A long time ago, I hopped on a train and found myself in Mongolia. To me, there is not much more exotic and foreign than Mongolia. Mongolia, the land of Mongols, steppe, miniature horses and children as young as 4 years old riding them. The land of fermented milk that is shared with foreigners and the land of nomads. Not digital nomads, but actual nomads. The land of the eternal blue sky. Mongolia.
As a novice world traveler and newbie adventurer, I had my best and worst travel experiences in Mongolia. Even with my horrible stomach illness last month in Lebanon, the illness made it to the top 3 of worst travel illnesses but it still didn’t compare to my experiences in Mongolia. As I have a hard time to describe what happened and how it made me feel, I recently connected with Meg from Fox in the Forest about the exact same topic.
Life & Death in the Land of the Eternal Blue Sky
Guest Post by Meg from Fox in the Forest
Meg is a full-time freelance writer and digital marketing consultant. Her company and blog, Fox in the Forest aims to empower others to get outside and have an adventure. When she’s not on the road, you can find Meg mountaineering, climbing, and camping with her partner John, and adventure-pup Nina in her home of Colorado. She’d rather be dirty than done up.
Meg told me her experiences in Mongolia and they were quite similar to mine. But she can tell it in a much better way, so I’d like to share Meg’s story.
Life and Death in the Land of the Eternal Blue Sky
I wiped the sleep from my eyes and peered out the tiny plane window. My mind shuddered as I looked down at a capital city littered with dirt roads, empty-looking buildings, and a thick haze. What did I do? I thought to myself. I had been traveling for days, by myself, to the Land of the Eternal Blue Sky. Mongolia wasn’t a destination that had ever been on my list of places I wanted to see, but somehow I ended up here. As the plane touched down, the nervous feeling in my stomach grew. Here I was, alone, for my first time in Asia in a country whose largest airport has one paved runway. I couldn’t help that sinking feeling as I stepped through the single customs booth; what the hell am I doing here?
Flashback several months prior. I had been chatting with a friend of mine who had recently joined the Peace Corps. She had been assigned to a rural town in Mongolia and had chosen to move there for a year. I had been planning a trip to China to meet up with another friend and I thought why not make the journey across the Great Wall and go to Mongolia? Little did I know that decision would prove to be the start of what was one of the greatest misadventures of my life.
The trip turned out to be cursed from the start, about a month before I was set to leave, my friend had a family emergency that caused her to leave her post at the Peace Corps and head home. I had bought a non-refundable, non-exchangeable ticket to Mongolia, so it looked like I was in for the ride, solo. However, my friend had arranged for me to stay at a local hostel in the capital of Ulan Bator and even suggested a few worthwhile trips into the Mongolian Steppe. For better or worse, I boarded the plane to Mongolia, with plans of continuing on to China.
Ulan Bator Mongolia
The second I stepped into the dusty city of Ulan Bator I wanted to run. The dusty streets and polluted boulevards were intimidating and unwelcoming. I couldn’t imagine spending more than a few hours here, much less alone without any guidance.
I asked the hostel owner if there were any tours available into the steppe, and it turned out that two women, around my age, were leaving that afternoon for a five-day excursion into the rugged Mongolian landscape. Without skipping a beat I jumped on board.
Exploring the Mongolian Steppe
My trip into the great Mongolian steppe couldn’t have been any more perfect. I immediately bonded with the two other travelers and we spent a week driving into the great Mongolian wild. We spent our nights at ger camps, visited the ancient city of Karakorum, hiked to hidden waterfalls, rode horses into the singing sand dunes, and lived a nomadic life. The Mongolian people are a hearty bunch, strongly connected to family, and deeply rooted in tradition. This wasn’t my first brush with pooping in holes in the ground and sleeping in a tent, but it was certainly a newer experience for me, and something I had never done thousands of miles from home on my own.
One night, the snows fell. The hearth in our ger (the Mongolian term for yurt) was warm and toasty. We let in young sheep to keep warm throughout the night, just as local Mongolians have done for generations.
During that week, something had changed in me. For the first time, I saw life as it had been for centuries. Living off of the land, traveling with the seasons, and embracing the natural cycles of life. I got into the rhythm of the steppe and I often thought how the landscaped mimicked that of my home in Colorado. It was like stepping back in time and seeing what things had looked like before skyscrapers, paved roads, and cell phone towers.
Don’t get me wrong, every Mongolian ger had a solar panel, everyone had a flip phone, and satellite dishes with a TV, but there was still this deep connection with the landscape. The feeling of traveling along ancient spice routes and a deep history never left my mind.
As we made our way back to the crowded, dusty streets of Ulan Bator, I saw the city in a new light. To me, such a mish-mash of gers and buildings became an epicenter of activity. As the car fumes filled my nose, I began to feel sick. My head pounded with the sounds and smells of the city.
Not feeling too well
At first, I brushed it off, thinking that I just needed to adjust to the influx of people and pollution. When we arrived back at the hostel, I gave my new trusted friends my wallet (that also contained my passport), asking them to buy some camel felt slippers for my brother. I started to feel quite ill and I couldn’t muster the strength to head to the market nearby. I thought nothing of the gesture since we had given each other our wallets plenty of times throughout our trip to pick up snacks and the like.
After they left, I laid down for a minute to try and calm my stomach and head. Then my body produced a horrific noise. It sounded like a draining bathtub. After getting sick several times in the shared toilet, I went to the hostel owner for help.
The second I got into her office, I immediately vomited. Between the heaving, I declared that I needed to see a doctor. Things quickly went downhill from there. Between vomiting sessions, the hostel owner pushed hard on my back, forcing more and more up until there was nothing left.
Another hostel guest called the embassy and got the number of a hospital, one of two western hospitals in the entire country. I remember feeling a sense that something was very wrong with me and things were not going to improve. I had a choice. I could panic and cry or I could keep my shit together and push through. I chose the ladder option and focused on the details of who I was and what I needed.
I slurred my words to the doctor, as I lost feeling in my limbs. My face went numb and it became hard to speak. I remember trying so hard to open my eyes, but there simply wasn’t enough water in my body. I was desperately dehydrated and on the verge of losing consciousness.
Opening the only hospital in town
The doctor informed the hostel owner that they would have to open the hospital for me, I would have to wait a little bit longer before I could show up. The owner of the hostel asked if she could perform traditional medicine on me.
“Please.” I replied. Anything to help was better than sitting idle as I waited for help.
As she described how she would heat up the needles to sterilize them for acupuncture and prick the knuckles of my hand, I began to pass out. Slapped awake by the feeling of needles in my hands, I managed to pull myself together. At this point, my entire body went numb, including my stomach, providing relief from the intense pain.
After she finished, I thanked her and the hostel driver, who had totted us around the steppe for the past week, frantically drove me to the hospital.
I lay in the back of the car as he raced down sidewalks honking and swerving. I tried my best to not get sick in his car, at this point, things were coming out of both ends while I desperately tried to cling to consciousness.
Getting admitted to the hospital in Mongolia
He lifted me out of the vehicle and a nurse helped me stagger to my bed. Everything became a blur. I had just showed up at a hospital, thousands of miles from home, with no money and no identification.
“My name is Meg and I can pay you, please help me.” I stammered.
The doctor and nurses kept encouraging me to talk as they poked and prodded at my veins.
“Tell us a story about you.” They encouraged.
My mouth failed to move as the thoughts flooded by. I crept toward darkness, wanting nothing more than to give up.
“What is your name?” Asked a nurse.
“My name is Meg, I’ve felt better.” I gasped.
She asked me for my name again, and I struggled hard to put sentences together.
The next thing I knew I was on the toilet again, but this time there were tubes of liquid attached to my body. I became terribly ill one last time, was helped back to my hospital bed, and passed out.
I awoke several hours later to the sound footsteps and familiar voices. My head was a fog, but it felt good to hear the sounds of my new-found travel buddies. The two women, Ida and Amy, bounced into my hospital room.
“Holy shit what happened?!” They exclaimed.
I went on to explain what I could recall from episode, as they told me how the returned to the hostel to find my bed empty and my pack stowed away in the luggage storage. The hostel owner told them what happened, and Ida, who was living in Mongolia at the time, had a friend drive her to the hospital.
“You may want this.” Amy winked as she handed me my wallet and passport. I revelled in the hour or so I spent with my newfound friends, thankful for the kindness of strangers, and happy to have some company as I unpacked what had just happened to me.
After they left, the hospital ran tests throughout the night. My body felt week, I couldn’t stand and sleep came fitfully.
In the morning, the nurse let me call home. I burst into tears as I told my mom what had happened.
The doctor explained that I had shown up just in time. I’m pretty sure I had eaten bad horse meat and despite my friend ordered the same meal, down to the drink, I drew the short end of the stick and got violently ill. The illness had caused severe dehydration, and if I hadn’t gotten to the hospital when I did, I would have likely died from dehydration.
Recover in luxury
I was released from the hospital and told to book a room at a nearby luxury hotel, so I could rest and be close to the hospital in case I relapsed. I wasn’t allowed to fly for another few days. My friend Ida stayed an extra day to help take care of me. We washed my clothes in the hotel tub and went to a ticketing agent to rebook my ticket home. Somehow, I mustered the strength to wander around for about an hour each day, a much-needed break from the confines of my hotel room. I was so utterly thankful for the help of someone who I had just met.
The trip back to the states was a blur, and when I made it home, my doctor informed me that I still had an extremely high white blood cell count. Overall, I lost 12 pounds in 24 hours and it took me over a month to recover fully.
Changing the course of my life
It’s been about 10 years since my haunting visit to the Land of the Eternal Blue Sky. My trip to Mongolia changed the course of my life. Despite nearly dying, I fell in love with Asia, and I’ve been back to the continent over six times, including living in Malaysia.
My biggest takeaway from the experience wasn’t surviving a lethal bout of food poisoning, it was about the friendships and experiences on the steppe. The feeling of connecting with the land pulled me.
Over the years, I quit my career as an architect to become a freelance writer and digital marketing consultant. My work primarily involves the outdoor and adventure travel industries. Throughout my travels, I seek to visit rural places with expansive landscapes. I live to mountaineer, rock climb, and hike across the world.
My brush with death hasn’t kept me from solo traveling, however, it was an opportunity to feel a deeper connection with myself. You have a choice in life, you can let the things that scare you the most stop you in your tracks, or you can push forward and see what’s on the other side of fear. The choice is yours.
Tips and Tricks for When Solo Travel Goes Wrong
After traveling solo to Mongolia and having a brush with death. I learned a thing or two. Although I haven’t been back to the Land of the Eternal Blue Sky, I’ve gone on to continue my adventure travel exploits. Sometimes I go with a loved one and other times I venture out solo.
- Always carry travelers insurance. I didn’t have insurance in this case, and I got VERY lucky in Mongolia and I still had to pay a hospital bill. Travelers insurance would have helped greatly. Be sure to make sure you’re covered for the activities you’re doing. In my case, having helicopter evacuation insurance would have been handy. Had I gotten ill a day earlier, I would have needed a medical helicopter to save me.
- Stay calm. It can be easy to get worked into a panic when things go wrong and you’re alone. Take a minute to breathe deeply and be present. Collect yourself and think about your next move.
- Never give anyone your passport. That was not one of my brighter moves. Had I lost consciousness before someone had called the embassy, I might have been in deep trouble. Always carry a copy of your passport when out and about. Keep your passport in a safe spot.
- Beware of what you eat. In my case, I didn’t have a choice of meals, we stopped at a roadside stall. Nothing seemed off about the meal I had, the food was warm and it tasted normal. However, take care to eat where food is cooked in front of you or is piping hot. Avoid meat in countries where they may not have access to refrigeration.
- Tell someone about your plan. Let loved ones know where you are and when you plan to return. If they haven’t heard from you by a certain time, tell them to check in with your hotel or contact someone on your behalf.
- Never leave home without your own first aid kit. I always bring along stomach meds, a round of antibiotics, and rehydration salts when I travel. In some places, an upset stomach is common. If you feel like you need to see a medical professional, find one!
Getting dangerously ill in Mongolia
Although there are some things you can point out that Meg shouldn’t have done. Reading her story, it all sounds but too familiar to me. Luckily for me, I didn’t need to go to the hospital but my worst travel illness was in Mongolia. Reading Meg’s story for the first time, I couldn’t help notice how quick and instinctive she reacted.
- Asking for help at the hostel right away. I usually wait and see if things improve on their own before asking anyone for help, but Meg immediately looked for help. If she would have crawled up in her dorm room, locked the door and not notify anyone, things might have been quite different.
- Meg realized she wanted to throw a pity party for herself, but instead made the conscious decision to remain calm and practical. She managed to explain what was wrong with her and emphasize that her condition was serious and she needed help.
- Take enough time to recover. Meg took some time to recover and stay in a more luxurious hotel with all the comforts she needed. She stayed longer and was able to rebook her flight, instead of wanted to travel onwards or fly home the next morning.
- A check-up at home. Meg went home finally and got a thorough check-up at home at her own doctor. Even if you feel fine after, it is always good to tell your local GP what happened. Maybe you need follow-up treatment or extra time and medication to recover at home.
In the end, I’m glad things worked out for Meg and she didn’t lose her enthusiasm for solo travel or her love for Asia. Even in our worst and dire moments, we can feel a great appreciation for the people that are there for us or the world around us.
Have you ever gotten violently ill during your travels? Where were you and what did you do? What was the cause of your sickness or illness? Feel free to share your own experiences in the comment section below.