In the morning, there is another pontoon, but this one is full of smiling Mongols, who I realise later are doing a bit of Mongolian-style Candid Camera, sans camera. A cheeky carnie dwarf tugs my arm, points to a chunky Mongol girl, winks, leers, implies that I can pay to sleep with her, yes, good! I laugh, shake my head, the dwarf keeps at it, I get the impression I am now married (sorry, Laura), but then as we approach the far shore, this swaggering burly Mongolian beast man appears, bellowing at me, shaking his fist, threatening to kill me when the pontoon arrives … the dwarf laughs, they all laugh, it cracks everyone up, they pay for our pontoon ride in return for making fun of us (35 US cents). Although we’ve been dying for a wash, we just bust out of there, before they give us a ride in their van to Erdenet, which would be great but also totally defeat the purpose of this trip.
High hopes for Selenge township – actually, just some fresh bread would be great, we’d been getting some great loaves up north – but Selenge township is a dusty hellhole with crap shops, and our breakfast consists of apple fanta, some peaches in a jar, some chewy doughnuts, paprika potato chips, fish in a can that just cannot be eaten with the only bread we found in Selenge, which is sweet and fake and full of raisins. Tama punts it into a cannabis field, I gorge on doughnuts, and we begin another hill climb that really is just unreasonably long. We eat the last Snickers bar on the top of the pass, and prepare for an easy 15k downhill into Erdenet.
Except, there is now a vast artificial lake where the path once went. Possibly, probably some kind of processing run-off from the Erdenet copper mine, which consumes half of Mongolia’s electricity and generates 40% of Mongolia’s income and is a nightmarish industrial disaster, a thing of terrible, terrible beauty gouged into the lush hills of what once was Bulgan.
On the outskirts of the town, riding past marching soldiers and grim ex-gulags, the lightning starts. Tama gets a puncture. We shelter in the foyer of the Erdenet carpet factory.
And sleep on nice lumpy Soviet beds, full of meat and potatoes and vodka.