Day 5: Gobi Cold Camel Expedition
24th Jan 2018
Last night we stayed in a Ger again, although we noticed that rubber ties had been added to the doors so we couldn't leave them open by mistake - we're feeling like very stupid 'whiteys' after leaving the door open on the coldest night of the year (-43) and then last night burning three things on the fire in less than twenty minutes! First one of the guys singed his down jacket and it was quite comical as he danced around the Ger with feathers flying! Next someone else burned their pants, then one of the girls singed a huge hole in her thermals. You'd think we'd learn from each others mistakes!
Our broken legged herder (who fell off his camel in the race) is now tending to the fire at night so we don't freeze and he sleeps in the Ger with us to stoke it several times throughout the night. I alternated between sweating and chilling the entire night as the temperature changed and had a terrible sleep.
For breakfast we had traditional Mongolian rice milk porridge which everyone loved, then soup - soup is a huge thing in the Gobi, we're being given soup three times a day to keep us hydrated. Hot water, milk tea and normal tea are also a big thing, I haven't drunken anything cold in days and even though I hate tea I'm drinking it if it's the only thing served. Dehydration isn't anything to fool around.
I've struggled with getting my clothing layers right and decide to try my normal clothing today; on go my layers, just like I'd practiced at home. Just to be safe I have seven layers on top and six layers on the bottom. My deel stays in my bag. What a fail, I'm learning quickly to trust Big Guy's advice and am about to learn first hand why they gifted us with sheepskin deels - it's certainly not for beauty (although we look amazing in them), but for practicality and warmth.
My down jacket puffs cold air up my back with every stride and I'm constantly chilled. The 15km to lunch seems impossibly long but the support truck is well ahead so it looks like I'll have to ride this one out. Finally the cold is too much to bear and I dismount, not even waiting for my camel to lay down. For the next couple of kilometres I walk, keeping pace with the others, although soon they're trotting ahead so a couple of the riders and a herder stay behind with me. I'm much warmer walking... it reminds me of A Knights Tale when the guy says "trudging is the weary walk of someone with nothing left to lose".
Soon the truck returns, but my eyes are downcast and my hearing is so impaired from the many layers of balaclavas and hoods. Chloe stops me and in relief I make it to the truck. When I hear it's less than a kilometer to a family Ger where we'll be stopping for lunch I refuse to quit, and lay my camel down before hopping back on. Never has 600m felt so far and it's with huge relief that we round the final hill and see the Ger in the valley ahead.
The Ger is warm with a fire burning so I start stripping out of my layers, I don't think I've sweated during the ride but as I remove layers I notice the bottom few thermal tops and mid layers are wet through. I hang them from the ceiling to dry.
I have learnt the deels are far warmer and breath better for camel riding and since mine isn't with us I'm back in the truck for the second half of the ride. Two others join me, also too sore to keep riding. I'm a lot chirpier for this car ride and while the others sleep I chat with Big Guy and Tess, learning a lot about the herding way of life and Mongolian culture. In many ways it's one of my favourite parts of the trip so far and suddenly I don't mind that my body seems to be failing me - the chance to hear these stories is too special to wish I was still on the camel. In many ways the sheer beauty of the scenery is easier to appreciate from the truck as well and we stop often to see iced over rivers, or watch the camels as they pass through the landscape.
I learn many interesting things, and I wish I'd had my notebook close by to write them all down. Here are a few fun facts that I remember: We are the first people to attempt to cross this route of the Silk Road since Andes 90 years ago. Dinosaurs fossils were first discovered in the Gobi and taken to America, but Nicholas Cage spent 260 million buying them back so he could gift them back to the Mongolia people. A French women travelling through the Gobi fell in love with a Mongolian herder and is one of the few white people living this nomadic way of life. Only the male camels are ridden (normally geldings), with the very best kept as stallions and females are used for breeding and milking. Big Guy grew up in a herding family, living in a Ger and is now the nations most respected horseman who fights in court for the rights of nomadic families and ethical horse racing - he is like a Robin Hood for the people. Tess's father was the first Mongolian to ever win an Olympic medal (in Judo), so she's practically royalty. She alternates between the city where she teaches at university and nomadic living for three months every summer with her family. They castrate the mentally impaired people and they remain with their family for life, helping with simple chores around the Ger, such as feeding the small animals.
Feeling well rested we stop so the camel riders can have a hot drink and determined to finish the day I hop back on my camel, riding the final few kilometres as the sun sets. Big Guy has tied a strap around my core, which keeps in a lot more warmth - it seems the silk ties from the deels are also for practicality! Tonight our camels are tethered on a line tied between two rocks. One of the guys challenge the herders to a wrestle and is quickly thrown into the dust - wrestling is taken very seriously in this country. It would be a great offence if they were beaten by a white person and they would continue to challenge them until someone in the region beat them.
That night the 5-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter of the family come and play knuckle bones with us in our Ger, the young girl speaks very good english. I'm starting to fall in love with Mongolia. The more time I spend with the people and hearing their stories, the more I appreciate the herding life and this country.