Monday, January 14, 2008

Take Me Back to Mongolia

For Christmas, I got DVDs of "Long Way Round," a documentary-style TV mini-series about a round-the-world motorcycle journey taken by actor Ewan McGregor and his friend Charley Boorman. I'm a little more than halfway through the 10 episodes. I was expecting it to be less "managed" than it is; they created a whole production company, went through every manner of preparation you can imagine, and have a van support team that meets them at border crossings. All that kind of defeats the purpose of adventure travel, in my opinion, but whatever.

Anyway, episodes 5 and 6 find them struggling with washed out roads and broken bikes in Mongolia. Despite the setbacks, they're overwhelmed with affinity for the country and its people. I know exactly how they feel.

In early September, 2006, I spent just under two weeks in Mongolia. My time was evenly split between a secluded ger camp at the southern tip of Bulgan aimag and a hostel in the capital city of Ulaan Baatar (universally referred to as "UB"). I enjoyed both immensely, but the rural experience is what I remember most fondly. The heavy, natural quiet of the mountains, the plains, the northern Gobi sand dunes, and the vast, uninterrupted sky seeps into you. Nomadic herder families, their livestock, and their gers punctuate the rugged landscape. People you encounter are dressed in the traditional thick, maroon, robed coats and get around on horseback. This is life in Mongolia, where half the population remains nomadic or semi-nomadic.

I desperately want to return. Of the many strange and fascinating places I've traveled to in the past couple years, Mongolia's echo is the loudest. I want to be invited into a ger to drink airag and eat fresh goat's milk cheese. I want to take a trek by yak, mountain bike, or foot to a crystal-cold lake. I want to travel to a Kazakh community in the far western mountains and watch a winter eagle-hunt.

From time to time, I consider living in UB, perhaps working for a charity or education organization, spending my free time roaming the open countryside. But Mongolia is so far away from home and family, so different, and so cold. I don't know if I'll ever do it, but I do know that I'll be back someday, because I'm finding it too hard to stay away.

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