can tell that that I’m here to lose myself more than to find anything in particular. That life back home had become mundane and routine despite a wonderful group of friends and family. I confide in her about my own tragedies: a brother that committed suicide and a good friend that died of brain cancer two months later. She tells me about her own life, from the wondrous to the tragic. We both leave that hill richer, adding to a wealth measured in experiences and strong relationships.
It’s my first day without a member of my crew to keep me company. I’ve had a day of writing and a lunch surrounded by perfectly pleasant, intelligent and interesting travellers. But something is off. It feels like I’m cheating on my old group of friends. It’s silly and absurd, but plausible nonetheless.
The long string of goodbyes was difficult. First it was Galman, our sociable guide with an easy laugh, driver number 1 Bataar, imposing in presence until you see one of his many smiles that seems to take over his face and driver number 2 Tuwsnin, a diminutive energetic man that served as a perfect contrast his counterpart. Then it was Margy heading to Sri Lanka – what more can I say about that special soul? Luca departed for China a few days later, his timely and canny statements quickly missed. Next was Martina and her brother Manuel off to Russia; their hilarity and sociability a warmness taken too soon. Then it was Rianne heading back home, my kindred spirit that I shared endless hours of conversation with on the road; from living the Law of Attraction to our deepest fears and greatest hopes. No toilets, internet service, power or anyone to save us from a medical emergency…like explosive diarrhea from mare’s milk meant that everyone in the group had seen each other in our most natural of states.
There was one long talk in particular that I had with Rianne on the subject of impermanence and letting go. We talked about how the best thing about travelling is meeting amazing people and the worst thing is saying goodbye. Yet, our lives are so much richer for having met those people in the first place. There’s a beauty in transition. We discussed how people suffer from trying to hold on to things and keep them constant rather than enjoying the experience and being able to let it pass, as if we were holding on to time itself by the tips of our fingers. The fact is that we might never all meet again. As sad as that thought makes me, it brings a smile to my face knowing that I will treasure the moments we shared in the empty spaces of the Gobi, accelerating our friendships through discussions, jokes and common experiences that helped us grow individually and as the family we had become.