From Namibia (see previous blog post) back to Frankfurt, then on to Beijing (the coldest and most unfriendly airport I have ever set foot in) and a final short hop to Ulaanbataar: departing Namibia on Sunday night and arriving in Ulaanbataar on Tuesday, yes, Tuesday afternoon, losing 7 hours on the way. Hardly surprising then that once ensconced in the hotel I nodded off (finger poised) whilst checking my phone.
Ulaanbataar is reputedly the coldest capital in the world, and it was not to disappoint. It was not the coldest of days when we arrived, but enough to take your breath away, freeze your bogies make your contact lenses slightly crispy. A bit of a shock after the Namibian heat. The cold was also particularly ferocious in Genghis Khan square for some reason. Alasdair’s comment; ‘It froze your face off’.
No messing about. After one night of luxury we were off out to the Terelj National Park for our adventures to begin. We had been for-warned that the vehicles were not the newest or the most comfortable, but that they were reliable and did not break down. That was a pretty accurate description and based on first impression you might have put money on a breakdown: I’d have lost my money.
Driving in the city is a bit like the whacky races and close to constant gridlock so it was good to finally get out into the country. We had a few stops on the way: a supply stop at a particularly well stocked super market in what appeared to be the middle of nowhere; an opportunity to see an eagle, vulture and Bactrian camels.
I spotted people at the side of the road selling bags of something which turned out to be a small nut a bit like a pine nut, and something that is eaten a lot during the winter. A bag was duly purchased and we set about learning the knack for getting the nuts out of their shells: not easy and a skill you either got immediately or not all.
Then as we entered the park a stop at a Buddhist Ovoo where you are supposed to leave a flag and pray for a safe journey. This was also our first experience of rituals around vodka drinking. You have to take it and at the very least touch it to your lips before handing it back to the person who gave it to you.
Next stop, the ger camp that was to be home for the next couple of nights. The gers were shared and the group split between them. They were nestled in a beautiful spot in the valley surrounded by hills. Each ger had a small stove, which was kept alight constantly to stave off the cold, and were so efficient that there were times when it was too hot and we had to open the ger door, much to the consternation of the elderly couple who managed the camp. Much to our surprise we ended up sleeping in our ‘tightie-whities’ instead of our thermals.
Dave had warned that things often don’t go to plan in Mongolia and tend to be quite fluid. This is in part down to culture: they are a nomadic people whose lives are driven by the seasons, and so the notion of working to a plan and a timetable is quite alien. Things can take a lot longer than expected and sometimes just don’t happen. Quite apart from the language barrier, communication tends to be minimal. It is a case of expect the unexpected and it might happen, or it might not, or something completely different might happen.
After a late lunch of meat filled pancakes: the Mongolian Forfar Bridie most of us went for a walk to explore the area around the camp and Alasdair and I clambered up the hill behind the gers. Dinner was another traditional Mongolian dish of meat filled dumplings that tasted not dissimilar to a good Scotch Pie.
The next morning it was bright and sunny with tiny ice crystals floating and sparkling in the air. It was glorious. Unfortunately the rest of the day was not so glorious and turned out to be the perfect example of a ‘things not going to plan’.
The plan was: Dave and the guys go do the safety checks on the race route during which time the runners have a bit of a run to test our kit and a short trip to turtle rock. The guys would be back early afternoon, then we would all go out for some more sight-seeing in the afternoon.
Test runs, check; multiple re-thinks of the kit, check;turtle rock, check; lunch, check. Guys back? No. The guys did not reappear, our van disappeared and we were stuck in the camp for the day. Cabin fever kicked in and there was a degree of frustration and grumbling as no one knew what was going on. This was replaced by concern as it got dark and the guys were still not back.
They eventually appeared about 7pm. Their safety checks had not gone to plan. The river ice was not good and so the route used previously was not safe. They had to find a completely new course. To make matters worse their truck had got stuck in the ice, which was why our truck had disappeared. Our tolerance level would have been better had they managed to get word to us, but hey, that is how things roll in Mongolia, and it’s all about the safety. I for one was rather grateful they had taken all day to find a safe route.
The guides prepared our meal that evening: a traditional dish called horhog where meat and vegetables are barbecued in a pot with stones. Moods picked up and we had a good laugh trying out the Mongolian national dress.
An early night ready for an early start for the race. Also a colder night as out stove went out. Perhaps karma for having slept with the ger door ajar the previous night.
Dawn was just breaking as we got up and breakfasted before congregating at the vans for the short drive to the start. This time there was no diva panic attack; I knew the drill. The van would come to sudden stop, we would pile out and off. There was, of course the usual swithering over kit: goggles or glasses, buff and balaclava or just balaclava, mittens or no mittens. Running round in little circles chasing my tail.
It would be the same as Namibia; an unmarked route with us following the support vehicle tracks and keeping a visual on them. The vehicle with me started off creeping along behind me, which soon became incredibly irritating. I began to feel hunted, but also found myself struggling to determine the route in places. Eventually, we managed to persuade the driver to go ahead. Unfortunately for the non-runners in the van he never went far enough ahead to allow them stop time to walk about and admire the environment. There was also one very tetchy moment when he drove of course dragging me along with him. There was much confusion when he stopped and it dawned on me that I was going the wrong way. Apparently, he had gone off to allow Alasdair to take photos. A kind thought but not helpful to the running diva.
The route started at the end of the road, on the bank of the Terelj River on the edge of the village of the same name and headed up a long valley which was initially flat with a few frozen streams, before a long gradual climb to the valley head. One of those climbs that you don’t notice and find yourself wondering why your legs are so heavy and tired. Dave checked in with me at this point and it was a thumbs up from me but with the comment that I still had Namibia in my legs. We had passed gers, cows, horses and a yak before the valley became more remote, exposed and extremely cold. Water was freezing and the Mars Bar in my pocket turned into a rock. At one point there was so much ice on my eye-lashes that the weight started to pull my lid down.
Up near the top of the valley I spotted paw prints, with big claws: bigger than a dog. Wolf? Better run faster. No, most probably a wolverine.
After coming back down the valley the route transferred onto the Terelj where we ran a loop along the river back to the start, through the woods and back onto the river for a second half loop finishing a bit up the valley. There were gers scattered along the river bank and huskies at one point.
Running on the ice, or not as it turned out, was a completely new experience. Progress was slow. Where there was snow on top of the ice it was possible to jog, but where the ice was not covered it was sheer and I found myself tottering along cautiously; weaving around trying to find spots with greater traction, without straying too far from support vehicle tracks. Diva on ice moment. We all adopted different techniques it seemed, I noticed that Andrew Murray opted for a sort of skating technique/gait.
As I came onto the river I was unsure where I was going as Alasdair had told me that he thought they had had to change the route due to the condition of the ice which had changed overnight. Where was I to go? He didn’t know. Cue a grump fest, not helped when Andrew Murray rocked up saying he was finished: deep joy. He asked how I was: grumpy was my answer. Was I eating enough? No probably not. In fact definitely not. A rooky error on my part as I know all too well that the calorie burn is far greater in the cold. But, hey, it was bragging rights time. He was going to guide me through the detour. How many people can say that they have had Andrew Murray as a support runner!
He spotted a bit of frost nip on my cheeks too, so at the next stop plenty of food and on with the goggles. Coke and Mongolian paprika Pringles really hit the spot. I was really, really tired now and cold and realising that I should have eaten considerably more over the event than I had. I arrived back on the river and the second lap mistakenly thinking that the finish was at the start point especially when the guide indicated ‘two’ to go. Two what? As I approached the start point I realised I still had two miles to go and my heart sank and my frustration grew. Andrew was there in one of the vans encouraging me, telling me I was going well. It did not feel like it. I was now walking more frequently, but I pressed on. A glimpse of the main vehicle through the trees, the finish was in sight. That last two miles had seemed interminable.
Andrew and Dave joined hands and created a finishing arch. I was done and I had completed the double. The only person to do it! There were a few tears. My time: 6:17 with only a few seconds difference from my Namibian time. I am nothing if not consistent.
I was whisked off back into the village to join the others for food and then off to a hotel for the night. It was a new hotel, rather grand and gaudy, and pretty much empty. It was also devoid of hot water. All I wanted was a hot bath, even a warm shower, but no. And yes, you’ve guessed: major diva paddy. A luke-warm sponge down at the sink didn’t quite cut it. Humph. All part of that ‘things not going to plan’ and just having to roll with it.
Next day it was back to Ulaanbaatar where we had the opportunity to see the changing of the guard at the parliament building before exploring the city a bit, indulge in some retail therapy: cashmere is very reasonable there, and grab some food and beer in the Irish Pub. Is there anywhere in the world where there isn’t an Irish pub. Pizza, salad and beer hit the spot. That evening we attended the consular Burns Supper because what else would you be doing in downtown Ulaanbaatar on a Saturday night in January; and why not transport your dress kilt to Mongolia via Namibia. In spite of the surrealistic element it was a good evening and an opportunity to celebrate our achievements.
The next couple of days gave us the opportunity for some more sight-seeing. We drove out to see the enormous and magnificent statue of Genghis Khan; visited a temple that is home to the world’s biggest statue of Buddha (26 meters tall), which took my breath away and was truly awe-inspiring to point of tears.
Our guide also took us round the city’s Naran Tuul or Black Market which sells everything; boots, clothes, horse tack, hats, antiques and curiosities including small bronze busts of Lenin and Hitler. Expect the unexpected. We even had time to visit the national museum which was excellent. Then all too soon we were on our way home.
It had been an epic two weeks. I had experienced new places, new cultures, extreme temperatures and environments and completed two incredibly tough marathons in those extremes. Another challenge undertaken, to test me further and to see if I could cope with opposite extremes in quick succession. My running continues to surprise me and take me to places I would probably otherwise have not visited. But it is not all about me in completing the challenge I have added to my Alzheimer Scotland fundraising total.
If you are up for an adventure, happy to go with the flow when things don’t quite go to plan and like a stripped back running experience then these marathons are for you.
Now what next? The Global Odyssey 100 of course.