The morning starts “early” (7am), with breakfast toast that the well-meaning, long-suffering LG Guesthouse girl prepared for us the night before, and left in a plastic bag outside our door. While Tama does some IT work on his iPhone, I re-heat the toast over a gas burner in the communal kitchen, trying not to burn it too much, or putting extra chocolate spread on over the burnt bits and giving them to Tama.
On the grind out of UB, Tama is tired, grumpy, ill – probably just underslept, although possibly suffering from chocolate spread and charcoal poisoning. The traffic is hell – but it always seems to be hell in UlaanBaatar, they have a million or so people living there and only four roads into / out of the city (one to each major compass point), not nearly enough. We bustle past potholes and smoke-spewing buses for half a stressful hour until we make the turn-off for Gachuurt. As well as a “shortcut” to Terelj, Gachuurt’s valley is where the money’d set of UB build their holiday houses – no humble gers here. Plenty of outrageous ostentatious three-storey McMansions though, which must be a dream to heat on a minus-35-degree winter’s night. There is also a cemetery on the hill, which glints like a massive smashed chandelier dropped from Jupiter.
We struggle up another on of those slow, steady uphill valleys, past holidaying city folk until we’re in a fairly bleak, thoroughly deforested Cormac McCarthy landscape – No Country for Fat Men. Huff and puff our way to the pass, not bothering to film too much, and after a few minutes of just straight-up pushing our bikes up this unrideable hill, it all opens up, it’s all verdant conifers and enthusiastically yellow wildflowers, haughty eagles, no humans – we could be back in Hosvgol. And after some salami cheese sandwiches, everything seems manageable again. Have great times filming close-up reaction shots of us pretending to ride, pretending to see haughty eagles, pretending to outrun lightning storms etc. We roll down and up through the piney ridges, after a while the road splits – we opt for the high road. The hillside is really steep, the low road further and further below, the path on this tricky diagonal slant, I’m struggling not to lurch towards the low road when a horse whinnies at me. I look around, look up, and fall off my bike. The hill – it drops down and out like a curved ski ramp to the burning blue sky, and all these horses are standing sideways, upside down, on the bottom/top of this hill, eating the clouds … it’s impossible.
A few hundred metres on, Terelj and its tourist ger camps pulls into view. And just before Terelj, behind a ridge, there is a whopping scar of rubbish, dumped for a couple of hundred metres up this “pristine” valley in Mongolia’s most central National Park, just out of sight of the tourists. Charming.
We hurry past this marvel, Tama snapping away, and when we get to the river, it’s gorgeousness is complemented by piles of rubbish (mainly vodka bottles and plastic bags) under every third tree, while quaint Range Rovers smash through the river and churn up mud on its banks thrashing their way out. This sweet, spaced-out young French dude walks up to us, chunks of sunburnt flesh peeling off his nose and shoulders. He’s been wandering around in the Khan Khentii Strictly Protected Area north of here for five days, meeting not a soul, not even a smashed Chinggis bottle. He looks wistfully at our bikes. “This walking, it is so slow,” he says. “No shit,” we say, and cycle away from him at top speed, looking for somewhere to swim without wearing protective footwear.
We are on a mission to find Bert’s Cheese Yurt. Bert is a Dutchie who came to Terelj a decade ago, met a nice Mongolian maiden, and never left – now he makes cumin gouda in a tourist ger camp. The best answer to the question “Where my cheese at?”, then, is: “Gert’s House of Gouda Gers!” And thanks to the LP’s handy set of GPS co-ordinates (and Emlyn Hughes’ GPS unit), we find it pretty quickly. Gert is away in UB, his round-faced green-eyed son tells us in good English, but we can see Gert’s cheese through a window, so we stick around. The sun is out, the horses and children are frolicking, it almost feel like … we’re on holiday? Outrageous. Tama lounges out on the grass, and I head back into town to get some food and benzine for the coming days. This ends up taking ages – first I take a Mongolian shortcut and get stuck between about twenty little swampy delta branches of the Terelj Moron (river), and end up navigating back to Terelj by the sound of a PA system pumping out Mongolian disco for some gangster’s overpriced wedding. Once I’m there, there are no petrol stations (one woman encourages me to go “three kilometres” away, though she gives no idea of in what direction). I find a dude who says “no problem” when I ask about Benzine. It takes eight of his friends one relaxed hour to siphon a litre of cheap Russian 14-octane petrol from a car into our fuel bottle. During that time, I make seven new friends, let seven new friends have a ride on my bike, have a little ride on a big horse, meet my first Mongolian muslim (who DOESN’T drink Chinggis – incredible!), have my bike repeatedly “searched” by the other Mongols for terrorist bombs planted by my new Al-Queda friend, make lots of jokes about blowing up Americans, notice that the whole “terrorist” thing feels utterly irrelevant, relics from a bygone age, like jokes about communists, or catholics.
Back at Bert’s Cheese Palace, we eat and drink with some nice-to-boring Dutchies, tell a few stories of our travels, kind of realise how extreme some of the stories are with a mixture of shock and pride. Night falls, and fireworks from the wedding boom across the National Park, beautiful and discordant. Drinking Chinggis in our ger, there is a lull in the conversation, and Tama falls asleep sitting up in bed. He looks comfortable, so I brush my teeth and pass out.