Thursday, 16 October 2014

end of the road

Riding to Karakhorin we have a good tailwind to keep us motoring along.  In fact we've had pretty much tailwinds ever since we left Olgii.
"No we haven't" Gayle objects.
"We have - nearly every day" I retort.
"What about the day we reached the tarmac?"
"Hm, yes, but apart from that."
"Most of the time we've had headwinds." Amazing.  In the end we agree to disagree.

We find Gabor the next morning at the Erdene Zuu Monastery taking photos.  He's got up at dawn to catch sunrise but the morning has been overcast. The monastery comprises of a huge compound, the walls of which are studded with stupas.  It's believed to be the oldest surviving buddhist monastery in the country and was built on the site of the old capital of Karakorum built by Kublai Khan's father.  Kublai preferred the food in Beijing (who can blame him) and shifted the court southwards. The city is nothing more than a small town these days.   We mooch about the few buildings that survived communist rule.  There's not much open now it's low season - two monastery buildings with lots of novice monks reciting prayers and then tucking into dinner.   We take a bench in the sunshine and enjoy the warmth and watch local tourists stream in and out.  It's very relaxing.  

We have just enough time left to cycle to Ulaanbaatar in order to extend our stay in the country, but it means moving on after lunch.  However there's something about everyone's body language that is sending out a signal - and that signal is "enough".  We talk it through and the unanimous decision is stay here for the night and try and get a ride in the morning.  Now we've reached the asphalted road the excitement has somewhat diminished and so has the pretty scenery.  We're happy to have cycled what we did, but now we're all thinking of places other than Mongolia.  Gabor will be flying home - once he sorts out a flight - and we'll be going back to China, after a four year absence.  There's plenty for us all to think about.

somewhere else, mentally I mean, not physically

In the morning we head over to the bus yard to look out for a bus.  It's all rather quiet.  An old lady who has been sweeping litter into a small bonfire chats to us in English.  "Self-taught" she says proudly.  She helps translate for us when a couple in a big 4wd hear that we are looking for a ride.  We agree a price and then the driver hurries us to load everything into the car.  The three bikes get lashed to the roof.  It turns out the husband works here but his wife has a job in UB so they are heading that way.  The ride is uneventful and dull, apart from some exciting driving when we approach speed bumps - instead of slowing down and driving carefully our man swerves off the road and around the obstacle.  The car is a right-hand drive - there's lots of second-hand Japanese cars here - so he can't see to overtake anything big along the way - it doesn't matter though - I mean, who needs to look to see if anything is coming?

We unload on the edge of the city within easy reach of the airport.  Well, apart from the road that's been dug up and is now choked with traffic.  We weave our way through clouds of dust and find the immigration office to extend the visas.  It's a relatively quick and painless process - we all purchase an extra week.  As it's late afternoon we ponder whether to ride into the city to find a place to stay.  Gabor has noted that we haven't camped together for quite a while and we all opt for cycling off the road and onto some open land for one last night under the stars.

he's going to miss semolina in the mornings

Once in the city, comfortably established in an appartment hostel in the city centre, we set about sorting ourselves out.  The ride across Mongolia has been one of attrition.  My rack has snapped, our tent zips are all failing to close, and the scew holding Gayle's rack on has sheared off inside the brazeon.  Gabor has donated his spare tent zip sliders, which he brought along for such an occurrence.  He shows us how to unpick the end of the zips and swap the sliders.  It feels like we have a brand new tent - no more three-handed contortions to close the zips.  We find a bike shop run by the Belgian Consul where I pick up a cheap rack - to replace the cheap one that's bust.  They can't help us extract the broken screw in Gayle's bike but refer us to a catholic-run school and care centre which has workshops for training young boys as mechanics.  It's a priceless tip-off.  Brother Andrew takes us to the workshop where a tutor and his disciple set to work with all the right tools.  And bingo - out comes the screw.  Later on, back at the appartment, I start removing my broken rack.  One of the screws is a bit tight, it finally gives, but only half of it comes out.  The rest is left inside the brazeon.  Unbelievable.  Gabor is amused.  There's quite a bit sticking out on the inside of the frame and Gabor checks out possible solutions on the internet.  Gayle suggests we just go back to the catholic mission.  So practical.  I am too embarrassed.  Instead I head off to buy a file, file down two sides of the thread and then I'm able to unscrew the bloody thing out. 

the bus queues in the capital are horrendous

The morning that Gabor sets off for the airport it's trying to snow.  He has a flight at about 11am but he's got to ride there and then wrap his bike to check it in.  We are impressed to find he has risen early to get his breakfast and be ready.  It's odd to wave him off.  Usually we leave first.  

Thursday, 2 October 2014

and pause

While Gabor is retrieving his phone we continue on our route.  We are only 20km ahead but we don't meet up again for another five days. It turns out that Gabor has a broken spoke on his bike which he has to replace before he sets off from the police station. Meanwhile we are riding south from Jargalant village up through a very pretty valley and over a pass, down to the White Lake, which is, er, blueish.  Riding around the lake seems to take an eternity.  There are still plenty of gers here with their animals.  It's mostly cows and yaks and sheep and goats.  I am happy in Mongolia because the dogs are left at home to guard the ger - they are rarely out with the animals.  For the first time in Asia it seems that animals are sometimes left to look after themselves - the herder doesn't always stay with his animals all day.  I guess it's because this is open country and no-one is growing anything.  We see no cultivation on our ride, except for one place where they are growing hay to feed the animals in the winter.  The irrigated fields of grass are vivid green in the pale yellow landscape. 

Leaving the White Lake we circle a tiny extinct volcano.  The lava field spreads across the valley and is dotted with autumnal trees - a weird and wonderful sight.  We know we are about to reach the asphalt road but there's no sign of it just yet.  Under a rare grey sky we start to climb another very long low hill. The dirt tracks are thankfully quite firm - there are about fifteen to chose from.   The damage caused by vehicles without a road is impressive.
At the brow of the hill is a road construction crew.  Ahhhh, we can smell the warm tarmac being laid.  But the newly asphalted road is not yet open.  We can see it running away into the distance but all the trucks and minivans and 4-wheel drives are still following dirt tracks.  What to do?  Nothing for it but to push our bikes over the earthern barricade and up onto the brand new road, empty of traffic.  This road is ours, all ours.

The day ends with a terrible headwind which makes even the aphalt road hard work.  We turn out of the wind and into a canyon and find shelter in a lovely forest full of ovoos - the animist stone piles that are found at most passes.  These are covered in blue scarves.  It's peaceful and a little bit eerie but the woods are a great place to camp away from the road.   In the night we hear a strange noise - it's snow sliding off the tent.  At sunrise the snow is still falling and the landscape is quilted in white.  The brightness is cheery but the cloud remains low all morning so we stay in our sleeping bags.  By lunch the snow has stopped but we decide to take the day off and stay in our tent.  We're hoping that the weather will improve and the roads will be clear by the next day, which turns out to be so.  

Now we're on tarmac the riding is much easier, but the climbs to the passes seem longer and the passes seem higher.  It's a real pleasure to be able to look around at the scenery without thinking where your wheels are going anymore.  We wonder where Gabor is - did he pass us yesterday? After one more cold night camping we reach the town of Tsetserleg, which is a significant waymark for us.  There's a posh guesthouse in the town that does a full english breakfast - so of course we head straight for it.  Gabor is not to be found.  We settle in and bathe.  Hot water.  Clean clothes.  Luxury.

We go out to eat and wander through the town.  It's not a big place and the main street has a clutch of shops and eateries.  We go into one but the menu is all in Mongolian and the place is empty so we step quickly out again.  Just to our left we notice a man squatting down and pulling down his trousers.  Evidently he is about to lay some cable.  On the main street of the town?  Neither of us can believe what we've seen so Gayle turns round to check.  Seems you can take the boy out of the country but you can't take the country out of the boy. 

On our way back to the guesthouse we meet Gabor coming the other way - he's just arrived.  He is weary too after the ride and the cold nights.  The next day we all just relax.  The next day we get up ready to continue to UB but can't muster the required united energy.  We defer till the next day.  The next morning it is snowing.  Oh dear, we'll have to stay another day.  Our motivation to get moving is really quite low.  We still have just enough days to cycle to UB in time to get our visas extended and finally set off for Kharkorin.