Mongolia Part 2: In Search of Vast Empty Spaces and Questions

Terkhiin Tsagaan Lake, Mongolia

Khövsgöl Lake:

There’s no reasoning with a storm. I let the rain wash over me, wind whipping pellets of water into my face and scouring the sweat and dirt of the last few days. Bolts of lightning tear the sky asunder and slam into the earth, illuminating the cloudy afternoon and impenetrable sheets of rain for but a heartbeat before rattling the ground with their thunderous voices seconds later. Its sheer power is invigorating and intoxicating. Its audacity in pushing away the relentless, burning gaze of the sun is worthy of veneration.

Yet, it’s a worship that I cannot sustain for long as I step into my ger, alone with my thoughts and the fiery warmth of the wood stove. My travel mates had left incense burning before they left on their watery horse ride around the lake. Did they know that the incense would perfect the background needed to sort my discordant thoughts? Thunder shakes the ger in implacable rage as if the tempest is reminding me that it will not be so easily forgotten, throwing life giving elements of wind and water into the protective felt of my humble abode. I lie in my bed listening to the maelstrom’s language of violence, resting my eyes and letting thoughts flow unimpeded.

I see a storm. I see man. I am the torrential downpour attempting to tear my walls down. The walls are external; necessary for daily function, yet a construct nonetheless. The relentless wind and pounding water is a mind that never turns off, becoming more self aware and raging at the facade that prevents complete honesty with oneself at every second of every day. The booming thunder is a harsh reminding voice of lessons forgotten and old patterns resurfaced. The incandescent bolts themselves are flashes of hope that pierce the darkest despairs.

But a fierce storm can’t burn forever. One would seek perfection in a world that doesn’t exist in a world as varied as ours. Progress is slow and steady, an occasional tempest needed to wash away built up grime and revitalize the land. The rain subsides to a soft patter against the tight skin of my ger, the howl of the wind reduced to a soothing soprano of a lounge room singer, the thunder and lightning no longer thrashing sky, earth and mind.


Sometimes in my more vulnerable moments I reflect on how I’ve come to an exact moment in time and space, like when I’m sitting alone on cafe patio listening to the foreign yet familiar sounds of a weary city heading home and settling in for the night as the sun slides steadily towards the horizon, setting a pink fire to the clouds. It’s a mixed bag of contentment with the present, excitement for tomorrow and oddly, confusion about the past. It’s not like you can take a magnifying glass and look back along every point in your life and identify each moment that brought you to the present, although we certainly try by breaking things down into formative moments. Despite this imperfect ability to stare into the past we ask the questions anyways, like how we ended up where we are surrounded by the people we’re with.

I’m on my last few days in Mongolia and the previous evening I had met an amazing woman and had a stimulating conversation that carried into the early morning, ended only by the need to rest our weary tongues and her need to leave that day. A strange feeling, flushed with contentment yet bereft of time. Coupled in a linguistic dance that was somehow both hypnotizing and illuminating, we moved as if choreographed with spirituality, sciences and matters of the heart setting the beat. Accepting situations for what they are and letting go was a central theme that, ironically, we could not let go of.

And when at the end of the night our logical minds knew that we had reached the point our hearts were unable reconcile, I touched her lips to mine and we set fire to the logic that we had spent so much effort building.

If I had chosen option A, would I be at point B? Where would I be and who would I be speaking to if I hadn’t booked the cheapest one way flight to Mongolia for a random date in July? Did going for haircut earlier that day shift my timeline, allowing paths to cross? One could get lost in the decision trees of ‘what ifs’ that lead to certain points in time, a network of vastly divergent roads that stretch into the distant past that might briefly converge with the roads taken by others despite each centimeter being constructed on a choice taken or not taken.

By this point in the evening the sun has slid almost out of site with only the upper top of the fiery disc peeking over the city buildings. The sky above takes on an indigo hue broken up by a handful of lazy clouds and the night air envelops the city with a slight chill made all the more apparent by the day’s oppressive heat. My thoughts wander back to the last ten days I had spent in Central and Northern Mongolia, in search of vast empty spaces and questions.

Terkhiin Tsagaan Lake

Sweat rolls off of the tip of my nose despite the early morning breeze. My feet are elevated on a boulder, with my hands spread chest wide on another rock and my body suspended in the open air between, pumping out push ups to the view of yak herds grazing the verdant hills below and red beaks circling the skies high above. 

Terkhiin Tsagaan Lake stretches out before me, an unstoppable wall of mist rolling across the dark waters and gers that dot the coast. It’s hard to imagine any other gym in the world comparing to this one.

Terkhiin Tsagaan Lake, Mongolia

After four days in Northern Mongolia with my new group of Rachel, Jesus and Jenni, this moment of silence belongs to me alone. Structured thoughts are hammered away in repetitions of pain, diffused in heat and sweat. Problems of the flesh replacing problems of the mind, which are easily solved. Thoughts appear and are lost just as suddenly in ephemeral bursts of effort.

This is one of my favorite places in Mongolia. My place of solitude that I make excuses to visit so that I can stare pensively out at the emerald paradise. Rocky outcroppings dot the hills as if they were castles retreating inwards against the encroaching army of relentless vegetation. Its abundance stands in stark contrast to the scarcity of the Gobi Desert, both equally stunning in their own ways.

I lose track of time, pushing my body through squats and bent over rows using granite rocks that nearly slip from trembling fingers. It’s my first proper workout in over three weeks and I feel like a starving man lost at sea that has drifted into an island run by McDonald’s. I embody the rawness of the elements that surround me on all sides, a feral beast that has joined the ranks of the wild before me. This is my preferred therapy for all its mindless repetitiveness; a way to shut out the world of responsibilities and tasks. Somehow even in the middle of Mongolia those trappings exist for me here, albeit ones of my own design. Instead of typing away at my work computer I’m constantly scribbling down ideas for my website and shooting footage for video clips. It’s self created work that is a therapy unto itself, yet work nonetheless.

I’m finished. Covered in sweat, breathing hard to the serenity and calm surrounding me, waves lapping gently below punctuating the calm and somehow making the silence even more absolute. The wind surrounds me in cushions of the finest silk, breathing new life into my stiff limbs and muscles that seem to have atrophied in just three weeks.

Terkhiin Tsagaan Lake, later that night

It’s the middle of the night when hysterical laughter and cries break the night silence, waking me from my catatonic state. I roll over to try and shut it out, only to doze off for what feels like a few seconds before a piercing scream rings through the air, followed by a cacophony of harsh voices shouting in Mongolian. I pop up to find Rachel and Jesus already getting ready to head outside.

Jenni is missing.

I follow them into the pitch black abyss, our flashlights slicing through the black. We can see the silhouettes of a large group fighting a hundred meters away at the edge of the ger camp, voices pitched and grunts of a physical struggle apparent. I can hear the thumps of fists being thrown in anger and accompanying cries of pain, all punctuated by the single voice of a screeching banshee from the myths of Irish mythology that was responsible for waking us from our slumber. It’s impossible to guess how many people are involved in this fracas that has turned my quiet lakeside paradise into an unexpected and unwelcome hurricane of violence. It would appear that the Mongolian warrior culture is very much alive.

Rachel and Jesus head to the nearby beach to look for our wandering compatriot Jenni, while I opt to take a position outside of the ger to make sure no one gets in and in case Jenni wanders back. I think about finding my guide and good friend Bilgunn, but that would mean wandering through a sea of violence and leaving our ger unattended. Several other ger doors are tentatively opened with most being closed just as quickly. It would appear that those are the smart ones. The night darkness, unfamiliar words of violence and knowledge of being stuck in the middle of nowhere are profoundly unnerving.

Earlier in the morning my feeling of solitude in this vast, empty space felt like it was my best friend and now that same isolation had become my enemy.

This is possibly the first time in Mongolia that I’ve missed home. Yet, a part of me is aware that this could simply be an unrealistic expectation of the tranquility I’ve come to know imprinted on a country that has its own problems, just like anywhere else.

Jesus and Rachel show up with Jenni in tow after fifteen excruciatingly long minutes. We quickly move back into the ger and lock it, adrenaline draining out of us and the wood burning stove burning away any lingering remnants of fear. By this point our attitude towards the incessant shrieking has shifted from alarming to annoying, with our patience withering in step. In his usual charm Jesus jokes that maybe this was all an elaborate show for us tourists. Life imitating art indeed. The police finally arrive an hour later, the yells subsiding and one final piercing scream of defiance shut out by the closing of a police truck door, my quiet paradise returned to the equilibrium nature had intended before human interlopers had ever stepped foot on this land. Silence has never been so sweet.

Somewhere near the Uran Togoo Crater

It’s our second last dinner together and we’ve run the gauntlet of discussion points, from finding fulfillment in our careers to past loves and heartbreak. We move outside with our pink plastic cups filled with unpronounceable Mongolian vodka that has quickly become our drink of choice. The sun is setting a pink fire to the sky in its last breath before moving to the next life, with the vodka setting fire to our souls. An armada of clouds elongate from massive motherships into smaller drop ships, drifting away every few minutes I look up from my cup. I have the mundane realization that sunsets are free and there every day for the taking.

Sunset over Uran TogooThe ambiance creates the perfect environment for me to reflect on my time here. Almost a month has passed and I’ve met a multitude of new faces and exchanged innumerable stories. There are too many people to mention that have touched my heart these past few weeks. Summarizing in a paragraph wouldn’t do them justice, and besides they know who they are if they’re reading this. I’ve made friends, a handful that I will encounter on my travels over the next eight months and the majority I’m likely to never see again.

The discomfort is a familiar face, yet so is the appreciation that I could fit seamlessly into peoples lives, breaking bread and sharing drink, giving trust and accepting it as easily as if it were a currency within our limitless bank account of friendship.

This is the traveller’s way. The trade off is quality and quantity with like minded wanderers for brief, intense periods. They leave a yawning gap once gone, yet it’s one filled with memories of precious shared experiences.

As for Mongolia itself, it has been an active teacher in its limitless boundaries and unmatched beauty. This land belongs to the yaks, goats, eagles, vultures and gazelles that are more commonplace than humanity. Just having to watch for animal waste at every step in the middle of nowhere is proof enough. The elements have reduced me to my base properties and forced a harder, harsher look at my psyche, changing my reality and adjusting my perspective through a series of unending challenges that I would not experience at home.

I’ve come to appreciate the virtues of a simple nomadic life. Even they cannot master nature in this place, but they can adapt to the rigors, using the communal open space of earth and sky to create a paradise built on pillars of rustic simplicity and strong familial values. Vast distances create a warm hospitality and reliance on strangers, with assistance commonly offered without a second thought. Waste is limited and maximum function is gained from finite resources; slaughtering a goat is not a matter taken lightly, yet unlike most communities in the West Mongolians have a use for everything. Ostentation is limited to nationalistic prints dotting ger walls, with beds, kitchen, table, wood burning stove, closets and horse tack all fitting within their abodes. Their austere nature not a sign of poverty or wanting, and is instead a focus on resilience and modesty that they hold up as a badge of honor.

Time will not fundamentally change this for the nomadic family, for in its relentless power over the centuries it has already tried.

Ultimately I know that it’s not a life for me – I’m listening to Spotify as I write this and I intend on catching up on Game of Thrones as soon as I’m done. But as I sit here putting pen to paper and constructing a shell of a story through words that can never perfectly describe my experiences, I’m struck with the realization that at some point in the last few weeks I had stopped thinking of Canada as the final stop on my journey. My feet have become my home, taking me where my mind needs to be the most. There is no “getting back to reality.” This is the existence me and many others have chosen, and if we can figure out a way to do it forever than we will whether or not it’s socially acceptable to the masses. We are nomads in a manner all our own, shunning the comfortable for the exotic, the stable for the uncertain. And it’s with a heavy heart and bittersweet goodbye to Mongolia that I move on to my next adventure, leaving behind perfect sunsets, starry skies, vast empty spaces and true friendships.


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.


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.


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.