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Best Job Ever: Living With Mongolian Nomads

What’s it like to live among Mongolian nomads when you’ve spent most of your life in New York City? As host of the National Geographic Channel show Bridge the Gap: Mongolia, Chris Bashinelli in on a quest to find out. During his one-month, thousand-mile journey across Mongolia, the National Geographic grantee hoped to learn how nomadic culture is adapting to an ever changing and modernizing world. “Mongolia is one of the oldest, if not the older, nomadic cultures on Earth. The idea of a nomad is changing by the minute and might be completely different in ten or twenty years from now, if it even still exists,” he says.

Bashinelli also sought to immerse himself in a culture he believed to be fiercely community-oriented, as he sees his own culture becoming more and more plugged-in, which makes it easier to isolate oneself inside what he calls a “technology bubble.” Bashinelli elaborates: “Technology has done wonders for us, but it’s a double-edged sword. It is very easy for us to become completely absorbed in our own world. The average human being looks at their phone more than a 150 times a day. It’s easy to be disconnected from other human beings. I had this idea that in Mongolia, that just in the way that society is structured, it brings out some really wonderful qualities in the human spirit. People are, in a way, forced to work together to survive.”

Upon his arrival in Mongolia, Bashinelli’s hosts spared no time introducing him to the arduous and physical work that a nomadic lifestyle necessitates, leaving Bashinelli with little doubt that he’s hardly cut out for nomadic living in the long term. But just what constitutes difficult work is all a matter of perspective, as Bashinelli soon realized.

“A moment that stuck out to me very strongly was when I was working with a nomad named Nara. We were cleaning cow dung, and Nara asked what I do. I said, ‘I travel, I make films, I explore, but I actually sit in front of a computer for maybe six or seven hours a day.’ Nara’s like, ‘Wow, that’s hard work. I could never do that.'”

Bashinelli continues, “Meanwhile, we had gotten up at seven in the morning and were working until sundown. People work incredibly hard, but I don’t even think they would define it in those terms as hard or difficult. It was just life.”

In fact, after their long hours of physical labor, many nomads engage in yet another physically trying activity: traditional Mongolian wrestling. True to his goal of throwing himself into the culture, Bashinelli also threw himself into the wrestling ring, against an opponent aptly nicknamed “the elephant,” no less.

Chris Bashinelli Mongolian wrestling
Chris Bashinelli faces off with his Mongolian wrestling coach.

“I was horrified. I was contemplating walking away and how that would look. But needless to say the other wrestlers took it easy on me, because if they hadn’t, I would have had limbs spread all across the room,” Bashinelli recalls.

As memorable as fighting a 300-pound, highly trained Mongolian wrestler may be, what Bashinelli remembers most are the conversations he had after the match with his wrestling trainer, Esay. “The most magical part about the wrestling, what made it special, was that at the end of that whole day, I had this man speaking to me in Mongolian and sharing his philosophies of life. And in the midst of all of his words, I heard him say ‘Bruce Lee.’ I was shocked because I am a huge Bruce Lee fan—I study Bruce Lee’s philosophies almost every day. When Esay came at me with a line from Bruce Lee, saying, ‘The first victory that we must achieve is victory over ourselves,’ I was shocked, realizing that here I am, born maybe 10,000 miles away from this person, and we have a mutual connection. That is the humanity that bridged the gap.”

One of the nomadic children Chris Bashinelli got to know during his travels.
A young member of the nomadic tribe with whom Chris Bashinelli lived.

While Bashinelli enjoys sharing those unexpected gems of commonality with someone from across the globe, he doesn’t want to understate just how beautiful the vast differences between cultures can be; he just wants to make an effort to better understand those differences. “Every challenge that we face as a global society comes from one thing in my opinion, which is a lack of compassion. The easiest way to increase compassion for different people and different cultures is to understand what it’s like to walk in their shoes. My goal in traveling to Mongolia—in traveling everywhere that I do—is to get just a glimpse into their experience.”

To share in that glimpse, check out the video. To see another one of Bashinelli’s humbling experiences in Mongolia, watch his earnest yet hilariously unproductive attempt to milk a cow. Learn more about Bashinelli’s other work on his website.

Be sure to check out the entire Best Job Ever series.