Crossed the border into Mongolia. There is a 2km no mans land between the China and Mongolia check posts. I was not allowed to cycle. I had to take a jeep which cost me $12. This is business. All the flaffing around meant I didn't get started until midday by which time there was an enormous head wind. I thought about sitting it out but I have 30 days on my visa and I plan to exit from the west of the country so no time to waste. I cycled for 5 gruelling hours and managed 46km. You do the math.
Super gruelling excellent day in the Gobi. Battered by the wind all day long. During the night it really picked up and my tent caved in. I just lay there squashed by my tent waiting for it to die down a little. When it finally relented I got up, sorted it out and went back to sleep. Slow progress. I cycled all day with the wind in my face and managed 90km. I just stuck the bike in a low gear and tried to enjoy where I was. The Gobi looked amazing in every direction. So different from the Chinese side. No wind turbines. No solar panels. No crappy industrial towns mining god knows what. Under a clear blue sky there was a glorious feeling of being out there in the middle of nowhere. I am having to conserve water. It is thirsty work slogging it out under the sun all day. I still have another 70km to go which will be tough if the wind keeps up. Saw a load of camels with 2 humps.
I feel like I've spent the last few days thinking about nothing but wind and water. I began to fantasise about taps today. I began to wonder how many taps there are in London. I reckon there are about 60 million. I kept thinking about that scene in the Shawshank Redemption when he burrows out of prison and comes out in the rain arms outstretched. Eventually made in to Sainshand tired and thirsty. A desert town. Like something out of mad max. Minus the thunderdome. Plus Wi-Fi. Had an ice cream, a sprite and then a lot of water.
Tonight I took a train to Ulaan Bataar. Shame (and a bit of a relief I must admit) not to finish what I started but with 400km to go to UB and more punishing headwinds forecast I face the prospect of spending half my 30 day visa dreaming of water in the desert. From UB I have a 2000km+ cross country ride across the steppe to the western border. It is the reason I came to Mongolia. I plan to explore which means dirt roads and getting lost so I will need all the time I can get. One nil to the Gobi. The train was an overnight old school rickety job that chugged along steadily whilst 2 student doctors taught me some Mongolian.
Slept surprisingly well to the gentle rocking of the train and woke up in Ulaan Bataar. A run down Soviet style city but with an awesome black market where I stocked up on some warm clothing and camping gas. No point hanging round I set off straight away. Could have done with an oxygen mask exiting the city but was soon out on the steppe and made good progress along the main road towards Lun.
Turned off the main road first thing this morning and now all is quiet. The traffic is gone. The road is still tarmac but not sure how long that will last. Spectacular views all day. The wide open spaces remind me of cycling in Patagonia. The landscape is dotted with gers (also known as yurts) in which the traditional Mongol family lives. A portable, round tent covered with skins or felt. Basic fare but don't think they are being wholly left behind by the modern age as I saw a few with solar panels, satellite dishes and jeeps parked outside. They probably have wifi. I didn't ask. By day they herd the animals around the plain. Some on horseback in traditional costume but most on motorbike smoking a cigarette.
Today the tarmac gave way to a dirt road. I now have a 100 km cross country ride to find the main road to Tsetserleg. Slow progress. My tyres aren't really suited to off roading and my back wheel was skidding about all over the place. I eventually made it to a big lake. I was very glad to see this lake. A few hours before, whilst attempting conversation with a local on horseback, he asked if he could have a swig of my water. He then proceeded to glug the whole thing leaving me a sip or two. To be fair he did then seem to point towards the lake and said something that might have been 'Thanks, you can get more that way'. The lake looked so inviting in the afternoon I couldn't resist a naked swim. Luckily my good friend Ray was not around to take a picture and post on social media.
Around the lake. Headed across a massive plain. Not a breath of wind. So quiet. Lots of wild horses, cows and sheep idling about. Found a little village and managed to stock up on noodles and biscuits. Tough going in the afternoon. Sandy sections going uphill had me off the bike and pushing. Downhill sections were mildly terrifying. Views always amazing. Lots of different dirt tracks to choose from. I would have got lost if it wasn't for my map app (maps.me). I guess I should be grateful but a part of me wants to get lost in Mongolia. I should bin my smart phone but I lack the courage.
Rejoined the main road this morning and plain sailing to Tsetserleg. Afternoon off. Hotel. Wifi. Laundry. Rest...
Ideal day on the Mongolian steppe. Clear blue sky. Tarmac. Slight tailwind. The road gently rose and then meandered through the mountains. Met up with a French cyclist, Anna, I had first met in UB and a Russian cyclist whose name I never did catch and we camped together by a stream in a peaceful valley.
Easy going in the morning before leaving the road at Tariat for another cross country section. Great views of Tsagaan Nuur (White Lake). Camped at the far end of the lake. I was joined by a local herdsman over dinner. We didn't have much to say. We just shared my biscuits and his vodka. Eventually he left with his cows and with a wave of his hand seemed to ask me to ensure his sheep came down off the mountain and down to the pasture. Happy to oblige I did some drunken twilight sheep herding. Not as easy as it looks. Made the cardinal sin of splitting the pack but eventually I had them all off the mountain and headed in the right direction. I went to sleep and in the morning they were nowhere to be seen.
Today I saw a volcano, had a bit of sun, rain, hail, then a bit more sun, pushed my bike over a rocky pass, waded across a few streams, met a German supermodel called Julia, had lunch by a lake, tootled down a valley, ate 5 packs of noodles, 2 packets of biscuits, 1 swiss roll, listened to an episode of bob dylan theme time radio hour (the theme was 'weddings'), camped by a river and slept for 10 hours.
Back onto the main road today. The plan was to bosh onto Tosenstengel for an early finish and some rest but the weather turned and I had a storm in my face. A headstorm. A dude on a motorbike took pity on me and guided me to his yurt to take shelter. Very cosy inside. I had lunch with the family. Mongolian cuisine is great. If you like meat and potatoes that is. Fortunately I like meat and potatoes. I wouldn't want to be a vegetarian in this country. I didn't like the horse milk though. Made me feel a little sick. I tried not to show it. Back on the road and it was a trudge into the wind and rain. 10km before Tosenstengel my legs popped on a small climb and turned to jelly. I crawled into town and holed out in a hotel.
Left town on a rough road. The rule seems to be the further west you go in Mongolia the worse the roads get. Today was a mixture of rocks, sand and washboard. Washboard is a series of hard ripples in the road that are the nemesis of all cyclists. A bone shattering experience. Tough going all day into an annoying headwind. Persevered and was rewarded with the best camping spot of the trip. Mongolia is wild camping heaven. Whenever you've had enough for the day you just pick your amazing camp spot.
A day to forget. A day to endure. The headwinds persisted. I often had sand whipped into my face. A lot of pushing and muttering under my breath.
One interesting thing happened. Whilst sat down having one of my 'why am I doing this' moments a kid on a horse came into a view at the brow of a hill casually herding his horses along the steppe. He suddenly picked up the pace and drove the horses full speed into a tarn. He then trotted into the water, drove them out, back up the hill and did the same thing again. He did it 3 times in all. I couldn't work out the reason. Maybe he was just having fun. It was quite spectacular watching the horses hit the water at full pelt.
Beautiful morning down the valley then turned off into the mountains. There are no roads as such in the mountains. Just a series of dirt tracks criss crossing the landscape. Some will take you where you want to go. Many won't. A map is little use. I soon lost my bearings altogether. I revelled in the romance of being lost in Mongolia for a couple of minutes. The novelty wore off and the reality was a little more alarming. There is no one around to ask. Cloudy day so I couldn't even get a vague idea from the sun. I could go round in circles for days. GPS is essential in Mongolia. It wouldn't show you on any road but at least you can work out in which direction you are heading and adjust your route accordingly. Slow going but I made progress towards Zuunkhangai where I should be able to get food and water.
A good day. Rare tailwind. Headed north through the mountains. The road was relatively smooth to ride on as long as I kept a close eye out for rocks as I sped along. Camped on top of a hill in the middle of a vast plane. Reckon I could see for 50km in every direction. Lost my lighter and couldn't light my stove. Bread and jam for dinner. I think it's the first day in a month I've not eaten noodles. I missed my noodles.
I did not see a single vehicle/motorbike on the road to Zuungovi. That's because the locals know better. One of the worst roads I have ridden and I have cycled in Kazakhstan. If it wasn't washboard it was rocks and if I wasn't rocks it was sand. Throw in a massive headwind and it was a lesson in misery. Getting off to push is an everyday occurence in Mongolia but today i had long stretches where i was dragging my bike through sand. Still I never thought it would be easy and probably wouldn't bother if I did. The good thing about days like this is they come to an end. I looked so dishevelled when I arrived in the dusty village of Zuungovi that an elderly woman beckoned me into her home and made me pancakes. I ended up sleeping in the yurt in her garden.
The road to Ullangom was sand so headed back into the mountains. Hopelessly lost once more. Only myself to blame. I just made a catalogue of bad decisions one after the other. Scenery always amazing and yet another picture postcard camp spot.
Wonderful early morning ride through the mountains. Stunning views of Khyargas Lake. Anxious not to get lost again but apart from a few minor diversions I stayed on the right track heading south west to Naranbulag. Spent the afternoon pushing my bike through sand. The less said about that the better. In order to keep my spirits up I strapped my Bluetooth speaker to my handlebars and listened to a series of The Fall albums on full volume.
More amazing scenery. More appalling roads. Descending in the sand was quite good fun. A bit like skiing. Swish swoosh. Just without any semblance of control. No idea which way your bike is going to kick. There's no point in sorting out the roads. There's no traffic. A passing vehicle is such an event you stop for a chat. I hear the Chinese are investing to tarmac the 'road' I'm currently on. They want to improve the trade route to Russia.
Great ride over the mountains and down into the valley where I saw something I had not seen in a week and a half. Tarmac. I was going to get on my knees and kiss the road but they were people there so I didn't. A blessed relief. Cruised into Khovd. Checked into a hotel and had my first shower in 9 days. Slept for 12 hours.
Rest days. On a rest day in the Tour de France the cyclists go for a ride to keep their legs warm. Good for them!
Back into the mountains. The tarmac leaving Khovd lasted 2km. The roads were back to the usual mixture of the good, the bad and the ugly. Steady climbing for most of the day. Cold night. Slept fully clothed. I am a long way north, at an altitude of around 2500m in mid September. It is to be expected. The water I left outside my tent overnight was a block of ice in the morning. Time to head south.
Hard going but a good day. I had to push my bike up and over a couple of rocky climbs and wade across a river. Stunning scenery as the road went up above 3000m for most of the day before a thrilling descent through a gorge. I did not see a soul all day. With the exception of Greenland, Mongolia is the least densely populated country in the world. Easy to believe having cycled across it. It's huge and there's no one here. I am in the remote corner of a remote country.
The day began by wading across an icy river. I had to jog on the spot for a few minutes afterwards to warm my feet up. The day was perfect from then on. Clear blue sky. Easy to navigate. Simply followed the river downstream. Gradually losing altitude all the way. No need to carry any water. Slight tailwind. Amazing mountain views on both sides of the valley. There was even something resembling a cycle lane. Not quite like the ones you get in Switzerland. The motorbikes have veered away from the bumpy road to form a single track to the side of the road. The vehicles leave this track alone and with only the weight of bikes to cope with the track has not been worn down to washboard. Making it smooth to ride. The track was very narrow, I had to concentrate to stay on it, but fun to cycle.
Day 38. Just when I thought I was going to get through Mongolia unscathed. Today the road turned nasty. Rocks and sand. The rocks were so bad I met the sand with some relief. The sand was then so bad I met the rocks with some relief. Then I cracked my pannier rack. I don't think there was one particular impact responsible. More the cumulative effect of the 1000 that went before. Straws and camels. The masking tape fix lasted 3 minutes and now the metal from the rack was threatening my spokes. I had to take it off. I strapped the front left pannier on top of my back rack and proceeded with a lopsided bike. Probably won't get a chance to fix it to Urumqi. I only managed 40km today. Didn't quite make it to the next village so holed out by the river. My neighbours for the evening invited me into their yurt for dinner and breakfast. A nice way to spend my last evening in Mongolia. I've got a lot of time for the Mongolian people. Clearly all hard as nails. That includes the women. They have been very helpful with directions even if they are capable of swinging their arms in 4 different directions at once. Also very liberal with the vodka. I have asked for directions at 10 in the morning and been offered a shot of vodka instead. When in Rome.
This morning it was out of the mountains and back on tarmac to the border. No problems getting back into China. All of a sudden I see things I have not seen in weeks. Traffic lights, road signs, factories, vegetables, wind turbines, fruit, taxis... All in all Mongolia has been quite an experience. Up there with the Pamir mountains of Tajikistan and the Andes of Peru as the best cycling I have done. Also the hardest. Maybe it's my age and it coming so early in my trip (fair to say I wasn't in tip top shape when I set off a month or so ago). Ewan McGregor said biking across Mongolia was the toughest thing he has done and he had an engine and a support team. The combination of bad/non existent roads, exposure to wind and navigational issues meant it was a constant challenge. A very memorable one though. It's a beautiful country largely untouched by what we call progress. My marathon schwalbe tyres were not ideal for the terrain especially in the west. The locals always shook their head with a smile when they saw what I was riding. This isn't F1 though. You can't change your tyres in 4.2 seconds every time the conditions change. Going to stick to tarmac for a few weeks.