4-3-2-1... Let's Go!

The Gobi Odyssey Continued...

On Day 4, our new driver, Lhagba, showed up and proceeded to, uninspiringly, get lost twice. He finally made his way to Khongoryn Els, the only sand dunes of the Mongolian Gobi, an otherwise rocky desert. In truth, one can't be blamed for getting lost in the desert, particularly after sunset - there is no light and absolutely no landmarks by which to guide oneself, save for the occasional nomad's ger, and being nomads they keep moving the damn things.

We spent the next morning climbing the sand dunes and rolling back down them, getting sand in every crack and crevice. The sun was out and the temperature around 18 degrees. It was the rest day of our trip and we spent the morning doing exactly that.

A proud Mongolian girl and her ger.

We all then took a 2-hour camel ride, walking along the base of the dunes, powered forward by the non-stop flatulence of the woolly beasts. The camels were well trained and easy to ride, at least at a slow pace, though their humps were unexpectedly flaccid which made hanging on to them take some getting used to. It was a gentle ride, ended abruptly by a fierce wind bringing a chill over the desert. When we began the ride, it had been about 18 degrees; when we got back it was literally one majillion times colder. In truth, as the unhindered gusts cut through us, the wind chill probably dropped the temperature to about 10 degrees below zero. With a 30 degree drop in 2 hours and our skin turning blue, we went back to the ger. That was just before the blizzard hit.

The night was blisteringly cold after the fire went out and with snow sliding in through the semi-open roof, bodies smashed together to gain a feeling of warmth which forever escaped us. The cold in the morning was painful, so much so that sleep became nearly impossible. We got up early and jumped into the van where we were driven to a majestic canyon that, as soon as we arrived, disappeared into another blizzard. We spent another frozen night at a nearby ger, and again, sleep and warmth evaded us throughout the night.

Day 7 was when things began to really turn. In the morning, our driver bounced our van jauntily through the snowy countryside, rollicking happily over dips and bumps and ridges until WHAM!, we hit a pothole obscured by snow, hit it so hard that our heads smashed into the roof, hit it so hard that we began to damage the van. After close inspection it turned out that we had busted the transmission and lost the reverse gear completely. We soldiered on. Until we smashed into another pothole.

After this collision we had a flat tire, so Lhagba took out our spare, replaced it and kept on driving. Until we smashed into another pothole. The heavy snow had blocked all views of what had been a terrible road to begin with and Lhagba was at a loss as to which route to take. We kept on going for another 100 metres until we drove into a 2-foot deep snowbank.

We spent an hour digging us out of snow and mud until finally getting free and continuing on our at-this-point-still-merry way. Spirits were high as we laughed and giggled and sang and chatted and drove into another massive snowbank. Another hour of digging and we were out and moving again. At least until we drove into another snowbank. By this point spirits were no longer so merry, save for Rob and I who played curling on the densely packed snow (you can take the boys out of Canada...) Without the help of reverse to get us out of the snowbanks, the digging became more and more difficult.

A crash and our surroundings... in every direction.

Eventually we sent members of our group walking ahead, dipping their legs into snowdrifts to check for depth as our van patroled back and forth along the deep snow banks, searching for some chink in its armour, like some giant, potentially perilous game of British Bulldog. Over the next hour we made it 5 onerous kilometres before running into another snowdrift. This one gave us a flat tire. Again. With our spare already used.

With the sun now down and the temperature around 15 below, our driver set to trying to mend our latest flat. After a day in the snow, our clothes were wet, our feet were numb and serious problems had become a serious possibility.

So, at this point, at checklist of our day:

4 snowbanks (driven into)
3 potholes
2 flat tires
1 busted transmission (no reverse)
0 means of locating anyone to help us

We were incredibly fortunate to have crashed near a couple of gers. The nomads living there came out, helped us fix our tire, at least enough to get our van to their gers where they not only let us sleep but fed us. The hospitality of the Mongolians was impressive before this moment, saintly afterwards.

I got up early the next morning and found Lhagba at work, fixing the punctures in our tires with twigs. This was hardly inspirational stuff. But, after a 5 hour lesson in neccessity-is-the-mother-of-invention mechanics, he got us on the road and moving. We explained to Lhagba that we no longer needed to follow the original tour, that we just wanted the easiest way back to Ulaan Baatar. He sighed something in Mongolian that I think I can fairly assume translated into "Thank Fucking God."

The roads were still in dire shape and the snow was still a jeopardy we had to contend with. Mongolian roads loop and wind and criss-cross willy nilly at the best of times, but in trying to find us the safest route, Lhagba took hours circling, u-turning and edging forwards metres at a time. It was a classical mathematical lesson in the difference between distance and displacement: Six hours of non-stop driving got us about 60 km from where we started. Even at good points, the roads here seem to bend aimlessly - the Mongolians also believe the best route is directly from A to B, it just so happens that their alphabet has eleven letters in between.

Incredibly, the day went without a hitch and we were so ecstatic to end it without a crash that we stopped at a roadside restaurant and got trashed on Mongolian vodka. It was at this point that our tee-total driver started to discuss with me the next day's journey. He kept pointing out 4 words in his phrasebook in a repeating cycle, over and over so I would understand: "Tomorrow", "Cold", "Dangerous" and "Road Accident". I drank more.

I sat and watched the sunset, which has to be the highlight of any trip to the Gobi. With a million acres between you and the horizon and not another object to block your view, you are treated to thin ribbons of pastel gently colouring the sky as the sun dips down. Pinks, peaches and magentas lay atop one another as a wave of dark blue starts in the east and slowly creeps westward, gently nudging the candy-coloured hues towards their final descent in the west. It was just too bad that we had to dread the sunsets due to the frightening cold that accompanied them.

The last three days we trundled on with only one more breakdown, taking 72 hours to make the last 500 kilometres of the journey. We missed out on some supposedly exquisite monasteries and a chain of holy waterfalls but, sadly, horribly, masochistically, I would rather have had this journey that we had. I had an amazing time, one I for sure will not forget. Not that I am not glad to be back and warm and washed in Ulaan Baatar, mind you. Thank fucking God.