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My name is Tom, and I am from San Francisco, CA. I previously lived in Japan for 3 years, and started living in Mongolia in October 2022. For the last few months, I have been hiking consistently with a Mongolian mountaineering group. In March 2023, we hopped into tried-and-tested, Soviet-style minivans and drove several hours out to Asralt Khairkhan, a 2,799m mountain 90km north of the capital.
Our group met up at the National Academic Drama Theatre, Ulaanbaatar at 11pm on a Friday so we could catch the sunrise. From looking at Google Maps, I knew that Asralt Khairkhan is not particularly far from Ulaanbaatar (hereinafter UB). But when I crammed myself into a minivan and talked with an acquaintance in the best Mongolian I could muster, she said the trip would take several hours. Over half of our journey would consist of bumpy, icy, utterly treacherous dirt roads. I asked her, "So how do you sleep?" She chuckled and said, "You don't."
She was right. After an hour and a half of driving over well-paved highways, the most grueling part of the journey began. Our driver navigated over barely-touched dirt roads, strictly maintaining a professional coolness as our minivan blundered its way to our destination. As soon as the road had any semblance of smoothness, even if it was covered in ice, our driver gunned the minivan onwards. I must have popped a meal's worth of Dramamine to stave off motion sickness. This process continued for another 4 hours.
Finally, we arrived at Asralt Khairkhan. I was surprised my stomach was still functioning at all. After a brief respite, we started trudging through darkness and deep snow. There were no signs or trails to guide us to the summit, only our group leaders' previous experience and maneuvering up steep slopes. We arrived just in time for sunrise as we hauled ourselved up a deep basin, catching views of a burning sky and purple mountains. For this sunrise alone, the drive was worth it.
The hike up Asralt Khairkhan marked the farthest I have strayed from my home in UB yet. I am only motivated to stray farther as summer comes to Mongolia. For all the bumpy dirt roads and devil-may-care driving, I am glad I did this hike. Even if my Mongolian language skills are limited, our club members are incredibly kind, accomodating people. It is largely thanks to them that I have wandered outside UB and experienced Mongolia's enrapturing natural scenery.
Would I go to Asralt Khairkhan again? Nope. Once was enough. Knowing the gut-churning dirt roads that await me on future expeditions to Altai Tavan Bogd, Lake Khuvsgul, or any other gem of the Mongolian countryside, I will only cross these roads as many times as I need to. And come armed with Dramamine.
I have only lived in Mongolia for a little over six months, but there are already some important lessons I have learned here.
If you move abroad, work as fast as possible to find people who share your passions. It is even more helpful to meet with locals, because they know the best spots and the best ways to get there. It can be daunting to speak and listen to a language you barely understand. But act with kindness, humility, and curiosity, and the locals will reward you handsomely for it.
Moreover, I have long been the fiercely-independent type. Even while living in Japan, I went great lengths to do everything myself. But in Mongolia, where winter is cruel, the land is desolate, and the language is indecipherable, I have found myself asking my Mongolian friends for help. I have asked for help to find hiking groups, solve language difficulties, and even find good restaurants in UB. Previously, asking for help has been anathema to me. But I've learned more and more that asking for help is paramount to a fulfilling experience abroad. For this reason, I have felt more settled into Mongolia after six months than after a year in Japan. Expats, ask for help. Chances are the locals will have so much to offer.
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