When I first made it to Ulaanbaatar, I think I interpreted the city’s name as a reference to my arrival. I had only just arrived in Mongolia, but already I felt like I’d reached the end of the world. Moreover, Ulaanbaatar (Mongolian for “red hero”) seemed like an appropriate name for a launch pad into a month of trekking through some of the world’s most sparsely habited wilderness.
Turns out I wasn’t the only arsehole in town with an inflated ego.
By the time I settled into a hostel operating out of a Khrushchev-esque apartment block, I’d struck up a conversation with another dusty backpacker.
Feeling couped up in the tiny apartment full of unwashed bodies, we went for a stroll down one of the city’s potholed, rusted boulevards. We took turns trading stories, trying to one up each other with indie points. It was immature, but a lot of fun.
Later, in a grease soaked diner, she told me that it was only in places like that where she felt alive.“I live for this,” I remember her saying, while digging into a bowl of grey, fleshy goulash. Downing a spoonful of mystery meat, I couldn’t agree more.
Both coming from relatively well-off Western backgrounds, for a few hours we shared that feeling you can only get during those first few hours in a place that feels alien. It was strange knowing I was feeling the exact same thing as someone I’d only just met. That feeling of dazed awe mixed with gooey sweet ego.
I was eighteen then, and since first setting foot in Ulaanbaatar I’ve relished that strange, sickly sour stab of vertigo every time I’ve staggered off a train, dragged myself through customs, fallen off a truck or otherwise woken up somewhere so new. It’s like a forewarning that the upcoming adventure will change something deep inside me; that I won’t return home the same.
The problem is when the thrill of the adventure becomes internalised as an egotistic, self congratulatory affair. Thinking of myself as the hero of my own little storybook alienated me from my surroundings. I started to think like one backpacker I met in China, who described Asia as his “playground”.
But Mongolia isn’t a playground. It’s a third world country. According to a joint World Bank/ Mongolian National Statistics Office report, in 2011, 29.8% of the population lived in poverty. Central Ulaanbaatar is a crumbling concrete dust bowl, rife with poverty and crime. Though of course, the real poverty can only be found in the shanty towns on the city’s outskirts.
Beyond this testament to soviet notions of civility, 30% of the population who survive as nomads have an incredible lifestyle, but as I discovered it’s a daily struggle against the elements.
After a month of trekking, I returned to Ulaanbaatar. After seeing people survive on almost nothing, fighting off disease, uncompromising weather and hunger, I didn’t feel like a hero. The heroes are bringing up families on yak butter and bone marrow. They are freezing in the taiga, and dying of thirst in the Gobi. They are on the edge of civilisation fighting against mining companies that are shredding the sacred steppes.
Unfortunately, when I visited Mongolia at eighteen, I missed most of this. Like my fellow backpacker, I was too busy trying to be fucking badass.
I crawled on hands and knees up dead lava flows into a silent volcano and cooked marmot by decapitating it and shoving hot rocks down its bleeding throat. I pushed my horse as fast as I could make it go. I lived off vodka and blood soup. And I was a complete moron about it.
I remember one day, one of my companions on the road pointed out the site of a massacre. According to local herders, hundreds of monks had been taken to this desolate field and executed, as part of the Stalinist campaign to liberate Mongolians from their ancient culture.
I chose to ride on to the next miscellaneous landmark (which I’d heard offered a beautiful sunset), rather than learn from locals what had happened to the spirits of their grandparents. Despite my self proclaimed worldliness, I now suspect on some level I didn’t think there was anything I needed to know about the history of Mongolia that wasn’t included in Lonely Planet.
My disinterest in learning what happened was basically the same kind of thinking that led to the massacre in the first place.
I’ll skip the cynical BBC/Comintern comparison and just state that it seems almost impossible for Westerners to completely disengage from Orientalism. From the selfless aid volunteers in Somalia to micro-financiers in Bangladesh to NATO grunts in Afghanistan, we all share a common delusion- that the white man knows best.
Thinking of myself as the protagonist of my own story alienated me from the people I met on those early travels. Until I got my nose out of the guidebook, I missed out on the best parts of travel. I passed up too many cups of tea, too many riots, too many unnamed herbs and too many offers of friendship.
But as I discovered, it can get worse. The desire to live in that self consuming world makes it so hard to genuinely enjoy travel, let along return home. As my backpacker friend said after mopping up her goulash, she would only ever go home “to buy more time to be alive”.
It’s so easy to get caught in that cycle. Work like hell back home, then spend the money pushing yourself as far as possible. Run out of money, work more, then push yourself further. Do the higher climb, conquer that longer trek, travel to that more wild locale. But if compared to the last trip the terrain isn’t rougher, the roads shitter or the landscape less virgin, then that’s twelve months of night shifts wasted.
I’m always going to crave that feeling of stepping into the unknown. But, it’s getting both harder to satisfy and easier to live without. It’s harder to be brought to tears by the beauty of the world. The trail is never quite long enough, and even when I’m choking for breath the climb is never high enough to give me that old feeling. But it’s easier to live without, because I’m discovering different feelings. Learning how people are fighting for their humanity from Laayoune to La Paz. I’m not interested in finding that pure, holistic lifestyle that Tibetan monks enjoy on the plateau, or the sacred spiritual insights of the Quechua. New age spiritualism is just old fashioned Orientalism. Nor am I going to travel all the way to your country only to pay a fee and see some moronic tourist magnet. What I’d really like to see more of is justice. I’d rather see those Tibetan monks drive the Chinese military from their villages, and the Quechua liberated from their poverty.
Next time I visit Mongolia, I’ll have my priorities right.