Is isolation a state of mind?

Is isolation a state of mind?

I was looking at a beautiful photograph hanging on a dreamer’s wall, of a destination she hasn’t visited yet, but will get to. The photo is of a ger in the middle of the Mongolian steppe, surrounded by utilities of life and family… the dog, clothes drying, work tools. Treeless to the horizon, no neighbours, not a soul around beyond the resilient souls contained in that self-sufficient family unit sheltered by the ger. It instantly brought reflection on their isolation from anything outside their immediacy. And how I/we have felt isolated particularly socially during COVID-19 restrictions. I asked myself the question, is isolation a state of mind?


“Pass me the airag!”


Even as the bright lights of the city draw people off the harsh land, around a million Mongolian live as nomadic herders. These nomads move across the country living solely off products of the domesticated animals they herd – cattle, horses, yaks, sheep, goats, camel. Family life centres around the ger – large portable tents made of felt, plastic tarp, and wooden slats that can protect against temperatures of down to -40°C on a Winter’s night (and up to 40°C on a Summer’s day). These days they sport solar panels to run the television or radio.

Around the fire in the ger’s centre, families cook and eat, and even get pissed on Mongolia’s national drink, airag. Get this… it’s a yeasty fermented mare’s milk with added salt… sounds delicious.


ТикТок гэж юу вэ?

There is essentially zero coverage for surfing the web (do people still say that?!). No Netflix to stream, no body shape comparisons to make on Instagram, no check-ins to envy on Facebook. What the hell is TikTok? The nearest Starbucks Coffee is in Kazakhstan just over 2,000kms away. Fortunately Mongolians mainly drink tea. Truly isolated, right?

Despite not having the 24hr coverage we are complicit in, the Mongolian nomads have what they need, including satisfying needs for interaction. The family unit works hard, and never has escape from each other. Together, the immediate family protects against isolation. And isolation, funny enough, is what Mongolians fear most. It’s said that true wealth on the Mongolian steppe isn’t finance or real estate (of which they don’t have any need), it’s social.

Versus us

Cultural differences aside, we are programmed to need more from interactions beyond our immediate family. We have social and economic pressures, alongside the ones we put on ourselves, that pile as high as a couple gers stacked. But this doesn’t mean we can’t learn from the nomads.

This socially unique time has been a rollercoaster. We loved the break from being social creatures. We could stay in our pyjamas all day, spend more time with the kids. Then we missed the recharge stations: the gym, pub, park, extended family. We found increased stresses from work, from media, from the inability to have variety in surrounds. We learnt about allostatic load. And now, on the way back around, we appreciate what we have in our immediacy… family, a roof, a renewed sense of community spirit and humanity, and hope. These things, the Mongolia nomads have had in spades.

Step outside your ger

It’s vital to look out for yourself during such weird times, and those around you. Make sure you are checking in on your friends and family, as they may be feeling the effects of isolation too. Is isolation a state of mind? When those feelings tap you on the shoulder, take a step outside your ger, turn around and think of what you do have right in front of you… family, the technology to connect, and a roof without a circular hole in it.


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