In Ulaangom, the second city we encountered in Mongolia, there are a number of hotels to choose from but precious little choice. They all seem to offer the same unappealing combination of ‘Hotel * Restaurant * Karaoke.’ Karaoke for me used to be most commonly associated with Japan and drunken pub nights in the UK, but it is also huge in Central Asia. The big cities in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan seem to love it in the park; with a couple of speakers and microphones hooked up to a crackling TV set and a musty looking sofa or a couple of plastic chairs in front of rows of stalls. In Mongolia however, the ‘Karaoke pub’ is everywhere and the open windows in the private rooms are not a great advertisement for Mongolian singing talent – at any time of the day. When the vodka fuelled crooners finished in the ‘karaoke’ rooms near our hotel Ulaangom, they then decided to carry on in their rooms- at the same place us L
It took us a few days and a hotel change to actually enjoy some rest in the city and psyche ourselves up to go and face whatever else Mongolia had waiting for us. We stocked up in the local market, filled up with water from the pump house and headed out of town on the road towards Khjargas Lake around lunchtime. With 200km of asphalt ahead of us we were looking forward to plain sailing for a day or two – silly us. After a couple of hours riding we started to see the pale sky darken with heavy clouds and rain over the distant hills around the plain. The wind started to pick up as the road reached one side and took us up off the plain and before long the rain arrived. What had looked like a heavy storm from a far turned into the heaviest rain and hail storm I have ever been caught in. Walls of water seemed to fall from the heavens and rush down the road in waves, before hail stones joined the party, stinging my bare legs like a thousand pin pricks. Soaked to the bone with no shelter anywhere and feeling like I was pedalling upstream there was nothing to do but keep going to avoid getting cold.
After 45 minutes the rain finally eased and a strong tailwind served both to propel us forward, dry us out and make us shiver with cold, much to the curiosity of the camels by the roadside. We had the lake in view by the time we camped, but spent most of the evening trying to dry things out. Unfortunately the next morning the wind had done a 180 degree turn and was now blasting in our faces. We stopped for a break at ‘Mongolia-on-Sea’, surprised by the sight of a lakeside beach full of cars, tents, sun umbrellas and BBQs in the middle of a desert. Groups of people were also climbing up a steep slope behind the road to a spring whose water is said to have healing powers. We joined them to fill up our bottles from what turned out to be a series of trickles siphoned from a marshy patch and funneled onto a few wooden slats. We had no choice as we needed water but the rest of the day was spent trying to ignore the distinctly muddy flavour of it.
Even with the headwind battling against us the 200km of asphalt soon ran out and a pile of earth and a makeshift sign directed traffic off to either side of the raised bank that was awaiting roadworks. To begin with the tracks were hard packed and easy riding but they soon deteriorated into sandy washboard again so we made the decision to try the construction route instead. Here the going was much easier, except for negotiating the large piles of earth dumped across the bank every few kilometres to keep other traffic off. Three or four days of this ensued, during which we encountered no villages and precious few workers on the road. Rivers marked on the map were dried up or non-existent and the air was filled with the dust of jeeps and trucks ploughing their way through the sandy tracks either side of us.
As another headwind picked up one evening we pulled off to take shelter in one of the water run off tunnels under the construction work. Whilst we were there a huge truck with what looked like a water tank on the back went passed and we both wondered how far it would have to go to fill up. When it returned an hour or so later with water pouring out we were sure there must be a river ahead and pushed on to find it. We arrived at the fast flowing shallows with just enough light left to make camp and take a heavenly wash in the cool water as the sun was setting behind the hills. In the morning we woke up to a herd of camels coming down to the water for a breakfast snack and to pull funny faces at us.
As we cycled we were constantly waved and beeped at by other vehicles, every other one of which seemed to be a Toyota Land Cruiser and most of which had some substantial rattling and bumping sounds coming from them. One sturdy looking truck waved at us and then stopped before the driver clambered out and started running over to us, beer can in hand. They turned out be a group of French overland travellers in an ex-army truck and they stopped to offer us beer, water, bread, cheese (of course – I said they were French!) and honey. After talking to them for an hour or so in the blissful shade their truck provided we found out they had just left the Nadaam festival taking place in the next town. Nadaam is a huge thing in Mongolia, where each town hosts several days of competition in three traditional and ‘manly’ sports; Mongolian wrestling, long distance horse racing and archery.
Spurred on by the chance to visit a local Nadaam we pushed on until just before the light fell, waking up in the morning to the sound of a herd of horses pounding the grassland past our tents. We made it to Songino around lunchtime, and filled up on Tsuivan – fried strips of savoury pastry with mutton (and some carrots and onions if you’re lucky) in the first café we found, then we headed to the Nadaam site. A small arena had been marked out on the outskirts of town. To one side a couple of archers in beautiful traditional dress were laying out their arrows. Plenty of people were milling around with motorbikes, horses and more colourful deels (traditional Mongolian gown). We spent a couple of hours also wandering around trying to work out what was going on and managing to catch the end of a horse race, a bit of the archery and some rounds of the famous Mongolian wrestling. I came to the conclusion that this celebration of ‘manly’ sports misses the mark a little bit as the riders in the horse racing are all kids (some of whom could hardly walk as they dismounted from there 40km event), the wrestlers have to wear a sleeved bikini outfit and the archers are all wearing dresses.
There was also a tented area being half blown away by the wind where a large table of old men were betting on and playing chess whilst groups of younger people contested ankle bone flicking – a bit like marbles, but with the cleaned and polished ankle bones of sheep. (I was actually given one of these playing pieces, painted pink and with silver stars stuck on it, by some boys in Kazakhstan who offered it to me as a ‘souvenir’ and good luck charm against wolves). As the day’s activities were coming to an end with somewhat unenthusiastically received prize giving ceremonies and increasingly drunk guys sidling around we got back on our bikes and rode out of town to find a place to camp for the night.
From Songino onwards the towns were a little more regular and we were able to stock up on food and water once every couple of days, although it could be a little difficult to find the latter. Although each town has a pump house, we did not know the Mongolian word for this so we would look for people carrying empty water cans on trolleys and rather unsubtly stalk them to the pump. In the town of Numrog we also needed to charge some batteries so we picked the fanciest looking restaurant we could find, plugged into the already overloaded multi-socket and settled in for a very drawn out lunch break. Just as our food arrived (Tsuivan again- there was rarely much else on offer) the clouds outside darkened and it started to rain. By the time we had finished eating there was a deluge of water falling from the sky once more, which periodically turned into marble size hailstones making a deafening racket on the metal sheet roofing. The sandy street was soon a torrent of foaming water and the kids in the restaurant were outside excitedly collecting handfuls of the magical frozen white balls as soon as the rain stopped. Frank and I wondered what this would do to the track we needed to take when we left and sat back to a flask of milky ‘tea’ with salt – not by choice you understand, that’s just how it comes in Mongolia.
After a couple more hours of incredibly slow tea drinking we ventured outside to check the clouds and the water levels. Seeing that both seemed ok we loaded up and headed on our way again, passing the usual collection of gers on the outskirts of town along the river, but this time with the unusual sight of common gulls pottering round on the soggy banks. Despite our concerns about the effects of the rain on the dirt track it had actually improved conditions and for once we bumped along hard packed earth quite happily. We made it to the shores of Telmen Nur (lake) by evening and enjoyed a wash in the salty water before watching a near full moon rise over the water. In the middle of the night I was woken by the glare of headlights blazing across my tent and looked out to see a car drive past a couple of metres away from where we were camped, stopping 100m further on and then proceeding to perform the noisiest and longest tent pitch I have ever known. Frank slept through the whole thing and was surprised to find we had neighbours in the morning.
Given the vastness of Mongolia and the small population we had expected to spend most nights camping without visitors as we crossed the country. But nearly every night we had been within sight and sound of the track or road we were using and had visitors coming to check out what we were doing. They often seemed to appear from nowhere on motorbike or horseback and were never anything but curious, but from this evening onwards to Ulaanbataar it turned out that we rarely camped alone. As we drew nearer to the town of Tosonsontgel the traffic on the road increased and with it the conditions deteriorated again. I say road – but this would have actually cost me a biscuit if I had said it at the time. Although the route we were following was described as the ‘main road’ from Ulaangom to Ulaanbataar, nearly 300km of it is nothing more than worn, rutted, washboard and sand tracks. To keep ourselves amused Frank and I introduced a penalty of 1 biscuit when either of us described the route as road if there was anything but asphalt under our tires – Frank lost a lot of biscuits!
The constant bouncing, jerking and vibration of the tracks had already taken its toll on the headset of Frank’s bike, which he had to borrow spanners to tighten in Ulaangaom, and a day or so before reaching Tosontsongel I noticed that my front panniers seemed to be bouncing around and making a lot more noise than normal. I stopped to tighten the bolts on my front rack and noticed two cracks in the metal on either side. This was not good. As we tried to make a bodged trackside repair it started to rain, but with a load of cable ties, tape and some bits of plastic and tyre we found on the ground we patched up the rack and carried on. As soon as we reached town the following day we sought out a welder to make a stronger repair.
Having explained the problem by pointing and mime the welder (looking like a Britpop character from the British music scene of the 90’s) confidently started work with the frame still attached to the Raven as I looked on nervously. 10 minutes later he was looking less confident and the small crack was now a thumb-size gap as he struggled to find the right material welding rods for whatever alloy the rack was made from. What looked like a short job turned into a stressful hour and a half and having to completely dismantle the front rack. The result was less than pretty but seemed strong enough to do the job. I rebuilt the rack, loaded everything back on and we rolled out of town just before dark again and camped by the river. After 20km of asphalt in the morning the road again deteriorated to bone shuddering washboard and after another few hours I noticed the front panniers bouncing round again. The welding points were still holding so I assumed the bolts needed tightening after the rebuild. As I turned the first bolt the head sheared off, leaving the body stuck in the bike frame and one side of the rack now free to bounce around all over the place next to the front wheel hub – again, not good.
For the second day running we limped into town in search of a welder, firstly having to dismantle the front rack again to explain the problem. Retrieving the sheared bolt was a simpler task but no less nerve racking to watch as the welder took an angle-grinder to the bolt hole – right next to Raven’s spokes, brakes and dynamo cables – cutting a groove in the top that could then be turned out with a flathead screwdriver. As I rebuilt the rack and reloaded for a second time in the middle of the market place a crowd of people looked on in bewilderment. Obviously surprised to see me working away whilst Frank stood by. One woman made a ‘muscles’ action with her arms and then motioned for me to go and milk her animals after. Another guy insisted on taking Raven for a test ride after to see for himself if I knew what the hell I was doing. He came back clutching his knees, complaining how he had hurt them on my handlebars because my bike was too small. Finally we brought the circus show to a close and rode out of town again.
The next few days took us onto more asphalt, up slow climbing valleys and passed hillsides covered in dead pine trees. The gers were now surrounded by herds of yak and one night as we were setting up camp we were invited to go and visit a family in their nearby ger and try some yak cream, butter and milk. I had had this before whilst cycling in the Pamirs and the sweet, fluffy goodness was just as delicious this time. Fuelled by this overload of calories we pushed on to a planned rest day at Terkhiin Tsagaan lake near the town of Tariat. As we approached the shore we were a bit disappointed. Guidebooks had promised us ‘little Switzerland’ but neither of us were particularly impressed by the scenery, especially the lack of shade, and what’s more, there were sprawling tourist ger camps all around the shoreline. After venturing a little further we found a secluded spot by the river instead and spent a luscious two nights camping and washing in the surprisingly warm water, climbing the nearby volcano crater and snapping photos of the yaks which came to graze at our waterside location at sun rise and sunset each day.
We probably should have realised that the combination of regularly asphalted roads and tourists would spell the end of the ‘wilder’ Mongolia we had enjoyed up until now. In the days after we left Tariat we passed small campsites at the edge of the Chulent gorge and endless signs for ‘Eco-gers’ along the road. Then we mounted a killer climb over a short but steep, dusty, washboard pass (there was never asphalt on the passes) which took us down into the town of Tsetserleg. It was a pretty sight on arrival with neatly organised blocks of multi-coloured metal roof tenements and a flurry of activity around the market. But we were surprised and a bit disappointed by the number of foreigners we also saw in town. Although we only stopped for some food and to charge batteries again, Ulaanbataar was beginning to seem very close.
To see more photos from my journey through Mongolia check out the gallery in my Flickr page.