No one isn't surprised when you tell them you're going to Mongolia. You may as well have said the moon. This huge country, landlocked between Russia and China, is one of those places, like Bora Bora or Timbuktu, that for most Americans is the very definition of faraway. My mother used to threaten to ship me off to Mongolia when I got on her nerves, probably because it was as distant as she could imagine any place on earth being.
As the crow flies, the capital city of Ulaanbaatar is 6188 miles from Detroit, Michigan: twelve hours different and quite literally on the other side of the world. Standing in the Gobi Desert midway through my adventure, I found myself staring at the ground, half-expecting a plastic shovel to poke out of the sand and some kid in a bathing suit to crawl out of the hole, look around, and yell back down, "Mom! I made it!"
You don't call yourself Land Rover if you intend to stick to the road, and although ownership of this small automaker from Gaydon, England, has passed over the years from Rover to British Leyland to British Aerospace to BMW to Ford and recently to India's Tata Motors, its mission hasn't changed: Go Beyond. So the chance to join a Land Rover team and a cadre of fellow journalists on a trek to Mongolia was not one to let pass. After our arrival in Ulaanbaatar (sometimes spelled Ulan Bator, Ulaan Baatar, or even Ulayan Bayatur, but known simply to those who live there as U.B.), we will spend a night in a Western-style hotel to regain our equilibrium. The following morning, we'll set off for the Gobi Desert, spending the better part of a week crawling around the half-million square miles of arid real estate that defines Mongolia's southern territory and straddles the country's jagged Chinese border. Our objective: Reconnoiter the region in preparation for the 2009 finals of Land Rover's biennial G4 Challenge.
This three-week competition will see eighteen international one-man/one-woman teams square off in a variety of outdoorsy events, ranging from extreme-sports mainstays like mountain biking and trail running to Mongolian-flavored contests such as desert orienteering and horsemanship. Naturally, with Land Rover behind it, off-road driving will form the backbone of the G4 Challenge.