Award-winning editor and travel journalist Mark Hooper has travelled to the ends of the earth in search of a restful night’s sleep. Having explored the world, staying in some of the most prestigious hotels for The Times, Wallpaper* and Robb Report, he reveals the one thing that helps him re-energise for his next adventure.
By Mark Hooper
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. As a travel writer, it was the kind of gig you dream of: the opportunity to visit somewhere still relatively untouched by the march of Western consumerism; a week-long journey deep into the heart of inner Mongolia to live amongst nomadic herdsmen in a traditional ger (better known in the West as a yurt) on the shore of Lake Khovsgol.
It’s not the sort of trip that screams ‘comfort’, but that was partly the point – to go truly off-grid (with only a satellite phone to connect us with the outside world in case of emergency) in one of the bleakest but beautiful spots on earth. Our host even gleefully told us that, in the winter months, it gets so cold that the ice on Khovsgol is so thick that trucks from neighbouring Siberia use the smooth, frozen surface as the main thoroughfare into Hatgal, the Mad Max-esque town at the southern tip of the lake that connects with the larger market town of – I’m not making this up – Mörön. Better yet, at night they’ll park up on the ice, dig a pit under the engine and light a fire in it to prevent the parts freezing up. Health and safety be damned.
Left: Mark’s traditional ger for the week, Right: Lake Khovsgol, Mongolia
It’s a place that encourages the adventurous spirit: with barely any horse-riding experience, I was convinced to take a mule up the foothills of the Sayan mountains, while an excursion onto the lake via speedboat resulted in us running out of petrol at the furthest point from land and having to paddle/swim to shore – eventually finding ourselves stranded near a place that seemed to be called Toilet (I only later discovered it was spelt ‘Toilogt’).
That said, the nights in our gers, heated by a central chimney and surrounded by utter silence, were peaceful and cozy. Which can’t be said for our journey back. Having made our way to the local, dirt-track airport for our connecting flight back home, we watched, mouths agape, as the double-propeller plane made its approach… and lifted back into the air as the pilot decided the recent rains had made it too muddy to land. Enquiring about the next flight brought a resigned shrug: same time, next week.
So. Our international flight left the capital, Ulaanbaatar, for London via Irkutsk and Moscow in exactly 24 hours’ time. After a brief discussion with a local driver, we worked out that was roughly how long it would take us to drive there. There was, however, a potentially quicker option: to drive as the crow flies, across the semi-desert steppes and dried-up river beds in a vintage Land Rover with little in the way of suspension.
What followed was the most uncomfortable night of my life. Constantly bumped and shuddered and stopped suddenly in our tracks, we emptied our rucksacks and tried as best we could to cocoon ourselves on our spare clothing – serving less as pillows than as crash-mats: anything to protect us from concussing ourselves against the hard metal all around us.
To cut a very long night short, we made it to the airport before our plane took off… but not before they’d closed the gate. Despite our pleading – and our bruises – we were met with typically Mongolian, seen-it-all-before, nonplussed stares. There was another flight next week, what was the rush?
What ensued, after one of the worst nights of my life, was one of the best: deep, blissful, uninterrupted, trouble-free sleep, on a friend’s spare mattress in their city apartment.
When I did finally wake up – with a start, bracing myself for another bump – the slow realisation that I was safe and secure, wrapped up in a duvet with a soft pillow under my head, was more than simply reassuring – it was the reward of something that had been denied that made it all the more satisfying.
I have spent years trying to recreate that night’s sleep. Clinical trials have proven that uninterrupted sleep can improve everything from stress levels and mental health to blood pressure, memory and even building antibodies and regulating hormones that can affect our weight. But, better than that, it has made me appreciate sleep as I never did before. I’d always been something of a night owl, staying up far too late for fear of missing out on an experience or an adventure on my travels. Now I embrace it as something to look forward to and to re-energise me for the adventures of the next day. It’s made me realise that the bed is one the most important items you can spend money on in the house – after all, we spend almost half our lives on it and – speaking from experience – a life free of back pain is worth every penny.
Of course, one of the other benefits of being a travel writer is you get to sample some of the most comfortable beds in the world, in some of the world’s most prestigious hotels, from the Savoy in London to the Peninsula in Tokyo. It is, after all, the USP of hotels – there are countless dining options, live events, gyms and spas we can visit in a new city if we want to, but the one thing you come back to at the end of the day is the comfort of a good bed. A rested customer is a happy customer, and they’ll come back again and again just for that feeling of waking up feeling ready for the day ahead.
It’s no surprise that the Savoy’s founder, Richard D’Oyly Carte, was so exacting in his standards that he had his own beds created especially for his hotel, having found none that matched his criteria for luxurious sleep. The very same bed – the Savoir No.2 (aka The Icon) – is still made to today, using the same materials: hand-teased horse tail, fine, soft lamb’s wool, with hour-glass springs providing a gentle give that you’d never find in a vintage Land Rover. Made to order for each customer – or hotel – the No.2 offers a level of luxurious comfort befitting of guests including Winston Churchill to Marilyn Monroe. Savoir are now bringing the luxury of handcrafted sleep to The Greenwich Hotel in downtown Manhattan, with their beds found in all 88 guestrooms and suites. If only they’d do the same in Mongolia…