Mongolia Part 1: Sunsets, Starry Skies and Friendship in the Gobi Desert

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.

I smile.

***
Ulaanbaatar

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.

Khongor Sand Dunes in the Gobi Desert of Mongolia

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.

***
Ulaanbaatar

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.
Tsagaan Suvraga (White Stupas) in the Gobi Desert, MongoliaThe 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.

Hiroshima Bicycle Ride: Joy in a Forsaken Land

Hiroshima Bicycle Ride

Street lights illuminate the grin on Florian’s bearded face as he takes a gulp from his Asahi beer, one hand on a bicycle that comes close to teetering over into Edward, the lanky Englishman. We’re finishing up our 5th can from our 5th 7-11, the ubiquitous convenience stores serving as a helpful way point for our wanderings. The night is near silent as we wean our way through thoroughfares and alleyways, apparitions materializing underneath street lamps and vanishing a second later. For Hiroshima it’s a Wednesday night. For us travellers what day it is hardly mattered. Before I can suggest another 7-11 pit-stop Edward takes a sudden turn into a side street restaurant.

We’ve been touring the city for 2 hours on a steady diet of adrenaline, laughs and beer. Food is a better idea at this point. 

This was a far cry from my afternoon spent touring the war memorial and the lush green walkways of a city that has had to rebuild from scratch into the archetypal metropolis that now stands in its place. Its perfectly designed streets and bridges makes its previous incarnation all the more apparent to the imaginative mind. Instead of gleaming skyscrapers reflecting the midday sun, I see the charred rubble of wooden and clay houses that lay smoking below a horizon tinged a crimson red against dark gray clouds. Logically I knew it would be this way. Emotionally it was something else.

Even in retrospect I knew I had made the right decision to come.

The prospect of experiencing joy in Hiroshima had seemed an impossibility just a few hours earlier. Yet now, my self induced depression had been completely flipped on its head with the massive swing making the high all the more enjoyable. Bicycle beers weren’t making me and my new friends forget the pain burned into the streets of Hiroshima. This was something different as we cruised through the alleyways and shared companionable silence broken only by the constant hum of our tires on asphalt and the occasional swear and accompanying laughs from narrowly avoided collisions. We were children enjoying two wheeled flight through a jungle of concrete, street lights and restaurant signs, our adult minds appreciating the resolve of a people that could create beauty out of the ashes of nothingness. In our own way we were giving back to Hiroshima, our merriment traded for the soothing touch of the city.

Cycling through those streets was therapy I hadn’t realized I needed. I couldn’t accurately put the my tempest of thoughts into imperfect words. But what I could do was move my feet forward one rotation at a time, the thoughts embraced, permitted to flow and given form in a ride of elation and sorrow.

****
This post is from an experience in June 2014, prior to me starting Worldly Warrior

 

The Perfect Day in Vietnam

Travel - Hoi An, Vietnam

The sun roasts my exposed shoulders as my motley group of travellers and I cruise along An Bang beach on our even more motley collection of mopeds. A mosaic of palm trees and white sand blurs by as I hesitantly take my eyes off the road to soak up the picturesque Vietnamese coastline. I turn my attention back to the road just as a battered red truck hauling live chickens in open cages turns into our lane from an intersecting street, all the while honking incessantly to let us know that this is how things are done here rather than any genuine sense of frustration. We seamlessly ease off our throttles and weave around the obstacle, flowing down both sides and merging back into a complete unit. We’ve been at this all morning and have turned out to be quick learners. In Vietnam there are as many lanes as vehicles can fit wide, red often means go and if you can hear anything over the whine of your scooter engine then you’re not going fast enough.

I’m in the rear position of the group. Initially I had placed myself here as an experienced rider, relative to most in the group in any case. But my motorcycle training of years gone by floats away on the wind as I rip ahead of the crew, flashing a toothy smile in delight and getting several more in return. Each person in our group is a solo traveller, each with their own collection of stories and reasons for being here at this exact moment in time. I edge past Leonie and Tiwana; Leonie an affable Dutch with an easy smile and Tiawana an energized American never missing a chance to tell a story in her southern twang. Next up is Jossie, the German kickboxer with a carefree attitude. I open up my throttle and zip past Adam, the reserved Hungarian that I had nervously started chatting with at my hostel in Mui Ne when we found myself surrounded by cliques, and Isabella, a German with an infectious smile and a weakness for tailored summer dresses. I’m only in front for a few seconds before Jossi blazes in between me and the others, massive shoulders hunched forward over his handlebars and grin plastered on a face that also sports a mean-looking forehead scar, compliments from the beer bottle of a soccer hooligan he had tangled with a year ago. We cruise this way up the coast for hours, a disparate group hailing from different corners of the world formed into a cohesive whole, squeezing every ounce of joy we can out of the day.

Three months previous I was in the death throes of a relationship that was creeping its way towards history. And now I found myself here. I’ve had these days before, albeit rarely. These perfect travel days, where every scene was splashed with vivid colors, exotic scents wafted through the air and laughter abounded at every opportunity, creating an experience that etched itself into memory. The feeling of the perfect travel day is surreal. You want to freeze it in time so that you can rewind and play it over during more mundane moments, sitting in front of a work computer or falling asleep during a cost analysis meeting. It’s probably better that you can’t. Knowing that the memory could never be as sweet makes you enjoy the moment and stretch it out, savoring every detail knowing that it’s ephemeral and can disappear as easily as it appeared. But that doesn’t mean the memory can’t drive you forward to experience unfamiliar and amazing things. To meet people from different walks of life and learn their stories.

I find myself reminiscing about these times more than usual as my calendar winds down to my departure date for Mongolia. Maybe it’s because I’m steadily checking out of a job that I’ve already resigned from. Or maybe it’s because I’m looking forward to new adventures, and just maybe one or two perfect days on the road.

*****
This post is from an experience in February 2017, prior to me starting Worldly Warrior

Quitting Time and the Terrifying Beast

Beast

Sweaty palms. Short breaths. Heart inching closer to my throat. This wasn’t what I had envisioned when I originally pictured myself quitting my loveless job. I thought I’d be overwhelmed with joy and ready to Jersey Shore fist pump my way to the next phase of my life. Yet here I was experiencing the full range of human emotions, from gut wrenching anxiety and fear to boundless excitement. What dark hole did this Terrifying Beast that threatened to make me throw up my peanut butter sandwich emerge from?

It was almost 1:45 PM and I had dithered and delayed since 9 AM. My resignation letter was ready. My weak-ass transition plan was ready. I had texted a buddy at 11 AM that I was going for it, but an article on Men’s Health about U.S. Army Ranger fitness training had somehow managed to captivate my attention. Then I started throwing the idea around of rehearsing what I was going to say. Then I decided I was going to wing it. Then I started to think about things I would rather do than tell my team lead I was leaving, like maybe step into the octagon with Brock Lesnar. Finally I reached the point where I just wanted to get it over with and not ruin my weekend stressing about doing this thing on Monday. Then it was back to distraction mode and wondering if I should listen to Teen Spirit to pump myself up. 2 PM now. I really shouldn’t have distracted myself with that Army Rangers article. No music, no distractions. One 3 count breath in and one 3 count breath out. Go.

A handshake and complete understanding is what I got. Actually, I got a huge nod of respect for taking the plunge and doing something I really loved. And not just from my team lead either, but from the entire team that I had just saddled my shitty workload. That Terrifying Beast turned out to be a cuddly kitten. Somehow I had built up the Beast on some weird logic that everyone would resent the extra work and instantly convert their respect and friendship for me into vehement dislike. But that’s not the way life works, unless you’re an asshole – then it works that way because no one probably likes you in the first place. People that genuinely like you want the best for you…even if that means turning the page on a story that may not include them in the future.