Most of the credit for keeping us safe and sound, healthy and on track for the daily grind goes to our support staff. Kobesh Co, an adventure company owned by the much talented and recently married Agii Makhsum is responsible for logistics and support for the expedition. The staff comprised of Agii, himself, Janka who whipped up delicious meals, Wantok who was the handy man and Albekh who had a way with camels. They left us wanting for nothing and were always around for help, each of them gifted in their own ways. Incidentally all of them are Kazhaks by culture and Mongolian by nationality.
Agii, is the backbone of support for the entire team. He had picked excellent crew – human and animal for us. By the time we reach Bulgan to make our start, he had the camp ready and waiting.
I first met him on the airport at Khvod. A cheery face, and a happy smile are a permanent feature. I think the fact that he was recently married helped too. He made sure all of us were comfortable in our new surroundings. It is no wonder that he has been a part of the BBC’s team for the Mongolian edition of the Human Planet series.
During the expedition, he had his team demonstrate how we needed to handle camels and load them. Since he was the only one who spoke English, he would pass on tips and advice from time to time. At first our communication with him was limited to this. Over time, as our confidence in his abilities grew, he became the focal point for all expedition related issues and their resolutions.
He is a quick decision maker, recognizes all the risks, is clear about what needs to be done and is therefore in control of what he is doing. From arranging a ride for injured team members to the nearest town, to locating us on the vast plains of the Gobi when we were led astray, his presence has been reassuring. He has never failed us. His experience and desert skills have salvaged us many a times from the results of amateur planning.
He never shies away from sharing back breaking work with his crew, be it collecting firewood for the ancient stove, or running after a loose camel. He has a Russian make van that has been specially outfitted with additional fuel storage. He diligently carries our frequent checks on it to make sure it does not breakdown.
All this help and service is always accompanied with a smile and witty comments. You can never tell when he is serious and when he is joking. Such is this enigma of a man.
Janka, (pronounced yan-ka), has also been a part of the BBC series team and has won several awards for her skills on the expedition. I would think that hers is the hardest job of all. She’d wake up at 6 am to get us breakfast by 7 am. Then immediately move on to making our lunch. That done, it’d be time to wrap up, collapse the tent and load the van for our rendezvous later that day. All the loading/unloading everyday would have got to me for sure…supplies packed in 20 odd boxes, the stove, the table, chairs, water drums, the gas burner…and then she had to arrange them in an order so that what she needed most was loaded last. Ugh! She did it tirelessly for days. After our lunch, the van would race ahead and make camp for the day. The first thing she had to do there was to get the firewood stove going. Then came the washing of all the plates, lunch boxes, cups, cutlery etc. By the time we reached, we’d be ravenous. So tea and snacks would be ready for us.
She decided the rations that we needed, and how much. Her cooking never failed to take care of our dietry requirements given our strenuous activity every day. We had meat, soya, oats included. Then there were some delightful tinned fruits, a huge collection of biscuits/cookies and an even more awesome collection of hard boiled sweets and toffees. We polished off everything she made with gusto.
She had no problem in climbing on the carrier of the van and loading/unloading the kitchen items. She had the ability to pitch the kitchen tent all by herself if required. When one of the camels ran off with our supplies still tied to its back, she was the first one to run along its side with a stick. When the van finally subdued him a long way off from camp and led him back, she did not hesitate to let him know what was on her mind and gave it a few solid kicks. The supplies it had been carried were long lost in the plains and the drum disfigured beyond repair. We had to do without sugar for a few days after that.
She speaks a few English words and never fails to ask how we are at the end of each day. Thanks to you, Janka, we are as good as ever.
Wantok’s English vocabulary is confined to one word, machine, which he uses to describe the van. He would be about 45 years old, if I can read him correctly and lives in the same side of Mongolia as Agii, to the west. His asset are his hands that can handle the van and the camels with equal ease. He made a protesting camel sit down, can put a nose rod through the nose of one to secure it, and joke with us in Kazhak at the same time. He is extremely handy with the van and the supplies as well. At the end of the day, we’d find him fiddling with the van, adjusting things inside, tightening bolts, checking for leaks under the van body. He has this amazing intuition of where to stop so that it’d be the perfect time for lunch.
For our daily camp, he took efforts to drive around a find a great spot. Besides a stream, under a mountain, overlooking a valley—each as beautiful as the one before it. He left us around day 25 to go back home to his family. We will miss him terribly.
Albekh was the youngest member of the team. You would not find him speaking much, but was always around to help with pitching tents, loading camels and loading supplies. He would quietly re-do any shoddy camel loading we might have done and set the balance right.
He would not join us as we left camp right away to help with the loading. But as soon as the van passed us for the first time in the day, he’d get off and make a string of about 5 camels. He’d ride the first one and lead the rest. He had grown up around them, no wonder he was so comfortable.
Every now and then, while riding, he would break out into a song. A Kazhak love song was his favourite. I think it brought a glow to his young tanned face.
If I have enjoyed the expedition and been motivated to continue with the routine day after day, it was due to the combined effort of these four individuals. It is also through them that I have learnt about the generous nature of the Mongolians, their beliefs, their way of life and how they lead it in one of the harshest environments.