“No such thing as a Mongolian shortcut” – Doiggus Khan
In the morning we opt not to have a refreshing cow-dung swim, and roll out past stall after stall of picturesque peasants hawking big ugly smoked river fish, what species I’ll never know. We start asking locals if there is a shortcut from Orhon direct to Bayangol, to avoid a massive switchback up to Darkhan then straight back south again. People aren’t too enthusiastic about our plan; although, one fat man is very enthusiastic about some of the restaurants along the way, it seems, all he offers as directions is a straight line from his house to UlaanBaatar, drawn onto our topographical map in pen and crossing all manner of impossible country.
We stop for sugary drink and strange “strawberry” yoghurt snacks at a grocery store in Khotol. I squeeze my plastic cup too hard, and the frozen yoghurt lands in the dust. The kid who sold it takes pity on me, and gives me a second one. I do the same thing, then kick it into the wall in rage. Tama gives me his treat. The kid takes out a mobile phone and covertly take photos of the strange beastly hairy sunburnt yuppy peasant who can’t handle his yoghurt.
So after our third or fourth set of conflicting directions (and many sets of shaking heads and crossed hands – “don’t go”) we turn right just after HO7MOH, or Nomgon, and blaze a trail through the paddocks, hoping to connect with the path running next to the train line taking coal from some mine off to Erdenet. Only, there isn’t any path. So we decide to ride along the train tracks for a while – a train has just gone past, not fast, the next one must be hours away.
Or, it turns out, three minutes away. It’s a real Stand By Me moment – I’m singing “Stand By Me” at the top of my lungs at the time – when the big dirty slow coal train comes around the corner and bears down on us, but so slowly that I have time to get my bike off the tracks, get out the flipcam, consider climbing back onto the tracks and simulating a mad scramble to safety to spice up the blog, decide against that, just shoot the train rolling by.
Then we continue along the tracks, except really it’s bumpy and lumpy and overgrown and hellish, so we cut back through the paddocks, sweat our way into some out-of-place sand dunes, stop for lunch under some out-of-place sand dune pines, have a nice sweaty afternoon nap on the tarp, then finally, finally roll into I think it’s called Sahir or Sahig, where there are all these metrosexual UB teenage boys swimming in the river in their fake Calvin Klein underpants, yelling greetings at us in English, trying to get us to come swimming. (Which we don’t.)
And the road out of town heads due north, which totally defeats the purpose of our Mongolian shortcut, but luckily this lovely double couple in an SUV take pity on us and act as our support party, leading us a few k’s down this lumpy bumpy road to the “shortcut” direct to Bayangol. Which is stunning, but hellishly steep, but stunning, but hellishly steep. When some ger dogs bark at us from a few hundred metres away, my overtired brain imagines these ultraviolent scenes in which the dogs get close and I jump off my bike and grab the fuel bottle and smash and smash it into their canine skulls until they come apart like butter, at which point my immense feeling of satisfaction is replaced by immense guilt, so I leave a 10,000 tugrug note sticking out of the dogs’ collapsed skulls, and ride on.
Some tortuous hours later we see the main road, paved and all. And what’s more triumphant, there’s a big beautiful guesthouse on the horizon … we head for it at full speed. And it’s closed. For years, it looks like. Boarded up, no sign of life … except this shadowy flicker of movement behind a broken window. I call out for “Uus” (water), and this hand reaches through a gap in the window like the Once-ler in Dr Seuss’ The Lorax, takes our empty uus bottles, fills them up without a word. I leave a packet of Marlboros and we roll on down this serene paved downhill in the late afternoon sun, cursing the sun. We’re not going to make it to Bayangol, so we drop off the road and make camp in a marmot-hole infested paddock. I collapse, Tama makes instant noodles and fishy rice for dinner. It starts raining. We light a bunch of Marlboros like foul incense sticks to keep the mosquitoes away, and fall asleep in light rain and a hot tent.