I followed the convoluted route someone had scribbled on a scrap of paper, north through the ragged streets of Erenhot. This frontier, desert town on the rim of northern China, bustled in the summer heat with trading activity. 7 km south of the border, I had one last meal of fried rice at a noisy, no-frills restaurant, in the company of sweaty, rotund, partially-clothed men scoffing racks of oily dumplings. Amused by my presence, the restauranteur generously rounded down my bill as I flicked through the last of my Mao-faced notes.
At the border a stiffening westerly was whipping the shirt from my back. A crowd of locals were waiting to get a ride into Mongolia. An old woman with a soiled face was struggling for business, vending peaches from a timber cart. Taxis were dropping off passengers and people transferring cargo between bursting vehicles. I weaved through the throng and passed the gates, provoking two scrawny subordinate guards, sporting shaved heads and camo-blue battle fatigues. A heavy, plain clothed man with a sagging face and bulbous, bloodshot eyes of an alcoholic, frantically identified himself as ‘POLICE!’.
‘No! You, jeep!’ he said.
But that was going to be impossible. Every beat-up UAZ-469 crossing the border was loaded to the roof with cartons of Chinese goods and had three or more people crammed into the front bench. Several empty buses crossed without taking passengers. One guy offered to transport me for 50 yuan but once I had agreed, the price doubled.
After two journeys and four months through the land of the dragon, what was I to make of China? Well, as I’m just passing through and not qualified to give any kind of analysis on the state of this country or any other, my perspective is little more than common knowledge: the air is bad, there are too many people, they are really noisy eaters, and there is a massive divide between urban prosperity and rural poverty. In any case, when you observe that gaping chasm between the haves and have nots, experience that persistent, irritating guilt of being thankful for the sheer accident of privilege and opportunity, you learn, that despite the massive challenges of simply existing in squalid, oppressive conditions, people still maintain the capacity to work hard, to give, to laugh, to recognise the value in others, and to get on with life.
Frustrated, I returned to the gates. ‘No Jeep. Full. Bike No!’ I said.
‘Three hundred yuan, you go,’ said the plainclothes cop.
I considered battering the bribe but figured I’d be giving this guy money just to be turned back at the next checkpoint, two hundred metres away. The immigration office was barely a hundred metres beyond that.
The wind was building and soon a gail was driving showers of sand and rain from the west. I rested on my top bar considering what to do. To the south, Erenhot was concealed in the sand storm. I didn’t relish going back to find a ride. A Mongolian man, named Badar, seized the opportunity and told me to stick with him. I had no reason to believe he would be successful but as I had no better idea, I hung around. Within half an hour Badar had impressively beaten the frantic competition and secured a ride in a packed jeep.
‘Where the hell am I going to put my bike?’ I asked.
He pointed to the roof and called for another man’s help. Together, we heaved the bike up onto the canopy, panniers and all, where it rocked precariously, unfastened. Badar, his wife, and I crammed in beside the driver with the passenger door open and one body hanging out of the cab.
Three hundred metres away, following this pointless exercise, and thankful the whole thing hadn’t come crashing to earth, we pulled the bike off the roof and I wheeled it through immigration, got my exit stamp, and entered the one kilometre stretch of no-man’s-land. As it was apparently forbidden to ride that section also, Badar hooked another jeep, from which we secured the bike to the rear rack, but before I could get in, the the jeep took off.
‘Hey, where you going?’ I shouted, horrified as my worldly possessions speed away towards the desolate expanse of the Gobi.
Badar pointed to another jeep. What the hell? No way! I bolted after my bike and caught up only by chance that it had been stopped by border guards.
‘That’s my bike!’
The guard snapped at Badar, ordering them to release my bike and allowing me to ride on.
Half way across no-man’s-land, I was pulled up by a Mongolian immigration officer. He slowly leafed through my passport under pattering rain, studying every stamp and visa like a precious artefact, before giving me permission to leave. Moments later, however, a Chinese guard appeared on the scene, and the Mongolian agent demanded the book back. The two men broke into an animated dialogue; the Mongolian pointing to my passport and spanning his hands out as though there was a problem. I’m about to get extorted. I thought. I walked away, rested on my top tube, and ignored the charade. The Mongolian returned and scrutinised the passport for the third time before handing it back.
Badar was waiting at the Mongolian end and shadowed me through the push and crush of Mongolian immigration.
‘Money. How much?’ I asked.
‘He wants 100 yuan,’ someone translated.
It was three days budget.
‘I’ll pay 50,’ I said.
‘No, he wants 100.’
I had become alarmed by the snarling Chinese guards, by the way this man had been chastised, the near theft of my bike, and the bullying impatience surging through the immigration office. To the north, I could see Zamyn-Üüd — the Mongolian frontier town — and beyond that was over 500 kilometres of desert to cover solo, in a country I was yet to understand. I payed the 100 yuan and got out of there.
Zamyn-Üüd is a seeping wound of decaying concrete buildings set around a central square. Its ambiance charged with rowdy drunks, screaming kids, and tooting Russian and Chinese vehicles. The air is thick with the stench of burning plastic. The ground shimmers with shattered liquor bottles.
I bought tugrik from the currency exchange — administered in an empty room from a cardboard box — then went in search for water. But how much? As large scale maps were unavailable, I couldn’t know for sure how far it would be between water supplies, but my small scale map (1:6,000,000 country map in Chinese) indicated, accurately as it turned out, I had up to 200 kilometres stretches between supplies. In the sweltering summer I would need as much as I could carry.
At the grocery store I turned suddenly, bumping into a beast of a man covered in backyard tats, with a strapped shoulder and a patched eye, giving me a stare down like he was about to slit my throat. I edged away and cued at the checkout with 7.5 litres to add to the 6 litres I already had. When the guy jumped the cue with 2 bottles of vodka, no one dared complain.
It was dusk once I’d made it through the village, where the road petered out into a mess of rock strewn, sand tracks. With compass at hand, I travelled NNE into the night till the town reduced to shimmering specs of light.
I was up before sunrise. The pink dawn illuminating the desert revealed the first challenge of the Gobi: navigating the haphazard maze of vehicle tracks. There was nothing out there but horses and camels. I picked my way along the most prominent tracks but the only thing I could trust as I moved over the undulating land, was my compass.
Two young boys on horses greeted me in English. The older of the two pointed over my shoulder to a lone ger 500 metres away.
‘Home, let’s go,’ he said.
I dropped my bike by the ger and without a word the small boy took the empty bottles and filled them from a drum of water. Inside, grandmother was slumped on a mattress and the father was sitting on the ground opposite. I took up place at the rear left of the ger. Grandma promptly served me a cup of pungent milk tea, and dropped a stewpot of makh by my feet. The pot of boiled offal had been uncovered in the heat long enough for the surface of the organs and entrails to develop a sticky sheen and attract a swarm of gigantic, hairy, green blowflies. I was encouraged to eat, so with folk in hand I looked nervously down into the pot, through the fetid slop of bone and organs, for something I might be able to pick at without doing damage, but I was getting nauseous just looking at it. I chickened out and dropped the folk.
The terrain rose over a series of rocky outcrops. From the west, a wall of cloud churned forth. The hot afternoon surrendered to lightning and deluge. Drenched, I hunched from the wind and pounding hail. In minutes, the desert was blanketed in ice, which soon melted and the tracks disintegrated into bogs and streams. My boots slopped through the sludge. My wheels seized with mud. I persevered, mostly dragging my 70 kg machine through the afternoon as the storm died, and the clouds opened, and the baking heat returned.
The rough desert tracks were going to be tough, but the desert delivered the isolation and tranquility that I had yearned for in China. Through the long summer day from dawn till dusk, I travelled only 75 km. I succumbed to exhaustion, as I would over and over, and neglected to zip up my tent. In the morning I found three scorpions and two ticks crawling around camp.
Rumbling out of nowhere came a large convoy of white caravans. They were grey nomads, Europeans I deduced from the maps plastered to the panels displaying a circuit tour of Europe and Central Asia. As I watched the passing of these earth capsules I imagined enviously bar fridges full of food and cold beer. Although I still had water I didn’t know for certain my next resupply point, so I instinctively took the opportunity, pulled out my water bottle, and waved down one of the vehicles, which slowed just enough for me to ask, ‘Do you speak English?’
‘Pas. Français.’ The woman replied.
‘Can I get water?’
She shrugged, resealed her self-contained bubble, and they drove off as promptly as they had stopped, leaving me in a cloud of dust, still pointing at my water bottle. As the procession slowly passed I heard someone calling. A grubby, Mongolian truck driver leaning out the window of his large, rusted hulk, handed me a 1.5 litre bottle of water with a big grin.
Travelling this route through the summer was like cycling into a blow drier on high. The hot winds blasted down, mostly from the north and north-west. Clumps of cumulus hung in the broad desert sky, offering little shade, but regularly enough over the summer months, those benign cotton clouds developed into dense layers of thunderous cumulonimbus, sweeping the sky with heavy squalls. That relief from the heat, however, was a devil in disguise, as the punishing dirt tracks turned to mud, rendering them largely unridable.
212 km from the border, a brief ribbon of surfaced road leads into Saynshand. The energy sapping northerly wind switched to a south-easterly. Late afternoon showers seeped cool through my skin, alleviating the heat like anaesthesia.
In the muddy, main street of Saynshand, I met two British backpackers, and they described their rail journey from Europe. Another pair of travellers joined the conversation with a common plan to visit the monastery of Khamaryn Khiid and an energy centre known as Shambhala. Earlier they had met Pavel, a Czech working for an NGO, who had offered to drive the tourists to the sights as it was a public holiday. Several hours later, compensated with alcohol, Pavel knocked back tins of cheap Mongolian beer as he rallied his full Toyota Prada an hour south through desert.
Being the only foreigner stuck out in this ex-soviet town, he may have been just as pleased to have company as the backpackers were to score his guided tour. Never the less, he seemed to be the most positive guy on earth, which I suppose is a good attribute for someone who’s made a career managing NGO operations.
On the way to Khamryn Khid, Pavel took us by the farming initiative he’d set up, in which agricultural land is created by tapping underground springs for irrigation, thus providing the town with locally grown produce. What he had created out of the arid Gobi soils, was a thriving farm and greenhouse producing potatoes, tomatoes, and green vegetables. Despite overwhelming unemployment it’s been extremely difficult to find dependable, local employees, Pavel explained. Tools were lying in mud and the caretaker had neglected to cover the new pump generator from the rain. It’s Pavel’s job to see the operation succeeds, but once the project is complete and the management handed on, who knows?
Shambhala, energy centre surrounded by 108 stupas.
Pavel in the green t-shirt acting as tour guide.
Back at Pavel’s apartment — a concrete relic from the soviet base — I wondered how an outsider might spend their time.
‘Have you met a girl?’ I asked.
‘I’m not allowed,’ He said.
‘That’s in your contract?’
‘No. I will get beaten up if I’m seen with a Mongolian woman. She will too. If I walk down the street with a female employee, guys shout at us. They won’t even let me into the nightclub because I’m a foreigner. I mean, what the fuck? I’m here helping you people and you treat me like this.’
‘So I guess domestic violence is bad.’
The hot, red flair of dawn rises like a predator. It shimmers on the horizon and advances in violent gusts of wind. It weighs me down and drives me into the sand. Polished, translucent stones in auburn and amber and white, speckle the parched earth. Inquisitive lizards the length of a finger, blend into the sand with such accuracy that they vanish with the flicker of a glance.
I laboured across the undulating country, dragged through the sand and around flooded basins. Lightning exploded in the north. Thunderheads formed above. I pitched my shelter with routine speed. Boiled potatoes spiced with stock powder but struggled to get the job done and keep my pot sand free in the gale. Rain hit hard as I crawled into my tent. The wind had dropped by the time I’d dozed off but picked up again in the night, and I woke to my nylon shelter strained, drum tight, in a punishing, cracking violence. In my sleeplessness, I willed my tent to survive the night. A swam of beetles crawled all over my body and I flicked and slapped them from my sweat-sticky skin. Then hunger hit. I reached over my right shoulder and grabbed a bag of raw cashews. I recalled the writhing maggots I had picked from the nuts in the morning. I knew there was an infestation of hatching eggs in the nuts, but I disregarded the larvae as I munched them down.
It was unusual to see life in the desert but along the windy track I past a handful of gers, beside which were small, primitive, hand dug mines. Dotted around the landscape were piles of chalky stone streaked with purple crystals.
‘They are illegal fluoride mines. The people mine the fluoride and sell it to local guys and then it gets packed into plastic drums. The local guys sell it at the train stations to Chinese, where it’s exported to China,’ Amgaa, a geologist from Ulaanbaatar, told me.
‘What is it used for?’
‘For making steel, or in rocket fuel, or other chemical compounds.’
‘What would happen if the government found them?’
He shook his head. ‘Nothing because they are poor people who have no work.’
I rolled into the village of Bayantal, with drained bottles and a parched throat, seeking water for the next 110 km. The place appeared lifeless except for the whining clap of a motorcycle resounding from beyond the ruins of a former soviet airforce base. The stripped shell of a MiG-21 monument still projected skyward. A strip of ramshackle housing lay on the western edge of two enormous rows of six-story, concrete barracks, rendered with crumbling pebbledash. Flocks of crows circled and squawked from the upper floors. I left my bike in the weed-ridden central strip of the abandoned barracks and climbed through an opening of one of the gutted buildings. Little remained in the charred edifice but piles of rubble, liquor bottles, and bird shit. The rotting walls were shedding paint and floral wallpaper. Every window and fixture had been stripped. Flights of broken stairs hang by foundation rods. It must have been an impressive sight — a sophisticated, Soviet, military outpost — but now all that remains is the amplified screeching of birds echoing through the floors like ghosts.
The store was virtually empty, with a few supplies of cleaning products, some bottles of flavoured drink, and packs of sweet biscuits, but that was about it. No water. The store keeper — a despondent, young woman attending her baby — pointed me vaguely to another tiny store the size of a small bedroom, that was managed by a girl of about 10. I bought 4 litres of water, onions, bread, and honey, for my final run out of the Gobi.
100 km south of Ulaanbaatar (locally referred to as UB) the sandy terrain rises and transforms into hilly steppe, spiked with rock buttresses. I setup camp then cooked in the rain a shitty meal of pasta mixed with egg and salt. Pools of water collected under my tent and I regretted my half sleeping bag (I had cut it in half after the winter to save weight) as I shivered through the night with the first of the cold.
30 km of broken, concrete road brought me to the congested centre of Ulaanbaatar. North of the centre, I checked into a two-room guest house tucked away in the ground floor of a high-density housing complex. I would share the place for 10 days with a pair of French backpackers, as I prepared my next move. With a 30-day visa, I assumed I would continue 350 km north from UB, to the nearest Russian border crossing, and take the route west via Lake Baikal, but the 700 km of desert and steppe I’d already travelled had been nothing to write home about. I had seen little nomadic activity and really nothing of the spectacular Mongolian landscape, and I realised that I had to reroute across the north-west of the country towards the Altai mountains, almost 2000 km mostly on unsealed roads. A 30-day visa extension was the maximum I could get, which would allow no time for contingency should something go wrong, but I couldn’t leave Mongolia without seeing the best of it.
UB is a tough place to be on a bike. Drivers treat each other, and everyone else, with such utter contempt that the Chinese, by comparison, seem considerate, and anyone who’s read my China blogs will know that that’s pretty far from a compliment.
One day I was squeezed off the road by a screaming traffic jam and forced to weave my way through a blockage of people on the pavement. Someone grabbed my handlebar, which I instinctively detached with a slap. I turned to find a stocky man with close shaved head of about 30. His plump, sun-hardened face, ripened into a ragging tomato red. His eyes were bulging with shock. Then he snapped, grabbing for a projectile from the ground. I fled into the congestion, slipping through the tight knot of traffic and hightailing it south down the inner circuit road. I flinched for impact but thankfully got away unscathed. The next day the contact plate of my speedometer was torn from my bike. This was not a place to be complacent.
My friend Björn from Germany was the first long distance biker I met on this stage. He has covered 23,000 km in his travels and sports a magnificent beard to prove it.
No Mongolian blog would be complete without a picture of Chingis.