I left Lisbon on September 3rd, 2018. With a ticket bought for Madrid, without large plans, and only one objective: to get to Mongolia and return, always overland, with a roughly circular trajectory, closing in Lisbon several months later.
From Lisbon to Mongolia, overland
Why always overland? It was the first great trip I would take, and I wanted to truly feel what it is like to reach a distant point in space. I wanted to see people’s faces changing, the landscape changing, time zones adjusting slowly. I didn’t want to land in another reality; I preferred to reach it across a distance that deserves to be consciously experienced.
Why Mongolia? I have picked a place that could easily be reached overland, but that at the same time would be distant, unusual, unique and beautiful (I didn’t yet know that the right adjectives would be “wonderful” and “sublime”) and not too touristy. Therefore, I chose Mongolia over China (since it’s hard to get a tourist visa if you’re entering and leaving overland) or the more “conventional” parts of Asia.
From Lisboa to Russia
The first 10 days of the trip were a small European bus tour, through the cities of Lisbon, Madrid, Paris, Hamburg, Warsaw, Riga (the last stronghold before starting the real journey), crossing the first border control, the long-desired visit to Moscow, and the beginning of a personal Trans-Siberian route that would take me to Ulaanbaatar.
From the timeless Moscow, I took the Trans-Siberian railway through the cities of Kazan, Yekaterinburg, Omsk, Krasnoyarsk, and Ulan-Ude, where I could get the Mongolian visa and say goodbye to the first-world paradigm.
In all of these cities, I would stay for at least one night, since Russia, outside Moscow, is a cheap country. The cities of Kazan, Yekaterinburg, and Omsk cannot be considered a tremendous sensorial experience, but rather a social and anthropological one, through which we can get to know the “essence” of the Russian people, proud of both their present and their past. Even though it did not at any point appear unfriendly, it is clear that tourists are welcome, but not necessary in the area.
When I reached the heart of Siberia, Krasnoyarsk, the forest got increasingly dense, until I was finally presented with an impressive natural park, surrounded by a beautiful landscape. Krasnoyarsk would have deserved more time, but I couldn’t wait to go across the real cultural barrier that would take me to Mongolia, so I continued to Ulan-Ude.
The people of Ulan-Ude, the “Buryat” already show the characteristically Asian physical features, which made it clear that I was nearing the gate between the two worlds I had previously mentioned. After a few pleasant days in this city, where a lot of travellers meet either to get the Mongolian visa or to follow the Trans-Siberian railway until Vladivostok, I left the train and got back on a bus towards the easternmost place I would visit: Ulaanbaatar.
Arriving in Mongolia
After crossing the border between Russia and Mongolia, I arrived in Ulaanbaatar, the capital. It is not famous for the best reasons, as it is considered to be the coldest and the most polluted capital in the world. However, nothing would be able to get in the way of the joy of having arrived there, considerably fast (around 25 days), and always overland. Ulaanbaatar would serve as a base to visit some places that would remain in my memory as unrepeatable: the mountainous, green and spiritual park of Ghorki Terelj; the arid Khustain Nuuru and its wild horses, the Gobi mini-desert at Elsen Tasarkhai and the ancient town of Karakorum. The unknown and distant Mongolia was no longer a mysterious and exotic land: to me, it became something magical and ascetic.
The beauty of Mongolia is difficult to comprehend from the aesthetic and sensory point of view. It is oceanic, raw, vast, immense. There is something there that is difficult to explain: a challenge to logic, a fusion between the endless materiality of the Mongol horizon and the spirituality of its emptiness. It’s as if that place attracted us to become part of something more substantial, the source of everything before the lakes, valleys, forests, mountains, and seas were spread apart. There, the vastness and the nothingness of the Earth makes us resign to our condition, as it happens when we contemplate the sea.
Unfortunately, my time in Mongolia was quite limited. I had to return to Russia (I had a 30-day, double-entry visa), to continue towards Kazakhstan. I had long wanted to visit Bayan-Olgii and the mountains of the Altai. I could not have asked for a better time to go there, as the Golden Eagle Festival would be taking place in the capital of Kazakh Mongolia, the gateway to the Altai Tavan Bogd National Park. After I decided to go there, I embarked on the first significant bus trip and the beginning of many westward journeys. After 40 hours on mostly unpaved dirt tracks, together with an Argentinian friend I met on the road, we arrived at Bayan-Olgii at dawn before the festival.
Golden Eagle Festival
The festival was two fantastic days spent among locals, people from all over the world and “National Geographic” television crews. Although it is an arguably touristy event, learning and visualising the town’s connection with the surrounding fauna and flora is something that remains unblemished, particularly the relationship between the eagle hunters and their faithful companions, the eagles.
After the festival, together with a shared taxi driver, I organised my trip to Kazakhstan in three days. I would still embed in my memory another magical place, the aforementioned “Altai Tavan Bogd National Park”. A 7-hour bumpy 4×4 ride in perfect weather, the endless blue sky, and at the end of the day, the arrival to a “gher”, where I would spend two nights and two days of a single connection to nature. Long hikes, eyes closed and head up under the best sunlight I have ever felt, an absolute silence interrupted only by the sound of streams and wild birds, the most incredible starry sky I have ever seen, cold nights, and another 7 hours back to Bayan-Olgii on the same bumpy road and the same 4×4.
After the last night in Mongolia, it was time for my most extended trip, between Bayan-Olgii and Almaty, in Kazakhstan, separated by four border crossings and more than three days on the road. I would hardly repeat this journey, which made the 40 hours spent to take me there dwindle. This trip made me think and reflect on what travel means.
Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, some footprints in northern Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Iran, and Iraq were still ahead of me.
João Nunes is the author of @somemenareislands
Cover photo by Tânia Neves