Mongolia's True Wild - Part 1
In July 2019, six friends in three canoes set out on a human-powered journey through the wilderness of Mongolia’s Great Steppe. As they battled rapids, torrential rains, scorching heat, and endless granite boulder fields along the Chuluut River, they were lucky enough to experience Mongolia’s True Wild, a remoteness unlike any other; vast, barren and beautiful.
When we first met, Arron mentioned that he had the opportunity to go and work on a program in Mongolia with the company he worked seasonally for in Hong Kong. It was something he was so, so excited about. Occasionally, he’d joke that he’d take some time off after the program and fly me out and we’d go on an epic Mongolian adventure. I’d laugh and say “yeah, sure!” and then the conversation would naturally flow elsewhere.
The idea of Mongolia was something that kept him going through tough, long days in the South East Asian heat in the autumn and following spring. He’d still mention it on the phone whenever we talked, and I was excited for him. It’s not every day you’re offered an opportunity to explore somewhere like Mongolia; it’s not a place you spontaneously find yourself.
When Arron worked away, the eight-hour time difference between Hong Kong and the UK often meant that I’d wake up to messages and updates from him whilst I’d been asleep. On one sleepy morning, I spotted that I had a couple of emails and, bleary-eyed, I opened them, only half-awake. “Happy summer holiday present!” one of them was titled. I was confused, and scrolled down. It was a flight booking confirmation. I was going to Mongolia too!
With a group of our friends, it had been all worked out. Four of the group would already be in Mongolia working, and the remaining two of us would fly into Ulaanbataar to meet them at the end of their program. I was still in disbelief. Not only was I going somewhere I’d never even really thought about before, but I had to travel there, alone, and then venture out onto a multi-day canoe expedition.
I’d never really canoed before, aside from a couple of lessons from Arron, and I’d also never really done a multi-day; one night away in a tent was as advanced as my camping experience got. This was going to be a challenge of epic proportions, one I wasn’t even sure I was prepared for.
Mongolia is a landlocked country, squeezed between China and Russia. It’s famous for it’s huge, seemingly endless steppe, it’s wide-open blue skies and it’s legendary, medieval leader and founder of the Mongol Empire, Genghis/Chinggis Khan. A place where legend, folklore and history are interlinked, Mongolia is the “Land of the Eternal Blue Sky”, with a population of 3 million people, half of which live in the capital Ulaanbataar. With such a huge expanse of land and only 1.5 million people spread across it, Mongolia is also incredibly remote, with many of its inhabitants occupying traditional “gers” and living off the land as their ancestors did, with homesteads sparsely dotted across the landscape.
While Arron worked out in Mongolia, I’d had bits of communication and the occasional photo, but signal is hard to come by out of the city. I arrived in Hong Kong on the evening of the 1st of July, with little-to-no expectations of what lay ahead. The following day, I headed back to Hong Kong airport to catch an early evening flight to Ulaanbataar, a 4 hour journey which would land us in the capital just before midnight. I was travelling with Melissa, a colleague of Arron’s and one of the six members of our group. We arrived at the airport, only to see that dreaded word on the departures board: “DELAYED”.
Initially, we weren’t sure by how long we were going to be delayed. Our 6.20pm flight was, at first, listed to depart at 9.30pm. The thought of an extra three hours sitting around in Hong Kong airport, where we weren’t even allowed to check-in, was ever so slightly disconcerting. We managed to find a check-in desk, hoping to speak to the airline about the delay and find some answers. They then told us that 9.30pm was just a prediction, and it could in fact be much later. They refused to let us check-in until 8pm at the earliest, but with nothing to do in the departures hall and no access to restaurants or bars until we could check in, our moods started to waver. We watched the updates on our phone, desperately hoping that the high winds that were preventing our flight from departing would calm down.
9.30pm… 10.40pm… 11.30pm… 01:00am…
We were snoozing next to our gate, exhausted and hungry, when at 01.30am, they finally allowed us to start boarding. Sitting on the plane and watching the lightning strike with blinding violence above our heads, suddenly I wished I could be back in the relative safety of the departures hall.
With a little turbulence and an uncomfortable couple of hours attempting to nap, we landed in Ulaanbataar safely at 6.30am, 7 hours later than billed. We were due to join our group the night before to stay in a hotel, get a proper night’s sleep and prepare for the day ahead. Instead, we were picked up by Arron and a driver at 7am, driven to the hotel to collect the rest of the group and organise gear, and then bundled into a Russian van. We had a full day of driving ahead of us, as our location and put-in point on the river was over 12 hours drive out of Ulaanbataar. I wouldn’t get to sleep in a proper bed, or have a proper shower for well over a week, and I’d already been travelling for 3 days. Not the most ideal of starts!
Thankfully, Arron and I snagged the back seat of the van, and just about managed to scrunch ourselves up so we could both lie down and catch up on some sleep on the drive while the roads were still tarmacked. We’d been reliably informed that at some point that day, the road would gradually run out and we’d just be driving on old tracks and over grass and rocks.
Our group was made up of a variety of people, with different stories and different “why”s. Arron and I were joined by our friends: Melissa, a South African outdoor instructor who I travelled with, Ant, a Birmingham native who’s called Hong Kong home for the past 7 years, Stig, another outdoor instructor who was born in Zimbabwe but moved around a lot and has a global mindset, rather than a specific “home”, and Mark, a medic from Lincolnshire but also living full-time in Hong Kong. We were a higgledy-piggledy group, and each of us brought something new and unique to the table. We were definitely not going to get bored.
Over the length of the full day of driving, we had little choice but to bond as a group and form a connection; we’d never really hung out as a 6 before, and I’d only met a couple of them once or twice. But, when you’re wandering out onto the plains to a long-drop in a tiny hut that smells like death, suddenly the people you’re with become people you’re pretty comfortable with, fairly fast!
The sun began to set on our first day, and the driver of our van was doing increasingly long blinks. We put our music on loudly and sung about as out-of-tune as you can imagine, hoping that our voices would keep him awake. Darkness fell and we still had more kilometres left to drive than we wanted to think about. Eventually, we convinced the driver to pull over somewhere quiet off the road and we’d all camp for the night, before trying to find out put-in point on the river in daylight. Mongolian maps are famously old and ever so slightly unreliable, so we didn’t want to rely on a map in pitch darkness when driving alongside a deep river gorge.
After a restless night’s sleep, with trucker’s rumbling past the road and pomping their horns in the early hours, we awoke and brewed a fresh pot of coffee. We were back on the road by 8am and pulled onto an off-road section which snaked through farms and passed goats and cattle and guard dogs as we drove. The first put-in point looked completely impossible, so we carried on driving through the wilderness for what felt like hours. The wheels of the van kicked up dust and dust devils danced outside the windows. Eventually, further up river than we’d expected, we found a put-in point that didn’t look too difficult. I mean, it looked really bloody difficult, but compared to our other options, we’d take it. We parked up and hulked the canoes off the roof of the two vans that carried our gear, and then unpacked everything. We hadn’t had any breakfast at the morning campsite, expecting that it would only be an hour until we could eat. It had been three hours and we were ravenous, so we cooked up some eggs and some Mongolian “bacon” that was definitely more fat than meat. We were all nervous and anxious, but the food kept us quiet and distracted.
It was only when we heard the rumble of the Russian vans that we realised we were about to be left alone. The drivers waved goodbye and drove, gradually, into the distance. Their engine noise faded into nothing and all of a sudden, it was just us and the wilderness. No get-out vehicle, no quick rescue, no help would be coming if we needed it. And we had at least six days ahead of us to survive on rapids we hadn’t scouted.
And we were alone.
[To be continued!]