What happened so far?
In episode one, when told that I was going to Mongolia to meet some airline executives for my job, I decided to lose myself in the silent wilderness of that country. Before leaving I did some rough research and chose as destination a place that even Google Maps fails to locate, named Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve.
I have an appointment with Mr. Batar, from Drive Mongolia, the car rental company, at Shangri-La hotel in Ulaanbataar. When I arrive there from dinner, I notice the Land Cruiser and my man, waiting for me on the door. Batar is a cool dude, his fancy hat and turtle round glasses give him the looks of a Mongolian dandy. After a vigorous handshake, he proposes me to inspect the car, so we walk to the rugged four-wheeler. At a first glance, the Toyota had a fairly good life, one full of adventure but not too harsh. Mr. Batar shows me how to start the engine and that’s it; he seems happy and ready to leave. When I tell him that I am going to Gun-Galuut, he understands that the Land Cruiser is going for an hard-core day and gives me the second chapter of explanation: he shows me how to operate the electric winch on the front bumper, the spare tire, the hydraulic jack and all I needed in case of trouble. Then he looks at me, shakes my hand again and says: “Anyway, I know you can drive”.
I ask Batar how to reach my destination; he takes a map out of the Toyota gloves compartment and points to a spot in the middle of nowhere: “Follow the road, East direction – he says – when you get to the river, turn right. When you see the mountains on your left, go there”. I thank him and ask if there is something I should be aware of driving in Mongolia. Mr. Batar looks at me again and says: “do not drive over a goat. If you kill a goat you’ll have to pay for it”, then he hands me the car keys, wishes me a good trip, turns around and disappears into the fresh night. At no point, he has bothered to check my identity or driving license.
Comes Saturday and after an early breakfast, I meet my co-pilot, in the hotel lobby. Mark is a British workmate, he lives in Bangkok. The night before, he enthusiastically accepted to join in the adventure. When we get in the car I ask him if he knows how to drive an off-road car; he tells me that he has driven once or twice in the past ten years. I start the engine and here we are, cruising through a sleepy Ulaanbataar, direction East. It is seven o’clock in the morning, streets are empty and the sun shines. As the kilometers go by, tall concrete buildings become sparser and are gradually replaced by single-storey constructions. A little later, Mongolian Gers, the local dwellings, start becoming more and more frequent.
The paved road in the direction of Baganuur is comfortable. I relax at the drive of the Land Cruiser and observe the changing landscape passing slowly by. After an hour, we arrive at the Genghis Khan Equestrian Statue. The 40 meters tall shining complex is a monument to exaggeration but serves the purpose of reminding whoever passes by that the fusion between the war chief and the horse, allowed Genghis Khan to federate the biggest empire in the history of humanity.
We start a slow ascent towards a mountain pass, now the road and the lineup of electric posts that flank it are the only visible signs of human presence. While we keep driving East we become acquainted with the sight of wild horses. They have compact bodies, long tail and mane and most often brown and shiny hair; Mongolian horses are known for their strength and at every winter can lose up to 30% of their weight due to intense cold. Beautiful and admirable animals.
The few signs along the road, all written in Cyrillic, do not provide us any workable information but, according to the map, we have approximately reached the point where we are supposed to leave the main road. We just take a 90-degrees turn and start driving straight in a vast grassland. A huge mineral mine on our right-hand side is the only landmark we use to navigate the otherwise completely empty space. As time passes, the sense of freedom is gradually replaced by doubts on our direction but there is no-one around to help us find our way. Finally, I see in the rear-view mirror a guy wearing traditional Mongolian attire on a motorbike. I stop the car, get off and he comes to meet me: I show him our destination on my mobile phone, only to realize that he can not read Latin characters or understand English. I keep saying “Gun-Galuut”, trying to pronounce the way I imagine a Mongolian would do and finally, our man understands and points in direction South-East. I exchange a dubitative look with Mark, then look at the guy smiling. He smiles back to me and makes a vague gesture spinning his forefinger around. I go back in the car and turn the key while the guy kick-starts his motorbike. My coworker asks me what is happening and I explain to him that we will follow our friend; he seems puzzled by the non-verbal communication that just happened.
Our Mongolian guide drives fast ahead of us. From time to time he steers his motorbike right into a bump and enjoys a jump. After some time he stops and so we do. I get out of the car and go close to him. He gives a look at South, makes a sign with his hand as if he was putting a glass close to his lips, then looks at the high rocky hills at South East and smiles. I smile, put my hands together and slightly bow my head to thank him for his help. He starts his bike and goes away, headed West. When I get in the car, Mark seems more puzzled than ever as he asks me what we’re doing next. I look at him and say: “the guy told me to keep going until we find a Ger where we could be offered fermented horse milk, then we have to take a left turn and climb the mountains”. My coworker now clearly believes that I lost my mind but after a few minutes driving, we find one lonely Ger; a shy girl hears the noise of our engine, comes out and confirms, non-verbally of course, that the high hills we see on our left are the entry gate of Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve.
As we make our way into it, we realize that the notion of Nature Reserve in Mongolia is different from what we have seen elsewhere: this is not yet another man-made attraction park. There is no dedicated structure, ranger, patrol car, no entrance gate or fee, not a single road. No-one explains what you will see. There is nothing to explain and the situation could not be clearer: nature owns the place and man is a very rare species.
The travel becomes adventurous: we test the power of Toyota engine to climb a low ridge and look at the panoramic landscape. Snow just finished melting and the yellow ground reverberates against the pristine blue of the sky. Then, we descend and drive close to one of the affluents of the Kherlen, where a herd of Mongolian horses is peacefully watering. The animals let us come close and observe us with curiosity. They seem familiar with human presence and show no visible stress. I take some pictures and get back in the car.
We abandon the river bank to continue driving in East direction, following a track that softly ascends a hill. As we start sloping down, we see a more prominent trace of human presence: an agglomeration of eight Mongolian Gers, ordered in two lines of four, too neatly organized to be a nomad thing, enclosed by a wooden fence. As we park the car at the front gate, a tall man with a bright red sweater comes to meet us, smiling; he is the owner of the Ger camp and surprisingly speaks a very good English. Mr. Batbold is a biologist, a conservationist and a very busy man: during the winter, the temperature in Mongolian steppe can drop well below -40 degrees Celsius. The camp is open all year and when the snow finally melts, our host has very few days to repair all the scars that ice caused to the infrastructures. Also, he needs to install eight more Gers on their round concrete slabs, to double the camp capacity and revenues during the summer season.
While we have lunch at the ger camp, Mr. Batbold tells about the species of birds and other animals that populate the reserve, then he advises us to continue our exploration towards the mountains. We thank him for the hospitality and get in the Toyota again.
The camp disappears from our views, driving becomes challenging when the path crosses very bumpy sections and I do my best to reduce the discomfort. The landscape around us changes but remains magnificent: lowlands around the Kherlen river gradually morph into hills covered with bright green grass, where goats peacefully graze. Another spring has arrived and the cycle of life perpetuates: all creatures have a few months to recover and build up sufficient energies to survive next winter.
As we glide slowly through this eternal countryside scene, shepherds go up and down the hills, riding their horses with mastery. From time to time, falcons float in the air above our heads. In the total absence of distraction, my thoughts slow down, crystallize, melt with the environment, capture slight changes in the air. Time has stopped here: our Land Cruiser is the only visible sign of modern civilization, the rest would have looked exactly the same if we passed by five hundred years ago.
What happens next?
In episode three we will reach the end of the adventure. We will also have an intimate conversation with a legendary photographer who will tell us what it means to be “right there”.