Through the desert, you go without knowing whether in three days, when the water supply runs out, a well will be found. For 70 days, 1800 km, there is no way back and that’s delightful in this trip. Either you go forward or you call a team that evacuates you.
Dominik Szczepański (expedition spokesman) interwiev with Mateusz Waligóra
At the end of July Mateusz Waligóra will go to Mongolia. The purpose of his trip will be the first, lonely passage of the Gobi desert without outside support.
Gobi is the largest desert of Asia and the second largest desert in the world – only Sahara is bigger. Gobi has got extreme climate and very diverse terrain – steppes, mountains reaching up to 4000 m above sea level, extensive rocky debris and sand dunes. The temperature can drop to minus 30 degrees at night and rise to plus 45 during the day. Another threats are hurricane winds, sandstorms and thunderstorms.
One of the few people who tried to make a lonely Gobi passage was Reinhold Messner. Legendary climber – the first who has summited all eight-thousanders – completed his journey through the desert after few weeks. He did not pass the entire route – time to time he was travelling on a horse’s back, few times he said „yes” to shepherds, merchants, gold and oil seekers, who offered him a lift. “Gobi can not be won, because the look on this emptiness is almost unbearable” – he wrote later in the book “Gobi”.
Waligóra plans to start his lonely expedition from the Mongolian and Chinese border in Bulgan, Khovd Province. From there, his route goes to the East – through the Altai mountains, the entire Gobi desert to Sainshand in eastern Mongolia. It’s around 1800 km. The traveler estimates that the march will take about 70 days.
He will pull a special cart with tent, freeze-dried food, water filter, navigation and communication equipment, solar panels. Cart will also contain water – about 100-120 liters, a reserve that allows you to survive 8-10 days.
Why do you want to go through the Gobi desert?
I wanted to go to China to the Takla Makan desert, but the number of formalities, permits to attend is enormous. And Gobi is the second largest desert in the world after the Sahara. And so far no one has ever passed it alone, although many people have tried, for example, the famous climber Reinhold Messner.
I’ve been preparing for the trip for three years, and for the last two years I know I’m going to Gobi. I crossed the largest salt desert in the world – Salar de Uyuni, I was in Patagonia, in Atacama. Salar makes the biggest impression. There is no life, no smells, no sounds and no water. Total emptiness and lack of any stimulus make the mind clean.
Atakama is special to me because I started to overcome my fears there.
What kind of fears?
– I started to go to the desert because I was always afraid that there would be no water in such a place. For several years I could not deal with it. Whatever it sounds – I went to Atakama to face myself and realize where my limits are. And there the greatest fear turned into the greatest passion.
Has it passed?
– No, but I can control it, and that’s what it was about.
I’m afraid of many things. And now, preparing for the Gobi, I feel like I’m watching someone from the side. I put aside the fact that I am going there and I will have to pass 1800 km, somehow find water and deal with all my fears alone.
Is it good to be afraid?
– Yes, because thanks to fear, we do not get into unnecessary trouble. I believe that thanks to fear in a risky moment I will take a step back.
The first weeks will be the hardest, because the body gets used to the effort. The head is also important – you are taking the first steps and you need to be aware of the consequences of the path you have taken. After the first, second, sometimes even third week I catch the rhythm. The last stage is the time when you are happy that you can see the finish line, but on the other hand you feel that the trip could take a while longer. It’s a kind of paradox stage that makes you addicted.
Body gets used to it through effort. What about head? How to synchronize it?
– I do not think that I want to pass the Gobi desert, because I think it would be beyond me. Reinhold Messner in his book “Gobi” often mentions how vast this space is and how terrifying it is. So I focus on the first two weeks, on smaller stages, not on the whole thing. Thanks to this, fear is replaced by constant focus. You have to concentrate because if you do something wrong, you will have a problem. Nobody will help you, you’re just on your own. So you’re focusing on taking the right amount of water, putting your shoes in the tent at night. Details that you do not think about every day in the desert grow into rituals. Thanks to the focus, fear subsides because you know what to do.
I have 70-80 days of walk on the Gobi, repeating the same every day.
Sounds pretty boring.
– There are not many places in the deserts that focus attention. The landscape is monotonous, the step sets the rhythm, your head can be anywhere. You meditate. The march is an exciting journey made by the mind. Normally, there is no chance to have so much time for yourself.
Why do you want to go through Gobi alone?
– I do not know why I want to go through Gobi. But I know, however, why I want to do it alone. I can not imagine moving there with someone, because it would be a denial of the reason why I want to be there. I go to the desert to find loneliness, peace and quiet.
And that’s why I’m a little worry about meeting inhabitants of the desert. Many travelers said that people there are often drunk. On the other hand, Gobi is a land of nomads. You can open a random guide to Mongolia and find there many descriptions of the hospitality of inhabitants of Gobi. And if they offer you refreshments, how you can say no?
It’s also about the style of the trip. If you accept anything, it would not be true solo attempt.
– It does not matter much to me – the packet of cookies will not change anything. Eating should not miss me, I will have around 60 kg of food. I will carry it on a specially prepared cart. I will eat LyoFood freeze-dried food. It is perfect for deserts, because for one meal you need only 350 ml of hot water. I will eat two large meals daily. Half less than members of the British-Australian expedition who went through the Gobi last year, they lost weight from 9 to 20 kg. They took too much food, they were not able to pull everything, they had to throw food into a car that was searching path and sources of water for them. I will not have a car. But I know my body. I know that when it is really hot, first of all I feel thirst, not hunger. This is also the reason why I am going to the desert with a slight overweight. You lose weight on such expeditions. If you do not have fat stores, you burn your muscles.
Returning to the refreshments – they can be treacherous when you are dehydrated. The slightest stomach problem after eating something that has been offered to you in good faith can be a very serious problem.
The lack of water is deadly. If I run out of food – I can stand it. Man can survive without a meal for three weeks. Without water? Three days. This trip is a story about water. Can I find it? There are places on the Gobi where one year water occurs, the next is not. And you can never be sure.
And the idea with a car that would drive in front of you and look for sources?
– It would change character of this journey. This is life on the desert – you do not know whether in three days, when you run out of water, you’ll have a place to get it. Will the well be dry and if it can be found at all? This uncertainty can be exhausting, requires a very strong psyche. I can pull 120 liters of water with me on the cart. This stock for 8-10 days. The range of the march is 30-40 km per day. The margin of error is therefore very small. Water is a sanctity that unleashes unique emotions. In Australia, when I reached the well on Canning Stock Route and found water in it, I could not hold back my tears. It’s strong emotions.
How to find a water on the Gobi?
– I will use the knowledge of those who walked it before me, but I will not go only through the desert. At the beginning, I have to cross the Altai Mountains. There, the problem with water will be smaller, thanks to springs and rivers. There can be even too much water there, after the storm periodic rivers are very fast and crossing them becomes dangerous.
Then I will enter the desert. The longest stretch without water, which I will face, counts over 300 kilometers. It’s 10 days of walking. Unfortunately, this is where the area will be the worst, the most sandy – an open space without any shadow. These will probably be the most difficult days of the trip. Luckily, this episode ends in Dalanzadgad, the largest city in southern Mongolia. So I will go with the thought that in a few days I will reach the water.
There is no way back and it is delightful in this trip. Either you go forward or you call a team that evacuates you.
I will also have to clean water with a filter. The water on the Gobi is dirty, especially in the rivers. From Dalanzadgad, I will still have 500 km to Sainshand, where I want to finish my trip. There are three settlements on this section. I do not know if I’m right, but I’m not afraid of this part of the expedition. I will be very used to the effort, mentally strong, because the biggest difficulties will be behind me. And the vision of the end of the expedition is pushing me forward. On the other hand, physical exhaustion will be the greatest there.
What do you expect to find at the end of the road?
– The longer I think about it, the more I come to the conclusion that there is nothing waiting. There is no goal I am aiming for, there will be no meeting with family or any other reward. The fact that I will reach Sainshand will not change anything. I guess.
What other difficulties are you waiting for Gobi?
– I have to accept the fact that snakes, spiders and scorpions live there. But I’m more afraid of wolves. Sarah Marquis, who twice attempted to cross the Gobi, regularly met them near to her tent.
But no animals make life uncomfortable like plants. Those growing in the desert are usually prickly. They will be tearing tires, inner tubes.
Sandstorms are also a threat. I try not to think about them because they are terrifying. I’ve seen them in movies and photos. It’s kilometers of vertical dust.
What will you do if sandstorm catches you?
– I will probably try to hide under the cart, breathe through the mask, wrap up with a camping sheet, wait. Maybe in the tent? I’ll see. The nomads hide in the yurts, maybe I will be lucky and they will be nearby, I believe that they will teach me how to survive. There is no point in worrying about what you can not influence. Sometimes you have to be like a honey badger - take everything as it is.