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Steppe, Start, Steppe, Start

My plane ride from Choibalsan to Ulaan Baatar got cancelled. I guess there just weren’t enough takers for the journey. The news made me ecstatic because it meant a day long journey across the vast Mongolian steppe land. I was really looking forward to the scenery. We started at six am.

For the first few hours, the landscape was exactly the same – flat, barren land with a few rolling hills in the distance. But, it was far from boring. The colours changed dramatically, especially at sunrise. The road became lined with ice for a while, and then, not. The short grass grew up longer, and then it disappeared completely. Each frame I shot was awesome.

A while later: a river which did not run. It just stood there, completely frozen over. No bridge. Enkhee, our driver, expected to drive the jeep right across the ice. But something made him change his mind. We stopped on the bank. He went to middle, and jumped and skidded about. There wasn’t even a crackle. He looked up at the sun, and jumped some more. The next settlement was a few miles away.

“Is it safe to go across?” I asked. Maybe, came the verdict, but then it may not be safe to return. The sun was warm, and the jeep weighed something like a ton. “We will walk” said the two women on our team, who’d been asleep at the back of the jeep. “It’s a very important document we need to deliver, and it can’t wait.” Walk they did, while we waited. I thought: this is what they meant by the “challenges presented by the rough Mongolian terrain” on the briefings I’d read before I got here.

Two hours later, we were on our way again. More of the landscape raced by. There were bright white streams of condensation from jet planes flying across a blue, blue sky. At Khentii province, we went looking for petrol, with our fuel gauge hovering on empty. Almost no station would use a credit card. I was wondering if we should pool our cash reserves together to solve the problem. Our staff resisted the idea. “We should hold on to our cash.” I would find out why a bit later. We tanked up, and Enkhee exhaled.

We stopped for the sunset. I wanted to get a photo of that, and Mongolian horses in the foreground. Enkhee had been playing beautiful Mongolian songs on the stereo. It was a moment I would never forget. I was practically inside the sunset. There were colours I’d never seen before. After Khentii, the road had became paved. Ulaan Baatar could not be that far away!

There was another vehicle in the convoy which appeared to have developed a snag. Oyut, my interpreter, was giggling. “The drivers want to know which of us women will give up a stocking,” she said. “The fan-belt is broken.” I thought I was in an old American movie. In crowded New Delhi, if there’s a problem with your car, there are literally hundreds of passers-by whom you can stop for help, and a host of places where you can go to fix it. Here, there was no one.

What should have taken us between eight or nine hours, took us over twenty. Despite the freezing cold, the engine of the second car overheated and we had to stop every half an hour or so to cool it down, before we could carry on. There was nothing wrong with Enkhee’s jeep. But, he simply would not leave the other one behind. We were traveling across miles of nothingness, and sticking together was the only way we could beat the odds. We’d held on to our cash for good reason. We could have needed it for all sorts of contingencies.

I felt privileged to be safe in my bed that night. For more reasons than one. I turned on the TV.

There’d been terror attacks in India. What was happening to my country? I called the people I loved. They were safe, and I was very glad to hear them speak. I wanted to fly home at once. It would be another couple of days before I could do that. I felt frustrated about not being able to hear the news live, and from the channels that I was used to. But, I had a job to finish. So, I got on with it.

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