Travel Writing Competition 2019: meet the runners-up

From hundreds of entries, we whittled it down to just three. From Mongolia to Japan, be inspired by tales from the runners-up from this year's competition.

By National Geographic Traveller (UK)
Published 3 Sept 2019, 13:01 BST
Geishas in Kyoto.
Geisha in Kyoto.
Photograph by Getty Images

Earlier this year, we invited you to submit your travel writing to our prestigious annual awards. Up for grabs was the chance to see your name in print and win a fabulous trip to Southern Africa, courtesy of G Adventures. We received hundreds of entries, revealing some great untapped talent and unique travellers’ tales. After much deliberation, we whittled the entries down to three. Here, we reveal our runners-up, whose tales include a mysterious encounter with a geisha in Kyoto and an overnight stay in a Mongolian ger

Japan: the geisha's shadow

An encounter with a geisha in the Old Kyoto district of Gion provokes wonder... and more questions than answers. Words: Chloe Chioy.

The woman shuffles through the rain, her oil-paper umbrella barely shielding her elaborate hairstyle. The wood of her shoes clacks against the pavement. She begins to hum, the beautiful cacophony forcing me to shake loose my mother’s hand and follow her through the lantern-lit streets of Gion.  

I’m led to a wooden teahouse with black strips of fabric decorating the entrance. My mother catches up to me and we seek shelter under the baked-tile roof. 

A powdered white face greets us wordlessly and gestures to a private table. 

I sit facing a painting of woven animal hair depicting a nightingale: the messenger of song stands proud and awaits the promise of performance. 

The aroma of the tea set before me is a hard one to decipher — green tea with notes of ylang ylang or possibly chrysanthemum.  

I don’t know what etiquette to follow, so I nod in thanks. The hollow twang of a shamisen (a three-stringed instrument) summons a geisha’s shadow — given away by a single lantern — from behind a screen of paper fans. I reach for my mother’s hand.  

The beautiful woman clad in a brightly coloured kimono steps forward and gracefully sinks onto the layered tatami. She commands an air of mystery and femininity. Raising a billowing sleeve to her face, she parts her sugared lips in silent lament, revealing ink in her teeth, stark against the white of her nape. I’m transfixed. Perhaps she’s found a lover and they’re forbidden from being together. Perhaps her child has been snatched by the Shinigami (death spirits).  

Her hands are well versed in the art of performance. They form shapes that whisper of love and loss. She quickens the pace of the story with a flutter of her fan and the entrance of a high-pitched flute. Perhaps she’s running. The staccato rhythm intensifies as she arches her back and crosses her eyes. 

The dancing girl is still as the shamisen quiets. Two wooden boards clap, forcing her onto her knees. She meets my gaze, red-and-black-rimmed eyes proud and unwavering. 

“The rain didn’t last very long,” my mother comments as we slip on our shoes. “We should hurry before it pours again.” 

“Do you think she was reunited with her lover in the end?” I ask, as we hurry past the machiya (townhouses) and stop to admire the beauty of Shirakawa Canal. A soft moonlight glow bathes the white cherry blossoms as they dance on the gentle water below.  

“What lover?” my mother asks. “She was playing a man nurturing the dream of living in a better world.” 

I glance up to study the willow trees. Their branches flow elusively through the wind as if each one held its own story.  

Follow @chloechioy.

Gers on the snowy Mongolia steppe.
Photograph by Getty Images

Mongolia: goats & gers

A traditional Mongolian tent provides refuge in a storm for all but the furry members of the family. Words: Stephanie Turnbull.

Burning horse dung doesn’t smell as bad as you might think — a thought I’d never expected to ponder, I realise, as I watch our Mongolian host pour another bucket of hard droppings into the stove.  

I’m the unexpected guest of a typically hospitable nomadic family in Khövsgöl, a vast and rugged province in Northern Mongolia. The journey had been relentlessly thwarted by appalling spring weather: howling winds strengthened over hundreds of miles, snow storms that dumped drifts across roads. 

My guide and I had spent five hard hours spinning and sliding through knee-high powder in a draughty Russian van. Having spotted crystallised goats packed together, we prayed to every god that we’d also find the nomads they belonged to. Eventually, blessedly, the scuffed white of a traditional Mongolian ger emerged through the blizzard. Unexpected visitors in the midst of a snowstorm seemed not to phase the family inside in the slightest. We were swiftly ushered to the left of the ger — the visitors’ side — and told to sit on the narrow wooden bed, before being furnished with a bucket of boortsog (dough fried in mutton fat), aarul (rock-hard goat’s curd), and steaming bowls of salty milk tea.

Cheeks stinging from the shock of the heat charging out of the stove, we glow pink from chin to forehead. Warmth pulses from centre to circumference as flurries of snowflakes fall through a gap in the roof, hissing as they hit hot metal. 

Khövsgöl lies on the border of Russia, sharing the same somewhat chilly Siberian climate. It habitually hits -50C in January, for which nomads are typically prepared. But snowstorms in spring are a particularly unwelcome surprise. The family, who migrate each season, have only recently moved here, and in between them offering us more tea, more bread, more sweets, there are rapid, agitated phone calls. More than 15 of their lambs have already died in the cold and 30 goats are lost in the blizzard. Several brothers, uncles and sons are out attempting to find them. 

The goat search team registers only the mildest surprise at our presence as they return. As the final man stoops through the door, he shakes his head. No luck, they tell us. They’ll try again in the morning.  

In the meantime, there’s always vodka. 

A jar of clear, slightly viscous liquor, distilled from fermented tarag (a type of yoghurt), is conjured from a locked cabinet. A single glass is passed between each of us and repeatedly returned to be refilled. There’s no sign of abating. A pack of cards is produced and dealt for durak, a game known across Mongolia that’s played with much strategy, patience, and vigorous throwing down of cards. I lose dismally; it must have been the vodka.  

We eat a dinner of dried meat and handmade noodles before rolling out blankets — custom dictating that our feet face the door. Crocodile clips are removed from a car battery and the light flickers off. Only firelight remains, picking out the ger’s central struts in gold; the last few snowflakes drift lazily down between them.

Published in the October 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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