> Notes from the dirt track

Gobi:
Not a tree in sight. Just infinite, rolling grasslands peopled by flitting birds, and the occasional field mouse scurrying for his burrow. Mountain ranges strung out, capped by rocky outcrops, but otherwise smooth, eroded down into undulating hills that finger down to the plains. Tufts of wild thyme, grasses and pockets of delicate white wildflowers, all laid out under an azure sky that bends the imagination. At night, stars glint bright. They arch over the sky to touch dark shadows of distant ranges.

Raleigh:
The daily routine of food fantasies, a kind of masochistic delight derived from thinking up dishes which they know they'll never taste - not for a while anyway.
The daily reality of porridge, with luxury jam on good days; cheesespread; corned beef; cans of tuna on dried biscuits for lunch; dehydrated soup and soya mince in the evenings. "Cordon muck" wolfed down, since there's nothing else on offer.
Rations become an obsession, with Strangelovian paranoid plots elaborated to explain why a food cache is short of Mars bars. Tensions are greatest when the coffee, sugar or second tube of cheesespread can't be found.
Trekking forces the group to work together, help each other through the inevitable down times, blisters, tummy tantrums and homesickies. All the venturers remain in awe of the landscape they're walking through, all buzzing off the Gobi's remoteness, and mystique. They will have travelled over 200 km though largely uninhabited lands, well-hopiing, and picking up caches of food left behind by a support vehicle. Some days walks reach 20 km, but many less. Others are capped by a night in bivvy bags atop a mountain at 2,400, to wake before sunrise and warm up on the sun's first rays.

 

 

Days begin with packing rucksacks for the umpteenth time, compacting one's life into a metre squared. Then comes stretching, warming and coaxing weary muscles back to life, and essential to avoid pulls and strains. Some mornings everyone seems absorbed in their own thoughts, somewhat miserable to have been wrenched from their well-deserved slumber. Other days, songs and chants will ripple along the group as they trudge over hill and down vale, on to the next stop, rest, doze and sleep.
Near most wells, gers huddle into the hills, from where curious children and barking dogs emerge to stare at the strange foreigners. Most children probably have never seen a Western face before, and must wonder, like the adults, what these peole are up to, trudging through their land in single file with their homes on their backs. To top it all, they're on foot - sacrilege to most Mongolians...

Trekked through a steep gorge, scoured from 100-metre high walls of flint-like rock, which turns tawny in the midday light. A river ran a sinous course through the gorge, emerging in a bend, only to disappear enigmatically after a while. The only tree we've seen so far in the Gobi so far hid in the nook, hemmed by wild grasses, providing the perfect campsite for a day's rest.

Walked past a ger last night, and the satellite dish outside seemed as incongruous as a Mongolian cavalier in the midst of Trooping the Colour. It was patched and cobbled, and looked like a pair of Burgundy corduroys I had when I was five.

Perched on a hillside by a well, craggy hilltops giving way to a wide plain, etched with darker veins of dried rivers, chequered by the play of light and clouds. Yellow sands puncture this flatness, rising in ochre and tan crescents. And behind this line, yet more rocky, gnarled mountains snarl in a battleship grey sky.

Scree-strewn plains which twist ankles and strain tendons. Focused on the two steps in front of me, constantly calculating where I'm to tread next, or else following the steps and boots of the person in front. On and on, like that, for hours, until it's too dark to go on. Clear a patch of ground. Get my sleeping bag out. Collapse into it. Wake up, look around, and think "Que?"...

Bus journeying from Ulaan Baatar to Dalanzadgad:
12 passengers sardined into a grey ex-Russian ambulance. 18 hours of bouncing, of epic landscapes, slowly turning drier as we travelled south. Yellows and browns and tans superceding greens with every passing hour. The road wasn't a road, more a farmer's track.

Highlights of the trip included passing a tractor towing two prefab houses on its trailer, and pee stops.

It seems unfathomable that people really live out there in that nothingness.
Herds of sheep, horses and camels amble across the steppe. The odd white ger sticks out in the void, looking like a speck of mould of an old piece of brown bread.


I sat facing eight Mongolians, and provided amusement. Strange to be reduced to the role of jeep jester. A joky man, who I think was intent on selling me dinosaur eggs, had crow's feet that reached all the way to his sideburns. His teeth looked filed down, and when he grinned, which was often, a gold tooth glinted in his mouth.

A young woman with round, slightly pudgy features wore navy blue nylon gloves and a wide-brimmed white summer's hat.


  The blue horizon plays games with my eyes, causing them to re-adjust from the land to the sky, from the sky to the land.
Three rows, where you have to fight buttocks not to end up on the metal bar dividing the seats. Stopping in the midst of nothingness for a pee stop. The men huddle on the leeward side of the van, drawing hard on acrid-smelling cigarettes. And on and on we went into the night, the Mongolian songs merging into one mass as the hours passed and the night drew more complete.
I attained a semi-sleep haze, waking befuddled as we began to drop off passengers .
Finally, we came up alongside my hotel, but there were no lights. I wandered around to one side where light and some music emerged from a door: the local bar, peopled by a couple of young Mongolian mean, and two young women who stood in front of the impressively-arrayed lines of Coca Cola, Fanta and imported beer.
"Try the other door," was the response I got, translated by the Mongolian girl who was doing her best to save me from a night on the steppe.
We found another door, and, leaving my stuff outside, ventured into a dark corridor, my torch light bouncing off peeling walls. We came into a ballroom of sorts where three girls sat bored at one end by a makeshift bar.
Yes, there were rooms, but no 'luxury' ones. No, we don't know about any reservation.
I don't care. Give me whatever. It was now 2.30am and I wasn't about to make a fuss. The bus driver began beeping his horn and I started to fret a bit. My translating girl insisted I see the room, and despite my protests, we climbed up the four unlit floors to the door of my room. None of the keys worked, and a tense minute passed as she went through her bunch, jangling them nervously. Finally, the door creaked ajar of its own accord.
Yes, it's fine, I said, giving the room a cursory glance and checking for scurrying roachess and mould in the bathroom.
Half an hour later, I was fast asleep, the only guest.
Three hours later, I woke to the sound of the Mysterons descending. A speaker contraption about two feet above my head crackled Heidi-Hi-like music. I struggled to ignore the blurred notes and strange voices , but when the national anthem kicked in, I lost it. I managed to sit up long enough to disconnect some wires. The voice of the Mysterons fell silent. It was 6.02 according to my clock.

 


The Trans-Siberian:
I secretly wished I could stay on it all the way to Moscow, to cross Siberia in the summertime. I nearly did. But played it safe and returned to London by air (via Moscow anyway...).
After everyone had retired to their couchette to sleep, I stayed up with the Monoglian girl I was travelling with. We were at the end of the carriage, in the space with an open window by the smelly door to the smellier toilet. We were doing some cuddling, and I was explaining to her the finer points of my emotional life, and why it wasn't a good idea for us to do more than hug, when out of one of the compartments came a diminutive Mongol in red underpants, and nothing else. He made his way down the corridor towards us. But it turned out it was my girl he was interested, and not the toilet.
He began drunkenly blabbering to her. She hid, sitting behind me as I puffed out my chest. He was obviously saying something like "Cor, she's a bit of a goer, I bet you get it on like my two yaks back home" or words to that effect. Not being able to respond with something like "If you don't get back to your carriage now, I will beat you in a manner reminiscent of the Golden Horde's diplomatic techniques", I had to mime it. "You", I said pointing to his chest, which reached my abdomen, "Go", pointing down the corridor, "Now" making a wavy-wavy motion with my hands. I then smiled and looked him right in the eye. My technique was obviously flawed. It took at least five long minutes of this miming for him to finally waddle his red butt back to bed.

 

The front fašade of the monastery of Erden Zuu, brilliant white against an azure sky. In the foreground, whisps of smoke escape from the stained bottle neck of the incense burning urn. The building is square and squat, two floors high, with a main doorway at its centre, and golden disks and elaborate friezes ringing its outer walls. It's the largest monastery outside the capital, a remarkable survivor of the Stalinist purges of the 1930s, when the monasteries were dissolved (strange, but appropriate word, no?) and tens of thousands of monks massacred.

Inside, lay men and apprentice young monks pass round bowls of tea in china bowls, scooped from a large, ornate bowl with a galloping horse motif on its side. Two rows of monks in red robes, some slung over yellow silk shirts, line the inner part of the room.

They chant their basso profundo songs, and in near-conjunction transfer their prayer sheets from one pile to the next. One monk right at the end of the row at the back looked, and sounded, like Yoda, all bent and batrachian, wrapped in a robe now deep maroon-purple. I wonder what he's seen and how many friends he's lost. He keeps muttering to his sexagenarian neighbour, who is either deaf or doing a fine job of ignoring him. Maybe they stick him at the back cuz he's a boring bastard?

Close to the figure of Buddha, a patriarch figure sits, slightly elevated. How did I know he was the patriarch? He was the only monk wearing shades. He smiles somewhat absentmindedly at his entourage and the tourists, both foreign and local, who perambulate the outer circle of the room, stopping to touch their foreheads to sacred statues and objects.

Blue scarves (called 'hadag') that you find throughout Mongolia and which symbolise this country of blue skies, hang from picture frames depicting a million and one evil and benevolent deities. An old man in an ochre 'del' coat tied with a pink sash hands out long oblong slices of curd, stacked with further morsels of cheese to the monks. Red predominates throughout the room, painted with intricate gold motifs and symbols. But then all the colours are represented somewhere, whether in the naif designs which climb up the wooden columns, or in the morass of Buddhist flags which hang in dusty disorder from the rafters.

The chants end in a crash of cymbals, a roll of drums, and a peel of trumpets - utterly cacophanous - before they dive back into their mantra.

It turned out the old man *was* deaf. He clambered out of his seat, and turned his head to expose the white of his snaking earpiece, bright against his weathered, burnished skin. But that doesn't mean his mate isn't still a boring old git.

 

Juulchin Gobi Camp, 3rd July, my birthday:

Arrived in the heat of the day. Immediately drawn to the showers and the promise of hot water. In any other place, the camp would be a disaster, but out here, in the middle of the Gobi, it seems the height of Conde Nastness.

At the instigation of John the Para from Logistics, we all got very drunk in the ger for foreign tourists. Besides the dismal oil of a Chenghis-like character on a horse and the pelt of a once-beautiful snow leopard, the centre of focus for the structure was the 40" television screen which later beamed Wimbledon 2000 down to a group of Italians. Around the central pillars hung five or six Seventies bauble frosted-glass chandeliers, worthy of Wallpaper*.

On the wall of the office, where once-pink padded chairs seated the administration staff, a huge map of the Province hung with straight, rectilinear lines coursing across it, indicating roads that are anything but roads, and anything but straight.

In the main eating hall, where I think the Mongolians eat, the putty around the windows hadn't been replaced since the days of Kruschev. The frames rattled benignly in the wind that is a constant companion in the Gobi.

My ger is a symphony to orange, with three litter beds (singles) all painted bright hues of blues, pinks, greens and reds with swirly patterns. The swirls, in my drunken state, made me feel queesy.

There was a look of horror on Balma the interpreter's face as John began to recount his 'adventures'. They started innocently enough with tales of motorbike daring-do, but escalated through drunken car crashes and ended with charges (dropped) of assault for knocking someone's teeth out on a provincial train. I think she was particularly askance at the litany of road accidents he'd been in, considering she'd just spent the last two weeks in a vehicle with him...

 


MIAT (Mongolian Airlines) should be renamed MDF, since most of their airplanes seem to be made of compresed chipboard washed over with a desultory coat of nursery blue.

The Mongolians drive their cars as if riding horses, and as if there was the same space of the steppe before them on city streets. There isn't.

A depressed George Nathaniel Curzon: "In these solitudes, the traveller may realise in all its sweep the mingled gloom and grandeur of Central Asian scenery. The moon shines with dreary coldness from the hollow dome, and a profound and tearful solitude seems to brood over the desert."

 


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