(Me, Loving Life right now!)
Touring by bicycle is a truly incredible way to travel; it gives you the most amazing sense of freedom. It puts you right there on the ground vulnerable to the weather and whatever the road may throw at you… And it’s the raw-ness and vulnerability that makes it so great. It gives you a perch from which to see the real nuts and bolts of a place, see how things work, how people live and what makes them tick… This is a privileged insight that I believe would be much harder to attain whilst travelling on other forms of transport, and because of this I can only sing praises for touring by bicycle!!
I’m in a small town called Khotont, about 170km south of the Russian border and on the southernmost tip of the infamous Khovsgul Lake, the second largest lake in Mongolia that is estimated to hold between 1% and 2% of the world’s fresh water Its currently still semi frozen. I have hit and surpassed the 1000km mark on the bike and it’s been one hell of a trip to get here!
Since leaving Karkhorin (my last blog post), I rode 130km west to a city named Tsetserleg, the road was paved but I started to climb into the mountains meaning the scenery began to change. The rolling steppe gradually evolved into steep, loose rocky mountains and the temperatures began to drop. Being in the mountains also meant that there were a lot more rivers around, you could almost visibly see the land surrounding me get greener and greener as the KM ticked by. The road to Tsetserleg rises steeply to a peak from which you can see the city sprawled before you, you then drop down into the city along a KM or two of gentle descent.
(The City of Tsetserleg)
Tsetserleg is a province capital nestled between rocky mountains and is labelled as a city, but infact it is more like a small town. With a population of only around 22,000, which for Mongolia is huge, although really it’s not so big. Everything revolves around a small market in the centre, where you can find stalls selling pretty much all the essentials. There are restaurants, a college and a number of other services around. The locals generally live in Ger’s, spread around the centre.
(Horse Meat for sale in the market, Tsetserleg)
By the time I arrived in Tsetserleg the bike was not in a good way, I had hugely underestimated the importance of spreading weight around the bike evenly, meaning that my luggage was spread between my trailer and my rear panniers, but all going through the back wheel. Putting it under a huge amount of strain, that it was struggling to deal with. The poor distribution of weight also meant that the bike was pretty unstable and hard to control, particularly going down… Fortunately the road from UlaanBaatar (UB) thus far had been pretty much constantly uphill.
I was lucky to come across the Fairfield Guest house, run by Australian Murray and his family who helped me enormously by lending me a front pannier rack and set of rear pannier bags to distribute the weight more evenly, which has made a huge difference to the handling of the bike.
(Spreading the weight is key to bike stability, Here you can see my new set up)
From Tsetserleg I headed again west to a town called Tairat and the white lake. The road is mostly paved, although you cross 3 mountain passes en route that are left as dirt road to make sure that vehicles can get grip during periods of snow. This section of road remains pretty consistently uphill, although the ‘hills’ are considerably steeper. I also hit some pretty rough weather, a day of 50km/h headwind made moving forward very hard… And keeping the tent up even harder, but fortunately I managed to find an old animal enclosure that I could hide the tent in for the night. I actually got a pretty good night sleep.
(This abandoned animal shelter provided a great wind block)
I woke up the next morning to driving rain, which as I got higher over the next two days gradually turned to sleet and then snow. Again this made riding hard, but what I hadn’t realised is that the snow would turn out to have much more serious consequences over the next few days.
Upon arrival in Tairat it felt like I had reached the end of the world. It’s a small town, maybe only 4 or 5 thousand people, there is a semi constructed ‘high street’ that consists of a couple of small restaurants, a few shops and that’s about it. There is no ATM or Internet connection to mention and even electricity proved pretty hard to come by. It really felt a little like stepping back in time, and reminded me greatly of towns you would see on the sets of cowboy films.
(A view of the white lake, 10km west of Tairat. In the foreground you can see the tepee, this is a shaman shrine and they are common place on most Mongolian hill tops. Often decorated with blue and yellow silks and filled with offerings)
What I hadn’t realised was that the snow from the previous days would infact bar my way, the 120km track crossing the +3000m mountain pass would be impossible. Even the serious off-road 4x4’s were not up for making the trip, so I found myself stranded in Tairat. I had 3 options.
- The first was to try to hitch a lift with a lorry back to UB, to then hitch from there along the upper road to Moron, although that was an option that I really didn’t like the idea of.
- Option two was to try and get a lift on a lorry heading west, to travel 200km to a cross road where I could then try to catch a second ride back east about 200km to Moron. I heard varying reports of road conditions on this route, certainly only the first 100 was paved and I was told few vehicles travelled the route heading back east. I spent a day by the side of the road trying to get a lift but in more than 8 hours only 5 lorries passed me, 4 of which were oil tankers carrying fuel that I couldn’t get the bike on and the final one was so full of supplies that I couldn’t get the bike in there either… So that option was also a no-go.
- The third option was to try and get a lift with a local van about 200km around the mountain range to a town called Jarglant, on the dirt road… Thankfully I managed to come across a lift and made the trip in only a few hours. The rickety van somehow made the very rough trip without too much problem, definitely not helped by the copious amounts of beer the driver drank throughout the journey.
(The bike loaded up for the bumpy 200km trip to Jarglant, the trailer was on the back seats)
From Jarglant it’s around 200km off-road to Moron, still in the mountains and through some pretty steep and tough terrain. Its definitely the hardest riding that I have come across so far and without the road navigation was also much more important. There are 3 major mountain ridges to pass over, the largest of which saw me pushing the bike uphill for 7 hours, in which time I covered only 12 km. Thankfully the simple law of what goes up must come down came into play and I greatly enjoyed weaving down the peaty hillside.
(View from my camping spot in Jarglant. The mountains in the distance were the ones that I would cross over the next few days)
The following day for the first time I ran out of water, and for 6 thirsty hours I was panicking… Although luckily before too long I came across a nomadic Ger who filled my bottles for me with a smile.
At the top of the third mountain ridge the altitude is around 2500M, and from here there is a solid 30km descent dropping down to Moron (1250M) in the valley below. The top section was very rocky, and saw me break 2 more spokes on the rear wheel… But the rocks soon gave way to flowing, fast grassy tracks that allowed me to enjoy (although gingerly due to the back wheel) a great descent. The final 5 km or so are very sandy, but compact so still fast and around 8pm, hungry and totally exhausted I pulled into Moron.
(Out of granny gear for the first time in 3 days!!)
I really don’t like Coke, but the first thing I did in Moron was buy a 2 litre bottle (for the equivalent of about 90 pence), and drank it on the spot… which made me feel much better!!
I spent a day resting in Moron, and enjoyed losing myself in the huge market. It’s much bigger than the one in Tsetserleg and you could buy pretty much anything… Including boiled goat head, which is supposedly quite a delicacy in these parts, I will take the Mongols word for it! You can also find lots of street food stalls selling Hoshuur and Buuz, a tasty either fried or steamed dumpling filled with meat (I have given up trying to work out from what animal) and if your lucky some onion too. I really think that there is a potentially very lucrative market for these simple treats as an alternative to a kebab on a big night out.
(Boiled Goat head, all intact)
From Moron I headed north, again uphill toward Khotont. I was hoping to make the 100km in a day, but hadn’t accounted for the initial 30km of solid uphill that saw me rise around 1000 vertical metres. This was to be my lowest day so far, and for the first time I was really questioning what I was doing out here. I felt really lonely and dreamt of being back at home, surrounded by the people I love. I learnt a lot about myself that day and about how to deal with myself and keep moving at such a low point.
At 65 km, after 10 hours on the bike and totally exhausted I set up my tent in a semi built log cabin, ate a quick meal of pasta and fell straight asleep. 3 hours later I woke up, my tent buried in about 2 foot of drifting snow. For the rest of the night I had to periodically dig the walls of the tent out to stop the snow from collapsing it, and when the sun rose the blizzard continued as strong as ever. Realising that riding was going to be impossible I made myself some millet (My standard breakfast, with at least 5 spoons of sugar, although I dream of porridge) and a coffee whilst weighing up the options, lying warm inside my sleeping bag unaware of the fact the weather had deteriorated further outside. I was preparing to spent the next few days holed up, which would have been fine except that apart from the millet I had run out of food, Fortunately this wasn’t necessary as once again I was saved by the wonderful nomads.
Because of the driving snow visibility was less than 10 metres, out of the wall of white appeared a man, who ushered for me to follow him. Leaving my tent and all my gear where it was I did follow him, and for about an hour (it felt like 10). We battled through the snow, eventually turning up at a ger, the mans family home.
(Me and my two new friends)
Without realising I found myself in a small town, maybe you would call it a hamlet, so small it wasn’t marked on my map. The family consisted of Mother, Father and two wonderful small girls, 10 and 13. I was hosted for 2 days with the family whilst waiting for the weather to improve and was welcomed with open arms. I spent the time viewing daily life, and where I could helping out. I showed the girls how to make toast; something I don’t think they had come across before and they thought it was the best thing in the world!
(Two Loving sisters)
What’s sad is that the closer I get to the Russian Border the more and more I see the effects of vodka, and vodka was a big part of daily life for the parents of this family. Now maybe Its because it was the weekend, or maybe its because the snow had brought things to a stand still but both days I stayed the parents by early afternoon were drunk to a point of incapability to do anything, leaving the running of the home to the two girls. It was saddening to see such a burden put on the girls shoulders and I really wished I could find some way of helping the situation. The fact of the matter is I think this is a part of daily life here, and a problem that I know many people are trying to find ways to assist, but I fear the imminent future is bleak.
(Its an extremely sad reality the affects of Alcohol here, this was part way through the second bottle of the day)
The second evening I stayed, with both parents passed out and snoring loudly I felt something move beside me whilst I was drifting off to sleep. I rolled over to find the youngest daughter lying next to me. She gave me a big hug and fell straight asleep on my chest… a moment I found very moving and that will stay with me forever.
The next morning I left early and walked back to the bike, I rode the remaining 45km or so through the snow to arrive in Khotont. From here I have restocked with supplies and plan to head on up the west shore of the lake. Its incredibly beautiful, and much more forested. I’m keeping my plans very fluid, and am not really sure where I’m going to head after returning from my trip around the lake, I will just see what happens.
I have made contact with 2 French cyclists heading the same direction as me, they are a couple of days behind me but I’m hoping to connect up with them and we will see what happens from there.
(Giving my legs a quick rest before pushing on up the next hill, this was taken about 40km east of Tairat)
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