From time to time while traveling I experience moments that I like to think of as gifts.
They’re not coincidences exactly. To me, coincidences involve the precisely-timed participation of two or more parties to create a third thing that might not otherwise be, like two long-lost friends crossing paths in the doorway of a coffee shop. If one friend arrives seconds later or the other friend leaves seconds earlier, the third thing – their meeting – might never happen.
The “gift” moments I’m talking about would happen anyway. But through serendipity, a bit of intuition, and plain ol’ dumb luck I get to witness something fantastic I might not otherwise get to see. That’s why it feels like a gift.
My photo essay Sunrise Over Borobudur is a good example. The sunrise would have happened without me; my presence at the temple that morning probably didn’t affect the atmospheric and weather conditions of the region too much.
But I arrived in the Magelang Valley of Indonesia when I did to see that sunrise because of the restaurant I ate at two nights earlier, who I met there, and what we did afterwards.
Another story for another time. I promise. 🙂
Over those three days serendipity, intuition, luck, and a stinky fruit culminated in me watching an unforgettable sunrise. Of all the mornings I could have arrived, the one I did arrive on happened to be one that even my guide acknowledged was special:
Moments like this happen fairly often and have been one of the most validating parts of my journey. To me, they confirm I’m on the right path. Or that I must be doing something right, at least.
They’re even better when I can share them.
A YAK’S STORY
Another one of these moments happened during my visit to Mongolia in September.
Mongolia is a glorious country of hospitable and good-humored people living in a variety of breathtaking environments, including grassy steppes, sandy deserts, majestic mountain ranges, and lush forests.
Of the 25 nations I’ve visited Mongolia also feels the most like time-traveling. Half of the country’s 3 million population still live as nomadic herders of goats, sheep, cows, horses, camels, and yaks, continuing a lifestyle essentially unchanged for thousands of years.
Without a single fence on the landscape, the livestock of Mongolia are the very definition of free-range, grass-fed, and organic.
Towards the end of a fantastic 13-day tour organized by Golden Gobi Hostel of Ulanbaatar (recommended!) we visited the vast Orkhon Valley, which looks like this:
We arrived to our ger camp a day early after walking for one day through the forests of the Eight Lakes region:
… and then riding on horseback for a second day to the north end of the valley:
Mongolia’s tourism season generally ends by mid-September due to the winter snows starting at the end of the month. So we had to compress a leisurely two-day stroll through the Eight Lakes into a challenging one-day grind over the same distance, to avoid camping in an approaching rainstorm.
Fortunately the storm never arrived. But because we made it to camp early, we had a full extra day to enjoy the scenery, read, sleep, wash our clothes, or soak in the sun.
I decided to go for a walk. It seemed like a good idea to grab my camera and a bottle of water and head out… I dunno, how about thata’way?
Mongolia is also a very safe country for travelers. With no fenced farms to trespass upon and only humble, hardworking nomad herders spread out across the landscape, I didn’t think twice about walking off without telling anyone where I was going. Mongolia might be the only place in the world I’ve visited where I can or would do that – except possibly Japan, which is far less open.
I followed the Orkhon River winding across the western side of the valley. I didn’t have a compass or mobile signal (thankfully!) and the Orkhon Valley is short on natural landmarks, so I figured that walking along the river would make it easier to find my way home later.
Plus the late-summer scenery wasn’t bad, either…
After following the banks of the river for awhile, I spotted something shiny in the distance. Without any specific destination in mind, why not walk towards the shiny thing?
As I came closer, I found this.
I was told later that the plaque on the pagoda read that this monument was placed by a group of grandchildren in memory of their grandparents. Whoever these grandparents were, they must have been special people. A concrete-and-marble monument in a UNESCO Heritage Site is likely to stand for a very long time.
Sitting on the pagoda for a water break, I saw that its shadow pointed back the way I came. I had walked for 90 minutes.
The photo illustrates what I mean about free-range, grass-fed livestock, i.e. there’s no shepherd here. In fact, the nomad family who owns those goats and sheep might live miles away. They’ll round up their herd eventually, or the animals will find their way home on their own. This is a standard practice throughout Mongolia, especially in summer.
I share this brief interlude about the pagoda because the timing later on will be important. A few seconds earlier or later…
So, where to next? How about that way! That looks pretty.
I should also mention I was only wearing sandals. I didn’t necessarily intend to walk as far as I did, but, y’know…
I walked until I reached the Orkhon River again, which was too deep at this point to cross. Plus the sun was getting low on the horizon. As much as I wanted to continue exploring upriver, I thought it might be a good time to head home.
What I saw next is the “gift” and is why I’m telling this story.
A couple hundred meters downriver, I saw three yaks wading out together into the middle of the water. Actually I didn’t see them at first, I heard them.
Yaks are very large creatures, bigger and more imposing than cows, but also more intelligent. They look a lot like walking rugs, or bulls wearing shaggy curtains.
They also make a distinctive and oddly soothing sound that’s impossible to describe in an onomatopoeia, because the bulk of the noise is a deep bass tone, deeper than any human voice. If you want to try, however, it sounds a lot like “HRUNGMPH” said quickly and from the chest, then exhaling through the nose.
(Because you know you just tried, please post an audio recording of your best yak impression in the comments!)
So as I walked along the water towards camp, I heard several HRUNGMPH’s to my left and looked to see the three yaks stopped in the river. But the sound wasn’t coming from just one yak. All three were HRUNGMPH’ing together. In fact, it sounded like a conversation. I can’t say why it seemed this way to me, it just did.
The yaks were in fast-flowing water up to their bellies. As they looked back and forth at each other, one would HRUNGMPH, then another would reply HRUNGMPH, as would the third, all in the same tone, with no discernible inflection.
Perhaps they realized they’d gotten themselves into a pickle? At the risk of anthropomorphizing too much, I imagined the conversation went something like this…
“I told you.”
“That’s not helping. What do we do now?”
“We go back.”
“But guys, I think we can make it.”
“No we can’t, it’s too deep.”
“Yes we can. Just a little further.”
“Yeah, no way we’ll make it.”
“Well, do what you want. I’m going. Watch.”
And so he did…
And he made it…
As he reached the shore, the yak turned around and uttered a single HRUNGMPH, and all the yaks behind him followed, including his two buddies:
Then the rest of the herd joined in. Other yaks even came down from the nearby hillside, as did mothers who then guided their children carefully across the rushing water:
To see the support and care the mothers gave their obviously frightened kids was quite moving. The moms couldn’t carry them, obviously. The children had to do it themselves. As far as I could see, they all made it.
If I had arrived a minute earlier, I only would have seen yaks starting across the river. If I had arrived a minute later, I would have seen the yaks already across. But because I walked past when I did, after two hours on foot, I watched herd animal do something brave.
At the time I knew this was one of those “gift” moments, if only for me. The yaks would have crossed the river anyway, just like the sun would have risen over Borobudur. I happened to be in the right place at the right time to see it.
I never planned to tell anyone, either. How could I? Words couldn’t do it justice. And besides who in their right mind, besides me, would care?
But it also quietly became one of the highlights of my 5 weeks in Mongolia.
Maybe that sounds silly. Ultimately it is just yaks crossing a river, right? But to me it signified something more.
In my life – and I’d imagine in all our lives – we take bold steps and can sometimes find ourselves “in too deep”, facing the choice to go forward or go back.
While common sense and the people around us might tell us to stop, another instinct urges us on, with no guarantees of success, further into the heart of danger and uncertainty.
Which do we choose? Which voice do we heed? It’s up to us.
Success, and taking that next step further than we think we can safely go, benefits more than just ourselves. It benefits our families and communities, as well, as we become those who can lead the way.
Even if it is just to a greener pasture.
After watching a few more yaks ford the river I headed for home with a smile on my face and inspiration in my heart. While walking I turned around to say farewell and express my gratitude for the scene I just witnessed.
That’s when I saw something that, as a photographer, sent me running back.
They say a picture’s worth a thousand words. For me and this photo of my friend, the bravest yak, whose story I felt compelled to tell, let’s make it 2000:
I made it home just after sunset, with the last rays of sunlight just dipping below the horizon.
Later that night, our hosts at the camp treated us to something special: an alcoholic beverage made from – what else? – fermented yak’s milk.
We drank and sang around a bonfire beneath a million glittering stars, and a full moon illuminating a timeless land.
If this post has inspired you to travel to Mongolia, which I hope it has, the following resources are all you need to plan your own unforgettable adventure.
Start here: Mongolia-Travel-Advice.com – http://www.mongolia-travel-advice.com/
Back to Bek Travel – http://www.backtobektravel.com/ (highly recommended!)
Golden Gobi Hostel and Tours – http://goldengobi.com/