Somewhere down this road

Already a month has passed, and I have only a month more to go. It took me forever, but on Thursday I finally took my first trip out of Ulaanbaatar to the countryside. I hopped in a white sedan with a Mongolian tour guide who spoke no English and a Japanese traveler for a two hour ride to Aglag Buteel. Founded by the monk G. Purevat, the monastery offers a sweeping view of the valley below and a peaceful environment for meditation. The problem was that it is couched in the heart of Daliin Khavtsal Mountain. I looked up at the rocky staircase winding to the temple, the snaking trails leading to the peak. I looked down at my battered sneakers. I was definitely not prepared to hike.

After a relatively steep ascent up the stairs, the main temple is nested comfortably into the mountainside. In front of the temple, there are carvings of strange animals that protect the temple. One of them is called a Garida and is found at the gate.

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The question is… who is the real creature in this picture?

Near the temple, there are also several stupas varying in color. According to one of my colleagues at The UB Post, these represent the three most sacred deities worshiped in Mongolia.

“Blue color represents the Ochirvaani deity whose role is to protect the Mongolian land and people, white color represents the Janraisag deity who protects people from all sufferings and danger, and orange represents Manzushir deity who honors the mind,” she wrote. “The stupas were made using the unique formation of rocks and stones just like the animals from Buddhist legends.”

Inside the temple are altars and more intricately-carved statues. On the second floor, there is an exhibition of sculptures of mythical creatures (scorpions, dragons, hydra-like monsters). Photos are not permitted.

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We then made our way to the hiking trails. Along these trails are even more creatures and glyphs carved into the rocks – mythical monsters and words in old Mongolic script to protect the spirituality of the woods.

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It was esoteric, breathtaking. But as we trekked over the mountain, I thought of my favorite Fuller Brook path back at school – completely flat, extending in one straight line through the town of Wellesley, predictable and comfortable. Then I considered at the ragged, winding trail in front of me, sometimes so steep it was nearly vertical, seemingly endless. I hoped our guide knew where he was going, because I felt lost and slightly overwhelmed.

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Normally, I love hiking. I like climbing mountains and I like going far. The first time I ever climbed a mountain, I remember reaching the peak, looking down at the world, and feeling surprised. It was something akin to triumph – I had trekked the rugged path, followed it wherever it led, and been rewarded with a vision, a broadened horizon.

But it’s been well over a year since I last climbed a mountain. The last time I even “climbed,” it was with someone I no longer speak to and am on questionably good terms with, not that that experience should deter me from my love of hiking. But this time, for some reason, at first I wasn’t really feeling in the mood to hike.

Maybe it was just the fact that I was (am) horribly out of shape. The tour guide certainly seemed to be adapted though. He was practically running up the side of the mountain, taking pictures of every interesting statue or animal that wandered our way.

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An evil-looking squirrel. He really wanted my food.

The paths were so jumbled and criss-crossed that I’m not sure they ever ended. We wanted to turn back on the path, maybe even stray away to get down faster, but the Mongolian tour guide pushed us to try to get to the absolute peak. We relented and followed a little further, but eventually got so tired and famished that we had to resort to Google Translate to beg him to please bring us back. He found a connecting trail that looped back around behind the temple.

However, I’m very, very glad we stuck to the trails and foraged on instead of trying to turn back. If we hadn’t taken the loop, we wouldn’t have found “the spot.” I think this rekindled my appreciation of hiking. I love the feeling when you discover “the spot,” the place along the trail where you see the vast expanse of the world and experience that burning triumph in your chest.

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This was a spot we found earlier, but actually, there were two spots, the real spot being the initial featured image of this post.

Me being me, I tried to connect this to what’s going on currently in my life. I pride myself on being a go-getter, but sometimes it makes me want to stray off the path, to make things go my way. Sometimes, doing that leads me to miss the sight that I originally came to see.

Before I left for Mongolia, my adviser and I sat down under the pretense of discussing my academic program for the next two years. It ended up being a discussion of how she got to where she is today – an extremely accomplished woman, president of the George Sand Association, currently conducting research on women playwrights, studying the texts left behind by the greatest French writers of the modern era. She is gifted at theater in all of its approaches, be it conducting literary analyses of Samuel Beckett or acting the lead part in Huis Clos. And at first, she was a pre-med major.

She studied Portuguese when she, by chance, applied for a scholarship to do a medical program there. It was a whim, somewhat – she fancied the idea, decided to apply for fun, but never actually expected she’d get it. And she get it did. After studying in Portugal, she gained a newfound appreciation of linguistics and language, cast aside her medical degree preparation, and pursued a successful career in theater and teaching.

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Life never unfolds in the way that you plan. It’s not our carefully-plotted ambitions that define our success, but rather our ability to adapt when things don’t turn out quite the way we thought they were. I’ve heard it many times – the platitude “go with the flow.” It seems so incredibly simple.

But this past year has been a year of denial for me. Denial of the fact that some things you just can’t help. Part of it is that I’m naturally a bit of a perfectionist who gets anxious if things don’t play out the way I predict. I also have always been extremely eager to succeed, but in the process put immense pressure on myself to behave a certain way so that the outcome matches my expectations.

This year was a year in which I tried to solve anxiousness by doing things that aggravated my anxiousness. Whether it’d be annoying my professor about grades, panicking to fellow eboard members about how the event wasn’t following the agenda, or nagging the guy I was texting, I frequently tried to manipulate the situation in my favor whenever I felt something slightly amiss. This always backfired.

I didn’t really understand why until now. I felt like I had to act to make things happen, because I’d been taught my whole life that hard work and determination will get you anywhere you want. But there’s a point at which hard work and determination become just desperation to manipulate things completely beyond your control. And at some point, you need to stop fearing the outcome of things turning out differently than you expect. You need to be confident that the future will bring what it will.

A couple nights ago, my friend phrased this aptly. “Don’t feel entitled to anything. But also, don’t feel like you’re not entitled to anything.” In other words, try hard, aim high, take the opportunities presented before you, but don’t try to force anything.

In retrospect, a lot of the good things that happened to me affirm this. For example, this Elisabeth Luce Moore internship program itself was exactly that. It’s an incredible opportunity to be here in Mongolia and I’m very grateful that I was chosen. I was not expecting to receive it at all. I applied on a whim, haphazardly writing my essay and piecing together my resume, thinking it would probably go to some more deserving, extremely talented, aspiring journalist at Wellesley, but shrugging my shoulders and handing in my papers anyway. Hoping for the best but not letting the expectation get the best of me.

I think I received it partially because I wasn’t trying way too hard like I might’ve for another internship. Enthusiasm has its merits, but if it’s to the point of over-eagerness, then it certainly backfires, perhaps because we overcompensate when we are overly determined (anxious). This time, I was just myself. I kept my cool, expecting nothing but happily receiving something. I chose to walk down the path, but from there I let it lead me.

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“Go with the flow.” For some people it’s self-explanatory, for others it’s not. But it’s like climbing a mountain for the first time. It’s like this steep little hike to Aglag Temple. It’s also a bit like in that song “Journey to the Past” from Anastasia. I love the show, I love the movie, and I love the soundtrack, especially that song. I guess it’s because I somewhat relate to Anastasia as young woman who doesn’t know much about her past, who loves adventure, and who really wants to go to Paris.

Anyway, as in the song, it’s about being brave enough to start down a path that opens up in front of you. In the end, “who knows where this road may go?” Maybe it will go “back to who I was, onto find my future.”

And now, even though I don’t really believe in signs, I think that maybe, just maybe, the universe is pointing me in the right direction. Instead of trying to force my way, I will let this road be mine. Because in the end, it’s about taking that first step and trusting that this road will also lead to a Rome of your own.

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