Tripping The Light Fantastic
A cynic seeks to rediscover the art of wonder in the West Mongolian mountains.
It was early evening in the Chikhertai Valley when I found myself standing on a weathered buttress, cheering the sudden onset of clouds.
A fresh weather-front was barrelling in over the Altai massif, and now the clouds were pluming at the mountaintops, some of them wispy and translucent, others dark and penumbral, draping columns of rain. By now I understood what this foreshadowed. Soon, the cloud-cover would fracture the dusk light, and sunbeams would daub chiaroscuro patterns on the land, transmuting the grasslands into prairies of gold. Far away, on the valley floor, smoke spiralled from yurt chimneys; a pair of boy-herders chivvied their sheep alongside a stream. But these were pin-pricks of humanity on a floodplain big enough to swallow Manhattan. Up here, I felt certain, the only sentient beings sharing this vantage were the snow leopards padding unseen on the ridgelines, and the raptors wheeling in the sky.
If you had questioned me on the Heathrow tarmac about my reasons for visiting Western Mongolia, I’m not sure I’d have been able to answer without sounding absurdly gauzy or grandiose. It is probably too glib to say that I wanted to get as far away as possible from the city. A more convoluted explanation might be that I was seeking to restore my faith in the human condition. My true motive lay somewhere in between.
A couple of weeks before my trip, the world marked the fiftieth anniversary of the first Apollo moon landing. Archive footage of the event had shown pictures of ordinary people watching the live broadcast of it in their homes, eyes glistening at the sight of astronauts venturing onto another celestial sphere. I loved seeing that, the awe people exhibit in the face of the sublime. But I wasn’t sure I could identify the last time I’d experienced it, nor even whether it was still obtainable half a century later, when so much of the planet felt tamed or trashed, seemingly hell-bent on the same untenable trajectory.