What does “luxury” mean? I thought I knew.
Four nights into our stay with Mongolian nomads, our guide asked us if we’d like to take an overnight trip to the ancient capital, Kharkhorum. This would involve an overnight stay at a hotel, he explained. Stop! Say no more… sign us up! Five days in the wilderness without running water aka no shower, no toilet facilities, mutton for breakfast, lunch and dinner… well, it was a no-brainer quite frankly.
We could barely contain our excitement on the drive up. Being an artist and a history nerd, before we set off on our adventure, this visit would have been the highlight of the trip. However, suddenly all we could talk about was how good the shower was going to feel, and what we’d eat in the hotel restaurant. The fantasies of warm water, clean sheets and fresh vegetables made us frenzied with excitement.
As we drew closer to our destination, our guide took a call from the hotel we were staying in. They had a luxury suite. It was a bit more expensive, he added apologetically and asked if we wanted it. Without hesitation, we looked at each other and nodded enthusiastically, eyes gleaming. Perhaps they’d have a jacuzzi? A plunge pool? Certainly a hairdryer, and undoubtedly some luxury truffles lovingly placed on our pillows to greet us. We were almost beside ourselves as we pulled up in front of the hotel.
It was immediately obvious, upon getting out of the car and looking up at a Soviet-style featureless concrete block, that our dreams of a jacuzzi bath and pillow chocolates may have been a little ambitious. Unperturbed, however, we raced in to look for our “luxury suite”. As we ran up the stairs, I glimpsed the price list on which I fleetingly noticed our suite (the only one) was HK$240/night. I spend more than that on a steak I thought, embarrassed.
So, on the surface, we’d got what we wanted. A room where the temperature was stable, and we could wear normal clothes, a real toilet, running water and a shower, a big bed each with clean sheets and towels. Best of all, we had wifi access. I wasted no time in turning on my iPhone. As painful as it is to admit, whilst waiting for my Whatsapp messages and emails to download, the first thing I did was log onto Daily Mail Online to “catch up on the news” (a.k.a. see what the Kardashians had been up to the week I’d been absent). Unsurprisingly, the “luxury suite” turned out to be not quite the stuff of our fantasies, but nothing would dampen our spirits.
Dinnertime was upon us and I managed to drag myself away from my Facebook feed to go downstairs where our guide announced he’d arranged us a special treat. The (self-titled) best Mongolian Throat Singer (please search for this on YouTube – it needs to be seen to be believed) was going to give us a private concert over dinner. It turned out to be an unique experience which had Alexandra giggling and me overcompensating by applauding wildly, topped off by a dubious take on the Western food we’d been craving. Suddenly, we were hankering for some of our nomadic hostess’s mutton dumplings.
As I lay in my much-longed-for bed, after the least effectual shower of our lives (something wrong with the pipes, apparently, and the boiler…), I starting musing about what we define as luxury. It dawned on me that luxury wasn’t what I’d thought it was. In fact, we’d actually left the most luxurious situation imaginable to fulfil a wish to sit on a toilet seat and have clean hair.
Luxury wasn’t having a radiator in our room, it was having the kindest, most hospitable hosts who would come into our ger at midnight and 5.30am to add extra fuel to our stove so we wouldn’t be cold under our sleeping bags. Luxury wasn’t having constant wifi access, it was having a week of being tech-less where our minds weren’t cluttered by mindless celebrity drivel and the constant Whatsapp chatter relentlessly vibrating in our pocket, no work emails to stress us out and time to be completely present. Luxury wasn’t having a private performance, and VIP treatment (making us feel entitled, foreign and awkward), it was being welcomed into a family, having the privilege of working alongside them, and learning about their lives. Luxury wasn’t the toilet seat we’d been dreaming of, it was walking out at dusk to “answer the call of nature” in the vastness of the Mongolian heartland whilst gazing up at the stars we so seldom see in Hong Kong.
It was a poignant recalibration for me. I recalled fondly that our nomadic hostess had tucked both of us in to bed every night as if we were her children. Drawing the covers all around us and making sure there were no gaps where draughts could chill us. As I stared at the bathroom tiles, I marvelled that I missed going to the toilet out in the wilderness, something I’d baulked at on our arrival. It is staggering how much a place can move you in so little time. The traffic outside was such a contrast to the silence we’d so quickly taken for granted, and I longed for nothing but the sound of crackling wood burning on the stove.
It was a fitting end to our trip as we returned to our hosts one last time before our journey back to Ulanbataar. Having gained perspective on the overnight stay in Kharkhorum, we felt so grateful to be able to have another chance to further appreciate what we had experienced on our adventure. Luxury, I concluded, is nothing physical, but how something makes you feel. Thank you, Mongolia, for reminding me of that.
Claire travelled with Panoramic Journeys who offer luxury bespoke adventures in Mongolia, Bhutan and Myanmar.