It wasn’t very difficult to say goodbye to Hong Kong. This time, I was only in that city of cities for the span of two nights. Try as I might, I just couldn’t enjoy it as much as my previous destinations. Flying into and out of the airport, a thick shroud of smog smothers the admittedly stunning terrain; giving you a sense of the choking, bustling environment of industrial frenzy that lies beneath. The city itself is crowded, dirty, and fast-paced; ill suited to a small town, nature-lovin’, PNW boy like me. So when I boarded my plane and rose above the city’s shroud, I felt no desire to look back.
The main reason for my excitement, however, wasn’t just leaving Hong Kong. It was going to Mongolia, a country I’ve dreamed of visiting since I was in grade school. As a child, I had a friend named Bram whose parents were involved in the Peace Corps. One day, they took a placement in a place that had been foreign to me until then: Mongolia. I was sad to say goodbye to my friend, but we kept in touch via email (Juno email with a dial up connection… oh how the world has changed!) and by writing letters. I became fascinated by this destination so far away from everything I knew. That fascination lingered over the years until it became an engrained obsession. I didn’t know how or when, but I always knew I would explore Mongolia for myself… someday. And now, almost 15 years later, that day has come.
The flight crew of the MIAT plane put on the new Batman movie, the Dark Knight Rises. I was engrossed in that for quite a while until I happened to glance out the window at the landscape below. As Bane and his henchmen stormed the city of Gotham, I looked at the window at the ground below and was transfixed. I forgot about the movie, for beneath a brilliant, azure sky stretched the most bleak, desolate, and barren looking terrain I’ve ever seen in my life. It was – all of it – the dull, lifeless brown of the Gobi Desert.
Ripples of dunes stretched in meandering paths across the surface, islands of sand amidst a landscape of rugged, cracked stone. From above, the paths of long dead waterways spread like roots across the parched earth. Looking down, the inspiration behind one of the many names for this place – ‘Hanhai’ or ‘endless sea’ – was immediately apparent.
As we flew onwards, the constant brown of the desert developed a powder coating of white, standing out from the brown with a stark contrast. A crust of ice persisted in the frigid winter cold, locking the land beneath a frosty embrace. Massive cloud shadows darkened the plains, which stretched away until they bled into the muddled haze of the distant horizon. I couldn’t help but feel a tiny shiver of trepidation. This wind-blasted, hopeless terrain was an example of where I will be spending the next two months.
Still further on, the flat lands were gradually riven by the peaks of crumpled hills, cloaked in a freezing layer of ice. We were descending now, and the hills grew ever larger. Then, suddenly, nestled in a valley amongst the smooth, lifeless peaks with a barely there layer of smog overhead – like the exhalations of a hibernating beast – appeared the sprawling capital city of Ulaanbaatar.
The plane circled and landed as I continued to stare in childish delight and wonder out the window. I can’t remember a more striking, foreign landscape. I got off the plane, squeaked through immigration (my passport is technically full, though there is still space for a few stamps), and walked out into the bone-chillingly cold Mongolian air. After the polluted, choking atmosphere of Hong Kong, my first breath outside in Mongolia was amazing.
When it comes to life goals, visiting Mongolia has been one of the most enduring and deep-rooted for me. Now that I’m here, I have two months to explore to my heart’s content, and I can’t even begin to describe how excited I am. Here more than anywhere else I’ve been, in a country where there are more horses than people and more dirt roads than paved, the road is truly open before me.