I woke up early Friday morning to get ready for the trip. Brigitte was heading out in a separate group, so I would be traveling without her for most of the journey. I met up with the other “bus’ers” around 11:30AM near the MIAT Airlines office. There was a French (now American) lady and her elderly mother, a British (now a New Zealander) lady, a German lady, and I, along with our driver and guide, who were both Mongolian. We introduced ourselves and then headed to the State Department store to get supplies if we needed anything.
We drove outside of the city in a southerly direction, giving us a good view of Ulaanbaatar and the surrounding area (including a new sports stadium currently under construction). After about a half hour the paved road stopped and we were traveling on gravel and sand roads. At first it wasn:t too bad but after a few hours it started to get quite bumpy. As five of us were packed into the middle of this Russian minibus along with our supplies and the two personnel it wasn’t the most spacious of transportation and we were frequently knocking into each other. It was along this route that we got our first taste of the rolling hills of Mongolia. As far as the eye can see are low lying hills covered with grass and small flora with a huge expanse of blue, cloudless sky overhead. No people in sight, no dwellings, no traffic–nothing but the occasional hawk flying overhead. After three hours or so we stopped at a very small village to grab a bite to eat. The guide ordered a bowl of noodles and mutton and milk tea for each of us. Total cost per person was a bit over $1, and I couldn’t even finish half of the greasy bowl. After that we continued on…and on…and on, through almost unchanging landscapes until after nightfall. During the drive we stopped every once in a while to check out the livestock roaming the desert or to get up close and personal with wandering camels. After we arrived at the decently-sized city of Mandalgovi (Middle Gobi) we checked into our very basic hotel and grabbed a bite to eat in the restaurant. We were all craving some beer after the long journey but it turns out the hotel stocked only airag–fermented mares milk (has an alcohol percentage of around 3%). That didn’t sound appetizing to any of us at that point so we just resigned ourselves to a night without beer. We were pleasantly surprised however when our guide produced cold bottles of beer for each of us–turns out he had brought it along in the minibus for such an occasion. Cue rejoicing. As I was the only male passenger I ended up spending the night in a room along with the guide and driver. The beds weren’t all that comfortable, and the shower didn’t work, but I had no trouble falling fast asleep that night.
The next morning we all got together around 7:00AM and had breakfast at the hotel restaurant again. Then we all jumped in the minibus and drove…and drove…and drove. It was another day of ass-grinding driving for us! The worst part was when you got tired and wanted to go to sleep you would start leaning towards the side of the minibus and then you’d hit a bump in the road and the shock would knock your head against the metal sides–it happened to most of us more than once. Again we made stops every so often to get out and stretch and take pictures. For lunch we set up a table in the middle of nowhere and proceeded to have a picnic consisting of sausage, bread, and pickles. After about ten hours of driving we arrived at our ger (yurt) camp near the Flaming Cliffs of Bayanzag. We were greeted by a Mongolian girl in traditional dress who offered us all a sip of milk tea upon entering the compound. The setup was obviously made for foreigners and consisted of maybe a dozen gers, a restaurants, a bathroom/shower house, and staff accommodation. There was already a decent contingent of tourists there by the time we arrived (all having to do with the Gobi Marathon in some way or another), and I ended up being the last man into my four-man ger. I would be sharing the ger with two guys my age–an American who worked as a casino dealer in Macau and an Australian who was working in Ulaanbaatar at an NGO for the year. The fourth guest was an older German man who had come here to run his 180th marathon. We introduced ourselves and talked for a bit over beers before it was time for dinner.
Dinner was a heaping portion of spaghetti and meatballs prepared in part by the rally organizer, Joachim. Everyone stuffed their faces with the carb-loaded pasta and Joachim gave a brief outline of what to expect the following day. It turns out that only four of us were running the full 26.2 mile marathon–the older German man, my American roommate, an older German woman, and myself. Everyone else was doing the half marathon or the ‘fun walk’. With a bit of goading we convinced our fellow roommate, the Australian, to join us in doing the ‘proper’ marathon the next day. I kept getting stares of disbelief when I announced to people that I was doing the full marathon–my first marathon–in the Gobi Desert with no training and no proper equipment, but I laughed it off. This was going to be a fine end to an excellent trip–when else would I get this chance? I also knew that if I was going to come all this way and do it that I was going to do it right. Plus, I kind of liked the incredulous looks on other people’s faces, I’ll be honest.
We all got to bed pretty early that evening–it was going to be a very early, very long day tomorrow! Before we went to sleep though we were treated to a picture perfect sunset, silhouetting the gers and finally setting behind the mountains far off in the distance.
Pictures have been posted in the gallery.