Think you’re a badass? Touch down in Mongolia, and think again. When I began my escapade in the vast and void land, one of the dazzling and most isolated landscapes on earth in the heart of central Asia, I quickly realized, it ain’t for pussies.
This is a country that has founded vicious warriors who conquered the largest land empire the world has ever known; a country where 40 per cent of its population lives in traditional yurts year-round despite temperatures dropping to minus 40 in winter. It’s a country where the horses out number the people. A country where I was chased by wild goats and came face-to-face with vaulters caught by resilient archers. Where I found vodka easier and faster than I found water. Where the “rules of the road” are such a myth, they have put steering wheels on both the left and right side of a car. Where I got robbed on a city bus faster than my friend could say, “You’re in Mongolia? Where’s that?” The air was thin, the landscape was raw, and the mountains were so hauntingly beautiful they make me bawl like a baby.
A country that without a doubt tested my limits, in the best possible way.
My Mongolia mission begins in the crackpot capital city of Ulaanbaatar. I ignore my inability to pronounce the name correctly and the scamming taxi drivers at the terminal and catch an airport bus with a local girl who spoke perfect English.
“Do you have a warm coat?” she asks as we walk outside into the bitter wind.
“I have a hoodie?” I answer pathetically.
She just nods and smiles, but I could see it in her eyes, what she wants to say is, “You poor little American girl…”
But I take her sight-seeing advice and head to the Gandan Monastery. Gandan is tucked away from the city giving off peaceful, enchanting and mysterious vibes, filled with vistas so bleak and beautiful that you could hardly believe they were on planet earth. Serenity level: top notch, if you can fight off the stares locals give you for clearly being out of your element.
I roam around the temple grounds for a while, and spin my sins away on the army of groaning copper prayer wheels, and watch young practicing monks bow and say prayers near statues and trees and then set out to spend a night with a nomadic family in their traditional yurt.
The squat structure reminds me of a mini version of a circus tent. Only inside it’s not all fun and games. I am completely out of my comfort zone, crammed into a literal hut with a Mongolian family of four, putting on every article of clothing I have in my backpack to keep warm, eating some sort of green, tangy, milk paste on cold bread by candle light that I am offered for dinner.
“Ülger domgiin” (Mongolian for fabulous), they say and shove the concoction down their throats. Not wanting to be rude, I do the same.
“Don’t vomit; you’ll need the sustenance for the journey ahead.” I tell myself.
After a bitter cold night tossing and turning on the ground of a yurt and peeing in a literal hole in the mud, I venture out to camp in Gorkhi-Terelj National Park for two nights.
I’m greeted by captured eagles and vaulters and their archers at the wooden gate entrance of my campsite. Black war paint is smeared across the archers faces, feathers hang off the bottoms of their coats, a rope in hand with a massive bird at the other end of it, that sits on a post looking like it knows the consequences if it tries to fly away.
I slowly enter in what appears to be their home and we stare at one another both puzzled at what was in front of us. For me, a nomadic modern day warrior, and for him…a baffled, wide-eyed, blonde American girl with a backpack bigger than her.
Wild horses are run through the lush grasslands in the distant. A Mongolian woman hangs clothes and sheets from a line. A campfire is being lit and I cozy up to catch some warmth.
Later on that night around the campfire and under the stars, I ask the Mongolian woman, “What do you do out here to pass the time in a place like this?”
“Think,” she replies.
I came to Mongolia for spectacular nothingness. I couldn’t remember a previous time where I felt so open, so free, and so damn hardcore. It was a place that spoke directly to my soul. Kicked up flames from dark corners of my mind and whispered sweet nothings to me, making me feel small and insignificant in the best possible way. I came for endless steppe, sprawling and arid landscapes that taught me about raw beauty. The outrageously vast, open sky dotted with the occasional spiraling eagle, the dusty earth beneath my feet, the sun warming my skin and, later, the cosmos of stars consuming the night sky…it indeed made me “think”.