It all started with a camping stove and origami plates.
We were at a fancy party in Beijing and Sam, a recent acquaintance, had just outlined the various merits of his camping equipment…
A stove that could run on any fuel, space-saving cutlery that defied all logic. It all seemed like a dream.
I wanted these tools of masculinity and with them, the ability to survive any unexpected apocalypse.
It all originated in my love of outdoor shops.
I could pore over carabiners, altitude watches and survival kits for hours knowing I’d probably never need them, but wanting them desperately nonetheless.
The hunter-gatherer in me was strong, and the wild was calling.
Before long, we’d agreed to leave the bright lights of society behind, deciding that a self-guided, unsupported trek through Mongolia for seven days was just the ticket.
The next day, as I thought about what I had agreed to, panic set in. Sam had previously journeyed to the Arctic, and being Canadian, was inherently outdoorsy.
My experience, in contrast, consisted of glorified camping at music festivals.
As ill-prepared as I was, however, I eagerly anticipated escaping the throngs of people in a city that so often made me yearn for large, green open spaces.
The remote spot we decided upon was Gorkhi Terelj, a national park near the capital, Ulaanbaatar.
After landing in the city, our first challenge was finding a map of the park.
Growing up in the technological super age, we’re spoiled into thinking that we can always rely on the Internet Gods.
Gone are the days when you have to keep a paper map in your car, replaced instead by an irritating little voice announcing when you’re lost.
Analysing Google maps of Mongolia doesn’t require a magnifying glass, as there seems to be nothing there. Maybe Mongolians never get lost.
We tried finding some information on the park, although disconcertingly, no English speaker had been there.
After stumbling around Ulaanbaatar for a few hours, we finally found help in a middle-aged Scottish woman, who’d opened a well-equipped camping shop in the capital.
Having identified three or four potential routes through the park on a rather iffy map, we were ready, but not before Sam had splurged on a flint, an essential addition for two men of the wild.
After bumping up and down along severely potholed roads in search of a gas station willing to fill our camping bottles with fuel, we found ourselves at the start of our odyssey, facing a big river that we couldn’t cross.
Negotiating passage across on a cow and trailer set us back $5, pricey we thought for the 30-second crossing.
As we entered a large open valley, which disappeared over the horizon, our insignificance within this big country became apparent. It would certainly swallow us up; I just hoped it would spit us out in one piece at the end.
Trekking in Mongolia
Day 1 – Deciding Where to Go
After wolfing down a hearty bowl of oatmeal and raisins while dodging early morning mosquitos, we embarked on a well-trodden track next to the river, which was to be our companion and water source for the following two days.
Sam had wisely packed a water pump to ensure we weren’t ingesting any nasty germs. It was refreshing to drink unprocessed natural water, but also hard enough work that by the time we were finished pumping a full water bottle, we were thirsty enough to do it again.
The sun shone brightly and the cloudless sky was a reminder that not everywhere was as polluted as our adopted home in Beijing.
After becoming steadily sunburnt through most of the morning, we sat down to our first instant noodle lunch and soaked our tired feet in the icy mountain water.
It seemed like a good time to inaugurate the fishing rod we bought for extreme survival, but before I’d unstrapped it from my backpack, ominous clouds swoop in over the hills, threatening a downpour.
Day 2 – Escaping the Telephone Pylons
I attempted in vain to keep pace with Sam’s lanky frame, while we ruminated on mankind’s origins.
There’s nothing quite like being immersed in nature to wonder how it all began. In a place like this, the world seems poised to reclaim its territory when civilisation eventually implodes.
For now, though, humans continue their attempt to win the war, evidenced by the telephone poles marring the landscape.
Despite trying every camera angle, I couldn’t seem to get the blasted things out of my lens and so it was with relief that we encountered a cluster of yurts at the end of the valley, beyond which lay a vast nothingness.
Today we pushed ourselves hard and covered plenty of ground. My hip muscles complained under the weight of a heavy backpack and by the end of the day, I was hobbling like an old man.
As the light faded, so did our struggle, and we pitched the tent for a well-earned rest.
Unfortunately, my sleeping bag was ill-equipped for the chilly Mongolian night and despite wearing my entire wardrobe, I was unable to control my shivering.
I lay awake, hoping the deep growl of Sam’s snoring would keep the predators at bay.
Day 3 – Battling the Elements
In our meagre trip preparations, I felt I’d catered for the weather rather well.
I sported a snazzy set of waterproofs, supplemented by a waterproof cover for my backpack.
Sam, on the other hand, even after trying to convince me that a hatchet was an important piece of survival kit, hadn’t deemed waterproofing his belongings a priority.
We soon regarded the weather a worthy foe as, walking in the middle of a huge open valley, the clouds began spitting their venomous loads.
We pushed into the eye of the storm with water-filled shoes, cold and sodden.
As lunchtime approached, even the energy-boosting trail mix we’d devoured failed to lift us, and we struggled to contain our involuntary shivering.
Crouching down in slashing rain next to a boulder, we hastily prepared our hot noodle broth. Although we could see potential campsites on the map, in our current weak state, they appeared a long way off.
I began having worst-case scenario visions and could see my concern mirrored in Sam’s eyes. We were soaked through to the bone with no shelter in sight.
We were a long way from any help, while the only potential escape lay in Sam’s GPS tracker, which could send a distress message to our loved ones in case of emergency.
Sam quickly picked out a small wooden animal shelter by the river to provide temporary shelter.
As we squatted inside we realised that the water dripping on our heads was laced with animal faeces, used as a makeshift water sealant for the shelter.
I made a note to provide feedback to the farmer if we ever met him.
After regaining some strength, we set up camp, realising that most of our belongings were drenched.
We could just about muster a change of dry clothes between us, but my sleeping bag and mat were unusable.
Sharing our dry provisions and one sleeping mat, it was an uncomfortably long night.
Day 4 – Rain Man
Peering out of the tent the following day, we prayed for a blue sky, but alas, it wasn’t to be.
It was decision time. Push on with the trip, or stay put?
We realised that the expedition was doomed for failure, and potential danger, if we continued with wet provisions.
The only hope of progressing was to dry our clothes and sleeping bags, and so with Bear Grylls efficiency, we rigged a clothesline, willing the rain to hold off and the wind to pick up.
Unfortunately, the weather proved an unfair mistress, drizzling intermittently throughout the day.
I felt like my mother, ruminating on the sky and running out in a panic to remove clothes from the line each time it showered.
By the evening though, the black clouds began to dissipate, yielding one of the most beautiful sunsets we’d seen and blowing our cow-dung soaked clothes dry.
We drifted off to sleep confident that we wouldn’t have to abandon the adventure.
Day 5 – Is that map upside down?
The next day was just as we’d hoped; a cloudless sky willing us onward.
After carving our initials into our life-saving shelter, we departed early, keen to get our stiff legs moving after a day in the tent.
Reaching the end of the valley, the trail split, and we had to guess which route to take.
An untrodden wooded path wound before us and parting huge spider webs, I felt like Indiana Jones venturing into the jaws of uncertainty.
By the time the sun had risen, we were battling through swampy ground and moss.
“Are we still on the right track?” I asked Sam, searching for our bearings.
Instinct, rather than the map, was our new guide.
Making the call to head to higher ground, we clambered up a steep valley while being attacked by a huge swarm of mosquitoes.
It wasn’t until we’d almost summited a huge ridge that we could see what clearly looked like a small trail winding through the trees, a whole mountain away.
We’d missed our turn. Angrily, we scrambled back down the ridge, eager to reach the trail before the light petered out.
The going got progressively tougher, as we waded though leg-eating swamps and boulder fields.
Taking a break, I was unable to control myself any longer as my bowels erupted in the midst of a mosquito swarm.
The bites after this opportunistic attack made the next hour of walking the most uncomfortable of the day.
As we reached what appeared to be a small horse trail after a ten-hour slog, we were ready to set up camp anywhere.
Rushing into the tent away from the awakening evening bugs, I felt like a broken man.
Lost in the wilderness with bruised feet and angry mosquito bites, I questioned why we were doing this to ourselves.
I drifted off to sleep dreaming of a horse and cart to carry us back to Ulaanbaatar.
Day 6 – Washed Away
Setting off along the one horse trail, we wondered if we’re on the right track.
The grass, which appeared to have been trampled by another lost soul, had an irritating tendency to disappear abruptly.
Intermittently veering off perpendicularly to our intended direction, we ignored the trail and hacked through the undergrowth.
Sam assured me that we were indeed, headed in the right direction, as macabre thoughts percolated through my mind.
We hadn’t seen another living soul for three and half days now, unthinkable in an age where you often can’t move an inch without bumping into another human.
After much fumbling through marshland, we finally found a set of tyre tracks and I almost sank to my knees to kiss the dirt.
Never had I been so happy to see man’s footprint.
At the end of another long day and walking on the balls of my feet due to blood-filled heel blisters, we encountered a beautiful bend in a shallow river that would make the perfect camping spot.
After a fortifying, manhood shrivelling dip in the icy water, we were even able to eat dinner without pacing back and forth to evade the mosquitoes.
It was pleasing to watch a storm brewing up the valley as we crawled into our sleeping bags, happy little campers.
“You should come and take a look at this”, said Sam in the middle of the night, after getting up for a toilet break.
I crawled out of my cocoon to see that the river, which was a good fifteen feet away from the tent the day before, was now a mere two and getting closer by the second.
We were about to be washed away, the earlier storm creating an angry torrent of rushing brown water, carrying logs like they were matchsticks.
Surveying the scene, we realised that we were perched on an island that was getting progressively smaller. Moving quickly, we threw the valuables into the waterproof bag and zipped the tent.
We could still barely get through the river where it had burst the bank, and so, carrying our belongings above our heads, we waded thigh-deep through the water to reach a higher plot of land.
As I tossed and turn in my sleeping bag for the second time that night, I just hoped we didn’t get up to find ourselves at the end of the river.
Day 7 – Homeward Bound
Upon waking, we reassuringly discovered that we’d not moved from the night before.
After a quick breakfast, we were on the move, initially having to traverse the high, rushing river.
Linking arms, we squatted precariously into the brown water and shuffled slowly through the fast current.
The relief at fording the river in one piece didn’t last long though as, continuing down the valley, we were forced to repeat the manoeuvre to stay with the path.
Finally, we emerged on beautiful grassland, the grazing territory of Mongolian herdsman.
Bounding along, we were relieved to have survived the tough terrain of previous days.
The sun shined on our backs as we hit the main river artery feeding Gorkhi Terelj. As the afternoon started casting shadows, we stumbled into town exhausted, but ultimately, triumphant.
As we attempted to hitchhike back to the city, we were met by stern shakes of the head and grunts from the locals.
Granted, we were wildly bearded and smelled of animal excrement, but surely one kind-hearted Mongolian would take pity on us?
We sat by the side of the road and contentedly cooked up another meal, eyed somewhat suspiciously by the locals.
We mentally prepared ourselves for a lengthy wait, until most fortuitously we met an English speaking Mongolian girl also trying to hitchhike back to the city after a weekend in the park.
Like a dream, things fell into place perfectly.
Taking us to an Irish bar owned by a family friend, we devoured an enormous burger and beer, which I’d been fantasising about for the last seven days.
Next stop, a spa, where we gladly splurged on deep tissue massages before our flight home.
Our hardship and toil over the past week were truly repaid, restoring balance to the universe.
As we jumped on the plane back to one and a half billion Chinese, nostalgia manipulated my fragile mind, making me wonder if I should transcend the material life to live off the land.
Maybe one day…