Summer 2013, written by Sebastian Engelhart, videos by Oliver Engelhart
There was absolutely no way we could top our adventures of July 2012 on the Africa expedition, but this summer Ollie and I laid out an itinerary for own version of explore, learn and act. We began July by competing in a 100k ultramarathon in the Gobi Desert. From Ulaanbaatar we travelled to the far western corner of Mongolia and spent two weeks trekking with local nomads in the Altai Mountains. The Trans Siberian railway conveyed us from UB to Beijing, where we checked in at Tsinghua for a community service program in association with the University and then headed in opposite directions to the far reaches of China. 6 weeks and thousands of kilometers covered !
PART 1: Action Asia Mongolia 100k Ultraâ€Marathon
30 June 2013 â€ Several hundred miles from Ulaanbaatar in the Gobi Desert: Having just emerged from a few months of intense IB exams neither of us was as fit as we would have liked. Thus it was with a bit of trepidation that Ollie and I began the morning on the start line with the very long thin shadows of 100 plus runners kitted out in their technical gear of choice and twitching with anticipation for the 100k challenge
ahead. As the race kicked off everyone charged out of the Gerâ€camp…in the wrong direction! After a quick turnaround and back on track I settled into my familiar lope, chasing other competitors’ spore across the barren desert flatlands and rolling dunes. Via the footsteps of Ghenkis Kahn we raced into that vast and harsh landscape, one spotted by solitary nomad gers and their myriad of livestock crisscrossing our course.
It was our second ultraâ€marathon this year and I was finding this dessert challenge required a new mental and physical approach, which was in stark contrast to the strategy I used while pounding up and down mountains and stumbling through the terraced rice paddies of the Tiger Leaping Gorge in Yunnan Province, China back in April. I finished the 43km day, spent under the baking sun plowing up and down sand dunes and through prickly nettles, in a solid time and was happy to be back into the ‘game’ despite some pretty sore legs and numerous blisters to tend to. While refueling on Mongolian mutton and chatting with the other runners from around Asia a late afternoon storm rolled in and showed us how cruel and volatile weather on the Siberian prairie can be. With little warning, a sand and hailstorm blew into camp and the temperature dropped from a sweltering 30 degrees down to just 5 degrees! Day two for another 42k was much the same except brighter blue skies, bigger dunes and a 10km stretch through what I’ve affectionately nicknamed Death Valley – the only objects of any interest down there were carcasses and a far flung Ger or two. My legs were seizing up with cramps constantly and it took everything I had to keep going at the speed I wanted to achieve, it didn't help that I was eating Ollie’s dust through most of the day. I kept hoping for a mountain to appear so I could catch up.
The Gobi’s lack of landscape punctuation meant I was more acutely aware of my body’s highs and lows; all the aches and pains, an out of line hip joint and the needs for sustenance to continue running. Despite being in a completely different environment I was in an all too familiar mental place. Immersed in nature and pushing at the edges of my physical limits. After a blissful sleep in our ger, by day 3 I was fired upâ€ never before have I considered 18km a short run, but that morning everyone was looking forward to this little ‘sprint’. Ollie endured to finish the 100k in a cumulative time of 12:52. I straggled in after him in 13:15. Not bad given the level of training we went in with and the fact that we were by far the youngest runners there.
Sunset over the Marathon Ger Camp
Wild horses criss crossing our marathon course
PART 2: Western Mongolia Nomad Trek
2 July 2013 – Bayan Olgii Mongolia The aimag is located in the extreme west of the country, and shares borders with both Russia and Chin and at the eastern end of Kazakhstan
The rugged Russian van is the most perfect vehicle for the Mongolian countryside
We had a brief stopover in Ulaanbaatar to rest our legs before we flew out to Bayanâ€Olgii, Mongolia’s western most province at the foot of the Altai Mountains. Once there, we loaded up into the back of a Russian van and suffered through an extremely perilous and bumpy drive to the edge of the National Park, where we finally met our guide ‘Het’, an ethnic Tuvan shaman, who has lived as a nomad in the mountains his whole life. He has the rugged red leather skin to prove it.
Up early the next morning we packed our kit onto camels and set off, our destination a beautiful glacier right on the border between Mongolia, Russia and China. We once again had a run in with temperamental Mongolian weather, we were in the middle of summer, but that didn't stop another hailstorm from pelting us as we trekked further into the Altai range. We reached our base camp at the Tavanbogd massif, a 20km long Potanina glacier – the biggest of the twenty glaciers in the Mongolian Altai.
Tavanbogd means “the Holy Five” referring to the five highest peaks, of which Huiten Uul is the highest in Mongolia, 4374 meters above sea level. It is a stunning setting with the aweâ€inspiring massif of high snow capped peaks and every sunrise and sunset provided a gorgeous view of all of them. We spent several days in this stunning location and we made a number of excursions as we waited for suitable weather for us to commence a summit of Malchin Uul to the height of 4050m. This peak divides the Mongolian and Russian Border. With bright red cheeks and burnt nose stinging in the freezing wind, the wonderful view of all the peaks and the Potaina glacier as well as Russian and Kazakhstan territory was well worth the challenge.
On the way back down we got a taste of the Mongolian people’s infamous perception of time, we waited a whole day for camels that never turned up so eventually Ollie and I had to run 20 kilometers down the mountain to find the camels and another 20k back up. After the ultraâ€marathon this impromptu 40k run was surprisingly no big deal. Our Shaman guide was unfazed by mishaps or changes in plan, not at all worried that we were running low of food.
One of our camels had a problem with his lead nose ring that needed adjusting. This is where our trusty Mike Horn Wegner knife was required for service. I intend that knife to have many such adventures to come.
During our two weeks in Bayanâ€Olgii we had the opportunity to learn about Mongolian nomad culture. Nomad families subsist as livestock herders and interestingly in this poor country with only 3 million inhabitants and approximately 50 livestock per person â€ meat is the staple of their diet. Each family owns a herd of sheep, goats, yak, and horses and throughout the year they will up and move their Ger four times as the seasons change.
The white and elegant round Gers they live in are perfectly suited to the harsh weather. The gers have remained virtually unchanged for centuries, but now many of them are equipped with mobile solar panels and satellite dishes. Inside these round realms we were amazed by the highly ornate decorations and crafts that ring the room and adorn each bed. It is hard to believe they can pack all of this up several times a year and move to the next location.
They generously welcomed us into their homes, which were perfect examples of the maxim: the less you have, the simpler you stay and the freer you will be.
We visited with a nomad eagle hunter’s family. As it was summer it was not hunting season, but we got to meet this majestic bird. They usually tame female birds because they are bigger, stronger and more aggressive than male ones. Eagles can live up to 50 years but most hunters keep the birds for about 10 years and then release them back into the wild. We spent the night with the family and they taught us about their culture and how they manage their herds and make their dairy products and milk vodka.
Wrestling is the most important of the Mongolian culture's historic "Three Manly Skills", the others being horsemanship and archery. All young boys in Mongolia learn to wrestle. At no more than 8 years old these boys demonstrated their wrestling prowess and provoked Ollie and I to learn to wrestle and wrestle with them. We did not stand a chance!
We trekked to the Khara Airikh Valley via Shiveet Hairhan Uul where we were able to view the biggest petroglyphs from the iron and bronze ages. We also saw Turkic memorial stone figures known as balbals or man stones, peacefully standing in a field of wild flowers as they have done for centuries.
While we missed the Nadaam festivities in Ulaanbaatar, we got to see the infamous horseracing across the plains. The brave red cheeked jockeys, who must ride bareback, are young boys aged 6â€14 and the races range from 15â€30 kilometers. These children showed us they had much more to teach us about endurance!
With colorful and ornate furniture and beds in frames this Ger exemplified the elaborate quality of the traditional handmade crafts of the region. Before departing back to civilization we tried to repay their hospitality by distributing first aid kits and English teaching books to the families we spent the night with.
Back in Ulaanbaatar we booked passage on the Transâ€Siberian Railway to Beijing. After two weeks of continuous running and trekking the thirtyâ€six hour journey across a flat Gobi punctuated with rainbows was a welcome time to reflect. We got on the train in an enormous country sparsely occupied by 3 million people and departed into the sea of humanity at the Beijing train station, heralding to us that we truly had arrived in China!
The Trans Siberian rolled across the Gobi Desert for hoursâ€ mesmerizing us with many rainbows.
PART 3: Tsinghua University, SSLP –Teaching
J u l y 18 2013â€ å›½ç«‹æ¸…åŽå¤§å¦; Tsinghua University, Beijing
Our next stop was Tsinghua University, one of the top three universities in China, where we would join the Summer Service and Learning Program in Rural China. It began with a week of courses at Tsinghua studying in depth China’s education system and focused on the cultural disparities between western and Chinese educations. Then we split up into teams with students from Tsinghua and dispersed across rural China. This is where we brothers parted ways. Ollie had a grueling 3 day train and bus journey to Yunnan Province in the cool mountains on the edge of Myanmar. I travelled in the complete opposite direction, north to Jilin Province well above North Korea, nearly 5,000 kilometers apart on opposite corners of China.
In these rural areas our volunteer mission was to teach English in primary schools and high schools and to convey western culture. We taught several classes every day and had to prepare lesson plans for each of them. I have a no appreciation for the challenges our own teachers face. I don’t know how effective I was at teaching, but every day the kids would come in to class full of enthusiasm to learn. In both locations they found Ollie and I to be very ‘funny’, of course many of them had never seen a westerner before. Most of these kids will be stuck in these small towns, but via intensive education just a small handful of them have the potential to escape. As a result they are all determinedly focused on acing the National College Entrance Examination, commonly known as Gaokao (é«˜è€ƒ), or the worst college entrance exam in the world.
I don't know if they learned more from the program or if I did, but our cultural exchange was enlightening for all of us. We were the entertaining lectures, who sang and danced in class while teaching them about western culture. However, the young rural students worshiped their elder country men who attend Tsinghua University. These students are their idols, as those lucky few who succeeded in creating a path to a new future. During my time there in the far reaches of China I learned yet another lesson in perseverance and endurance from these rural teenagers, who may not ever want to join me for a 100k run in the desert, but who are so focused on finding a way to learn enough to become privileged men and women, who will be able to do what they want with their lives.
As we return to Hong Kong to resume our own studies for our last year of IB, Ollie and I know how incredibly fortunate we are to have had this opportunity to pursue this kind of adventurous summer. We covered an enormous amount of terrain in just six weeks. We pursued big physical challenges. We learnt about nomad culture. We volunteered in rural communities, and as with all great expeditions we have expanded our worldview and appreciation of the wonderful diversity of both nature and man!
Inspired by Moose and Dimaâ€ Ollie has continued to improve his photo and video making accounts of our travels.
These videos are on Oliver’s Vimeo page.
1. Gobi Ultraâ€marathon: http://vimeo.com/72250028
2. Western Mongolia: http://vimeo.com/72246415
3. SSLP with Tsinghua University : http://vimeo.com/72246836
YEP’s Involved: Sebastian and Oliver Engelhart, Africa Expedition 2012