Feeling the crush of urban congestion? Tired of bumping into RVs when you're trying to camp in "the middle of nowhere"? Need your space? Well then, sir or madam, you need to get thyself to Mongolia. Short of trekking to one of the poles, there's probably nowhere else on earth better suited to "getting away from it all."
The Asian nation of Genghis Khan, landlocked between Russia to the north and China to the south, is twice the size of Texas yet inhabited by fewer than 3 million people (nearly 40 percent of whom are concentrated in the capital city of Ulan Bator). The extremely low people-to-land ratio makes Mongolia the most sparsely populated independent country on earth. And that's understandable: In addition to its forbidding terrain (towering mountains to the north, the sizzling Gobi Desert to the south, little arable land anywhere), Mongolia endures some of the planet's most extreme weather, from an average 20 below zero in January to more than 110 degrees Fahrenheit in the Gobi during summer. But, hey, it's a dry heat (and cold): Ulan Bator receives only about 15 inches of rain a year.
Ah, but when you're looking for a little elbow room...Mongolia is your dream destination. In fact, with almost no paved roads outside the capital, the country is a giant SUV playpen. That explains why, next summer, Mongolia will host the finals of the third Land Rover G4 Challenge, a three-week "race" between 18 national teams (one male and female each) from around the world that combines off-road driving with sports like mountain biking, rock climbing, and kayaking. The entrants, who range from pro marathoners to weekend adventurers, compete only for personal satisfaction. (Land Rover will donate a vehicle to the Red Cross or Red Crescent of the winning country and raise more than $1 million for the International Federation of those societies next year.)
I recently joined the dozen-member Land Rover Recce Team in Mongolia amid their arduous, months-long pre-G4 reconnaissance runs. Using GPS, trail maps, and input from our two Mongolian guides (who obtained valuable local info from the nomads we occasionally encountered en route), our crew, caravanning in diesel-powered LR2s (a.k.a. Freelander 2s), LR3s (Discovery 3s), and Defenders, roamed the area in and around the Gobi for five days in search of suitable G4 routes.
Never before have I experienced a place with vistas so infinite, with telltales of human existence so few. Driving in the Mongolian south was like visiting the earth in its primordial state -- no roads (mostly just tire tracks in the ground), no power lines, no billboards, no fences, no vapor trails criss-crossing the sky above. I've never seen a sky like it: Predominately visited by high-pressure weather systems, Mongolia enjoys almost 300 cloudless days per year (with no smog to speak of). During my stay, which included a few rare rain showers, the atypical cumulous clouds were framed by a dome of deep, cobalt blue, as if outer space itself were within reach. At night, the stars gleamed like pearls on black velvet, so bright and plentiful I felt like I could see to the edge of the universe.
The G4 Challenge contestants are in for an off-roading feast. There aren't many rules to driving out here -- you can follow trails, but you can also go where you need or want to go. From dawn until dusk each day we traversed rocky paths across arid steppes, climbed towering sand dunes, crossed rivers, inched over boulders, and winched each other out of deep muck. Sometimes we saw no other humans all afternoon. And then, on a featureless plain of rock and withered grass, we'd run into a boy tending a huge flock of goats and sheep, his ger home visible on the horizon. Compared with his hard-scrabble existence, our boil-in-bag dinners and down sleeping bags felt like the Ritz.
Though the land of outer Mongolia is wild, uncontrolled, and largely unowned, our group still made every effort to leave as little trace of our visit as possible. We kept to existing tracks wherever we could, were careful to mind plants and animals (Mongolia has the world's largest herds of untamed horses and camels and is also home to such uncommon creatures as golden eagles, snow leopards, ibex, and marmots), and carefully packed away all garbage, extra food, and even our...um, we packed up everything.
The Land Rovers more than proved their mettle. Even the "baby" LR2 tackled the toughest of obstacles (though its more limited ground clearance meant the two rigs in our convoy took more than their fair share of underbody abuse). The LR2 also proved a star on the drifts, where its light weight (and the carefully tailored Sand mode of its Terrain Response system) allowed it to surf over the dunes when the other rigs tended to dig in. The LR3s, with air suspensions that lift up at the flick of a switch, pounded over the worst stuff without blinking. We turned to the winches only when bog-like mud sucked up a few of the vehicles nearly to their wheel tops.
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.