Apologies for another long gap between posts, but my excuse this time is that I needed to let the dust settle a bit. It’s been a pretty testing month or so, but time to catch up a bit now:
Geographically Frank and I were about halfway through our journey across Mongolia as we rode out of Tsetserleg in late July and by now we had become accustomed to the build-up of threatening skies in the afternoons. With another apocalyptic wall of darkness swelling behind us we decided we would make use of the tailwind it was whipping up and race the clouds to a camping spot up ahead earmarked by some cyclists in another blog. Just in the nick of time we reached a wooded area near the river on the outskirts of the village of Tsenkher where a number of Mongolian families were pic-nicking and also setting up camp.
It was closer to the village than we would have liked and as we looked for our own tent spot one of a group of guys standing round their horses, motorbikes and discarded vodka bottles, thought it would be funny to casually lob a rock over his shoulder in our general direction. But the weather had arrived so we hastily made camp and dived into our tents just as the first raindrops started to hammer down. An hour later the storm had passed and we emerged to cook dinner in the early evening and watch the sun setting through the trees over the river.
As we were tucking into our predictable meals of rice of and buckwheat a group of guys walked our way from the village heading toward the river. I asked Frank why he thought one of them might need the hammer he was carrying? We came up with some humorous possibilities but it didn’t help with my gut feeling of unease at our location. A little later a minivan drove past us and stopped 30m down the track before the door opened and a goat was dragged out. One of the occupants noticed us and came over to invite us to join him and his friends and family for dinner – which explained the goat and the hastily being built bonfire. The guy with the hammer returned shortly after and all became clear as the poor goat was dispatched with an almighty blow to the head.
After what seemed like a couple of hours of fire making, goatskin scorching and butchering, a huge pot was brought out and we were called over to the fire. The goat pieces were then loaded in to the pot along with smoking hot rocks pulled from the fire, a few glugs of water and slices of onions. It was then enclosed with another up-turned pot and as the steam started to escape two guys lost their t-shirts to the cause as they were wedged into the gaps. There were around 10 or 12 people around the fire by now and one half drunk guy could slur enough Russian to quiz us in muddled conversation as the goat was cooking.
It was gone 11pm by now and I was feeling tired and a little unsociable. Several times I considered going back to my tent for my camera, or to make my polite excuses and go to bed, but each time I forced myself to stay by the fire. Eventually there was a flurry of activity as the pot was lifted from the fire and flipped open. First up the hot stones were ladled out and then handed round. Yep –steaming hot greasy stones given to everyone! I watched as the stones were passed from one hand to the other whilst someone tried to convince me it was good for your health. I put my hands out nervously to receive mine, but no matter how fast I moved it from left to right I could feel it burning and repeatedly dropped it. One guy had his trousers and sleeves rolled up and was rubbing his hot rock all over his arms and legs.
As the rocks cooled the attention turned to the hunks of meat and after waiting for so long the group now feasted like wild animals until they were all full and laying prostrate in the darkness. Frank and I nibbled on a couple of pieces which had been specially selected for us. They were surprisingly tender, but nonetheless we both avoided the question of exactly which pieces they were. In one last flurry of activity the fire was extinguished, the pots and people bundled back into the minivan and in a blur of handshakes and goodbyes the group drove off into the night as we walked the short distance back to our tents. When I shone the light on my door I saw that the fly net fabric was ripped and hanging open. ‘Bloody dogs’ I thought trying to think what food was in my tent to have tempted them.
But then I noticed one of Frank’s bags in my tent porch and more things strewn around inside the tent. Frank also checked his bags and found they had all been opened and gone through and we instantly knew someone had been through our tents. I could feel the adrenalin pumping as I frantically went through all my things to work out what had been taken, as did Frank. In retrospect we were very lucky; they had left our wallets, passports, my laptop and phone, Frank’s tablet – all that was gone was my camera, which baffled me as it was in the same bag as my phone and wallet. At the time I was seething with anger and unease.
It was gone 1am and pitch black in the trees as we scoured the surroundings with our headtorches trying to work out what had happened. It had still been light when they called us over to their fire and it was less than 30m away – hence why we hadn’t taken our usual valuables with. We cursed ourselves for having sat there for those hours with our backs turned. Was it one of the group? Had they distracted us on purpose? Why handed we heard anything? Surely they must have needed a light to see by? Neither of us felt like sleeping of course, both wondering if they would come back, but eventually we both retreated to our tents.
I lay there for hours with my headtorch left on to try and calm my nerves. For the first time ever sleeping in my tent I took my knife out of my rucksack and lay it down open and ready next to my pillow. I hated that feeling. And I hated the idiot who had ripped the flynet as it meant my tent was now filling with all kinds of biting, buzzing and manic bugs. What did they have to rip it for? There was a zip right next to it. Idiot!
Neither of us slept more than a couple of hours and the next day was a sleep deprived struggle. It was a couple more days ride to Kharkhorin, a former capital of the Mongolian Empire and now a tourist hotspot. We kept the bugs out of my tent at night with Frank’s extra mosquito net and found a relaxed guesthouse in town with dorm beds in gers in the yard for a couple of nights. The owner arranged for someone to sew up my ripped tent and we spent a couple of days and nights being visiting the sights and catching up with washing, diaries, bike maintenance and other travellers. There is precious little to see of the ancient capital, but the Erdene Zuu monastery was the first to be built in Mongolia and despite suffering wide spread destruction during communist rule (all but 3 of the 60-100 temples were destroyed) there is plenty to see. And as it was the first Buddhist monastery I had visited I found it particularly beautiful and interesting.
One fellow guest was very excited to see us arrive when he found out we had come from Olgii in the west. Marcin is from Poland and was about to embark on a 60 day walk the way we had come. He quizzed us about water sources, whilst we quizzed him about his kit – he had nearly 90kg plus his trolley! It turned out he was being sponsored by a number of companies to test out equipment, but this left him in the ridiculous situation of having to carry 3 tents, 3 sleeping bags, 3 stoves etc! The monastery at Kharkhorin is an impressive sight in the barren dry landscape, but watching Marcin walking out of town with his super loaded trailer into a barrage of dust and wind was possibly more impressive. A few hours later the cloud cleared, the wind dropped and the temperature soared to 35+C and I thought of Marcin again. (Idiot – but in a good way this time!)
The increased temperature was a feature of the rest of our ride to Ulaanbataar. The landscape from the ancient capital to the modern day city is open steppe and offered precious little protection from the fierce sun and bone dry wind. On previous journeys I had sought to sit out the midday heat, but here it seemed like the temperature just kept rising from sunrise until sunset. If there was a small town or roadside café we would stretch out a food break for some rest bite and seek out ice creams and cold drinks. Despite the climate and the number of people traveling the route the latter was often hard to find. On several occasions and to our over heating dismay we found the fridges either empty, not plugged in or full of other things. In one shop the shelves were full of dusty lukewarm drinks and the fridge was full of Fairy washing up liquid- it became a running joke.
The long fabled west to east prevailing wind we had been so often told about by guide books and cyclists coming the other way also seemed to be absent. In one village there was a super strong wind going our way but it was also whipping up an almighty sand and dust storm that coated and penetrated everything. In the riverside town of Lun the crosswind was so strong that it was blowing me off my bike, or sucking me into the oncoming traffic. After nearly being swept off the bridge and run over simultaneously I was forced to get off and push, whilst still struggling to keep Raven upright against the gusts. I looked ahead to see Frank wobbling around doing the same.
After waiting several hours in the town for the wind to die down, we find a place to camp with some shelter from a mound of earth and some tall grasses. As the sun is going down Frank fills his collapsible bucket to have a wash (just like every evening when he has enough water) and 2 boys come by on their way home with the animals. He shakes their hands and says hello and they sit down in front of him. As it seems they are not going anywhere and our limited language skills have run out again he decides to carry on with what he was doing. He takes off his shirt to wash his head and top half. I am struggling to conceal my laughter from inside my tent as they sit there cross legged watching as if at some entertainment show. Ashe takes his shoes off they are still sitting there until he starts to take his trousers off and finally they give each other a ‘raised eyebrow’ look and get up, say bye-bye and leave, clearly not wanting to see any more.
After nearly a week of pretty boring, long ups and short downs on an energy sapping road with ever increasing levels of traffic, we took a small track away from the main road 50km from Ulaanbataar in search of one last night in the countryside. Here, finally we find the tailwind and hard packed dirt road of our Mongolian dreams. Cruising through a lush green valley with clusters of gers dotted on either side and herders taking their flocks back in for the night. As we spent what would be our last night under canvas together, Frank and I speculated at what would have been if we had taken more tracks and veered off the main route more. Perhaps that first week of terrible bugs and tracks had made us too wary. I definitely had a feeling of ‘What if?’
As I had expected it to be, Ulaanbataar was a shock to the system. A big, guzzling, chaotic mess of a city where a quarter of the Mongolian population live, it is buckling under the strain as more families arrive from the countryside each week, forced to seek out a new life as they cannot survive off the land anymore. There are huge apartment blocks both soviet and new, but the latter stand largely empty, waiting for someone to be able to afford them. Strewn among them are anarchic networks of ger districts where mud streets and bedraggled looking gers tell the story of city living for many in this traditionally nomadic nation.
I soon decided that I did not want Ulaanbataar to be my parting memory of Mongolia and decided that I would add a few days more to my ride in Mongolia, by cycling the last section of road to the Chinese border in the Gobi desert. Of course first of all I was going to need a Chinese visa – luckily (but not by coincidence) Ulaanbataar is one of the few places you can get a Chinese visa outside of your country of residence.