Mongolia, August 2010

Ger Tents in the Gobi

It turns out that when you travel somewhere exotic and foreign,you’ll discover that things are, well, exotic and foreign. During our family summer adventure in Mongolia, we experienced the full yin and yang of foreign and exotic — from fantastic to absurd, from interesting to alien, from simple to simply awful. At 6,100 some miles from home, we took a giant step out of our box.

Me, contemplating the US economy
in the Gobi Dessert

Stepping out of your box is an eye-opening experience. You learn to appreciate the little things, like plumbing and roads. Potholes don’t seem so bad when you’re in a country where, outside of the capital city Ulaan Baatar, roads are a rarity, and the natives and guides tend to regard even rudimentary paths as optional. Bring extra Dramamine.

Becky and me, freezing at our
campsite in Lake Khovsgol,
northern Mongolia

We found that you must expect the unexpected, like a hailstorm with freezing rain while horseback riding; or a fierce sandstorm that keeps you grounded in your ger tent. You discover hidden talents you didn’t know you had, like the ability to communicate in a country where few people speak English. And you come to understand that even in the most unfamiliar environment, there are universal joys, like playing cards or chess late into the night around a campfire, where the common language does not have to be a spoken one.

Jay (l.) and Jackson (r.) enjoying a game of chess
Lake Khovsgol, northern Mongolia

Mongolia is going through a momentous cultural shift. Having emerged from communism a short 20 years ago, it is struggling with growing pains as it embraces democracy and capitalism. Ulaan Baatar moves at a frenetic pace, constructing modern offices and condo high rises, while more than half the population clings to the centuries-old nomadic lifestyle. Urban teens flock to internet spots with their gadget-laden Asian cell phones, while older generations continue to herd sheep, goats and cattle, moving three times a year in search of better grazing. It will be interesting to see what Mongolia is like in another 20 years.

Tourism is booming (we encountered an amazing number of Americans) as Mongolia’s reputation for unspoiled wilderness spreads. Foreign investors are also descending in a quest for mining rights over recently discovered rich deposits of gold and copper. It is estimated Mongolia’s GDP could triple over the next 10 years. Let’s hope the government is up for the challenge of managing these opportunities – protecting their country’s breathtaking landscape from the potentially negative impact that both tourism and mining could have.

Doug and a feathered friend in western Mongolia

Camping is not really my thing, but Doug and the kids had a blast, reveling in the outdoors — horseback riding, kayaking and hiking under vast blue skies with the whitest clouds I’ve ever seen. We were totally unplugged, as “no signal” seems to be understood in any language. And that was the best part, being together, uninterrupted by the routine of daily life — experiencing as a family the highs and lows of foreign and exotic.

Jay on the famous
Flaming Cliffs
Gobi Dessert, Mongolia

It occurs to me that stepping out of your box is good preparation for the inevitable changes we face in our lives and careers. Starting a new job often means expecting the unexpected, breaking into a different corporate culture, and learning the language of a new company. It also brings exciting opportunities for personal and professional growth, not to mention a keen appreciation for welcoming coworkers, a decent lunch and good old American plumbing. Chances are you won’t even have to bring your own toilet paper (although I’m glad I did).

We found that a good guide makes all the difference. If you need guidance along your career path, Burtch Works is here for you.


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