Hope, despair, uncertainty, and an ice valley

Today was a mission. But at least we are really in the Gobi now. In the geographic sense. I make no comment at all on the validity of the metaphor.

It was also one of those days when you realise the difficulties created by the communication barrier (we can not talk to our driver, and we seem to be doing things differently from what we thought), and you begin to appreciate the amazing way that just not knowing what is going on can make you think that something bad is up.

So yes, we drove for hours – our late start a function of both our group lassitude in the morning and a spot of camel riding. Then we broke down in the rain for 90 minutes in the middle of nowhere (a term which loses its power in Mongolia, where it applies to just about everywhere). Then we changed the route. Well, we didn’t. Our driver did. But it wasn’t exactly clear why. We just knew it was changed.

We hit the ice valley about which more below (a day earlier than expected), then cruised further south and west as the sun got lower in the sky and we started to think we needed to stop to camp before it got too dark.

At a dead end town (which had no gas, and this is important later on) we watch the sunset and buy some stale bread from a ger (they don’t sell bread in shops, and they appear to only have stale bread today). Five loaves. And lots of unstaleable things as consolation for not knowing what is going on and why we are not already accommodated at some comfortable camping spot.

We met up at the ice valley with a minibus load of Korean tourists who are doing the same thing as us. Our driver (Mishka) and theirs (of indeterminate name) seem to have agreed to follow each other for the rest of the day. Fortunately the indeterminately-named-one speaks a few words of English. And so we hassle him at the deadend town to find out where we are going and when we will stop.

The 10 kilometres he promised us turned out to be about 65 in the end. Of course, it was dark by now and no one seemed to know where we were. We stopped at one point to transfer some gas from our jeep to the minibus. And various times for consultation on the route.

The direct question “are we lost?” never got a satisfactory answer, presumably because he thought there was no way to answer it without either losing face or upsetting us. Truth be told, at this point the uncertainty was the main enemy, and we would rather have known for a fact that we were lost than continued not knowing. Indeterminate continued to say we were just about there.

The terrain was seriously inhospitable. Otherwise, of course, we could have just camped anywhere. Rocky, hard, infertile. Why on earth would anyone live here, especially in Mongolia where there is no private land (so you can just go and move somewhere else if you can find a spot)?

Really late, really dark we stop at an impoverished-looking ger. The woman comes out carrying a dirty, half-sleeping baby. Even if she had space for 14 (the Korean group included) we can hardly impose on her hospitality at this time of night. So onward we go, our sense of frustration turning into humour as the day is infinitely extended.

Near midnight indeterminate man tells us it is 10kms more again. At this point the 10kms he told us originally are up to 55 and we still have not gotten anywhere. But, hope dies last, in fact about 10kms later we pull into a ger camp. Where they have room for all of us and to spare. And some ground that is unrocky and even enough for tents. Fifteen minutes later we have the tents up, dinner on the stove, and cold beer. What more could we want, apart from a little daylight, and maybe a slightly less strong cold breeze?

At some level it should not have mattered that we did not know where we were going, or when we would arrive. After all, the name we were given as the place to stop tonight means nothing to me. Just as much nothing as the name of this ger camp. Similarly, once it became clear that we were not going to camp before the sun went down, whether it was another 10kms or another 100kms should not have mattered. And knowing would not have helped anyway (since it would not have made the journey any shorter).

But for some reason the road seems longer when one does not know how long it is. And in a situation where we are entirely reliant on our driver to get us where we agreed to go and back again, any time he deviates from what we had agreed, we start to wonder whether we can really trust him or not. Both despair and hope are the result of uncertainty. Funny how we choose the former when the latter would be far more positive. Perhaps the answer lies in a book of psychology.

Speaking of frames of mind, I am beginning to think that some travels based around a theme might be quite fun. Tripping around the ends of empires sounds like a lark. I understand there is a border crossing from somewhere in north-western Mongolia into Tuva, in southern Russia. Around the Altai Mountains. Perhaps it would be worth a look. And there is that town – the last in the Soviet Union before Afganistan – whose name just slips my mind. But I went past the turnoff on my way to Mary in Turkmenistan (Stevie Wonder blaring into the desert).

Oh, and the ice valley was really neat. Fairly disappointing for one of the highlights of the trip, but that’s what happens when you look forward to things. The Gobi desert is not exactly reknowned for its watercourses. But this is a valley in which there is several feet/metres (depending on when you go) of frozen river almost all the year around.

You can walk on it (given appropriate footwear), and follow the slippery track down to where the ice peters out and people have built lots of cairns.The ice starts again a little further on. Crampons would make it easy to see how far it goes. But not having gone to see, I can believe it reaches from here to China without fear of contradiction.