Our Rest Day …

… begins at the Crack of 8am, when industrial jackhammers open up on the construction site located conveniently next to our window. I throw my shoes at the workers to shut them up, but they just throw them back, so I go back to not-quite-sleep. My whole body throbs, slowly but steadily, with exhaustion.

A leisurely café breakfast of eggs and “bread” and about four grams of almost-sausage is followed immediately by a big dirty meatlovers pizza down the road. Tama has found a swimming pool and sauna in the guidebook, located in this great commie slab of a “Sports Palace”, with some great old musty sports trophies and horse-wrestling carpet frescoes, so we flag the swimming and proceed directly to the sitting around sweating bit. We have the place to ourselves, but resist the urge to go commando. It’s good to sweat without exercising for a change, and great to stretch those poor old suffering leg muscles out.

After a bit of an afternoon nap / collapse, we itinerise the remainder of the trip – coming up with a punishing schedule of 12 consecutive days riding, no rest days, and at least two nights camping out somewhere trackless and wild as we try to bush-bush 30-odd k’s into and out of Terelj National Park without cutting south through Ulaan Baatar. If everything goes to plan – Mongolian shortcuts included – we will make it to the east Mörön (near Ondorkhaan) by the night of 3 August, and make our connecting flight out of the country a couple of days later. Rugged. Daunting. Not. Fun. After a prolonged blogging session in Internerenet, PCs frustrating in their sluggishness, we walk slowly back to our twin room. And as we fall towards sleep, Tama says: “There’s no real reason why we can’t go through Ulaan Baatar. I know we said we weren’t going to, but … sheeeeit …”

So we decide it’s not cheating to go through UB – and even have a rest day! It’s not quite as wild, but it’s still bloody Mongolia, and it’s still Mörön to Mörön.

Right?

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Day Sixteen – Selenge to Erdenet, via Hell

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.


Selenge.

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.


Horrified.

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.

Posted in Amazing Landscapes, Bulgan, Dirty Scamming Beasts, Dusty Badness, Holy Fucking What?, Stupid Tourists, Travel | 6 Comments

Day Fifteen – we ride a long way on our bicycles, again

We ride down to a bridge, perhaps 15ks, and the bridge isn’t there. It was washed away some time after our 2003 map was printed. Meet some Russian 4-wheel-drivers, who suggest we follow them 20ks over a pass to where the moron branches out into three, and might be crossable. Thankfully, before this we find a little Waterworld-style pontoon in the middle of nowhere, where three dudes are herding goats up onto the rusting metal hulk. (One goat panicked in the water and drowned.) Now, this pontoon is in the middle of fucking NOWHERE, and this guy could charge rich desperate hurrying tourists like us practically anything he liked – we wouldn’t question it. But Mongolia hasn’t had enough rich desperate hurrying tourists through yet to adjust to a two-tiered economy, so the ride costs all of 70 US cents. Awesome.

A couple of valleys over, Tama stops. “Hey … this is grass.” I stop and look, and sniff. He’s right. We are surrounded by a couple of acres of wild ganga, only three or four feet high and not really budding yet – but still, good for frolicking in. There is so much of it, you can literally pick tips from the roadside without even slowing down your bike.

Late in the day, we finish our cheap melted fake swiss chocolate (Alpen Gold my arse), and rock a 300-metre hill climb that nearly kills us. But, we make it, and on the other side there’s this magic dreamy downhill in the fading light that almost makes all the pain worth it. Actually, it totally makes the pain worth it. Actually, fuck that, the pain is fine, is good, is part of why we’re doing this, is a challenge and a release and a way to really feel, to really be fully alive!

I get a puncture. Tama fixes it. We make camp in the dark, hoping we’re near the Selenge River, and one day closer to Erdenet, massages, burgers and internet.

Posted in Amazing Landscapes, Cycling, Feats of Stength, Holy Fucking What?, Unnecessary Feats of Stength | 1 Comment

Day Fourteen – midsummer hailstone flashflood

After our third Naadam, this time in Khutag Ondor (get in, get mutton pancakes, get out), we head east and slightly north, aiming for the Eegin Gol – the river that thwarted us back in Snag-gulp Eewr.

South of the Khosvgol mountains, it is stinking hot, dust sticks to your sweat and stays, and it’s many many kilometres before a river that can wash it away. The food fantasies have begun in earnest – burgers with fresh crispy lettuce and juicy tomatoes, relish, mayonnaise, potato salad, mangoes, wild strawberries goddamnit, cucumber raita … fresh things, please god … to deal with the heat, we rest in the shade for a couple of one-hour blocks, on the rare occasions there are enough trees to make this possible. After canned Russian mackerel and cold huushur for lunch, I doze under a pine tree, and when I wake up, a few hundred goats bleat over the pass.

A few ks down the road, we’ve taken a turn down into the valley and are far from the high road we should be on, when, the big dark Mongolian storm clouds pile into the sky. We consider hiding out under the tarp in a ditch to avoid the lightning, but decide to head back to this obscure agricultural construction site just as the rain gets really heavy, and a few minutes later there are hailstones as big as grapes coming out of the once-baking sky.

Three Mongolian labourers and their stolid cooking wench welcome us into their trailer, and without blinking we are served bowls of steaming something meaty soup, with balls of stale delicious deep-fried dipping dough.

We hang out, show them our topographical maps, make awkward phrasebook small talk, when around the corner of the trailer a cement mixer starts tipping all this silver … cement? A what the hell?

Tama races outside with his SLR, I race outside with the flip, and there is, man it’s a flashflood of hailstones and water, smashing down the drainage ditch and overflowing in crazy waves of ice, like a glacier on fast-forward. The track we’d been on thirty minutes earlier is under a foot or two of water, and all manner of crazy flotsam is washing past … if we’d been hiding from the lightning in that ditch, well.

One of the most incredible things I’ve ever witnessed, especially a couple of hours later when the hailstones suddenly started melting sending a mad mist and waves of cold air out over the ruined wheat-fields …

That night we stay in the trailer with the construction peasants, drink Chinggis, learn three or four words of Mongolian (Ot – star; Naraa or Saraa – moon), and cuddle up in a row in the trailer like peas in a pod in a NZ tramping hut, feet sticking out of the bed.


The next morning.

Sheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeit.

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Day Thirteen – Tarialan, etc

gosh it’s all a bit of a blur, and this shonky erdenet Cafe in Internet is going to close in 40 minutes … what to say, what to say …


Tarialan main street.

At the top of a gruelling pass I’m trailing and up ahead Tama is accosted by screaming children – at first I think it’s some kind of Tour de France-style victory party, or drunk festive locals determined to reward reward his feats of athleticism with beer and Chinggis, but of course it’s not that, of course it’s these grubby orhpan gypsy children trying to sell him jars of hand-picked wild strawberries. But, Tama doesn’t want a bar of it, it’s anybody’s guess when those hands last saw soap. We bike onwards, leaving the dusty steppe behind, and while we’re parked up having our sixth litre of water for the day this wobbly motorbike nearly skittles us, the driver falls off his bike a couple of metres ahead of us and reels up, yelling, waving his fist, demanding we … pick up his bike? Tama picks up his bike, suddenly we are best friends, the drunken peasant shakes hands, high-fives, hugs, nuzzles Tama’s neck, demands vodka, we give him cigarettes, this kind of works, he turns around and pisses all over his bike and hand, turns back and shakes my hand again, he sits by the side of the road, trying to get us to stay with him at his ger, we politely decline the invitation, Tama restrains him from throwing rocks at passing motorbikes, he hugs Tama some more and nuzzles into his neck, and elderly couple pull over in their van and tell him off, he wobbles off and we wonder how the hell to avoid him down the road, the motorbike weaves and topples over, we seize the chance and make a run for it before he can get up again, as we hoon down the hill little depraved gyspies run screaming from the gullies blocking the road and brandishing shit-stained strawberries, we plough right through them and don’t look back.

Dinner is pleasant.

Posted in Amazing Landscapes, Cycling, Dirty Scamming Beasts, Drunk, Dusty Badness, Friendly Locals, Holy Fucking What?, Mongolia, Over Friendly Locals, Peasants, Rabid Dogs, Shonky, Stupid Tourists, Travel, Vodka | 2 Comments

Day Twelve – Erden Bulgan to yet another lush meadow

Awake in a sea of cold silvery mist, kind of in shock. Drag myself from the tent to take a photo of it, want to set up the time-lapse cam but fall back to sleep.

When I wake up again the sun is burning down, the mist seems like a dream. A horse appears on the horizon. Then another, then another. Then forty more. They all canter past our tent, perhaps 100 metres away, and from that distance we can tell that it’s all kids – all jockey kids, wearing bright-coloured jockey gear. Ten minutes later, there is a thundering horse race past our edge-of-the-world campsite.

And when we roll into Erden Bulgan, it’s Naadam. Again.

And as much as I’d like to wrestle seven-year-old peasants in my Lycra skeleton suit, we have 80 kms to bike today and it’s already almost 1pm, so instead we just wolf down four huushur each, load up on sultanas and chocolate bars, and head for the hills … the grocery store kid tells us the forest is full of wolves an bears, and two healthy hiking Frenchies confirm this (tho apparently the bears are quite small and the wolves rarely attack humans). Tama whoops with what I presume is exaltation as we ride up the valley, except he whoops quite regularly. Apparently this is how you scare away bears, which is preferable to the other option, scaring them away by cycling into them.


This guy was fixing his petrol tanker while smoking a cigarette. We didn’t stick around for long.

We huff and puff up a slow, steady, utterly demoralising valley that looks pretty much flat but in fact takes us up like 400 metres, and finish the day a couple of hours before sunset, in yet another stunning valley, making awkward small talk with this beautiful Mongolian girl on a hill, shyly flirting with the phrasebook until the sun goes down, she rides her horse back to her parents’ ger tent across the valley, me and Tama watch her leave before brushing our teeth, getting into our sleeping bags in my crowded little tent, doing our final goodnight farts, and passing out, ready for breakfast rice and another big day.

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Day Eleven – Tiger Mountain

Again with the mist in the morning, an unnatural silver glow and no sign of the meadow we passed out in. The eastern horizon looks like it’s glowing, like the ground is full of scenic uranium.

Doxycycline sickness on the river crossing, bloody pills, plus it makes me constipated, I better have had malaria after all that.

The road we have chosen to Erden Bulgan climbs around 600 metres, which may or may not sound like a lot – but when the first 300 vertical metres and 15 or 20 kms is in thick grassy muddy boggy hell with maybe 30kgs of baggage including all the water you need to drink to prevent death and with biting flies you can’t hit away without falling off your bike, believe me, it’s quite a heaving chest and frequently cursing time.

It’s four of five hours straight uphill, the only other humans we see are two dudes on an old Russian motorbike (plenty of them in Mongolia), who are very amused to see us panting in the afternoon shade wolfing down buttery fish sandwiches. (I bought quarter of a kilo of cheese the day before, pointing to “byaslag” in the phrasebook – but, I walked away with quarter of a kilo of butter.)

The downhill ride, miraculously, is neither muddy nor grassy – it is a sweet flowing dream of a downhill, smooth and fast as hell with all our gear.

The scenery is ridiculously great – we have to stop and frolic in the wild flowers for a few minutes – and then a thunderhead comes over the pass and bears down on us, lightning strikes somewhere CLOSE and LOUD, we freak out and hoof it best we can to avoid lightning fry, except I get a puncture, the storm hits, we shelter under Tama’s tarp and don’t get hit.

A couple of hours later we are in this huge deserted valley full of wheat and no people, no people anywhere, no noise, just flat endless empty fields and us, maybe, are we really here? Are we really here in yet another pink red yellow blue meadow, in Mongolia, in a tent, with craploads of camera gear?

Posted in Amazing Landscapes, Cycling, Holy Fucking What?, Mongolia, Stupid Tourists, Unnecessary Feats of Stength | Leave a comment

Day Ten – Chandman Ondor to god-knows-where and god-knows-how-to-pronounce-it

We leave Tsagaan Uur – which is pronounced, um … “sahur eewr”? – stocked up with chocolate bars and instant noodles and emergency meat, and plunge promptly into an impossibly dense forest. he sign on the edge of the forest, in Cyrillic but more importantly in danger red, should have warned us off our “shortcut”, but instead we made courageous jokes about unexploded Soviet ordnance and blundered manfully onwards, following tire tracks that, well, they just stopped. And it’s all good for a while just pushing our bikes through the lumpy trees, coming on and off the odd hoof-trail, but after half an hour we are well and truly bogged, literally in a bog, and the  prospect of turning back is just as ghastly the prospect of continuing, so we continue, until we are carrying our freakin wheels up and down these Fiordland-worthy trails, slamming into trees, not really riding much or navigating in any meaningful sense of the word.

We hit a stream, follow it for a while, ditch our bikes and walk ahead to see if it opens up. (It doesn’t.) Eventually we backtrack, find a shallow place to cross the stream, argue a bit about which way to go, end up heading north back to towards the main road, hit a big river, like, a really big river, like, we cross one of three branches and are standing there when a dashing horse-riding peasant rides up and goes to cross the second branch and turns back when the waer reaches his horse’s belly … and in the distance, a tractor tows a big grunty 4WD across the fast-enough flowing water.

There on the stones in the middle of a mighty mörön, we feel a bit stuck.

A few hours later, after some great gesticulating hand-arguments with some peasants on the riverbank, we pitch up in a deserted wild-flower meadow, miles from anywhere, and hopefully just a few miles from Tiger Mountain. We drink half a litre of Chinggis before bed and feel much more okay about things.

Posted in Amazing Landscapes, Cycling, Holy Fucking What?, Shonky, Stupid Tourists, Travel, Uncategorized, Unnecessary Feats of Stength, Vodka | 1 Comment

Day Nine – Khosvgl Nuur to Chandman Ondor

Awake 5am, surrounded by mist oozing off the lake. Too much to take in, go back to sleep.

Delightful scenic ride through wildflower meadows and jaunty pine forests.

Brief chat with German in SUV who tells us of a high road from Tsagaan Uur to Erden Bulgan, and warns us off riding through the “Tiger Forest” to the east on the way to Teshig, as we had been planning.

Camp by a river, get rained on for 10 hours, my sleeping bag is pressed up against the end of the tent, I wake up with slightly damp feet, go back to sleep, wake up with slightly damp calves, go back to sleep, repeat process until I am half-soaked and still half-asleep and just put on my Icebreaker rather than sorting it out properly. Wake up not particularly refreshed.

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Day Eight – Khatgal to Khosvgol Nuur

Swim in incredible clear freezing glorious lake, sleep in a paddock, have a nice time.

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