Seattle native Pranlobha Kalagian dreamed of going to Mongolia for 3 years. Much to her own surprise, that dream became a reality when she joined the Eur-Asia World Harmony Run in 2010, running through Japan, South Korea, China and Mongolia.
Her vivid memories of the vast wind-swept steppes stir echos of long-past centuries before bringing us into sharp focus in Ulaanbaatar's ultra-modernity. Pranlobha's story unfolds as an impossible flight of fancy transforms into a very concrete two-month sojurn May - June 2010.
When I first heard that Sri Chinmoy was going to visit Mongolia in 2007, I remember thinking, "Mongolia? Wow! I have no idea what that country is like, but somehow it sounds incredibly amazing!" I learned that he would also be lifting white horses on my birthday. I have always loved horses. So for all these reasons, I was very interested in going, but didn't have much money, and therefore did not request the time off from work. But the feeling that I needed to visit Mongolia someday was set into my mind from then on.
Then I heard that there would be a first-ever EurAsian World Harmony Run. I was intrigued, but thoughts like, "Yeah, that would be really fun, but it's probably going to be too expensive." and, "How on earth could I get that much time off from the restaurant?" attacked my mind. So, I dismissed the idea.
After I returned home to Seattle from New York in April, my Japanese friend, Tyagini, told me all the details about the run. She was encouraging me like anything to participate. Especially since she knew I had always wanted to visit Japan. That was when I realized: It didn't matter how difficult it might be to go. I was so inspired to go, that I would just put a request "out there" and see what happened.
At that time, I was not aware that I could be running through Mongolia as well. When I had a chance to study the route more closely, I realized with a thrill that the run would be passing through Mongolia during my birthday. I remember exclaiming aloud to someone, "Hey! That's cool, it goes through Mongolia during my birthday! Wouldn't that be awesome if I was running in Mongolia during my birthday?". Immediately, three or four people close by responded, "Oh, you should definitely go! You would love Mongolia, it's so incredible."
So, my mind was made up. I had now decided that I would run from the start of the run, in Hiroshima, Japan and finish at the Russian border in Mongolia. This meant I would be away from Seattle from April 19th until June 13th, while I ventured through Japan, South Korea, China and Mongolia. A tall order, but somehow I knew that if it was meant to be, it would definitely happen.
During the next few months, I was bombarded with sudden and tumultuous support for my new dream. Money kept coming to me from all directions, and from the most unexpected places. Even our landlord decided to lower the rent! At first, we had difficulty finding someone to replace me at the restaurant where I work as a short-order cook. But then, unexpectedly, it was no longer a problem. The last hurdle had been cleared, and I was free to go! I was so thrilled.
Now, I would like to write about my experiences running in Japan, South Korea and China, but that would take a whole other article. So let's just skip to when I arrived in Mongolia...
During the first month of the Harmony Run, I felt a mounting excitement leading up to my arrival in Mongolia. So when the day finally came, I could hardly contain myself. One of the girls from the team and I flew with about ten passengers, in a tiny plane from Hailar, China to Choibalsan, Mongolia. The whole time, my face was pressed to the window as I stared down at the network of dirt roads that spread across a vast expanse of unpopulated steppes.
In China, the Mongolians had told me that some of the foreigners visiting Mongolia with Sri Chinmoy in 2007 half-expected to be welcomed to Mongolia by locals on horseback. They found this very funny, as people in the main cities don't usually have horses. It is part of the country and nomadic lifestyle. After our plane landed at the tiny and deserted Choibalsan airport, I was therefore amused to see a horse tied up near the entrance, with his owner standing nearby. While my passport was inspected at their tiny customs area, I was starting to get a little bit confused. It seemed that the entire customs and border staff (four or five people) were crowded around my passport. They kept making phone calls, typing at their computer, speaking in hushed voices and pointing at different pages in my passport. But I got through eventually, and afterwards I learned that I had been the first foreigner to use that airport.
The Mongolian country lifestyle is beautifully simple. Over 60% of the population of Mongolia is under 17 years old. There are herds of livestock everywhere, and in many areas, they are even used as currency more than actual money. Usually, there is no running water in the areas outside of the capital city. Cooking is done on wood stoves and the Mongolians live either in gers (nomads' tents) or small, modest homes made of some kind of natural concrete-looking material.
Due to the harsh weather conditions, fruits and vegetables are in very limited supply, especially in the countryside. Inside tiny local grocery stores, one would expect to see shelves stocked almost exclusively with dry goods. Villages have very, very little or no paved roads, and the neighborhood livestock roam wherever they please. There are half-wild dogs everywhere. Children of all ages would follow us wherever we went, with curious and excited looks on their faces.
We traveled first across Eastern Mongolia towards the capital, Ulaanbaatar. We followed dry dirt roads through a totally flat, barren grassland. I was especially moved when I ran the first miles ever covered by an American (or even non-Russian or Mongolian) member of the World Harmony Run. On that day the wind was very strong, and as I ran happily carrying an unlit torch, my feet pounded into the ground, forming little clouds of dust and leaving little "running shoe" shaped craters behind. As we moved westward, the landscape would change suddenly and sometimes without warning. However in general, Western Mongolia was more hilly and fertile, with rocky mountains, salt water lakes and winding streams.
In Ulaanbaatar, I was extremely fortunate to meet with the President of Mongolia, Elbegdorj Tsakhia. He held the torch and posed for a photo with four members of our team, from Mongolia, America and Russia. It was, for me of course, the first time I'd ever met with a President of anywhere. I was impressed with his brilliance and genuine warmth. There is an article on his official website, mentioning the visit of the World Harmony Run torch. Click here to go to that page.
Now, at this point I have to add something about what it means to drive across Mongolia in a van. First of all, you have to have some serious driving skills. And you have to know how to drive on roads that can be dusty, extremely rocky, sandy, mountainous or muddy, sometimes all in one day. You might have to ford a river or two unexpectedly. You could cut cross-country to take a short-cut, but make sure you don't go the wrong way, or you'll have to find some nomads and ask for directions. Ah, but keep in mind that one of the vans will still probably get a flat tire every couple of days, so make sure you know how to change a flat, fast! Having all that said, I soon found that boredom is completely non-existent. I had my own personal HDTV system right in front of me, with perfect demonstrations of precisely how to apply the numerous driving techniques needed in any of the above mentioned situations.
As we came to villages along the way, we would stop about 10 kilometers before entering, and meet with their best local runners or athletes. Then they would run into the village with us. Even if we showed up late, the people would always wait for us and welcome us with excitement and support. Once, we encountered so many delays on the road that we showed up at a village 5 1/2 hours late, at 11:00pm. Nevertheless, a significant crowd was at the ceremony, patiently waiting for us. After these ceremonies, depending on the time of day, we would either continue running or spend the night in a local hotel. The following morning after breakfast, the same athletes would join us again, as we exited the village and started a new day.
My time in Mongolia passed with a sense of familiarity and deep understanding that I've never experienced anything close to in my life. Everything I saw and felt was part of a constant flow that I can only describe as watching my life blossom in front of my eyes. I wish to express my deepest, deepest gratitude to the Mongolians who ran with me across their exquisite homeland. I was nothing but impressed with their constant support, humility, oneness and cheerfulness. Every single day, I was faced with new experiences and grew more as a person than I ever thought possible. I became so submersed in Mongolian culture, that I truly felt that I am half Mongolian, and still do! I will never, never forget Mongolia and the people I left behind.
So the question in my mind is this: How can I get back as soon as possible?