I remember from my childhood that there were certain places in the world so far out there that they seemed almost mythical; Timbuktu comes to mind. Others were places whose name equated with punishment – to be sent to the Siberian Salt Mines for example. The threat of banishment was reserved for Outer Mongolia. Oh! I wish I knew then what I know now! Having once again returned from this amazing country I wondered how my upbringing would have been different if my parents, at the height of my naughtiness had bundled me up and sent me to Outer Mongolia.
For sure I would have learned at the ‘School of Hard Knocks’, it is a tough place, producing tough people. I would have learned to coax milk from the stubborn teats of camels, the art of extreme horsemanship, a reverence for nature, camaraderie, the importance of family, deep friendships, a sense of welcoming, survival skills to overcome the harsh winters, religious tolerance, minimalist living, an appreciation of the wide outdoors and a constant longing for the taste of hard curd. All-in-all not bad qualities to carry through life.
Regarding education and worldliness it is always a surprise to us how globally aware a herder in the Gobi Desert often is. Many times, for example, in the ‘developed’ world when answering people that I live in Ecuador they ask “Where is that?” In a nomadic herder’s ger (felt tent), through a translator, when learning I live in Ecuador they might say “Oh!” Between Colombia and Peru. “How is your president doing?” One of the positive benefits of a previous Russian occupation being the Russian radio access.
After a short absence since we were last in Mongolia (Reneé and I for a period even had an apartment in Ulaanbaatar (UB), the capital, for 6 months) we were keen to see changes. Apart from the heavy increase in traffic made up of a huge influx of 2nd hand Toyota Prius’s from Japan I only have good things to report. The atmosphere was friendly, pleasant and much less ‘Russian’ than before. Eateries were vastly improved as was service, hotels and shopping.
Over our journey through the Altai Mountains in the west with the eagle hunters, to the ever-changing scenery of the Gobi Desert we reaffirmed many old friendships and formed friends from past acquaintances. Mongolia, to us is much closer to heaven than the hell of old.
We are all guilty of something (overwork, succumbing to the pressures of stress etc.) and if anybody out there thinks that they also deserve some time in banishment then let us know!