Imagine walking 1,150 kilometres across Mongolia. You have food drops scheduled along the way, but you’re not certain what’s going to be in each package. You have 5 ways to filter water, but you’re unsure where you’ll be able to find sources. You have a 19-year-old local riding along on a motorbike as your sole way of communicating with anyone, but you can hardly communicate with him yourself.
This was Caeli Barron’s life for 54 days as she walked across Mongolia. Her story is an incredible one – and one that she tells with such humour, humility, and honesty that it will make you feel as though you were along with her on this gruelling journey. It takes an incredible explorer to plan a trailblazing trip like this, and Caeli is just that.
Some of us like to wade out into the world slowly. We don’t want to lose our feet and get swept away. Caeli was never this kind of traveller. Growing up with the Canadian Rockies as her playground, her love for pushing herself out of her comfort zone started at a young age. While other 19-year-olds with the travel bug were planning the hostels they would stay at in Europe, Caeli decided on a whim to do a very different kind of adventure.
“I definitely was in a bit of that soul searching part of life. I think I decided it in one day. My mom came home from work and I was like “I’m going to Nepal, I’m going to book my ticket this week”.”
Once she had her ticket booked, she decided to combine 6 weeks of volunteering, 10 days of silence, and 3 weeks of trekking into one physically and mentally demanding journey.
“The [volunteer] placement that I was in was up in this mountain village for 6 weeks. The town was northwest of Pokhara, the other major city there. It was a few hour bus ride and then you had to hike up the mountain – there was no road access – so it was another few hours of hiking up the mountain to get to the village. And it was pretty crazy because I was the only person who spoke English there. Pretty funny to be up there using sign language for 6 weeks.”
While this initial 6 weeks already pushed Caeli, she went on immediately after her placement finished to do a 10 day Vipassana meditation course in Nepal.
“That was also very intense because it was no speaking, no writing, no eye contact, one meal a day – so that was another huge challenge. I came out of the meditation just talking nonstop, I called my parents, and just talked at them for 3 hours. And I pretty much left for my trek right away [to do] the Annapurna Circuit Trek there. So that was a huge relief to finally be doing something more familiar.”
After returning to university in Canada and filling her days with adrenaline-fueled activities in the nearby Rocky Mountains, inspiration struck again.
“My inspiration for Mongolia was that I saw a film at the Banff Film Festival about this guy who rode horseback from Mongolia all the way to Hungary. His story was so cool and I was really drawn to the Mongolian landscape, so I was pretty set. I talked about Mongolia for a few years, just like how much I wanted to go there, and eventually started making actual plans for it.
I think, coming from a sport background, I’ve always been drawn to the especially hard things. I like to push myself physically and mentally. I like the challenge of being thrown into a scenario where you’re really uncomfortable because I feel those are the times when you have the best experiences and learn the most. Maybe not at the time, but afterwards you look back and realize it was one of the best things you’ve ever done. And then watching films about these epic adventures, I wanted to have my own expedition and, I mean, I don’t have a lot of mountaineering skills or crazy climbing [experience], but I was like, I can walk a long ways so why don’t we do that.”
“I started to do a bit of research and then eventually got one of my friends on board in the pretty early stages of the planning and then it took quite a while, like a few months I would say of emailing different people and trying to find a contact that could help because contacting locals in Mongolia is extremely difficult. I’m sure there’s a few organized trekking groups there but for the most part there’s not a whole lot. And I also wanted to do this unique type of trip and a lot of them basically said no, or a couple of companies that were Australian or European wanted like 30,000 [Canadian dollars] for what we wanted to set up.
Eventually there was a European company that had worked with a local Mongolian man and said “we can’t offer you the services for the budget that you have, but this guy we’ve worked with and he’s looking to start his own guiding company, he might be willing to work with you”. And so we were just lucky that they referred us to this man and he helped organize all the logistics and what was a reasonable route to take. It was very individualized – basically he helped us do something that nobody else was willing to work with us on.”
It became even clearer just how unique this adventure to Mongolia was going to be when the Mongolian embassy in Canada knew Caeli by name.
“It was kind of an ordeal [with the visa processing]. You had to have a letter of invitation. And once [the local organizer] signed that, it was actually pretty funny, he sent the letter to the embassy. I’d called to see if our visas were in and they knew who I was. I was the only person who applied for a visa at that time. They’re like, “oh are you Caeli?!”. And I was like, “yeah?”, and they were like, “yup, we have your visa here!”. Because nobody else at that time had applied for a Mongolian visa in Canada.”
Once she had her visa arrangements and months of route preparation finalized, she arrived in Mongolia’s capital city, Ulaanbaatar. From there Caeli, her friend Ella, and their local guide (a 19-year-old who didn’t speak much English), drove for two full days to where they would start their expedition for the next two months.
“It ended up being 54 nights, I think was the exact number. We were averaging between 25 to 30 kilometres a day. You’d wake up have breakfast, walk until dinner more or less. So it was 8 hours or so [of walking]. The hours of sunlight were very long there. It was pretty much as far as we wanted to go, we would go. The first like week and a half or two weeks, I found it very hard to walk that far with the heavy packs and stuff. We didn’t train for it so it took awhile for the body to get used to it.”
“Food, fuel and water. They’re all interconnected. Because you need the fuel to obviously get to the next gas station, we needed fuel for cooking our food, you needed water to cook the food because it was all dry food, and then you needed water to drink obviously. And then just running out of food so you could get to the next station which was reliant on how much fuel you had. So they’re all interdependent of each other and it was quite stressful. There was really no way to prepare for it in some ways.”
With Mongolia having an incredibly small and spread out population, accessing food and water along the way had to be carefully planned before she set out on the trip.
“[Our local organizer] originally set out 9 or 10 food caches that he would send out on a bus or with somebody he knew who dropped them in certain places. We had the GPS locations of all our food caches, so we were always trying to budget our time in order to get to the food cache to have enough food to go on. So we didn’t have to carry all of our food at once which helped the weight.
We didn’t have much role in planning the food. A lot of it was what our organizer had put in, which was a lot of packaged food from Russia. So we had very, very, very disgusting food the whole time. It was actually awful. Almost like Mr Noodles but worse. We did have some cereal with powdered milk and then we’d have little packages of coffee – it was called Coffee King. Which had like one ground of coffee and then just sugar. Then we had this sunflower seed block. It was this grey brick of mushed sunflower seed that was pretty good. He had lots of chocolate bars. That was our main source of energy. Just hundreds of chocolate bars and peanuts.
One time we got to a food cache and there was barely anything in it and we were able to get some bread and cheese from the local people. We were able to buy some of their homemade stuff off them which was really nice. And then the odd people would invite you into their house for tea, like milk tea, which had obviously milk in it and salt and butter sometimes. So that keeps you going a bit.”
“The food caches were somewhat reasonably placed in terms of distance between each other but we didn’t know exactly where we were going to find water. So, yeah, it was very stressful. We did get very close to running out, and our guide didn’t know how to ration. He was using water to wash his face and stuff and I was at the point of tears and I was like, if you wash your face one more time, we’re not going to survive kind of thing. And he’d blow his nose and use the water to wash out his nose and I was like, oh my goodness, I just kind of accepted my fate, I was like this is either going to be bad or we’re going to figure it out, so one way or another you just have to do it.
It was hard when we’d take water breaks to stop yourself from drinking. You know when you’re thirsty you want water and to restrain yourself and you’d hand the bottle over. My friend Ella was hiking with me and she’d drink some and I’d be thinking oh, she’s drinking a lot, she’s drinking a lot! Then I’d be all worried about running out.”
This new understanding of water shortages shifted Caeli’s perspective and understanding immensely.
“Obviously there are people around the world that have to worry about food and water so much more than we do but coming from and growing up where I have, in a privileged lifestyle, [running out of water] has never been something I’ve had to worry about. It was a different set of challenges.
Just how resourceful the Mongolian people are and the ways which they conserve water and stuff is pretty inspiring. One technique that they’ll use if they want to wash their hands but they don’t want to pour the water over their hands because you’ll waste a lot that way, they’ll take a big sip of it and they’ll hold it in their cheeks and slowly spit it out over their hands so they use the most minimal amount to actually wash their hands and then they can drink the rest if they don’t finish their mouthful or whatever. But at least they know they’re not going to use more water than what’s in their mouth.
It’s a bit of a mystery to me [how they access their water]. We came across some wells. In one well the water was so sulphuric we actually felt sick after drinking it. Our stomachs were so rumbly. Also one time we saw a bunch of people filling up their water bottles and it looked like it was just mud, but there was just a little bit of water. There were times we were filling up our water bottles in a little stream, and we’d like hold our water bottle under the water and be wafting away chunks of poo that were floating down. We had like 5 treatment water systems that we’d use to try to purify our water and we actually didn’t get sick which is a miracle. But there was literally chunks of poo floating down the river and we had to use that water, we didn’t have a choice.”
When I asked her if the Mongolian people they met along the way thought they were crazy, she laughed.
“Yeah I think they thought we were crazy! They couldn’t believe that we’d be walking out there. People that would drive by occasionally would offer to drive us because they didn’t understand why we wouldn’t get in their cars. They were pretty shocked all around I’d say.
I feel like every day was crazy. There was a day when our guide disappeared for 4 hours and we didn’t know if we’d find him. There was a day where we ended up exactly where we started because our map was wrong. There was a day when we did get a short ride from somebody and they had a baby in the car and the baby was being sick. So he stops the car, turns the baby upside down, pats it on the back so it throws up a little bit. Then puts his mouth over its nose, sucks out its boogers and spits that on the ground, throws the baby back in the car and continues.
There were challenging days, more so when I was physically hurting. But on this trip, I wanted to be there the whole time, which I feel hasn’t been the case on a lot of other trips that I’ve done. I usually am thinking about the end or ready to be home. And not once on that trip was I struggling with it. Maybe because I was so focused on just getting to the next point and making sure we were going to have enough resources – that more consumed my thoughts. And I mean obviously being with another person trekking for that long, there were days when we wouldn’t talk much and that would be hard going the whole day being pretty silent. But I don’t feel like I really went crazy. I went more crazy in Nepal. Maybe that just toughened me up.”
All of these crazy experiences left a lasting impression on this explorer that, understandably, continues to remain with her today.
“I think about that trip all the time. It’s something that I think about every day because it was such a unique experience and whenever I’m out hiking or finding something challenging I often think back to it. At the end of our trip me and my friend got tattoos done in Ulaanbaatar and it’s kind of ridiculous but it’s “the dude abides”. We got it written on our forearms. It does come from a movie reference but I haven’t seen the movie. Basically we actually wrote this on our arms early into the trek and it became our, I don’t know, our inspiration. We were like everyone in Mongolia is so laid back and so chill and they just deal with the most ridiculous things in their life and they’re just such resilient people and I love it. They’ll come up to you and lie down on the ground and have a conversation when they first meet you and talk to you, well not talk to you because they don’t speak English, but they’ll lie down and just stare at you. Anything is cool. So we had this motto, “the dude abides”, and whenever anything challenging would come up, we’d just be like “well, we’re just going to deal with it”. So I guess that’s what was inspiring and what we wanted to take forward from the trip. And obviously we got it tattooed on our arms so it was meaningful to us at the time and still is: to just be a bit more relaxed and to take the challenges that come up in life and not take everything so seriously.”
What item won’t you travel anywhere without?
“I would say for a trip like that definitely an inReach. So that was a device that would call for emergency evacuation if we needed it. And you could also text, communicate via text with emergency responders or also just text anyone you want if you need to communicate with the outside world. So I think that’s a necessity for big trips. And then a water purifier. Those are the two things, the top two for sure.”
What’s the most uncomfortable thing that’s happened to you on any of your trips?
“I would say probably the marriage proposals I got in Nepal. It sounds funny now but it was actually so stressful for me because they were relatives of the women I was living with and it was very hard when people would invite you over into their homes and cook you a meal and then eventually you knew that it was coming. And I found that very awkward and stressful and I couldn’t really communicate with them either so it was very hard.”
What was your worst night of accommodation?
“I feel like Mongolia wasn’t so bad because we were just in a tent. But there was one night we were staying just on the outskirts of the city. It was 35 or 37 degrees that day and obviously it’s really hard to be sitting around baking in a tent. And we were basically in a garbage dump, more or less. There was garbage flying around everywhere just outside the city because they don’t really have a proper way of disposing things there, they just dump it away from where people are. So we were amongst the garbage and that night we were caught in a sandstorm and we thought the tent was going to fly away like with us in it. So we were holding down the tent for hours and hours that night. We didn’t get any sleep, there wasn’t any water, and just stressing about where to go to the washroom. There was the odd person who comes around, there’s nowhere to hide in these desert areas, there’s not one bush that you can crouch behind. You’d have to walk like a kilometre to where the horizon line would like dip down and you could get away far enough so they couldn’t see you.”
Where is next for you?
“I’ll probably stick to North America. I want to do some climbing trips and stuff to the States and up north would be cool to do some more exploring. Maybe Greenland one day would be a pretty neat place to go.”
Anywhere that’s not very inhabited right? I feel like those are your spots.
“Exactly. I like people, just a few people at a time you know?”
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