Win or lose, the thirty-six competitors stand to gain nothing for their participation beyond spiritual fulfillment, but Land Rover is leveraging the event's newsworthiness to call attention to the humanitarian work of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. The company is striving to raise more than a million dollars for the groups - in Mongolia and around the world - and plans to present a Land Rover vehicle to the Red Cross or Red Crescent branch in the Challenge winners' home country.
We touch down at Ulaanbaatar's Chinggis Khan International Airport (Chinggis is the Mongolian spelling of Genghis). It is well past sunset, and it's raining. A crumbling two-lane strip of asphalt ties the airport to the city center, about eleven miles to the northeast, and like a retinue of United Nations diplomats, we roll toward our hotel in a conspicuous trio of Land Rovers: a Defender, a Range Rover, and a Range Rover Sport, each bedecked with snorkels, cargo baskets, and roof lights and clad in the intentionally ostentatious orange-and-black G4 Challenge livery.
Traffic, even at this hour, is surprisingly dense - lots of Hyundai and Nissan sedans, battle-scarred Toyota Land Cruisers, Mitsubishi Pajeros, and Russian-built UAZ-469 four-by-fours from the 1970s. To the left, sprawling encampments of round tents, called gers, loom in silhouette, packed together on a matrix of muddy side streets. Even in the darkness, the view from our passing convoy is a grim one.
According to the head of the Mongolian Red Cross, Ulaanbaatar has endured unprecedented growing pains during the last few years, as the urban migration of nomadic people has swollen the city's population to more than a million - twice what the municipal infrastructure can handle - and pushed the unemployment rate to a startling 40 percent. To make matters worse, days of rain have caused the nearby Tuul River and the man-made Lake Nogoon-nuur to overflow, and these impoverished ger encampments - without power, running water, sewage management, or trash removal - have become swampy hotbeds of infectious disease. It's a crisis of epic proportion.
The next morning, we're headed back to the airport to catch a charter flight to the Gobi. The drizzle has relented, and the sunny drive gives us a better look at downtown Ulaanbaatar. Nestled at the base of a 3000-foot peak called Bogd Khan Uul, the city is a hodgepodge of traditional Asian architecture, blocky apartment buildings, and gloomy Stalinist-influenced government structures erected during Mongolia's socialist era. First called Urga (from the Mongolian word for residence) upon its founding in 1639 as an itinerant monastic settlement, the city was renamed Ulaanbaatar ("red hero") in 1924, in honor of the leader of the communist revolution, Damdiny Sükhbaatar.