Weather in UB

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

The Gobi Marathon Trip

The Asia "Pleasure Bus"-Photo credit (A.Conti)

Preface: things you need to know before reading this: 5km=3.1 miles (you do the math) and distances that you might consider short, like 400km, can take 12hours to several days to complete in Fungolia!
So a few old folks and some twenty-something’s boarded the Asia “Pleasure” bus for what was billed as 12 hour trip to the Gobi. Being the experienced Mongolia traveler that I am, I know that you should go on a trip with no expectations, especially about time. Additionally, most of my companions were ill prepared for the ruggedness of the adventure. Some of you have seen Ewan McGregor’s “Long Way Round” documentary, so you can at least visualize what I mean when I say “no roads”. It’s not like “off roading” in a field in the suburbs, this is the real deal. Mongolia has very few paved roads, just paths in the dirt...extremely rutted, bumpy, paths in the dirt. As you can imagine, this is difficult for the driver and passengers alike. When one path wears out, the cars just make new paths. Soon enough, this track in the middle of nowhere has the look of a 6 lane highway.
Photo: "All roads lead somewhere"- a pit stop on the way. That's me on the left. Photo credit: A.Conti
Photo: "Downward facing dogs"-Bella, the cockerspaniel and I stretching at a rest stop. Photo credit: A.Conti
The first leg of the trip was from UB to Mandalgovi (For a map, see Omnogovi Province). As I was the lone Mongolian speaker, I had the privilege and challenge of negotiating hotel rooms and talking to our driver. I defiantly sugar coated some of the things I was supposed to say to the driver, and gently comforted him along the way when certain miscommunications arose (and arise they did!). We got to Madalgovi at night and stayed in a pretty nice hotel (less than $10 per person). No complications aside from a few vodka drinking men who were very impressed with my Mongolian skills and offered to buy me a few drinks. I politely declined, sighting early morning travel as my reason.
The next morning we started out for Dalanzadgad. The roads were so over used, that driving on them was like driving a tricycle on a washboard. I mean literally, if you can imagine driving a car on a washboard that was that it was like. Of course our driver, Tugso, was driving super fast just to get on to some better roads. However, he failed to see these two, back to back, 3 foot drops. Yeah, we almost died…but the worst times make the best stories.
Photo: the drop that almost killed us
Miraculously, we only had car trouble a hand full of times and it never ceases to amaze me how some chewing gum, a rusty pipe, scotch tape, and a plastic cup can fix just about any car in Mongolia. Photo: "What's in yer grill" Photo credit: A. Conti!
We made it to Dalanzadgad, but then we had the added challenge of finding the ger camp that we were going to stay in. Oddly, Dalanzadgad, a town of 12,000 people has 2 airports. Why that is, is still a mystery. We knew that the ger camp we were to stay in, with all the Gobi marathon participants, was located down, outside of the new airport. I believe the directions we had read something like this: “down past the new airport, there will be a fork in the road. At the fork, go right and follow the telephone poles 20 km.” Somehow, we missed that fork, perhaps took another one, and we were off course. At this point everyone was getting hungry and antsy. Our poor driver stopped a couple times at some random gers to ask directions. Before we knew it we were taking off across the open Gobi steppe when we found a car that was out looking for us. We eventually made it to the ger camp just as the sun went to bed.
There were about 30 race participants staying at the ger camp. We all had dinner and the race “route” was explained to us. We drank some vodka, ate, and slept. Photo: Annie and Attila.
Bright and early the next day, we all got up, packed up the cars, and took off. That morning was when I met the Spanish Ultra-marathoner. He had just popped down to the Gobi to do the marathon while on a 5 day trip to Mongolia. He was also going to climb “The 5 peaks” out in Bayan-Ulgii (Kaz-golia) the next day.
The race route was marked by red ribbons that seemed to strewn across the Gobi haphazardly. However, Joachim, the organizer of the race, claims the ribbons were marking every kilometer. I have failed to mention, that we went as a team of sorts. We even had heinously ugly matching shirts! My friend dubbed us” Win er’ Wear Orange”. Only one guy on our team ran the entire marathon (AND he got lost doing it), one girl ran the ½ (with no training, which I’m sure she is regretting today), another guy ran 10km and walked 11km, my fellow “researcher” and I, ran 5 km and walked 16km. The rest of the team (The Aging Amblers) walked most of the ½ marathon, but they got a little of track. (See preface for metric conversion). Photo: The start of the race. Photo credit: A. Conti
The race started in a flat open place and was marked by a banner help up by 2 Feurgons (see UAZ). The 4 marathoners (A Spaniard, a German (My “teammate”), and 2 Mongolians) took off.
Photo: J in orange (my teammate, the ultra-marathoner in the yellow cap, and the 2 Mongolians at the side)
The rest of us hopped in the cars to race ahead of them and set up water stations every 5 km. When we reached the sand dunes (at about 10km) everyone got out and took pictures and looked around. To our surprise, the Ultra Marathoner caught up to us, and ran over the dunes like it was a walk in the park. Then, our car got stuck in the sand and we all got out to dig and push it out, and chase the Ultra-marathoner.
Photo: Ultra-Marathoner leaves us in the dust. (A.Conti cheers him on!)
Photo: Pushing the Pleasure bus
Photo: Annie and the dunes. Photo credit: A.Conti

Photo: 1/2 Marathoners
After another 10km, all the people who were running/walking the ½ got out to start. My friend and I ran together and finished the 5km with no problems. Then we walked the rest of the 16 km together. The terrain was amazing and diverse. We couldn’t believe that there are so many beautiful plants in the desert. Mind you, the area we were in is the place where people have found completely in-tack dinosaur bones, and dinosaur eggs. We went through steppe land, sand dunes, stark desert, and finished at the “Flaming Cliffs”. We finished in less than 4 hours, just in time to see 2 out of 4 marathoners finish. The Ultra-marathon guy did it in 3 hours. I felt a great sense of accomplishment.
Photo: The beginning of the 1/2 marathon (strong start)
Photo: Me and A.Conti breaking records with our 5km

Photo: At the finish line Photo: The Flaming Cliffs-at the finish line
All of us jumped back in the car around 3pm to start back to UB. We were on a pretty tight schedule, due to everyone having to be back at work in the city. We drove and drove until we came to a soum (village) and stopped to get directions and gas. They offered us a place to stay, but it was sill light out and our driver said he wasn’t tired and could make it to the next town. I wasn’t too keen on staying in that soum because within 30 seconds of our arrival, the drunks we all around. One guy kept calling me “Madonna”.
Photo: Crank start, Mandal-Ovoo SoumSo, after filling the gas for 30 minutes (crank powered), we pushed on. Sure enough, night fell, and finding the correct roads in this vast, open landscape became more difficult. We kept stopping and flagging down other cars to make sure we were going the right way, but who knows which way we were really going? At about 1:30am we pulled into a town and asked the gas station lady if there were any hotels. She sent us around to a bunch of places. One place even had its light on, but when or bus stopped, they quickly turned out the light. NO ROOM IN THE INNE! Our driver was concerned about us, and he didn’t want to get in trouble. He was ready to drive the other 250km to UB in the middle of the night! I conferred with my teammates and then told the driver to drive about 5 km outside of town and some of us would sleep in the car and some of us outside. We had to get away from town if we were gonna sleep outside because of the dogs. I wasn’t about to get mauled by a ravenous dog in the middle of the night!
Four of us youngsters slept outside in our sleeping bags. I had borrowed a sleeping bag from a friend of mine who is much larger than me. I failed to think about how the cold air would get in through the head hole no matter how tight I secured it. I was freezing all night. I think it was 32F/0C, but this is debatable. It was however, a beautiful night, with a big shiny moon, and stars you could reach. We could hear dogs barking in the distance and a horse snoring nearby, but it was so dark, we couldn’t see any of our surroundings We watched the sun rise somewhere around 6am. That’s when we were really able to soak in the beauty of the place we had slept in. There was a ger nearby (the barking dogs) and we were surrounded by rolling hills and vast landscapes. I wish I had been more awake to appreciate it. We got everyone up and did our morning routine and headed out around 8am.
Photo: A mountain on the way back to UB
The ride back was gruelingly slow at times, but I think that was mostly because everyone was tired and stinky (no showers, post marathon, lots of dust!). It took 7 hours to get back to UB. I think at least one of those hours was spent trying to buy oil for the car (side note: motor oil is translated as “car butter” in Mongolian). We went to a small soum that had 2 gas stations. I have no idea why they had 2 gas stations considering the town maybe had about 400 people in it. We went back and forth between the 2 gas stations, each station claiming the other station had the oil we wanted. I think this is a good example of a cultural difference. There is no knowledge of the saying “the customer is King” here in Mongolia. When you are purchasing something here (goods or a service) it’s almost like the shopkeeper is doing you a favor. I’m pretty used to this, but for the other foreigners who haven’t been in Mongolia long, they have trouble understanding this mentality after coming from the West. Nonetheless, we got the oil, but not from a gas station, from some guys ger. We carried on and got to see some more vast, uninhabited, expansive landscapes. When we were about 1 hour outside UB the air started to change and there was more and more garbage and homes. We actually drove through the garbage dump here. It’s an open land fill system. So the garbage just gets dumped outside of town and then blows around all over the place. The traffic in UB was the first thing that bothered me, but I couldn't’t wait to take a hot shower and get some Indian food. Those were the first things I did!
There are a few more pics that I might add later. Hopefully you all enjoyed this post, because it took me nearly 2 days to assemble!


Andrew Campbell said...

Bagsh: phew! hope the winter road to Khovsgol is a little less bumpy. Will make sure we bring our own gum, duct-tape, and waxed-paper cups.

Keep on running. And The Mominator is doing much better, thank you.


Christian said...

Assembly perhaps required, but that's just life out here. Anyway, definitely an entertaining read. I like the bit about the ultra-marathoner going faster than the van... and the car butter. That definitely made me chuckle.

John said...

Terrific novel, AR! This entry will give War & Peace a run for its money.

tergellian said...

excellent. a new source of entertainment at work.

tergellian said...

oh! this is natasha, by the way, not just a friendly blogger. i forgot to mention.

Ulaana said...

Natasha, I'm glad to make your day at the bank a little bit brighter :)

Rosemary said...

Great narrative. When is your book being published?!

Steve Uj said...

same story different twist