There are only about 2 million people in Mongolia and about 45 million farm animals. The people depend highly on the animals for their survival, so most of the land is used as pasture. Herds of sheep, horses, cows and camels can be seen grazing and roaming along the roads and far off into the distance.
Mongolia is a land of extremes, but the conditions couldn’t be more perfect for raising land animals: wide-open spaces, grassy fields and rolling hills for miles to see. The animals grow coats to protect themselves in the winter from the brutal winds and cold, but not all of them can take the scorching heat of the desert. In the Gobi, only camels can survive. Their bodies are perfectly adapted for the heat and sand.
Being the only animal in the Gobi Desert means, of course, that camels are milked and slaughtered like all animals raised for that purpose. In my naivety, it didn’t strike me that camels were used for anything other than riding until I actually got to the desert. As I mentioned in my last post, our host family fed us a slow cooked camel meat stew with potatoes and some kind of hand made noodle. It was delicious, rather like mutton, and very filling after our evening hike.
We were also offered a selection of treats such as camel cheese, sugar cubes and fried bread along with airag, a fermented wine of sorts, made from animals’ milk, usually mare. In the desert though, airag is made from milk provided by camels. Farmy, frothy and sour, airag is… an experience. I tried both camel’s airag and mare’s. Surprisingly, the camel version was MUCH better. It was at least vaguely wine-like and smooth, while the mare’s airag was utterly intolerable. I was unable to stomach more than two sips. Ugh.
For those of us used to temperate weather and wildlife, it is very special to be able to see such a unique animal in their element. Camels are desert wizards.
Our group climbed the Singing Dune, the highest dune in the Gobi Desert, to watch the sunset one evening. So named because of the unique sound that it makes when the wind blows the right way. I haven’t had much experience with deserts in my life and I’d never seen a sand dune before. This was serious.
I’m not the biggest fan of heights. As I have gotten older, I’ve noticed how much more often I fear for my mortality. This is synonymous, perhaps, with my growing sense of adventure. I’m scared of dying all the time, but I go ahead and do what I want anyway.
The photos do not give an accurate sense of how high the top of the dune is. As I climbed higher, I became increasingly terrified. I feared that I would slide dangerously and lose control. Its just sand, I know! But my rationale fled me. I was climbing the steepest part alone and seriously thought I would die, that I would be spending the rest of my life on top of that dune and would perish shortly. Or I would fall off. Never mind that I was with my group and several others. Watching people running down, diving into the mounds and doing all kinds of jumps. Finally, I took my first tentative steps down and was comforted by how much I sunk into the sand. I wasn’t going to fall off the dune! Halfway down, I was running and laughing and at the bottom, I was in tears. Tears of pride that I had overcome my fears were streaming down my face.
We celebrated by seeking out the first cold beers we had had in days and eating a hearty camel meat stew graciously given to us by our host family.
As we devoured our meals and laughed under the impossibly vast night sky, I marveled at how wonderful it is to make those small decisions to do something big.
Each evening on my tour in Mongolia, we stopped by some incredibly scenic places to either set up tents or stay with a host ger (yurt) family.
These families are nomadic, setting up their camp in one place for warmer weather and another place in winter. We were always given our own ger, sometimes with beds, and I was usually surprised by how comfortable they were.
Also surprising, was how colourful and beautifully designed they were inside.
They provided excellent shelter from the harsh elements and stayed relatively cool in the middle of the Gobi Desert.
These next few posts are sorely overdue. My apologies.
Mongolia had been a dream adventure of mine for many years (and still is). Finally this past summer, I got to experience the glory of the Gobi Desert. Having only ten days total and eight days for my adventure, I had to make the tough decision of choosing where to go. I found Golden Gobi Tours and Hostel online and made arrangements with them.
Eight days to explore the Gobi and its surroundings.
Eight days off the grid.
Eight days with no shower.
Eight days riding around with a group of strangers in a magnificent Russian-made machine that I’m not sure could ever be stopped.
Eight days conquering fears.
Eight days falling more and more in love with a land of such extreme beauty.
Eight days to experience a people of such incredible resilience.
Eight days to behold one of the most stunning and unique landscapes I have ever experienced.
Sigh. Eight days was not enough. Nor is one single post to show off my favourite photos, so there’s more to come.
After a decade of adventure, wondering at the world and learning how to be comfortable with the unfamiliar: I’ve come home.
What does home mean, exactly? Is home where the heart is?
My heart is all over the world: in every country I’ve been to, in every country I desire to explore, in every new adventure, in every meal.
Is home the place you’re most familiar with? The place you relate to most?
I’ve become more comfortable with exploring new lands than plunging my roots into the ground to stay in one place. The foreign feeling I experience in the country of my birth is more pronounced than that of being a stranger in a foreign land.
Is home a place? A person? An idea? Is it limited by what I know and where I’ve been? Can it transcend those limitations?
All of the above?
Here I am… Adjusting. Battling. Identifying. Trying to avoid having the same conversation everyday but also to avoid complacency. I’m also trying to avoid being too annoying to myself. First World Problems.
For the moment, because I cannot claim to know what it will mean tomorrow, home can be identified in a decision; a path to refine my skills and to deepen my relationship to cuisine and food. I’m going to culinary school.
Going to Korea to teach English to children was not exactly following my career trajectory. Adventure was a necessity and I found myself learning more about the world than I thought possible. In short, I put my career on hold to find out what I’m made of. Finally, when I made the decision to return, it was with clear intensions and strong passion. I’m ready to follow my path and keep moving forward. Take me home!
When most of us think of ramen noodles, we think of the instant rubbish that is made from the cheapest ingredients and produces the cheapest meal we can find. University student survival food. This is unfortunate. Real ramen is a delight. It should be on everyone’s list of Foods to Try Before You Die. While in Kyoto, I ate some excellent curry ramen from a shop downstairs from my hosts home. We placed our orders from a vending machine and gave our tickets to the cooks. After a few minutes of mysterious hand movements and magic noodle wizardry, our meals we produced. Fresh, healthy(ier) and delicious. One more tick, off the food bucket list.