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The Gobi Desert: Where eagles dare and wild horses roam

A week-long, no-frills jeep-drive across the remote, rugged beauty of the Gobi Desert is one of John Masterson's most treasured memories

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There are few places in the world as remote as the Gobi Desert, which John Masterson visited in 2008

There are few places in the world as remote as the Gobi Desert, which John Masterson visited in 2008

John Masterson on his visit to the Gobi Desert

John Masterson on his visit to the Gobi Desert

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There are few places in the world as remote as the Gobi Desert, which John Masterson visited in 2008

'There are places I'll remember." Lots of them. I will always remember the George Martin piano in the middle of that Beatles song. It is a song that does what it says on the tin. Listen to In my Life and you will remember people and places.

I have been lucky to see a lot of the planet. I would like to see it the way Chris Hadfield has seen it but that is not going to happen. There are places on earth I would like to go back to and could go back to. But could I do what I did the first time again? In the case of Mongolia, I think not.

I had the pleasure of spending a week driving across the Gobi Desert in a Range Rover with a merry band of explorers. To relive that one I have to rely on photos taken in 2008.

There are very few places left in the world as remote as the Gobi Desert. And few places as empty as Mongolia. Four times the size of France, it has a population not much more than the greater Dublin area. For many of the people we met, the isolation we are currently undergoing would be the norm.

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John Masterson on his visit to the Gobi Desert

John Masterson on his visit to the Gobi Desert

John Masterson on his visit to the Gobi Desert

One evening as we pitched our camp, I saw a family of four, or so I thought, put-putting towards us on a small motorbike. Dad was up front, then a daughter, then mother, and a son on the carrier. Father dismounted and then proudly produced an infant from inside his jacket. They bore gifts including 'airag', a type of fermented mares' milk that tasted like a very strong, fizzy goats cheese. I still remember the taste. And the effort to get it down. And each of their wonderful faces.

We began our journey in Dalanzadgad, just north of the border with China. Soon we were in land as remote as anywhere on earth. I got used to seeing eagles; I saw one swoop and catch a small animal. Every now and again, we would come across wild horses, 50 or 60 of them, roaming free. At the occasional water hole on our route, hundreds of cashmere goats would drink, alongside the camels. It was a chance for us to have a wash. We carried our drinking water so it was not being wasted in the two-drips-of-water daily shower.

Some nights I slept in a tent and woke to a perfectly blue sky. The trip was very eco-friendly. The rule was simple: everything we took into the desert we took back out again. And that meant everything. I well remember going to our rubbish bin with my little plastic bag, which I have not done before or since. Dog owners please note. Mongolians are particularly keen to encourage this type of eco-tourism for those who want a very different experience.

Other nights a group of us would sleep in a 'ger' (also known as a 'yurt' in some places). A ger is a marvellous dome-like structure built on a lattice frame and covered with felt. Inside is a stove; ours had four beds, a table and chairs, and a sturdy door. Plus a portrait of Genghis Khan. The better ones are painted in intricate colours and they are truly comfortable. And very portable: they can be folded up and carried on a camel.

We stopped at several 'ovoos'. These are piles of stones where people pay their respects to the spirits of nature. It is customary to walk around three times clockwise while praying and add your rock to the pile. Later, in the capital Ulaanbaatar, I visited a Buddhist monastery; I spun a few prayer wheels and admired the 88-foot-tall statues of Janraisig.

Back in the desert, one memorable night we camped at the edge of a giant sand dune. Of course we would go to the top before our boil-in-the-bag dinner. So what began as 'a piece of cake' became 'I'll take a breather'. Another few hundred feet and I heard 'sure, the view is fine from here' repeating in my head. This is just the thin air, I reassured myself.

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Eventually I found myself saying 'only 10pc to go, can't stop now', and I did the last few feet thinking I had to smile for the photo, but that is difficult when your chest is about to explode. Our chef, John, had promised a beer at the top and that the view was spectacular. He lied about one of those.

We watched the sunset while the more athletic of us sand-boarded down. At camp I had a Gobi G&T: open the tonic can, take two good mouthfuls, fill with gin, find a rock, sit down and enjoy. Our food was simple, tasty and eaten with a 'spork' (part knife, part fork, part spoon), with coffee brewed in a Volcano. We sat around a fire chatting before viewing the splendid night sky with zero light pollution. Our guide used a laser pointer to take us around the heavens.

The final morning before rejoining civilisation, I took a stroll away from camp to savour the view. One of our happy band quietly stole up beside me. "You are thinking about your life in front of this landscape," she said in a gorgeous Brazilian accent. I was. "But only the good bits," I told her.

Today Mongolia is definitely one of the good bits. I look back at a beautiful psychedelic painting of horses that was shipped to me from the Valiant Art Gallery. Plus a sculpture of a woman in traditional costume. I enjoy the photos. I haven't aged a day or put on a pound. And I bought a second-hand Range Rover not long after I came back. Still have it. Still love it.


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