Ul Bhuuv: a traditional Mongolian cake made on special occasions 

Cantwell-Kelly: my surname, which can be shortened to CA from Cantwell and KE from Kelly, making us ‘The Cakes’. 

Therefore, when you put the Cakes in Mongolia, there’s only one way to name your adventure…

Reaching into my memories of our family adventure to Mongolia in 2019, they feel both extremely foreign but also totally familiar and warm. 

It was our last family holiday before covid-19 came on the scene. Even without the pandemic, it was a massive 3 years for me personally. Since then I’ve changed schools, left school, moved out, and finished my first year of uni. Looking back at our trip I see an innocent 16 year old version of me, with much of the nuance of travel still to understand and explore.

And yet, amongst all the change, so much of our adventure has been solidified in the chaos of the last few years. In particular, the importance of the time we spent together as a family stands out more poignantly to me now than ever before. Amongst ourselves we’ve often reflected on how grateful we are for the conversations and adventures that we shared in Mongolia. In the whirlwind of change which we’ve encountered since, those experiences hold steadfast in our core family memories as ones to cherish forever. 

I think I grew up a lot in Mongolia. I found a huge respect for the Mongolians’ seasonal way of life and their groundedness in themselves and their culture. Quite the opposite to the Westernised, conservative attitude towards emotions that I am used to, the Mongolian people are wholly real and unashamed to display their warmth, kindness and generosity. Over the course of two weeks, Baaska and Bharsa (our guides), our drivers, our horsemen and Atsa (our cook) all inspired us to form an honest, compassionate and intimately heart-felt relationship within both our family and our new Mongolian family, which included them.This rubbed off on all of us and unlocked a fresh layer of our family bond. Their strength of character helped me develop a much more holistic understanding not just of place, but of people. 

In contrast, when I watch the videos we took on our trip, I obviously didn’t grow up very quickly. If anything, our antics show that, as a family, we grew back down. Our mounting collection of inside jokes with each member of our Mongolian team became a relentless parade of quick wit and childish amusement. The cheerful playfulness of our Mongolian friends was contagious and Sam can attest to the ridiculousness of our endless joke cracking - though I like to think he enjoyed our frivolity and much as he was astonished by our incessant horsing around. 

A highlight of mine was seeing my parents so happy. Our usual family holidays consist of the customary last minute hostel-change, hangry arguments brought on by poor decision-making and only eating one trail mix split 5 ways, and at least one day where someone appears in a totally inappropriate outfit for the day’s activities. As the youngest and most blissfully uninvolved-in-planning member of the family, I never fully appreciated just how much planning goes into a holiday. 

However, in our two weeks travelling from the Gobi desert to the Naiman Nuur lakes, I saw my parents fully relax. Basking in the knowledge that our trusted guides were taking the lead, we were free to make the holiday our own and enjoy each other’s company without the stress of what comes next. Long car journeys made space for long conversations that we don’t have time to indulge in in the everyday hustle of home. I distinctly remember sitting on the layered rocks, which hide 30,000 year old rock paintings, as Bharsa explained that according to philosophy, we don’t exist. At our next destination, we belted out campfire songs which echoed off the walls of the Yolyn Am Valley, as we hunted for the infamous glacier which sits in the middle of the Gobi desert. From pondering the existence of the world to shouting “the other dayyyyy I met a bearrrrrrr” into the wilderness, our trip was a wonderful jumble of childish play and life lessons all wrapped into one. Perhaps my favourite part was that instead of telling me and my siblings off for our messing around, our parents actually joined in! A definite high moment of the holiday.

By far the most irreplaceable memory from my time in Mongolia was our final night in the nomadic home-stays. Our host was the mother of our cook, known as Grandmother to all the horsemen and our guide. In the shelter of her beautiful ger, she handed round a silver bowl filled to the brim with vodka distilled from yak cream. First handed to my dad, the head of the family by age, followed by each of us drinking from the refilled bowl in turn. The warmth, respect and closeness that I felt in Grandmother’s home was deeply touching and remarkably unimpeded by the language barrier, or the fact that we had only arrived a few hours before. 

That night, over a delicious traditional Mongolian feast of roasted goat and vegetables, we shared our thanks for those on the trip and songs from our respective homelands. It was difficult to choke out the words of the Irish ballad my brother, dad and I had chosen to share, because the tears were welling up as we sang. It was like a spell had filled the ger for our farewell evening. The companionship that we had built across the trip was so genuine and human, filling the air with love and friendship. It made that night a very moving experience that we have talked about many times since. 

At first I found it difficult to transport myself back into the memories from our trip. I was scared I wouldn’t be able to do our experience justice, rummaging through my journals and photos. I shouldn’t have worried. The adventure speaks for itself, not just through the landscapes which embraced us or the material memories we brought back home. For us, it lives on through the people we came to know and sharing those friendships with our family. I feel extremely lucky to have shared an adventure as important as this one with the people I hold closest to me and to be able to relive our giggles, our fondest moments, every high and low of the trip around our dinner table or over coffee. Here’s to many more family adventures to come.