Sunday, October 30, 2005

Throwing stones in the Gobi

On the third morning of our 8-day trip to the Gobi desert, our van was struck by two flat tyres in fifteen minutes. Once the second tyre blew we realised how lucky we were that our driver was also a crack mechanic - unperturbed, he sat down to patch up the hole with a piece of inner tube. To pass the time I persuaded my Dutch travelling mate, Jochem, to take me on in a stone throwing contest. I had already goaded him with taunts about Ian Thorpe's superiority over 'Peter van Yoogen Boogen', and was convinced that I was a shoe-in. But in the end our best efforts to throw rocks as far as we could were swallowed up by the immense space of the Gobi. The distances our stones travelled were barely a blip in this vast land. There was a horizon in every direction, and nothing in between except the hard, stony ground of the desert. Throughout the rest of the trip the landscape went through subtle variations, but it was this emptiness, and the quiet, that stayed with me.

The Gobi is one of the least populated places on earth, averaging just 0.5 persons per square kilometre. Outside of small town centres, we would drive all day and be lucky to see five other cars on the road. Every now and then we would come across settlements of gers. These circular felt tents (also known as 'yurts' in the West) are the homes of about half the Mongolian population, and almost everybody in the Gobi. They are remarkably effective in keeping out the fierce desert winds, and are easily transportable which is ideal for the many Mongolians whose lives involve moving regularly (amazingly, a quarter of the population is truly nomadic and another quarter is semi-nomadic). We met a tour group which suggested that we would be "craving corners" after our eight days in the Gobi, but that wasn't exactly true. My group, compromising E, Jochem, Canadian Ashley (fellow survivor of 'the golden shower incident'), and Korean Jin Young, enjoyed our nights in the gers, gathering around the stove to warm ourselves up and putting off the inevitable dash to the outhouse through the chilling midnight wind.

There were, however, two things that I did crave throughout the trip. The first was paved roads. There are no roads in the Gobi - you simply drive along the tyre tracks left by the cars before you. The terrain is appallingly uneven - in the back of the van we were like Lotto balls, randomly thrown in every direction and unable to predict which direction our heads, arms or bums would be thrown next. It was almost as if we were the subject of a week-long advertisement for a new 4WD. On the few occasions that we came across a paved road in the towns, council workers were digging holes in them and it seemed within the realms of possibility that they were busy bringing them up to 'Mongolian standard'.

I also craved decent food. Mutton is the staple - although to describe it as such is slightly misleading because it implies the availability of food of the non-staple variety. Westerners tend to be offered one of two main dishes. The first is a type of flour noodle mixed in with pieces of mutton, mutton fat, and perhaps some potatoes and carrots. The second is like the first, but with hot water added to give it the texture of a soup. Eight days of such fare does test one's penchant for cultural experience, but the alternatives were unquestionably less appetising. Locals happily snack on bones holding nothing but mutton fat - the Western practice of trimming meat of its fat seems very peculiar to Mongolians. And we read that the most common dish in the Gobi remains mutton meat, bones, organs and skull all tossed together in a bucket, from which you choose your favoured part of the body. It probably doesn't need to be pointed out that Mongolians living in the Gobi are not spoiled for choice when it comes to food - vegetables other than potatoes, carrots and onions, for example, are hard to come across and in any case rarely feature in Mongolian meals. This limited diet may not score highly in terms of the five food groups but it appears to provide everything the locals need. Nonetheless, it is something that outsiders commonly find difficult to stomach.

Diet is just one example of the vast differences between my way of life in Canberra, Australia and those of the many people who make their homes in the Gobi. But the long reach of global corporations ensures there are some surprising similarities. Whether you're in the Gobi or downtown Sydney, you can travel to your nearest market and pick up a Snickers and a Coke. This, perhaps, wasn't such a shock. But one of the most startling sights in the Gobi is the occasional ger boasting its own satellite dish. Electricity and televisions seemed quite rare in the desert, let alone the capacity for satellite TV. It was strange to think that just as we Australians were catching up on 24-hour news coverage at home, BBC and CNN were beaming the same pictures into ger settlements in one of the least populated places on earth.

Perhaps too many photos of the Gobi - but we think they're worth it


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