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.
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.
An hour in the air brings us to Dalanzadgad, about 375 miles south and smack in the middle of the Gobi. This city of about 15,000 has a distinct Old West air about it: a dusty assemblage of squat buildings surrounded on all sides, as far as the eye can see, by unobstructed space. We pile into a fresh caravan of G4-spec Land Rovers and ride out of town on a plume of dust – four Defender 110s, two Discovery 3s, and two Freelander 2s: right-hand-drive, diesel-powered, and laden with enough gear for a leave-no-trace week in the wilderness.
Our first campsite comes into view under an ominous gray sky on a rise near the northernmost slope of the Gurvansaikhan mountain range. We’re not far from the spot where, in the 1920s, American paleontologist Roy Chapman Andrews famously discovered the first recognized “nest” of dinosaur eggs, and in 1971, a team of Polish and Mongolian scientists uncovered the fossilized remains of a velociraptor and a protoceratops locked in the throes of mortal combat. On this day, mortal combat seems limited to a group of cinereous vultures – which can approach thirty pounds and take to the air on a ten-foot wingspan – squabbling over the messy carcass of a goat. Gray wolves are known hunters in these parts, packs of them picking off hapless animals like this one during the night. By day, these huge barefaced birds are happy to finish off the wolves’ leftovers. Nothing is wasted in the desert.
We, on the other hand, are perfectly happy to ease into our expedition with a bit more luxury, enjoying a bowl of lamb stew with fresh Mongolian bread and crashing early beneath the peaked roof of a traditional ger. In the morning, rainstorms that drenched the camp overnight have moved on, and our team, joined by a pair of Mongolian guides, sets off toward an impossibly wide horizon, under what must be the biggest blue sky on the planet. When Land Rovers daydream – stuck in rush-hour traffic or looping the mall parking lot on Christmas Eve – they probably daydream of places like this.
Few companies have such an evocative history as Land Rover, which celebrated its sixtieth anniversary this year, and fewer still have such a tangible link to the past as Land Rover does in the Defender – and not in a froufrou, round-headlights retro way, either. The Defender is the real deal, a galumphing, unapologetically low-tech lug of a truck whose doors slam not with a whumph but a clang. And the Defender is not simply some adorable, bewhiskered geezer, telling tall tales of wars won and hills scaled. As we soon learned, there was nothing the Gobi could throw at us that the Defender couldn’t climb, crawl, or claw its way out of.
Our Defender 110s – 4200 pounds apiece, plus people and gear – pack Land Rover’s soldierly 2.4-liter four-cylinder turbo-diesel engine producing 120 hp and 265 lb-ft of torque. Fast? Not so much. In the driver’s seat, lose the latte and hang up the phone: you’re going to need both hands. A six-speed manual gearbox and a manually shifted two-speed transfer case put the power down, and unlike its twenty-first-century siblings, the Defender has no cute Terrain Response rotary knob on the center console, with pictograms for rocks and mud and sand and snow. The only thing responding to terrain here is (hopefully) the driver. Without laboring the point too much, the best analogy for this rolling anachronism is the ancient-but-still-made Leica MP range-finder camera, a mechanical wonder that can take perfect pictures without any sort of electronic aid or convenience feature – no auto-exposure, no auto-focus, no auto-anything. In an expert’s hands, it is mythically good at its job; in an amateur’s, it’s a brick.
If Grampa Defender has a rightful heir, it’s the Discovery 3 (known as the LR3 in the States). Sure, it’s suitably swanked out with GPS navigation, a Harman Kardon audio system, and air bags, but that’s just Clark Kent’s suit and glasses. The Disco was all superhero when the going got tough in the Gobi, following the Defender in lockstep over every rocky, rutted mile. And with due respect to Grampa’s crank-window simplicity, the Discovery does have that cute Terrain Response rotary knob on the center console, and a masterful creation it is. See a muddy section ahead, turn the knob to the “mud and ruts” symbol, and drive through it. See sand, turn knob, drive. Easy as banoffee pie. The system considers the unique demands of each terrain type and tailors the actions of the throttle, transmission, center differential, air suspension, and stability control accordingly. It won’t cure stupidity, but it can make a mere mortal feel like an off-road god now and then.
Our two Freelander 2s (that’s LR2 to you, Yank) at first seemed, well, out of their league. This is Mongolia, after all, not Santa Monica. Alongside the Defenders and the Discoverys, the G4-colored Freelanders, shorter by several inches, looked like kids dressed up as real off-roaders for Halloween. How wrong we were. Freelanders are doing everything the big boys are, just with a bit more body English. Ruts and moguls that a Defender or Discovery driver will bulldoze over without a thought, the Freelander pilot must approach with caution and careful planning. In pugilistic terms, the smallest Land Rover is a boxer, not a brawler.
We’re heading west, zigzagging through rocky peaks en route to the Khongoryn Els, a vast tract of sand dunes, their shapes and colors endlessly shifting under the influence of the wind and the sun. It is here that the lighter, nimbler Freelander steps out of the shadows of its burlier brethren and shines. We make camp at the foot of the Els, reduce the Freelanders’ tire pressures, and dive into the dunes, surfing over towering ridges and carving slopes in the orange glow of a sinking sun. When Freelanders daydream, they daydream about this.
From the Khongoryn Els we push northward, our motorcade a tiny GPS blip on an otherwise blank nav-system display. We’re advancing back through the mountains and across a vast dust bowl that once formed the bottom of a great inland sea. The crusty terrain is impermeable, so we frequently discover deep gouges in the route from flash floods spurred by summertime storms. It’s difficult to imagine animal life thriving here, but thrive it does. Thousands of Mongolian gerbils and Daurian pikas dart about amid brambly desert shrubs called zag, and wild horses known as Takhi graze near loping herds of two-humped Bactrian camels. Golden eagles, yak, and ibex are not uncommon sights, and even the rare Gobi bear still lurks in remote corners of the desert, along with the equally scarce snow leopard and Asiatic wild ass.
We pass a ger now and then, stovepipe smoking, and a solitary herder tending to a flock of goats and sheep or herds of camels and horses. Humans are only infrequently encountered out here. (Mongolia, although almost four times the size of California, has barely the population of Chicago – and more than a third of them live in Ulaanbaatar.) But the folks we have met along the way – men, women, and children – have greeted us with unexpected warmth and unfailing hospitality, waving frantically as we pass, running out to greet us, and grinning for photographs.
One evening, a young husband and wife and their two children, all of them clinging to a single motorcycle, blat up the hill toward our campsite. We fear trouble but instead find ourselves presented with gifts: goat cheese and a bottle of fermented mare’s milk called ayrag (a local specialty that is, to say the least, an acquired taste). How humbling – we, with our logo-embroidered fleeces and Teva sandals and bottled water, accepting presents from people who survive on so much less.
Mongolia’s nomadic families endure an impossibly difficult life, one that is practically unfathomable to the average Westerner. Some 40 percent of the country’s population still holds to nomadic ways, moving their animals and their homes across the land with the seasons, coping with savage winters and brutal summers, producing and trading milk and cheese, lamb and mutton, wool and cashmere.
There are no fences or gates here, no signs announcing PRIVATE PROPERTY or NO TRESPASSING, just tire tracks in the dust and the random flyspeck town selling fuel and beer and chocolate. But that may be changing. We have rolled past more than one ger with solar panels and a satellite dish on its roof and a motorcycle or a sport-utility vehicle parked nearby. Global interest in Mongolia for its mineral wealth is growing. The country hides beneath its craggy surface deposits of copper, silver, gold, uranium, and coal that may prove to be the richest on earth.
On our final day in the Gobi, we come upon a bustling throng of nomads gathered around a tiny building over which flutters the gold, red, and blue Mongolian flag. They’ve come out to vote in today’s parliamentary elections, and many of the men have donned traditional garb – a calf-length tunic called a deel with a brightly colored sash wrapped around the waist – to demonstrate their enthusiasm and respect for the democratic process. Mongolia, a socialist state from the 1920s until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, is these days fiercely proud of its young republic. (The New York Times has since reported that some 74 percent of the country’s 1.6 million eligible voters turned out to cast their ballots in this election.)
They’re building a highway outside Bayankhongor, a frontier town of about 23,000 on the northern edge of the Gobi, where we’ll catch a flight back to the capital. Well, calling it a “highway” is a stretch; it’s really little more than a wider, straighter, generally smoother version of the same rutted, meandering trails we’ve been following for four days. But although this intermittently paved stripe in the desert is far from a Mongolian autobahn, it does point to a quickening way of life here, even in this far-flung quarter of the country. This land, where from time immemorial one horsepower equaled one actual horse, is quickly digging, grading, and asphalting its way into the mechanized age.
We’re dog-tired and unwashed and sick to death of boil-in-a-bag camp food. And yet, even with a hot shower and a good meal in our immediate future, this final leg of our desert odyssey, trundling over a lumpy thoroughfare toward the airfield in Bayankhongor, is tinged with melancholy. Through the dust of passing semitrucks and modern earthmovers, we’re witnessing the irresistible forces of capitalism reshaping rural Mongolia’s stoic way of life the way flash floods and the westerly wind have reshaped the natural landscape for eons. The winners in today’s election will sleep on a growing pile of money from the mining industry and hold sway over an influx of foreign investors. They’ll set policies that will preserve the nomadic lifestyle – or quash it forever.
Back in Ulaanbaatar, the weather has improved, but the city itself has taken a turn for the worse. The peaceful and patriotic voter procession we observed in the hinterlands has devolved here into something less heartwarming. Fast-spreading (albeit unsubstantiated) claims of voter fraud are triggering waves of rioting that, in the end, will leave five people dead, hundreds injured, and hundreds more in police custody. During a quick drive from our hotel to a tony, jazz-themed restaurant across town, we pass the city’s central Sükhbaatar Square and the nearby Communist-era headquarters of the ruling Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party. Fire and black smoke are belching from its windows, and over the din of an angry crowd comes the pop-pop-pop of guns firing and tear-gas canisters launching.
In the morning, a smoldering stench hangs in the air as we load our in-town Defender, Range Rover, and Range Rover Sport for one last drive to the airport named for Mongolia’s greatest hero. During the night, with the MPRP building in flames, rioters moved on to torch the nearby Cultural Palace and its national art gallery. As a result, President Nambariin Enkhbayar has proclaimed a four-day state of national emergency and authorized government troops to patrol the streets of Ulaanbaatar to enforce martial law.
And as we take off and begin the long, long haul to the other side of the world, and home, we contemplate what the future holds for this farthest of faraway places. There may come a time when superhighways and chain-link fences divide and conquer the great Mongolian frontier, when strip mines hollow out the land and coal-fire smoke fills the sky. And there may come a time when the noble ways of the nomadic people are as romanticized – and irretrievable – as the conquests of Genghis Khan and the Mongol Horde. For now, however, this magnificent, untamed land and its people endure, in Land Rovers’ daydreams – and ours.
Mongolia’s favorite son shakes his bad rap.
No list of history’s bad boys would be complete without the great Genghis Khan (1162-1227), whose Mongol Horde purportedly slaughtered some 40 million people across Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. The son of a tribal chief, the future Khan was given the name Temüjin at birth, after one of his father’s defeated enemies. Lore has it that he emerged from the womb clutching a blood clot, considered a sign that he would grow up to be a great warrior. Sure enough, the young Temüjin quickly demonstrated an uncanny knack for military strategy and statesmanship (not to mention a pretty fearsome temper). He mounted a bloody campaign to unify the nomadic tribes of Mongolia (earning him the title Genghis Khan, meaning universal ruler). The empire he founded would at its peak span more than 12 million square miles and encompass half the population of the known world.
These days, the formerly reviled medieval conqueror is in the midst of a major image makeover. To Mongolians, Khan is considered the ultimate icon of the country’s former glory. Chocolate bars, cigarettes, and beer and vodka brands borrow his name; his life has inspired rap songs, movies, and a rock opera; and his tight-lipped portrait adorns everything from paper currency to postage stamps. Mongolians are quick to downplay Khan’s legendary mean streak and tout his positive influences on the modern world (he was a proponent of religious freedom and women’s rights, for instance, and created the world’s first true meritocracy, granting power to those who were competent, not merely connected). Said the country’s former prime minister Elbegdorj Tsakhia: “Genghis Khan wasn’t really a bad guy. He just had bad press.”