Approximately three weeks ago, I arrived in Ulaanbaatar for Wellesley’s Luce in Asia internship program. I am now working at The UB Post as a journalist intern, writing articles and exploring the city. While initially, I wanted nothing more than to come home, these past few weeks thus far have reminded me why I travel.
Before I came to Mongolia, I tried to have no expectations. Though usually I make a point of creating thorough itineraries for myself, I decided to simply arrive and go with the flow. I’m someone who loves order and clear definitions, so this lack of structure was very taxing on me at first.
When I first arrived, I lumbered out of the airport with my heavy suitcase after a 21 hour flight. Since I had come with little to no expectations, I was naively expecting Ulaanbaatar to be comparable to the only other Asian countries I’d traveled to – Japan and China. I was hoping it would be a dirtier Tokyo. This was a little bit off the mark.
I was then driven from the airport to my AirBnb. My mother had traveled to Costa Rica several times this past year and had told me of the horrors of San Jose traffic. I imagine that Ulaanbaatar traffic is on par or worse.
The roads were crammed with Priuses trying to shove one another out of the lanes. The streets were filled with the chorus of constant beeping, horn-slamming, and tire screeching. But what was most remarkable was that the car that I was in had the wheel on the right side, so I assumed that in Mongolia people drive on the right side of the road. Then I peered out of the window into another car that had pulled up and saw that in that car, the wheel was on the left side. I wondered if traffic was this chaotic in the nomadic days.
When I finally got to my AirBnb, I was immediately greeted by my hostess. She showed me the apartment a bit, and then suggested that I go shopping. I’m pretty sure I looked homeless and beat up from my trip, certainly not fit to be seen by society, but I said, “Sure, why not.” She took me around to get a SIM card, some groceries, and exchange currency.
As I was stumbling around the streets, I couldn’t help but be critical of the state of disrepair the buildings were in. Faded signs, falling awnings, peeled, dirty paint. But even though it was a little bit shady-looking, it surely wasn’t so bad, was it?
Then my hostess told me, “Be careful. There are a lot of pickpockets around. People may harass you because you’re foreign.”
Sound advice. The first time she mentioned it, I thought, “OK. Cool. Pickpockets. I’ve been to Paris and live in New York. I’ll be OK.”
And then my brain began to process what she was saying (a.k.a. spin it out of control). Paranoia set over me. My eyes darted to the left – that guy’s T-shirt is really wrinkled, a sign of a hoodlum. He’s out to get me. My eyes darted to the right – there was a group of scrawny boys wearing hats and tanks. They must be a gang. They’re probably going to mug me.
I was going to get pick-pocketed. I would lose all of my money, my hopes, my dreams, and I would die penniless at 20 years old in Mongolia.
After we finished shopping, I was afraid to leave my apartment for the next couple of days. This was a bit of a conflict, because I wanted to meet the people I had been put in touch with by my friends, but I also didn’t want to go outside and have anything to do with anyone if I was just gonna lose my belongings and die.
During those couple of days where I just lay in bed, jet-lagged and homesick, I felt lonely for the first time in my life. I pride myself on being independent, even introverted. When I traveled to Japan and France by myself, I did feel a little homesick, but never lonely to the extent that I felt those first few days in Ulaanbaatar. But I missed everything back home sorely – the beautiful lamps hanging over the paths on Wellesley’s campus, McKinney and Doyle scones back in Pawling, long walks in the park with my dog. And I missed my family and friends.
As I reflected on my loneliness, I realized, though, that “friends” had expanded in meaning for me. This past semester, I’d deepened my current friendships and created many more new ones. I’ve always reflected on the meaning of friendship, on how to be a good friend, on how to break away from failing friendships, on how to plant and nurture new ones. I realized that I love meeting new people. I love talking to people. I love getting to know the person beneath the surface, understanding what makes someone wrinkle their nose or go on a passionate tangent or laugh. And even though I am by no means the most outgoing person, I’ve realized that most people need to be talked to. Most people want to be talked to.
I’m not as introverted as I thought. Dramatic to say it, but I think this realization was healing. I’d been told long ago that I was too withdrawn, too much in my own head. Maybe it’s true, but only to an extent. Especially when I’m nervous, I put up a lot of boundaries and don’t let people in easily. But I’ve slowly but surely learned to take down those boundaries, and I’ve been learning how to be less nervous, and I’ve been learning that sometimes it’s okay for people to see who I really am, and that when I open up then they usually will too.
Granted, I’m still not perfect. But I did eventually get out of my room and meet people. It’s incredible that I’ve been able to connect with people here. It’s almost like things are all right again, like the summer nightmare from last year has finally ended.
This post ended up being way deeper than I thought it would (lol). But I’m happy to say that it’s been great so far in UB because of all of the great people I met (and am still meeting). The sad thing is that travel is fleeting, and though I’m still here for five more weeks I can’t help but think about how I’ll have to say goodbye eventually to all of these wonderful individuals. But friends truly do make all the difference in the world, and even if our paths never cross again I’ll always be grateful for these experiences.
Soon I’ll also venture into the countryside. I’m very much looking forward to seeing what else this country has to offer!