MONGOLIAN memories

When I first told people I was planning on travelling to Mongolia I was met with a lot of shock and disbelief. I was brave to travel there alone, apparently it was an unusual location for me to choose and not many people had wanted to travel there. For me, it was a given, it had always been on my list of places I wanted to see and after travelling there I have an idea why.

With so many people telling me it would be really hard to travel in Mongolia alone, and with my recent diagnosis and my intention to be sensible when I travelled, I approached Mongolia different to China. Instead of organising the in-country transport myself, and hiking alone through mountains, I joined a couple of tours. They were 2 short tours, 3 days each, mostly to ensure I wasn’t too far from help if I had a relapse, and that I had a break between the tours to rest if I was becoming too fatigued. I believe this made the trip very easy and stress free, but I also think Mongolia isn’t as hard a country to travel as many believe, well definitely not if you’ve grown up on an isolated farm in the Australian outback, as I did. Mongolia threw many surprises my way, not only the familiarity of the way of life, but the self-reflection on what I feel is missing from my life.

On each day, we stayed with a different nomadic family. Generally it was a set of grandparents with their grandkids helping out, but we also stayed with some young families with babies. What I noticed is that grandparents relished the time with their grandkids and appreciated the help an extra set of family hands can provide. I couldn’t help but reflect upon my situation; living in a big city with no family nearby. With childcare costs escalating, inability to find a place in a facility even slightly convenient, and juggling who can take the time off to pick up and care for the sick child, I can’t help but be envious of these families with grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins around to help out when they are in need. There was also a difference in attitudes with these grandparents that I noticed; looking after their grandkids long-term wasn’t a hindrance, wasn’t a burden that they were “too old” for, but then again, these grandparents were also still working. My mum is still working and when she has time off she goes to help my sister with her two kids. My dad is retired and with his time off he travels the world with his girlfriend. It seems to me that retirement is a thing of privilege that we can expect as we get older, and that maybe those things we dreamt of doing when we were younger now are feasible – but what about helping out the families we created? What about helping out our children as they work to make a better life for themselves and their children? I can’t help but feel we, in our society, have lost something of family here, of community, of our village.

Playing ankle bone games with a family who made me feel like I was part of their family. These games were similar to the ones we played when I was a kid.

What I also noticed is that families are close, and not just emotionally, they stayed close to each other; my tour guides sister lives in the same neighbourhood and can help her out when she needs it whilst her husband is away working in the mines. I would like to say that my family is close, but we aren’t, not physically, and not particularly emotionally. I can’t sit here and say that it’s not my fault, we all have some fault in it, and though I endeavour to make stronger connections within my family, it’s hard. I live very far from my older sister, my younger sister and I don’t speak, my dad is constantly on the move, my mum works and when she’s not working my older sister needs more help with her young family than I do. In the end we rarely see each other and when we do it’s a huge effort. Everyone is stressed, unhappy, preoccupied, there is no celebration around the time spent together, just concern about whatever pressing issue in our individual lives is facing us next. I wish it were different, I wish it were more like what I experienced in Mongolia.

The Mongolian family ties are strong – you have a first name, a last name, and then you have a family name that everyone in your extended family shares. The sense of community is overwhelming and heartwarming, the lengths people go to helping each other is what I crave. Traditions are cherished, people learn from those around them, family encourage each other.

Beautiful horses being herded to greener pastures for the summer.

The countryside of Mongolia is magnificent. It reminded me so strongly of where I grew up – rolling sand dunes that are covered in wild flowers after rain, expansive grasslands on the steppe, even the mountains felt familiar. Driving across dirt roads that bifurcate with no signs and finding your way based on the mountains, positions of other gers, directions from the family and speaking with locals on the way reminded me of driving around on our farm – you know where to go because you grew up learning where to go, what to look for, a sense of direction was innate. The nomadic people would tend to their herds, kept wild and free to roam with no fences to pen them in. The herds were small compared to what we had on our farm growing up, but with the small size of the herd came the names for the animals, the respect for the individuals, the love for their animals. It’s a simpler lifestyle in many ways, but a hard one that’s for sure. Growing up on a farm I know how difficult it can get and I feel so much respect for these families continuing to live as their ancestors did. Sure you’ll go into a ger and find all the latest tech – laptops, satellite tv, and better internet and phone coverage than Australia has out west, but for the nomadic people it is still about being able to pack up and move quickly from one camp to the other as the seasons change. The only permanent buildings you might find between camps are the winter stalls to protect the animals from the cold.


Mongolians love Mongolia, and I see why. I don’t only mean for the heroic story of Chinggis Khaan, a man who not only created the largest contiguous empire, but who united the nomadic tribes of Mongolia, who encouraged freedom of religion, and who brought the silk road under one cohesive political environment, expanding the trade and cultural horizons for all countries involved. There is more to Mongolia than this one man, but do not dismiss the influence of the founding father of Mongolia.

Chinggis Khaan
The Chinggis Khaan statue is an impressive monument, standing tall on the treeless steppe.

In the 1990s Mongolia reached democracy peacefully. I found this an amazing fact, especially after my time in another relatively young democratic nation, Timor Leste. Mongolian students protested outside political buildings. As their support grew for Mongolia to change from its socialist stance to a free and democratic nation, Jambyn Batmönkh a member of the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party stated that the only way to end the situation was for the MPRP Politburo to resign. He was meant to sign a document which would have allowed force to be used against the protesters but is remembered for his strict policy of never using force, saying “We few Mongolians should never make each other’s noses bleed”. This deep respect for others seems to be sewn strongly into the Mongolian life. When you visit someone’s ger, you should take food a certain way, you should appreciate their snuff, to show respect, and you will be shown respect in return. When Mongolians compete in races, archery, wrestling, so much of it is around the respect for your competitor, win or lose.

There was so much more to my trip to Mongolia than this. I was overwhelmed with history, religion, wildlife, people. I tried modern takes on traditional foods, rode all sorts of transport animals, was moved to tears listening to Mongolian music, saw the takhi horses once extinct in the wild. There are not enough words to fully describe my experience. I will be returning to Mongolia, that is without a doubt, and I will take my young son with me to experience a place that has nestled in my heart right next to him.

Two of the wonderful friends I made on trip, I hope to see them both again soon!

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