How do you make your four-wheel-drive vehicle stand out from the crowd, when it sits in a swarming sea of competitors, amidst the storm clouds of shrinking sales, and an increasing backlash against four-wheeling fun? If you're Land Rover North America, you reinvest in your 4x4 heritage; rejoin the international competition that you skipped the last time around, now with teams representing both the U.S. and Canada; and go for the gold by painting your SUV lineup in Tangiers Orange, equipping your SUV models in expedition fashion and the prowess to carry a cadre of adventure sports equipment. And, also you go to a country that attracts as many visitors a year as Disney's Magic Kingdom sees in a week.
In 2009, this isolated land sandwiched between China and Russia, once ruled by Genghis Khan, will become home for the Land Rover G4 Challenge Finals Event-a grueling three-week-long, nation-versus-nation competition comprised of 18 two-person, male-female international teams. As the name implies, competitors will face many challenges in this land of continental climate, with bitterly cold winters, extremely hot summers, and minimal annual rain and snowfall.
Joining members of the Land Rover G4 Challenge reconnaissance ("recce") Team, our small posse of motor journalists could witness hawk-like from above, during our in-country flights, and observe more personally on the ground, while at the wheel of Land Rover's LR3 and LR2 models, that Mongolia is the world's most sparsely populated independent country-it has 10 times as many cows, goats, sheep, camels, horses, and yaks as people.
It was up to the members of the G4 recce ream, during our 600-kilometer-long jaunt (and their longer stay) in the "The Land of Blue Sky," to map driving and competition routes throughout this remote land for the Challenge Finals. The recce squad and the event staff are a multiskilled, highly capable team trained in extreme wheeling techniques as well as in emergency wilderness medicine.
We joined the event team to get an up-close-and-personal look at this country, and to try out a few of the activities that will be used as competitive venues during the Challenge. Another task was to locate campsites that could accommodate 150 or more participants during the Challenge-without damaging the environment, as Land Rover strictly adheres to Tread Lightly!'s land ethics for four-wheeling-as well as other impact activities in the backcountry.
In addition to navigating fully loaded and expedition-prepared Land Rover vehicles, each carrying a kayak and two bikes, over and around shifting sand dunes, craggy uneven plateaus, and rough river beds that can shake the teeth out of your head, competitors' acumen at sports other than skilled driving and navigation will also be tested during the G4 Finals.
Part of our job was to find unique and technical driving routes that will give the competitors the best opportunity to contend in kayaking events; mountain biking trials-and even squeeze their toes into sharp cliff faces, as climbing skills are also part of this venue, along with other sports.
We found the Mongolian terrain a strange, almost ethereal mixture of land formations, while its inhabitants are often colorfully dressed and share a rich history. Called "Land of the Blue Sky" because it enjoys more than 250 sunny days a year, blue is the most dominant color above the mixed terrain, and cerulean mirages are common.
This land of serene and stark contrasts is made up of mountain forests in the north near the Soviet-Siberian border; windswept arid steppes extending from one horizon to the other in the central plains (steppes and meadows cover about 52 percent of the Mongolian grounds); as well as rings of jagged mountains; the spectacular "flaming red cliffs" with their enormous cache of dinosaur bones; ice flows; and the famed Gobi-an immense territory of desert and semi-desert that extends across the Chinese border in the south that is home to endangered wild camels and snow leopards.
The Gobi is the world's fourth-largest desert, but actually has few sand dunes-only 3 percent of the total land mass. The Khongoryn Els, or singing dunes, is the name given to the enchanting swirls of sand found in this unique landscape. Undulating some 656 feet skyward, when winds twirl these mesmerizing formations, melodious sounds are made that can be heard miles away. Winches that spool out 100 feet of coiled and braided cable, mounted on the front of each competitor's Land Rover, will be crucial aids for Land Rover G4 Challenge team members, who will likely need to winch their vehicles out of the shifting sands.
After a week in this country, a veritable mecca for off-highway driving, with its vast expanses of people-less plains, undulating, fawn-colored sand dunes; and monochromatic rocky plains, we agreed that participating in the 2009 G4 Challenge is a wise move for Land Rover, now owned by Indian automaker Tata. The economic woes of the U.S. auto market and the increasing price of fuel seemed a long way away as we slept in Mongolia's traditional gers, and dined under the stars. As motor journalists, we would have to face those facts when we returned home, but in the meantime, we could relish this trip that reminded us once again of Land Rover's heritage and our true passion-using four-wheel-drive vehicles the way they were designed to be used.