According to the Royal Institute Dictionary 1999, Thai word loi (ลอย) means “to float”, while krathong (กระทง) has various meanings, one of which is “a small container made of leaves which can be floated on water during the Loi Krathong festival”.
A famous quote by Richard Branson goes: “If you want to be a Millionaire, start with a billion dollars and launch a new airline”. There is almost no rationale behind accomplished businessmen obsession to invest into a high-risk business like civil aviation.
Unfortunately, unlike Sir Richard, I am not wealthy enough to bet on airlines. Instead, I have moral concerns working in an industry that accounts for a huge share of the world greenhouse gas emissions; I hope technology improvements and regulations will one day inverse the trend and make air transportation environmentally sustainable. Nevertheless, having rubbed shoulders for years with airlines people and dragged my ass on the most unlikely commercial routes, I cannot avoid feeling sincere sympathy and admiration for those who carry our life around the world with care, every day and in every season.
No airline is perfect: glitches appear here and there when closely looking at the fusion between the technological prowess of a 180 tons aircraft floating in thin air and the work of hundreds of persons allowing it to detach from the ground.
Ignore the glitches and consider how in only a few decades, civil aviation made accessible to the majority of people two of our most innate dreams: defeat gravity and go discover remote places.
Please restrain from displaying contempt to the stewardess showing the way to your seat while boarding your next delayed flight. It takes an amazing resilience to sustain the stares of the 160 annoyed passengers fitting in an Airbus A320, a remarkable humanity to smile and say “welcome onboard” to each of them and many weeks of exhausting training to make it sound so heartfelt.
In the blink of an eye, you’ll be floating in the sky and that is incredible. Forget the delay, sit down and relax. We hope you’ll enjoy your flight.
More travel photography on this blog
What happened so far?
In episode one, when told that I was going to Mongolia to meet some airline executives for my job, I decided to lose myself in the silent wilderness of that country. Before leaving I did some research and chose as destination a place that even Google Maps fails to locate, named Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve.
In episode two, after arriving in Ulaanbataar, I meet mysterious Mr. Batar, who delivers me a rugged Toyota Land Cruiser. On an early Saturday morning, I and my British workmate Mark leave the town; throughout the whole day, we will explore a scarcely inhabited territory while trying not to lose our track. We also become familiar with the solid beauty of Mongolian horses, roaming free in the wildland.
Being right there
In the movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Ben Stiller plays a middle-class man, trapped in a 9 to 5 job he does not like anymore. For a succession of unforeseen circumstances, one day he quits his office and embarks on an adventure on the tracks of Sean O’Connell, a legend photographer who disappeared while hunting the animal whose image no-one has ever captured, the snow leopard.
When finally Walter Mitty meets Sean O’Connell on a frozen Himalayan ridge, the snow leopard is there, in the middle of the zoom lens, just one click away. Oddly, Sean O’Connell, although mesmerized by the unique vision, is not shooting, and this dialog happens:
Walter Mitty: When are you going to take it [the snow leopard shot]?
Sean O’Connell: Sometimes I don’t. If I like a moment, for me, personally, I don’t like to have the distraction of the camera. I just want to stay in it.
Walter Mitty: Stay in it?
Sean O’Connell: Yeah. Right there. Right here. It’s gone [the snow leopard]
In the strange days we live, when was last time we were “right there”? How much “right there” experience we allow ourselves in one of our average weeks? Are those moments something we look forward to, or we prefer to escape them and comfortably choose the distraction, being it social networks, messengers, noise, other people opinions, scary news on TV, information overflow, a job that does not excite us…
And so we are, me and Mark, my British workmate, in a place named Gun-Galuut, in Mongolia. For a whole day, we have been breathing fresh air and wandering across the vast grassland. Since the moment we entered the Nature Reserve, every trace of human presence has vanished. We continue venturing deeper into this unknown territory, using the profile of the hills or the clouds in the sky to locate ourselves and hoping we will be able to find our way back. All around us, Mongolian horses roam peaceful and free.
The track becomes rougher and now insinuates at the feet of low promontories, covered with sharp rock fragments. Afternoon sun is going down and the lights around us change, giving the landscape a more dramatic pitch. I decide to look for a viewpoint and see on our left a steep path leading to the edge of a higher hill, possibly accessible to our Toyota. The full power of our four-wheel drive is barely sufficient to climb our way to the top. The car pants and progresses slowly as we gain altitude and approach the end of the ascent. Finally, we get there; I stop the car, turn off the engine, pull the handbrake and get off, followed by Mark. We are on level ground now: in front of us, the upwards path that took us there finishes into a vertical rocky wall. On the right, at a distance of about fifty meters, we see a natural terrace ending on a cliff top and I start walking in that direction, instinctively attracted by the panoramic opening.
As I get closer, my point of view changes and a chain of mountains starts to appear at a great distance. I am maybe twenty meters away when I see the horse and, at first, I do not understand. He lays on the ground, on a side, you would tell that he sleeps but he is dead. It had to happen not long before, as the hair is still shiny and the body is in a perfect state, except for a little scar on the head, probably caused by a scavenger bird.
Now I am just next to the dead horse and appreciate the harmony of his figure. While I walk around him, the first thing that awakens irrational thoughts is the position of the body. It lies exactly at the middle of the half-circle shaped terrace; his head looks at the view opening from the height of the cliff on hundreds of kilometers of emptiness.
I look at Mark, who has not made it to the terrace and is standing a dozen meters away, staring in my direction.
The second thing is the ascent and how hard I had to push the Land Cruiser in order to get there. For a dying animal, that had to be a hell of an effort.
The wind blows and the sun has gone down; the air is chilled now.
The third thing is the dead horse position, the effort to get there, the absolute majesty of the landscape.
I keep turning slowly around him, observing the scene from many angles, immersed in my thoughts. The view in front of me is the most beautiful I have ever seen. Far ahead, hundreds of identical peaks, crowned by bright white clouds rise up to the sky. The physical space between the dead horse and the mountains is an immense empty prairie where the animal lived in freedom from the very moment he first stood on the ground to his last day when he decided to climb there and look at all that again from a height.
As I continue standing right there, in front of that mystical scene, lights and composition remind me the most accomplished Caravaggio paintings. I have my camera with me, in my backpack and I am looking at award-winning photography material but there is something bigger around me on that cliff and I just want to stay in it.
I look at the horse for the last time, then I look at the far away mountains, turn around and walk away. When I pass by Mark, he follows me and asks: “What do we do?”. I can only tell: “We go home, man. We go home now”.
What happened so far?
In episode one, when told that I was going to Mongolia to meet some airline executives for my job, I decided to lose myself in the silent wilderness of that country. Before leaving I did some rough research and chose as destination a place that even Google Maps fails to locate, named Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve.
I have an appointment with Mr. Batar, from Drive Mongolia, the car rental company, at Shangri-La hotel in Ulaanbataar. When I arrive there from dinner, I notice the Land Cruiser and my man, waiting for me on the door. Batar is a cool dude, his fancy hat and turtle round glasses give him the looks of a Mongolian dandy. After a vigorous handshake, he proposes me to inspect the car, so we walk to the rugged four-wheeler. At a first glance, the Toyota had a fairly good life, one full of adventure but not too harsh. Mr. Batar shows me how to start the engine and that’s it; he seems happy and ready to leave. When I tell him that I am going to Gun-Galuut, he understands that the Land Cruiser is going for an hard-core day and gives me the second chapter of explanation: he shows me how to operate the electric winch on the front bumper, the spare tire, the hydraulic jack and all I needed in case of trouble. Then he looks at me, shakes my hand again and says: “Anyway, I know you can drive”.
I ask Batar how to reach my destination; he takes a map out of the Toyota gloves compartment and points to a spot in the middle of nowhere: “Follow the road, East direction – he says – when you get to the river, turn right. When you see the mountains on your left, go there”. I thank him and ask if there is something I should be aware of driving in Mongolia. Mr. Batar looks at me again and says: “do not drive over a goat. If you kill a goat you’ll have to pay for it”, then he hands me the car keys, wishes me a good trip, turns around and disappears into the fresh night. At no point, he has bothered to check my identity or driving license.
Comes Saturday and after an early breakfast, I meet my co-pilot, in the hotel lobby. Mark is a British workmate, he lives in Bangkok. The night before, he enthusiastically accepted to join in the adventure. When we get in the car I ask him if he knows how to drive an off-road car; he tells me that he has driven once or twice in the past ten years. I start the engine and here we are, cruising through a sleepy Ulaanbataar, direction East. It is seven o’clock in the morning, streets are empty and the sun shines. As the kilometers go by, tall concrete buildings become sparser and are gradually replaced by single-storey constructions. A little later, Mongolian Gers, the local dwellings, start becoming more and more frequent.
The paved road in the direction of Baganuur is comfortable. I relax at the drive of the Land Cruiser and observe the changing landscape passing slowly by. After an hour, we arrive at the Genghis Khan Equestrian Statue. The 40 meters tall shining complex is a monument to exaggeration but serves the purpose of reminding whoever passes by that the fusion between the war chief and the horse, allowed Genghis Khan to federate the biggest empire in the history of humanity.
We start a slow ascent towards a mountain pass, now the road and the lineup of electric posts that flank it are the only visible signs of human presence. While we keep driving East we become acquainted with the sight of wild horses. They have compact bodies, long tail and mane and most often brown and shiny hair; Mongolian horses are known for their strength and at every winter can lose up to 30% of their weight due to intense cold. Beautiful and admirable animals.
The few signs along the road, all written in Cyrillic, do not provide us any workable information but, according to the map, we have approximately reached the point where we are supposed to leave the main road. We just take a 90-degrees turn and start driving straight in a vast grassland. A huge mineral mine on our right-hand side is the only landmark we use to navigate the otherwise completely empty space. As time passes, the sense of freedom is gradually replaced by doubts on our direction but there is no-one around to help us find our way. Finally, I see in the rear-view mirror a guy wearing traditional Mongolian attire on a motorbike. I stop the car, get off and he comes to meet me: I show him our destination on my mobile phone, only to realize that he can not read Latin characters or understand English. I keep saying “Gun-Galuut”, trying to pronounce the way I imagine a Mongolian would do and finally, our man understands and points in direction South-East. I exchange a dubitative look with Mark, then look at the guy smiling. He smiles back to me and makes a vague gesture spinning his forefinger around. I go back in the car and turn the key while the guy kick-starts his motorbike. My coworker asks me what is happening and I explain to him that we will follow our friend; he seems puzzled by the non-verbal communication that just happened.
Our Mongolian guide drives fast ahead of us. From time to time he steers his motorbike right into a bump and enjoys a jump. After some time he stops and so we do. I get out of the car and go close to him. He gives a look at South, makes a sign with his hand as if he was putting a glass close to his lips, then looks at the high rocky hills at South East and smiles. I smile, put my hands together and slightly bow my head to thank him for his help. He starts his bike and goes away, headed West. When I get in the car, Mark seems more puzzled than ever as he asks me what we’re doing next. I look at him and say: “the guy told me to keep going until we find a Ger where we could be offered fermented horse milk, then we have to take a left turn and climb the mountains”. My coworker now clearly believes that I lost my mind but after a few minutes driving, we find one lonely Ger; a shy girl hears the noise of our engine, comes out and confirms, non-verbally of course, that the high hills we see on our left are the entry gate of Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve.
As we make our way into it, we realize that the notion of Nature Reserve in Mongolia is different from what we have seen elsewhere: this is not yet another man-made attraction park. There is no dedicated structure, ranger, patrol car, no entrance gate or fee, not a single road. No-one explains what you will see. There is nothing to explain and the situation could not be clearer: nature owns the place and man is a very rare species.
The travel becomes adventurous: we test the power of Toyota engine to climb a low ridge and look at the panoramic landscape. Snow just finished melting and the yellow ground reverberates against the pristine blue of the sky. Then, we descend and drive close to one of the affluents of the Kherlen, where a herd of Mongolian horses is peacefully watering. The animals let us come close and observe us with curiosity. They seem familiar with human presence and show no visible stress. I take some pictures and get back in the car.
We abandon the river bank to continue driving in East direction, following a track that softly ascends a hill. As we start sloping down, we see a more prominent trace of human presence: an agglomeration of eight Mongolian Gers, ordered in two lines of four, too neatly organized to be a nomad thing, enclosed by a wooden fence. As we park the car at the front gate, a tall man with a bright red sweater comes to meet us, smiling; he is the owner of the Ger camp and surprisingly speaks a very good English. Mr. Batbold is a biologist, a conservationist and a very busy man: during the winter, the temperature in Mongolian steppe can drop well below -40 degrees Celsius. The camp is open all year and when the snow finally melts, our host has very few days to repair all the scars that ice caused to the infrastructures. Also, he needs to install eight more Gers on their round concrete slabs, to double the camp capacity and revenues during the summer season.
While we have lunch at the ger camp, Mr. Batbold tells about the species of birds and other animals that populate the reserve, then he advises us to continue our exploration towards the mountains. We thank him for the hospitality and get in the Toyota again.
The camp disappears from our views, driving becomes challenging when the path crosses very bumpy sections and I do my best to reduce the discomfort. The landscape around us changes but remains magnificent: lowlands around the Kherlen river gradually morph into hills covered with bright green grass, where goats peacefully graze. Another spring has arrived and the cycle of life perpetuates: all creatures have a few months to recover and build up sufficient energies to survive next winter.
As we glide slowly through this eternal countryside scene, shepherds go up and down the hills, riding their horses with mastery. From time to time, falcons float in the air above our heads. In the total absence of distraction, my thoughts slow down, crystallize, melt with the environment, capture slight changes in the air. Time has stopped here: our Land Cruiser is the only visible sign of modern civilization, the rest would have looked exactly the same if we passed by five hundred years ago.
What happens next?
In episode three we will reach the end of the adventure. We will also have an intimate conversation with a legendary photographer who will tell us what it means to be “right there”.
This is, among other things, a travel story. It is about two trips to Mongolia that I did in January and April 2017. As the story is long, I decided to break it into three parts, for an easier reading. I will publish the following two parts on Mondays, at an interval of two weeks.
Where I am coming from
I do not always feel comfortable in modern times because today society and lifestyle tear us continuously apart from what really counts. I feel that we invest a lot of time, money, energy, striving to achieve objectives that do not make us happy. Finding joy in a world that surrounds us with noise and buries us in clutter is not a simple exercise.
In the past, these feelings materialized in a sense of frustration. With time, I learned to focus on what makes a difference for me. I am happy when my dear ones have what they need to live the life they want. I am good when I am surrounded by positive people, when someone cares about me. I like when the wind blows freely, waves crash on a sandbank, the sun sets on the sea. This is all I believe in, the rest does not count.
Combining my personal beliefs with a sustainable job is easier said than done. I would like to do something that inspires people and transform the world into a better place; Today, I am falling short on these objectives but no-one is perfect.
Instead, I work in a company that provides Information Technology solutions to airlines; in my day to day working life, I speak to very different people sharing a common mission: flying aircrafts around the globe. I travel and learn a lot and one day maybe I will find a way to make good use of these experiences. Recently, I heard a quote in the movie “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty“, that seemed a nice way to reconcile my job and my quest for happiness. It says: “To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, draw closer, to find each other, and to feel. That is the purpose of life”. I would argue that life does not need another purpose than being lived every day at the best of our possibilities. Still, the quote sounds overall right.
So as I said, this is, among other things, a travel story.
In January 2017, my work brought me to spend two days in Ulaanbaatar to meet local airline executives. In my imaginary map of the world, before that short trip, Mongolia occupied an unreachable corner: I read many stories and had seen countless images of its open spaces, where horses roamed free and nomadic populations continued migrating on ancestral routes. The day I flew there, I remember hearing the call of the wild as the Boeing 737 approached the landing strip: I was stuck at the plane window looking at the land below. It was white, endless, breath-taking. One day I ventured out for a short walk outside with my workmates; the sun was shining in a wonderful blue sky and the temperature was -36 degrees Celsius. A memorable moment.
When three months later I was sent back to Mongolia, the call resonated again and I decided to listen. Instead of preparing the business meetings, I spent the days before my departure dreaming of a day trip into the wild: at least for a short while, I wanted to get modern life distractions out of my way.
As I started thinking of logistics, one thing appeared sure: if I wanted to explore Mongolia outback, I needed a reliable car; I remembered the advice of a French friend, who crossed the Sahara desert many times and sailed all oceans; he owns four Toyota Land Cruiser and always told me he would trust his “Toys”, as he called them, under all circumstances. Alcohol addiction shrank his horizons that today are constrained in the slim volume of a “verre a Pastis”, but this is another story and I prefer to think of him as the brave captain he used to be.
After a quick search, I got in touch with a woman named Deegi, who promised to rent me a Land Cruiser 76 in Ulaanbataar.
To pick a destination, I ruled out places recommended by all websites when searching for “day trip Ulaanbataar”. My attention was caught instead by Wikipedia very succinct description of a place named Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve:
“130 km (81 miles) southeast of Ulaanbaatar, has a great diversity of ecosystems even though it has a comparatively small area. The complex of high mountains, steppes, rivers, lakes and wetlands are kept in their original condition. Visitors to Gun-Galuut see vast steppes seeming to meet the sky, the imposing mountains of Baits and Berkh, the homeland of rare creatures, Ikh-Gun and Ayaga lakes, a paradise of birds, Kherlen, the longest river of Mongolia and the Tsengiin Burd wetland, where water and wetland birds lay their eggs.”
The call of the wild resonated more distinctly; when Google Maps failed to locate it, I knew that was the place I had been looking for.
A Toyota Land Cruiser 76 waiting for me in Ulaanbataar, I was headed to Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve. The dice were ready to roll.
What happens next?
In episode two, we will finally arrive in Ulaanbataar, meet a mysterious man and embark on an adventurous trip to the outback.
History reminds me of a river: on most days, sitting nearby a bridge, we could see it calmly flowing before our eyes. However, in times of storm and heavy rains, a bridge is where danger occurs.
Many years ago, I became very close to an adorable girl from a town named Mostar, in Bosnia-Herzegovina. During one of our nocturne conversations, that often took place facing the Mediterranean while sitting on Nice old town pebbles beach, she told me the story of Mostar bridge.
Stari Most, “the old bridge” in English, was built in 1566 by Mimar Hayruddin, apprentice of famous architect Mimar Sinan and stood for 427 years. Croats deliberately destroyed it using mortar shell bombing on 9 November 1993, during the ethnic conflict that opposed them to Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Sinan disciple engineered its aerial pull to last forever and statics laws prescribed it could only be annihilated by an equal and opposite push of human hate. By shattering the old bridge, Croats intended to eradicate memories of pacific co-existence of Muslim, Orthodox and Catholic populations living on the banks of Neretva river.
Between 1991 and 2001, several conflicts tore the territory of the former Republic of Yugoslavia leading to the death of approximately 130000 persons. It all happened a few kilometers away from our borders: in Puglia we saw F104 taking off from Italian air force bases, ready to bomb Serbian positions during Kosovo war and rockets were deployed on our beaches in protection from retaliation.
I did not understand such slaughter: Yugoslavia was a developed and prosperous country that colonel Tito managed to steer firmly for almost forty years after the end of World War II, navigating through cold war perils while maintaining peace among many different ethnic populations living within its borders.
Flashback to the sixteenth century, when great Mimar Sinan, Hayruddin master, disseminated Ottoman Empire of remarkable landmarks. One of the most accomplished displays of his craftsmanship was the bridge on Drina river in Višegrad, built in 1577 and named after Mehmed Paša Sokolović, that became four centuries later the splendid scenery where the epic plot narrated by Ivo Andrić in The Bridge on the Drina unfolds.
Artillery had been silenced for a while at the time when I read the novel. I found there answers to all my questions about wars in ex-Yugoslavia: stories of the generations living near Višegrad bridge were the best illustration of how Bosnia-Herzegovina was cursed by both history and geography, condemned to be one of the sharpest friction points between Arab and European civilizations, “impersonated” in that region by Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires. My Bosnian ex-girlfriend mom used to say that in Balkans every generation has to live through three wars; according to this rule current generations are safe, what about the future ones?
Few writers reached Ivo Andrić heights in representing events that shaped Western world history and among them I surely count Ernest Hemingway, one of my youth literary heroes. Talking about bridges, “Old man at the bridge”, first published in May 1938 and later included in “The first forty-nine short stories“, is a little shining literary gem where, in purest Hemingway style, no word is redundant. Bridges are a great writers affair.
Old man at the bridge
An old man with steel rimmed spectacles and very dusty clothes sat by the side of the road. There was a pontoon bridge across the river and carts, trucks, and men, women and children were crossing it. The mule-drawn carts staggered up the steep bank from the bridge with soldiers helping push against the spokes of the wheels. The trucks ground up and away heading out of it all and the peasants plodded along in the ankle deep dust. But the old man sat there without moving. He was too tired to go any farther.
It was my business to cross the bridge, explore the bridgehead beyond and find out to what point the enemy had advanced. I did this and returned over the bridge. There were not so many carts now and very few people on foot, but the old man was still there.
“Where do you come from?” I asked him.
“From San Carlos,” he said, and smiled.
That was his native town and so it gave him pleasure to mention it and he smiled.
“I was taking care of animals,” he explained. “Oh,” I said, not quite understanding.
“Yes,” he said, “I stayed, you see, taking care of animals. I was the last one to leave the town of San Carlos.”
He did not look like a shepherd nor a herdsman and I looked at his black dusty clothes and his gray dusty face and his steel rimmed spectacles and said, “What animals were they?”
“Various animals,” he said, and shook his head. “I had to leave them.”
I was watching the bridge and the African looking country of the Ebro Delta and wondering how long now it would be before we would see the enemy, and listening all the while for the first noises that would signal that ever mysterious event called contact, and the old man still sat there.
“What animals were they?” I asked.
“There were three animals altogether,” he explained. “There were two goats and a cat and then there were four pairs of pigeons.”
“And you had to leave them?” I asked.
“Yes. Because of the artillery. The captain told me to go because of the artillery.”
“And you have no family?” I asked, watching the far end of the bridge where a few last carts were hurrying down the slope of the bank.
“No,” he said, “only the animals I stated. The cat, of course, will be all right. A cat can look out for itself, but I cannot think what will become of the others.”
“What politics have you?” I asked.
“I am without politics,” he said. “I am seventy-six years old. I have come twelve kilometers now and I think now I can go no further.” “This is not a good place to stop,” I said. “If you can make it, there are trucks up the road where it forks for Tortosa.”
“I will wait a while,” he said, “and then I will go. Where do the trucks go?”
“Towards Barcelona,” I told him.
“I know no one in that direction,” he said, “but thank you very much. Thank you again very much.”
He looked at me very blankly and tiredly, then said, having to share his worry with some one, “The cat will be all right, I am sure. There is no need to be unquiet about the cat. But the others. Now what do you think about the others?”
“Why they’ll probably come through it all right.” “You think so?”
“Why not,” I said, watching the far bank where now there were no carts.
“But what will they do under the artillery when I was told to leave because of the artillery?”
“Did you leave the dove cage unlocked?” I asked. “Yes.”
“Then they’ll fly.”
“Yes, certainly they’ll fly. But the others. It’s better not to think about the others,” he said.
“If you are rested I would go,” I urged. “Get up and try to walk now.”
“Thank you,” he said and got to his feet, swayed from side to side and then sat down backwards in the dust.
“I was taking care of animals,” he said dully, but no longer to me. “I was only taking care of animals.”
There was nothing to do about him. It was Easter Sunday and the Fascists were advancing toward the Ebro. It was a gray overcast day with a low ceiling so their planes were not up. That and the fact that cats know how to look after themselves was all the good luck that old man would ever have.
Ernest Hemingway had a passion for Spain and a long time ago inspired me for a 5000 Kilometers drive through Andalusia and Algarve, two regions that, despite being in the heart of Christian Europe, were ruled for centuries by Moors and went under the name of Al-Andalus. Spanish Catholic kings finally conquered back Al-Andalus but for long the lower part of Iberic Peninsula, likewise Balkans, was a perilous bridge between civilizations. During my road trip, I walked across the bridge that joins the two parts of Ronda and was impressed by its daring architecture. This story started flowing under the stones of the old bridge in Mostar and comes to its end on Puente Nuevo in Ronda; The great Sinan would have loved it.
(Ulaanbataar, 23 of April 2017)
My destiny is not yet to settle down and as life takes me to unexpected places, I look at things around me with endless curiosity. There is so much beauty to be found in this world.
All pictures but the last one (that was sent to me by a friend who went diving in Raja Ampat Islands, Indonesia) are taken with my phone and have been slightly enhanced.