A zipper opening, that’s my wake-up call. No, please, not yet, just ten minutes more.
Mornings have never been my strong point. And when you’re faced with walking for 8+ long hours every day for two months, the effort to get up is so, SO much greater. The only thing that really unzips my sleeping bag is the familiar jolt of a full bladder and the fear of missing out on breakfast at 7.
The clothes I’ve been wearing for 10 days straight don’t smell appealing, they almost walk themselves. The muscles in my legs protest in harmony with every movement. And my feet… oh my poor, swollen feet; I promise to pamper you forever if you can just get me through these 1,000 miles.
1,000 miles of walking, 1,600 kms on foot, a 60-day crossing, 30+ kms trekking every single day for 2 months. But words really can’t describe the enormity of the Gobi 2011 Expedition. To stay sane, I must take it one mile at a time, one river crossing at a time, and one day at a time.
The camels, they know what they’re in for too. I can see it in their eyes through lashes any beauty queen would kill for. By 8am, we load them up with 40 to 80 kilos each, and they squirm and shuffle in revolt.
It’s camel hour first; we have to keep on our toes. This is the time we’re most likely to get stomped or side-kicked. They’re very temperamental creatures, camels, if something isn’t right with their load (too big, too small, dangling rope, odd noise, etc) they completely freak out. This in turn, freaks ALL the other camels out, creating a stampede in seconds. Whatever happens, NEVER let go of the rope.
The following two hours of the morning are irritatingly slow because I know there’s still so far to go. My legs shut down, but I force them against their will. My arms become numb too. When I look down, all I see is a pair of those inflatable hands people wave at sports stadiums. Like a chubby baby, I’m unable to make a fist.
By the time 11 comes ’round, I’m glad the majority of the morning’s 5-hour walk is over, but then the familiar growl of hunger starts up. If I can’t occupy my mind, the walk until lunch is the worst. It can lead to a big, bad world of hate. “Who’s stupid idea was this?” “How come HE gets to ride a camel?” “Why are they laughing?!”
My saviour arrives in a tupperware container accompanied by half an hour of rest. After this, the 3-hour walk to camp in the peak heat of the day sounds easy-peasy. I get a second wind and power on at the front of the group, until… all the suffering from the morning returns tenfold. Pain radiates from my feet and my legs decide not to move without a new fight.
Even the lizards are against me; every ten steps I see one zig-zagging in front, only to reverse and stop suddenly right under my boot. The marmot holes too, they’re everywhere connecting circuitous cities underground. With each step I imagine falling helplessly into their tunnels. And with that, I drop to the back of the pack.
The only thing now that threatens to break me is if our support van on the horizon suddenly starts up and drives away. It does this to help get a few more miles under our belts for the day.
Some days my ipod can alleviate the pain; I get pumped up by songs with lyrics like, “Thanks for making me a fighter” and “I’m that star up in the sky, I’m that mountain peak up high, hey I made it, I’m the World’s Greatest”. But other days, music can make it worse, much worse.
When camp finally surfaces, it’s time to unload the camels and rejoice; it’s my favourite time of the day. The balloon feet are freed from the confines of sweaty boots and we dive into the cookies and tea. Operation Feet (managing blisters) then becomes the priority, followed closely by the Wet Wipe Tent Party (to clean the dirt and dust).
The sun sets around 10pm and soon after I’m horizontal, thinking I should’ve been in this position hours ago. It feels so good, until I remember it’ll be short-lived and tomorrow’s another walking day. My eyes close with a blink and then I’m off to the land of slumber.
I know what you’re thinking…”Why?”
An expedition is about the team, the landscapes, the locals, the adventure and testing your mettle to remind yourself what you’re made of. What I described, of our average day, is the price of admission. It’s what it takes to rewind the clock and get a taste of old-world exploration. There is so much that’s painful, but so much that’s magical too. But if I just described the magic, well, you’d be in for a real shock. This is tough, really tough, but what doesn’t kill you… yes, I feel much much stronger.
All pictures by Emmanuel Berthier