(My first cup of tea when I arrived home, it has never tasted so good)
I arrived back in Buxton 2 am on a Thursday morning. I was knackered and pleased to be finally headed to my own bed. After an hour or so sleep I woke up really hot, I wasn’t used to sleeping inside, so opened the window and fell instantly back asleep. The following morning I awoke with the window open to a warm, damp British summer. Looking from the window out over the green hills of the peak district was like sensory overload!
Taking it back a week, from Moron where I left my bike I travelled some 2500km over around 45 hours on busses to the city of Ullistai, in the south west of Mongolia where I lived with a nomadic family. I was totally immersed in Mongolian life and really got a feel for things, the hardships faced, what makes people tick, where the food comes from, where people wash… everything. Its an experience that was very far from what I’m used to, but I realised that this type of immersion into different cultures is what I loved most about this trip, and with that in mind that experience deserves a blog of its own, so bear with me!
From Ullistai I headed back to UB where I had a day or two to spare before heading home. It was nice to be in the city and be able to relax, which I hadn’t done when I was initially there before starting to ride, and I spent my time wandering round the lesser seen areas enjoying the things that I came across. Ulaanbaatar is a totally unique city; a perfect compromise between traditional Mongolian culture and modern city life. Huge areas of the city are ‘Ger District’; very similar to the ones I had come across in the towns and cities in other parts of the country, but on a much larger scale. It struck me that even here, the capital, less than a mile from the city banks, high rise business towers and government buildings, people were living in tents, with no sanitation services and no access to running water. You have to travel to a pump station with your buckets.
At 5am, local time on Wednesday the 15th Jun, I set off via taxi to Mongolia’s only international airport. After a few tense moments in an interrogation room where they thought my tripod was a gun, I flew to Moscow. I had a 10-hour lay over in Moscow and then flew to Heathrow, landing just after 10pm local time. Although I had also lost 8 hours through time difference. It felt good to be back in England, and the fact I had a small welcome party at the airport gate made it even better. The drive home was all on dark motorways so I didn’t see anything from the window.
Which takes me back to waking up on Thursday morning and looking out of the window, I was and still am finding my self totally taken aback by the deep greens and vivid colours. We live in an incredibly beautiful country and it’s easy to take that for granted.
The other thing that strikes me is things, possessions… We all have so many things, do we really need them all? Do we really need that new scarf that matches the jacket, or a new phone or whatever it might be? The conclusion that I have come to is that in some instances we do, in the society that we live in realistically it is nice to have some luxuries, but we don’t ‘need’ them. And it’s important to remember that certain things are luxuries, and think ourselves lucky that we have access to them. We also need to be selective about our possessions and we need to think about where they are coming from. We also need to think about what the ramifications of our consumer society have else where in the world. It’s up to us to take responsibility!
Its great to be home, great to be back with my friends and family and doing the things I love at home, but there is certainly a part of me that wishes I was still out on the bike, in the middle of nowhere with the wind for company. I miss sleeping under the stars, battling for food and water and constantly moving on. Whilst I was out there I was living a very simple life, and coming back to the complexity that we are used to have their pros and cons, but a part of me longs for the simplicity.
My over-riding thoughts on Mongolia are that it’s an incredible country. It’s the most amazing place to travel, a beautiful landscape and I think a very up and coming country. We will for sure be hearing much more about Mongolia in the next few years, and I think that is a great thing. If anyone gets an opportunity get yourself out there, I guarantee you will not be disappointed!
(The cup doesn't lie, I love riding my bike even more than I did before now)
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(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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(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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