Of camels

Strange relationships form in the wilderness. And I’m not referring to those only with people. I’ve developed a kind of relationship with camels. And friends who know me will know that I’m not an ‘animal person’ i.e. I don’t gush over cute rabbits, kittens and puppies. Most of the time I think of them (not necessarily rabbits, kittens and puppies, but animals in general) as food. But on this expedition, the camels have played such a huge role in our expedition that ignoring their existence or viewing them as potential sources of food is impossible. Initially I thought they would be difficult to handle, being stubborn, bad tempered, having bad breath, spitting alot. But as the days passed, as we all took turns to walk with them, I’ve come to understand some of their personality and how to handle them. Sure, some of them are moody, refusing to be loaded with our loads, some tend to like to run off on their own (and we have to end up catching them back)but generally, they are rather consistent. And most are exceedingly calm and cool under pressure. I think they are one of the most hardy animals around, being able to endure minus 50 deg celcius and up to 50 deg celcius. And they can just keep on going, going and going. Isn’t that amazing? Some traits for all of us to want to aspire to. We’ve some names for our 12 Bactrian camels – BB (the one in picture), Oliver, Mary, Mona, Shadow and Scotty. These are all names given by the rest of my team members. The rest of the camels have no names. Initially I’ve thought of 2 names to name the camels – Pupu and Sika. But after much consideration, I’ve decided that perhaps not all animals need to be named, not all camels need to have names. Mongolians do not name their livestock and perhaps there are reasons for doing so.

Sense of space

Having been quite familiar with the concept of vertical distance (in no way referring to my height) in my years of climbing mountains, this time in the Gobi desert, I find myself in total awe of the concept of horizontal distance, of the vastness of the landscape, where one can see literally forever in whichever direction you face. Today is the end of Day 4 of our 60-day walk across the desert, and my eyes are still adjusting to the vast sandblasted wilderness and the sense of openness and vulnerability in this place. Just imagine, if you were to play hide and seek, you have absolutely nowhere to hide, unless you are a marmot, or a gecko lizard. We covered a total distance of 31.2km today, and although a rather impressive amount on its own account, the figure seems rather insignificant in the context of the entire landscape. I’ve developed blisters in various places of my feet and some have become so painful that it’s difficult not to focus on them as I walk. I taped my blisters and ‘sore spots’ up but today the soles of my feet hurt. And I’ve arrived at a rather interesting observation from this: your body can develop multiple sources of pain, but usually your mind only focuses on one important one. And that has tested me to some extent into my 4th day of the walk – to devise multiple ways to ignore the pain, or at the most advanced level, to treat the pain and ache as natural, as part of my body’s normal operating system.

Right now, I’m just happy to be in our campsite, knowing that we’ve accomplished our distance that we set out to complete, enjoying the dust beneath my feet (blistered and sore), looking up at the vast blue sky, and although tired, I feel a sense of peace and serenity.

One step at a time, one day at a time. We’ll get there.

This is it!

This is it! In a couple of hours time, the Gobi expedition team flies to Khovd (western Mongolia) where we will travel overland to Bulgan – the starting point of our 60 day walk across the desert. There has been so much preparation, excitement, doses of nervousness, restlessness and most of all a overhanging sense of anticipation of what to expect. We will not be showering for 60 days, and this is going to be the longest I’ve gone without shower. Not exactly looking forward to that, but I’ll embrace it fully when it comes, when i see myself getting covered in a layer of dirt :) 
For this expedition, I have brought alot some modern creature comforts such as my mobile phone (not that there’s going to be reception), laptop (Panasonic Toughbook), Canon G-12 camera for taking photos, Brunton 12W foldable solar panel, HET Power 50 (battery pack to store all the energy converted from solar energy) and chargers, connectors, adapters. This is the first time (besides my previous Cho Oyu and Everest expeditions) that I’m bringing so much technology with me. Obviously this is not a strictly strip-down-to-bare-essentials and every-gram-counts kind of expedition, as compared to an expedition where one will be carrying all the load. We will have bactrian camels who will carry the bulk of our load so that certainly relieves our load a great deal. The primary objective of this expedition, besides for personal reasons and motivations, will be to inspire people, especially young people all over the world, to get them thinking about issues beyond their comfort zone and to lend awareness to a part of the world – Mongolia that has so much to offer in terms of natural beauty, landscape and the richness of the culture and history. For this reason, and documentation purposes, technology such as laptops, solar panels, video cameras etc will be essential to document and archive our entire journey. People have asked interesting questions such as whether all these technology will take away the sense of adventure and to some extent, the isolation of such a expedition. That is a very interesting thought that I had to grapple with, as for many years, I’ve had the mentality of getting away from it all, to escape from the ‘modern world’ and modern creature comforts and come face to face with the very basics of human survival. However, perhaps to some extent, that will only serve to satisfy one’s own motivations (not that it is wrong) but I’ve also come to realise that there’s much value in sharing such experiences to a wider audience – especially when there are critical issues happening in such countries that deserve attention.  Personally, I’ve benefited and been inspired by expeditions which make use of technology e.g. http://impossible2possible.com/home to educate and benefit a wider audience and I see much value in it. So, it’s our turn now – thru this journey, to share information, educate and hopefully inspire people in one way or another.

So over the next 60 days, do follow our journey via the official expedition website www.gobi2011.com, via this blog, via Facebook (like the page  ‘Gobi 2011 Expedition’) – you never know what you’ll discover! :)

Getting Ready

It’s our second last day in Ulaanbaatar before we fly to Khovd (in western Mongolia), and our 60-day journey to walk across the Gobi desert will begin!
As I think back, it’s still surreal how the whole team has come together – all 13 of us (excluding camels). What started off as strangers and recognising one another only thru the medium of emails and Facebook,- we have since met face to face, spoken, joked, laughed (at and with one another), gone shopping, compared how many undergarments we brought, printed T-shirts, ate in cafes, posed for photos etc. I’m loving this team already. 
I’m eagerly awaiting the moment we are all at the starting point of the hike in Bulgan. I think it will be epic – looking ahead into the vast distance, looking at one another and half knowing what we will be facing for the next 60 days. I think a large part of this journey and experience (at least at this point in time) is the feeling of anticipation, of being prepared in some ways, but also not really knowing what’s going to happen. Some of us ladies were chatting over dinner just now how it would feel like not being able to shower for 2 months. Perhaps it won’t be that bad after all?
Earlier in the day, I walked past a makeshift stall selling some old books and maps. Couldn’t resist buying one of the old maps (never mind it’s all in Mongolian and I can’t make out a single word – yet) and a book titled ‘Some Short Stories from Mongolia’ – just the perfect bedtime storybook in the desert.

Gorkhi-Terelj National Park

I arrived in Mongolia about one week earlier than the scheduled date for the entire Gobi team to meet, hoping to spend some time relaxing in the countryside, as well as to transit gruadually into the 60-day long expedition (if that can even be possible). Together with my long time climbing buddy Jane, and with the support services of Panoramic Journeys, we went to the Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, located northeast of Ulaanbaatar. The vast expanse of the land and blue sky hit us the moment we left the city, and it was such a refreshing sight from the built-up environment and bustling city that we’re used to. During the days that we were there, we usually started the day off with a nice trail run, lazed around by the river, rode on a horse back (for half a day, and decided that it was too traumatic for both the horse and us), visited Mongolian nomadic families living in gers, spent a night in a ger – and through that, experienced the warmth and hospitability of the Mongolian nomads.

First Impressions

The motivation and strength to write this inaugural journal entry can only come a few days before I depart for Mongolia to trek across the entire Gobi desert (1,600km).  The entire journey will take 2 months (nothing longer I hope, for I still wish to stay employed when I return). It does sound slightly absurd, after having endured -25°C on the mountains and somewhat survived – and now I’m going to walk across the desert, where temperatures can soar to 45°C, together with an international team of seemingly madcap individuals and a train of Bactrian camels (both who overtime will start to smell the same).

Why Gobi desert? Up to this day, my mum is still baffled why any human being would want to walk for 60 days across the desert without having the chance to shower. This by the way is a prospect which appeals very strongly to me (in all forms – including the not-having-to-shower part). My primary motivation is to undertake a prolonged journey in and through the Gobi desert – a beautiful and dramatic landscape which was part of the great Mongol empire, as well as the location of important cities along the historic Silk Road.

There were 3 women who inspired me – Mildred Cable, Francesca French and Eva  French, who spent 13 years (from 1923 to 1936) travelling across the Gobi Desert. They were also the first English women to cross the Gobi desert after working as missionaries in the Shansi province of China. Their perseverance and sense of purpose in what they set out to do in such a harsh environment is most inspiring.

Beyond trudging across an ‘over-sized sand pit, it is also the aim of this expedition to provide students and teachers around the world with an educational platform for adventure-based learning, set against the backdrop of Mongolia and the Gobi desert. For this expedition, I have linked up with Nanyang Girls’ High School and The Learning Lab to provide content and resources for educational materials (more on that in my following post!)

Personally, there are also a few issues which interest me and will inspire me to keep going throughout the journey:

1)      What is home?

I am interested to find out, through interaction with the Mongolian nomads, what their concept of ‘home’ is, given the fact that they have adopted a pastoral way of life moving from place to place in search of best pastures and campsites. Does the concept of ‘home’ exist? Are there multiple meanings and forms associated with the way they think about ‘home’? Does it matter? Why?

To bring the topic closer to home (pardon the pun), I think this concept of ‘home’ becomes more pertinent in the light of the recent General Elections in Singapore, where I’ve had the opportunity to cast my vote for the very first time and exercise my right as a citizen of my homeland – Singapore.  The whole election process has made me think and reflect about what it means to be a Singaporean, and what is the entity that I am voting for.

What is home to you?

2)      One’s relationship with the landscape / Sense of place

I first realized the hold the mountains had on me when I was at the Franz Josef Glacier in South Island of New Zealand for my Technical Mountaineering Course back in 2003.  It was freezing cold at night, I was brushing my teeth (of all things) outside and looking at the landscape around me when I saw a distinct alpenglow surfacing from the amphitheatre of mountains surrounding me. Although that moment was transient, and nothing much happened (except my teeth became cleaner), I found myself being drawn to the landscape in a very special way. And I yearned to be able to experience more of such moments.

I enjoy spending time in the outdoors, under the sun, near the trees, touching the rain, brushing against the grass, feeling the trails, snow and sand solidly beneath my feet. Over the years, as I’ve become more accustomed to the outdoors (which can probably correspond to me developing a tiny allergy to state of the art buildings and crowded spaces), I’ve also learnt to dwell in a place, to ‘feel’ and read the landscape – How do I feel and react when I’m there? What does the landscape offer? What can I contribute?

Mongolians have always forged very intimate relationships with the land they dwell on, especially so when you consider that these relationships actually form the basis for many of their movements across lands and places. Do forces of urbanization and globalization alter the way Mongolians view their relationship with the landscape?

What do people make of their relationship with the landscape that they live, work and play? Is having a sense of place important in defining who we are?  

And some other issues to be elaborated at some point in time ……

3) Gender / Feminism
4) Environmental issues such as desertification, climate change
5) Effects of globalisation & technology
6) Group dynamics / Group development
7) Motivation