Planning my itinerary to Middle of Nowhere

Photo: Charlotte Cotton

I’m leaving Europe for the summer to explore Russia, Mongolia and China.

This adventure started with a visit to a travel fair. It was also a first date with a fellow traveller, who consequently ran off to Brazil for 3 months. Readers who’ve dated travellers would understand the issues that involves. I just hope he wasn’t running away from me… But I’m digressing.

Most of the fair’s countless stalls advertised popular European destinations, India, South American countries, Thailand and so forth, and were swarmed by people. But what appealed the most to me was tucked away in the corner, already off the beaten track with a only a couple of stands and virtually no one looking around. Mongolia.

I must admit, I knew almost nothing about the country, its history, its culture, its political or economic situation. But photos of its exotic yurts, romantic horse-rides across endless expanses enchanted me, entered my veins and planning a trip there became my focus for the next 4 months.

I decided that if I was to go that far, I should discover Russia and China at its borders, countries which I had always been fascinated to visit. Initially I planned to do the world famous Trans-Mongolian Railway, but 2 months is little time to cover all that ground, which necessitates days and days in trains, time that I simply didn’t have. So I decided to go between many of the destinations in planes. Hours were spent researching the options, trying to find the most economical way of getting from A to B.

Tricky destinations

I read travel guides on paper and spent countless hours on the internet. Mongolia proved to be a tricky destination. There is little transport across vast distances, and with less than a month I would have little chance to see much using local buses and public transport. Doing so would waste days but would not get me into the middle of nowhere, which was the point of the trip. Moreover, reaching the reindeer peoples and eagle hunters, who fascinated me, would be virtually impossible alone.

In one of the Facebook groups for backpacker in Mongolia, I met an Indian lady, who was also going to Mongolia with a friend, and we ended up planning the 25 day tour together. It was more economical for them and enabled me to cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time and for a rate I could afford. I am hoping that three travellers is not a crowd and that my future companions are as fun and friendly as they seem on the internet. I am used to travelling alone and being extremely independent, so I keep my fingers crossed that this all works out.

I will spend little time in Russia, less than 10 days in order to be able to do the Mongolian tour — the crux of my trip — and so I chose St Petersburg, a day-long stopover in the ‘must-do’ Moscow, then Irkutsk, and a trip to the shamanic Olkhon Island — a huge lake-bound strip of land floating in the waters of the majestic Baikal.

To get a visa for China, one needs an exhaustive complete itinerary with hostels booked in advance, and after some finger spinning on the map I have chosen Beijing, Xi’an, Chengdu, Guilin, Yangshuo, finishing in Hong Kong. This is provisional and is likely to change as I meet fellow backpackers with potentially better ideas.

Crazy foreigner, with experience

With what eyes do I leave on this trip? From the few anthropology lectures attended at the university I learnt not to place my judgements on other cultures and ways of living but to experience them as they are. It is not a question of political correctness but of respect and pragmatism. When travelling I like to observe and learn, to try and put myself into the skin of the ‘other’ as far as that’s possible.

Clearly I will need to leave behind my Western materialistic habits. Things won’t be as easy and physically comfortable as in Europe. Hygiene in the outback is likely to be limited, and I wonder how I will stomach the food. Obviously with my English-rose skin and my light ginger hair, I will immediately stick out as a foreigner. This is compounded by my inability to speak Russian, Mongolian or Chinese.

But I have already assumed this role many a time on my previous travels. Back in Ecuador, over 10 years ago, in a tiny little village in the highlands, teaching English to the local children, milking the cows twice a day and hiding from other tourists, I was known as ‘la gringa loca’ (the crazy foreigner).

I certainly have not been passing unnoticed, nor is my character is inclined that way. I guess I’m flame-haired in every way: enthusiastic, loud-mouthed and demonstrative in my demeanour. However hard I try to be calmer, it is a part of who I am. And I’m looking forward to soaking up places, peoples and cultures, and enjoy the magic results of trying to ‘fit in’.

Stay tuned in. This article is the first in a series of travel reports about Charlotte’s ongoing trip.

Charlotte Cotton

Charlotte (Carlotta) Cotton describes herself as ‘a romantic dreamer, idealist, pro-Europe Brit, child of the world’. A primary school teacher in Madrid, Spain, she often leaves the city during summer holidays for longer travels off the beaten track.

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