I met Adam at Green Park.
I had a Chai Tea Latte.
He was late.
Nothing ever changes.
The pair of us rode the Piccadilly Line as far as it would go and emerged into the joyous riot that is Heathrow airport. We agreed that we really like airports. Unless you’re there to pick someone else up then they’re a lot of fun. We met up with Nora and Alun who were walking just ahead of us. We checked our luggage in. I was pleased to have three kilos less than anyone else (slimmer of the year).
Once we were through security, having been pulled aside because we look like we are smuggling drugs, Adam and I headed to get some breakfast.
We were sat debating what to eat when I noticed Adam was staring at the man next to us. We opened up a conversation with him before realising he was actor, director and playwright Mark Rylance. We talked to him about trekking, ballets in New York and the Colorado river before he bid us adieu and headed off like a handsome dream. We bolted down the rest of our Mexican Breakfast and overtook him as we ran over to our gate.
We just about made it and settled in for the first flight of three to get us to Mongolia. Adam insisted we sit together and then insisted we watched the same films, syncing them up by pressing play at exactly the same time. After Independence Day: Resurgence and Daddy’s Home we arrived in Istanbul.
We got off the plane and found the nearest bar. Everyone else was there. Under Turkish law they have to give you food with your alcohol so there were about twenty paper plates of plain crisps piled up across the table where everyone stood, trying to remember how to make polite conversation. It was my first opportunity to catch up with Ian, Feyza, Jo and Emma who I had previously trekked the Sahara desert with. We were excited to be back together.
After a couple of pints which I still don’t know how much I paid for, we were ushered back onto a flight. I broke free from Adam’s film regime and watched Born To Be Blue and Destruction – they were both right little uppers. We were given some food, but more importantly, drink. Adam and I had a glass of wine and then as many gin and tonics as the staff could carry. I awoke a little while later to discover we were refuelling and I was being booted off the plane. In my haste I forgot to pick up my headphones.
I was handed a blank boarding card and asked the obvious question:
“Where the fuck are we?”
We had to find a souvenir shop selling fridge magnets to establish we were in Kyrgyzstan. Beers were charged at $5. They were a reliable 11.8% proof.
I slept through Star Trek: Beyond and woke up to a poor excuse for scrambled egg, congealed to the tray and accompanied by a couple of balls I was later informed were supposed to be some kind of potato.
We landed at Chinggis Khaan Airport, Ulan Bator, Mongolia, collected our bags and headed outside into the freezing air. It seemed strange to me that they would name an airport after Khaan. Wasn’t he a bad guy? Liverpool had John Lennon. New York has JFK. I’m sure he’s a big name but it’s hardly Ich Bin Ein Berliner or I Am The Walrus.
I was given a number (27) which I was told I would need to remember and that it would all make sense later. I never needed the number again and am still unsure of its purpose.
We drove for about two hours to our first ger camp. We were first taken into a big hall for lunch. A starter of shredded leaves was being put out on the tables. We had tea and coffee. Aside from the fact it didn’t seem to have any kind of heating I was blown away by the comfort I was in. I noticed the bar was stocked with vodka and beer. Maybe this wasn’t going to be quite as treacherous as I had thought.
We were asked to divide into fours for the accommodation. Adam and I chose Alex and Sean like they were a couple of Pokemon. Alex is from T’North. Sean is from New York. Between the four of us we had all the bases covered.
After a lunch of questionable meat, vegetables, rice and potato chips we were told to collect our bags and head to into our gers. Those who aren’t particular au fait with Mongolian housing, a ger is a lot like a yert. For those of you who don’t know what a yert is, a ger looks a lot like this:
Inside there were four beds, a little stove, a table and four chairs. I was reminded of the glamping teepees at Glastonbury. Somewhere I have never stayed but always admired the gumption of. We unloaded some of our stuff, prepared for an acclimitisation walk and visited the toilet block where we discovered there were showers as well as proper toilets. If this was to be the standard of accomodation for the trek then I was going to have to be careful with what I shared with friends when I returned home.
Our walk for the day was beautiful. We were taken uphill over the camp and through a strange forest of orange leaves before circling back round via some cows. I was surprised to find I was breathless after short climbs. I hadn’t been out walking for a couple of weeks but I was in generally good shape. I realised we were at altitude and I was going to struggle in the way I would in Peru. I walked a lot of the way with Kirstin who was there as a representative from WaterAid. I immediately took to her, which is good as I hate most people.
Back at the camp we quickly realised there was very little to do beside drinking so we headed to the hall and got a round of beers in. Five beers for five quid as it turned out. I felt like a student again. We ate dinner and continued drinking. We moved onto vodka. The second group landed, having flown in from Hong Kong. With them came a bottle of Jager that was soon being passed around. I went to bed drunk and warm and looking forward to a long, hot shower in the morning to rid myself of my sins.
When I woke up the pipes were frozen. Everything was frozen. The world was Frozen. Let It Go. I was impressed I didn’t have a hangover. It must have been down to the altitude. We packed our bags up and headed back to the airport for our chartered flight to Dalanzadgad. It was exciting to take a private jet. I felt like the lovechild of Richard Branson and Indiana Jones.
As it turned out, the flight wasn’t entirely terrible. There were no televisions in the backs of the seats but I did get to enjoy watching those who struggle with flying practically shit themselves as the tin can left the runway. I read some Bunny Munro and chatted with Jo. We were told it was important our weight allowance wasn’t exceeded as the plane literally would not be able to handle it.
We arrived and wandered through an arrivals lounge about the size of a postage stamp. There was an outhouse to collect our luggage and then we were loaded into trucks and driven out into the desert.
Our second camp was bigger and just as nice. There was a “king ger” where we could all hang out and eat. There was also a beer fridge. This trekking lark was alright I figured.
We had five beds in our ger and took Kirstin under our wing. She had seven bags with her to accommodate all the extra stuff she had brought with on behalf of the charity and was keen to get rid of the hats, t-shirts and running vests she needed to pass across to us over the course of the week.
We eventually got dinner and awaited the arrival of our friends from HK. We took great delight in telling them we had a room with beds while they had to sleep on tarpaulin on the floor. Our joy would be short-lived. We hung out and got drunk and I slept well, warm and cosy in my last bed. I hoped the showers wouldn’t be frozen again in the morning.
I was wrong. The morning was beautiful but there was no running water. We had a chaotic breakfast as a hundred people queued for their rations and then we prepped for our first day of trekking. I put my thermal base layer on followed by my boiler suit. Despite the previous treks I had done I didn’t have any warm clothing to hike in. I always seemed to be doing it in the sun. This was a different beast. The only thing in my wardrobe that I figured could cover me was a boiler suit I bought with the intention of doing a lot of DIY in it. That never happened but it became a beautiful costume for the Gobi trek.
Our group of 25 (Blue Team) were the last to leave. The plan was to trek out to a frozen waterfall and return to the same camp. We tried to keep warm and pocketed leftovers while we waited for everyone else to shoot off ahead of us.
I put my parka on but once we were a couple of kilometres out of camp I found that I didn’t need it and resorted to just walking in my boiler suit. Despite the head wind I was relatively warm. We walked and caught up. We were excited and funny and glad to have started this great new adventure of which we would all be a part.
As we were the last group out, we met the others coming back the same way ahead of us. There was a real gang mentality as they approached. It was basically war. As we came into the reservation containing the waterfall there was a huge sign and painting depicting it. The real thing didn’t live up to the grandeur but watching everyone fall over like the goons in Home Alone made up for it.
Due to an administrative error it was after 3pm before we had lunch. I was starving. We had some kind of meat and noodles. It was nice to have something warm to hold onto. I put my coat back on and we tucked ourselves behind an abandoned building to stay out of the bitter wind. After a second bowl we started on our way back to camp.
As the sun started to go down it was noticeably colder. We watched it set and soon had to find somewhere to take cover. Dinner was organised by groups. As we were the last to eat lunch, we were the last to have dinner and sat in our ger pretending we knew how to play card games until we were called. Once in, we hung around hoping for second portions of the meat, rice and potatoes we were given until all the guides and local support had eaten. We didn’t let on to the other groups until it was gone. Then we started drinking again. I soon realised it was the best antidote to the cold.
We packed up the following morning (again, everything was frozen) and prepared to head onto our next camp via a gorge in the mountains. We were the first group to set off and set the pace for everyone. The walk boasted my favourite views of the day. We were completely submerged in the landscape and words escape me.
That night we arrived at our new camp where we could see out across a desolate landscape for miles and over to the mountains. I slept on the floor for the first time. Our ger had been put up that day and throughout the night the wind whipped underneath the crosshatch walls and the fire wouldn’t stay lit. I had to sleep with my arms holding my mummy sleeping bag closed in order to keep the heat in.
We walked out the next day across the flat and I meditated under the protection of The Camel, a collection of Buddhist flags up on the mountains. We collected up fragments of bones we found on the ground and Sean and I told everyone we were hunting a jackalope.
On the fourth day we trekked through mountains again, taking on one of the Red Team whose birthday it was. The walk was hard. I was starting to feel the distance in my calves and my joints. We talked about whether this was a sign we hadn’t put in enough training or were just getting older. We climbed a mountain before a lunch of spaghetti and birthday cake. I put Tabasco on everything I could to give it some flavour. In the afternoon we saw goats being herded through the pass.
We had to climb out of the gorge to a spot where we could be collected and taken to camp. I was in the second group to go which meant we could sit around drinking beer which promoted itself on its “Ultra Drinkability” – the very least you want from a beer. We also wandered out into the abyss and dropped trou to pose for photos. In the car on the way back I blinked into the sun and felt the growl in my belly.
On our last day we headed out into the dunes. Only 3% of the Gobi desert is sand. We were lucky to find some I guess. It reminded me of being in the Sahara. We walked together, all hundred of us across the last sixteen kilometres to the finish.
We thought we had found it when we saw the bus ahead. It turned out it had broken down and everyone was trying to dig it out. It was another couple of K before we actually made it in.
There were screams and shouts, there were calls from across the wasteland and then we started drinking and didn’t stop until we ran out and realised the sun had set and we were alone with a broken down bus. It was four hours before we were rescued and taken back to camp. In the interim time I considered which of my fellow trekkers I would eat first if it came down to it. There was plenty of choice.