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Becoming Dragoman Crew: On the road with Louise

Louise has recently completed Dragoman’s comprehensive crew training programme, and is now out on the road with us on in Asia. Follow Louise’s blog below to find out what life is like as a trainee crew member, what day-to-day life is like on an overland trip with Dragoman, and why you should travel to this fascinating continent.

 

The latest... Part 07: Chasing the sun

Over 4500km and 2 times zones later, we're still in China! Travelling overland through China for the last 6 weeks has truly given me an appreciation for this country and how big it is. Another wonderful thing is that we've seen changes happen almost every day, whether it be in people's faces, the dialects, the fruit sold or the geography.

 

Most striking has been the last week since crossing into the infamous Xinjiang province, known for its Conservative Islamic attitudes, heightened security and political sensitivity, as well as sweet grapes! The land has become drier as we've crossed the deadly but beautiful Taklamakan Desert, remembering the rich archaeological and exploration history of this area of the Silk Road. The history has certainly been more obvious recently with our visits to the outstanding Mogao caves and the Jiaohe Ruins. The mountains have elicited 'ooo's and' aaahhh's with their shocks of stratified colours.

 

Back to the grapes: this province grows 7% of the world's grapes and have over 600 varieties! We've certainly been spoilt with the choices of fruit and snacks. As we're nearing the Kyrgystan border and seeing more Uighur influence the food is becoming noticeably more mixed, with a greater appearance of mutton and lamb, albeit with Chinese spices, and the bread is finally becoming more savoury, finally!

We're now gearing up for the upcoming border crossing, filling our boots with snacks and bottles with patience that we suspect we may need...

 

As our China chapter comes to a close I'm starting to reflect on my first lead as well as frantically learning how to close the Drago books at the end of a trip, whilst getting ready for the border crossing and starting a new trip with all the admin that comes with it. All I know is that I started with 13 passengers, I have the same number now, they all have 10 fingers and 10 toes and James hasn't run away yet. I call that a win at this stage.

 

From the beginning... Part One

Day 1 of being on the move has brought much excitement. The group have fallen in love with our truck Tallulah already, seasoned and new overlanders alike. Just 2 hours out of Ulaanbaatar they're rewarded with the stunning views the open Mongolia Steppe has to offer, which we've been promising since our pre-departure meeting. After our lunch stop at some ancient ruins we have a mad auction of truck jobs. The enthusiasm delights me. Never did I think I'd see someone's hand fly into the air quite so quickly as it does for fridge cleaning today. A wonderful start and a great first night in fire warmed Gers by Ogii Lake awaits. The drizzle tapping on the ger adds some melodious white noise.

Day 3. Expectations are settling into place now. Whatever the Mongolian food lacks in diversity, or what showers lack in heat, is being made up for by the panoramic landscapes and charm of our gers so far. Last night had me laughing as one of our passengers showed off to other tourists that 'that lady working under the truck is our driver'. I was obliviously fiddling with grease nipples. I so enjoy the shock and disbelief of Mongolian faces when they see me driving or under the truck.

This morning Tallulah shows us her climbing prowess up a steep rocky hill to a high point, or 'ovu', the spelling of which is questionable. The panoramic views have me fighting from singing the Sound of Music soundtrack. Later on, along the flat tarmac (which is actually in good condition) it seems to be raining all around us but not in our spot of the valley, making for some moody and atmospheric pictures on a spontaneous photo stop. After Erdene Zuu monastery we will have our first food shop for the next couple of days. There has been some apprehension about the cooking and shopping - on a Dragoman trip everyone gets involved with things like setting up camp, cooking and shopping for food - so hopefully we can placate the confusion!

 

Part Two

1 week in. The heartbreaking nature of this work is dawning on me as I realise, heading through the stunning Orkhon Valley in the sunshine, that I may not ever see this stunning open landscape again. Getting in and out of the valley is an adventure in itself as, after some rain, Tallulah battles to keep purchase through the mud. Our first 2 nights of camping have gone down a triumph. Some joined the trip with trepidation of our living conditions but all were absolutely delighted by the toilet tent I set up. 'An artwork' and '5* luxury' were terms being bandied about. Their appreciation was a real reward after a sweaty dig.

 

As we drive on I am learning that there is a special art to living in the moment and being with your passengers but also always thinking ahead.

 

For the next 2 nights we are at the Tsenkher hot springs with unlimited hot water. Getting here is a challenge. A mere 600m away from the camp, there is a short steep slope. As we near camp it starts to rain and hail for 10 minutes only. It’s enough to cause trouble. After a few slides and squeals we decide to cut our losses and have jeeps take the bags and passengers the rest of the way, abandoning Tallulah for now on a muddy track that has become a stream. It's funny how attached you get to your truck and how unnerving it is when you're away from it.

We give the ground a chance to dry out in the sun that appears and return later to attempt another route. To the delight of our passengers who are dining at the time, we give a triumphant toot of our air horn as we drive above the camp and park Tallulah on high ground. We can't help but be proud of her.

 

Part Three

Day 14 - Khovskol Lake

Sitting on the side of Khovskol Lake, a place that feels familiar now, I find myself disbelieving that we are here yet again and so soon. Time is flying by. It’s hard to imagine that I’ve only been on the road for 7 weeks. Soon, the familiarity that has settled in Mongolia will be swapped for the chaotic whirlwind of China and the rest of the Silk Route.

 

We had a couple of nights staying with a local family by Khorgo volcano and a day that was free for the passengers to spend as they wished. These days are well spaced out. On an organised trip like this people enjoy the few moments they have to make decisions for themselves and take back that responsibility. We enjoy those moments too!

 

The last couple of bushcamps have been stunning. A clean, warm (for Mongolia) river, flat open ground, a beautiful fire courtesy of girl power passengers, and even some Tahini to go with dinner, courtesy of passengers all the way from Israel. What always adds a touch of the ‘wow factor’ or authenticity is a huge herd of sheep and goats advancing into your camp like a battle front, followed inevitably by naughty goats trying to climb the tents and bouncing off the sides.

I must say, the need (that Mongolia cannot always meet) for flushing toilets and hot showers by some of the group has been an eye opener for me and has made me count my lucky stars for my ability to enjoy a stripped back life. I have swum in every river or stream that we’ve camped by and have been able to wash every night. It makes me happy to see most of the group doing the same and embracing the outdoors and wilds that Mongolia offers unlike anywhere else. I sat in the middle of a river the other night, after digging another luxurious toilet tent, taking everything in with a slightly melancholy note of knowing that we’ll soon have to leave this vast space behind. This is how I’ve known that I’m in the right place.

To top it all off, I had a real triumph yesterday in my budding mechanics career. Now, I remember having a specific conversation with my boss, the guru of everything to do with trucks, saying how I was looking forward to, but also slightly scared of that moment when I turn the key of the truck and nothing happens. It didn’t entirely happen like that, but in the middle of nowhere, Tallulah struggled to get the engine going yesterday morning with no previous warning signs. After a knowing raised eyebrow look at James, we resolved to check the batteries first in Moron when cook groups were shopping. It became immediately apparent that, after us having said how wonderful our batteries were, one was becoming a dud and holding no charge. My excitement grew… My first real mechanical action! The second shop we stopped at subsequently had the right type of battery, indicated by James’ thumbs up at the shop door as I stood twitching by the truck with 2 spanners in hand, eager to start ‘fiddling’. We worked together to get the old one out and new one in and I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel ecstatic when I turned the key and she roared into action! When I asked James ‘is it weird that I’m really excited that something has gone wrong with the truck?’, the answer was a definite yes.

 

Part Four

We’ve said farewell to Mongolia and Namjin, our chirpy, high-cheek-boned Mongolian guide and have said hello to China where mutton pasties and bone broth has been replaced by a whole host of culinary delights and myriad differences and excess. It was with a certain heaviness in my heart that I left Mongolia and the open spaces I’ve become accustomed to, as well as our fabulous group of passengers who took all the adventure in their stride and provided us with endless entertainment. Firstly though, you have some catching up to do with what we’ve been doing…

And after all the knowing laughs from crew about how much we’d get stuck in Mongolia, I still can’t quite believe we didn’t get properly stuck once (I don’t count the one hill she couldn’t get up). A few days before the trip ended, when we still weren’t necessarily on terra firma, I would look at James and say ‘a certain part of me can’t help but be disappointed that...’ The sentence quickly came to a close following James’ ‘don’t say it yet’ look.

A couple of days before that, we were meant to drive 35km into a valley to visit a monastery and camp that night. However, we were about 20km into the valley when the heavens opened, releasing both a torrent of rain and hail. The dirt roads turned to mud and streams and we got about another 5km before we decided we (Tallulah included, who refused to steer) weren’t comfortable taking the passengers any further. This was at 5.30pm, the rain had abated and the mosquitoes were out in FULL force. The excitement that followed will stay with me.

 

Our plan was to turn around and try to get out of the valley, as the skies were still moody and threatening overhead which would, almost certainly, have meant us being stuck in the valley the following day, a day we couldn’t afford to lose, if we camped there. There were some worried faces from the passengers as we asked them to climb out while we worked out how we could get Tallulah safely over onto the driest path there was from where we were. I didn’t blame them; it doesn’t give you great confidence seeing a 13 ton truck moving in a diagonal fashion. But all was under control. We had some passengers helping to clean the dirt out of the tyre tread with whatever they could find to give more traction whilst others used whatever wood we had left from the wood rack and dumped it in the muddy depression that she needed to cross to get to our chosen pathway. A team effort! Once she was successfully on firmer ground we decided to put our tyre chains on, a first even for James with nearly 4 years on the road, and a couple of enthusiastic passengers got stuck in to help with the muddy task.

We had to make a couple of stops to adjust and tighten the chains, and it was slow going but they did the job combined with my running ahead of the truck to check out each possible track and select the best. After running up 2 considerable hills and swallowing several mosquitoes I remembered a certain conversation I’d had before leaving the UK about how unfit you got on the road and thought about how much I would miss my path-finding responsibilities later along our route home.

Long story short, we got out of the valley at sunset, 8.30pm and broke the news to the passengers that we would swap tents for a hotel and cooking for pizzas, much to their delight and relief. After some unforeseen road closures and the bumpiest road known to man, we rocked up at our emergency standard hotel at 10.30pm with pizzas and drinks waiting for us. The cherry on the cake was when we all sat down to enjoy a well-deserved slice and the drunk Mongolian man in the corner downed his triple shot of vodka and began probably the worst, most deafening and most note-worthy karaoke you’ve ever heard. This was what you could call a memorable evening.

 

With a distinct lack of becoming stuck and with my disappointment rising, it seems my dreams came true as we found a fuel tanker royally stuck in the mud just outside our accommodation a few days later. The passengers hopped out and James and I looked at each other with slight smiles, knowing we’d offer our help, although I think how fast I got into my overalls showed I may have been slightly too happy about the situation. With Namjin translating ideas and instructions, Alan (our passenger), James and I played with shovels, spades, sand mats and rocks and rotated the sweaty work with the locals. When it became clear, after over an hour, that our methods weren’t successful, we resorted to getting our tow rope out and putting Tallulah to work. On what we said would be our last attempt, Tallulah gave an almighty pull which freed the fuel tanker, while also snapping their chassis cross beam, but they were out! They were so grateful and it was a special moment for me, particularly as a young woman came up to me, shook my hand firmly and said ‘bayirtla’, my phonetic spelling of ‘thank you’ in Mongolian. They helped clean all our equipment and put everything away and left us with big smiles and an ankle bone (these have all sorts of significances in Mongolian culture) to put on our keychain to bring us ‘all good things’ according to Namjin. A perfect closure to our Mongolian adventures, I think.

In more current news - Sitting, watching, waiting. That was yesterday morning’s game as Sophia, our new Chinese guide, and I waited for an hour for a car to take us across 100m over to the Chinese border control as you’re not allowed to walk. ‘This is disgusting. I have no patience’ mumbles Sophia into her umbrella that’s shading us from the sun. Tallulah had been kept there overnight as paperwork was filled out and sent to Kashgar, the infamous border that awaits us in the West, and she was ready for release. The rest of the day was filled with cleaning duties and a tyre change with James in front of a number of curious Chinese and Mongolian men. As I cracked the nuts and jacked the truck the men prodded James, indicating that they thought he should be doing it and, to my delight, he refused, allowing me to demonstrate ‘girl-power’.

The evening put a spanner in the works though as following our obligatory police check of the truck, it seemed for a while we might have to take 2 seats out of the truck to adhere to the paperwork. Sophia even said we might have to throw them away because the police would think we’d just replace them later! We didn’t think our future passengers along the silk route would appreciate that much. Luckily all was sorted and we’re currently on our way to Beijing, all seats still intact and attracting much attention from car and truck drivers along the way. We’re already famous on WeChat, I think.

 

Part Five

Today we'll be treated to one of China's most iconic gems, the Great Wall. A long sweaty afternoon walk is in store for the more active amongst us whilst others will probably take the cable car up.

China is worlds away from my (muddy) experiences on the road so far. The abundance of fruit and nut vendors is delightful and the peaches are the size of my face. The driving is more manic than in Mongolia too and so my first big city drive getting out of Beijing at 7.30am was trial by fire, kicked off by getting out of the tightest parking spot known to man. What is the same however, if not enhanced, is the number of people interested in the truck, taking pictures and videos of us at any opportunity, and the crowds I seem to gather when tinkering with the truck. Such interest can even be a problem on dual carriageways when they travel right next to the truck for kilometres taking videos and we want to move out!

The food is a challenge for some, an interest for others. We went out for Sophia's favourite food, Hot pot, in Chengde, where you pick skewers of food out of the fridge and cook it all in a boiling pot of spicy or non spicy oil at the table. Some skewers are more obvious than others at to what they are and some are downright bizarre. This is where people will either take a bunch and hope for the best or worriedly ask Sophia for detail about what they are about to consume. The weirdest thing we've tried so far was a slab of congealed duck's blood which was surprisingly bland...

Yesterday was spent exploring the vast Summer Palace in Chengde which was built for the Qianlong Emperors to spend the hotter months in. Passengers enjoyed, to varying degrees, the real life game of sardines with the summer holiday hordes whilst Sophia and I strolled through the forested hills away from the main throngs where we were lucky enough to spot 6 deer roaming. Hopefully sunset at the wall later today will be more tranquil!

 

Part Six

After hotels, our stop off last week in Lijiashan was a pleasant surprise for all. We left Tallulah at the bottom of a narrow dirt road and sped up 2km in a 4x4. Much of the picturesque village has been carved into the hills lower down, and higher buildings boast courtyards surrounded by brick and stone walls and wooden doorways, reminiscent of an older way of life. Upon wandering we discovered art class in session at the top of the hill, with the students sketching the architectural landscape. Interestingly, we also spotted numerous surveillance cameras which weren't exactly in keeping with the surroundings. What are they being watched for, I wonder?

There's been a shift of dynamic recently as I've stepped up to do my first lead! It is still strange to think how far I've come since training and that I've only been on the road for 2 months. In many ways it seems longer but I suppose when you're learning so many things every day, it does seem longer. It's with both excitement and trepidation that I step into the big shoes that James has taken off (metaphorically speaking), in the hope that I can deliver a sound and also fun trip, putting my spin on things.

 

After frantic admin and triple checking my work I went for my first relaxed excursion in Xi’an yesterday evening. That's excluding our trip to the Terracotta Warriors which truly was fascinating! I discovered that Xi’an is really very vibrant! Although technically it is much smaller than Beijing, the neon lights and beautifully lit Chinese buildings make it feel a bigger city. Throughout the park at 6pm there were people of all ages exercising; they used equipment sets, moved slowly in Tai Chi and batted badminton shuttlecocks around. Even when I returned after dark there were dance classes going on. I was tempted to join, yes. I lost myself in the Muslim quarter, walked down a huge street food street with youngsters touting for their stalls under their neon signs until I pushed through the metro to visit the water and light show at the Great Goose Pagoda. People's smiles and 'hallo's along the way all added to my growing fondness for the city, as I cursed myself for not exploring sooner.

With a fresh leading hat on, I have various ideas popping into my head of things to do and games to play with passengers to give 'a little bit extra'. I am keeping my enthusiasm in check so far though, realising that free, independent time, and the feeling of discovering something for yourself, like I had last night, is incredibly important. We'll see. Maybe the time or the place will come for games...