Jim and I took our time, spending a week getting our bearings in Mongolia’s capital, Ulaan Baatar, before we finally set out. We left our host’s home early in the morning, finding our legs as we pedaled through the sprawling city. UB is enormous, with a compact city center and then miles and miles and miles of ger district neighborhoods stretching north, south, east, and west. Homes in the ger districts typically tend to have both a Mongolian round ger (with the only door always facing due south, Westerners call them yurts), a few conventional, flimsy wooden shacks or sheds, and an outhouse. No grass, just dirt. All the wood framing of the ger, including the door and the smoke hole at the top, are almost always painted bright orange. Traditional Mongolian clothes are also typically vibrant colors. With eight months of winter the landscape is dominated by browns and greys, only exploding in color when the plants bloom late spring and early summer. The wonderfully bright gers and clothes added sparkle.
The traffic out of the city that day wasn’t too bad, and we had the wind on our backs. Right before the airport we turned south, straight into a headwind. So unfair! May and June typically have winds coming down from Siberia, this is why we decided to head to the Gobi first. Also, Jim loves geology and dinosaurs, so we decided heading to the Gobi was the way to start our two-month clockwise circle through this immense country.
Because of the rough roads and vast distances between towns we knew we would not come close to our average of forty-five miles a day on asphalt. So we hoped we’d be able to average twenty-five miles a day, but we had to carry more water, in our fifteen years of bicycle travel, than any previous trip. Jim added to our equipment four six-liter dromedary sacks, when filled we were each carrying almost ten gallons of water besides our gear. This put us in a Catch-22 situation, twenty five miles a day was the minimum we could cover between known water and food sources. We knew the nomads knew where the water was, but we couldn’t count on seeing them on a daily basis, or that they would share with us. So it was best to start out with more rather than less water.
The good news was first twenty five miles out of UB were paved. When we left civilization behind and headed into the vast open space we found lots of snow still around. As we climbed we were passed repeatedly, by small trucks carrying loads of anything and everything, to excessively loaded freight trucks carrying goods and materials to the provinces. We soon made note of the ubiquitous small, flat-bed, blue vans carrying the nomad’s ger (the tip was the bright orange smoke-hole wooden ring on top, helping weigh down the load) moving their homes from one pasture to another, fully outfitted vans with organized tour groups heading to the Gobi. Only after our arrival here did we discover that the Gobi is the most visited place in all of Mongolia!
The headwinds got stronger as the day wore on. By mile twenty three I was feeling spent, but we could see the second of the day’s two passes a half mile ahead. While I was dreaming about the downie on the other side of the pass my attention slipped and a gust of wind knocked me over, hard. My left elbow was scraped and bruised and I developed deep bruises on both legs where they met the bike frame. There was a lovely sloping field with a stand of birch trees in the snow just ahead, so after recovering a bit, we set up camp while the wind still howled. It stopped about 5:00 p.m. and we cooked a dinner of noodles with some couscous thrown in. It didn’t get dark until after eight (UB is about 48-degree latitude) so the evening was a lovely respite to the hard day. We were asleep before dark, hoping tomorrow would prove less daunting.
The Mongolian landscape is more reminiscent of North America than Australia. Take the Mojave Desert and Montana, mix them together and supersize them to three times as big as France and you get an idea about this place. With a population of about three million people, almost half in UB.
Next morning was sunny but crisp with a gentle wind out of the NW – maybe a tailwind would happily push us south all day? We knew there was another, higher pass about thirty miles ahead, so we figured we would again be spending another night on a northern upslope. After going over the pass the paved road ended. The dirt was hard but our tires small enough it was easy to navigate around the potholes. Not really a road anymore, but a series of meandering ribbons of tire tracks that weave in and out of each other, made by drivers constantly searching out the fastest, hardest, surest path!
The landscape was vast, the hills and mountains brown (the new spring growth not yet high enough to turn the hills green) and white (snow), with herds of cows, goats, sheep, and camels! Jim was disappointed we never saw a wild camel in the Australian Outback. We sometimes saw nomads on horses, or motorcycles, guiding their herds, sometimes a woman and/or another man would be walking with the herd. We saw very few gers, likely the nomads set them out of view of the roads, perhaps to maintain some distance from the droves of tourists making their way to the Gobi.
All day long we climbed slowly, happy to have an increasingly strong tailwind on our backs, wishing we had sails attached to our bikes! As we approached the pass it became more difficult to avoid the mud created by the melting snow on the ridges so we decided to call it a day at twenty five miles in a spot that was close to several grazing herds but had a ridge that protected us from the wind.
While setting up camp we had quite a show. Waves of nomads on horses came up and over a ridge to lead their herds of cows and goats up to higher elevations. The wind died down about 5:00 p.m., so we could cook and eat while enjoying the view, though it was cold and again we were asleep before dark. The temperatures were extreme. Jim bought new -fifteen-degree Celsius sleeping bags for this trip and we still wore layers to bed.
Morning brought no wind and we made our way to the pass. The road became narrower and muddier as we approached with four huge trucks getting closer. We couldn’t beat them to the top so we stopped in the slush to let them go by without splattering or crushing us. It was amazing, they tipped right and left as different wheels sunk into potholes and puddles, one leaned so far it almost tipped over!
This pass had two buildings and a shop with packaged snacks and simple meals. Mongolian stores are quaint, often an assortment of cookies, candies, snacks and drinks lined up along a humble back wall with a weather-beaten, bare counter separating the customers from the goods. Few perishable staples were for sale and money was stored in shoebox-size boxes.
Eager to get on our way, we expected and got a long downy – hooray! But by lunchtime a headwind had returned. We pedaled into the dusty forlorn town of Dov and decided to stop in a guanz (greasy spoon) to load up with a filling hot meal.
The “town” was about eight to ten evenly spaced very dilapidated structures on both sides of a wide dusty road. Almost every building had an entryway with a sign in Cyrillic stating that they offered cooked meals. We stopped and a young, very petite, woman on crutches with shriveled legs came out a nearby door and her face lit up. Gerel welcomed us to her guanz, but instead of leading us in the front door, she took us around to the side, into a dark, dreary, muddy porch, then into a narrow kitchen and, turning to the right towards the back, into a small room, only ten feet by fifteen feet, where she lived with her seven-month’s pregnant sister Delbee and brother-in-law Abakai. Though the sisters were only twenty one and nineteen they already lost both parents.
She served us warm milky tea (not salty as we were told to expect) while we scanned the room: thick carpets on the exterior walls, two skinny cots against one wall with a dresser in the middle, lovely pink lacy curtains with gold thread on the only window, a few pieces of furniture with a tiny tv and the smallest washer/dryer combo I had ever seen. While drinking the tea we agreed we would like tsuivan (noodles and mutton) and then she led us through the kitchen (no running water, no refrigerator, a propane-tanked stove and a bowl of mutton bits sitting out on the counter!) to the guanz in front. There were three long, beat-up tables with equally beat up benches and a hand-painted menu on a wooden board above the door to the kitchen. We took out our phrasebook and had fun taking turns trying to communicate and share info with the three of them. We wolfed down the warm tsuivan, paid 6000 tugrogs (~$5) said goodbye and were on our way.
Only a few miles south of town we decided to stop and set up camp, but skipped dinner after such a filling lunch. We lounged outside the tent, enjoying the windless calm evening. We woke to warm air and sunshine! This fourth morning on the road we set out early without toe covers, ear muffs or fleece jackets – just windbreakers!
An hour or so later a brand-new asphalt road appeared, out of nowhere. About two miles later there was a huge mining operation, then, two miles later the asphalt ended. We surmised it was a tax the mining company had to pay? (Overseas mining companies are an issue here, raping the land and taking the profits out of the country.) The asphalt was fun while it lasted.
Yet another pass brought us to a ridge looking out onto a vast steppe. We could see a long descent, but another headwind had picked up and the hard-packed road turned to softer sand, it felt more like snow skiing down the slope. At 1:30, and twenty eight miles, we decided to stop and pitch camp, only a third of the way down, but it was sunny and we wanted to set up our solar panel.
By the time we had the tent and panel up a nomad appeared on a motorcycle with a little girl. He wouldn’t say much, but became quite animated when I showed him the picture he let me take of them. In our trip prep we learned Mongolians love to give and receive gifts so I had brought a small bag of toys and tchotchkes. I gave the young girl a small Lego toy, then they were on their way.
Not thirty minutes later another motorcycle came over the opposite ridge – this time with a man, woman and boy. After giving the boy a toy and all of us commenting about the wind, they went on their way and we went into the tent to take a nap while our batteries were charging.
Waking an hour later we found the batteries already fully charged, but the wind hadn’t abated so we went back into the tent to read, write and wait for the evening lull to cook dinner. As it was still windy at 5:30 and we were hungry, we decided to head out and cook. We wished we could have tsuivan again, tonight’s menu was mashed potatoes topped with orange lentils, that had been soaking in a baggie of water on the back of my bike since morning – to cut down on the cooking time. While we cooked the wind picked up even more, forcing us to barrel into the tent to eat and avoid sand being added to the menu.
Foolishly we had not yet done the set up for bedtime, doing the dishes, packing things up tidy in our two vestibules, getting our layers, etc. We decided to wait it out and do it when the wind stopped. Well, it didn’t stop, it only got stronger, as night fell we were still waiting. Jim had his smart wool socks and heavy gloves in the tent, but I didn’t. We always, each, had a water bottle tucked in a tent pocket but not tonight, expecting to do all those things when the wind settled down.
Impatience turned to anxiety as we fitfully fell asleep in the howling storm. Jim always pitches the tent so that the short side faces into the wind. When we pitched the tent the wind was coming from the south. Well, the wind had turned and was now coming from the west, and pummeling the tent on my vestibule side, rendering the tent weaker. When we awoke a few hours later the snow had piled up about a foot against my side of the tent, even inside the vestibule. The windstorm had turned into a sand and snowstorm.
We decided to reorient ourselves and lean our backs against my door, to better support the side of the tent taking the hit and the poles. Jim opened his door in the dark and saw all his gear covered in two to three inches of crusty snow. We tried to check my side but it was a whiteout. Quickly opening and closing both doors revealed to us that the wind had embedded so much sand in the teeth of the zippers that they had developed blisters, our zippers were irrevocably compromised. Some of our poles were bending to the point of breaking, and four of the stakes on the tent were loose.
Already worried for hours, now we felt our situation was turning dire. We knew we were inches away from freezing to death if the tent didn’t hold up in the storm. Though our new sleeping bags kept us warm and dry, as long as the tent held up.
How long could we survive outside the tent? Hour after hour the wind demanded our attention, respect, and fear. It teased and taunted us, coming in waves, sometimes causing the tent to sway and bend and groan, then calming down enough to trick us into thinking that maybe it was over. The nature of bike travel means the cyclist is always vulnerable, to so many things, even in perfect weather. We accept this and do our best to be prepared. It’s not like we didn’t prepare for this trip, we knew it would likely be the hardest bike tour we ever did. Considering how much prep we had done, we were astounded to find ourselves in a storm of this magnitude.
I took the time to write a note to our kids in my journal. Jim tried calling out on the Mongolian cell phone we had just bought in UB for emergencies, but we had camped in a valley. The arrival of faint light at 4:30 cheered us a bit, surely the wind would stop soon, it had been more than sixteen hours! I told Jim I didn’t want to spend another night in the tent. And Jim wasn’t sure the tent could withstand another twenty-four hours. What would happen to us if the poles collapsed with zippers that now didn’t close properly? Could we survive, stay warm and dry enough, inside a jumbled mass of tent material for another twenty four hours? We didn’t want to find out. We knew we could not withstand the cold and wind outside the tent at night for very long. We knew the nighttime temp was below zero-degrees Celsius.
At 7:00 a.m. Jim went out to re-stake the tent, the poles were intact but bending terribly. Hour after hour ticked by, we considered all possibilities forwards and backwards. By 11:00 a.m. Jim decided to go back out into the storm and assess the situation. He refastened and tied down anything loose and tried to remove the snow piled up against the tent and in the vestibules. He discovered the wind had embedded a mound of sandy snow right through the screen on my tent door, filling up the pocket. He dug the slush out of the pocket fistful by fistful, significantly lightening the weighted burden on my side of the tent.
We decided to abandon all our gear, and try to hail a vehicle, going either direction, to take us out of the storm, to lodgings. We didn’t want to pack everything all up in case we never found anyone and had to retreat to another night in the tent. We had to leave it up for insurance. If and when we could, we would come back for our gear. Using our Mongolian phrasebook we wrote out several sentences explaining and asking for help, bundled up, and headed out. It was liberating to get out of that tent, the wind was howling, but it felt good to be doing something, taking our destiny into our own hands instead of sitting passively in the dark. We walked with our heads bowed into the wind to get to the tracks.
After searching for more than an hour we finally saw a jeep coming up the slope, heading north. We had to run, it was so far they might not see us! Flailing our arms, we basically willed the jeep to stop. There were five men, three older and two younger, with an empty rack on top and a lightly packed back. We showed them our notes, asked for help. Would they takes us to UB? The older men said no, the younger ones spoke a little English and were more open to helping us.
“If they wouldn’t take us to UB, would they drop us in Dov?” I asked. We knew the town we had lunch in two days ago wasn’t too far away. “Okay!” Said the driver after canvasing his companions. So we all climbed in the jeep, five of us in the back seat, but the driver turned and made a b-line for our tent!
We didn’t ask them to get our gear, assuming we’d find a way to get back to it after the storm abated. But they drove to the tent and the five men jumped out, with Jim and I following. We hadn’t properly packed anything but seven of us were shoving everything into any and all of the panniers and sacks, total disorder. The wind was howling, and some lightweight things like the plastic picnic tablecloth and rolls of toilet paper just flew off and away.
They tied our bikes, with one measely three-foot rope to the rack on top, stuffed a few panniers underneath them, and threw the rest in the back. It was absolute chaos, two of the men even tried to chase down the toilet paper. If I wasn’t so freaked out I would have laughed at this Keystone Kops scenario. After only a few kilometers in the jeep I recognized landmarks that we had passed and knew they were taking us to Dov.
It was a very bumpy, cramped and uncomfortable ride in that little jeep. The young men peppered us with questions, using their English. The two older men in front were grumpy. We learned they were all miners, working seven-day shifts: seven at the mine, seven in UB. They were heading back for their days off, and wanted to get there ASAP, picking us up was an incredible kindness.
When we got to Dov the older men promptly unloaded our gear while the younger men went and bought cigarettes. We thanked them profusely, they refused our monetary gift, and took off within minutes. With the wind was still howling and Jim trying to account for all our gear, Gerel appeared on her crutches, screamed with delight and insisted we come back to her house!
Jim and I portaged all our gear across the street. It was so soothing to be welcomed by these two young sisters, the the storm didn’t end until 3:00 a.m. the next morning, thirty nine hours after it started, while we lay sleeping, safe and warm, on the hard floor of the sisters’ very modest home. Out came our phrasebook again and, though exhausted, Jim and I struggled to stay awake and be attentive to all the neighbors who came to check us out.
The sisters were quite a contrast, Gerel, crippled by polio, was the real deal, genuinely kind and sweet-hearted, all the young men ignored her, none seemed able to see her inner beauty that was so obvious to me. Delbee, her married younger sister, was cut from a different cloth. Pouty and petulant, constantly wanting attention and complaining when she didn’t get it, it was a real challenge for me to humble myself to her whims, but I was just so happy to be here. Abakai, Delbee’s twenty-four-year old husband glommed onto our phrasebook, delighting in looking up words and discussing his finds with whoever was visiting. He made my day when he looked up a word and told me I was “fine!”
I asked about a driver to UB, that night, it was past 5:00 p.m. by this time. The sisters wouldn’t have it, they were putting us up for the night and wanted the pleasure of our company! They put out the word and before long two men showed up and negotiated a fee of 125,000 tugrogs ($100) to drive us in their van back to UB the next morning at 10:00 a.m.!
When Delbee had Gerel go to the store to buy fancy, store-bought noodles for dinner I tagged along to pay. I asked Gerel to pick out desert, she chose cookies and room-temperature yogurt. Dinner, no surpise, was tsuivan: mutton and noodles. After dinner Gerel got down on the floor with a wet, filthy old rag to wipe it before we opened our sleeping bags, and wouldn’t let Jim or I do it! Within seconds, about 6:30 p.m., I laid my head down and was out like a light.
Jim told me later the power came on 8:00 p.m., Gerel started a batch of wash, and everyone sat around the mini-TV, enjoying two hours of programming before the power went off exactly at 10:00 p.m. I slept through it all! Their home had no running water, no refrigeration, their outhouse had collapsed, they told us to use the field behind the fence, and they got two hours of power a day, 8:00 to 10:00 p.m. We were grateful to be there, and they were good to us. Their kindness is an integral and essential part of Mongolian culture, the harsh environment is a given, and happy cooperation is the antidote.
Gerel slept on one cot, Delbee and Abakai slept on the other. I woke around midnight to all sleeping, except that is, for Abaka and Delbee who were getting it on in their cot. I went back to sleep.
Next morning Jim and I woke first, while he tiptoed to the porch to properly pack our gear I started what turned into a sixteen-page entry in my journal, of the last two days. Gerel awoke and made breakfast: scaldingly hot tea and tsuivan: mutton and noodles. Jim went to the store to get bottled water and cookies for the trip and came back with yogurt and cookies for the sisters, too. About 9am I asked them about deels (traditional Mongolian coats) and immediately they each took them out, we took turns wearing them, multiple pictures were taken. Oh, they loved getting their picture taken!
The drivers showed up at 9:30. Turned out we were paying, but seven were going: Dawa (the driver), an older man for company, Abakai (because he couldn’t resist a chance to go to UB), a friend of his, and a vibrant young woman who was returning to UB after visiting relatives in Dov. After much genuine thanks, hugging and kissing we were off! The sisters never asked for compensation but I pressed two twenty-dollar bills into Gerel’s hands.
The van seated eight, had three rows of seats, a back storage area, and two soft tires. Jim and I took the far back seat, we could be restful spectators to the conversations of the five up front. All three young men (yes, even married Abakai) took turns romancing Babelicious the entire trip. The wind was gone but it was amazing how much slush and snow were on the roads from the storm. We saw three big rigs stuck in deep, soft, slush holes, with lone drivers trying to dig them out! Maybe they would have to wait for it all to melt?
The driver stopped eight to ten times: for smokes, facilities, snacks at the pass, twice to converse with men in other vehicles who seemed to be waiting for us, once to pick up a nomad mother and young boy, then about twenty kilometers later to drop them off where a nomad man was waiting with a motorcycle to pick them up. Oh, a couple of times we stopped to pump up the soft tires. We chatted with a German couple in the snack shop at the pass, they said they were stuck inside a ger for forty-eight hours in the Gobi, their tour guide wouldn’t go out in the storm, and they lost two days of touring (I wished that was all I had to complain about). After only four days of cycling we were back in UB, bruised but intact. The cycle touring part of our visit was over, our tent zippers were ruined from the storm-embedded sand, no one sold quality tents in UB, and to order from overseas would take one to two months for delivery.
Time to figure out how to make lemonade out of lemons. But that’s another story . . .