After what feels like and eternity, we are beyond the communist block architecture of U.B (it takes us so long to escape that I already feel that I am qualified to use the initials). Instantly, as if by magic, the grass becomes lushly green and the azure skies seem to go on forever, punctuated by mash potato clouds, which look almost edible. But it is the vast open landscape that gets me the most. Of course, I have the worst seat in the van, at this point (one that faces backwards)and therefore I get to see UB's ugly cityscape, disappearing as the van bumps off in the direction of Central Mongolia.
Saskia, Gerrard and Danielle, meanwhile are treated to the delights of Mongolia from the relative luxury of a forward facing seat. Over the period of the next 10 days, I am to learn that you take the luxuries whilst you can whilst in Mongolia. They are few and far between. This is a country, where a "real toilet" is as rare as Sikh in a crash helmet and a packet of wet wipes is as welcome as a power shower in a 5 star hotel. Indeed, the over excitement that I feel, when we make one of the few shop stops over the period of the next 10 days, increases my heart beat so acutely, that I will ultimately, probably lose 5 years of my life.
Saskia, who know's a little French becomes our interpreter. I am thanking my lucky stars, that I never continued my own endeavours into learning the French language, beyond "Bon jour, je mapelle Andy". She is coping well now, but I imagine after 10 days of translating the conversation, it can all become a tad tedious - especially because Gerrard's hearing is virtually non-existent. After a while, when the beauty of the landscape has become slightly more passe, I sit and listen to their conversation, whilst trying to understand the dialogue.
Gerrard: "En what is your nom, my petit pois d'allemagne?"
Saskia: "Zaskia, is mine naam, dat is Zaskia wiz ein S".
Gerrard: "Pardon madamme", je nom, je nom".
Saskia: "Dat is mine naam, Zaskia wiz ein S".
Gerrard: "Catherine, Sally, oh no, no, no, no, no - c'est bon".
Saskia: "Nine, het is Zaskia wiz ein S".
Actually as it turns out, my imagined dialogue is not far wrong and it only clicks with Gerrard on day 5, that her name is in fact Saskia (with an s). Suddenly, after a quiet period of after dinner reflection Gerrard bursts into animation and shouts "Ah ah Saskia, c'est bon".
Danielle's irritation towards Saskia is already starting to surface. By the end of the trip, you could cut the atmosphere between Danielle and Saskia with a knife, right now you could just about prod it with a fork. Danielle, is not one for hiding her disdain and Saskia's ever increasing selfishness becomes more apparent with every passing kilometre. Saskia, has extremely long legs and they seem to want to take up every bit of available space in the van, regardless of what stands in their way. I am convinced that her legs increase in length, in direct proportion to Danielle's annoyance.
We are told that the highlight of today is going to be a glimpse of Mongolia's famous wild horses. The chances of this seem to diminish rapidly when the only petrol station for miles appears to be either closed, out of fuel or they simply can't be arsed to sell us any gas. Our driver informs us that we will try again tomorrow and we head back in the direction whence we just came. Soon, we leave the sealed road surface and take one of Mongolia's abundant small tracks that heads off into the distant hills. I am assuming that satellite navigation would not have a clue where to send you in a country where dirt tracks criss-cross across the landscape in every conceivable direction. Our scepticism at the drivers knowledge and driving skills increases with haste, as the van appears to hit every seemingly avoidable bump on the track. It's almost as if he is testing our endurance levels, the judgment of which, is the amount of screaming we do, as our skulls make another dent in the van roof. I look at the disgust on Saskia's face and know that she's longing for some "Vorsprung durch Technik", right now.
A sign post informs us that we have entered a national park, but to be honest, it looks no different than the rest of Mongolia (which is not a bad thing). A sudden increase in tourist camps, full of luxury gers, is the only indication that this geographical metamorphous has occurred. We enter one of the tourist camps, for a shop and toilet stop, and I take a nosey in one of the gers. It's pretty plush, with a detailed carpet and some ornate furniture around the place. It is certainly not worth the infeasible amount of extra money that these suckers pay though. The authenticity of the the whole Mongolia experience is surely detracted from, by electing for such perceived luxury.
We are now on the hunt for the Mongolian wild horses, the increased attentitiveness of the driver to his surroundings is testament to this fact. A pity that this further awareness does not extend to the actual road. Whilst the anxiety level of the rest of the vans occupants intensifies with every near miss, Gerrard seems to be positely enjoying himself. "Oui, oui , oui c'est bon", he screams as all 4 wheels leave the ground. Maybe this is what happens when one is in the twilight years of their life. You literally, don't give a damn.
Somewhere in all the excitement, the azure skies have turned black, although sunlight is still penetrating the clouds and illuminating the landscape in such a manner that it looks like it's been touched by the hand of god. The colours are magnificent, almost like they look when lsd enters one's system and perception of everything is infinitely heightened. We quickly make another toilet stop before the heavens open up. The driver mumbles something to the guide, who then informs us all that the little bushes that we see dominating the landscape are in fact poisonous and therefore all contact with the skin should be avoided at all costs. I pay particular attention to this warning because I am wearing shorts and don't fancy a hospital stop in this lovely but I assume medically backwards land.
Urgently wishing to empty my bladder, I vigorously slide open the van door and jump out. "Argh, argh, arrgh", I inarticulately yell, as I realise that I have jumped straight into a poisonous plant. "Nice one numb nuts", I think to myself and cast an angry look in his direction. His vacuous countenance, does little to suggest that this is a man, who has just given a poisonous plant warning and then parked right in front of the aforementioned plant. Fortunately, the plant is either not as poisonous as he suggests or I am as hard as nails. The scales, I guess are balanced more in the favour of his stupidity. I wonder to myself if I should piss on my legs just in case the sting takes a while to surface, but decide against it when it occurs to me that I always urinate down my legs regardless.
Whilst we are all pissing, nature decides to brighten up our lives once more with a fantastic double rainbow. Under the beautiful light of one of natures finest treats, we all make our own golden rainbows and head back to the van. However, we are soon to find out that not all the soldiers have returned to the barracks (read on).
Our first indication that something is happening comes when the driver's grunts become almost intelligible. It is apparent that he has spotted something, and he brings the van to a sudden halt. In the few seconds that have elapsed, as this latest scene has been panning out, I have noticed out of the corner of my eye that Danielle seems to be going through her own personal drama. The look of anguish on her face is testament to this fact. I am about to enquire what the problem is, but before I do so, the guide shouts "There, there, look on the horizon". I cast my eyes in the direction that she points but I am rewarded by nothing. After, a minute or so, I turn my attention back to Danielle and following the requests that she makes via her discrete head gestures, my eyes divert in the direction of Gerrard's groin area. For my efforts, I am rewarded, not by a glimpse of a Mongolian wild horse but instead by a French wild snake, which is currently hanging out of the side of his shorts.
It's a close call to say what we see more of over the next 10 days, the famous Mongolian wild horse, or the lesser known by equally frequently spotted French wild snake.