I freely admit to not being in harmony with my spirit for a long time.
I find Maya Angelou inspiring but whether experiencing delayed and complicated grief or just burn-out, a growing melancholy is difficult to shake off and so I am an expert in masking how I feel. Last year, the pretence life was okay became harder to mask.
I felt broken; fatigued and shattered.
How to fix broken me a difficult conundrum, but not new.
All my life I’ve been accused of over-thinking, being too sensitive, too serious, caring too much. Even primary school teachers wrote “highly strung” in reports when personality assessments sat beside grades.
Weary, disillusioned and disappointed in myself I wondered is it just coming to terms with ageing, or is existing rather than living going to be the norm?
Were the fast approaching ‘twilight years’ affecting me as they did my father who often recited the cynic’s song:
Twas always thus since childhood’s hour, I’ve seen my fondest hopes decay, I never loved a bird nor flower, than the darned thing died or flew away!”
The Physical and Metaphysical
There were physical aspects to how broken I felt.
I visited my oncologist because I wanted to come off Tamoxifen. Her reaction to my complaints about joint pain, rashes, and palpitations, “it’s not just cancer, you’ve never got over losing John…” and while writing a script for anti-depressants, “I’ll give you these but I know you probably won’t take them…”
She was right about the pills – I didn’t fill the prescription, particularly after researching the possible side effects, mirroring some of the symptoms, which motivated me to make the appointment!
Symptoms I believed from Tamoxifen, the drug keeping my breast cancer under control.
She was also right about my grief for husband John, who I loved passionately and miss every day, but conflating that with the visceral effects of Tamoxifen didn’t help my anxiety.
When I left the specialist’s rooms that day, instead of catching the bus, I walked for an hour, my mind in overdrive and future uncertain.
Decisions to make.
To ignore the prescription for anti-depressants and also come off Tamoxifen. (And when the most worrying physical symptoms disappeared, I was vindicated!)
But what to do about the cloud of depression shadowing me most of my life and now threatening thunderstorm proportions?
Throwing myself into work whether paid or volunteer often an effective distraction. I’ve always been a great believer in focusing and helping others as a way of minimising personal problems.
It sometimes works, but deep down distraction is the right word. Also, it’s a solution that’s often temporary.
Peter Sarstedt in his hit song of the ’60s sang:
But where do you go to my lovely
When you’re alone in your bed
Tell me the thoughts that surround you
I want to look inside your head
No one would want to look inside my head – not even me! Where is the off button?!
The 24hour news cycle and social media with its emphasis on tragedies take a toll on heart and soul too. There are always external factors as well as internal factors feeding melancholia and as a person interested in politics and social justice I know the constant barrage has made it worse.
Going Travelling instead of Going to Pieces
By planning a holiday to places on my bucket list, I hoped travelling and a rest from the everyday would give time to think and heal.
I sent an email to Flower Travel, Trans Siberian journey specialists, plus emails to friends and relatives overseas in the UK, a place not visited in 20 years. I decided to travel where I’d never been and tour Orkney and Shetland.
“The discipline of writing something down is the first step toward making it happen.”
I plundered superannuation and took a term off from teaching…
As a solo traveller, there would be plenty of time for soul-searching, especially visiting Mongolia and Siberia, places as different from my lifestyle as the proverbial ‘chalk and cheese’!
Day Two In Mongolia
I’m scheduled to stay in a traditional ger at Buuviet Ger Camp, Terelj National Park, 65 kilometres northeast of Ulaanbaatar.
The ideal opportunity, at the beginning of my travels, to start that soul searching and a walk at dusk provides time to be quiet and still.
“The National Park Gorkhi-Terelj includes the southern Khentil mountain range. Terelj is one of the protected areas most frequently visited. It offers naturally beautiful scenery, interesting rock formations and is covered by forests, wetlands and alpine tundra…”
The Buuviet Ger Camp is open all year round and the information listed facilities to include: 220 V electricity, deep well artesian water, 70 gers with guest beds for overnight stay, 16-bed winter houses, ger restaurant with seating for 60 and information ger with Mongolian national games, modern bar in a ger, souvenir shop, fully equipped restrooms (summer only) and an outside BBQ and bar – not the isolated wilderness some may think!
However, I’m not the first and won’t be the last traveller to discover a discrepancy in what is advertised and reality, but I didn’t mind. In fact, the experience probably more authentic because of it. I wasn’t looking for “Glamping” as one travel site described:
Sleeping in a rough-and-ready Mongolian ger is a quintessential grassland experience, but a growing number of tour operators are establishing sustainable, nomad-run ger camps that target the posh adventurer with innovative luxuries. Nomadic Journeys operates ger camps at pristine wilderness sites that feature heated eco-showers, hand-painted beds with thick yak’s wool blankets, and even a sauna ger. For the truly adventurous, they’ll open up an airstrip and fly people into the great Mongolian void – 365 degrees of pristine emptiness, and it’s all yours.
The spacious and comfortable ger was cosy and I eventually settled to sleep… although that was a long time coming…
Staring at the shadows from the starlight shining through the roof, I relived the minutiae of the day, tortured myself with past imperfect scenarios, tried to imagine perfect scenarios…
… the wee hours never easy for what my mother called ‘an overactive brain‘. Nighttime rarely a relief from the busyness of the day.
The silence in the ger “deafening’! There are none of the sounds I’m used to – machinery, cars, trains, footsteps on pavements, crickets, pigeons cooing, sirens, dogs barking….
At times the wind whistles through the roof but I could be the only person on earth although the faint buzz of security cameras and an outside light just discernible. Once I heard distant barking – dogs warning of wolves?
But there was no insect noises or hum of an electricity generator. The ger cocoon the perfect place for ‘endless musings and ramblings, recriminations and replayed conversations.’
The writing ‘mojo’ I hoped to rekindle struggled to appear, and energy absent, but regrets, remorse, resentment, recriminations, fears, fantasies, grief and even giggles took their turn before I gradually dropped off to sleep!
When we arrived at the camp, snow still lay on the ground. The weather of the last few days just beginning to allow for maintenance and preparation for the spring and summer tourist season.
Being the only guest, I understood why the electricity (stored in batteries) was not switched on, and the ‘fully equipped restrooms” still shrouded and protected from winter.
It was pleasing to see signs explaining efforts to marry environmental awareness with tourism.
A love of travel motivates me, but I readily admit it’s a privilege and carry first world guilt about my environmental footprint.
Cultivating an attitude of neutrality, I consider most people to have good intentions, are not out to be bad or destructive. The majority are kind and helpful and so I do my best to be trusting, suppress suspicion and hesitation, and extend friendship.
There are myriad cultural and ethnic stereotypes promoted in movies, comedy routines, novels, and plays. Lazy writers thrive on stereotypes and cliches and the success of soap operas and pulp fiction show there is a market. But I hope to absorb and capture the vibrant and fascinating Mongolia that has stunned me, albeit with only two days of experience.
I prefer to take people as I find them and form opinions based on personal experience and observation.
A large sign explained Buuviet Camp’s mission to be an “eco-camp”:
Idopt a tree
Buuveit camp of Tsolmon Travel LLC was nominated and certified as the first “Eco Camp” today we are working to bring you close to nature by developing beautiful garden at our camp.
- save and preserve the endangered species of plants, trees and shrubbery
- increase the number by replanting
- provide botanical education
Our garden is dedicated to the collection, cultivation and display of wide range of plants from Gorkhi Terelj National park and Khan Khentii Protected Area.
Thousand Trees Every YEAR
Please join our effort to give back to the nature by planting trees and flowers any help would be appreciated
For more info please ask the camp manager.
I saw the area mapped out for a vegetable and fruit garden, still empty of growth because of winter. However, Jemina, my host excited at seeing a tiny shoot of green and bent down to examine it. New growth means his horses and cattle will have more feed.
Traditionally, Mongolian nomads raise five species of livestock known as the five muzzles or snouts: horses, cows or yaks, sheep, goats, and camels. Reindeer are raised by the Tsaatan people who live in the northwest areas around the lake Khovsgol bordering Russian Siberia.
A life of wrestling with the vagaries of the seasons evident on Jemina’s face, skin, and wiry body. This vast almost limitless space, a tough place in winter.
I saw living proof that Mongolia is one of the least densely populated countries on earth when standing in the centre of camp:
- no sight or sound of another person,
- a panorama of unfolding pastures, dusty paddocks,
- and hilly peaks draped with snow.
A wonderful gift to experience, I’m in awe at this wilderness and appreciate the lifestyle enjoyed in Mordialloc.
Ada had been worried and apologetic about some facilities being closed. But why would I mind using the squat toilet on the edge of the site, or top and tailing at the wash basin rigged to be fed by a bucket of water?
I thought of an old Monty Python skit ( Four Yorkshiremen) – these facilities luxury indeed compared to how some people have to live, without shelter, clean water or decent food!
Because of the nomadic lifestyle and the climate, Mongolians have always played a variety of games and are skilful horse riders. I saw where outdoor games could be played but had to make do reading about the cultural heritage developed over many centuries to suit nomadic life.
Likewise, the restaurant and other communal buildings, BBQ and bar remained closed for my one night, but I could imagine the delight of tourists in peak season.
After a wander around and peeking in windows, I’m sure would-be guests during peak tourist season could consider it ‘glamping’!
Looking at my notebook, I read “has it only been a day since I flew into Mongolia?”
“I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m on my way.”
An Awakening of the Land – and Me…
From the plane, I spy brown, dry earth
and undulating hills
peaks dotted with snow
the iced mountains and streaked steppes
like shattered shards of glass
nomadic houses – gers
could be iced buns or polka dots
instead of circles of civilisation
The plane manoeuvres around mountains
and patchwork dark green shadows
forest in a land famous for no trees
Thick cloud envelops
accompanied by an ominous grunt…
the landing gear drops
we hover over mountains
panda seat display announces
two degrees on the ground
river tributaries appear
or perhaps just melting snow
as isolated gers multiply
blend to suburbs of Ulaanbaatar…
A long straight highway glimpsed
high-rise buildings glint in sunlight
seat upright, seat belt fastened
alert and nervous
I anticipate the adventure ahead…
Notes By Candlelight…1
Tonight I’m in a ger – the only guest in the village because winter is not quite over. Aruna and her father Jemina run the place. Although only 22 years old, Aruna is extremely competent. She had to step up when her mother died 6 years ago. Her father is 59. An older brother and sister have moved away with their own families.
Aruna told me she has a pony, also books and television as relaxation and entertainment. She writes in her journal. Like young people everywhere she has a mobile phone and loves the Internet.
Our conversations stilted and difficult because of the language barrier. How I wished we could communicate better – I’d love to know what she reads and writes… and of her dreams for the future.
I can imagine how busy it will be in the summer – a lot of work for a young woman. I feel guilty at a fleeting moment of regret that the new washing and toilet facilities are not operational. No luxury hotel comforts for me. Not even electricity in the ger because it’s not worth connecting the battery for just one guest.
On the plus side, I’m experiencing a more traditional lifestyle as I read by candlelight, use the squat toilet, and sponge myself down at the tiny sink with water from a bucket!
I told Heidi at Flower Travel I wasn’t “precious” so in modern day vernacular I’m “sucking it up”!
When we migrated to Australia in 1962, the house we rented for four years had no septic tank or sewer. We trekked down to the bottom of the backyard day or night and used the ridiculously named “dry toilet” or dunny in Aussie vernacular. (My father and brothers often peeing in the bushes or ‘by the lemon tree’!)
The pan emptied each week by the “night man,” who actually came during the day. And what a grump he was too, but with such a “shit” job, no wonder!
My Aussie Childhood
I grew up at Croydon
when the bush was thick around,
milk and bread delivered
to a tuneful clip-clop sound
kookaburras laughed and swooped
to steal our pet cat’s food
it wasn’t Snappy Tom, of course
but ‘roo meat, raw and good.
Streets were mainly dirt tracks,
collection of potholes and clay,
most people walked or cycled
and strangers said, ‘G’day!’
Our weatherboard house peeled
paint – the tin roof leaked too,
verandahs sagged under honeysuckle,
rooms added as the family grew.
Mosquito nets caused claustrophobia,
possums peered down chimneys three
but the dunny banished down the back,
the most terrifying memory, for me.
Electricity only brightened inside,
so torch or candle had to suffice,
night noises from shadows in bushes,
and the smelly dunny – not nice!
The path to the toilet lined with trees
growing tall to seek the sun
but in the scary, dark cloak of night
branches became arms from which to run.
But during the day, our block was heaven
definitely a children’s Adventureland
blue tongues, geckos, tadpoles, and frogs
all shared my world so grand.
A snake was the greatest danger
or a bull ant bite on the toe,
a rule carefree wonderful time –
my rose-coloured glasses show!
Notes By Candlelight…2
More often than not it was outside squat toilets when I visited communes and factories and some tourist attractions in China in 1979 – the unforgettable smell of human waste reminiscent of the latrines we dug at girl guide camps.
That ‘farmyard’ smell triggers many memories just as staring at the flickering candle flame does!
Sipping a cup of Nerada tea I’ve brought from Australia I wonder how many others have sat in this ger?
The teabags and a tube of Vegemite brought along as emergency rations. A cup of tea does wonders and Vegemite on bread or cracker biscuits as good as a meal!
Deep breaths and I imagine the eucalypts in the garden at Mordialloc, the sweet smell of Mary Jane’s favourite incense that permeates the hall, the smoothness of Aurora’s fur as she cuddles me each night.
Will this trip invigorate me or just emphasise my aloneness – or make me lonely ?
A big drawback of solo travel – not having someone to talk over the day’s experiences – the joys, upsets… the wonder.
My first published poem in the form of a bookmark resulted from a writing workshop where the teacher lit a candle in the centre of the table and told us to pause, reflect and write…
is it just tiredness or feeling overwhelmed that is blocking inspiration tonight?
There were several hours to walk and explore the camp and beyond. I discovered a prayer site of shaman ritual. Shamanism deeply rooted in nomadic Mongolia and lives happily with Buddhism. You often see the circles and cairns where rituals have taken or will take place and memorial stupas.
People ask to be healed, for good crops or to do well in an exam or job interview – many reasons to thank the gods – and ask for guidance from ancestors.
Buddhism and Shamanism coexist in Mongolia and are often interconnected.
Stalin’s purges led to religious orders being decimated. At the time 25% of the male population were Buddhist priests so you can see why he considered them a threat and you can also understand why people clung to shamanism.
In the solitude, I felt relaxed, daylight drifted away as a veil of serenity fell. I discovered a spiritual sanctuary amidst ancient stones. I could be sitting in an empty church – sitting quietly in contemplation without sermons or fuss.
The rocks materialising into shapes – eyes, faces, figures – as if ancient folk still live.
Three monks in their cowls with heads bent in prayer, a mother, and her child, a grandparent squatting with a child leaning on his shoulder; animals too – crouching, lying, poised and cowed.
Who comes here? Is the discarded bottle Jemina’s? Is this where he comes to grieve? Or do people gather for spiritual salvation?
Secret cavities leading to where? Did Mankind begin here? Do ancient souls still hover?
I see brown open landscape, miles of emptiness
I hear the cry of a crow – a kite circles
I smell aromatic herbs and woodsmoke
I taste the tang of unfamiliar meat sauces from dinner
I touch textured rock scarred by time and weather
I imagine the endless universe… the circle of life
There are only two faces to existence – birth and death –
and life survives them both, just so sunrise and sunset
are not essentially different:
it all depends on whether one is facing east or west.
Joy Mills, Release into Light
The toilet was far enough away to be disconcerting in the dark even although I had a torch.
There were holes and uneven ground caused by the marmots coming out of hibernation and despite knowing I was the only one booked into the camp, a walk across open land amongst shadows and the silhouettes of buildings, conjured the fearful (although unfounded) sensation that people were watching, perhaps even wishing me harm!
Imagination a curse at times and never more so in a strange place in the dark.
No wonder I took Ada’s suggestion and snuck behind the tent and peed – it was about 3 or 4 am, absolutely freezing, the only sound my stream of urine scalding and steaming tufts of dead grass and melting thick frost.
Of course, I did have a middle-class moment – what if Jemina was up and about? But that was fleeting and made me smile at my own ridiculous thoughts.
What about ticks?
Ada told me a story about her friend being bitten on the head and contracting Lyme Disease. It was tick season and according to Ada, they love the wind and your hair, but will also go up your leg. I dutifully wore hat, scarf, and boots when outside.
Fear made me check the bedclothes and the wheels of my luggage – just in case! When a fly got through the door with me, I watched where it flew as if an enemy ready to attack. What a relief to see it leave via the circular gap in the roof dome.
No windows in the ger but starlight, moonlight, sunlight, first light, all through the hole in the roof for the chimney.
And what about wolves? The wolf pelt in the corner of the office a stark reminder they exist.
Jemina crept into the ger at midnight trying not to wake me, his torch flickering as he fed the fire with coal. He must have watched for smoke or lack of – and his timing spot on. (Ada had warned me Jemina would need to stoke the fire when we had an explanatory tour of the place before she returned to the city.)
This is bizarre, I thought as I watched his silhouette from the comfort of the bed. What will the girls think when I tell them I agreed that a man who couldn’t communicate with me, could come into my unlocked bedroom in the middle of the night, albeit to stoke the fire. (Another middle-class, western moment?)
The torchlight bright and blinding and Jemina’s face masked with a scarf against the bitter cold as he concentrated on his duties. Hunkering in front of the fire, fiddling with fuel to encourage flames, poking and rearranging with expertise. The wood stirred, flared and crackled to life.
There’s a talent to lighting a fire and heating a stove. Mum had it. So did Dad, although no surprise there because he was a fireman and later steam train driver. Not much Dad didn’t know about fires. Maybe he taught Mum, but since she was brought up on a farm in Northern Ireland where creating heat for cooking an important element in the skillset for country living, perhaps their expertise mutual.
In the modern world, push-button electric, gas or oil heaters ensure generations have no idea how to make or regulate a wood or coal fire.
- Before John and I renovated our home in Mordialloc, the only hot water came from a wood-burning Raeburn stove. Every weekend John sat for hours in the shed chopping enough kindling for me to use during the week. When Anne came along, it was easier to boil kettles for her baby baths. I recall the joy of instant hot water when a gas hot water service installed.
- I remember my parents spreading a newspaper over the fireplace in Scotland to block out air (except for what came down the chimney or ‘lum’ as we called it) until kindling caught. I can see and smell sandalwood tapers used to light the fire – a present from a childless aunt who could afford to travel to exotic places.
- Images of the coal man surface – heaving and emptying a large hessian bag full of coal into a bunker next to the kitchen. The smell of lanolin, the pink barrier cream Mum massaged into her hands for protection before she handled the coal, and set the fire.
As I skipped down memory lane, Jemina gave the fire his complete attention, but when he realised I was awake, he mimed that he’d return at 2.00am.
Earlier in the evening, the inside of the ger became unpleasantly hot – the coal and wood heater did too good a job in the well-insulated, enclosed space so I mimed to Jemina not to bother returning; I’d be warm enough.
He nodded, and before leaving placed a bucket near my bed. I assumed it was to pee in if needed.
Jemina crab-walked to the door and braved the cold. I hoped, he understood I didn’t want to be disturbed at 2.00 am. The door of the ger tiny, and crouching definitely the best way to get in and out or earn a bump on the head like me when I forgot to duck coming back in after my peeing expedition!
The fire nearly out so I rekindled the flames and added more wood. I wonder if Jemina is watching for smoke from his ger…
A traditional yurt (from the Turkic languages) or ger (Mongolian) is a portable, round tent covered with skins or felt and used as a dwelling by nomads in the steppes of Central Asia.
Traditional gers consist of an expanding wooden circular frame carrying a felt cover. The felt is made from the wool of sheep, goat or yak and the timber, to make the external structure, is obtained by trade because of the absence of suitable trees on the steppes.
Gers traditionally did not have solid doors. These fitted as camps have grown and the people don’t move as often. Traditional doors were heavy carpets or appliquéd quilts.
A Visit With A Nomadic Family
Earlier in the day, there was a quick stop with a traditional nomadic family: Mum, her son, and daughter-in-law, plus two kids of 6 and 7. A brother was visiting with his two children and another relative and her children.
The place packed. Everyone, apart from our hostess, sitting along one side of the room while Ada, Bemba and myself, sit on the other.
A washing machine is churning because it is Sunday, the day they wash their clothes. In between entertaining us, the mother hassles the children for dirty clothes – well I assume that’s what she is saying as they search under chairs and behind boxes and produce items of clothing. The domestic tasks of parenting and managing a household universal – no translation needed!
It’s ingenious the way the ger is built, to be collapsed and packed up at least four times a year. Sometimes they only move 20-25 kilometres, other times 50 – 100 kilometres, depending on where the family’s cattle and horses graze.
This family has horses and display medals they’ve won at Naadam, the great summer festival in July.
They are Buddhist and a shrine sits next to a giant flat-screen TV, the children and some adults engrossed watching Shaun The Sheep!
A traditional musical instrument with horse handle proudly displayed, although no one plays. It sits beside a traditional saddle and ancient costume of hat and whip. They are important symbols to show pride in Mongolian culture and heritage and have been passed down through the family.
The various ‘sides’ of the ger are designated: woman’s area – kitchen gear (what a surprise!), a symbolic or ornamental area, sleeping area, bathing and washing area.
Gers may look the same from the outside but like our homes are different inside – this one elaborate and heavily furnished. Bright carpets insulate the walls as well as woven hangings.
As an honoured guest, I’m given milky tea swirled in a large steel basin. Milk drained – I have no idea if it was from a horse, yak, cow, goat or sheep. They use whatever is available and make milk, cream, butter, cheese, and yoghurt.
I ate little round shaped bites like doughnuts, the other plate is dried yoghurt, tasty but so hard you need strong teeth. A sweet/salty butter treat. Mixing salt and sugar common here. The children suck on slices of dried butter as if icy poles.
The tea an acquired taste – sweet – and leaving an aftertaste. Since teenage, I’ve preferred unsweetened black tea and because Ada knew what to expect she asked the hostess to pour only half a cup for me.
Not wanting to offend, I drink the tea and taste everything offered. Taking food with an acquired taste, not something I cheerfully volunteer for. I’m not an adventurous eater and rarely eat out, rather I eat to live, not live to eat and never watch cooking shows currently popular on television.
There were plenty of smiles and friendly looks and my visit is an income stream for the family, especially in winter when there are not a lot of alternatives.
When they settle in an area like the National Park there is a government school closer to town and the children board there. When I visited, it was the week of school holidays a time when lots of families visit each other. (Not that different from us really.)
To the Mongols, the family unit is everything.
Having to communicate through Ada limiting and because it was a special and busy family day, I felt like an intruder and didn’t want to subject our hostess with twenty questions.
The children too interested in the television to care about visitors, but one woman (family, neighbour?) never took her eyes off me for the half hour or so of our visit. Her intense stare disconcerting and when we left, I could hear daughter, Mary Jane’s voice, “Well, that was awkward!”
On reflection, despite the generous hospitality, it was indeed! Perhaps a group visiting makes the dynamics different or maybe I just wasn’t prepared for all the distractions under one roof – this is where having a separate room for guests may have advantages.
Getting to know someone and being invited to their home different to this organised visit. I remember experiencing the same embarrassed reaction after a visit to a commune in China. It just seemed a discourteous intrusion – maybe if it had been a longer visit, more relaxed and we could communicate better I wouldn’t feel so bad.
However, in the morning, all negative feelings disappeared as I lay in bed trying to identify sounds –
‘Peeho, peeho’ the call of a bird?
Persistent and guttural like a pigeon but not ‘coo coo’
Silence after 30 seconds.
A soft whish, swish – flapping?
A peek outside –
an eagle or kite swooping, catching breakfast
an unlucky marmot fails to escape
a magical Mongolian moment I won’t forget!
Despite a disturbed night and strange bed, I feel relaxed… a step towards serenity and inner peace?