[Written 3 days ago but posted today, Thursday 28th, due to intermittent wifi].
(Me and the bike taken roadside on the third day).
As day 7 on the bike draws to a close I write this from the comfort of a warm Ger, with a hot stove and a sugary tea. I’m in a town called Karkhorin, (pronounced by locals Har-Horum). It’s a small town seemingly based around industry that has long since disappeared. On the surface it seems like any other small Mongolian town, but what I hadn’t realised is that at one point (in the12th century) Karkhorin was in fact the capital of the Mongol empire, an empire that spanned much of Asia, Russia and even as far west as Europe. I’m about 400km west of Ulaanbaatar, across the Mongol Els and getting toward the big mountains.
Cycling across Mongolia so far has not been how I expected at all, not that I really know what I was expecting. The cycling is hard, but I can rapidly feel myself getting fitter and even as the distances get longer and ascent gets steeper I’m managing without too much issue. The biggest problem I’m facing is the wind. Because of the vast expanses of steppe the winds can build up rapidly, and are consistently very strong, as is seemingly always the case whilst riding a bike they also constantly blow into my face.
(A night in the outhouse of an old hotel, I wrapped my sleeping bag in my tent flysheet to try and keep it as clean as possible).
The problem the wind brings is that it means that I cannot keep my tent up overnight; no matter how many stones I load onto the pegs or how big the wall I build around the edge. So I find myself each day searching for some kind of alternative shelter that I can lay down behind to get some sleep. The reality of this is that this is that I’m consistently managing to find shelter and that I’m sleeping well, however I’m finding mentally it difficult with the uncertainty about if and where I will be able to sleep and if the weather will hold out to allow me to sleep, Its quite a scary thought to each day push on into the unknown but I keep reminding myself that the same feeling comes each day, and each day I’m absolutely fine. I also find myself wishing I had brought a bivy bag.
(Sleeping under the stars next to a Buddhist monument).
What I have over the last few days come to realise though is that this uncertainty is actually a huge plus to my trip. It means that rather than hiding away in a tent alone, I am each day reaching out to the locals, meeting people, families, integrating into the communities and getting a true taste of this incredible country. I’m hugely fortunate that up to this point the people here have been hugely accommodating, and have welcomed me into their homes with open arms. I’m ensuring that this is not something that I rely on solely, but if offered I am thoroughly enjoying being given a glimpse into peoples lives one night at a time.
(Two Mongol boys I had the pleasure of spending the evening with comparing and fixing each others bikes).
I had heard before I set out of the nomadic culture of helping each other out in order to maintain ones self in this environment, but had not realised the extent to which the nomads take this hospitality. Its truly an amazing way of living, with such huge trust in one another… even total strangers, and has certainly taught me lessons that will stay with me for the rest of my life. I truly think that a lot can be said for trusting one another, and think that there is a huge amount that can be learnt from this culture.
The scenery has been much the same since Ulaanbaatar, large rolling dusty hills, with the odd section of sand dune here and there. It’s very arid and wild and really gives you a sense of being ‘out there’ and very remote. There is little in the way of greenery or grass and even less plants. I have probably seen less than 100 trees since arriving. The road so far has been reasonably good, asphalt all the way. There have been sections where it’s been very broken up but these last for a maximum of 15km and then you are back onto a good sealed tarmac once again. Water so far has been impossible to come by whilst on the road, so I have been ensuring to carry plenty to see me through no matter what happens. I have a 2 litre emergency bottle that has remained full since UB. On the nights I have slept wild I have tended to eat either pasta or noodles, both of which over here are super tasty… although I dread to think what’s actually in the flavouring packet of the noodles. During the daytime I’m finding it hard to stomach much ‘proper’ food, so find myself eating lots of snickers, sweets, nuts and raisins to keep myself energised.
Noodles seem also to be very popular with the locals, particularly the kids. One little boy springs to mind who found me slurping in noodles from the fork massively amusing, and even more so when he did it himself. And was completely over the moon when I gave him two packets.
(The boy to the far right was a particular fan of noodles, this family were hugely welcoming to me and really came to my rescue when I was in need).
The riding can at times be very lonely, particularly when you know you are 80km either way from the nearest town and that you haven’t seen a vehicle for the past 3 hours, but at these times I’m finding that before long I will always come across a herd of livestock with a friendly shepherd following behind on a motorbike or horse, or I will be able to see the distinct outline of a Ger off in the distance that reminds me that there are people around. Its also nice that up until this point the road has been fairly travelled, and although there can be quiet periods generally there is a vehicle (usually something like a coach that you are surprised has made it so far on such a rough surface), at least every few hours.
In Karkhorin (everyone seems to spell it differently, this spelling is off my map), I am staying in a tourist Ger camp with a lovely atmosphere. Its basically a collection of small 4 person Ger’s around a family’s main Ger, and as I’m the only person staying I have been fortunate enough to be welcomed into the family for meals and to drink tea. There are showers, a toilet, proper beds and even Wifi (although its pretty intermittent); I am quite enjoying the fact that these things at the moment all feel like luxury!! I have a very homely Ger all to myself with a stove that keeps me warm and requires tending to throughout the night. I have decided to stay here for a couple of days, have some time to rest and explore the town before heading out again on the next leg on Friday. There is also said to be a thunderstorm coming on Thursday so I’m sure I will be pleased with the shelter when that comes.
(A long anticipated sign letting me know I was on the right road and getting close).
It’s difficult to try and compress all that has happened into a short readable post, so there is much that I have had to miss out. But I have been careful to make sure I get as much as possible on film and in pictures, so more intimate and detailed stories will come in those formats in the future.
(One of many roadside shrines, they are believed to bring good luck and safe passage to drivers. From what I understand the blue flags also symbolise long life. (The direct translation of blue is old, referring to age and length of life)).
I’m absolutely loving life out here, it’s the most amazing country and no matter how difficult it feels at the time its so worth it. I would truly urge anyone who finds themselves in a position where they are able to do so, pick a road find a bike and go and ride it, you wont regret it!! I will update again as soon as I can.