I thought my desire for travel could be slaked with the heady scents of Korean gimbap proffered by rowdy street-vendors in Seoul, my ancestral land, to the intense barrage of relentless sunlight pounding down on me in the unwavering heat of the Roman summer. The vividly hued garden of my surrogate German grandparents, the boisterous parka-clad Austrian children running amok in powdery snow — I had sampled travel indulgently, almost to the extent of greediness. It was not enough; I desperately wanted to savor yet another distinctive culture, another tangible difference of humankind. These were my erratic thoughts as I waited for my plane to skim down foreign airstrips or hastened to embark a boarding ferry. A sudden venture into Mongolia brought with it a momentous revelation, allowing me to glimpse the depth of what I had been childishly missing. These experiences altered me; they shaped me. But it was Mongolia itself that indisputably taught me how to travel, how to halt my inhibitions and instead immerse myself in the quaint customs of humanity while learning continuously about my own self.
In the summer of 2008, my family and I, in what my dad jokingly dubbed a “quest,” made plans to trek the wilds of Mongolia on horseback for five days straight. From the very first moment I arrived, Mongolia staggered my mind, as I truly comprehended life’s enormity. The countries I had traveled to earlier were affluent and flourishing countries, while Mongolia was a much shoddier specimen. The grimy state of the airport, the filthy grey pollution of Ulaanbaatar, the sad-eyed, hunched men rifling through trash; all seemed inconsistent with my previous experiences. Though saddened to discover the rampant poverty, I was far from being disgusted by the ubiquitous grittiness. I was keen to learn all I could about the lives, so wholly dissimilar then mine, which were led there. My interest, in turn, whetted in me an avid hunger to learn more.
We met various affable nomadic tribes roving the countryside, perfectly content with their meager means. We gazed upon ancient, glorious sceneries as, on horseback, we passed through the towering Ar Janchivlin and Ar Kust Mountains to the Gun Galut Nature Reserve, ending up at the Kherlen River — breathtaking sights, one and all. I realized that I had found something in Mongolia, something inexplicable, which turned me from just another gawking sightseer to an actual person who could relate. Seeing the poor’s suffering and the pathos of the weak had emboldened me.
I traveled to Mongolia with a blind eye and returned from it with newfound compassion. This experience transcended anything else that I’ve ever done. It goes without saying that the places I had been to before had broadened my outlooks on life, but Mongolia had enlarged it more then any had previously done. I had absorbed Mongolia’s culture so that the value of America’s wealth, and mine by comparison, was now more firmly etched inside me. These hard-living people were contented, while the far richer people in my country were not satisfied by their myriad of riches. Traveling can never be learned solely from books, but only from looking with your own two eyes. The person who has never traveled to another place doesn’t truly grasp the truth of this, while my impulsive encounter with Mongolia gave me that indescribable, intrinsic value; furthermore, it was an unsurpassable travel experience and will be forever cherished in my reminiscences of the past. As Henry Miller explained it as, “One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.”
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