As mentioned in the previous review of “Dateline Mongolia”, although I learned much about modern urban living in Mongolia I was also fascinated to visit the ‘other’ Mongolia – the unknown wilderness of the Gobi Desert and its native nomadic culture. For this leg of my journey, I chose the book “Walking the Gobi: 1,600 Mile-trek Across a Desert of Hope and Despair” by Helen Thayer. The Gobi Desert is a barren stretch of Mongolia that runs north of China, south of Russia and far from everything; not an ideal place to visit, except by book! Fortunately, the daring Thayer, age 63, fights nature and common sense for us, a fascinating account of her 1,600 mile journey with her husband, Bill, 74.
As I am already in Mongolia, my journey to this next leg is minimal – and involves a flight from Ulaanbataar in a cramped single engine plane belonging to Chuluu, a Mongolian pilot who dropped off and ferried supplies to the Thayers on their epic trip..
In Thayer’s words: “The crumbling concrete buildings, potholed streets, and crowded markets of Ulaan Baatar dropped away behind us as Chuluu set a southwestern course, which would take us to the far western edge of the desert on the Chinese border” and into "a parched rocky land that showed not a glimmer of welcome”. And so, in this forbidding, yet exciting scenario, I set out in the company of two adventurous pensioners to traverse the Mongolian Gobi – all 1600 miles of it!
The following review is by Bonnie Gayle Hood from the website www.goodreads.com, for which grateful acknowledgement is given.
“This was an amazing book, and contained everything I long for in a non-fiction book: daring-do adventure, a plot so amazing that it would work in a fiction book, and a place I have never been before.
“At times you have to remind yourself that this really happened, as I found it d difficult to believe. The book tells the story of Helen Thayer and her husband, in their 60's and 70's respectively, who, not long after a horrible rear-end collision with a truck, on a bridge in Seattle, that hurt her, from her spine all the way down to her feet, walked 1,600 miles across the Gobi desert in 81 days, in Mongolia, in the blistering, lip-cracking, 120+ degree summer heat.
"They did it with only 2 camels, which they named Tom and Jerry, who carried their supplies. They weren't allowed radios, as they were too close to the Chinese border.
“Their walk was fraught with danger: they nearly died of dehydration, they were almost thrown into a Chinese prision, they came across smugglers, they were bit by scorpions, and she had to consume mass quantities of pain pills to make it with her injuries.
“They also encountered great kindness, and at times almost smothering hospitality, from each and every Mongolian they encountered, in addition to coming to love the land around them, and making friends with Tom and Jerry.
“I adored how their focus was on honoring the people, customs, animals, and land of Mongolia. The reader can't help but come away with, not only a better understanding, but also a greater appreciation for the people who make the Gobi desert their home. She is a descriptive writer, and at times, all they see for days on end is flat nothingness, but it never gets boring or monotonous. She has a way of zeroing in on the interesting moments.
“I also really enjoyed the book's interesting factoids about the Gobi desert. I found myself raising my eyebrows in wonder at least every other page, especially toward the beginning of the book. For example, did you know that only 3% of the Gobi is covered with sand? Or that, during the winter, the Gobi is covered with snow, and averages -40 degrees?
“The only 2 things I wished for were captions about the black and white photographs at the beginning of each chapter, so that the reader would know what they were looking at, and in fact, it would have been nice to have a section of color photos in the center of the book. I also wished for an inventory list of what they took on their journey.
“For those who have a hike across a desert on their life's to-do list, and for those who are arm chair adventurers (I'm in the 2nd category) this book is a riveting non-fiction read.”
And so, with thanks to Bonnie Gayle Hood for the review, I reluctantly leave this country - which lived up to all of my expectations – and make the first of several journeys to Mongolia’s massive neighbour China. As with the six other largest countries in the world (Russia, India, Australia, Brazil, the United States and Canada) I am splitting this territory up into constituent parts to get a full feel of the place. In this case I am visiting each of China’s “Autonomous Regions” as well as the central region (including Beijing) and certain contentious states such as Hong Kong and Shanghai.
My first foray into China is – appropriately enough given that I have just left Mongolia – the Autonomous Region of Inner Mongolia. This journey is courtesy of “Bones of the Master: A Journey to Secret Mongolia“ by US author George Crane. This tells the story of a Buddhist monk, Tsung Tsai, who in 1959 fled from the Red Army who had destroyed his monastery and walked 3000 miles across China, determined to carry on the teachings of his master. Forty years later, Tsung Tsai travels back to his birthplace with the author, to find his master's grave in the remote Crow Pull Mountain area in Inner Mongolia and to build a shrine.
Having returned from the Gobi wasteland to Ulaanbaatar, I make my way to Ulaanbaatar’s rather Georgian-looking train station and catch the 4604 train from Ulaanbaatar to Hohhot, the capital of inner Mongolia. One of the most popular Trans-Siberian / Trans-Mongolian trains for both Russians and foreigners, the train is operated by Russian and Chinese staff. When the train passes from Mongolia into China, the wheels of the train are changed to a smaller gauge, which takes a few hours, and I am glad I paid the extra $40 ($215 in total) for first class with a shower facility. It also has a nice car-restaurant.
Thus I leave from Ulaanbaatar at 10.00pm on Monday and arrive at Hohhot on Tuesday at 10.05am feeling surprisingly refreshed...