It takes me back. It takes me back seven months and reminds me of what we went through. The first thing anyone else seems to notice is my smile. I hate my smile.
I see the bus.
That was the bus that was supposed to collect us at the end of the trek and take us out of the desert after trekking 100km together. That was the bus that broke down.
When we got to it, we thought we were done. We thought we had finished. We still had a couple of kilometres to go but we waited for the laggers to catch up and everyone went through together. We cheered as we crossed that invisible finish line. Then we somehow had beers and we sat on the dunes and took photos and messed around. There were two buses. There had to be for the one hundred of us. I remember the smug face of the guy in the doorway of the first bus who wouldn’t let me on because he said it was full. I was forced to wait with my friend Adam and the rest of his stupid team.
We realised the bus was still stuck two kilometres back and it made sense for us to go to it. Once the sun had set there wasn’t an awful lot left for us to do. Once the beers were finished, there was nothing left for us to do. The temperature started to drop. It got below freezing at night, well below.
We got onto the bus and tried to stay warm. We were taken off so they could try and tow it out. It didn’t work. We sat on the sand and lost more of our body heat. We were ordered back onto the bus. We tried singing and playing games. Nobody had any food. Nobody had any water. We waited for four hours before the original bus returned for us. We were lucky. We laughed it off anyway.
Then I notice my top. My merino wool base layer. Essential, we were told, to insulate us and to self-clean. I wore it for five days straight. It became a second skin. The smell would probably make your eyes water. I only had one because the combo of top and trousers was £100.00 and I figured I wouldn’t be going back to Mongolia anytime soon. I was right.
Next it’s my Action Challenger neckerchief. A Schiernecker-chief if you will. I was given that scarf when I trekked my way up the Inca trail to Machu Picchu exactly two years before. I was so sick on that trip but I learnt a lot about my inner strength, what I was capable of. I refused to give up. I refused to drop it. I’m far too stubborn and it’s not often enough that it’s a good thing.
Then I see my Ray Bans. Actual Ray Bans. I had a pair before that I picked up in Argentina. Those were Roy Bons. I bought the actual Ray Bans in the great spending spree of April 2016, shortly before Adam and I went to Thailand and found exactly the same thing for 200 baht (£4.00). I don’t really go in for the whole brand thing but Ray Bans are cool. They’re cool like Jack Daniels is cool.
It’s only after that I am able to see my face. The beard that had grown out through our days in the desert. The weird way my hair sat when it was full of smoke, sand, grit and grease. The strange dent between my eyes, either through concentration or Resting Bitch Face. The crow’s feet that appear now when I smile. The hook of heritage in the shape of my nose. The tiny shadow of a puncture mark in the lobe of my left ear from when I let my brother go at it with a sterilised safety pin and a champagne cork. The dimples and for a rare change, what looks like a jawline. The teeth. The smile. The memories.
Seven months after we flew out to Mongolia, I look at this picture and I forget about all the stuff that bothered me. The things I left behind that I worried about. The trials and tribulations that we all faced along the way. What it reminds me of is that I am the sum of my experiences. I have no recollection of this photo being taken but it looks far too staged to be candid. I would love to go back there, to that moment, to be with the friends I knew and the friends I had made. To taste some more questionable meat in noodles and brine. To listen to the sound of the wind whipping up the tarp as I tried to get to sleep each night, clenching the opening of my sleeping bag together to keep whatever heat I could inside. To drink more straight vodka in a week than I probably had in the rest of my life. To walk every day with a pack on my back. To not want for anything else. To just go. This picture speaks exactly 860 words.
Photo by Alun Thomas.