Mongolia – Unsettling travels

This article was written as a contribution to MeaningfulTravels by Arabella Ciampi, an anthropology graduate from the London School of Economics and the University of Amsterdam, snowboard instructor and lover of mountains.

What happens when you travel somewhere and you realize that you are completely at odds with the place you’ve chosen to go to? What if you don’t like your travel destination? An option is always to keep on moving and go somewhere else. This option was not available to me, as I had travelled to Mongolia with the intent to carry out academic research – and I was going to honour that plan.

I was in Mongolia for three months during which I felt alone, as alone as I had ever been in my life. I felt inadequate, physically and linguistically inept in all situations I found myself in. I became aware of the fact that it was extremely difficult for me to establish a connection with people and that I was constantly clumsy and awkward in any social context. Linguistically, I was on the margin, as I did not speak Mongolian, although I took lessons, and English is seldom spoken. To top it all off, I really did not like the food: I lost about 8 kilos – I’m a small person, that’s a lot!

I try not to have any expectations about a place I will travel to. Yet the experience I had in Mongolia really took its toll. In any sort of travelling experience, or at least in those which you try to find out more about and connect with the local culture, there is an exchange that is set up between you and the other. In this exchange you learn about the ways of the other just as much as the other learns about your ways. There is an exchange of cultural knowledge. This exchange is not simply informative, but also expressive. In other words, it is articulated and moderated by variables, such as feelings, preconceptions, and thought processes. Unfortunately, my exchange with the other was underscored by tension. They were not impressed by my questions, my attitude or my style while I could not decipher their way of acting and thinking. This made it so there was a constant feeling of unease, for everyone involved, in the vast majority of situations.

Yet, I think the state of being uncomfortable is just that – a state of being. It is as informative and as stimulating as the state of being comfortable. Questions and reflections still arise, considerations are made, plans are exacted.

The experience remains as valuable as one that had a happier beginning and end. Perhaps, if the exchange with the other is riddled with difficulties, the journey will teach us more about ourselves rather than the other; still, that is precious knowledge. And whatever we learn, it was because of our involvement with precisely that place and that very people.

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