3rd October 2019
Mongolia is very remote and very vast. Driving in a comfortable four-wheel drive across the never-ending Gobi Desert as you stare out at…mostly, nothing. Which is actually much more interesting than it sounds. The ‘roads’ are just car tracks made by other vehicles, motorbikes and cool Soviet-style trucks kicking up the dust of history in their wake.
There is no distinction as to where you’ve been, or where you’re headed to. All you can do is stare out of the window and try not to bump your head while the car's suspension works overtime. The outline of mountains in the distance is all that breaks up miles upon miles of arid desert, the odd few persistent shrubs and the huge expanse of blue sky. I have never seen a sky so big and uninterrupted, so far from London which bursts at the seams with people and buildings all competing for space - that nothingness was such a novelty.
So, out in Mongolia, where there’s very little of anything but beautiful landscapes in between the odd bout of history, the constantly on-the-move culture and lots and lots of sheep, horses and camels, no wifi, no connection to home, leaves only an expanse of emptiness, poised to be filled…
I’ve never had much interest in birds. They’re pretty, but I can’t say I get very excited about them. However, one of the travellers on our trip, Charlie, loved birds. She came prepared with some little binoculars, while her husband Foss kindly pointed them out for her wherever he spotted one flittering away, disturbed by the car. Suddenly looking out at nothingness, I started to spot black dots soaring in the sky, flocks of brown swerving through the air in sync to avoid the roaring vehicle. Grouse, they told me. Eagles up above. We’d stop, everyone getting involved, squinting eyes in the sun while Tulga, our guide, would capture the bird on-screen with his camera so we could assess our discovery. I was no bird spotting expert mind you; I think I pointed out more crows than Lammergeiers or buzzards, but Charlie’s passion quickly rubbed off on the rest of us.
One night after dinner, we all shared a bottle of wine which fuelled some story-telling. Ted had previously mentioned he had one about a bear and it occurred to us to ask him about it because, in my world, you don’t hear many people claiming to have a story about a bear. While camping out in the wilderness of Japan, nothing but a tent and a bear-bell kept him from being dinner one day.
A close encounter of the grizzly-bear-kind seemed like just the kind of story I’d click on to read before bed, so that would have been enough to colour me intrigued. But in a fortuitous twist of fate, the welcome light of day revealed that the grizzly visit had (understandably) prevented him from cooking with unsafe, sulphurous water and falling seriously ill stuck in the middle of nowhere. I guess it's true what they say: what doesn't kill you makes you stronger from the lack of life-threatening diarrhoea (or something like that...)
The electricity was about to be switched off in the main ger but by that point, we had moved onto our second bottle of wine. So, the seven of us gathered up in one of our sleeping gers, sat around the stove on deck chairs by candlelight and continued sipping wine - a situation that practically begged for ghost stories.
Tulga told us about the encounters he’d had with shamans and the spirits of the mountain while the wind whistled from the thick blackness outside through the open door, whipping the candle flame and throwing dancing shadows that distorted the circle of faces around it. It seemed to stop its frantic flittering and burn dead straight as soon as Tulga had finished. But it spurred everyone on, and we sat, taking our turns until the wine ran dry and we toasted to new friends. Snuggling down to sleep, I hoped those stories wouldn’t return to us in our dreams.
Another night at one particularly remote ger camp, we ate dinner outside on a long table facing the great expanse of blue as the sun descended and the sky burst with colour. Swathes of orange and pink-streaked through the darkening cobalt, while we glowed in the face of it, gradually welcoming in the night sky.
The darker it got the more stars began to twinkle through and we strained our necks as Angelique pointed out the emerging constellations. The Big Dipper and Orion instantly recognisable, but then Cassiopeia and the Northern Cross, planets and the north star. And that, actually, the Big Dipper is an asterism, part of the constellation Ursa Major. Ted has an app that allows us to see all the constellations come alive when you point its camera skyward and it's the only time a mobile had been useful since we arrived. Spurred on by talk of astrological signs, Lai Yong tells us about the Chinese zodiac and their personality traits, never mentioning the negative and only stopping to point out shooting stars.
And that’s how it went. Beyond those we travelled with, everybody revealed so much more than expected with just the minimum of prodding. Our driver, the tough-looking Charles Bronson lookalike, could sing, dance and jump on bucking horses and fall with grace with not so much as a bruise. A shy Mongolian boy who dutifully held his baby brother and steadied foals to keep the mares calm while his mother milked them, hopped on a motorbike double his size and rode across the steppe with practised ease.
We couldn’t seek solace or entertainment in our phones, we were open to making those connections because we weren’t looking to escape. We couldn’t work, or keep in touch with home, we weren’t in a rush to get anywhere. Far beyond empty deserts and over whistling sand dunes, we discovered in all that nothingness, an overflowing fullness.