Most fun of all, though, was a stint in one of the Recce Team's Defender 110s, the square-jawed Land Rover classic that, alas, is no longer sold on our shores (the need for costly, complicated air bag engineering being the prime reason). The big bruiser's 2.4-liter turbodiesel makes just 122 horsepower but 265 pound-feet of torque, and instead of a plush automatic you row a conventional manual six-speed. The result is SUV-ing in its purest form, your feet dancing across the pedals, left hand flicking the big gear lever back and forth (coming from England, all of our rigs were right-hand drive), right hand swinging the wheel to avoid boulders and ruts, the oil-burner under the hood growling loudly but feeling as sturdy as Hoover Dam, the top-heavy block of metal bodywork banging and pitching and swaying but somehow always keeping its feet well-planted. Despite the relentless beating, not one of the Rovers so much as hiccupped during our journey.
To say that the Mongolians live a hard life is like saying fish are wet. Nearly all the nomadic people outside the city inhabit simple, traditional ger homes, round tents with a stove in the middle and three to four beds arranged around the edges. No electricity (some of the more progressive nomads have installed small solar panels to power satellite TVs), no running water, no...facilities. Most tend their goats and sheep; some own herds of Bactrian (two-humped) camels or Mongol horses. Food is scarce, money scarcer.
And yet, the nomads we encountered were universally warm, friendly, and hospitable. There's a sense of "we're all in this together" so the Mongolians are more than willing to offer directions and provide assistance when needed. The children we passed grinned and waved enthusiastically; at a few stops, they took the candy we offered with gentle smiles and nods of "thank you."
One evening, as we sat by the fire on a vast ridge of green, a motorcycle roared up from below. Uh oh, we thought at first, probably trespassing on somebody's grass. Aboard the cycle were a striking young Mongolian couple with their beautiful child. It was a jarring sight: Wearing fashionable sunglasses and chic denim, they appeared to have stepped right off Melrose Avenue. As the man pulled up, the woman climbed off and quickly opened a satchel on the seat. They hadn't come to shoo us away; instead, they'd brought mares' milk and a dessert of dried curds, gifts of hospitality for camping on their mountain (it turned out that they lived next to the small corral we'd seen far below). We tried to repay their generosity with a few bags of freeze-dried dinner (which I'm certain they promptly threw away) and some candies for their child, but clearly they weren't expecting anything in return. As quickly as they'd arrived, they waved goodbye and rumbled off back down the mountain. Some of the braver in our group attempted to drink the mares' milk, but like, say, month-old cottage cheese, it's an acquired taste.
Back in Ulan Bator, my trip ended with a bang -- literally -- when thousands of angry voters, charging fraud in the previous day's national election, rioted in the downtown streets, burning down the headquarters of the ruling Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party and sending bullets flying over our Land Rover convoy as we attempted to navigate through the packed streets to dinner (ultimately, five people were killed, 300 injured, and 700 arrested before the army rolled in and a national four-day state of emergency was imposed).
The riot provided a quick and powerful jolt back to the reality of people and crowds and urban congestion, something five days in the infinite, unspoiled desert had almost helped me to forget. For that reason alone -- truly getting away -- I think it's safe to say we'll be needing Land Rovers for a long time to come.