Making Friends while Traveling – in Mongolia, and the Rest of the World

In September of 2011, I visited Mongolia.  My trip came at the tail end of a long summer job at the tail end of my graduate program at the tail end of a long distance relationship.  I had been traveling a lot in between Seattle and Seoul, Korea (a former home) to spend time with my then partner. On my third trip of the year, I decided I needed something more – so I started researching flights to other exotic destinations in that general part of the world.

Mongolia had been on my wanderlist for a long time - though let's face it, not many places aren't on it...
Mongolia had been on my wanderlist for a long time – though let’s face it, not many places aren’t on it…

One of my general rules of travel is to not preemptively exclude any destinations when planning a trip – or not to limit my choices of destinations to any specific set.  Instead, I make a list of desired attributes of a location or adventure, and then try to find destinations that fit those attributes.  If it sounds clinical, it’s because it is – you can only let loose so much when planning international adventure travel while obsessive compulsive.

So my attributes for this trip were:

  1. Single flight to/from Seoul/Incheon
  2. Country I had not been to previously
  3. Ability to see some really cool, old stuff
  4. Off the tourist beaten track

Seemed pretty simple, and before longs, I had narrowed my choices down to:

  1. Yunnan, China
  2. Vietnam (not so much off the beaten path
  3. Almaty, Kazakhstan

I recognize that Mongolia is not on this list.  The reason being that in the era when I had a personal presence on Facebook, I attempted to crowdsource this decision – and in the end became so frustrated with the inundation of recommendations that I said, “Screw these destinations, I’m going to Mongolia.”  It didn’t hurt that the flight wasn’t too expensive – but the biggest lure was the fact that I knew next to nothing about the place.

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After purchasing the ticket, I fell into my normal trip planning – asking questions on Tripadvisor forums, finding reliable guides, scouring existing tour routes to poach destinations, etc.  And during this time I was introduced to Audrey, or Otgonchimeg (Audrey was easier to pronounce, despite my preference to avoid linguistic imperialism…), who was to become my tour guide while I was in Mongolia.  Many likeminded young travelers often scoff at using tour guides – I myself used to as well – but for a young traveler with limited access to vacation time and maybe a slightly greater access to capital, a tour guide (especially in a less traveled destination) can be a godsend.

So I went on to have an amazing time in Mongolia (to be detailed elsewhere) – and eventually made contact with Audrey once back in America on Facebook.  We kept in touch intermittently via social media, until I cancelled my personal account, when we lost touch.

That would have been the end of the story, but I received an email from Audrey who, keen on spending time in the States, reached out to see if I wouldn’t write her a letter of recommendation to the US Embassy to receive a tourist visa.  Of course, I wrote the letter, and David and I hosted her for a week in cold (albeit not as cold as Ulaanbaatar) and damp Seattle.  It made me so glad to have helped an old friend who did me such a great service of showing me around her home country, giving me memories or travel I hold dearly.

Dzergo (our driver), myself, and Audrey in Kharkhorin before our return to Ulaanbaatar.
Dzergo (our driver), myself, and Audrey in Kharkhorin before our return to Ulaanbaatar.

I have found that it is this type of friendship, the kind made through travel and open exchange of ideas, that remains strongest over time.  We make these genuine connections while we are experiencing new cultures and places, and in doing so are more open to meeting new people ourselves.  When I was younger, this was typically by way of drunken nights on the town (I have spent my fair share of time in Khao San Road in Bangkok) with other foreigners.  And while that’s all well and good, sharing a drunken night can only lead to a certain depth of a relationship.  When sharing a visit to a truly deep and meaningful place, a relationship with that same depth of experience can develop. With Audrey, it meant I was able to repay her with hospitality similar to what she showed me (only in my home, on the other side of the world).