In two weeks I will be leading a group of intrepid women on an amazing adventure. The trip itself has been in the works for over a year, but in truth it is the culmination of years of daydreaming and reading on my part.

Mongolia. When I mention to most people that we are going there, I hear questions rather than comments. People ask, “Oh, that’s in China, right?” “Magnolia (sic), where is that again?” “Why Mongolia?” It isn’t like when you plan a trip to Italy and folks say, “Oh, Italy! I love Italy!” It is exotic, far-off, unknown. Dangerous. Mongolia is a land out of history, where Chinggis Khan rose to power before he and his generals very nearly invaded all of Europe. Mongolia brings to mind roving hordes of warriors on horseback, wide open spaces, and gers (yurts). So, why go someplace that has no apparent connection to our modern lives? Well, I answer, for just that very reason. As is often the case, uninformed perceptions however innocent are still…uninformed.

Sandwiched between Russia and China, Mongolia is a country existing on the cusp of modernity and history where forty percent of the nearly 3 million population live as nomads, and 50 percent live in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar (UB). Of those living in the capital, 60 percent still live in gers. “What?!” you may ask. Yes, even city dwellers are living in informal (and huge) ger districts in UB, with no utilities or services. No real roads. No addresses. No clean running water. Many have solar panels that provide power for their satellite TVs and other appliances, but most still rely on burning coal for warmth in the brutal winters. This has produced serious air pollution issues in the capital, but there is little alternative right now. Of course, there are very bright minds working on a solution for the pollution and ger district problems, but as it is now life is challenging there. Still, Mongolians refuse to let go of their proud culture, history, and heritage. The ger is the sign of the key Mongolian social group, the family. Historically, people here have not seen themselves as Mongolians, but rather associated first with immediate and extended family, then with clan, and then perhaps a group of associated clans. Even today, I’m told, the sense of Mongolian nationality is a new concept, and since its release from the Soviet Union in 1992 it has worked to define its identity. A work in progress, combining hope for the future with pride in the past.

So, back to the trip. Our small group will travel beyond the crowded modern city, and venture across the steppe to end up in the small town of Uliastai, some 650 miles west of Ulaanbaatar. Along the way we will stop at the oldest surviving Buddhist monastery in Mongolia, Erdene Zuu, one of the few to survive the Communist purges which killed 10,000 monks and destroyed hundreds of monasteries. Historically, Buddhism has been a key component of Mongolian life, but is not the only religion found there. Far Western Mongolia has a significant population of Kazakhs who are Muslim, and speak Kazakh rather than Mongolian. The word shaman is a North Asian word, although today it is applied to many traditions around the world, and shamanism is integral to Mongolian life especially with the Buryat ethnicity. Mongolian shamanism includes elements of “classic” shamanism, Tengriism, and Buddhism. Tengriism is a Turkic religion, and is sometimes mistakenly lumped in with shamanism as being one and the same; however, while Tengriism includes elements of shamanism, it is also animistic. Harmony with nature, and connection to the spirits of the earth and sky are key to this belief system. Water and sky are sacred, as embodiments of Mother Earth/Father Sky. The nomadic lifestyle puts Mongolians in close connection with what they value most.

So, the Land of the Eternal Blue Sky means more than just a very sunny place. It embodies the soul of the Mongolian peoples, and their acknowledgement of our connection to the earth and the spirit realm. Within this matrix of history, land, and spirit our little group will endeavor to tap into our own strength of mind, body, and spirit. The next installment will go into more detail about the trip itself, and what we may encounter along the way. Until then, may your skies be blue!