Unlike Siberia, most people I spoke with about my trip had no preconceived notions of Mongolia. Landlocked between Russia and China, it is a fascinating country that keeps a relatively low profile. The capital city, Ulaan Baatar, is home to almost 50% of Mongolia’s population while the remaining percentage lives in traditional nomadic ger camps outside of the city. No doubt George R.R. Martin was inspired by this nomadic culture – famous for fierce leaders and fast horses – when he created the Dothraki society for his Game of Thrones series.
The Elusive Nature of Inner Peace
Despite the fact that it is surrounded by nearly untouched natural beauty, UB is surprisingly modern. Concrete skyscrapers serve as reminders of a not-so-distant Communist past while recognizable retail shops remind me of any city back in the States. Our group ventures out into the frosty air to explore some Buddhist temples. I vaguely remember reading that during the communist years Stalin destroyed an overwhelming number of monasteries and killed over 10,000 lamas – certainly one way to jack up your karma.
Buddhist monasteries, more than any other places of worship, are my favorite. I love the chanting, the colors, the prayer flags and prayer wheels. Today however, I just can’t get into it. It’s bitterly cold and though it is totally “un-Buddhist” of me, I find myself fixating on earthly discomforts (no feeling in my feet!) and failing to cultivate my own sense of inner peace. I know, I’m disappointed in me too. What I am excited about though is our overnight trip to the ger camp….
Where The Men At?
The ger camp is a two hour bus ride outside of UB and our group is happily taking in the scenery, sharing snacks, and listening to our local guide, Nemo, describe life in Mongolia. One matter that strikes me in particular is the low supply and high demand for…. men. Yeah. Men.
As Nemo describes the plight of the nomadic, single, Mongolian mom I reluctantly begin to ponder the latest global dilemma: where the men at? A belabored topic of discussion at home in Boston, the man shortage is becoming less of a single girl anxiety and more of an actual, well, fact. In Russia the average life expectancy for a man is 60 years old – a shocking statistic largely attributed to widespread alcoholism. I think of the (presumably widowed) babushkas on the train platforms and the gorgeous young women dressed to impress in Irkutsk despite the frigid weather. I feel sad. While I was in Nepal with Habitat for Humanity it was the women who built the homes alongside our team. The men were (supposedly) working in other countries while the men who were present seemed too busy playing cards to do much else.
My knowledge of microeconomics is extremely limited but I do know when supply and demand are out of whack, no good can come of it. I consider the implications of “the end of men” until finally, I concede, I am unable to provide any real solution. Especially not while on vacation.
Upon arrival to the ger camp we settle into our yurts (similar to the train there are four of us to each yurt), have some lunch, and head out for a hike. Parts of the landscape are covered by a light dusting of snow but the sun overhead makes for perfect weather. As we reach the top of the ridge, Nemo – who has a vodka bottle in a holster on his hip – leads us in a toast. I always enjoy hiking with a group because it is interesting to see people couple up in quiet conversation with each other. Inevitably, the pairs change as individuals catch up or fall back into new conversations depending upon their pace, the terrain, or perhaps the topic at hand. The idea that so many unique personalities can connect, even briefly, during their travels inspires me and causes me to miss some individuals who have been a part of my lifelong journey for a season or so.
At the end of our hike Nemo has arranged for us to ride horses back to camp. My dream of galloping across Mongolia, my hair in the wind like a Khaleesi-for-a-day (another GOT reference), was quickly dashed shortly after I mounted the slowest horse ever. Though I’m a little disappointed, I figure our painfully slow plod will give me even more time to soak in the scenery.
A full moon is rising as we make our way back to camp and I’m looking forward to a warm dinner, a fire, and another episode of Breaking Bad.