( ) Some months before, when I was considering travelling. I had an offer to join a group of friends from Shanghai, who were travelling to Mongolia, to participate in a marathon/ultramarathon event. It was a race through a national park, in the very far north of Mongolia, on the Siberian border. It sounded idyllic and the event was also orgaised to raisee money for environmental projects in the park. Perfect!
I took the train from Beijing to Ulaan Batar, 30hrs. A very comfortable jouney in a hard sleeper (six bed open compartment). At the station in UB, we were met by many local people trying to get us to stay at their homes. I went with a lady to her home, with another two English guys. She lived in a second storey apartment in a very badly maintained block of flats, in the tradition of communism. (a dump) We slept in the living room for $3 a night. It was just like living with your mum, but in Mongolia. She made tea and woke us up in the mornings, scolded us if we came in too late. One night, one of the English guys brought a girl back and she kicked the pair of them into the street at 2am in the morning. The next morning she scolded him quite badly. So, I was very happy there and whenever I was in UB, I stayed with Nara.
I was cost cutting as far as the original race package was concerned. So, when I was offered the opportunity to travel by bus from UB to the lake, with the Mongolian runners, I jumped at the chance. Not only did I save additional cash, but it gave me the opportunity to spend time with the local people and see the countryside on the way up. The rest of the group flew straight in from various parts of the world, then by direct charter to the race site, some 1,000kms to the the NW of UB. The journey, even by my standards, was a hard one. We travelled in an old Russian made 4WD. It took us 32 hours to reach the run site, across total wilderness for the most part. There was no road, only dirt/jeep tracks. There were 12 of us, 11 Mongols and me, guess who couldn't speak Mongolian and who couldn't speak English. OK, leave my English alone!
The scenery was breathtaking, steppe and mountains. Every couple of miles we would see a Ger (traditional white felt tent) with lots of cattle, horses and goats etc. But for mile upon mile, there was nothing, just wilderness. We could travel along the track for hours and never see another vehicle. Unbelievable! The run site was along side a beautiful lake, surrounded by mountains and forests. It would have been impossible to imagine a more beautiful setting. At the Ger camp, there were 65 participants in total. A good mix of nationalities and ages. The camp was wonderfully organised, with mountain bikes, hiking trips, canoes, fishing, horse riding. The food was simple but good and plentiful. The majority were there for the race, experienced ultramarathoners from around the world and novices like me, along with family and partners.
The day of the race came far too qiuickly for my liking. Before I knew it, we were lined up at the start,at 4.30am, in the dark. There were 45 participants, 20 doing the marathon and the rest, like me, doing the ultra. It was really spooky, the first part of the course took us away from the camp site, through the woods and onto a jeep track, that led us along the first 12kms. The first aid station was located here at the foot of the first mountain. These were the bits that scared me the most. I found the whole idea of running 100kms pretty intimidating, but it included three mountains to boot.
The first section to the marathon aid station, actually went quite smoothly and quickly it seemed. Although the clock said 6 hrs as I crosed the 42km mark. I had never run 6 hrs before in my life, only half that in fact and I also knew at this point that I might have up to another 12 hours to run. You can't imagine what that does to your head. Anyway, I changed my clothes, ate my lunch, recharged my bottles and back pack and headed out with a small group again. We stayed together for the next 12kms and the more experienced runners introduced a little game to me. It went something like this, run 25mins and for walk 5mins or whatever rythym suited them. I found it very useful and the change certainly gave the body a recuperative period, which was to prove very important over the next 8-10 hours. Gradually I pulled away from my running partners, expecting others to come up behind me at any moment. I never saw another runner for the next 7 hrs and 42kms. The second section of the run took us away from the mountains towards the steppe, river beds and meadows, eventually leading back towards and along the lake, for the final 24kms.
By the time I had left the last aid station, I was completely out of power bars or energy gel, I had been running for 13hours and my feet were completely blistered. The blisters developed as a result of running through marshes in the early part of the marathon, some 13 hours earlier. But I figured, eh, I've come this far., so I ignored the pain and kicked on. I was feeling very uncomfortable over the the last 8kms and the game I had picked up earlier had developed to a rediculous extent. You have to remember, I had been running for more than 14hrs by this stage, through the dark, mountains, valleys and hills, through the cold, wet and hot sun of the afternoon. I am convinced I was completely insane by this stage. My game had developed something like this; the run thing had taken on a whole personality, called 'Steady Eddie' (SE). The walking break had taken on a personality, that had come to be known as 'Walter Walker' (WW). So, you have to understand, that I was no longer running by myself, over the last 30kms or so, there were three personalities in constant dialogue and at times what verged on violent conflict. At the start, myself and SE were very much in charge. However, over the last 12kms it was touch and go, with WW taking complete control on occasion. You cannot imagine the arguments going on between the three of us. If any one qualified had heard us, I would have been committed.
On the final run in, I passed the Japanese chap who had been in front of me for the previous 8hrs. He was in a worse condition than me. However, I got quite a lift passing him and it spurred me on to the finish and the thought of a very hot shower, a very cold beer and and a bowl to soak my poor feet in. It is hard to describe the euphoria I felt crossing the finish line. Europhoria mixed with complete exhaustion and pride and all sorts of other feelings and thoughts. Fantastic! I was just thankful, that it was over. The real celebration, just happend to fall on my birthday, the next day. I couldn't have organised it better myself. The last night celebrations were excellent. Traditional dancing and singing, wrestling matches, presentations of certificates for the race etc. It was also tinged with a little sadness, as we all said our farewells. If any of you are thinking of a trip to Mongolia, I couldn;t think of a better focus for it, than this event. Many of the family members and partners, non runners, walked the beautiful marathon course in around 10-12 hours. The remainder assisted on the aid station and proved invaluable. So, it really is a trip that has something for everybody. If your interested check out: www.ultramongolia.org.
I returned to UB after the run, this time on the chartered plane. In UB, I teamed up with another two English guys to hire a Jeep for a week and we set out for the Gobi desert. We had to pack the jeep with everything we needed for the weeks camping trip. Outside of UB there really are very few large communities, just small towns situated on some of the major roads, of which there are few. We set off with food, water, tent, stove, pots, pans the lot, plus our faithful Mongolian driver, guide and man of the moment, who spoke not one word of English. But loved to drink cheap Chenggis Khan vodka, bought by English people.
The trip was stunning. We covered 2,000kms in 6 days. Every night was spent in a different locatin with different scenery. One night we camped with local Mongols, next to the Gers (felt tents), surrounded by heards of Bactrian camels, horses, cattle, goats and house pets. Their generously would be hard to match anywhere. A simple people, eaking out a very hard living from some of the most inhospitable land in the world. We found it tough and it was the summer. I can't think what it would be like living in those tents in the middle of the barren steppe, in the depths of winter, a winter that will drop to -40C. Unthinkable!
Another night, we camped in a beautiful gorge, still totally iced in at the end of june, in the Gobi desert. The most memorable night, though, was when we camped at the foot of the mighty Gobi sand dunes. Spectacular!. We even managed to climb one of the 400mt high dunes, quite exhausting, and deadly for cameras. I niaively, took my book to the top, thinking I could rest and read, enjoying the last rays of a dying sun. The best way to describe it is this; it was like being sandblasted with one of those high pressure guns, that you clean the brickwork on houses with. Another night was spent in a ruined monastery abandoned centuries before, very romantic. Another night was spent outside the gates of a 16th Century Buddhist Monastery. At this site we manged to attract most of the towns-folk and a pack of wild dogs, that never stopped barking. We were woken with quite a fright the next morning, when we thought we were being attacked by those same dogs. You can imagine our relief when we realised they were baby goats playing around the foot of our tent.
So, after 4 weeks, I left Mongolia with many fond memories. I took the train back to Beijing and a couple of days later headed out on the overnight train to Yichang, on the banks of the mighty Yangzi River( .)