– Sain banu!
It must be 2 or 3 am. It’s pitch black. I am devastated by a dreadful night in which my partner Valentina has been dealing with the piece of goat cheese she’s been trying to expel from her body (and soul) ever since we laid in our tent. To put things in perspective, we are wild camping in the middle of nowhere in the Arkhangai province, the very heart of Mongolia. We got here yesterday after a long day in the saddle, pedalling our way along multiple tracks in the steppe – where a gps becomes your best friend ever. Ever.
– Sain ta sain baina uu
That’s about all I have learnt to say in reply to the common Mongolian greetings the nomad gentleman has uttered to my face. After this, whatever he says, I’m lost. Speechless – literally.
The man keeps talking to me, and while it’s obvious I can’t understand a word of what he’s saying, he starts laughing like he’s just had a great night in his yurt with his family and now wants to know more about the curious guest from another planet camping not too far from his settlement.
I try (I wish) to explain that my girlfriend is having a rather delicate moment dealing some demons inside her stomach (guilty of kindly accepting the cheese that was offered to us last night when we arrived here) but my friend’s ear-to-ear smile tells me he’s not getting a word of what I’m saying and keeps talking to me.
Life has some tricky ways of laying the scene before your incredulous eyes. As I get lost in translation I lift my head to the sky in quiet desperation and my jaws drop when I realise the beauty of the most powerful Milky Way I’ve ever witness is watching us from above.
Somehow I manage to push our friend back to his yurt, take a couple of shots of the starry night above and make sure Valentina gets a couple of hours of good sleep after having crawled around the tent for most of the night. As I fall heavily asleep I can’t but think of how helpless we are when travelling so far from home, without our usual references, our comfy ways of getting out of any trouble.
The following morning is heaven sent. With all due respect, this is the morning I was hoping for while the night was playing chess with our fears of our little European certainties. When you’re travelling independently so far from home with nothing else to rely upon than your own experiences and character, there’s not much you can hope for. The young man that bothered us during the night is already hard at work. Chopping wood for the yurt’s stove (the centre of a Mongolian nomad’s life), looking after his goats, feeding the young members of the family. And I’m also hard at work, brewing some much needed coffee and packing our camp.
Valentina is still struggling with whatever upset her stomach last night, feeling as vulnerable as she’s ever felt her entire life. Not much we can do, though. Our only option is to move forward.
After only a fistful of kms in the saddle, however, it’s clear we won’t go far today. My better half is literally knocked out from the rough, sleepless night and I can’t push her any harder. We leave the first mountain pass behind and plunge into a vast plain. Gorgeous greens, scattered white yurts, and horses anywhere we look.
It’s my duty to try and communicate with the nomad camps we meet so I do not hesitate and explain (in my very own funny way) that my girlfriend is unwell and we need to pitch our tent near them so she can feel safe and have some much deserved rest. The Mongolians are some of the most hospitable people on this planet and welcome us as family, helping me setting up camp and and offering Valentina advice for her bad stomach. Oh my.
We don’t usually put up our tent so early in the day so I do not worry about the weather.