When I set off to Mongolia in August, I both had a lot of expectations and none at the same time. How on earth did I manage that?
Beautiful people, wide, empty landscapes, adorable horses, oh and yaks.
But above all, I was expecting to be challenged. Pretty much everyone I knew who had been to Mongolia had gone on a organized driving tour in a big furgon or jeep, most of them to the Gobi Desert or just crossed Mongolia on the Trans-Siberian railroad.
Shuffled from ger (yurt) to ger with ramshackle itineraries and tight schedules, those experiences didn’t seem genuine to me and completely turned me off.
I wanted to see the real Mongolia. I wanted to get dirty. I wanted to go to the places where no one spoke English and people yanked my blonde hair without my permission because it’s a rare sight to them.
As it turns out I ended up so far off the grid that I was in a part of Mongolia that wasn’t even Mongolian!
Talk about aiming high.
This time around I went with a small group tour, Zavkhan Trekking, it wasn’t really a tour. It was also the perfect introduction to remote Mongolia and gave me the confidence and inspiration that I can go back on my own one day.
Zavkhan is run by an awesome kiwi long rider named John, who has ridden across Mongolia for over a decade and decided he wanted to share the experience with other intrepid travelers. Partnering with locals in Mongolia, he has set up summer tours that are not quite tours, bringing people to his favorite off the beaten path spots and introducing them to the people he loves.
Now yes you can argue that Mongolia is pretty out there in and of itself, but since the 90’s there’s been a well-trodden tourist trail around it. I don’t know about you but I don’t like tourist trails.
But if you’re keen to dig a little deeper without doing it completely on your own, Zavkhan can make that happen.
But where was I?
Even as I packed my bag for Mongolia, I realized this would be different. Between my sleeping bag and mat, several merino wool layers (10 day underwear – the best!) and the 14 batteries and extra portable chargers, I was ready to disconnect and go off the grid.
I took a blank notebook again. This past year I had gotten out of the habit of writing my travel experiences by hand, being too rushed and too busy to take the time to process everything.
This trip would be different.
Before I got on the first of many plane rides I had been struggling for a few months with the age old question of what I wanted to do with my life.
While I always want to continue traveling and sharing my stories here on my blog, I felt like I was stuck in a rut with no time or energy to think or plan more than a few weeks in advance.
But I have big dreams, bigger than blogging and bigger than travel. Mildly unhappy with how things have been going, I was hoping to have the opportunity to seriously contemplate my future and how to make my goals happen.
I want to write books. I want to find a place to settle for a year or two so I don’t have the pressure of an impending move always hanging over my head. I want to get better at public speaking and become more involved with inspiring people to get out of the house and see the world.
And wanted to have serious adventures and travel the way people used to; I want to travel like Hemingway and other great writers, inspired by their journeys to share my own. No more following other people’s trails, I want to forge my own.
I want to ride a motorbike from the top to bottom of Africa. I want to walk across New Zealand. I want to travel Iran alone as a woman. I want to volunteer in Syria.
In short, I want to seriously challenge myself on an epic journey. But I didn’t believe in myself, and realistically I thought it was impossible.
Mongolia was going to be a test. An introduction. 3 weeks of horseback riding through the most remote and unexplored region, and oh, did I mention I am not a horseback rider and I am morbidly afraid of riding animals?
Nothing in life is easy, and the things you want the most are often the hardest to achieve.
Before meeting me, people often assume I am some crazy adventurous person, but I’m here to tell you, I am not.
I am an ordinary girl with no special skills or gifts. I am not fearless, in fact I get quite afraid of a lot of things, especially this past year (thought that’s a story for another day). I have doubts, I worry, and to be honest, I am pretty clumsy, not super fit or that organized. I also cry a lot, usually in really awkward situations.
But there are a few things I’ve figured out that makes me stand out from the masses, personality quirks and changes I’ve worked on improving over the past few years.
I’ve come to believe if you can manage these three things in your life, you can do almost anything, and you can certainly manage a Zavkhan trip.
With that in mind I decided to head on a horseback riding expedition in remote Mongolia.
So how exactly did Mongolia change my life?
I’ll start with the most obvious. Simple living.
The ethnic Kazakhs that live in the Altai in far eastern Mongolia on the border with China do not have easy lives. They are the last of the true nomads on the Eurasian Steppe, their culture and way of life preserved, (mostly) unchanged since the time of Genghis Khan. With the occasional soviet jeep, Russian candies, or satellite dish thrown in there to keep things interesting.
They are horse people. They are nomads, moving with their families and flocks from place to place in accordance to the seasons. Higher lands in summer, down in the valleys in winter.
Here hospitality reigns strong and families live together 4 generations in ger. In winter temperatures drop to 40 below and sometimes killing off all their livestock.
Their lives are hard. To romanticize it is elitist and simplistic. I don’t envy them. Given half a chance I’m sure they would love to swap places with me.
I spent three weeks with them, and they taught me more about life than I’ve learned in my 26 years elsewhere.
First off, they are the happiest and hardest working people I’ve ever met. Ever. We are told all the time that money can’t buy happiness and material things don’t guarantee joy, but to see it, breathe it, experience it and live it yourself for weeks is something else entirely.
The books got it wrong. The movies got it wrong.
I’ve always been a materialistic person. I love shopping, spending money and buying things – I’m not (too) ashamed to admit it. It’s gotten better as I’ve gotten older and have had to support myself, and I learned that at the end of the day I would rather spend my money on an adventure than on clothes, but it’s still there.
To be thrown in a place where everyone wears the same clothes everyday because that’s all they have was a good smack in the face. Hell, I was wearing the same clothes everyday too, because it actually doesn’t matter, and you don’t smell that bad.
Being invited into people’s home, have them share their food with a bunch of strangers and see how they really live is something I’ll never forget and not something you can put a price tag on. And to be able to share that experience and be welcomed in is not something you can put a price tag on.
For three weeks I ate nothing but sheep, Walter to be specific (Walter’s sad tale here). Mutton soup. Mutton dumplings. Mutton on a stick. And more mutton soup. I thought I would hate it, but let me tell you, after 6 hours of hard riding, you’ll eat anything put in front of you. And be grateful. I even ate the sheep’s head AND I didn’t hate it, though I drew the line at boiled stomach because it’s actually the worst texture in the entire world. Imagine wet fuzzy white rubber – god, makes me gag just thinking about it. Sorry.
Hours and hours in the saddle, no showers, drinking from streams, peeing in a communal hole, so cold at night you can’t sleep, I endured it all. And woke up excited every single day.
But sheep’s stomach aside, I was so shocked that not only was I ok with living like that, I imagined myself doing it again and for longer. All those little comfortable things you thought you couldn’t live without disappear without you even realizing it.
Being there and doing it myself made me understand that other ways of living are also worth it. It changed me.
But what else? How else did Mongolia change my life?
Mongolia showed me that I was tougher than I thought and that the rewards from overcoming personal fears is better than anything.
Over a year ago I fell off a camel in Jordan and almost broke my back. It was in that exact moment that my courage and confidence started to slip away. I no longer faced adventure or activities with open arms, instead with trepidation and eventually determination. But it made my way of travel infinitely harder.
Riding horses in Mongolia is likely more terrifying for me than for most people.
After an initial mismatch with an ex-racehorse, I found Chewy, my stubborn little mule of a horse. Slow and steady, we were a match made in heaven.
Usually in the back of the group, the best I could get him to do was a half-assed trot behind everyone else. But it was fine with me because I felt comfortable knowing he would never bolt off. He did have a mind of his own and no qualms about stopping and not moving, usually in the middle of rivers.
I hated river crossings.
It was my one big fear on the trip. By the end I asked the wranglers to help lead me and Chewy through the toughest crossings while I held on for dear life (I should add that that was just me, everyone else was totally normal and fine). I just had visions of Chewy toppling over on me, breaking my leg and drowning my camera.
The wranglers didn’t seem to mind, they were always happy to help, and I think they found it funny when I was clutching the mane of my horse going “oh, I don’t like it, I don’t like, make it stop” behind them.
But I did it. And that makes all the difference.
There were some really tough days, one was deep in the woods when Chewy stubbornly picked the wrong line and tripped, losing both front legs in a deceptively deep mud puddle and flinging me off into the rocks and mud in the process.
God damn horse.
Luckily I just had a few scratches and bruises, and of course covered in mud, and since we were on a narrow deer trail in dense woods, I had no choice but calm down for a few minutes and get back in the saddle. I think it would have been a lot worse if I had had time to think about it and brood.
My worst day was followed by my best day. At the very end of the trip I got up one morning only to realize Chewy’s hoof was scratched and I couldn’t ride him.
I was given Amangul’s horse to ride which within the first hour bolted and tried to bite me and all the other horses several times. After a few hours I was on the verge of tears, terrified of an animal which I knew I couldn’t control and feeling like a total failure. If you can’t trust your horse, you are in for a terrible time. Luckily Anar the translator swapped with me, though his horse wouldn’t stand still to let you mount her (also terrifying) and kept stumbling in marmot holes and thoroughly freaking me out.
By the time we arrived at camp 9 hours later, I had cried a few times and was angry with everyone and everything.
Luckily my friend Echo gave me some space before coming over with half a KitKat she had saved. Chocolate and friends solve everything.
The next day I was able to ride one of the big white packhorses. He was a total sweetie, strong but happy to follow the group and not be in the front. I ended up riding with Khadaran, chief wrangler in the back while the group galloped off.
We ended up going a different way, and I didn’t feel any pressure trying to keep up with everyone. With him we practiced trotting and cantoring, as I got used to my new horse, getting more and more comfortable in the saddle. Eventually I felt the rhythm of the horse change and I realized we were galloping!
With Chewy I knew there was no way I could kick or whip him into a gallop so I figured I wouldn’t get the opportunity.
We galloped a few more times before arriving down in the valley a ger overlooking a lake. This time I was half an hour ahead of everyone else, giving me time to get to know the family and rejoice in my success as a rider. I also feel like I should add that all of this managed to happen when we couldn’t communicate in each other’s languages.
Later on at the ended of the day I galloped into the camp with the rest of the group while the Kazakhs sang and chanted behind us. It was the best moment for me of the entire trip, and having it come after my worst day made it all the more amazing.
That was pure euphoria like I had never experienced before.
And now finally, for my biggest takeaway.
It made me realize I wanted more out of life than what I had been doing. This trip was a teaser. It was an inspiration. It was the kick in the ass I needed to start thinking about my future travels.
As much as I love hopping around the world on blog trips, they have started to feel the same, even when I am planning them myself. I have been taking it easy.
I am starting to feel like I want something different, something more. Mongolia changed me, changed my outlook on life and travel.
Surviving Mongolia and loving it, even the fucking river crossings and sheep soup 24/7 all while smelling like socks made me think, hey I can actually do these things AND I like it. Hey, I am stronger than I realized. Be proud, Liz.
Like my pep talk?
So now it’s time to write my own story. What will be my next adventure? What challenge can I find overseas that will inspire me as much as this?
I already know that one day I will go back to Mongolia on my own and ride across it in an attempt to join the Long Riders Guild (for riders who ride over 1000 miles on a trip). I dream of one day being able to gallop into Bayan Olgii and hug Amangul and go find the people who taught me to ride and who showed me that life didn’t have to be like what I knew and that happiness can be found anywhere in any situation.
The wheels and cogs in my mind have been turning and I have been thinking a lot about how I can continue to challenge myself on the road in 2015. I have several ideas in mind of places I want to explore and how I can explore them in a new way.
I can’t say anything yet because I don’t want to put my mother in an early grave, but let’s just say they are terrifyingly epic.
Wish me luck!
What’s a place you would love to go to be think is impossible? Have you ever felt like a journey changed your life?