Day 68 Mongolia day 7

3 Aug


Heavy rain during the night has me worrying about the Mongolia northern route nightmare scenario number 1- mud. Fortunately it doesn’t last long. During the day it’s easy to see how hard it would be if the weather was against you. So many stretches are dry mud or empty river beds that would take all day to drag a bike across if the water was up. We stop in Altanbulag for petrol but there’s no-one at the petrol station. Attempts to communicate with locals result in the usual shrugging, nodding or blank looks, depending on what each particular man considers to be the appropriate response to a foreigner. "Is the petrol station open?" Nod. "Is the petrol station closed?" Nod. After half an hour the man turns up and pumps petrol by hand. We head off towards the main northern route, and both scenery and riding are spectacular. Every type of landscape, every type of track. More eagles, more falcons. People on horses, people on russian motorbikes. We stop to help one who has a flat tyre. Navigation is really hard. You can’t ask for directions, because the locals don’t know the name of the next town. There are tracks everywhere, sometimes nowhere, with no obvious way of knowing which one goes where. It’s guesswork, luck, compass bearings and hope. But we manage to find our way back onto the northern route and the town of Khalban, then beyond to a hillside camping spot with a spectacular view. Over 120 miles today, averaging about 20mph.

Day 67 Mongolia day 6 – Lost!

3 Aug

Day 67 Mongolia day 6 – Lost!, originally uploaded by Big Al!.

Lost in Mongolia! The day started well with a fairly easy ride to Baraanturuun, where we find the only petrol station for miles. The manager has to phone somebody to turn on the electricity so that they can pump fuel. Leaving town, the terrain changes from the flat grassy sandy plain to steep forested hills, and the weather changes from sunny to rainy. There are a million tracks all going slightly different directions, none looking any more main than any other, so we ask a local who happens to be passing by on a russian bike, and he confidently says that’s where he’s going and indicates that we should follow. We do, and the road is a mix of every type of trail riding, some quite challenging, but the guy on his bike, and two younger guys on a chinese 150cc bike make light work of it. The scenery is stunning. Like the alps, like the moors, there are goats next to camels, mountains next to streams next to barren rocky hills next to grass mingled with fragrant wild flowers and herbs that smell wonderful as you ride over it. We stop for an early lunch break and while we eat, an eagle soars above us, circling on a thermal, so low we can see every detail, every tiny adjustment of wing and tail feather, and hear its haunting calls to its mate. It is stunning and beautiful, something i’ve never seen in England but have been seeing several times a day here. I never tire of it, it is breathtaking to see such majestic animals in the wilderness so close you could nearly touch them. Our local escorts give us more of the cheese we had a couple of nights ago, and more for later. They also give us sweets. Then they put on a show of Mongolian wrestling for us. The older man is a policeman, it seems that the younger two may be his sons. The wrestling is fast, hard, serious, and leaves them exhausted. They are going out of their way to entertain us, feed us, communicate with us, guide us. The friendlieness shown to us in this country has been amazing. Later we part company and realise that we are heading the wrong way. Asking several locals achieves nothing. They don’t understand maps, can’t understand our pronunciation of place names, and probably don’t know where they are anyway. Instead they peer closely at the map, point at all places, want to open it and see the other pages. They look so earnest and serious, but they clearly have no idea. We work out where we are, and the map i have shows no road between where we are and where we want to be. We fear that there may be a mountain range or other feature that blocks that direction and may require a big detour, so we have a nervewracking time following very indistinct, infrequently used tracks trying to head east. The terrain crosses hills, grass, rocks and marshes, the track varies from barely discernable single wheel impressions in the grass to car sized sandy muddy ruts. After a long time riding, we gradually get closer to the next town to the east, and camp about 8 miles short, hoping that there is a way through and that tomorrow we can continue east and not have to back track a whole day of very hard riding. It has been exciting, difficult, amazing, spectacular, enthralling. It has been the most incredible day of the trip so far, and it’s hard to imagine any other experience matching the day we’ve just had, riding places that probably no other westerner has ever been and making our own tracks through the mountains. Simply unforgettable and brilliant in so many different ways.

Day 66 Mongolia day 5

3 Aug

Day 66 Mongolia day 5, originally uploaded by Big Al!.

More riding across the endless Mongolian plains. It really is amazing, unique. Early on, we follow a line of telegraph poles, in the middle of nowhere, miles from any population. There are eagles perched on top of the poles, sometimes 3 or 4 on each one. As we get close they take flight, and it’s a stunning sight. They are so big, majestic, effortlessly powerful, and there are so many of them. I stop to try to take a photo, and creep towards one. It takes off and circles overhead for a few minutes, just yards above me. It’s incredible. I don’t think i’ve ever seen an eagle in the wild before, and here is one swooping around my head just yards away, its vast wingspan and overwhelming presence dominating the sky. Captivating and unforgettable. These animals are impressive enough in a zoo, but to see them in their own environment is entirely different. We arrive at Ulaangom, another suprising oasis of western convenience miles of hard riding across dirt and grass from anywhere else. Mobile phone signal, petrol stations, banks, markets, people in trendy western dress, shops with a wierd mix of russian, chinese, german, and american produce. We stop for lunch in the desert south of lake Uvs Nuur, sausage and fried egg sandwiches. Nice, but i melt a hole in my trousers with the frying pan. After another 4 hours riding point to point across the endless plain we camp in the middle of nowhere and gorge on pasta with more sausage, accompanied by one of the nicest bottles of wine we’ve had all trip, a french cabernet sauvignon. French cabernet sauvignon, in Mongolia, bought from a shop in a small town in the middle of nowhere. Unexpected, welcome, yet somehow a bit wrong. This is a country that continues to leave me astonished.

Day 65 Mongolia day 4

3 Aug

Day 65 Mongolia day 4, originally uploaded by Big Al!.

The day starts badly, and not with the hangover from last nights Mongolian firewater. I discover that i’ve lost my tools. All of them. That’s quite bad. I jump on the bike and spend two hours riding 40 difficult miles to the scene of my crash and back to camp, with no sign of my toolkit. Damn. Most of the way out, my bike is misfiring badly, until about 15 miles from camp, on my own in the Mongolian wilderness with no tools and no means of communication, it cuts out and rolls to a halt. Shit. I pull open the side panel to see that yesterday’s crash has broken the battery strap, the battery has been moving around and has shaken out the bolt from the negative terminal. I manage to cable tie the battery lead to the terminal block and with great relief the bike roars back into life. A quick lunch, then we ride for 4 hours over open grassy plain, stretching to mountains on the horizon in all directions. The scale is vast and hard to take in. 4 hours riding, aiming at a compass bearing across open, empty ground, not following a road, not getting visibly closer to anything. Imagine a field so big you could drive at 30mph for 4 hours and still not see the far end. Amazing, and an incredible experience to ride here. Impossible to describe what it looks like, what it feels like, the total silence and remoteness when we stop. Just awesome.

Day 64 Mongolia Day 3

3 Aug


The most amazing day. Stopped in Khovd, which was remarkably modern with a reasonable supermarket, then on towards Ulaangom. Crashed my bike at about 30mph on deep gravel. Hit a thick bit and got an almighty tank slapper, violently whipping from side to side in ever increasing degrees until it spun round completely, landing sideways and backwards, ripping off the left pannier. I miraculously landed on my feet next to the bike, going from 30mph in the saddle to 0mph standing next to it, not quite knowing exactly how that happened. Fixed the pannier back on with a bit of hammering and a ratchet tie down strap, not pretty but it still works. The down side is that it’s hard to take off without undoing all the temporary fixes. Then 2 miles down the road, Dave drops his bike in soft sand. Is it really going to be this hard so soon? The day runs out and we decide to set up camp. Being Mongolia, we simply turn off the main track and head for somewhere that looks nice, cross country. We camp, in the middle of totally empty wilderness as far as we can see in all directions and have dinner. Then we climb the nearby rocky hill for a panoramic view. While we’re up there we spot a couple of horsemen herding cattle in the distance. They see us too and head over, climbing up the rocks to meet us. We exchange handshakes, but don’t share any language at all. They decide to bring their horses up to the top. Mongolian horses are short and stocky, but these two are good looking animals nonetheless. The older of the two locals, both appear to be early 20s, gestures for us to sit on the horse, which we do. It makes for a great photo and is quite an experience but is pretty scary, perched as we are on top of the rocky hill. In return, we invite them back down to camp to sit on the bikes, and the two lads seem to really enjoy having their photo taken. Then it’s our turn again, this time to ride the horse. Next we share vodka and chocolates, and spend an hour or so sitting, eating, trying to communicate. It’s odd enough being so far into empty wilderness and having someone wander by, but to sit with these two Mongolians is a surreal experience that is hard to describe. After a while they decide to demonstrate their lassooing technique. Playing for the camera, the older one expertly ropes a cow from his saddle at full gallop, while we video it. Triumphantly he poses with the cow for more photos, before jumping astride it and riding round our tents, which has us all laughing hard. Then he insists on both of us riding the cow. After a while they leave, and we prepare for bed. Sometime later, however, they’re back, even though it’s now dark. They’ve ridden for over an hour in darkness just to bring us some of their homemade cheese and a jar full of a liquid that seems to be their homebrew spirit. So for another couple of hours we sit round camp, eating, drinking, laughing, not understanding a word each other is saying. It’s brilliant. The friendliness shining through on their faces and the effort they have gone to just to make friends with total strangers is quite something. It’s an amazing experience, and impossible to describe just what it was like. When they’ve gone, i’m treated to a stunning starscape in the perfectly clear night, the milky way showing more brightly and clearly than i’ve ever seen it. Just an astonishing day.