Mongolia’s Wild West
It was hard to leave Khatgal, hard to forsake my gur into which a young girl would tiptoe each morning and fire up the wood-burning stove which in minutes improved the temperature from minus 15 to 20 above, propelling me towards a greasefest of a breakfast. And it was hard to leave because my knee had gone disturbingly geriatric, and just before I hit one and half thousand kilometres of remote sand-entrenched roads joining desolate towns where a padlocked shop that sold out of date chewing gum would be considered extravagant.
I did leave though, into a headwind that tossed dust around with a taunting howl, and when I passed the signpost for a town named Moron, on a washboard road, I recognised the double entendre and pronounced it accurate if the jarring journey continued to the border. But that first night camping I looked out over the horse-dotted steppe, over which cloud shadows streamed and churned and petered into bright yellow light, gilding the feather grass – I allowed myself to step outside my worries of knees and roads and winds – Mongolia will do that.
There is not much spring-like about spring in Mongolia. It’s not all daffodils and hope and children skipping in parks. OK there are lambs and baby goats but these are plucked from the snow by herders and nurtured inside the gurs until weather more worthy of the season appears, by which time it’s summer. Spring is the least favoured season, even winter is better, because April and May bring violent dust storms that rage over desert and steppe; the prevailing attack is from the west – which meant tent-wrecking, wheel-stilling winds were headed my way.
But which way was my way? Being lost had gone from being something of a hobby for me in Mongolia to a full blown profession. Within a day I was back to scrutinizing compass bearings and contemplating whether to ration my noodles whilst being thrashed by a headwind. Could I use a cow as a wind-break? There was no other shelter here – no trees, no rocky outcrops. I finally collected my thoughts behind a rare fence and waited for that other rare beast – a vehicle. A motorbike arrived after a while and I launched myself from behind the fence and into his path, which in hindsight, given the emptiness of the steppe, was probably the reason he looked like he was having a coronary event.
I was praying he was one of those Mongolians who could fathom my attempts at the language, or interpret my mime routine, or just have the common sense to guess what I was asking and then deliver directions. I pointed to a track and said the name of the town I was heading to, but his eyes didn’t follow my finger, ‘yes, yes’ came the dread refrain. I tried my best ‘which one?’ look, which I should know by now is uninterpretable. ‘yes, yes’ he said. I got out a pen and paper and made a dot (us) and a line (this track) hoping he’d embellish. ‘yes, yes’. Then a breakthrough – the nebulous flap of the hand Mongolians use to spell out a route – but he was indicating a roadless chunk of mountain.
Feeling defeated I headed back to Burentoctoh – adding 20km of rough road to my day – a windblasted and virtually unpeopled place where rusted signs were set into shrilling dances by intruding dust devils. In the supermarket (three brands of biscuits and a rotten onion) I got directions.
Afterwards I pushed up the hills when my knee grew too sore to ride. At the summit of one I claimed a magic view of the reaching steppe before dropping to a river where water gushed through a narrow channel forged in winter’s ice. I came to an adjoining stream when at that exact moment water ran in from the main river, and as I paced alongside the flood of brackish water melting the old ice the seasons changed in real time: winter became spring.
Next morning I woke to… to… birds chirping? What? A sound the wind hadn’t wrested away? I unzipped my tent to discover the morning sunny and sedate, the taut nylon of my tent as still as the sky. There is something haunting about the steppe when the wind dies down, and I shuddered as I looked over the tiny town of Tsagaan Uul two hours later – my approach was like that of a medieval knight towards a fortress – the town was fenced off against the winds and for miles I must have been visible to the townspeople – a loner battling through the sand. Shaggy dogs shambled about the edges, and two horses fought viciously in the dusty main street, biting and kicking, whilst the odd vulture hobbled away like a hunchback before spreading itself blackly against the blue sky. I was eyed from doorways.
The day grew windless but ball-numbingly cold again, as if winter had barged back through the slips for another scene. By evening though 60 km per hour winds rushed the steppe and I needed natural shelter if I didn’t want to spend the night wearing my tent. My campsite could safely be described as shit, but functional…
I trundled along the next day and all traffic had deserted me. There were some rusted kilometre posts though which meant I would reach a place, after a distance, and that was enough to inspire me on. And then I hit a concrete bridge and almost did a somersault. The hint of civilisation! Over a muddy rise I saw a house – the black block marked on my map. Only in Mongolia could a tiny solitary house, on a map of scale one in 2 million, earn a black square.
Things were looking up – my knee had improved, the road had too. I camped on a kind of platform of flat steppe just big enough for my tent, ahead snow-smeared grassland declined to a scribble of tracks and streams and then pitched up to triangles of larch forest striped by lanes of shadow as the sun was slowly banished to the mountains behind me. Under a half-moon I listened for wolves that I hoped padded through the forest, but no howl hit the silence. There were squeaks instead. I’d marvelled over these small pale rodents all day, and now I watched as one poked its head up from the ground and sniffed the air. In short order another popped up from the same hole and then two more of their curious mates appeared from a hole behind them. I couldn’t tell if they were voles, hamsters, gerbils, dormice or lemmings. The steppe is rodent central.
The next day a fragile wind tickled the grass, and snow was falling, but in dainty puffs. Sunlight lit and oozed through the clouds like a lava lamp, throwing a feeble light onto the tracts of forest.
Snow-sloped mountains pierced the once grassy horizon as I made it to the junction of the ‘main’ road to Uliastay. There was of course no tarmac, or road, but for the first time a wind gathered behind me and I shot off on jolly bounce aside tribes of Bactrian camels which I took as a sign of progress towards the Gobi.
As I wheeled my bike off the road to camp that night a white hatchback turned violently from the road and the three young men inside were soon leaning out of their windows. ‘Passport!’ one cried as they arrived and showed me some shoddy makeshift card that said ‘police’ on it. ‘Fuck you’ I almost replied, but held my tongue and shook my head. Real police would have insisted, and so when they didn’t I knew I’d made a good call and just hoped they didn’t come searching for me later.
A day later another car pulled up and a man fired off questions in English. I almost inserted myself through his car window and babbled like a crackhead. It was my first conversation in a while. The driver, a friendly ex-guide, new to Uliastay, offered to buy me a beer when I got there and was off.
I climbed over ‘Fish pass’ and camped on the other side. A gale raged through the night and the view the next morning was awash with thick snow.
There is something quite uniquely depressing about Mongolian provincial towns and Uliastay ticked the usual boxes – a good spread of rudderless alcoholics. World Vision. Wind. Empty vodka bottles, which I think may be the national plant. But the setting was impressive – the Altai mountains almost surrounded the town, the eastern fringes of a range that would accompany me as I rode through Central Asia.
I checked into the best hotel in town because I wanted a shower, paying a whole 10 dollars, but even so when I boiled the kettle the lights would dim and then blink – the mood lighting was befitting the sounds of furious sex coming through the wall, which came in five minute bouts. Her frustration was palpable.
I got set to leave the next day but checked the forecast first and found that the Mongolian weather had decided to ignore the calendar – the sky was planning to jettison an unspring like stack of 15cm of snow, and the temperature had returned to minus 15 at night. All this was compounded by the fact that between me and the next town, Altay, there were some effing big mountains where cold and snow would be multiplied. So I waited for an extra day.
I rode up into the Altai mountains through the snow, though the sky was now an unsullied dome of blue which held a massive vulture gliding on thermals near the first pass marked by another welcome ovoo. The next pass was higher though and the snow was a foot deep reducing me from cyclist to huffing pedestrian. In the distance I saw a herder who I could hear singing. He approached as they always do, and reached within his bulging deel (robe) – like a magician he pulled out a baby goat and grinned.
I stayed on the pass for a cup of tea from my thermos and descended but the snow and ice sent me into dangerous skids and I fell hard twice. Eventually the road flattened out, the wind stilled and in the evening light the two colours did their usual flip: yellow turned to gold, white to blue. An eagle flew low overhead, within spitting distance because from the eastern sky I was half-hidden by a rise, and I watched it float up to perch regally on a tree.
The next day I came to a signpost, such a novelty it deserved a photograph. Unfortunately of the three places advertised, none were of Altay, the biggest town in the region. Also, the junction it foretold wasn’t obvious, though there was a sliver of a track to the right – could that be it?
I followed it, and decided soon that it was not the right trail – there was only one motorbike tyre mark in the snow and in 100 metres I’d already breached three frozen streams. I returned to the questionmark of a junction and waited. Eventually one of the Soviet era grey vans appeared and the driver offered to take me to the right road. Inside the men stayed silent, and the back was padded with off-white material like that of an outmoded mental asylum, which turned out to be fitting décor considering how they drove. I was convinced he was going to flip the thing or perhaps, amid the miles and miles of empty steppe, drive directly into a telegraph pole.
They dropped me off and pointed to a string of pylons – ‘follow those to Altay’ seemed to be the message, so I set off glad of the impossible-to-lose way posts, but my knee ached and the snow was still about a foot thick. I pushed up through the mountains again, and hours later reached a pass and a gut-wrenching view – mountains stretched away, snow-thick and endless. The track remained flooded with snow and I wondered with an explosion of anxiety whether it could be the same story for the next 130 km to Altay – if so I’d be pushing, and soon exhausted of food and gas for my stove and days on my visa. And there was no way out now, no chance of retreat, no vehicles at all.
An hour later I pushed up another ridge and found relief at last – a broad plain, with obvious tracks and much less snow.
Early the next morning, on hardened snow, I freewheeled down a spine of mountains, as land peeled away on both sides. But by Altay I was limping, the pain in my knee much worse, and I was resigned to at least one day off.
The hotel in Altay was more obviously a brothel than the other definite brothels I’d inadvertently stayed in. There was the constant sounding of fucking, and the expended condom I was dismayed to find under my bed, and the clincher: two policemen strolled in and collected an envelope from the owner and left again.
I’d pushed too hard with the injury – I knew it. I’d acted against the advice I would have given my own patients, but my visa was almost expired and I wanted to ride so much I’d struggled on. The result was that my knee was approaching buttock proportions so I rested for a day necking brufen and with an ice pack on it (actually it may have been ice cream. Yes, ice cream).
At Darvi I stopped in an eating house and they offered me a bed, but the husband of the owner was drunk on vodka and insisted on helping me by wrestling by loaded bike inside. I was steering it and shouting for him to stop lifting the front wheel, but he managed to get himself in front of it whilst we were manoeuvring though a doorway and he couldn’t fathom why it wouldn’t go. ‘Get out of the way!’ I yelled, but he’d got his feet tangled in the cranks and was trying to lift the stem. ‘Please you’re making this more difficult!’ He tried to grab a pannier and lifted it into the frame so I dropped the bike, walked over to him and man handled him into the hall where he looked bashful and shuffled off. This might be a good time to report that Mongolia has been one of my favourite countries, choker with wilderness and rural hospitality, but vodka is a real scourge, and the drunks are always testing my patience.
From Darvi I had directions from another biker to a coal mine and a new paved road which reputedly travelled 300 km to the border. When I arrived at a small salt flat I did as instructed and made my way southwest on vague trails towards a dip in the mountains where I found a pretty valley and a river to wade. (cyclists reading this who want directions through the west of Mongolia – here’s my How To Guide)
When I reached the Chinese coal mine I was welcomed in by the finance manager – a young and pretty Mongolian woman who spoke good English. She brought me into the dining room for a breakfast of eggs and bacon, and I ate as if it might be a cruel joke and someone was going to snatch it away. She asked if I wanted a hot shower – it took me a minute to manage ‘What!’ and some time later ‘Yes please’.
I left to a battery of photos with the staff and then hit the paved road and cruised downhill as many-toned mountains rich in mineral ores drifted by in the distance, with the white flecks of gurs beneath.
It had been several hours since I’d seen a car when I heard one behind me. He pulled past and then swerved, cutting me up so fast I almost slammed into his side door. I skidded off the road, through sand and dirt, whilst he bumped off on a sandy trail to the right I’d barely noticed.
I made the rudest gestures I could manage, and screamed my frustration. I could have been under the wheels. He stopped, and seizing my opportunity I dumped by bike and ran over to the car – his wife walked back to me, but it was obvious they’d only stopped because I’d waved – they didn’t even realise they’d run me off the road. I let rip, cursing and gesticulating – she looked alarmed and apologised. When I calmed down I had to laugh about it – I was cut up on an arrow straight road, by the only car in several hundreds of kilometres, at the only junction I’d pass all day. There’s probably some truth in the popular saying that Genghis Khan’s DNA reasserts itself when Mongolians get behind the wheel.
I climbed to Ar Bulag Davaa, a 2790 metre pass, my knee was coping a little better on the paved surface. A motorbike stopped ahead and a man and a boy waited for me in the road. The man wore a purple deel, his right eye was red and infected. The boy was nine or ten, and pondered me as bleakly as his father.
The man looked me over, made a slitting action to his neck and then pointed at me. Its not the first time I’ve received idle death threats and it’s best to smile and pretend you don’t understand, do the action back to them, grin and shake their hand, keep moving. But he blocked me and made the action of a gun, shot me with an imaginary bullet. Then he put his hand inside his deel, slowly, and my heart pounded in my chest, but no gun was drawn. He made the move twice more and I knew by then he was bluffing, and then he took out vodka and took a long neat glug from the bottle. I looked at the boy, full of sympathy. The man then pointed at a few gurs in the distance and made the gun sign again.
I cycled off wondering if he’d make a phone call, if they’d be an ambush. At the first gur I saw just a gnarled dog noisily warning me away but no people. Then to my left two riders on horses in full gallop, throwing up dust. I pedalled hard but there was nowhere to go, no way to outrun horses. I decided to act aggressive and as they hit the road I turned hard squaring up to them, but realised with relief one was just a boy, and smiling ear to ear. He was eight years old maybe, and judging by his horsemanship, galloping about the steppe for half his years. I talked to his father about my plan to reach the border but he made a cross out of his forearms which could only mean one thing – the border was closed.
I thought about this: if they’d shut the border, which considering I would enter into Xinjiang province in China, a sensitive area, was definitely possible – I was fucked. Fucked to the key of five thousand kilometres by jeep, bus and train, back across Mongolia, back into northern China and then west until I reached Xinjiang, hundreds of dollars poorer. I had no Russian visa and this was the only international border leading to China in western Mongolia.
Fortunately mine workers on the road to the border cleared up the confusion – the border was only closed for the weekend. Phew! The workers manned decontamination stations on the road and fed me up with rice and meat and sachets of coffee which claimed to be ‘American flavour’ whatever that is. Stars and stripes surrounded a ginger man with a crown on his head on the packet. ‘Who’s that?’ I asked one of the workers. ‘The king of America’ he said appalled at my ignorance. Oh yeah sorry, didn’t recognise him.
For my last night in Mongolia I camped high on slim ridge it was stupidly unhidden and wind blasted spot but it was my last night under a Mongolian sky and I wanted the Gobi spread out on both sides of me. Days ago I was mired in thick snow, now I could sleep outside my tent and star gaze.
|Spot the tent|
At the border Chinese immigration made a thorough search of all my electronic devices and then I was allowed through and cycled into Takisheken. Mongolian customer service in towns and cities is a little muted (to be understatedly kind), and my hopes that China might prove better were dashed when the hotel owner, who was actually a very friendly, smiling man, showed me into a room and awaited my approval. When I nodded he hacked up a huge greeny, strolled over to my new bathroom, sent it into the toilet and without flushing it returned to the room and asked for my passport and money. There was something reassuring in this though – it looked like my world might stay rough around the edges.
I knew the sensible thing to do was take a bus to Urumqi now that I had time on my side because my knee needed the rest – so with a heavy heart, that’s what I did.
Thank yous – Torge and Sylvia again thank you, Tudevee – thank you for a nice meal in Uliastay and my only conversation in several weeks, the workers of the coal mine, Chris Pountney for directions, Sam Lovell – master yogi and my host in Urumqi.
I’m chuffed that my first article for the BBC will be published next month – I will add a link on my journalism page when it’s up.
I’ve rested my knee for over a week now, but it’s not 100% and the next stage to Kazakhstan is an important test – if it’s painful on this stretch then coping over the Pamirs will be very tough. It’s a worry. My next update will come from Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan.
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