Day 2: Gobi Cold Camel Expedition
21st Jan 2018
We woke early, excited to explore and meet the camels, and of course as a photographer I wanted to make the most of the early morning light - there is something quite spectacular about the sunrise hours. A camera man is also out and I learn later that our ride will be filmed for a three-part documentary (30 minutes per episode) which will air on Mongolian television.
At about -30 it is too cold to stay outside for long and the sun takes a lot longer to appear than expected; I am finally starting to understand why breakfast isn't until at least 9am each morning and why we can't begin riding till late morning. It is simply too cold to do much of anything in these predawn hours.
By 8.30am the sun is finally starting to rise and I gather my gloves and camera then go off in search of camels. First though I stop to watch the goats and sheep; the lambs and kids go inside one of the family Ger's every night to stay warm and the adults are tightly packed into a yard alongside yearling cattle so they can stay warm from each others body heat. A few meters on our riding camels are tethered by their nose pegs; some to tyres, or planks of wood and one is even tied to it's saddle. They don't seem too friendly on first impression and are disgruntled when I try to approach them.
Behind them herds of camel's roam, none friendly enough to walk up and pat - by the sounds of it they herd and lasso the camels and horses whenever they need one to ride. It's been over 600km since I saw a fence in this country and the 60 million livestock in Mongolia have endless places to roam. While the camels might be quiet to ride, they are semi feral each time they are bought into work and the ones we'll be riding have been in training for a few weeks to make sure they're ready for us.
The special mittens I've bought are clumsy and I'm struggling to use my camera; they have a zip that undoes so my fingers and thumb can pop out to handle the dials with a thermal touchscreen liner. In frustration I take them off but within seconds my hands are chilled and I have a freeze burn from touching my lens - everything in the environment is the same temperature and touching metal that is -30 degrees is impossible. Hurriedly I pull the mittens back on, relieved I invested $300 into gloves specially designed for arctic photographers and the special forces to handle their guns in subzero conditions.
All too soon it's time for breakfast and I realise I'm freezing, I've been out in the cold too long and I shiver as I head into the family Ger, thankful for the wood stove fire thats burning. The Ger is tiny by western standards, it's amazing to think that an entire family lives in here; it is a bedroom for four, a kitchen, living room and washroom all in one. Solar power allows them some modern conveniences and I'm amazed by the television and washing machine nestled into this tiny round home, just 6m in diameter. It makes me realise how little people need to survive and just how extravagant our own way of living is.
After breakfast we hurry to dress and after layering on thermals and mid layers we struggle to dress ourselves in the deels; with a little help from our new Mongolian friends we are dressed and ready for the Camel Festival and we head out to find our camels so we can ride them into town. I feel like we've fallen into a different world; our currently clothing and location is so different to what we're used to.
All the camels are trained to lie down luckily as they are huge; bigger than any horses I've ridden that's for sure. Even laying down it's clumsy trying to mount them in a deel and I faceplant in the dirt to the amusement of the herder who is helping me. My second attempt is only slightly more graceful. The camels are controlled by a rope tied to their nose peg and only one rein, since Tess is the only one that can translate and she's busy I start experimenting, trying to figure out how to stop and turn the camels. It's harder at first than I thought it would be, but soon we're trotting. A Mongolian version of 'choo choo' means go faster and 'sook sook' means lay down but I'm pretty sure we're all butchering the pronunciation and the camels have no idea what we're asking.
Once everyone's mounted it time to go and a herder leads the way. It's a 3km ride to town and I'm thankful for the deels; it's much colder once you're up on a camel and the wind chill is lethal. I think the Mongolian's were worried we'd be bad riders, but soon we're settling into things - with the exception of one guy who's never even been on a horse we're all accomplished riders and soon adjust to the sway of our camels. The walk is smooth enough but once we're trotting it's bone jarring and I alternate between trying to sit and rise is the saddle (which is more like a bareback pad with stirrups - normally they don't even have a girth, and stay balanced from the riders bodyweight, but they've made an exception for us 'whiteys' and have added a surcingle strap).
We arrive in town and are greeted by a family who welcome us into their Ger to warm up. Our camels are tied to the fence and soon we're sitting inside listening to stories about camel racing, while Tess translates. The first race we'll be watching is 12km for adult camels, then kids will ride green broke 2-year-old camels over 8km.
We head out to the finish line, which is in the middle of the desert, and there are no camels in sight; the nomadic families are still gathering. It seems impossible a festival is about to begin and to fill in time Big Guy organises a 1km camel race for us to compete in.
Just like their horse racing, the camels must first warm up the distance they will race and we trot our camels out into the desert before lining up and waiting for the hand single. The nine of us are competing against the herders that we rode out with and our competitive natures are starting to show. Urging our camels forward we race to the finish line and some even break into a few strides of canter. Ahead of me the herders camel is playing up and he's unseated, being thrown first one way then the other as he struggles to stay on, but without a girth his saddle dislodges from between the humps and he tumbles to the ground a few meters in front of me. When my camel jumps sideways to avoid him I'm thankful I have a girth on otherwise I might have joined him on the cold, hard ground. I go to pull up my camel but Tess and Big Guy, who were following in a truck, jump out to assist the fallen rider and gesture me on.
By the time I have my camel straightened out, the race is over - with me well behind. By now camels have gathered and the festival is well under way, the real racing is about to begin. We follow the adult camels in a vehicle as they trot to the start line 12km away. Soon the flag drops and we follow alongside other cars, trucks and motorbikes as the camels race. For the first half they're pretty even but a rider in a red deel soon takes the lead and he gains several hundred meters. Apparently he wins, but I miss the finish because our truck breaks down and the driver is fiddling under the bonnet trying to fix it.
The next race is the kids and watching them race is hilarious, their camels are barely trained and even trying to make them go in straight lines, let alone trot, is near impossible. It's painful to watch, although very amusing. Occasional their parents, who are following behind on motorbikes, herd the camels back in the right direction to help their tiny jockey's and finally we near the finish line, most still walking.
Next is a camel stallion parade, followed by a couple's beauty contest; men and women wear complimentary deels, on matching camels with extravagant saddles and halters. We all compete and two of our duo place third, receiving a beautiful bronze medal. It's about 3pm now and we turn our camels for home, trotting most of the way to get back before the sun goes down; there's only about nine hours of sunlight in the Gobi in winter.
We've passed our test ride and no one has fallen off, and so now the real adventure is about to begin. Tomorrow we begin our 300km ride across the desert as we retrace the ancient Silk Road, following a path through mountains which hasn't been ridden in over 90 years.