7000km Journey from Mongolia to Nepal

Over a month ago I set out on an ambitious journey from Mongolia – I was looking at a nearly 7000 kilometer journey, four countries and some serious mountain ranges and deserts between me and Kathmandu, Nepal. My friend Diane was already trekking in Nepal and I was trying to meet her in early November so we could hike the Annapurna Circuit together, a long-term dream of mine and one of the few ‘must-do’s’ of my journey. Luckily for me, ambitious China has built the highest railroad in the world into Tibet, traveling in over 4000 kilometers in total from Beijing. Target acquired, lets begin.

Before my long Mongolian tour I booked a flight to Beijing from Ulaanbaatar. The price was nearly the same as a train ticket and saved me over 30 hours of travel. I couldn’t possibly handle another two-day delay at the Chinese border either. I also had been scrambling to arrange my Tibet tour from dodgy Internet connections in Mongolia and HAD to be in Lhasa by October 27th to meet my group. One thing I did not do was arrange my train ticket to Lhasa, as the owner of my Beijing hostel informed me over e-mail that NOBODY goes to Tibet this time of year, so getting a ticket will not be a problem. Well apparently a few people do go to Tibet in October because when we contacted the train station, the only option left was a hard seat in 3rd class. Not the most appealing option on a 48 hour train journey, especially in China. I had no other choice, so I booked the 4000k train for a stiff $50, got myself a massage and 15 lbs of water, food and beer and headed to the train station for tIMG_2778he 9:30pm departure….

Let me back up here – despite being through Beijing twice it hasn’t earned any blog time! This second time through was only a 36 hour stopover, but I used it  as an opportunity to visit a number of places that were closed on my first visit for the 60th anniversary celebration of the communist revolution in 1949. I walked through Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, going to the must-sees in in Beijing and snapping that obligatory photo with the man himself, Mao ze Dong. My first trip to Beijing back in early October was actually much more memorable despite the city wide lockdown and tight security. I was able to catch up with an old IBM Pittsburgh colleague of mine,IMG_2843 Dave Cai who now lives in central Beijing and works at Volkswagen. Dave showed me his posh apartment and took me out for a great dinner. I really enjoyed our intense conversation about the future of China, its relationship the United States and the rest of the world. I consider China the world’s great experiment of the 21st century – they have momentum and strength of an industrial revolution West of centuries past, but with the keen advantage of hindsight and history. They have a unique opportunity to change the world based on ideals and through planning, in way that has never been done. I find myself frequently talking global politics and the discussion always ends up in China. And back to China we go: Beijing – I rolled in a couple of days before the big October 1 National Day celebrations, figuring that one of the largest celebrations in history would be fun to be around. Well turns out only if you’re Chinese. Foreigners were given a tight lease, not allowed anywhere near the festivities or into tourist locations for many days. Fortunately I hooked up with a crew of travelers at my hostel, spent time hopelessly trying to sneak in to see anything, but ultimately watched the celebrations on TV like everyone else in the world despite the events happening only a 10 minute walk away.IMG_2860-1 At one point a few tanks rolled down our street on their way out from the celebrations. I’m not sure if anyone did catch it on television, but the ceremony was quite an impressive showing of the massive armament of the Chinese military. Personally I believe Nationalism breeds only more violence and division (How can you rally behind a single country and also promote world peace- it is a contradiction. Separateness always breeds division and violence through its very nature). This is another aspect of the China experiment that will play out in our lifetimes – they are fiercely nationalistic, at times quite xenophobic and have in my opinion placed their loyalty for country ahead of themselves or anything spiritual.

Back to the slightly more present (Oct 25), boarding the train for Lhasa. In China, you don’t need a ticket for a seat, just the train. People ended up lying all over the floor, in the common areas and just about anywhere a couple of inches of space could be found. I’ve heard that during holidays these trains are so packed that people have to stand for days at a time!

I was the only white guy in 3rd class and people curiously watched me down a couple beers and eat dinner. Feeling exhausted, I was able to sleep with mIMG_3435y hands folded on the table, waking up the next morning in Xian where the vast majority of people got off  the train. The next day I will always have great memories from. I’m pretty sure that every single person in 3rd class who could speak more than five words of English introduced themselves to me, and I found myself meeting many really incredible people, sharing food and drink and photos, exchanging e-mails and simply having an amazing time as the incredible beauty of China passed by my eyes outside the train window. This quickly changed in Xining, the halfway point. The train became packed again, and a nice family of Tibetans with 4 small children decided they were going to take FULL advantage of their one seat reservation in my row. I ended up with my face literally squished against the window, with a total of 11 people sharing 6 seats. Now – I was on my way to Tibet – why not start the cultural exchanges right away!? I already had a small IMG_3453child on my lap and the father brought out a stove to cook up some Yak Butter tea on the table. I played along for a while, but 24 hours like this were not looking very appealing so I bought my way into a comfortable sleeper cabin for the second half of the journey. While not nearly as exciting as 3rd class, I did get a great nights sleep in the oxygen filled cabin and woke up to the high Tibetan plateau out my window…The next day passed in tremendous comfort, I was sipping coffee and eating my snacks as I snapped photos of one of the most beautiful and yet inhospitable landscapes in the world. It was such a contrast to the lush forests and rice fields of the day prior.

Ultimately I recommend the same approach to anyone taking the train – spend half of your time in 3rd class, but enjoy some luxury and upgrade on the second day.

Eventually the train pulled into Lhasa, once the most inaccessible city in the world. Prepared for a complete shake down from the authorities, I strangely just walked off the train and out of the station without once displaying any of the many permit and visa papers I was carrying…. And just like that I was in Tibet.

… To be continued…

Mongolia – MBA in action?

I spent 17 out of my 21 evenings in Mongolia in a traditional Ger – a rounder version of a teepee, generally with enough room for 4-6 beds and a wood or cow-dung stove in the center. I rode horses, camels, did some trekking, rock climbing and even one unintended swim… Despite some extremely memorable experiences including killing and eating a sheep, exploring sand dunes in the IMG_0101Gobi desert and spending time practicing my horrible Mongolian with local families over Airag (fermented vodka) and yak cheese, something that will stick with me longest will be the group dynamics of our 5 person group that left UB (Ulaanbaatar) in a 40 year old Russian jeep on an intended 14-day  tour of the country. One member of our group ended up being exposed as psychologically unstable, with severe control and attention issues. She was also the only female in the group. Big lessoned learned for me! Before we left UB, I already sensed the anxiety steaming from this individual, as she was pushing her  agenda and timelines despite the remainder of the group being fairly relaxed and flexible. In the future…. trust your instinct! I underestimated how intimate it would be spending two weeks with strangers mostly in a jeep or a ger. In my rush ‘to take advantage of time’, I compromised and decided to travel with this group to meet my selfish goals of a cheap, long trip.

The trip commenced, and after two days of butting heads with this individual, I decided the only way I would survive the trip was to allow her a large space, co-existing and taking the path of least resistance. Interestingly, while I did IMG_0234this, her tension with two other members of our group increased. Her behavior bordered on unbelievable (one night storming out with no food or clothing and getting lost until we got a call from the police in the morning), to just annoying, i.e., in an effort to do what she needed she would disregard everyone else’s property, including our hosts. Our first two nights consisted of upsetting hosts by moving a Buddha statue to the floor and burning a nylon bag on the stove so the place smelled like plastic for 2 days. Despite these strange and inconsiderate behaviors, the biggest issue came from her worldview. She portrayed herself as a eastern thinking, enlightened individual with deep insight into things like meditation and other-worldly phenomena. However, what I finally deduced after a week was that any conversation she entered (almost all of them due to her attention issues), became an argument rather than a conversation. This was due to her use of words such as “actually, I know, NO, let me tell you”, which immediately ruined the air of decent discussion. And we had some great ones going around meditation, religion, global politics, etc. If someone challenged her, she would become upset and escape. The rest of us spent countless hours deducing her background and how this apparently confident 32 year old could really just be a frightened child running away from problems at home, but we’ll leave that to the psychologist which I really hope she seeks in the near future.

IMG_3126I was constantly digging into the archives of MBA training, looking for group conflict strategies to help right the situation. Ultimately other than some decent facilitating, the only solution was to remove the individual from the group, and we were all thankful for giving ourselves a 10-day option where people could leave the trip. She pleaded ‘to stay with the group’, promising to ‘work on the issues’, but ultimately 3 of us decided we were not on holiday to provide therapy, but to have an easy time and asked her to leave. One of the guys did leave with her, leaving 3 of us to finish the tour. That is a story in itself.

The final three days were brilliant. Stefan from Switzerland and Jules from England and I at first celebrated our freedom, but then very much enjoyed conversations about life and love after getting comfortable with each other. Recently I blogged about how difficult it is to find meaningful relationships while traveling – but this was the first time I can say I felt like I had a couple of like-minded male friends to help me explore large issues in my life, and vice-versa. It felt like group—therapy at first, after all the tension we needed to debrief, talking about male/female dynamics, group interactions and situations, but we quickly moved beyond the tragedy, enjoying a few days hiking around the countryside near beautiful White Lake in central Mongolia.

A felt pressure to leave Mongolia a little earlier than I would have liked – winter was coming in fast (-23c one evening and several snow storms), plus I was trying to get to Nepal to do some trekking before winter set in there. Always running from the snow! BUT, I would like to come back some day, explore northern Mongolia and the reindeer people, the Kazaks of western Mongolia and possible journey into the “stans” – Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan from there.

IMG_3353It is true what they about Mongolians – they are extrememly hospitable, lived a very simple lifestyle in one of the worlds harshest climates. It wasn’t so much about sightseeing here. In fact, I was quite saddened to learn about the history of Tibetan Buddhism here. Despite the first Dali Lama coming from Mongolia, today Buddhism is a shell of its former self, destroyed by the Stalinists in the 1930’s and 1940s. Countless times I’d read in the guidebook about a monastery yielding thousands of monks and hundreds of buildings, followed by a sentence that Stalin had the monks sent to Siberian death camps and the buildings burnt to the ground. Today, you will find a handful of monks and a few buildings built in the 1990s after the fallcliffs of communism. Hardly any semblance of Buddhist culture remains in day to day life.  The trip was more about getting off the tourist trail, watching day to day Mongolia life and having A LOT of time to think and reflect. The true benefit of my time here can’t really be measured, but I have made some rather large personal decisions that I feel VERY clear about and look forward to sharing with everyone in the near future.

The Wilds of Mongolia

I’ve been in Mongolia for just over a week. Life is mucccchhhhh diffffeerrrreeeent here. Itttttt mooooves at a sloooooooooooower pace.

My plan was to hook up with some other travelers to do a long 4WD tour of the Gobi desert and Mongolian countryside. I set up shop in the UB Guesthouse in Ulaanbaatar, posting my desired tour on the message board, and headed east for a couple of days to the Terelj National Park to get my first taste of Mongolian nomadic life.

IMG_2983I joined two lovely Australian girls for a peaceful two days of horse riding, hiking and meditation. Terelj was beautiful. The foliage was changing, the hilly countryside was broken up by craggy rock formations, horses in pasture and small nomadic settlements. I accomplished a life-list item which was riding a horse in Mongolia, taking a long day tour through the mountains to a lamasery.

Mongolia is generally not a place you come for culture, great food or sights. It is very raw, being one of the last remaining nomadic societies in the world (60% of Mongolians are nomadic). It is also one of the least-populated places, with only 1 person per 3 square kilometers or something crazy like that. I can’t tell you exactly why I wanted to come here besides wanting to ride a horse – something inside me was drawn to the wildness of this place. It is a frontier – very few paved roads and facilities outside of the capital, Ulaanbaatar.

My two nights in Terelj were fantastic – I hiked around, did some bouldering, found time to mediate in the crisp, dry autumn air. Light snow flakes fell one afternoon as we rode the horses. I realized I had been moving a lot the past couple of weeks – Western China, Beijing, Mongolia, and this was the first time in weeks that I literally just stayed put for a couple of days. This area appealed to me for some of the same reasons I love IMG_3146Colorado – open spaces, mountains,  blue skies and quiet. The family we stayed with invited us in for homemade yogurt and cheese and vodka that they distilled from the yogurt. We shared a few laughs by using my Mongolian phrasebook as grandma kept refilling our glasses.

Two days later I found myself back in Ulaanbaatar, working out the details of a two week 4wd trip with a random group of solo travelers. After a lot of negotiation and decision making we had a driver, a 30 year old Russian jeep, an itinerary, food and a few bottles of Vodka. We were off. The plan was to spend about 7 or 8 days in the Gobi desert, then another 4 or 5 in central Mongolia. I’m writing this on the seventh day of our trip – we are currently snowed in and unable to drive today. Fortunately we happen to be in one of only two destinations that have Internet and a shower!

Our days have been generally similar – driving through vast landscapes of desert, hiking around gorges or sand dunes, then sleeping in a traditional Mongolian home, called a Ger. They are round, with a wooden frame and are covered with some sort of felt. If you’re lucky you’ll have a stove in yours. They are quite mobile and can be erected and taken down in a matter of hours as IMG_3178 the families migrate with their livestock. Meals are extremely basic, the only vegetables that grow around here are potatoes, cabbage and carrots. Mongolians subsist primary on meat. Fortunately I’ve packed in a number of provisions from the city to help me survive the meager, meat filled portions. My next post will discuss my slight variation from the vegetarian lifestyle I began 4 years ago. At the moment I’m not feeling particularly inspired to go into the details of individual adventures, I’ll save that for another time. I will say that the Gobi desert is the most silent place in the world when the wind isn’t blowing. All you can hear is your heartbeat when you sit still. Our group started off very chatty and we are slowly finding the pace of life in the desert, enjoying the solitude and peace that comes with it. It is a harsh place, the people who live here work tremendously hard for very little return beyond basic survival. We’ve seen a wolf, vultures, gazelles, and of course camels, horses and sheep.

I’ve been sitting a lot with some of the ideas in my 4-month reflections, accompanied by a book of Ralph Waldo Emerson essays and the silence.