This was the day we had actually all been waiting
for. The "real” beginning
of the trip. We were downstairs by 8am but due to a couple of technical
hitches (ie two travellers’ ruck sacks not turning up and Solongo’s
glasses being broken and the group waiting for her sister to arrive
with her pair) we didn’t get off until a little later.
The 3 4WD mini vans that were going to be kind
of like home for the next 3 weeks were clean and bright on the
outside when they
pulled up outside the hotel. We had been warned what it would
be like in the vans – hot, smelly, bumpy etc but nothing anyone
could have said could really have prepared us for what life was
really like on the road. The heaters were blowing whatever the
weather in order to keep the engines cool, the windows needed to
be open to keep the smell of petrol down, whatever the weather
(although that rule didn’t stay in place for long when it was really
cold in the mornings).
We arranged ourselves in the vans and we finally
set off. The vans were hot. They only had tiny little triangle
and as we carried jerry cans of petrol under the seats they stank
of gasoline…but we were soon to get used to that.
Day 3 saw us making the journey from Ulan Bataar
towards Mandalgovi – which
literally translates as mid Gobi (I think). We had only travelled
about forty five minutes out of Ulan Bataar before we felt like
we were in the middle of nowhere. The journey was very bumpy and
the vans swerved from side to side as they tried to avoid the holes
in the road (well, I say road, but I should point out that there
basically aren’t roads outside of UB – there are just tracks and
sometimes not even them). It was obvious that Jeep and van drivers
made their own roads up sometimes over the landscape as we could
see 6 or 7 tracks intermingling with each other as we looked in
to the distance.
For the first 4 hours of driving I felt sick
and the wooden box carrying hot water flasks kept falling out
of it lodged in position,
on to my lap….I wasn’t happy. The thought of feeling like this
for 3 weeks weakened my spirits but I tried to put a brave face
of it. Altai (the driver) could see that I was getting distressed
and he pulled the van to a stop, jumped out, reached over and took
the flask box and found a new position for it. I felt better already. Each
van found a makeshift window opener as the windows needed to be
kept open, but wouldn’t stay open on their own accord – so kitchen
roll, camera straps and pieces of string were quickly found.
At lunch time, we stopped in the middle of nowhere
and were shown how the lunch system would work – how to lay out
the table and seats, what bowls to use and where the food was
kept, but most
importantly where the hand wash soap was. It was very important
that we had clean hands before preparing food so that no-one got
sick. Lunch was great, much better than I thought it was going
to be. Salami, cheese and tomato sandwiches today.
In the afternoon we travelled through the open
countryside still on our way to "Mandalgovi” and took in our fist Mongolian scenery. We
passed a small water hole where there were some horses drinking. I
slept in the afternoon, I slept most days in the van and in the
late afternoon we came to what was once a monastery, we also saw
our first trees in the wilderness, hidden in this rock enclosure.
We had been travelling through a flat landscape a few miles in
width but flanked by hills on our left and right. The rocks we
came upon enabled us to see how the monastery had been hidden inside
them. We climbed to the top of the rocks and took in the stunning
Solongo told us about the ruined monastery and
about the blue scarves that we would soon get used to seeing
all over the country,
tied to trees, ovoos and rocks. The blue scarves were prayer scarves,
tied and laid out in offering. We saw our first Ovoo here at the
rocks. An Ovoo is a pyramid shaped collection of rocks, almost
like a "cairn” in the UK. People add a rock to the ovoo to bring
them good luck and they must always travel clockwise around it.
Offerings are sometimes made at more important ovoos, even vodka
and yak heads.
From here we drove for a further 30 minutes
until we reached our camping stop for the first night. Paul showed
us how to put up
our tents and the do’s and don’ts of camping. This first evening
was a learning experience – how we would cook, clean, clear up
and relax so that everyone could get the most out of their Mongolian
experience. Spaghetti Bolognese was on the menu tonight and we
even had garlic bread cooked, bronzed with the "blow torch” which
was actually the canister of gas used to heat our three cooking
pots. We cooked everything in these three pots.
We were rewarded on this first evening with
a wonderful sunset and as we camped in the rocks, I knew Andy
and I were going to
thoroughly enjoy the trip. However, although I thought I was prepared,
I found out that even wearing a fleece in the evening etc I was
still cold and I needed to wear something in my sleeping bag other
than a T-shirt as I woke up in the night a fair few times feeling
cold – lesson 1 learnt.