An invitation. An impossibility.
“Would you come to Mongolia? Sing, help teach English…”
I smiled as I heard the warm voice of the world traveler and family friend.
“I would love to help!
“But I can’t. Between my work and international borders, it’s not possible.”
That was the end of it. Or so I thought.
Still, I began to pray. Told God all about the impossibilities and my wishes.
A few months later, things changed and I was standing before my boss biting my lip.
“Next month, I’ve been invited to help with a humanitarian project in Mongolia.
“Do you think you could spare me for a few weeks?
Unexpectedly, a smile on the face before me and I hear, “What an amazing opportunity!”
Wonder of wonders, the go-ahead is given!
The weeks hurry by. I board the CountryLink train to Central and settle in for the eight hour ride. The large windows provide a sweeping panorama of the New England region. Wait, why did that cow just roll onto its back? It must have been bowled over by the train!
My seating companion heads to the buffet to collect her ordered hot meal. Oh, yes. Lunch time. I eat the first tub of Pilpel hummus that Mum sent with me. I will keep the second for the plane.
We now are entering the Hunter region and the train stations are flying past more often. I look twice in surprise and amusement to see a guy doing chin-ups on the “Next train arrives in…” sign as he waits.
The sky grows darker. We must be nearing Central. The dozens of train lines surely look familiar. “Which station is next?” someone asks. “Central,” I offer confidently and join the gathering group pressing towards the door.
Momentarily I wonder why everyone is not exiting. After all, Central is the last station. But I have another train to catch and worrying about fellow passengers will have to keep.
On solid ground, I begin to walk towards the steps, usually so familiar. Why is it not as I remembered? I look around again. The train begins to pull away. My heart sinks. Strathfield!
I chide myself for getting caught up in the crowd and await the next city train.
Sydney International Airport. I smile as I head in the direction of the terminal printed on my ticket. Plenty of time. Wait, what is that queue at the Air Korea terminal? Turns out that I’m not so early after all. An hour or more later and I leave the line behind. Now to find security.
I watch curiously as my Woolies shopping bag with my travel food goes through. Flagged.
“Yes, yes. It’s just hummus,” I tell the woman who has separated out my belongings.
She reaches in with gloved hands to retrieve and throw away the offending item.
“Oh, no, no need to chuck it out! I’ll eat it now.”
As if it planned for me and my impromptu dinner, a table and chairs await me back on the other side of security, just a few metres from those hurried individuals trying to get through this segment of their journey as quickly as possible. I can’t help but return the amused expressions coming my way.
Well satisfied, I again pass through security. I find my gate, plug in my laptop to share my big secret. “Off to find the summer sun, new friends and desert wildflowers.”
“I can’t believe this is actually happening!!” I text a friend.
“I’m excited and I’m not even the one going!” he replies. I grin – how am I so lucky to have such wonderful people in my life?
Soon, my travel companion finds me. Boarding. Pre-flight checks. Then my favourite — take-off!
I quickly discover that said family friend who knew my grandmother well and was an experienced humanitarian campaign manager knew everything about everything.
“Can you feel how the plane is turning right? Watch the flight path. You’ll see that the captain is avoiding a storm.”
Sure enough, soon he points out the lightning on the distant horizon that we have avoided.
I catch myself saying, “OH WOW!” over and over again, genuinely amazed at the facts and stories.
It’s 4am now. I have not slept. I’m glued to the window, in awe of the hints of colour slowly spreading across the eastern horizon in striking contrast to the deep blue beneath and the glittery stars that remain visible.
The lovely Korean air hostesses bring us our ‘special meals’ of Oriental and Indian vegetarian, the idea being to switch meals for variety (which we did). One perk to ordering a special meal is being attended to first.
We know the layover in Seoul is short – 45 minutes. Our hearts sink a little when the plane ends up departing Sydney after the predicted moment. Wonderfully, we arrive not late or on time, but early!
As we begin our descent into Mongolia, I strain to take in the sight beneath and orientate myself. Where are the roads? Or really, why did it look like there were hundreds of them all fragmenting? Goat trails? No, they are too wide, too distinct.
Chinggis Khaan Airport. Saying the name the Chinese way, “Ghengis Khan” will not earn you any brownie points in the famed conqueror’s native territory.
After a night’s rest we again resume the journey, this time by car. Our destination awaits us 1500 kilometres away. Twenty hours of driving.
As we weave through the heavy traffic in our attempt to leave the capital, a statue of a mother holding a quiver of arrows with her children clustered around her captures my attention. “Who is that?”
Our interpreter and driver explains, “It is Chingis Khaan’s wife. She taught her children the importance of loyalty and supporting each other using these arrows. “It is easy to break one when it is alone, but many arrows together are indestructible,” she explained.
Before we can leave the city, we must pay toll. “How much?”
“One thousand Tugrik,” the answer. Forty cents. That’s alright. I hand it through the window and accept a blue fringed slip in exchange.
I eagerly take in the scenery now. The houses disappear. A small fenced area. A cluster of yurts. But where are the trees?
Suddenly a pile of rock looms ahead. We drive over it. We gain momentum again only to grind to a halt as we are confronted by yet another hill of shale. This time we are forced off-road.
I scan the view out of the left and right hand windows. Buses, trucks, cars all choosing their own paths parallel to the highway. We rejoin the main road only to be forced off by the hints of intended future roadworks again and again. We finally give up. Our driver settles into the cross-country rhythm.
Hours pass. How many hundreds of kilometres have we driven this way? Nobody is counting.
Unexpectedly, the driver brakes. “I need to check the tyres.”
Sure enough, the left rear tyre is flat. No surprise with this road. All the luggage is removed from the boot to allow retrieval of the spare. It begins to rain lightly. The soil is soft and sandy so the men go off to hunt for a suitable object upon which to anchor the jack.
All I can think about it finding a bathroom. I’ve had no appetite all day so have been drinking water like there is no tomorrow. But where can I find some privacy? Two hundred metres in the distance there looks to be a small hill. I walk towards it. But as I approach, it disappears like a mirage. I look around. No trees. No large rocks. And the closest significant hill appears to be one or two kilometres further…..
As I return to the car two things grab my attention. How can the spare be so narrow?
“How far to the next city?” I hear others voice the worry on my mind.
“Only one more hour,” Dharhan reassures.
Thunder? I lift my eyes from the unusual tyre to the sky. Clouds yes, but no lightning. Then a mob of horses. This is the thunder. Small but majestic – the Mongolian horse.
None too soon we reach the city and find a repair shop. I marvel to see that it is the client’s responsibility to jack the car up and remove or re-bolt the tyre.
“It’s cheaper and we are capable of doing it ourselves, so why not?” Dharkhan explains.
Back on the bitumen. A full-size tyre and we all breathe easier and settle in for the second half of the trip. I decide the landscape has a charm of its own, with reoccurring themes.
Space, vast open space is the keynote of them all.
It is the morning of our second day of travel by land. We have gained an hour as the timezone changes. The way I like it. The mountains part and a wide valley stretches out below. Wow! Here we are!
We pull up at a hotel and three Mongol teens casually emerge, linger, listen. Who are they? I soon discover they are part of our team. I mentally take note that the guy with shorter hair has a good grasp of English.
We all meet at midday to prepare for our program. During some downtime, Lilye curls her hair backstage. After the program is over, Esuhe translates her wish for me to take some photos. I ask when?
“Now. The curls will only exist today.” Only a little surprised, I laugh and agree.
A new day. And I’m in a hurry. Or trying to be.
“Come on, guys, let’s run!”
“We need to get this done and be back by 4, remember?”
Esuhe appears only to be amused.
“We don’t hurry here. It just isn’t the Mongolian thing to do.”
A mixture of admiration and bewilderment fills me.
A few days later I see that it really is true. The stores do not open until midday. After all, it is summer. The children are on holidays, playing ball, swimming in dammed up pockets of the river and everyone sleeps in.
Indeed, there is a slower pace. But somehow things don’t take so long. It only takes two hours to build a (yurt) home. At the river, life seems to pass in slow motion. Even I feel it. So peaceful. So beautiful.
The allocated two weeks in this remote city have come to an end. Time to retrace our tracks.
“Which way do you want to go? The northern road which passes my hometown or the southern route by which we came?” our driver-turned-friend asks.
“It is only 100 kilometres and a few hours longer on the northern route, but you will see beautiful lakes and mountains. The only thing is the first two hundred kilometres are all poor dirt roads. That will take four hours.”
I look ahead through the windscreen. The next turn will be the deciding one.
Truth be told, I’m skeptical. I have seen lakes and mountains. Jagged and tree-less peaks, parched, hot hillsides and barren banks. No, I don’t think it is worth the bad road or the extra mileage. It’d have to be seeing something different, fresh, wonderful.
“Wait, yaks? Would we see yaks on the northern route?” I suddenly ask.
Dharhan laughs. “Yes, you will see yaks.”
“Not just a statue of one?”I ask warily.
“Why would you need a statue?!” he seems incredulous and amused.
“Well, I don’t want you tricking me like you enjoy doing,” I quickly retort.
He laughs. “You’ll see yaks.”
“Are you 100% sure?”
“I’m one thousand percent sure.”
The case is settled.
We had overshot our turn for the north road, but we do a U-Turn on the highway.
Irina is attempting to sleep in the back. I tell her about the promise of seeing yaks. She agrees this would be wonderful. I fail to explain the cost.
Suddenly, she is jolted awake as we drop off the bitumen road onto dirt track.
“What are we doing? I remembered us having the best road near the end, on the way here! Where did the asphalt go?!”
I sheepishly explain, “This is the northern route. There will be a bit of gravel first.” I cannot bring myself to tell exactly how much.
The steady vibration of corrugated gravel coupled with the exhaustion of two weeks of efforts that kept me out of my comfort conquered my heretofore watchful eyes and I too fall asleep.
My eyes flutter open just in time to see us plunging through water. Terror fills me for a brief moment as my disorientated mind recalls previous experience in flash-flooding creeks.
“The buses have to travel through this too. It’s normal.” Dharkhan smiles at my surprise.
A herd of camels casually chew their cud as we pass, seemingly unbothered by us.
Four hours later, we breathe sighs of relief as the jostling comes to an end and the smooth road stretches out in one straight and single line ahead.
But if I’m honest, I’m regretting my decision to come this way. Yes, I have seen some lakes. And this one here is huge and very blue. Irina is enraptured, wondering why nobody is swimming. But to me, its more of the same. Only its crazy windy.
At nightfall, I observe the first ‘difference’, when we stop to eat. It’s freezing. I’m glad I disregarded the advice not to bring my snow jacket.
The road stretches on endlessly.
“Will you be able to drive through the night?” I ask.
“At 11, I’ll stop I think. I usually get tired then.”
I notice the time. He will stop fairly soon.
At 1AM I awaken and the driver is still at his post. I marvel and sleep steals over me once more.
Only to awaken from cold. I look around. I have loaned my snow jacket to Irina and am wearing only my light summer dress. I see that Darkhan is asleep. Then I notice his window. It is wide open. No wonder I’m freezing! I curl into the fetal position facing my seat to try warm myself. It doesn’t work.
After an unknown eternity, I finally whisper, “Can I please drive?”
Dharkhan stirs. I tell him its on my bucket list. He relinquishes his seat but does not relax.
“Do you always drive this fast?” he asks and adds a warning about animals.
I reassure him I have suicide bomber kangaroos to worry about all the time in Australia.
But truthfully, it is 4am and I can hardly keep my eyes open. I am secretly glad he hasn’t gone to sleep. I wonder when I should admit it. Then I see a valley of dusky creatures.
“Yaks!?” I ask incredulous with hope.
We stop the car on a precarious hillside. The chill only slightly tempers my delight.
I pull out my camera just to find it is still far too dark to capture anything well.
Dharkhan takes over at the wheel. And now I’m wide awake. We all are. My only worry is that we will pass through the herds before the sun rises. But my fear is unfounded. This is the province of the yak.
I squeal with delight as I see the hairy creatures, left and right. We stop for photos. Again and again.
And then I realise, the scenery has changed. Entirely changed. There are trees – forests even! The sunrise reflects off foggy lakes against a backdrop of luscious green fields. I’ve changed my mind! This is worth it! I love it! How can there be such beauty?!
As we pass one misty lake, Irina marvels at the little mountain in the middle.
“Oh let me tell you the legend about that….” comes the unexpected response. I eagerly listen.
“Once upon a time, this man dug a well and hit a spring.
Then one day he learns he must go on a long trip. He calls his son to him and gives instructions.
“Son, you’ll need to water the animals while I’m gone, every day. It will take some time to water them all, but remember to always cover the well as soon as you are finished.”
“Yes, father. I’ll remember everything and do as you say,” the son responds confidently.
For the first few days, he does exactly as father showed him.
By the fifth day, the boy feels tired of watching and waiting. While the animals are being watered, he shimmies onto his pony and races up the hill.
Suddenly he hears a scream. He turns to look back to the valley. Water is everywhere. It is only shallow though. He joins in the yells for help but quickly the well is covered and the fountain too strong.
The nomads nearby become fearful for their herds and yurts.
They consult with one another about what to do. The decision is made that they must find the wisest and strongest man in the valley. A desperate message is sent.
Then he comes. And climbs the top of a nearby mountain. Cuts it off and places it on the well.
And that, Christella and Irina, is why there is a little mountain peak in the lake.”
We soon pass through the ancient capital of Karakorum. There is little left to tell of the once glorious city as it was plundered by the Communists in the last century. But there is a mural that shows some of the story. We seek it out.
“The blue shape is Mongolia now. The gold shows its size when it was during the 13th and 14th centuries the largest contiguous land empire in history.”
This explains the annual festival of Naadam. The celebration of the Mongolian warrior.
Signs of preparation for this festival are everywhere. Horses on trucks, with their fringes and tails wrapped decoratively all heading to race… and in the capital, the military band have been practicing their parade for weeks from 2am until 7am each morning on the square.
On my final morning in the capital, I am awakened by our travel companion to come and see. And oh it was every bit impressive! Not only were there all the special units and divisions of the military represented, but also historic periods.
Our final stop on the northern route which fully convinced me I did not regret my decision to take the long route was the sand dunes. I persuaded Irina that we should lose our comfortable traveling clothes and make the most of the magic. And I’m glad we did.
A photo tells a thousand words and with my pen I have told just as many again.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this Australian girl’s tale of how God made the way for me to experience two weeks of June summer in Mongolia.