[I got a bit carried away with this blog – about time some may say – but if you just want the photos, skip to the bottom]
After a few days ‘rest’ in Ulaangom where my room was once again invaded by drunk locals, it was time to get back to the dirt roads – life is much simpler there, albeit more sweaty.
Slogging my way up into the hills on the first gravelly track, one of those little blue Chinese rattle-y trucks pulled over and the driver asked if I wanted a ride to the top. I understood from his hand motions what he was saying in Mongolian (sometimes I can understand fluently well)… ‘Only a fool wouldn’t jump in the back and take advantage of this stroke of luck that a vehicle with space for a bike is passing just when you’re on a steep, slippery endless hill.’ – Too right I said and leapt in the back. With a few stops on the way up to share the mega-bottle of beer (2.5L) and then one final round at the top to celebrate, I left the men as they cracked open the vodka while I free-wheeled down into the valley …
It was a typical day in Mongolia… it had started off gloriously sunny with that big blue sky so vast and beautiful to cycle under. But as the afternoon drew 0n, the clouds gathered up in the hills and black monstrous swathes of sky edged ever nearer. But before the rains, there is the wind. It comes from the north or the west, always. It howls and whistles and whips up the dust and slaps you round the face and says ‘oh aren’t you a foolish one trying to battle me.’ Yes I am. I realise now why everyone else cycles from west to east. Going that way, you hardly need to pedal.
So when the wind was blowing so fierce that I was resorting to push the bike even though it was slightly downhill, it seemed like a good time to call it a day. Find a sheltered spot and get that tent up before the great daily deluge. I pushed off the road and up into the maze of hills and rocks so that I was surrounded on all sides by yellow grass. And since it wasn’t raining by the time the tent was up, I went for a walk up to the highest point and then walked all around the hilly perimeter and the wind whipped my hair into a frenzied blonde mess and burned my cheeks red. It was fresh and cool and there was only me for miles. I would’ve jumped and shouted I felt so free but was worried I’d slip on a rock and tumble over the edge.
Instead I just took a few photos and then with a few steps back down the hill, I was out of the wind and could hear myself think again… time to cook dinner. By the time I got back to the tent, the mice and gerboas and fat little furry pikas that squeak were all out of their tunnels and hidey-holes and completely unphased by this lumbering lard-ass that thundered into their arena. So I cooked my noodles and they watched me eat and when I tried to get closer they scurried away. For once, it never did rain. A few drops, just as a reminder, but not the kind of rain that soaks the tent and and dampens the spirits.
Next morning, with the air still once more, I free-wheeled down to the lake, pedalled slowly across the plain, over a couple of small streams and then began the three-hour slog up the next hill. That was a killer. And no car or truck to hitch a ride on this time. I slogged and sweated and dragged that damn bike on and on and up and up, slipping and sliding and swearing at the eagle that soared effortlessly overhead. And then it rained too. Yeah, nature was having a real laugh at my expense that morning. But then I reached the top – even though there wasn’t any great view with all the mist and grey fog that lurked over the hills and the damp chilly air that leeched onto me. But from there it was all downhill.
Hell, if only I’d had my helmet and and bike with suspension… instead I went storming down that hillside just as recklessly, only with rather more concentration. I’d have been in for it if I’d hit a big rock and come off. But I just didn’t seem to care right then. It was too much fun flying down that rocky muddy track, through the valley with the river running through it, lined with white gers and old military jeeps parked beside them. Finally I was on the move again, not just crawling.
I stopped in the mining ‘town’ of Hotgor to buy some food. From the outside it looked like a depressing soulless place. To be honest, it didn’t look much better on the inside. But the people there hadn’t yet become a part of it. They still fought on with smiles despite such a dreary aspect all around. This was not like any other Mongolian town. But now I was in western Mongolia and the majority of people here are Kazakh. The children didn’t stand and stare listlessly as they had before. Here, they ran over to me and shouted and waved and smiled and said, ‘Hello’ (in English, I could hardly believe it). And they asked me to stop and the boys looked over the bike and wondered and marvelled and were curious as boys ought to be. The girls were a little more shy but still they smiled and I noticed they wore headscarves now. Because here, the Kazakhs are Muslim. The rest of Mongolia is Buddhist.
After that the land levelled out a little, but the trend was still downwards – towards Achiit Nuur, a glittering turquoise jewel of fresh enticing water in a land that had left the hills (and the rain) far behind and was now burning golden hues of a desert kind. Foolish me had forgotten to refill my water bottles, so I pedalled on, parched, across this dry land, inching my way to the water on the horizon that never seemed to get any nearer. That was another thing typical in Mongolia. It is such a vast country with so few obstacles, that it takes hours to reach the next bend in the road or change of view. Everything changes so slowly here. Except that damn wind and the rain.
There was one last little hill to get over before I reached the lakeside. Imagine my delight when I reached the top and looked down on that great pool of water, so cool and blue and tempting for a swim and I could finally gulp down pints of that thirst-quenching liquid. I scanned the lakeside for the best place to camp and pedalled on down.
Oh the horror! Within metres of the lake I was set upon by the fiercest mosquitoes yet. Hundreds of them covered my legs and arms as I reached down to refill my water bottles. I couldn’t stand it. I only filled one bottle with the stagnant algae-coloured, insect-ridden water before making a hasty retreat. The swim was definitely off. There was no way I was going to camp by that lake. So after 90km off-road that day, I pushed on round the lake and up the next hill for another 20km until I could go no further. Still the mosquitoes plagued me.
Lack of water forced me up the next day. I pedalled on down to the next valley and river. A little green forest oasis looked so attractive to rest and relax. But where there is water, there are mosquitoes. So I filled my bottles and took the dirt track across the plains. The tracks diverge and merge and meander left and right and usually they come back to the main track… but not always. I found myself hugely off target, so I sweated it out overland over this barren tract of waste land where nothing grows and only I go. Finally I made it back onto the real track – the one with corrugations… shake rattle and roll, hit a rock and grind to a stop. Start again. But by now, the track had rejoined the river valley and I could watch the milky water rushing past and when I wanted to rest, there were trees with shade. And no mosquitoes. It was uphill again, but the views were beautiful as I wound through the narrow walls and then gradually the valley opened up.
The last hours into Olgiy were another tiresome slog against the wind, but I didn’t mind it so much knowing that there would be a shower and a beer at the end of the day… and another plate of lamb noodles. But those were the last lamb noodles, because after a day of rest I then hit the road once more for the Russian border. Bring on the Altai mountains and Chuysky Trakt (next blog)…
And here are the photos from the ride: