Friday, June 29, 2007

Farewell, Altai!

Ulaangom, June 29

We're in Ulaangom, another dusty, scruffy aimag capital here in western Mongolia, after a surprisingly nice 4-day ride to get here from Olgiy. It's a much-needed day off here, and we've just come back from purchasing a small mountain of food for the upcoming 10-day ride to Moron. Here's the lowdown on the past 4 days.

Monday, June 25: Day 6 since Khovd 76 km
We roll out of Olgiy early in the morning, up a small pass and then endlessly downhill on the other side, back to the Khovd River and its ribbon of green grass and trees in the otherwise sterile rock landscape. We have a brisk tailwind and it encourages us to ride hard, out of the valley and up across a bleak gravel plain all afternoon, before finally cresting a rise and seeing the blue waters of Achit Nuur, a lovely freshwater late, in front of us. We coasted downhill and camped beside the lake after our longest day yet on dirt roads. No fishing or swimming, as the water was fairly revolting on closer inspection, but a nice sunset and an interesting well built entirely of old tires to provide (slightly) cleaner water than the lake.

Tuesday, June 26: Day 7 47 km
A tough day at the office. We set off brightly, circling the lake counterclockwise, but a ripping headwind curtails progress and affects our mindset, and we struggle all afternoon through a bleak lunar landscape, particularly after realizing that we are going the wrong way. We try to cut across country to find our desired road, but the soft sand defeats us. We climb a hill and seem to spy out a lateral track, but it proves to be an optical illusion. We camp, waterless, cold and discouraged, 10 km south of the village of Khotgor which, appropriately, means "depression" in Mongolian. It's been a long, dispiriting day. Luckily, leafing through the Lonely Planet that evening, a throwaway phrase by the author points out that a route, unmarked on any of our 4 maps, exists through Khotgor to Uureg Nuur and is actually a shortcut. We go to bed encouraged.

Wednesday, June 27: Day 8 53 km
A total contrast to the previous day. We zip uphill to the coal mining village of Khotgor, buy cookies and drinks, and then continue up a lovely green valley towards the Bairam Davaa (davaa means pass in Mongolian). We struggle up the steepest bits and have to push our bikes, accompanied by an excited mob of local children. We reach the top, at 2500 m elevation, around lunchtime and have the best lunch of the trip, sprawled on a soft carpet of grass and wildflowers, suspended between heaven and earth, staring down at the waters of Uureg Nuur. Some local nomads stop by to see what we're up to; they wear wonderful silk robes, and cut fine figures on horseback. After lunch, we ride downhill, at first through a rockfield that puts great strain on our luggage racks and our steering abilities. The scenery is wonderful, with patches of forest and huge flocks grazing the steep hillsides. Eventually it flattens out and the road improves, and we hurtle down to the shores of Uureg Nuur via a series of ancient gravesites. The lake is so inviting that we go swimming and fishing and sit out late playing guitar while watching the sun set over the Russian Altai mountains, pleased with a great day.

Thursday, June 28: Day 9 87 km
If yesterday was a great day of riding, today was sublime. We climb hard early in the morning, sweating our way up a 1900-metre pass before undulating until noon across a beautiful green grassy plateau on dirt tracks which are in such good shape that we cruise along at 14 km/h. At noon we come out at a lookout over a vast, open valley, yet another of the grand, sweeping vistas of infinite open space that are so characteristic of Central Asia. A passing jeep stops to offer us a nibble of fresh cheese, and our benefactor proceeds to set his hat on fire with a carelessly disposed cigarette. We hurtle down into the valley at 40 km/h (on dirt!?!) and climb up the other side to another lookout point which serves as a picnic spot. From that point on, it's all downhill: 1000 m of vertical descent, at first along a properly made dirt road through a narrow gorge, and then across an inclined plain. Suddenly, improbably, a mirage appears: an asphalt highway!!! We can't believe it, but we gratefully roll onto it and speed the last 40 km into Ulaangom at 20 km/h. It seems almost unreally easy to ride on pavement. Ulaangom looks nicer than Olgiy: greener and better turned out, but it turns out to be all a facade: restaurants have no food, shops have a poor selection of edible goodies, and our hotel showers nearly give us hypothermia. Nevertheless, we opt for a day off here, preparing for a long 10-day stretch, heading 680 km east towards the wonderfully named town of Moron.

From here we bid farewell to the Altai Mountains, through which we have been cycling, walking and horse-riding for the past two and a half weeks. I have loved the Altai, even though they are much more barren and open than I had anticipated. We will ride from here across the Uvs Nuur depression until we meet the mountains of central Mongolia; much of the first 5 days will be across waterless deserts, so we will be carrying a great deal of water. I will be happy to be back to a land of rivers and forests!

Peace and Tailwinds



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