A friend asked me today “what is interesting about Gorkhi-Terelj, other than horseback riding and steppe?” I found it quite difficult to answer her question given the limited time I had to share all of my experience. My reply could be extensive as I regarded my trip as the sum of little experiences that had a beginning, an end, and all that was in between. Nevertheless, for the sake of answering her question, I simply replied “horseback riding, trekking, beautiful landscape, ger camp, and a lot more, actually”. When I got home, I felt I had done my Gorkhi-Terelj experience injustice, as if I had undermined the depth and breadth of experience that it had blessed me with. So I decided to make it up to it by writing this post…the highlights of my Gorkhi-Terelj experience.
1. Discover imagination
They say horseback riding sparks imagination. I couldn’t agree more. Jason and I did it on the second and third days of our stay at Ecotourism Ger Camp. We both did not have much experience but were excited about it. In fact, horseback riding was one of the experiences we looked forward to in Gorkhi-Terelj. While I delighted in our first horseback riding trip that took us through scenic valleys and hills with a winding river and groves of trees on a clear and sunny day, it was our second trip that verily ignited my poetic imagination. The place was blanketed by a sea of fog, which unfortunately obstructed a lot of our views of the surrounding landscape. We rode across the vast, open steppe of Gorkhi-Terelj in complete silence almost the entire time. I had no idea where we were heading to. I wondered what thoughts went through Jason’s and our guide’s minds. Jason was riding a bit ahead of us. I was riding right next to our guide, staring into space. My imagination transported me back to the historic era of legendary Genghis Khan. In my mind’s eye, I visualized our guide as Genghis Khan, and Jason and I were his right-hand men. We were traversing uncharted territories, fighting off formidable enemies, expanding the Mongol empire in every direction. At that very moment of ardent imagination, I felt a sense of strength, pride, victory, freedom, courage, power… when I was finally awaken to reality, I smiled, felt content, and thought “that must be what it was like to be riding alongside the Great Khan”. This impossible fantasy allowed me to enjoy the foggy ride more.
2. Hello, is anybody home?
Ecotourism Ger Camp is located in the middle of nowhere in Gorkhi-Terelj. While the meals provided by the family were hearty and delectable, we craved for junk food. The wife of the place’s owner told us that there was a small place within walking distance that sold what we were looking for. Were we not delighted to hear that! After dinner, we wandered toward the place. The night was falling and the air was chilly. We had no idea where exactly the place was. We based our search solely on one little clue given by the owner’s wife: red rooftop. We were warned against stepping into other people’s boundaries lest their dogs mistook us for thieves. We tramped along the vast and open grassland in respectful silence when suddenly that silence was shattered by the piercing sound of dogs barking. We stopped dead in our tracks. I was literally frozen with fear of getting chased by some mean dogs, worse getting bitten. I turned to Jason and suggested that we turned back. But having a greater understanding of dealing with a “barking dogs” situation, and a better sense of control over panic, he assured me that there was nothing to be scared of and that I should not run if a dog was really coming after us. We continued to walk, not giving up on our junk-food mission. After a while, we came upon a place that quite fitted the description of the owner’s wife: red rooftop. There was nobody outside. The place was dimly lit and very quiet as if nobody was home. We became hesitant. Should we try or should we go back? Jason’s rationale for trying was “we have walked this far so we might as well try”. Great point! We called out “hello, is anybody home”. We called out a little louder when there was no response. Suddenly, a door swung open, and a slight, elderly Mongolian woman emerged. We explained why we were standing right outside her wooden gate, but I think the word that caught her attention was “beer”. She then gave us a hearty welcome into her little shop. Against all odds, we found the place! We walked back to our ger camp feeling content and happy with our purchases — Coke, made-in-Vietnam Danish butter cookies, pickles, Mongolian beer…and more. We returned to the place a couple of times more that the delightful lady gave us some free candies to reward our loyalty! In retrospection, I realize this piece of my Gorkhi-Terelj experience — the walks, the little shop and its friendly owner, the gratifying moments of savouring our once-in-a-while convenience food —- is simple, unpretentious but profoundly memorable and emotionally invigorating. And what makes it even sweeter is that I did it with my most cherished friend.
3. Open bathing
Yup! River bathing. Ecotourism Ger Camp does not provide the luxury of proper bathrooms and sufficient water supply to wash our clothes and clean ourselves. It does not have to because there is a river nearby that we can go to for these basic activities. Jason and I had found our own little secret spot along the river. It became part of our daily routines to walk to our corner and wash our clothes, take a bath, unwind…the water was icy cold but after a sweaty day it was pure bliss. The sound of flowing water was also immensely soothing. Sometimes when I reminisce about my Gorkhi-Terelj trip, I experience a keen longing for the river, especially our little secret place, and all the indelible things that we did there.
4. Sweet encounters
People come and go in Ecotourism Ger Camp. When we were there we met a number of visitors. Most of them were from the Netherlands, and most of them were stopping in Mongolia as part of a larger China – Europe train itinerary. Three particular pairs of travelers caught my attention, with whom I truly enjoyed conversations, and who had left quite an impact on me. 1) a father and a son. The father was sketching a beautiful face on his note pad. I could not help but pay him a compliment for his amazing work of art. That is how our conversation started. I found it profoundly enlightening to hear him talk about the art of sketching and how the ability whets one’s photography skill. 2) a young couple who did horseback riding with us on the first day. We were talking about our jobs initially but our conversation escalated into something more thought-provoking — the impact of tourism on fragile World Heritage sites. The lady was relating to us an emotional conversation that she had with an archaeologist in Angkor Wat about the damage caused to the site by the massive numbers of visitors. The conversation was tremendously engaging that I lost track of time. 3) an elderly couple who were definitely two of the sweetest, most intelligent people I have ever met. The air that hung above us when we talked was one that was calm, pleasant, inspiring. I remember asking what makes them great traveling together for so many trips. The wife’s answer, which I keep very close to my heart until today, was “because we take care of each other”. For some reason her reply deeply moved me. My trip to Gorkhi-Terelj was made significantly more meaningful because of my encounters with these beautiful people who taught me new knowledge, who discussed topics that I have always found particularly absorbing, and who reminded me of things that I, sometimes, am inclined to take for granted.
5. Bert oh Bert!
Who is that? Well, Bert is the owner of Ecotourism Ger Camp. Why is he a highlight of my Gorkhi-Terelj experience? Honestly, he did not strike me as a person who was that friendly, or pleasant, or even good at customer service. Because he seemed to be always on the go, it was quite difficult for us to talk to him about payment, activities, and so forth. Every time we asked to settle the payment for our stay, he would brush it off and say “later”. I mean most business owners would be eager to have their guests pay as soon as possible, if not upon arrival. We could easily run off without paying, and there would be no worries about Bert charging our credit card later as the only mode of payment was by cash. I suppose this is one trait that makes Bert unique- in a world where distrust and mistrust abound, he trusts, he takes risks. On our last day he drove us in his seemingly old jeep to catch the bus back to Ulaanbataar. As we left the camp a little bit later, Bert was driving much faster to make sure we would not miss the bus (or perhaps he just drives fast all the time). The ride was bumpy and rough. We crossed a river. At times Bert made sharp turns that made my hair stand on end. At one point his eyes seemed to be fixed on his vintage cell phone punching some keys. I feared for our safety. We arrived at the roadside pick-up point in the nick of time to catch the bus. That was when we finally got a chance to pay him. We never got a chance to get to know Bert better, but as we were saying goodbye, I felt a twinge of sadness. As we were boarding the bus, I caught my last glimpse of Bert who was already back in his always-on-the-go bubble. While he could improve his driving skill, he had given us one hell of an adventure, I must say. Most of all, Bert taught me sometimes we can let go and trust. Just as he trusted us with payment, I guess we could trust him in keeping his words, and perhaps his driving ability. As Jason said, Bert is a man of his words.
6. Stop and smell the roses
Well, I did not see any roses in Gorkhi-Terelj. But I am sure you know I am referring to the expression. Gorkhi-Terelj offers endless opportunities for visitors to keep themselves engaged and entertained. Nonetheless, Gorkhi-Terelj gave me something more, something “small” but which was nothing less than precious, something that was beyond “tourist stuffs” — it compelled me to slow down, notice, and cherish the little things that make life worthwhile. The time left after all the hiking and horseback riding and river bathing, we spent it on activities that we tend to take for granted because we are too busy — enjoying coffee and cookies right outside our ger camp, reading, filling in a journal, taking a nap, watching the kids play, taking in the beauty of sunset, waking up to sunrise, enjoying little moments of solitude… these activities are not quintessential tourist experiences, but they allowed me to truly unwind and recharge; to engage in solitary contemplation; to experience a deeper sense of gratitude and appreciation…