It’s not a mirage, but it feels like one. Shimmering seemingly at the end of every road, no matter which direction we’re facing, is a solitary green mountain. Ulaanbaatar, a curious city blanketed in Soviet grey, feels like it points towards this one peak of color in a black-and-white world, a fantasy movie set beyond time and space. As we drive towards it, the concrete transforming to grass and the steel sky to Gatorade blue, there’s a strong feeling that we’re moving into the unknown — in every sense of the word.
Like most people of my generation, I have been doing things for my entire adult life. Doing things on the Internet, doing activities at home, doing my best to be better at everything, doing anything not to feel boredom. This societal-driven need to do has permeated my holidays, too. Most of the excursions I’ve been on have followed the typical “research-and-plan” method, fueled by the notion that I need to “make the most” of every moment. For intrepid travelers and resort-dwellers alike, going on holiday includes research, itineraries, and must-see sites. We plan to be off-the-beaten-path, the same way we plan on spending a relaxing beach holiday between the salty air and the air conditioning. Organizing has allowed me to see things I might not have found by idle wandering alone. Yet in adhering to the lists that have often rewarded me, I’ve also been left disappointed on many occasions. The trips I carry with me are those which were bookended not by famous sites or restaurant hype-spots, but by moments of nothing.
Somewhere along the way, this idea of doing and expecting nothing while abroad has come into focus. I yearn to crop out the details and simply see whatever I see. So when my husband and I decide to travel to the Mongolian steppe, we plan only where we’re staying. We skip the research and the specific set of tourism images from Google. When friends ask what we’re going to do, we smile, shrug our shoulders, and feign ignorance at their scepticism. It isn’t some radical plan to detox ourselves or eschew order or technology (even though all of these things end up happening). For the first time ever, I feel relaxed about going somewhere I know almost nothing about, and about eschewing the norm. I want to understand travel in the traditional, simple sense of the word: to journey.
Journey, we do. After a somewhat ropey ride from smooth paved roads to stoney dust tracks, we arrive at our camp, nestled in a grassy valley. With no sense of urgency, we’re shown to our ger (a traditional Mongolian tent) by a young woman who doesn’t seem to feel the wild winds that are testing our balance. We unpack our few belongings and take a moment to appreciate the simultaneous simplicity and innovation of the ger. Clad with wool and covered with felt and tarpaulin, it’s a practical marvel (as we truly discover later on, when torrential rain and freezing temperatures still allow us to be cosy and dry). Wooden beams line the inside of the circular structure, and a wood-burning fire shoots smoke out of a small hole in the roof. Wonderfully, that’s it. There’s no Internet and should we want to plug anything in, we’ll have to sacrifice light from the single hanging bulb. We don’t bother. We don’t bother with the electricity and we don’t bother with the organised activities, either. Organically, the doing nothing has begun.
Between meals, we find ourselves naturally repeating the same six “non-activity” actions: walking, observing, talking, napping, writing, and reading. They are loose and malleable and subject to change depending on how we feel at any given moment. Living without structure is exhilarating. In the mornings, we sit on the steps outside our ger and watch other campers gear up for the myriad hobbies that the Mongolian countryside is known for — archery, group hiking and, of course, horse riding.
Mongolia is unofficially Horse Country, thanks to its fearless leader, Genghis Khan. He conquered the majority of the Eurasian steppe in the thirteenth century, relying on his steeds to get him through every aspect of war, from finding sustenance to carrying him into the afterlife should he be killed. Just as British troops employed carrier pigeons during the war, Genghis Khan and his men depended on the Yam, a relay messaging system in which riders arrived at a station, passed on a message to another rider who then rode to the next station while the first messenger rested. The equestrian culture still remains strong (horses outnumber people in Mongolia), especially for the roughly 30 percent of Mongolians who live nomadically. As well as providing transportation (carrying both passengers and gers, the latter of which must be taken apart and reassembled whenever the nomads decide to move on), horses on the steppe are used for herding and also for their milk which is fermented into a drink known as airag.
From the peak outside our camp, we spot lone gers peppered around the plains like the small white dots you get in front of your eyelids after staring at the sun for too long. Beyond tradition and livelihood (both of which rely on the land), it’s easy to see why nomads haven’t handed themselves over to city life. Here, the landscape is vast and lush, replete with the kind of stillness that pads your body and slows your heart. Firm, unchanging mountains and knobbly hills form an irregular outline against the sky of the moment. Meadows subtly slant and slope, humming with mismatched flowers. We’re so taken with this space to breathe that only once, a few days in, does uncertainty arrive. Can we really do this for another four days? The question is simply a formality, a tap on the shoulder from the life we were living just days ago. We know this because the answer comes like water from a tap, immediate and smooth: yes. We never actually feel bored, simply because our understanding of boredom has shifted. Our former overstimulated selves have evaporated with the morning dew, and in their place are relaxed beings who find simultaneous excitement and calmness in the simplest of things: fresh homemade breakfasts, rain, watching the staff expertly light the fire, talking, the way the prehistoric rock next to our ger looms over the land.
And so doing nothing happily continues. Some mornings, we wake, eat breakfast, and then return to our ger for a nap. It seems audacious only through the lens of the daily lives we lead at home and society’s perception of going on holiday. In Mongolia, on the steppe, on this personal journey, it seems perfectly normal. Without the din of premade plans and a pressure to eke every last inch of culture and expense from a trip, I can hear myself. And what I’m saying is: I want to have a nap. This conversation with myself, clear as the air filling my lungs, is a welcome surprise. I can’t remember the last time there was no interference in the transmission between my heart and head. I can’t remember the last time I felt this free.
Nearing the end of the trip, in the early morning as the sun ascends and the night’s chill lingers, we bundle up and walk alongside a seemingly endless road that leads to a small village. For each magnificent rock or vista we pass, a layer of clothing is shed until the late morning heat is blazing down and we are down to the bare minimum. And so it is, us shrugging off the unhelpful, overwhelming weight we’ve been lugging since entering the do-everything, see-everything, be-everything age.
Without plans, distractions or cumbersome weights, and in the impressive expanse of the steppe, I remember that I am a natural human being, more at home in a field than an office, more adept at making conversation than a spreadsheet. When I finish reading the books I’ve brought with me, I press flowers in my notebook and watch the camp staff chop wood. When Mongolian families arrive for a weekend away from the city, we chat to them about their home lives. One afternoon, thunder cracks the sky open and sends cold clumps of crystal hurtling down to Earth. The local mountain dog we’ve befriended cowers outside our ger, shaking and pushing her body against the tarpaulin. She refuses to come inside, so we kneel on the steps holding an umbrella over her head and stroking her soaked, knotty fur as nature reminds us of who it is and who we are.
These innate, unpolished thoughts and actions are all that flow through us during this trip. They reside firmly in the present, as if the past and future don’t exist. Without trying, we have closed the door to history and stopped spending time we haven’t even gained yet. When a wire catches fire as I’m showering and I dart outside with dripping hair and a towel slipping down my naked body, I feel only that moment. Granted, I’m a little bit mortified, but I’m also present.
Seeking connection (and maybe likes on Instagram, too) has become a priority for travelers today, many of whom have been inspired and emboldened by stories of staying in local villages or visiting retreats for self-discovery and introspection. But on the steppe I begin to wonder if cultural osmosis and personal healing are more likely to happen not when you’re moving from hidden hot spring to local market, or being told how to be present in a quiet room, but when you’re actually just there, around. We feel nourished and come to imbibe a fair amount of the local culture this way. Agenda-free and in the moment, we witness a traditional family dinner with women dressed in beautiful embroidered deels, and see a pack of 15 wild horses wander through our camp. We experience all four seasons of weather, each immediately rolling into the next, and play with a little boy who lives nearby as he toddles around barefoot in the mud.
On our last morning, my body rejects reality, sending me to the bathroom with blocked bowels and stomach pains after a week of impeccable health. Before we get into the jeep and travel back to the city, we shout bai ish teh (goodbye) to the faces we feel we know, and wave frantically as if we are going backwards on a travelator, the verdant yards between us and them lengthening. The ache in my bowels is now an ache in my chest. As I wind down the window and we pull away from the camp, my glassy eyes blur the image of a place that felt like home.
This unexpected emotion is a fitting end to a trip that we had zero expectations from. We did not go to Mongolia in search of anything, and yet we found everything. The steppe, in its unapologetic, unfiltered simplicity, reminded us that what we’re looking for — in life, on trips — is the freedom to cut through the noise and just be.
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