So here I am in UB on my own. I have a look round the main square, which is unexpectedly grand compared to the size of the city, and visit the suprisingly good national museum where amongst many interesting things I discover that the big pile of rocks we camped next to about a week ago was a bronze age burial dating back to something like 1500 BC. I think we buried our rubbish under it…. Then I do some souvenir shopping (quite hard when you can only buy things you’ll be able to carry for another several thousand miles on a motorbike), write a couple of postcards (first since Bukhara, I think), and make plans to meet Dave Allen, who has just arrived in town. I first hoped he might be a travel partner for the rest of the trip, but his bike is broken and I don’t think he’ll be ready in time. I have 21 days till my Russia visa runs out, so if i’m carrying on I have to go the day after tomorrow at the latest. I witness the very wierd sight of a dustbin lorry driving slowly down main street playing a tune like an ice cream van, presumably to tell people to bring out their rubbish. Beats leaving it out on the pavement all day, i suppose. Take cover under a bus shelter as a sudden hailstorm passes through, and then see a car that drove into a puddle that turned out to be a big hole, which is being slowly pulled out of it by a tow truck. Try the laptop again, still dead, which will make getting the satnav set up very difficult. Then I meet up with Dave A, and 3 guys, Steve, Thane and Kyle, who have driven here in an LDV van for charity. As one act of charity they picked up Dave in Mongolia when his bike broke and carried him and bike all the way to UB. We have drinks and dinner (cheeseburger, or in most cases, two cheeseburgers) and exchange travel stories. It really seems like these guys have had 3 weeks of brilliant fun, which shows how much of a difference your choice of travel partner makes. I have a great time and am greatly cheered up. In particular, Dave A offers a lot of encouragement and practical suggestions and convinces me that I really should carry on. It makes an enormous difference.
Over breakfast Dave suddenly reveals he’s not going any further, he’s going to ditch the bike and fly off to meet his girlfriend, which leaves me on my own in Mongolia. I will only say that I’m quite disappointed and apprehensive about crossing the Amur highway on my own. I now have to decide whether to carry on alone or quit here. I’ve invested too much in this to stop now, no matter how hard the rest of it might be. I’m really proud of what I’ve achieved, that I’ve got this far. I really have no enthusiasm for it at the moment, but I can stay here a couple of days and decide what to do.
The day starts in spectacular fashion as an eagle swoops down just inches from my head, grabs something small and furry and glides away over the valley. Incredible. The speed, surprise and power is stunning. The road is reasonable, a mix of hard dry mud and dusty loose gravel, running alongside what looks like a new road being built. At the top of a hill there is another of the shrines people tie blue cloth to for luck, so i tie on a piece of one of my tie straps that has broken. After stopping for petrol in Bulgan, we leave town on a perfect stretch of tarmac, and when it doesn’t peter out after a few miles like most other stretches we begin to think it might go all the way to the capital. So suddenly it seems we might be in UB a day or two sooner than we hoped. It’s a long ride, though, and at the end of the day we’ve clocked up 370 miles, 100 of them on dirt, making it one of the longest rides of the trip. Arriving in UB requires another death defying dash through city traffic until we eventually find a suitable looking hotel. It’s absolutely amazing to be here, to have gone so far on my bike. We have dinner that is a mix of Chinese and Thai, then Dave says he’s tired so we return to the hotel.
It’s much hotter now that we’re further east and at lower altitude. Dry, sandy, dusty roads. The dust clouds we kick up are huge, they coat everything and make it difficult to see the bumps and pot holes in the track, which is now much more "main" than the tracks of the last few days. It’s relatively easy going, but still requires total concentration because of the frequent patches of thick sand, uneven gravel, pot holes, and ruts. Before long my thrice repaired rear inner tube fails and we spend an hour fixing it. And hour later it’s half flat again, we pump it up, with the usual audience appearing from nowhere, and carry on. 5 minutes later, flat again, so we spend another hour changing it, using Dave’s spare 18" tube in my 17" wheel. It seems to work. After a long day we camp in more remote peace and quiet with a great view but with more insects. It’s been a good though still hard day, and we’re now just 200 miles as the crow flies from UB. It hasn’t been nearly as interesting, exciting, varied or special as recent days, but it’s a welcome change of pace and a reassuring measure of progress towards our goal of reaching the capital.
Great progress today. Nearly ran over a golden eagle early this morning, that’s how frequent they are over here. Then a long ride through more mind boggling landscape. It really is hard to take it all in, some of it looks like a different planet and it’s another planet around every corner. This country is astounding. In 8 days we’ve seen more varied landscapes than the rest of the trip combined, had more memorable experiences, encountered more friendly people and faced more challenges. Today’s ride was glorious. Miles of pristine wilderness, good dirt roads, mind blowing scenery, no other traffic, warm bright sunshine, a feeling of total calm and happiness, enjoying, loving every minute of it. I’ve been through some spectacular landscapes on this trip, seen some amazing views, met some amazing people, had some amazing times, but Mongolia blows them all away, makes them all seem tame in comparison. There are no superlatives to describe it. Approaching Moron, about half a mile away, I realise my bike isn’t squirming all over because of the gravel, but because I have a puncture. There’s a whacking great nail stuck in the rear tyre. The only spare inner tube i have left is punctured after being nicked with tyre levers while changing tyres, so i have to patch it with 3 patches. Thankfully it holds, and after an hour we head into Moron. Looking for a bike shop we of course don’t find one, though we’ve seen loads in recent towns. Now that we’re not looking for supermarkets, hotels, internet cafes, banks, we see loads. This town is even weirder than the others we’ve seen. A strange collection of old and new, sophisticated and basic. There’s a man in a smart business suit, walking home from work past a cow scratching its neck on a fence post. Efforts to find a bike repair shop selling inner tubes fail. In one tyre shop i realise that out here they don’t have new tubes, they just keep repairing old ones. One guy is working on a tube that is more patch than tube. I give up the hunt and instead we replenish supplies in a supermarket where we are followed around by staff who must be either suspicious or fascinated, then we get petrol and head eastwards out of town, to camp on a hill overlooking a lake. We eat Mongolian beef for dinner, accompanied by Mongolian wine. The beef is delicious, the wine awful. We switch to Mongolian vodka. It’s good. The vodka, the country, the riding, the challenge, the landscape, the view, the progress, the people. It’s all good, really bloody good. And it’s amazing to be here.