Stepping out of Ulan Bator airport is something I will never forget. The cold hits your chest the minute you breathe in, making you cough and panic at the same time. The handles on the airport doors are so cold, your hands stick to them. And we haven’t even left for the ‘countryside’ yet. It is at least -40 outside and it is 7am.
As fans of my incredibly informative and amazing blog, you’ll know that we’re here to run across Lake Khosgol in Mongolia. At 85 miles long and 262m deep, this is the second largest body of freshwater in the world, and at this time of year is completely frozen. The ice is 70 cm thick and we are going to trot all over it. We’re a good little team. There’s me, Lee, Graham (G-Law to those in the know) Darren and Sally who are the guinea pigs, and Jim and Rob from Rat Race. We will all be running but the adventure is ‘by any means’ which means we have a bike, skis and skates if people want to use them. I am hell bent on doing the whole thing on foot.
From the airport we get in a tiny 12 seater plane and travel for 2 hours across the snow covered mountains north west to Murun. The windows of the plane ice over when you breathe on them. It’s cold.
Tiny plane of dreams
Views on the way to Murun.
From Murun, we are bundled into various vehicles - ours was an old Russian military van which looks like it had seen better days. How wrong I was. This van turned out to be a total badass.
We drive for 2 hours through the Mongolian countryside, spotting ponies and yaks wearing little coats on the roadside, to our base camp at Khatgal. Here we met our wonderful Mongolian hosts who showed us to our Gers - custom built tents with wood fuelled stoves in them. This is where will will stay for tonight.
Home sweet home
Relying on this bad boy to keep us alive……
We spend the rest of the day trying to get acclimatised to the freezing temperatures (impossible) and testing out out kit on the lake. I am wearing 4 layers of tights (compression with 2 breathable pairs over the top and a winter pair on top of that) PLUS salopettes. I’m wearing a base layer top and 3 more layers including a North Face fleece and North Face down jacket on top. I am still cold. My feet have 3 pairs of socks on them and my little paws have 2 pairs of gloves. Everything is cold. This is ridiculous. This is my face having been outside for 3 minutes.
We attach our spikes to our shoes and head to the lake. Stepping out on the ice is hilarious, we’re all slightly scared it might crack. It can’t crack. It’s frozen solid and 70cm thick. We do a few short runs testing out how slippery it is. It’s a dry cold so not slippery at all. Water can’t sit on the surface. It’s too fucking cold! It’s like running on a big glass table. My spikes are working like a dream, my lungs are not. Breathing the air is so hard out here, and it’s at this point I start to realise how much of a challenge is facing us. Best thing to do is have a beer. Our main point man in Mongolia, David, produces a few cans of local beer. Problem is standing outside with them means they almost immediately freeze. I’ve never had to warm up my beer before. This will become a running theme over the course of the week.
Tonight we sit down to a delicious dinner, home cooked by Dava, one of our brilliant hosts. Tonight it’s a mushroom and seaweed soup and delicious Mongolian dim sums AND we have entertainment in the form of a local musician playing a traditional Mongolian Kayagum - it’s a stringed instrument that sits upright like a piano, and is plucked. We also have Alistair - one of our Scottish support team - and his bagpipes so it’s all of the LOLS with the Mongolian, Scottish and British national anthems and some terrible singing from everyone.
It’s our first night in the Gers, and because I am scared of the cold I keep ALL my clothes on, plus my one piece and a fully zipped 4 season military issue sleeping bag. Little do I know that I now won’t be getting changed for 5 days…….. Each Ger has a Mongolian “fire fairy” who pops in and out throughout the night, restocking our fire every 2-3 hours to keep us warm. Our beds are off the floor and I sleep well and am warm, maybe too warm, for a lot of the night. The boys in the other Ger take it upon themselves to stack their fire, not knowing that the fire fairy exists, basically turning their tent into a pizza oven that you can see from space. At one point they are all in their pants with the door open. Boys eh?
The other issue is going to the bathroom. At night, it is pitch black and obviously the toilets are outside. OUTSIDE outside. Whatever you do in the long drops steams up around you. It’s not pleasant. And you get stuck to the seat. And top tip, when you come back into the Ger and attempt to grab a pole, make sure it IS the pole and not the hot flue of the chimney. That hurts. A lot.
The next morning we get up early and pack our stuff into the vans. Lee says that it’s so cold that hot water will freeze the minute it hits the air and as usual, we don’t believe a word of it, so we try this with a cup of hot water. It works. It blows our tiny minds.
I go to clean my teeth with a bottle of water I have had defrosting next to the fire. Within 90 seconds of being outside it has started to freeze. I buy a fox fur hat and some socks made of yak fur from one of the local sellers. OH MY GOD THE SOCKS ARE SO WARM. I know that some of you are going to get all up in my grill about my foxy hat, but I can honestly say it’s the only way to keep warm. These things are a necessity, not vanity, out here, and everything is responsibly sourced - nothing goes to waste. The Mongolians have lived like this for hundreds of thousands of years and they know what they’re doing. And my head is SO WARM.
Today we drive across the lake to our start point. We are traversing the lake from north to south and are currently in the south - the drive will take 4-5 hours and will be entirely on the ice. We are in all our gear and have a huge furry Deel (a Mongolian fur lined coat) over our legs to keep us warm. We are still cold.
The lake is beautiful. It is immense and intimidating. It’s the most hostile environment I have ever been in. There are so many different types of ice to drive over, and every now and again we have to stop for an enormous crack in the lake, inspect it, and then drive as fast as we can over it. Not scary at all.
That’s quite a crack……
Oh good….. there’s some water…..
We stop for lunch on the lake - some hot stew and a beer, obviously. I spill my beer on the ice. It freezes immediately. I am sad.
Crying over spilt beer.
Our new Mongolian friends give us all a Deel each to put on and we spend some time on the ice, getting used to the feel of it and the sounds that go with it.
Doing my best Bjork impression on the lake in my Deel……
There are bangs and cracking noises all around us - this is where the water under the ice ebbs and flows and the ice cracks under the pressure, sometimes splintering up forming huge cracks and smaller faults. The sound is terrifying, and can come from anywhere. The only thing I can compare it too is the sound of thunder. I am so glad that we have had today to ‘get used’ to this and understand why it’s happening. Having said that, I’m not sure we will ever REALLY get used to it. It’s a petrifying experience, and you can’t run away from it because it’s all around you.
We bundle back into the cars and head to our next base camp at Khankh at the north side of the lake. These are DELUXE Gers with actual floors and everything! Here we meet our pacing ponies (well they’re not pacing ponies but they are the ponies that will pull our sleds) and have another delicious dinner of stew before heading to bed. Tomorrow we start running at 8.30am and I can’t wait.
Sunset on the lake…. (hashtag no filter….)
Ger camp 2 and pacing pony!
Deluxe Ger alert! (I should have made the most of this……)