Now the real stuff starts. There is a bit of a health warning here. Many of the images are taken from the inside of one of the vehicles. I have included them to try and give you a flavour of the landscape and people rather than for their photographic qualities.
Having picked up provisions, the four 4×4 set off out of town on the last proper road that we’ll see for seven days. A picnic lunch of mutton dumplings (like a donna kabab in a pasty shell) and we hit the dirt track. At this point the steppes are green and luscious. Gers dot the landscape and herds of cattle, sheep and horses wander and graze contentedly. All is at peace with the world.
Gradually, almost imperceptibly, the grassland becomes tired, gers become fewer and it is a motorbike rather than a truck parked outside and the herds are less frequent, goats and camels take the place of the others. The rimming mountains push out and away until they are only a faint outline on the far horizons. A hard, flat surface hammers out as far as one can see in every direction, punctuated only by tufty grass and small, scrawny, low bushes called saxaul trees.
The dirt track has simply vanished. In its place is a fan of light parallel ruts that head of in front of the vehicles and occasionally come together and cross before heading out on their own again. The drivers hammer along these ruts at anything up to 80 kph making strategic decisions at every junction about which route to take out. I think we are heading south into the desert. The heat is intense. Only one vehicle has working air con, the rest of us sit in the hair drier breeze from open windows. The only indication that you have any human company at all are the little squirts of dust far ahead or far behind from the other vehicles. Oh, just in case you wanted to know where you were, we pass two sign posts in the course of the day! Do you like this one?
I must tell you a bit about the conveniences issue. There are no trees on the steppes, no bushes, no huts, no fences or walls. Together all four vehicles stop for such relief. The men go off to one side and face the scenery. The ladies go the other side and do the same. There is no choice but to get used to it. Initially people walk a ‘good distance’ but you soon realise that you are always in the sight of everyone however far you go, so a few steps soon suffices.
At some points the four vehicles are racing side by side on this 44 lane Santa Pod, rough track, off-road highway. Gentle rises and dips spread ahead through the hard landscape, the only difference being that over the hours the vegetation dies out even more and the rocks and stones and dust take over permanently.
The only other living things out in this wilderness are the odd group of very scruffy camels, who look up with a snotty look on their snooty faces, wondering what on earth us humans are doing disturbing their peace.
Late that day, having covered 400 kilometres over this harsh, hard, unrelenting surface, hammering along at speed over the rough side of a cheese grater for 12 hours, we arrive at a small town. We officially name it ‘In the Middle of Nowhere’ or Nowhere for short.