Tuesday, 12 August 2008

13 - E5 Mongol-time

I am a man prone to using the words “the greatest” in somewhat less than short supply. Some may say this is due to being judgemental. We are warned against being such with phrases like “judge and ye shall be judged”. But I don’t think its all bad. For example it is deemed positive to be a good judge of character. At any rate there are 2 reasons I use those words. One is that I can and am willing to make certain qualitative judgements or decisions regarding events in my life. In accordance with there being no such thing as an ordinary moment I regard all my ‘moments’ as significant but my internal measuring system allows me to accept certain as and when they occur as being the “GREATEST XXX”. Of course I offer no definition regarding “greatest”. You’ll also have noticed the “XXX” which is the second reason I use “the greatest” a fair amount. I invariably apply a rather specific noun or description of “the greatest” thing as a get-out-of-misinterpretation-jail-free-card. For example the “greatest weekend” may well not have included my “greatest night” or my “greatest moment”.

So this trip to Mongolia... Well... It’s been the Greatest Expedition I have ever undertaken.

And I choose that last word carefully.

All of our lives tell a story and all stories have an ending and they all end the same way.

For the most part Death may as well shout itself hoarse for all the attention we’re going to pay it until its usually untimely arrival.

At the end of mine I know I die. I have a feeling it will be one the most beautiful things I ever do. On this trip I paid death some attention and I feel exquisitely alive.

I have always been a fan of the unexpected and clever non-linear narrative. E.g. those books that one knows the ending to in the first chapter yet the story is still well worth the read or better still, in Pulp Fiction when John Travolta’s character gets killed half way into the movie yet then just reappears later as Tarantino fills in some earlier details in his tale.

So rest assured I am ever so happy to continue filling in more details in my story before that pre-set end. I have no idea how many details there will be and I certainly do plan to share them with you along the way.

So in short I look forward to hearing, seeing or hugging any and all of you at the soonest convenience...

Now the dramatics aside here is some of the juice...

There was a 2-day mountain-jungle hike, which gave me some good pointers as to my own endurance and willpower levels. In short I am my own worst enemy. By not relenting I got to a point in a steamy jungle of recognising that I might die by virtue of the pace and rate at which I push myself. An exploration of a glacier (see previous posting) complete with scary sinkhole moment. Followed by the climbing of Mount Malchin, which showed me just how much the spirit could carry one beyond one’s physical boundaries and complete with super scary rockslide moment on a scree slope followed by nerve-shattering ice-slope cracking incident (again see previous post). Out camping in several astonishing landscapes, partaking of nomadic family hospitality (with strange cheeses) and holding an eagle (and getting a bleeding claw puncture despite the thick protective gauntlet) provided other highlights but generally the entire trip was conducted with a high base level of intensity not least of which was the huge amount of time spent driving through one breathtaking but arduous landscape after another. All of this was in Mongolia and then at the end we had a few days of preconceived misconception smashing go on in Beijing. Sure – they are putting on a good show for the Olympics but really that town seems quite extraordinary and has awoken in me a desire to see much more of China. Other silly events surrounded Dave’s adventurous and levitating toothbrush, horse and camel-riding, yak investigations, outdoor pool madness in very local areas and eating every type of crazy bug and animal part at the night-market in Beijing plus going to the Olympic beach volleyball - a sport which specifies the maximum size a contestant’s bikini can be!

And oh yes, there was the eclipse itself! Ah, as ever a sublime dream again. The days leading up to it were the usual scurry to find a good viewing place. This time it was against the odds of terrible mountain roads. We were part of a group of 40 or so folk in a 9-vehicle convoy. It was a package tour as such but this seemed pretty much the only way to ensure we even had a vehicle let alone food and so on in the far west of Mongolia. This is a hard and very remote part of the world. To give you a vague idea, it takes 7+ hours to drive 200km on these roads though they often resemble rockslides better. Where we were was near Russia/China and Kazakhstan and it’s easier to understand the mountain goats than to crack the Cyrillic alphabet to read the Mongolian or Kazakh language. And Panoramic Journeys did a great job in extreme circumstances so well done James Moreton!

At any rate, David Haupt, myself and the Northern Californian wine-making Frey family (Johnathan, Katrina and Caroline) were released from the rest of the group along with a Mongolian guide, cook and 2 vehicles to go off by ourselves for 3 days to observe the eclipse in a place of our own choosing. We looked at several spots, each further towards China and presuming better weather prospects. Amongst the sites we checked was an astronomical tour group’s chosen location. They were in the midst of a very wide and barren plain, far from shelter, far from water. They were a nice friendly bunch but had chosen their site based on it providing for the absolute maximum amount of eclipse time. I guess about 2min 10 seconds of totality. Whereas we chose a site that gave us only about 2min 5sec!!! It does amaze me that people will make such a big deal for those few seconds. Our site was only 3 or so km away from them and offered so much more than just a few more seconds of day-darkness. I have come to enjoy this aspect of eclipse-chasing the most. The lead-up time scurrying around assessing options and pondering weather prospects. And each location in itself is an experience as it is generally just a place on the planet with little draw other than its coincidental alignment with the eclipse. And yet I get a chance to observe it and pay it some attention. There is a store of these locations in my head now. I still remember most of them from previous eclipse trips. As equally I remember many of the people I met in those locations too. Its something about the purpose of the event that makes them memorable even though it is just another form of tourism I guess. Just somewhat more random and never in a guidebook.

Anyway what I have now discovered is that the instant one finds ‘the’ location, one knows it is the ‘right’ place (which makes me wonder if that’s the feeling when one meets one’s spouse and has ‘that’ feeling). This at least was abundantly clear in the case of the Turkish eclipse and this Mongolian one. Last time it was a lighthouse with 310 degrees of ocean around it. This time we were on a hillock overlooking a salt flat. The salt flat combined super rosy beige and grey textures with the rare opportunity to have the eclipse reflected into water during totality. For all the world it looked like another planet. So we likened it to another moon of Jupiter, this time Ganymede. Thus we can now claim to have explored both Titan and Ganymede. To add to the perfection the Frey’s found a hidden freshwater spring and pond next to the flats, which provided the means to chill various beverages in the 35-40 degree plus heat. A luxury we had not experienced in a week.

Once again the eclipse itself was haunting in its beauty. This time it did not get as dark as Zambia or Turkey. We could only see 2 planets/stars but that barely matters if one gets to see it at all! Of the other features – I never saw the shadow-wall approaching but did see the light-wall coming in. Relished in the weird otherworldly glow of the 360-degree sunset and the steely-grey colour-drained rocky landscape around us. Marvelled at the solar corona. The only note worth mentioning regarding wildlife was the onset of the evening mosquitoes, which was not a welcome eclipse-effect. Photographically I am really happy with what I got. The reflection shots are my favourite. They even contain an indistinct cow skull to the mid left! And when several are played in a slideshow one can see the arriving and departing curves of the moon’s shadow. I feel the diamond rings are equally better than anything I had to date plus the fisheye material is new too – so that was good.

Over all I still remain fascinated by the phenomenon though on this occasion the general events or the entire expedition surrounding the eclipse were so extraordinary and testing that the eclipse itself had a warming familiarity about it. Perhaps after having now seen 5 I am proficient without being blasé! What was the best thing on this trip was the company of the ever-delightful David Haupt. And sharing a second eclipse with him I’d say is the highlight of our 30 years of friendship. In fact getting to spend 23 days with him was an honour and a privilege and it must be a testament to his easy affability that we never fought during that entire time. And for someone to be able to do that with me, a man who guards his time and freedom so damn closely is equally special. Hopefully it was a 2-way street. Anyway thank you David.

So enjoy the snaps. The sunset and gradients of light are so smooth on some of these that the compression required to make them internet friendly can’t handle them very well... So it goes.

To be fair too, and just in case it all sounded too good I did suffer a severe bout of bottom trouble a week after the eclipse. And believe me with toilet paper in the form of wafer thing sheets of cement suffer indeed I did! And see the shot of the toilets at the AIRPORT we flew into in Western Mongolia… nice huh?

Oh yes, one more thing...

It can be said that every Doctor has a dark side and on this trip Doctor Lobster’s was revealed as the Yeti Overlord. Most people when asked if they are afraid of the Yeti make the 2 worst possible mistakes... One they don’t believe they (its a species not an individual) exist and two they mistake them as being the same as Bigfoot... Foolish people all... I have heard the Yeti and terrible are his howls.