16,000 miles from London to Mongolia

By: Pietro Acquistapace

photo by Sara Cavatorta

I was born in Valmorea, a little village west of Lake Como in the north of Italy, 35 years ago. It’s one of the most beautiful places in Italy, but nothing can compare to the beauty of Mongolia. I became interested in Mongolia when I was 16 years old and my interest in this country grew while I was studying history at college. I was bewitched by its vast grasslands, its dashed border between China and Russia, its nomadic people, the traditional Mongolian dwelling known as a ger, the famous Gobi desert, horse-racing over long stretches of open country… I always wished one day I could visit this amazing country.

In 2010 I finally visited Mongolia for the first time. I went on a package tour and it was a magnificent experience. The beauty of the vast Mongolian landscape, mostly undeveloped, is smashing. With fewer than 3 million people on 603,909 square miles and more than one third of these living in the capital, Mongolia is the most sparsely populated country on earth. You are so alone that you can even hear the sound of silence. The blue of the Mongolian sky is unparalleled anywhere else on earth. The skies are so beautiful that there is even a God in Shamanism, the old religion of Mongolia, called Tenger (the eternal blue sky). When I came back to Italy, I became a member of Soyombo, an Italian association interested in Mongolian culture.

One day, I read on the Internet that a British charity was organising a road trip from London to the ancient Mongol capital of Ulaanbaatar. The choice was clear in my mind: I had to go! Our road trip to Mongolia started in June 2011. It was a 16,000-mile road trip in a Fiat Panda. The trip was full of hurdles, a little crazy and hard to describe, but it was an unforgettable experience. We passed through Iran, the ex-Soviet countries of Central Asia, and Russia before arriving in Mongolia. We drove across mountain ranges, desserts, and inhospitable lands. In some countries, such as Tajikistan, roads were totally lacking and the car broke down several times. It’s incredible that we were able to arrive in the Mongolian capital.

I was also impressed to see that the history of Mongolia is still dominated by the mythical figure of Genghis Khan (Chingis Khaan for the Mongols), the Mongol conqueror who built the largest land empire in history. In the 13th century his empire stretched from the Pacific Ocean to the heart of Europe. Genghis Khan’s presence is everywhere. His statue is in front of the Parliament and the airport of Ulaan Bataar has his name as do a brand of beer, cigarettes, vodka and plenty of restaurants. The best way to encounter problems in Mongolia is to speak about him without respect.

But the amazing beauty of other countries fascinated me too. Iran, for example, is a splendid country with charming people. Most Iranians spoke English. They were incredibly generous and eager to communicate with foreigners. I was also shocked by the absolute poverty that I saw in some Central Asian countries such as Tajikistan and Kirghizstan and the absurd opulence of Asghabat city.

I am very happy to have had this unique experience. My desire to learn about different cultures made me move to London three months ago and I now work as a night receptionist in a hotel in London. I am glad not to have experienced the touristy side of Mongolia, but rather a country with contradictions and challenges linked to a nomadic existence. We often speak about countries with a different culture from ours with a false open mind, considering reality only from our point of view.

In London there is a small but growing Mongolian community. Every July in Islington’s Highbury Fields the Naadam, a traditional Mongolian festival, takes place. There are also Mongolian communities in Brighton, Liverpool, Milton Keynes and Nottingham.

What more can I say? One article is not enough to describe Mongolia, so get up and go!

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