Weekend Reads: Western Mongolia Edition
“When you arrive in the west, a fresh wind will greet you,” said Tuul, our Mongolian guide, as I headed to Chinggis Khaan International Airport in Ulaanbaatar with a small group of photographers.
We were bound for Ölgii in the westernmost province of Mongolia, the country’s only Kazakh-majority province, and what was to be the adventure of a lifetime.
At the time, I didn’t think to ask Tuul what she meant, but on some level I understood that I would be changed. What I did not know then was that the “fresh wind” would be a rejuvenating force.
So began an extraordinary journey led by British filmmaker and photographer Timothy Allen to join the annual migration of a family of Kazakh eagle hunters and their livestock from their winter camp to the spring camp — an epic trek covering 150 kilometers (about 93 miles) over five days, on foot. Our destination: the remote Tavan Bogd National Park.
Our gaggle of shutterbugs set out across the Altai Mountains with several herders, two English-speaking local guides, and hundreds of animals, including Bactrian camels, yaks, sheep, and goats. As we walked, the terrain turned from sand to snow and our connection to the world receded with every step.
In the vast emptiness, not a leaf, just land and sky.
I lost track of time. And with no internet access, I was truly “off the grid”.
To give you some context on the emptiness, Mongolia is 1,564,116 sq kms, or about four times the size of Germany, but has a population of just over 3 million, making it one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world.
The further we journeyed along the migration, the deeper I receded into the stillness, often walking alone for miles and hearing nothing but the sound of my own feet crunching on the snow or the occasional plaintive bleating of a sheep or goat.
“Fate” seems too deterministic in this context, so perhaps “serendipity” or “coincidence” is the best way to describe a series of encounters that accompanied this expedition. I looked up the definition of coincidence — “A remarkable concurrence of events or circumstances without apparent causal connection” — and, indeed, that was the case over and over again. A recurring theme was, “What are the chances [fill in the blank]?”
Most recently, I discovered that author and travel writer Pico Iyer published a piece on Mongolia, “The Heart-Clearing Stillness of the Mongolian Countryside,” shortly after my return. If you’re wondering why this is coincidental, here’s why: I have long admired Iyer’s writing and this year, in Hong Kong, will moderate his session at the 71st CFA Institute Annual Conference on “The Art of Stillness,” based on the book and TED Talk of the same title.
Krista Tippett, host of the public radio program and podcast On Being, has described Iyer as “one of our most elegant explorers of what he calls the ‘inner world.'”
As I listened to their conversation, a printed transcript on my desk, I found myself highlighting many phrases, including this one:
“Anybody who travels knows that you’re not really doing so in order to move around — you’re travelling in order to be moved.”
Something Iyer said also evoked Tuul’s comment about the fresh wind:
“Sometimes people like me have to take conscious measures to step into the stillness and silence and be reminded of how it washes us clean.”
Naturally, I was curious to read Iyer’s impressions of Mongolia, even though our experiences were very different: I spent most of my time in the Bayan-Ölgii aimag, or province, where most people speak Kazakh and practice Islam, while Iyer traveled across the Gobi Desert where Buddhism is the main religion and the locals speak Mongolian.
“In a world flooded with distractions, Mongolia returns one to something ancestral,” Iyer writes. “The clock has little meaning here. Days turn into an ageless cycle of random moments, scanning of the heavens, simple meals, long journeys. Often I didn’t know whether I was traveling into the past or the future. I could simply tell that this was a place that everybody would recognize, if only because it’s somewhere lost inside most of us, lodged like the people we once were and might one day again become.”
Iyer uses the word “ancestral” to describe his experience. To me, it felt ancient and otherworldly. My good friend Kevin put it well: “It’s not as if you just stepped out of the country,” he said. “You stepped out of the century.”
About midway through the five-day migration, after an especially tiring day of walking amid sub-zero temperatures, the word “biblical” came to mind. Not in a religious sense, but in the sense of the stories of yore, the ones I heard as a child, of shepherds and their flocks wandering in the wilderness in search of a “promised land.”
At night, after walking around 18 miles a day with nothing but a long line of animals and majestic snow-capped mountains stretching out in front of me, the camp would materialize and, with it, the promise of warmth, rest, and food. It was, in my mind, the metaphorical equivalent of arriving in a promised land (“a place or situation believed to hold ultimate happiness”).
Over the course of my trip, there were many impressions that stuck with me, but the one that I hope will remain with me the longest was what I learned from the practice of gathering around a small table laden with food and a bottle of Mongolian vodka and shot glasses for a series of toasts — each one a public expression of praise and gratitude. This ritual was repeated every time we were invited into someone’s home and welcomed as friends, even though we were strangers.
My dear friend Scott, a photographer and mentor, calls this practice “a posture of gratitude.”
I was reminded of the importance of gratitude shortly after I returned to the United States when Ben Carlson, CFA, tweeted “10 lessons from John Wooden.” Number 9 on the list is gratitude:
“Gratitude is essential for a peaceful heart and a balanced life. Create a daily habit of taking a moment of solitude to humbly express gratitude for the great many blessings in life. Let others know you’re grateful for them. Let thanksgiving be the narrative of your life.”
This is advice I will take to heart.
I have lots to be grateful for, not the least of which was all the photographic help I received on the trip from Allen and professional photographer Alessandra Manzotti. I did not own a camera when I signed up for this escapade in late October, and learning to shoot with a borrowed digital SLR in temperatures ranging between -10ºC, on a mild day, and -30ºC was what my friend Bo best described as the equivalent of “Learning to drive when there’s ice on the road.”
I made lots of mistakes but also learned a lot in the process. (I also discovered that my smartphone camera takes great photos.)
Another well-traveled friend, Cydney, who has lived all over the world, likes to say that the paradox of travel is that “It will fill your heart even as you leave little bits of that same heart in so many far-flung places.” Photographs help us piece together those little bits.
I hope you enjoy some of my favorite images from the trip.
Below are a few articles (not related to Mongolia) I came across recently that you may also enjoy, as well as a recommendation for a book and a documentary.
And now for your reading pleasure:
- An interesting read on Larry Smarr’s quest “for each of us to become ‘the CEO of our own body’.” According to “The Man Who Saw Inside Himself,” Smarr spent many years using a supercomputer to monitor his health and look at his organs but recently took things one step further: He put his knowledge to use by overseeing his own surgery. (The Atlantic)
- I know nothing about baseball and had never heard of Ichiro Suzuki when I clicked on a link (thanks to a tweet from @cullenroche) to an article about the baseball icon. I was also not familiar with the writer Wright Thompson. “When Winter Never Ends” is a remarkable piece of journalism and it’s no wonder many consider Thompson one of the best sportswriters and storytellers working today. Reading the article reminded me of something that happened many years ago: I stumbled on a piece David Remnick wrote about Muhammad Ali and was so enthralled by the writing and central character that I bought King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero, even though I had no interest per se in boxing. That’s the power of storytelling. (ESPN The Magazine)
- Speaking of good storytelling, who would think that a book about 100 objects would be a page-turner? Not me, until I started reading A History of the World in 100 Objects, a joint project by BBC Radio 4 and the British Museum. The 100-part series by Neil MacGregor was produced during his time as the museum’s director and explores world history from two million years ago to the present day. The book is compelling thanks to MacGregor’s skill as a narrator. As a Financial Times article put it: “There’s no doubting the passion and intellect Neil MacGregor brings to history.”
- If you are a regular reader, you may remember that I’ve included Oliver Sacks’s essay, “Speak, Memory,” in at least one roundup. It’s an engaging piece about memory and Sacks’s surreal discovery about the fragility of his own recollections: “I accepted that I must have forgotten or lost a great deal, but assumed that the memories I did have — especially those that were very vivid, concrete, and circumstantial — were essentially valid and reliable; and it was a shock to me when I found that some of them were not.” Have you ever wondered what happens to all your childhood memories, what psychologists call “childhood amnesia”? Here’s something I learned after reading “This Is Where Your Childhood Memories Went”: When babies are six months old, their memories last for a day or more. When they’re nine months, memories remain for a month or so. By two years, they last for a year. So what happens to those memories go when we grow older? (The New York Review of Books, Nautilus)
- Celebrating a big birthday this year? Get ready for an adventure. Or perhaps an endurance challenge such as running a marathon. Apparently people in the last year of a life decade, what social psychologists Adam L. Alter and Hal E. Hershfield call “nine-enders,” search for meaning when they approach a new decade in chronological age and are apt to push themselves to do something extreme: “You’re Most Likely to Do Something Extreme Right Before You Turn 30.” (The Atlantic)
- A beautiful read on resilience and parenting: “Watching My Daughter’s Resilience Lead Her to the Right Path.” (Washington Post)
Lastly, a suggestion for a documentary: Before I set off on the trip. I watched Babies, which chronicles the lives of four babies from different parts of the world: Mongolia, Namibia, Tokyo, and San Francisco. As The New York Times review put it, “If you love babies you will find it very hard not to love ‘Babies’.” If you watch it, I hope you do, too.
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All posts are the opinion of the author. As such, they should not be construed as investment advice, nor do the opinions expressed necessarily reflect the views of CFA Institute or the author’s employer.
All images courtesy of Lauren Foster