When I made a plan to set off for Mongolia, people told me I was crazy. Not because I was traveling to one of the most remote areas of East Asia – a place with no running water or electricity, but because I’m vegan and absolutely hate the cold. A wild, desolate country, their winters are unforgiving and temperatures can drop to -40°C. Hearty local cuisine consists of meat in the winter and meat with dairy in the summer. Yet, I’ve longed to come here.
Was it the raw beauty, sublime landscapes, or sense of adventure that called me? Was it seeing the rare, endangered Przewalski (Takhi) horses and wild Bactrian camels? Perhaps it was a combination of all these things. Once I arrived half way around the world, my journey took me to the far eastern border of Mongolia and China. It was here in the Altai Mountains where I met the remaining nomads of the Eurasian Steppe, the Kazakhs, that I would be #changedbytravel.
I spent three weeks with the nomadic people and found their life to be very hard; a life I certainly don’t envy. It felt as if I had traveled back in time to the era of Genghis Khan with the only reminder of the present, or at least a more modern time, being the occasional sighting of a Russian Furgan van, popular in the 60’s and 70’s. Despite the hardships, they are one of the happiest, warmhearted, and hardworking people I’ve ever met.
By Western standards, I’m a minimalist. But the nomads take simple living to a new level. I found this to be very liberating. I would spend my entire day exploring the vast Altai Mountains and sleeping in a traditional ger on the dirt floor. I wore the same clothes day in and day out. Despite no running water and a shared toilet, which was nothing more than a hole in the ground, I didn’t even smell – maybe because it was so cold.
It was here I experienced true hospitality. Sharing food, tea, and sweets from my personal stash that I brought from home, telling stories, and listening to a father and daughter sing while they played the horsehead fiddle, moved me to tears. At no time was I criticized for being vegan. In fact, many nomads found it to be very good karma and actually respected me for it.
In Mongolia all the distractions and noise faded away. The time for self-discovery was ripe and showed me that I am stronger than I give myself credit for. No matter how hungry, uncomfortable or exhausted I felt, I never compromised my values. It was here I realized I’m driven by my positive outlook: seeing the brighter side of things even when it’s easier to acknowledge the negative. Instead I express gratitude for the little things in life.
Living with the nomadic people was unforgettable, something that I will always cherish. Their authentic hospitality made me realize what is truly important in life: people, relationships, and nature. Everything else is just a distraction. It is these types of travel experiences, that show you that in discovering new places, it’s also about the journey of connecting with people, having an open heart, asking yourself important questions, and most importantly, expressing gratitude for the simple things, all so that you return #changedbytravel. - Wanda Bogacka