Behind The Scenes

Under a Different Sky – Behind the Scenes

Background 

It was the summer of 2013. My three kids and I were staying in Pokhara, Nepal, and thinking about where we should go for the summer. 

 The previous years we had spent our summers relaxing in India, but this time I felt  I wanted something else. For years, I had dreamed of visiting Mongolia, and had been waiting for the ‘perfect’ moment. I knew summer would be the best season to go there (not too cold) so I started looking into how I could make it happen.  

I discovered that flights to China were really cheap, and worked out that we could stay there for a month, and then cross the border into Mongolia by land.  

I debated the idea in my own mind a lot, as I had a lot of concerns about the logistics, and whether or not it was wise to travel into the back of beyond with three children/teens: My daughters Roni and Gali were 7 and 11 at the time, and my son Yotam was 14.  I remember a conversation with a couple of other Israelis who were visiting Nepal, which revolved around the question:  

Do you want to let your fears determine what you do? Or do you want to follow your dreams? 

* 

The first thing I did to make my dream a reality was to buy a book. I don’t usually buy guidebooks when I travel,  because I like to discover places by myself. But this time I decided I should make at least basic preparations, as it really was a journey into the unknown. . So I hit the streets of  Pokhara’s lakeside neighborhood: this is the tourist heartland of the city, and the many bookshops are packed with travel guides in almost any language. I was on the hunt for a guidebook to Mongolia, but after several hours it was beginning to feel like a pointless search. Just as I was ready to give up,  I found an old, used copy of Lonely Planet Mongolia.  It was suspiciously short. 

I will always remember that moment: buying the book made everything seem more real. We were going to Mongolia that summer. This was the moment the penny really dropped for all of us. I carry this book with me in my suitcase to this day. 

* 

After almost a month in China, with just a few days left until our visa ran out, we reached Beijing. It was the last stop before we began our journey to the Mongolian border. In those days China had very limited internet access due to government restrictions, and the few websites we were able to visit were all in Chinese. It was almost impossible to find useful information in English. 

Luckily, Roni met an English-speaking Chinese tour guide in our hotel lobby who explained that there was a special night bus that went from Beijing all the way to the Chinese town on the border with Mongolia. They struck up such a friendship that this sweet tour guide helped Roni book tickets online, and even went with her to pick them up.  

The next day, we were standing at a remote, abandoned, dusty bus stop in the suburbs of Beijing. It didn’t look at all like the starting point for a  fully equipped night bus to the border, and doubts were creeping in. . But after we had waited an hour or so, a crowd of Chinese and Mongolian people began to gather, and eventually we boarded the bus for a 15-hour drive to the border. 

We were the only tourists on the bus. 

* 

On this type of bus, you are required to take your shoes off at the entrance, and you replace them with flip flops provided under the seats. The interior of the bus was made up of three columns of single seats which reminded us of dentists’ chairs, and which were arranged one above the other on two levels, with two by the windows and one in the middle. The older kids were positioned around me and Gali was seated in the seat below, so I could keep her safe.  

We were seated next to a handsome young Mongolian couple: the woman was seriously one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen. They both spoke a little English and so we managed to chat with them during the trip.  And the stunning Mongolian woman shared with me a travel beauty tip that sticks with me to this day: I even wrote about it in an article called ‘how to look hot even after 40 days traveling.’ After an interesting night on the bus we arrived in the Chinese border town of ‘Erlyan‘ very early in the morning, thinking: what do we do now? 

* 

Luckily, the cute Mongolian couple took us under their wing. First, they took us for breakfast in a small restaurant at the entrance to the local market in this unassuming town,  which the guidebook described as ‘dull’, but which had plenty to keep us interested. With locals from both sides of the border passing through all the time, it was is a  mixture of Chinese and Mongolian food, culture and conversation. Our good-looking guides explained the ingredients and background of the dishes we ate in the local restaurants, and gave us lots of useful information about Mongolia. 

We went to the jeep parking lot, where we put down all our bags while they went to find a jeep that would take us to the border. From there we would cross the border to the Mongolian town on the other side. . The kids sat down on the stairs and Roni and I went to take a peek at the stalls in the market. It was a cheerful and intriguing experience, we saw lots of food products, clothes and games that were unusual and funny to us as foreigners. When we got back, everyone had already started getting ready to get on the jeep. We also jumped on, huddled with the other passengers, with me sitting right next to the door. As it turned out,  I had to hold the door for the whole trip because otherwise it would have broken off and flown away (like other parts of the jeep…) 

* 

We reached the Mongolian border town of  Zamin Uud in the late afternoon. 

We went to the train station, where a friendly young security guard helped me withdraw money at a Mongolian ATM and buy tickets for the night train leaving the next day for Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital 

We found a small restaurant for lunch and the dishes served there reminded me a little of my childhood; of my mother’s Russian cuisine. The colors and smells of carrots, cabbage, beets and mayonnaise.  

We went to a hotel near the train station, where we settled for the night. The next afternoon, we gathered our belongings, and had to literally run to the train station: a furious hotel owner was snapping at our heels, threatening to call the police because we had used the hotel towels (we had not been aware that there was an extra charge!). An amusing experience that we remember well to this day. 

When we got there, puffed and laughing, it was a  heartwarming surprise, the train station’s security guard was waiting to help us get our luggage onto the train and find our seats. As usual, we were the only tourists and we kind of stood out:-). 

It was a spacious old European-style train, built entirely of wood, and a pleasant way to travel. We could barely believe that this was really happening: tomorrow we’ll get to Ulaanbaatar! That’s where one of the most significant adventures of our lives will begin. 

We were heading out into the unknown, but I wasn’t afraid. Instead of fear, I let my dreams lead me. 

 I had no idea what I was in for, and what an emotional journey I would go through in my personal life as well as the physical journey. 

The journal: 

Throughout the trip,  I kept a journal. It was a very thinsmall and simple notebook, bought in Nepal, that I had borrowed from my girls. I wrote everything down. Things that happened, how I felt, how the kids were. What places looked like.  

Very early in the trip, I realized that what we were experiencing was something extraordinary, and so, although it’s very unusual for me, I did my best to document everything. Aside from the journal, I made many videos of Roni, in which she gave her perspective of the journey.  

We have a tradition of leaving a letter from the tooth fairy every time a child loses a tooth, and I was pretty sure I had enough pages in the journey to cover this: but I wasn’t prepared for how many teeth Gali would lose on the trip. As a result of the pages that were donated to the tooth fairy, the paper ran out before the end of the trip. So, the last week of our adventure is missing from the journal. I never did fill in the blanks. the journal remains unfinished. 

The writing process:

It took me a while. At first, I spoke to an editor of a major newspaper In Israel, and he was prepared to pay a lot of money for the story. 

I really tried. I needed the money. But I had to process all the emotions that flooded me every time I started to approach the story. I couldn’t do it, so, I tried a different approach and drafted a funny story about the whole thing.  

It was good. But I knew I couldn’t publish it: it was too personal.  

I had known the editor – a highly influential figure in the media – since I was 18 years old and carrying out my military service as a reporter on Israel’s military defense magazine.  He was news editor of Israel’s biggest daily newspaper at the time, and an excellent contact to have. I didn’t want to let him down.  Eventually, he suggested a compromise: I would write a more general article about my life decisions and what made me leave everything and pursue my dreams. I was lucky (I got paid very generously 😊), but the story about Mongolia had to come out one way or another. 

Three years ago, I was finally ready to tell my story. I opened the journal and all the smells, sights, tastes and feelings burst out from the pages, filling me with a mix of nostalgia, sadness, and joy.   

Being a single mother and a traveler, I didn’t have much time to write during the day, so I wrote my story at nighttime, in many different placesI finished working on it at the beginning of 2020 and asked a good friend to be my editor, and another friend to do the proofreading. From the beginning, It was important to me that everyone involved with this book should mean something to me. I wanted to create it surrounded with love and friendship. 

(Even though I don’t see myself as a hippie, I think I can understand why my kids keep calling me that….) 

The cover :

I met Josie at a small local restaurant on a cold and rainy day in Leh, Ladakh. She is Lebanese and I am a Jew from Israel but despite (and maybe because of) this fact, I immediately felt warm feelings towards her. We grew up carrying the same battles inside us. 

We became close friends very quickly; she is the kind of woman who makes your heart just open to her straight away. Since she is a talented graphic designer and illustrator, I asked her if she could create an illustration for the cover.  

She created the image, inspired by a photo that Roni took, capturing a precious moment in Mongolia. She refused to take money for it, she did it with an open heart and hand and would not even talk of payment.  

The book was published in Hebrew in March 2020. 

The translation :

Translating the book from Hebrew took a lot of work, but Lucy was very engaged and committed no matter what.  

Lucy and I had worked as a team for a few years already, I call her “my English voice”, because she manages to understand the meaning behind my broken English and keep it both alive and grammatically correct.  

She is a great writer, and an amazing woman, so I felt lucky and grateful to team up with her.  

We translated the book by ourselves, which was a new and interesting experience for me.   

Is it a biographical story? 

Our journey in Mongolia was the inspiration for the story, and descriptions of the country and its landscapes are factual. Many of the scenes describes in the story did happen in real life, and many didn’t. I’ll leave you to decide for yourselves which are which 😊. 

If you wish to know how it all started- please follow this link..

2 Comments

  • PATRICIA Katherine ROGERS

    In 1980 I was on a tour of Russia, Mongolia and China. Tourism was just starting in all of these countries.
    We stayed in a yert in Mongolia…got to taste camel’s milk–fermented (yuch!), saw a race of Mongolian ponies….saw an ice bridge…saw where Gengis Khan came from. Think we had about a week there, before travelling on to four cities in China, and then on to Japan (staying there for a week with friends) before returning to Vancouver, BC…on the west coast of Canada.

    • Haleli

      Woww sounds like an amazing experience ! we did the opposite way- started with china and then crossed to Mongolia. You seem like a very adventurous person :-).
      Thank you for sharing your story with me.

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