What Are You Doing for Your “Summer Vacation” (Which Is the Rest of Your Life)?

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The day was very dusty, and as always happens in Mongolia, very windy. In a huge bowl surrounded by cliffs and mountains near Uglii, the small city where the main Eagle Festival takes place at the beginning of the Central Asian winter, some two thousand folks gathered around the central area.

The
announcers welcomed us in Mongolian, Kazakh, and English, which recognized that
fully two-thirds or more of the guests were from some 23 countries. Most of them
speak English or enough of it to get by.

Then the
parade of spectacularly-costumed eagle hunters, camel riders, and competitors
rode their tough little Mongolian ponies by us to begin the two days of
competition.

Where Were You in Early October?

I can tell
you that of all the Westerners who populated that huge, happy crowd, a very
large percentage was over 60. They had come through Natural Habitat, National
Geographic, and with me, Zavkhan Trekking.

Two 60-plus
women from Australia had ridden with Zavkhan for nearly two weeks and were
going to continue their adventure by rail.

I was
finishing up five weeks on a custom Zavkhan tour through the Gobi, doing farm
homestays and staying in my tent in the increasingly cold mornings (single
digits, most nights) as the light snows began to blanket the high country.

A Collector’s Paradise

During lulls in the activity, most of us
wandered the outside perimeter of the huge arena, looking at the handmade wares
offered by the locals. This is their Christmas season, effectively. You can
purchase fur-lined deels, the very simple but extremely effective
traditional garment that Mongolians wear.

I’d had
one custom made, lined with pure white sheepskin. I bought the fabric, a
brilliant Chinese silk brocade, and the women in Ulaan Bataar (Mongolia’s
bustling capital city) helped me locate a tailor.

The final
piece was finished by hand and was much better than nearly all the current
designer clothing I see these days. It’s a work of art, and – my god – it’s
warm. They have to be. Mongolians suffer -50 degree winters, and the wind is
brutal.

That and everyone,
even those with modern houses (outside the city) have long-drop toilets. To say
the least, nobody is taking thoughtful reading out there when the winds are
howling.

A Dream Trip with Challenges

During my
trip through the Gobi with a guide and driver, I ran into a couple who had been
to 85 countries. Jim, a retired Navy man, and his wife Catherine had hoped to
come to Mongolia for decades.

Childless,
and experienced world travelers, they were as delighted as I was with the
expansive open spaces, the unbelievable hospitality and generosity of its
people.

But it can
be rough. For me, that’s perfect. I spent two different weeks at farm
homestays. As a farm girl, herding goats and sheep by horse comes to me as naturally
as breathing. You adjust to washing once a week (if at all), the outdoor
toilet, and the constant presence of poop.

In fact,
you handle poop all the time because – as so
much of Mongolia has no fuel – dried
dung is the perfect fuel. It dries and burns odorless, and we have to gather it
day and night to meet the daily demands for water, tea, and washing.

Kissed by a Camel

At one homestay, we had a baby camel named
Gogo. This two-year-old darling adopted me as soon as she found out I carried
raisins in my pocket. She would delicately remove them from my hand by
surrounding my entire hand with her lips, then gently moving her prizes onto
her tongue.

I rewarded
her by scrubbing her neck and face, removing the rocks and sand that had
gathered in the powerful curve of her neck. For this, as camels do, she would
press her soft muzzle up against my nose, and we would share each other’s
breath.

Most folks
are afraid of camels, whose powerful teeth and feet can kill. However, if you
are respectful of them (they are much like cats) and teach them what your hands
can do for spots that itch, you can be richly rewarded.

Such
things are the fodder of dreams.

In fact,
since I got home last week, I wake up repeatedly each night, imagining I am
still in a ger (the traditional circular white home of the nomadic
people) or in my tent in the high country, being buffeted by intense winds.

There Are No Words

The night before the festival, we had driven to a small valley, the Tsengel
Khairkhun. It is a place
of immense beauty, high mountains, and that night, gusts of 60 mph. I struggled
to erect my tent, which I worried might spirit me away to Never-Never Land.

It didn’t, but after a night of howling banshee blasts, I woke up at 4am
to perfection. The skies clear, the kiss of a new dawn lightening the royal
blue sky, the full moon floating just above the horizon. Still windy, but
breathtaking.

I dressed in my warmest clothes, put on my headphones, and found a rock
cairn from which to watch the sun rise. Those of you who are classical music
aficionados will understand my choice: the first movement of Beethoven’s Third,
Eroica.

As the moon faded, I flew skyward on those notes. When it was finished,
I turned towards the mountains, whose peaks were just being painted by the
sunrise.

Joy, Pure Joy

Then I chose the Ode to Joy Chorale from Beethoven’s 9th.
I stood in the face of mind-bending beauty, air-conducting the ethereal and
joyful voices like a resurgent Bruno Walter, tears coursing down my face and
freezing there.

Ode to Joy is perhaps the
single most magnificent musical statement of triumph over suicidal thoughts,
depression, and anguish, all of which the then-totally deaf Beethoven had
experienced.

This piece, this gorgeous shout to the heavens about the joy of life,
exploded my heart in gratitude. This is the stuff of dreams.

What are you doing on your “summer vacation?” What magnificent moments are you allowing to fill the last and best years of your life? What have you given yourself lately which reminds you of how amazing it is to be alive at this age? Please share your stories and experiences with our community.

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