Mind blowing Mongolia

22 July 2008

OK, so you cannot cut it much finer than this. We’re standing at Cathay pacific’s Business Class check-in desk with four ground hostesses in a complete flap. It is 10 minutes before take-off, our luggage has still not been booked onto the aircraft and somewhere at Jozi airport is some dick-brained courier employee with our passports. These have been flown from the Mongolian embassy in the UK during the night and without them we are, quite bluntly put, utterly fucked.

To make a long story short, the delivery man saunters in with seconds to spare, and the impeccably mannered Cathy staff hurry us past surly as hell SA immigrations officials and onto our jumbo headed for Hong Kong. What a contrast; the cabin staff cannot do enough, while the immigration bitch snorted back phlegm while viciously stamping our passports, all the while muttering and glaring accusingly at us for daring to be late.

There’s nothing quite as rewarding as flying business class with a premium Asian carrier, especially if you know you have a good 40 hours of air travel and airports looming large in your immediate future. I started off at 6 am this morning, connecting from Cape Town to Jozi and from Hong Kong we’re headed via Peking and Ulaanbaatar into the Gobi Desert on a charter flight. Which makes the champagne, gorgeous food and encyclopedic in-flight entertainment all the more welcoming.

The trip is another one of those Omigod Land Rover missions. They have without a shadow of a doubt become my favourite client, but this time Lesley and the rest of her team has blown me away. Our destination – Mongolia. Our mission – to recce next year’s Land Rover G4 Challenge route through the mindfuck vastness that is the Gobi Desert. Bactrian camels, ibex antelope and, of course, the argali (wild sheep) and takhi (wild desert horse) inhabit the arid steppe making up most of the Gobi Desert. Snow leopard roam the inhospitable peaks, and famous dinosaur discoveries include an intact nest of eggs of the gigantic allosaurus.

Mongolia is a rare find upon a planet which succumbs more and more to the bland creep of the so-called global village. The country has, after decades of colonial-style rule by both Russia and China, once again attained its independence. Those heady days of an all-powerful Mongol emperor under the merciless Genghis Khan and his sun Kublai Khan may be no more, but the country undeniably remains as one of Asia’s last untouched adventure destinations. Traveling into the interior, even today, feels like entering another universe, a place where time and tradition seem to rewind a thousand years.

I’ve not been to Mongolia before, but everything I’ve read seems off the scale. It is a huge- land-locked country (the 7th largest in the world at nearly 1.6 million square kms). A mere 2.7 million people, more than half of them in cities, inhabit 21 Aimags or Provinces, ruled from the modern capital city of Ulaanbaatar. Khalkha Mongol is the official language and most of the population practice Tibetan Buddhism. The economy is traditionally based on agriculture, with coal and copper mining contributing much needed revenues. And so far, that is the full extent of my internet research.
But we have a number of obstacles we need to cope with before reaching our destination and the first of them rears its ugly head as early as Hong Kong. I rush through the check-in at Dragon Air, hoping to sneak into one of the airport camera stores where you can save around 20% on SA prices. It doesn’t take long to snap up a new 40D and I hotfoot it to the plane to make it just in time before the gates close. The flight to Beijing should take in the region of 4 hours, but I’m just about to settle into my comfort zone when one of the ground staff members comes and grabs me.
Apparently Les, Astrid and the video team (Deon and Paul) did not make the flight and I have to bloody disembark. Dragon Air has decided we wont have enough time to make our connecting flight onwards to Ulaanbaatar and therefore won’t let us board. After harassing various harassed-looking locals, we finally sort out a new flight schedule and depart to the B-class lounge for a few well-deserved treats.

Plan now will be to fly to Beijing around 3 pm, which means we won’t get to Ulaanbaatar before midnight. Should be interesting.
We get to Beijing without any further eventualities, and by God, what a dump it is. Maybe this is unfair comment, but after the beauty of Hong Kong’s hilly islands and the overflowing bounty of its Business class Lounge, this monstrous Olympic city is dead in the water. Smog hangs loke a veritable veil across the juggernaut architecture of the sprawling airport buildings, and your eyes and throat start burning within minutes of landing.

The Business Travel Lodge is all Jurassic furniture in drab shades of brown, reminiscent of a Breshnev era hospital waiting room. And the comestible pickings are scarce – stale crackers, gritty peanuts and school hostel coffee. The one redeeming feature is a half bottle of Johnny Black, of which we are forced to partake for medicinal purposes, of course. Things do not improve much when we board; a torrential downpour forces a delay of nearly two hours, which I use constructively to better acquaint myself with Mongolia’s rather intimidating Chinggis Khan vodka.

I know I sound spoilt, and I don’t mind taking the punch for this. I mean, is it weird how you allow your mind and body to adjust to the status quo, so yea, I got sucked into the temporary good life and now that my creature comforts are disappearing, I’m being bitchy. But we have been traveling for nearly 48 hours, so there are extenuating circumstances. And also, once we get to Mongolia itself, I so know that that real and robust sense of adventure will totally kick in.

The in-flight mag for our Mongolian Airlines flight is something else; all tourism propaganda and lyrical hyperbole mixed in with a down-to-earth ability to absolutely murder the English language. Lost in Cyrillic translation, I suppose. One paragraph on the Gobi Desert really bears capturing, if only for historic purposes. “Gobi is a land of dancing mirage. Gobi mirage amazes anyone who has never seen it, as everything , including Ger (traditional dwelling of Mongolians); specially coloured objects appear to be extremely bigger and unusual on limitless, grassy plains.” Now I do not think that even Borat could have put it better than that.

And Ulaanbaatar, I wonder. What will it be like to arrive in this end-of-the-earth city during the witching hour? By all accounts, the capital is no longer the “ger town” which sprang up around the monastery complex built for Zanabazar, son of the powerful Tüsheet Khan Gombodorj, in 1639. The Buddhist monastery became the foundation for his first Urgoo or palace, and over the centuries has become Mongolia’s cultural, economic and political nerve centre. Situated on the banks of the Tuul River, Ulaanbaatar translates to “Red Hero” and now boasts a population of just on a million people.

23 June 2008

First night in Ulaanbaatar. Frankly, my dear, I cannot remember a bloody thing, except that the hotel room was great after being in transit for 2 days. Took a good couple of hours to sort out desert gear, charge batteries and download pix, and by the time I eventually hit the sack I had approximately 2 hours of shuteye before having to head back to Chinngis Khaan Airport for our charter flight to Gobi Desert Airport. Two cups of supercharged Mongolian coffee cleared some of the cobwebs, but I’m afraid it is going to be a bloody long day. Long, but beautiful. It takes us mere minutes to shake the human footprint and trundle onto the millions of miles of back-country tracks. This, in fact, is a total lie, which shows how jet-lagged I am. The real story, thinking back, is that we boarded a charter flight to a town with the intimidating name of Bayanhongor. And it was from here that we rolled onto the unmapped network of jeep tracks.

Mongolia is huge. No, it is actually fuck-me-massive. I mean, France will fit into it three times, but you cannot actually imagine it until you are let loose on the plains in a puny Tangiers Orange Landy. Not that these vehicles are puny, but even Kamaz trucks appear as mere dots here on the steppes. I travel in one of the Freelanders with Deon and John, the G4 guy in charge of the recce here in Mongolia, and the landscape is just phenomenal. Stratified rock outcrops, massive boulders bedecked in neon-green lichen and grassy plains wall-to-walled from horizon to horizon.
We reach the ger camp mid-afternoonish and take an hour to unload our kit and get or bearings. There are five gers, and Deon, Paul and myself squeeze into our home from home. These traditional Mongolian dwellings are basically the size of a large rondawel, with a waterproof material and horse-hair felt insulation stretched over a gaily painted wooden frame. Pink chintz drapes the inside walls, a long-chimney wood stove merrily burns away in the centre of the ger, and ornate orange and pink furniture grace the interior. It is an absolutely perfect abode for the harsh northern hemisphere climate and the pillows, sheets and fluffy duvet bode well for the evening.
But first off, I want to get in a mountain bike ride, so I get one of the G4 Challenge steeds from John and persuade some of the others to head out into the wide sky country unfolding in every direction. Very soon, Les, myself and Simone (one of the Italian photographers) are bombing along the sandy track following the river. We turn left up a narrow valley to where a scattering of craggy peaks shoot skyward from the undulating steppes. The video team joins us in their vehicles and for the rest of the afternoon we ride and whoop and shoot to our hearts’ content. On the way back, a herd of horses breaks from a hidden arroyo, galloping at full speed just ahead of us. It is as if we slipstream along in their dust-cloud, the hammering of their hooves blending with the beating of my heart as we pound along head to head.
With the sun only setting just before 10 pm, I finish supper early to buy a couple of hours of magical light down at the small river below camp. The horse herd from earlier is grazing along the river and I revel in their tranquility as I try to grab the perfect image. For nearly an hour I watch and shoot as the mares and foals nuzzle each other and the stallions engage in mock battles.

A late evening hike to the top of one of the surrounding peaks allows us a sumptuous view of the setting sun, and we all sit quietly as it oozes slowly over the western horizon. Our first day in Mongolia ends with a warm outside shower and then I slip into bed to dream contentedly of Mongolian princesses.

25 June 2008

A beautiful night, but I wake up with a splitting headache and a body feeling as if I have been trampled by wild horses. Shit, this sucks. Can’t be altitude, because we’re only 2000 metres up and nothing to do but soldier on. We head from camp into the surreal crags where I mountain biked the day before and work at setting up some convoy shots with the vehicles. There are eight now – four Defenders, two Discoveries and two Freelanders. Chris, the PR and events manager from the UK, and I take one of the Freelanders and I have to admit this so-called “pavement 4×4” really blows me away. Its short wheel base and aggressive approach angles make mince-meat of the dry gullies and riverbed crossings. The only shortcoming is the low ground clearance and in an effort to avoid the central island and rocks taking out the transmission. (Thank God for the sturdy protection plates.)

So we drive. And drive. And drive some more. The plains certainly are, in the words of the Mongolian Airlines Magazine, “limitless”. On one of these endless steppes we follow a telegraph line towards a distant snowcapped peak drilling over 4000 metres skywards. An hour and a half later we seem no closer to the jutting, angular slopes, so we barrel along under the big loom of the sky, spiderwebbing from track to track, following the lead of the GPS and Father, our perennially grinning Mongolian minder.

We lunch on Mongolian bread and gritty cheese on the banks of what the map shows as a lake but is now a shallow dust bowl. Then it’s back onto the plains, albeit a complete change of terrain. The rocks and sand and contoured scrub have made place for soft and undulating ridges, with short green grass bristling like astro-turf under the shimmer of grey clouds scudding in over the mountains. More gers mushroom up on the plains and it looks just about as suburban as Mongolia can get. Sort of a picture of pastoral bliss, with tethered horses, skulking dogs and inquisitive kids gathered in random Nomad abandon.

At one of these rural gers, a family is busy milking their goats, with about a hundred of these shifty-eyed, long-horned animals roped up on a long tether. All the female members of the family are doing duty with metal pails, squirting the rich foamy milk from the teats in sure, steady strokes. This is a more well-to-do family, with the younger girls decked out in knock-off Armani sunglasses a la Sophia Lauren. The day before, we had stopped off at a family shearing their sheep, with their tiny, half-naked kids running around in the dust amongst the hobbled sheep.

Our campsite for the night is right on the edge of a contained due left and we pitch our orange tents under a somber and threatening sky. With our accommodation for the evening sorted, we grab the sandboards and sledges and climb to the top of the dune to test these brand new G4 toys. The sledding is a whiz, but standing up on the boards proves to be much more of a challenge. The snowboarders wax it, as does Uggi, our translator, who apparently used to be a bit of a skateboarding whiz. We end the evening with boil-in-the-bag cuisine and the fine old South African straf-dop ritual. We flatten two bottles of Mongolia’s finest vodka in the process, but live to tell the tale.

26 June 2008

I wake up to a gentle shower of raindrops and lie in my sleeping bag listening to the pattering on the tent outside. It is just after 5 am so I stumble outside for a bottle-bath before doing the coffee thing. Still feeling like shit, but at least the ache seemed to have been blunted by a good sleep.

The light is gorgeous, soft-boxed by the low and overcast cloud, the plains are hued in muted purples, khaki and amber. I get the Landies to spread out and they charge down on the cameras like an avenging force, lights on and dust pluming from their wheels. It’s a great shot sequence and I’m glad to have it in the can, as the front is moving in fast behind us. Within a couple of hours the veiling showers have caught up to us and we’re enveloped in the eye of the storm as it strafes the Gobi plains.

The Freelander handles a treat though, responding like a terrier to rig ministrations as I dirtsurf the rough and rocky roads. We pass a herd of Bactrian camels and they look on dolefully as I sneak up close to get a photo. They’re strange beasts, all dewy-eyed stares and hairy humps in strange places, and two of the wander in close to take a look (or maybe try for a nibble on my lime-green CapeStorm fleece).

We stop to refuel in Bogd, a dustbowl collection of gers and dry-wall buildings oozing a mix of mad Max and pre-industrial revolution gangster character. Mongolian dudes on Russian motor bikes rattle and hum along the gravel main drag, a military jeep bedecked with campaign posters and a national flag solicit for votes; a tiny, half-naked toddler waddles forlornly onto the wasteland from a ramshackle shed and eyes my camera with wide-eyed innocence; a toothless old crone belligerently dares me to shoot her picture. About 500 metres away from the ancient fuel tanker, an archaic drill is sinking a borehole in a search for water, with acrid smoke leeching in sulphurous wheezes from its racketing generator. A man in a leather mask and one-flew-over-the-cuckoo’s-nest Ray Bans performs on-the-fly welding repairs, sparks and flames flying in unnerving abandon a few metres from a leaky fuel tank. It is all very gritty and very real and I cannot for the life of me think of any other place I’d rather be.

Hours (or was it weeks or eons or seconds?) later, we break out the quad kite on just another nameless plain and send it up to roar at the underbelly of the cirrus sky. I grab a turn and sweep it in great arcs across the blue expanse, feeling it ripping in and out of the wind window, every now and then defying gravity to bodily drag me off terra-firma.

The dune field and our next camp for the night loom into view, with angular peaks scraping viciously above a wide swathe of dunes, some towering a good couple of hundred metres high. We quickly pitch tents and binge on our boil-in-the-bag rations, and then tramp along the sweeping curve of one of the sand mountains. I’m lugging my camera and one of the sandboards and I’m intent on conquering this stand-up thing. My first run is absolutely awesome. I’m not going to try and pretend that I do not go arse over elbow, but I did get in a bit of a run and the sensation of whizzing down a 60 degree slope is great. Hiking back up with gritty teeth and sand up every orifice is less enjoyable, but there’s always the next run to look forward to.

A few more runs and I am as happy as Genghis on horseback, so I trade the sandboard for my camera and hike to one of the higher dunes. From here a sea of sculpted sand unfolds onto a plain the colour of lemon leaf with a jagged range of purple peaks beyond. The rest of the G4 recce team is now well below me, perched on the swooping arête of a dune with the red of the quad kite doing a whirligig in the sky above them.

The light changes from pale yellow to amber as the sun nudges ever closer to the horizon and I feel I could have fired off a thousand images without really capturing the full essence of the moment. The celestial lightshow plays itself out well after 9 pm and we cavort down the dunes like kids before settling down to demure vodka tasting and eventually bed.

27 June 2008

Nothing much to report so far. Did the morning “Norwegian” where you shit in a bag and neatly tie it up for packing it out and saving the planet, but not 100% anyone wanted to know about that. Too late now, I suppose. Breakfast is the usual corn flakes with milk, bread and honey with a fine coating of sand and weak coffee with too much sugar. Man, they should bring a proper espresso maker on these trips …..

We pass through Big Ger/Little Ger country and stop for morning coffee near a lone and rather raggedy looking dwelling. Nearby, four baby Bactrian camels are tethered to a stake and they watch warily as I approach to take photos. The one nearest lets fly with a gurgling bleat and a young Mongolian boy pops out of the distant ger and legs it over to me. With a furtive greeting he starts untying the camel calves (or foals, or something?), smiling shyly as I take a few more pix.

The ger looks like an interesting diversion, so I run the gauntlet of snarling curs. I call out my best Mongolian greeting at the front door and wait to be invited inside by the lady of the house (or ger, in this case). I obviously make the grade and am invited inside. The interior of the ger, although in structure the same as ours at the ger camp, is a complete reality check as to the harshness of life beyond the G4 Challenge here in Mongolia.

The woman indicates that I should sit down on a low bed covered in a threadbare woven cloth, and then busies herself rattling around some pots and pans. As in most gers, there are four beds arranged around the walls, but in this case these are rough planks with lumpy mattresses. Gaily painted cupboards brighten up the ger and a blackened wood stove smolders in the centre of the one-roomed dwelling. A small altar with a tiny Buddha is surrounded by treasured objects including tiny silver bells, a gilded mirror and ornamental frames with family portraits.

An old lady sits on a bed on the opposite side of the ger, keening softly while fiddling with folds of skin hanging from under her chin. The young boy rushes in and, after an animated conversation with his mum, zips out the low door again into the harshness of the sun outside. I mime whether it would be okay to take some photos, and shoot a few images of the dimly lit interior, with the watery blue eyes of the old granny following my every step.

Just as I am about to take my leave, I am told to sit down on one of the beds again. The woman holds out two bowls to me, one with breadsticks and the other with what I assume to be cheese. I take one of the rectangular blocks, approximately half the size of a cigarette packet, and sort of yellowing grey. The aroma is a dead give-away – it has to be fermented milk, but as far as I know, it could be goat, sheep, camel or mare’s milk. But the source is largely irrelevant, as I do not think it would make much difference to the taste, which is probably similar to what would happen if you left a lump of feta out in the Gobi sun for two weeks. The sour, gritty taste, although overpowering, is not impalatable, but I cannot see it on sale at your local fromagerie any time soon.

I get my iPod and plug it into the Land Rover’s stereo system, but cannot find a soundtrack to do justice to these amazing plains. Maybe I can get a CD when I return to UB; I read that the lead guitarist for a local band called Haranga got busted for drugs a week ago, so his music might be suitably mind-altering. Part of the reason I’m missing music (and feeling maybe just a smidgen agoraphobic) is that Chris and I have transferred into one of the Discovery vehicles and all of a sudden there is not much driving skill required.

With their increased ground clearance, hill descent mode and dynamic suspension, it feels as if I can nip into the back seat while the Disco merrily auto-pilots its way towards the horizon. Well, maybe not quite, but you know what I mean. We lunch above a stupa (not sure if this is what they call religious shrines here) set on an arid plain and surrounded by foundation ruins. According to Uggi, this used to be a Tibetan Buddhist monastery which was destroyed by the communists during Mongolia’s period as a Russian satellite.
After lunch, we convoy past the golden prayer wheels, navigating a riverbed snaking along a narrow and very craggy canyon. This side-winding gorge eventually spits us out at the main entrance to the Gobi national park, where we stop for half an hour to check out the museum (moth-eaten, stuffed animals, uproariously funny dinosaur murals, dinosaur bones and a rather evil-looking carving or two) and the souvenir shop (excellent Tweedledum skull caps, Mao-style dinner jackets, near life-size stuffed camel toys and a series of stamps, presumably done by the same artist responsible for the dinosaur murals in the museum.

Fortunately I do not have any Mongolian Tugriks in my wallet and therefore have to continue onwards without a silly hat. It is all good though, as we only have a few kays left to the final ger camp, and a much anticipated shower in Boris, the aptly named Russian ablutions truck.

28 June 2008

What an absolute pleasure last night was. Traditionally cooked lamb – buried under a fire in the sand – and couscous, with a dash of French plonk on the side, made for an excellent introduction to Ger Camp Z. Perched on the slopes overlooking Dalanzadgad, the view from the ger is all sky and steppe as far as the eye can see. We do breakfast al fresco, watching a lone Mongolian herder grazing his flock of fat-tailed sheep higher along the ridge.

There’s a bit of a gap before we have to head to the airport and John decides we should do a session on the mountain boards. These are the Schwarzeneggers of the skateboard world; broad decks with Velcro footstraps and fitted with inflatable wheels with super-aggressive tread. I give one of them a try on the gradual slope and find it surprisingly easy to keep my balance. Obviously the trick will be to maintain this equilibrium once you hit rocks and roots or other obstacles at high speed. John and Uggi do quite well though and I grab some action shots before we head off to the airport for the flight back to UB.

Ulaanbaatar is civilization, but not quite as we know it. The city has mushroomed during the past two decades due to rapid urbanization, partly because of the deadly cold snaps, or “dzuds” which killed tens of millions of livestock. This forced a massive proportion of rural farmers to relocate to the capital, and a veritable ger district has sprung up on the outskirts of the city. This, together with roughshod roads and no-holds-barred construction, gives downtown UB an edgy appeal. It may be seedy and downright ugly in places, but it is a damn exhilarating town.

We have lunch at a really good restaurant before attending a presentation by the Red Cross and then set off in search of jade, antique silver and fabulous Mongolian leather riding boots. The touristy little shops soon bore me though, so I sneak away from the group and follow my nose into the wild west streets of Mongolia’s capital. It is a visual feast and I shoot mostly in monochrome to capture the gritty harshness of life in UB, and it is really heart-rending to see the plight of hoards of dirt-poor street children. One can only but hope that Mongolia’s elected government will use their mineral wealth wisely, and that the economic situation will improve in the immediate future.

We try to get to a traditional Mongolian Barbeque for our evening meal, but somehow something got lost in translation. The restaurant we end up at is probably Mongolia’s equivalent of the Spur back home, glaringly lit with neon and with a total lack of character. But it is a really good bunch of people and the food is not bad at all. You basically choose your dishes from a selection of meats, vegetables, sauces and seasoning, and then watch while two dexterous chefs with vicious-looking swords stir-fry your food on a hot plate the size of a small heliport.

The Landies pick us up again at around 10 pm and we all decide to have a quick drink at the rooftop bar in our hotel. The interior is a bit 80s porn film, but the drinks are on the tab, and the locals are very friendly. I’m keen to hit the streets in search of some live music, but somehow the night slips away between one Chinggis Lager and the next. By the time I don’t get my act together, it is four o’clock in the morning and I’m rather rat-faced, I have to admit.

29 June 2008

Once again, I find myself with a hangover and 40 hours of flying stacked up over a four leg journey. All one can do is grin and bear it, I suppose. Fortunately I’ve been able to convince everyone to head to Naraan Tuur, or the Black market, in a last-ditch attempt to get my kick-ass Mongolian boots. This is the country’s biggest market and people literally travel from all over to buy and sell anything from antique jade and handmade silver to camels, knock-off DVDs, 50s sitcom furniture, bejeweled daggers, hand-carved chess sets and any other legal (and probably) illegal) item on the face of the earth.

I do manage to get my boots in the end, with Agu, one of the Mongolian drivers, acting as my intermediary and translator. We start off at around $90 but in the end I pay 70,000 Tugrik which works out to less than $60 US. They are knee-high, with turned up pointy toes and I feel like a gun-slinging leprechaun when I wear them. With my leftover Tugriks I also acquire an antique chess set and the retail therapy does wonders for my hangover. The rest of the party materialises from the chaos of Naraan Tuur and we board the fleet of orange Land Rovers to say goodbye to Ulaanbaatar. Not for the last time though, because neither hell nor high water will stop me from attending eh G4 Challenge here in 2009.