In Mongolia, they have a game that’s played to pass time. In a small box are the skinned knuckles of a goat, sheep, horse and cow. One makes a wish and throws them like dice on the table. Luck favours those who roll four sheep knuckles. A different combination will grant partial wishes – or the wrath of the local witch. Much like the desert in Mongolia, this local pastime is endless. The irony with the game, though, is that all four knuckles are sheep knuckles to begin with, but nothing seems to favour my luck. They say we’ve been out of the Gobi desert for the last two days, so why the fuck am I still waddling my BMW R1200GS through this deep sand?

The GS Trophy is held in some of the toughest terrain on the planet

The BMW International GS Trophy is a competition that is held every two years in some of the most remote parts of the planet. This year, Mongolia was the destination of choice. Three women or men from each participating country qualified in respective national qualifiers to represent their country in Mongolia. I was not one of them, however. India was represented by Suprej Venkat from Coimbatore, Sanket Shanbhag from Satara and Winston Lee from Mumbai. I got thrown into the mix as the embedded journalist – a job that I now know is much harder than it seemed back then.

My job was to ride along with the team, give the world an inside scoop on what the International GS Trophy is like, help the team in any way possible when permitted and double up as a participant if someone fell ill. All fairly straightforward tasks until… the dreaded sand.

The author rides pillion as the media man

Mongolia has about 30 per cent of its land mass classified as the Gobi Desert – the rest of it is just a whole lot of sand with a bit of greenery sparsely thrown in, and one large city with a very big power plant right in the middle of it. The country has some very, very straight roads that connect Ulaanbaatar, the capital, to nowhere else, and the route that the GS trophy followed used none of them.

We were flagged off from Ulaanbaatar, and quickly headed south into the Gobi. Now, the way this event works is just like a rally. Every day, we rode what’s called a transport stage from place A to B, and during the day, there were two special test stages set up, which were obstacle courses or mock emergency situations, which saw teams battle each other. Each special stage allowed teams to earn points and stake their claim to the trophy. Of course, at night we’d set up our tents in the middle of nowhere, regroup, re-energise and then do this all over again, seven days in a row. The team journalists, like myself, spent a few waking hours sending daily updates to the great wide interweb.

Teamwork is key at the GS Trophy

The 2018 edition was Team India’s debut year in the GS Trophy. The guys had been to a special training session in South Africa, where they were trained extensively alongside the two woman-only teams of AusAmerica and EurAfrica. We knew the competition was going to be hard, but nobody, not even the top teams, was fully prepared for what the Mongolian outback had to offer. Gobi in Mongolian means waterless, and true to its name, we rode about 600 kilometers through the desert in the first two days with no natural source of water in sight. Sand, shrubs, dry lake beds (read that as deep sand with ruts) and rutted sand tracks were what we focussed, on as we blazed through the Gobi. Wide-open arid landscapes ran on repeat in our peripheral vision.

It was clear at the start that Team South Africa was vying for their second title (something that’s never been done at the GS Trophy), and Team USA was their biggest challenger. But as the days unfolded, stiff competition from Team China and South Korea had the top teams surprised. We started off strong, and were sitting in 12th place after day 2 – but that’s also when we faced our first hurdle.

Team India strikes a pose

Winston Lee, from Mumbai, was negotiating some really deep sand when he fell off his motorcycle. He was attended to immediately for cramps by the travelling medics and was fine. But once we reached camp, he was unable to bear the pain, and had to be choppered off to hospital in Ulaanbaatar for further checks. The good news was that everything was clear – the bad news, however, was that the hospital was only able to ascertain this once the GS Trophy had moved on the following morning. This meant that Team India was down one man, and we hadn’t even got into the meat of things yet.

My job at the GS Trophy was to be the embedded journalist – now I had to compete too. It seemed like a daunting task, and it was nothing short of it. But that’s the GS Trophy for you… gruelling, unpredictable yet always an adventure. It took a moment for the team to realign, with Sanket, Suprej and myself adjusting to each other’s strengths and helping each other through our weaknesses. We were able to think on our feet and had a good rhythm going, which saw us about mid-way through the rankings. Then, on day 5, we suffered our second setback.

The water run-off through the hills surrounding the Ongi River Basin creates deep ruts in the porous sand, as the ice melts in summer. While climbing through the hills, my motorcycle entered one of these ruts and my instincts made me try to use the throttle to power out of it. The BMW R 1200GS was having none of it, though, and slammed me right into the earth at about 70 kph. We were an hour from camp, and so I got back on and rode. By god, that was one of the longest 60 minutes of my life.

Diagnosed with a Grade 3 AC separation, I had to stay off the motorcycle the next day. And once again, at a time like this, you understand the spirit of the GS Trophy. Not only did my teammates rally around me to keep me in good spirits, participants from other teams chipped in to help with my media duties, and the organizers went out of their way to make sure I was OK. The mechanics found a seat for my motorcycle and me the next day on the rescue helicopter, and made sure I stuck to the 24-hour rest cycle, so I could get back on the bike again and complete the GS Trophy. Team India slumped to 18th even with our best efforts on days 7 and 8, but Suprej, Sanket and I made every effort to carry Team India as far as we could in our debut at the GS Trophy – and we did so with a smile.

The GS Trophy isn’t only about winning. It’s about the adventure, the teamwork, the tears and the trials. It where ex-racers ride alongside amateurs, and help them along. It doesn’t matter what country you’re from, or what language you speak. What matters is the camaraderie and the spirit of surviving the challenge by any means necessary. It’s about staring adversity in the face after you’re bruised and battered, and rounding up the team to climb that last step of the summit – and Suprej, Sanket, Winston and I, we did it.

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