So this is the Gobi. No romantic crescents of towering arcs of soft sand in oranges and reds with a robed tribesmen, piercing blue eyes pinning your heart to his from behind his headscarf, navigating his noble camel down to your caravan. Sorry, no. The Gobi is hard, uncompromising, hot, dusty, grey and empty with camels that grunt and complain and groan and spit and smell and slobber.
Today we expect to drive 300 km to the overnight stop. On the way we are seeking some caves where some Stone Age Men and their families lived many years ago.
The fist part its easy enough. We start off in good spirits refreshed in Nowhere. The route is flat with only the occasional gulley when the driver has to brake sharply and ease the vehicle down one side and up the other. Easy. The sun is not yet fully up. Music is placing – a random selection of Mongolian throat singing, light Mongolian opera, some cowboy clip-cloppy stuff, Mongolian hip hop, some very inappropriate US rap and some Kylie.
It is unclear where this cave is, so our magnificent team of drivers stop at a group of gers and ask a herdsman, who is watering his goats from a well.
A lot of gesturing and pointing takes place and that’s where it all starts to go wrong. Our convoy becomes divided. Two vehicles, including mine, head off to the left following a set of energy wires towards the mountains in the distance.
I call this part of the journey the Rally Cross Fun Fair. We are going across the landscape and crossing all the dry streams and water courses that would be torrents when the shows melt in the hills. So, every few meters there is a steep gulley, river bed, rut, dip, mound, wadi which has to be traversed with a similar technique – brake at top, descend sharply, hit bottom with a shake, rattle, roll, fling up to roof, grind up the other side with a churning of tyres, hit the top and dump over ready for the next one. It is just like a fun fair. I’ve named some of the rides – The Rough Track Helter Skelter, The Brocking 4×4 Bronco, The Gravel Slide Waltser, The Rally Cross Spider, The Dried Watercourse Roller Coaster. At one point vehicle number 2 gets pinned in the bottom of a gully with its back wheels clean off the ground.
We reach the mountains, which up close resemble even more the teeth in a crocodile’s jaw. We drive along the face for 30 minutes, rollercoasting the scree fans, eventually giving up this line of approach by descending a 75° slope, spotting a lad on a motorbike.
When asked, he points. Oh no, not the dreaded pointing arm.
The two vehicles, feeling cocky, chase off into the crocs teeth, following a dried river course up into the hills taking the wrong choise at any diversion of a line of wheel tracks in the gravel.
We find ourselves up in some high grasslands but, judging by the more frequent stops and the more frantic conversations between our drivers, utterly lost. It is beautiful though. Not helpful.
There follows half an hour of animated chat and lots of pointing. ‘Call the other vans on mobile’…….’no reception’. ‘Use your satellite phone’……’only got one so they can’t receive the call’. ‘Sat Nav’ is very similar in Mongolian.
There follows 15 minutes of searching through bags for the day nav and leads. Our drivers then pile into one van and screw up their faces as they study the screen. At this point the passengers were outside keeping themselves amused. We play I Spy (that did not take long), I went to a Mongolian Market. We made up jokes – There were 4 Brits, 2 Irish & 3 Mongolians lost in the desert….. Imagine our surprise when their vehicle moved around in 90° sectors obviously trying to find their position. Hmmmmm. I suspect the screen showed no roads or building and was just……..green.
Ok. Some thinking required. Let’s go back and find someone to ask the way!!!!!!! This sounds a good idea. Except, this is the middle of the Gobi. There is no sign of a dwelling, a vehicle, a person. Look, a herd of goats in the distance. Up and over hillsides, scatter the herd, no herdsman. There he is, over on that hillside. Up and over hillsides. Yayyyy. ‘Cave?’. More pointing. Oh no.
But, despite misgivings, after another 40 minutes of up and over hillsides, there in the distance, tiny, are two parked vehicles alongside a tiny orange roofed shelter. That is what we’ve been looking for two hours.
Lost and found in the Gobi. How many people on this planet can claim bragging rights to that? Quite a few, it seems. It happened on four more occasions. ‘Good game. Play it at home’.