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 Gobi 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 this, 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.
I 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.
It 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 fall 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.