How Expectations Kill your Trip (…and everything else in life)

What we learnt in the middle of nowhere in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert about the power of expectations.

Traveling Mongolia was the ultimate adventure. The vast Gobi Desert and Central Plains of Mongolia brought us one of the most important life lessons.

It was the first day of our journey across Mongolia’s Gobi Desert and the vast Central plains. We were perched on a small rock formation in the middle of nowhere in the Northern Gobi Desert at a nomad family’s ger camp, watching the sunset over the small cluster of white gers in the horizon. The setting sun coloured the sky with a pink and orange glow, casting a shadow on the majestic horses grazing in the distance owned by our nomadic hosts, roaming free like wild animals, as all animals do on the great Mongolian Steppe. But instead of smiles on our faces, we were filled with a confused sense of negativity for the past hour.

This isn’t what we had wanted. Well actually, let me rephrase. This is exactly what we wanted, but we didn’t know it at the time and couldn’t see clearly due to our preconceived expectations of what a tour in Mongolia should be, and what we envisioned living with nomad families would be like.

Our trusty Mongolian driver pulled up a few hours earlier to a small cluster of gers in the North Gobi Desert. We followed our guide and driver into the family ger to meet our host for the night, a tall middle-aged Mongolian man, and hung out watching sumo wrestling (the most popular sport in Mongolia) for an hour, drinking fresh milk tea before heading to our own ger. As we stepped outside, we took in the fresh clean desert air, and looked around. We were excited!! We were really there. In Mongolia. A placed we had dreamed about visiting for years. This was really it!

Until slowly a Russian van pulled up and several tourists jumped out. Followed by another. And Another. And so on, until all 8 gers owned by the nomad family were full. The place was “crowded”, in our opinion (yet, in Mongolia, it must be explained that the term “crowded with tourists” is a new definition – it basically doesn’t really exist). We thought we’d be out there in the middle of the vast Gobi, just us, the nomadic family, their family watchdog, and the grazing horses and herds of sheep.

This definitely was not what we expected.

Quintessential Russian jeep to survive the rugged roads of Mongolia. Pulling up at a nomad family ger camp.

We decided we had to have a little chat with our guide to clarify. Prior to arriving we had several correspondences with the tour company in planning the trip, who promised a customized tour across the Gobi and Central Plains. We were happy to make new friends, but what we thought we agreed to in our itinerary was to stay with small nomad families not at larger ger camps. We thought, based on our (actually little) understanding of Mongolia through researching online, this way we could support the “little guy”, the one that doesn’t have the financial ability to set up a full ger camp. At the same time, we were well aware this place we arrived at wasn’t a tourist ger camp. Those are different. Here, there were no flush toilets, no running water, and our host was a real nomad with a real herd of animals. Our ger was a real ger. It really was the real thing. Yet, it seems there was a misunderstanding somewhere along the way, likely due to language barriers and also our preconceived notions of traveling Mongolia.

We discussed for a while, went over our itinerary with our guide again, realized they didn’t really know all that much about our discussions with the tour company, all the while causing some awkwardness and further misunderstandings.

After watching the beautiful sun setting over our ger camp, it suddenly dawned on us: this is how you kill a trip. This is the very definition of not appreciating what is lies front of us. What would be beautiful and fascinating under any circumstances, was being tainted by our skewed vision of what we thought traveling in Mongolia meant, what we envisioned in our minds. Our expectations. Maybe it wasn’t exactly what we thought it would be. But we realized, it didn’t mean it would be any less.

In reality we didn’t even know if what we thought we signed up for would be as good as what we have now. Maybe it would have meant squishing in with a nomadic family in a single ger with no privacy, sleeping on the floor. Maybe we would have hated that. Maybe we would get bored day after day with just the two of us, with only the sheep and horses to talk to. We wanted to see the real Mongolia. Maybe having a shower and running water isn’t so bad after all (I know this all sounds backwards to anyone who hasn’t been to Mongolia). Our expectations were not high. But they were expectations none the less. And expectations were killing our first day of our adventure. We traveled so far. Too far to let even one hour go to waste.

Amongst the confused faces of our guide and driver, we suddenly realized, this is the real Mongolia of 2018. Nomadic families who want their guests to feel comfortable. If they can, they will set up a separate ger for them to sleep in, let them eat their dinner in peace on their own. They may have one extra ger or they may have eight extra gers. but not all nomad families want guests, and those with no extra gers may not want to host tourists at all.

Nomad family ger we stopped in for fermented mare’s milk. They did not take tourists for the night but welcomed us in for an afternoon rest stop (Central Mongolia).

That small nomad family we pictured in our minds, may not be the nomad who wants to make money off hosting tourists, nor knows how to host tourists. Each tour company has certain families they work with and they know; this is how the tourism industry works in Mongolia – everything is about local connections. By staying with the nomads who have made investments into being tourism hosts, this is the way we can support them. This is the most authentic way to travel in Mongolia’s vast plains. Some of them now can afford multiple gers for multiple groups of tourists. Most have solar electricity, and some even offer facilities such as running water and showers in ger camps that more resemble guesthouses.

Sunset over a small nomad camp in North Gobi, Mongolia

After the pink and red hues of colour disappeared from the sky and darkness transcended upon us, we decided it was time for our expectations to also disappear. The next day we bought a bottle of Mongolia’s famed Chinggis vodka to share with our guide and driver to make up for the awkwardness from the evening before. When we arrived to our second night’s destination, a camel herder family with over a hundred camels out in the windy, rainy (yes rainy) Gobi Desert, it truly surpassed anything we could have expected or imagined up. It was just us, our hospitable family of hosts, their cute, clever camels, and the harsh Gobi wind. Oh and a couple of friendly tourists who shared their horse meat with us to try for the first time.

Baby camel at a camel herder’s in North Gobi, Mongolia: THE highlight of our entire Mongolia adventure. It was here we tasted the freshest camel milk imaginable.

Sometimes when we let go of expectations, we realize that reality can be more beautiful and fascinating than anything we could have dreamed up in our own imagination. Sometimes our expectations, which are laced with our own limited understanding of the world, fail to live up to the beautiful surprises that the world can present to us in our travels, and life in general.

This was the lesson we learnt in the middle of nowhere in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert.

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