(In Hatgal I finally managed to wash some clothes. This minus a pair of running shorts and a T-shirt has been my wardrobe for the past two months. Everything subsequently froze)
I sat in Hatgal, in my tent, snow falling outside, contemplating my next move… It was simple, ride 100km to Moron and from there 300km to Bulgan, sell the bike, find a way of getting back to UB and head to the Gobi desert for my last few days.
But I couldn’t help a little niggle at the back of my mind; Moron to Bulgan is another 300km of open steppe, a scenery that I have grown to love and really respect, but also one that, as much as I hate to admit it, can become a little monotonous as you tick the kilometres off. Particularly whilst riding on a paved road (which it is all the way to Bulgan). The scenery changes very little, you might not see a living creature for 50km, sometimes more, your lost in your own thoughts and forced to keep yourself company.
This solitude and isolation can begin to play on your mind; it starts to get very lonely! In places it’s so bleak that a bird in the sky, or distant herd of goats add welcome variety, and in a strange way companionship.. I couldn’t help but think that the 4 days I would spend riding to Bulgan I could spend more productively somewhere else, on some other form of transport, one capable of covering the vast distances much quicker than I can on the bike. It would give me an opportunity to see more of this incredible country.
(The beautiful, but bleak landscape I had become so accustomed to)
But I’m not one to give in or give up, and I didn’t want to stray from the plan I had made. Making targets and giving myself no option but to achieve them is what has kept me going in the moments I was finding things hard, and as of yet I had achieved every target I had set myself, I didn’t want to change that now. I really didn’t know what to do.
Finally I decided to ride the 100km to Moron, I was confident I could do it in a day, and see how I felt at the end. I would use that to make up my mind, and for the first 80km of that day I was going to be continuing to Bulgan.
(Psyched for the big drop down into Moron)
But then the road changed, the last 20km to Moron drops down from the mountains into the valley. Some 1000m of vertical descent over the 20km, the majority of which falls away fast at the very top. This was a decent I had been looking forward to for weeks, it was getting late and I had promised myself a proper bed for the night as well as a proper meal, and that in itself was very appealing. I couldn’t wait to cruse down the switchback mountain road, wind in my hair, enjoying the ride to the promised home comforts. I stopped at the top and ate my last snickers, drank some water and started to descend.
Picking up speed fast over the steep top section I pulled my front brake to keep everything under control… and POP… The brake lever was firmly against my grip, and I was still accelerating… I pulled the back brake… POP… same story…. It took me a minute to register what was happening then it hit me…
‘OH SH*T’ was the first thing that sprung to mind, and the second was to shout “MY BRAKES HAVE FAILED”. Still picking up speed I realised I had to think of something fast, I rammed my foot between the fork and the tyre, and in a cloud of white smoke and burning rubber (I thought you could only get that doghnuting cars, but apparently not), I began to slow down.
I finally came to a standstill and assessed the damage, the pistons had popped of the springs in the brake calliper so when the cable pulled nothing happened, and the pistons were in a sealed housing so virtually impossible to get to. In short they were broken beyond point of repair on the side of the mountain.
I walked the bike for the top steepest 5km, and then would get on and coast down the hill, picking my places to do so carefully where I could see there was a rise further down the road I could use to slow me down. The combined weight of myself and all my kit on the bike meant I would accelerate fast, and I just had to ride it out until I slowed on the slight inclines. Either side of the road was a gravel siding, and 10 metres or so in the gravel would slow me down a lot.
Eventually I pulled into Moron, found somewhere to stay and spent a little while sat enjoying the fact I made it without falling off the bike and skinning myself on the tarmac, I was actually quite shaken by the descent it was pretty full on.
My mind was made up, Bulgan was a town too far, pushing on would be pointless and within an hour I had found someone willing to buy the bike.
(The smile didn't leave his face for two days)
Everything had come together and I realised that my cycling was over. I couldn’t really work out what was in my head, I was sad to see the end of the bike trip; it had been the most incredible experience. I have truly learnt things, seen things and done things that will stay with me and I think shape me for the rest of my life. Cycling in this land had put so many things into prospective, and made me really think about life and how I want to live it. Bringing this to a close was certainly difficult, but at the same time there was a sense of relief. It had been a tough few months in a lot of ways and drawing a line beneath this let me relax a little.
But then I saw my bike coming up the road, 3 kids on the bike, 2 in the trailer, all wearing a grin from ear to ear. With each pedal stroke the rider had to let the pedal make the bottom third or so of each stroke on its own because his legs weren’t quite long enough to follow it all the way round, even with the seat as low as it would go. I knew at that moment I had made the right decision.
(For sure a highlight of camping has been the incredible star displays each night)
I began to make inquiries into how to spend my last few days, and through a newly acquainted friend Sandag, was put in touch with a Nomadic family in the west. To meet with them I needed to go to Ullistai, only 300km south west of where I was, but with Mongolia being Mongolia the only way to get there was to get a 16 hour bus to UB and then a 23 hour bus from there to Ullistai. A journey with a total distance of some 2000km… Much of which was on dirt roads.
Mongolian busses are an adventure in their own; firstly there is the challenge of getting a ticket. Pointing at a collection of Cyrillic letters that I really hoped were indeed for my intended destination I managed to explain with hand gestures that I was after a single ticket for the following day.
Then you have the busses themselves, rusty old looking things that squeak at every bump (continuous doesn’t even cover the frequency of these on dirt roads).
(this was by a very long way the most luxurious bus I took, the others were considerably older. Photo taken during one of the breakdown stops)
From what I could gather the busses were imported second hand from China or most likely Japan. It’s hard to date them but I would say they were built some time in the nineties, and have had a pretty tough life. The interiors are simple, but all had some kind of TV screen hanging from the roof that played a continuous loop of Mongolian music videos. Every bus was rammed full, every seat filled, and a pretty special atmosphere. The length of the journey meant all the locals would greet each other and make friends. The whole trip was accompanied with the sound of people singing along to the videos on the TV.
Break downs are common, and on two of my three bus journeys we have broken down. The first time was something to do with the electrics and the second time was that the suspension broke. Fortunately the drivers (there are always two) double as mechanics and both times we were back on the road within 30 mins. It seems that no matter how serious the problem these guys can get it sorted with ease and minimal tools.
(the internal view of the bus above, note the tv at the front)
It was interesting seeing peoples reaction to me on the busses, on each journey I had a continual rotation of people in the seat next to me, at one point a mother and very cute and playful baby, and at another a very drunk man. The person who stayed the longest was a middle aged woman who fell asleep, her head landing on my shoulder where it stayed for over 8 hours, me needing a wee more and more but not having the heart to wake her up at any of the frequent wee stops.
Briefly stopping in UB I continued on to Ullistai where I spent time living with a lovely local family. It was fascinating to see more of the’ true’ Mongolian life that I had experienced whilst riding but never stayed in one place long enough to really understand. It was grat to get an insight into such a considered and thught out, yet simple and relaxed way of life. I’m going to hold you in suspense for the details of such a life for my next blog.
(Enjoying the view from the top of the mountain. The pole next to me is an Ovoo, a Buddhist/ Shaman shrine with the blue cloth representing the sky gods)
In the mean time, I am still here having the time of my life. Loving the experiences, the people and the stories. But at the same time I’m looking forward to returning to the UK, and a good cup of tea!!
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