The thought of turning over the details of anything to someone else, especially something important, makes your skin crawl. You know no one would give it the right amount of attention, and no one cares about your projects as much as you do. It kills you to have to ask for help, mainly because you know you’ll have to go back and recheck it anyway.
It’s just easier to do it all yourself. Or is it?
Today we explore the art of letting go and the benefits of not always being in control. Buckle your seatbelts, control freaks, this one is going to be bumpy!
When You’re Forced to Let Go
There are 50 million head of livestock in Mongolia and only 3 million people. This simple statement explains everything you need to know about getting around within the country:
Mongolia is set up for herding, not traveling.
Normally Warren is the planner of our trip, mapping out bus routes, subway systems, and walking routes to our various destinations. But in a country without any modern infrastructure outside the capital – a country whose unmarked highways are still often made of dirt and meander through fields – it is hard to be your own tour guide.
Because of this fact, we really had no option to see Mongolia as independently as we normally travel. That said, we still didn’t want to be part of a packaged tour or limit ourselves to one small area. Gana, the owner of our guesthouse, told us he could help us arrange transport to travel just about as independently as possible in Mongolia on our budget, and we took him up on it.
This is where Warren started getting itchy.
Baby Steps in Letting Go
We walked to the lobby with our daypacks and our food and water for the start of our 5-day adventure. Gana introduced us to our driver, Sancho, and we loaded up the SUV and left.
We quickly realized Sancho spoke not a word of English. All of a sudden, our experiment in letting go became real and we were really concerned.
We had no idea exactly where we were going, where we would be staying, and how we would communicate with the driver. Did he know how much we planned to walk and where we wanted to go? And we only saw one tent in the back; were we all going to sleep together?
The fee we paid included a daily rate for the driver, his food stipend, and the responsibility to pay for the gas we needed along the way. When we stopped at a supermarket on the way out of town for water, the driver didn’t buy any food, and we wondered if we were going to have to share our carefully calculated supplies.
We had no way of asking all these questions, much less getting answers, so we did the only thing we really could do: we let go.
Letting Someone Else Take the Lead
Sancho drove us through a complicated warren of roads and fields to arrive at a small village outside Ulan Bator, where we stopped at a family ger for milk tea. It was only 11 a.m. and we wondered if this was our location for the night, but of course we couldn’t ask.
After the tea was finished, Sancho walked us out to the road and then pointed in the direction we should go. He mimed meeting up with us later on the path, and we set off wondering what the hell we had gotten ourselves into. This feeling quickly went away as we walked across grassy plains toward little clusters of trees, mooing and cows and bleating at sheep as we went past. A stream meandered through the valley, and we watched eagles soaring overhead and horses running around us. It was easy to forget our worries for a while with so much beauty.
Several kilometers later, we happened upon Sancho parked in a field waiting for us, giving us a slightly different direction to walk. We kept going, meeting up with him every 5 kilometers or so to adjust our path.
This kept up until we reached 20 km, our daily goal. We then hopped into the SUV and drove a short distance to Sancho’s family village, where he set us up in a comfy ger for the night.
Problems in Letting Go
The next morning we didn’t leave the ger until 8, a late start if you are a hiker interested in avoiding the heat. We forded a river and then entered the outskirts of the national park. We told Gana we weren’t interested in a heavily trafficked tourist area, so we were really anxious about how the day’s plans were shaping up.
Sancho drove around the start of the national park for a few minutes before stopping to ask directions of a guy walking toward us. The man hopped in the vehicle to direct and we forded another section of the river and drove past about a dozen ger camps. Finally, we stopped and Sancho ran out with a package for a family. Where we thought we were lost, he was just trying to find an address for a delivery of bread!
Warren began getting a little frustrated over the delays and wondering if we would be in the park with all the tour groups. He began grumbling about not getting what we paid for, and this is when we had the conversation that led to the Big Revelation:
We were expecting the experience to be a certain way instead of letting the experience guide our expectations.
It was a lightbulb moment that set the tone for the rest of our trip. I mean, how much more authentic does it get to have a stranger hop in your car to give directions or to go hunting through small clusters of identical gers to make a delivery? This is the real Mongolia and exactly what we asked for.
The rest of the trip continued in the same vein, walking for half the day and then stopping each afternoon at a beautiful spot, setting up camp, and enjoying a gorgeous sunset and hot meal. On our last full day of hiking, we saw Sancho parked up on a hill much sooner than expected. It wasn’t until we came to the peak that we saw the reason why: In the distance was the 40-meter high statue of Genghis Khan astride his horse, one of the largest statues we have ever seen. We think Sancho just wanted to see the expression on our faces, and he wasn’t disappointed!
We set up camp our last night in a field not too far from the Genghis Khan statue. As we laid out our mats in the warm sunshine to read and relax, Sancho sat down beside us and tried explaining he needed to leave. We were a little bit surprised, given there was a big storm developing. We asked if he would be back for dinner and he shook his head no, which is when we got really concerned. Were we really going to stay by ourselves with no kind of transportation with a huge black cloud and lightning coming our way?
We had dozens of questions but no way to ask. He began cooking himself an early dinner, and we really got worried. How would he find our tent in the dark in this huge area? How would we cook our own meal later if the rain didn’t let up?
Finally a van came up to our campsite and another driver plus an English-speaking person from our guesthouse emerged. He told us Sancho had to return early for a 7-day tour only he could do, so they were providing us with a new driver to take us home the following day. They moved all of our belongings to the van, introduced us to the new driver, and then took off with Sancho.
We were safe, had food to eat, and a dry place to sleep, just like all the other nights. Of course Gana wouldn’t let us stay out in the middle of nowhere alone, and we felt a little silly for having worried he would.
We made the mistake of thinking since it was our first time, it was everyone’s first time.
What We Learned
I’m not sure we would have had this experience in letting go if we had not been forced into it. Warren has been planning much of our trip since 2010, and even though the whole purpose of our 18,000-km journey is in living in the moment, we have still kept almost 100% of the planning responsibility ourselves.
Now that we’ve had it, though, we realize all the things we would have missed if we had tried to do this journey ourselves:
- Staying with local families
- Venturing off the beaten path
- Seeing Mongolia through the eyes of a Mongolian
This trip taught us we don’t always know best, and knowing all the answers is not the same as having the best experience. In fact, we set up another similar tour with Gana to experience Naadam and the Gobi Desert, and that week of giving up control gave us some of the most incredible experiences of our entire journey (stay tuned for details and photos).
When we gave up trying to control all the details and get all the answers, we had a lot more space available to simply enjoy the experience.
How This Applies to You
If you are a control freak, you are undoubtedly using a lot of brain space to manage things. Your mind is constantly whirring to keep the parts of your life moving, and you are likely using lists, reminders, and alarms to keep yourself on track. You are a vision of efficiency, though probably very tired of managing it all.
If you are like us, you won’t start letting go until forced to do so. You could come all the way to Mongolia, but the easiest way is by simply trying something brand-new or last minute, something you have to depend on someone else to manage or arrange.
- A class to learn a new hobby or skill
- A Meetup experience at a new location led by someone else
- A last-minute deal on a weekend trip from a bargain site
There are a few things to keep in mind:
- You are not the first person who has tried this, and the experienced person leading the way has answered or experienced every worry in your mind.
- Unless you are skydiving without a parachute or walking through fire, your chances of death and dismemberment as a worst-case scenario are minuscule. Realize your biggest danger is disappointment, which is something well within your control.
- When someone else is in charge, let them do their jobs. If they screw up entirely, you can then take pleasure in letting them know how you would have done it better. If they don’t screw up, you enjoy the experience. Either way, you win.
Continuing to Let Go
We aren’t experts at letting go just yet, but we are making steady progress as we go through this overland journey from Thailand to Portugal. We continue to make our plans as we go, not researching the next destination until we are at the previous one and asking other travelers and local residents for recommendations before making our own plans. It is working out surprisingly well, though we do still struggle a bit when things aren’t done as we think they should be.
It’s all a work in progress, and we are quickly learning to let go of our compulsion to control our freedom, and ironic statement if there ever was one.
(If you don’t see the video below, click here)