Saturday, June 16, 2007

Post-Soviet Apocalyptica and Pre-Summer Hurricane Headwinds

Bayan-Olgiy, June 16

It seems like a lifetime ago that we were in UB, although it was only 5 days ago that we flew west to Khovd. I'm sitting in an Internet joint here in Olgiy on our first day off the bikes, trying to upload pictures and capture the first 5 days of cycling in a few words. The best summary might be: great scenery, shame about the roads, and who ordered those headwinds?

We loaded our bikes onto an Aero Mongolia Fokker 100 jet on Monday morning, bleary-eyed from having stayed up to watch the French Open final until midnight. We had to pay for 84 kilos of excess baggage, since our free allowance was only 10 kg per person, and they weighed our hand luggage too. On the other hand, it was only $2 a kilo excess, so we didn't end up too much out of pocket.

The flight was notable for the distinct lack of greenery visible beneath our wings. A bit worrisome for cyclists who move a limited distance every day and need to worry about water. The hills were pretty barren and brown for a lot of the flight, with a few ribbons of green lining the river valleys which showed up now and then.

At Khovd airport, we waited through the silliest baggage retrieval system ever devised and then assembled our bikes, packed our bags and rode blearily into town, stopping to admire a golden eagle near the airport. The Kazakhs who live in westernmost Mongolia use these immense birds for hunting, sort of like falconry but with birds several times larger. The eagle looked extremely large and menacing, and I personally would be petrified to see it swooping out of the sky on me. They are used for hunting fox and rabbits, but can apparently even kill wolves.

Khovd was a small, dumpy affair of a town, seemingly bereft of shops stocking food for hungry cyclists to stuff into their panniers. We searched high and low for Nutella, peanut butter and cheese, but to no avail. After a lunch which featured, for Serge and I, the largest schnitzels ever made, we pedalled off uphill out of Khovd, into a stony, bleak desert. We made only 26 km that afternoon, battered by fierce headwinds and miserable washboarded gravel roads and our own lack of energy. In the late afternoon light, we finally dropped into a small basin featuring a small lake and rode in through herds of sheep and goats of Biblical proportions. The views were wonderful, with the herds kicking up golden clouds of dust and the sun lighting the desert aflame. Sadly, the lake was 50% sheep urine and bred millions of mosquitoes, but we camped well away from the shore and used water we had brought with us to cook.

The next day, our first full day on the bikes, was tough. The headwinds continued apace, and we rode through an uninspiring landscape of lifeless rocky desert, enlivened only by distant views of snowcapped 4000-metre Altai peaks. It was only in the late afternoon that we climbed into greenery, pleasant riverside meadows near an even more welcome sight, a guanz or truck stop restaurant where we warmed up on stew and milk tea. Given that we had been warned by everyone who has ever been here that Mongolian food is uniformly awful, we were pleased by the filling noodle and dumpling stew that was cooked up by two teenaged girls, the eldest of 10 children in the family. We camped a few kilometres upstream, ignoring pleas that we should stay there to be safe from the packs of wolves said to infest the valley. In a long, hard day, we had covered barely 40 km.

The following day was perhaps the nadir of our cycling, as the winds got even fiercer, the roads even more rocky and unrideable and the climbs harder. We struggled uphill all morning, stopping to chat for an hour with a personable Irish motorcyclist, Ken Taylor, on his way from Australia to Dublin. Between that and our walking pace on the bikes, we covered barely 15 km by early afternoon, reaching the summit of a 2500-metre pass where the scenery took a dramatic turn for the better. Gone were the desolate deserts of Khovd aimag (province), replaced by high-altitude grasslands dotted with Kazakh gers (circular felt tents) and the inevitable flocks of sheep and horses and yaks. We bumped downhill through a headwind which slowed us to a crawl, and set up camp beside a beautiful lake full of great birdlife: a yellow-beaked swan we had never seen before, bar-headed geese, cormorants, Brahminy ducks, gulls and a host of smaller fowl. Serge made a few casts into the lake, but we had no fish for dinner. We had done only 37 km in a full day of cycling, barely walking pace.

Our sleep was interrupted rudely for much of the night by the swans and geese. I didn't know they were nocturnal, but they spent an hour or two flying around honking loudly around the tent; I had to resort to earplugs. The next morning, as we were breaking camp, a local boy came around to try to sell us a fish; with a bit more time the night before, we might have had a bite. The cycling finally looked up that day, as we covered 60 km, through a lovely grassland landscape with endless mountain views behind. We had fewer headwinds and learned to handle the ruts and boulders a bit more effectively, but we also had better winds. Flying downhill from a big pass, we nearly cycled straight by the town of Dolbo, and had to backtrack in search of a decent meal.

Dolbo was the single most apocalyptic wreck of a town we have so far encountered in Mongolia, the very picture of post-Soviet decay and squalour. In the midst of this, we found a guanz run by a friendly Kazakh woman who spoke excellent Russian (far better than mine); many of the Kazakhs here in Bayan-Olgiy aimag have lived and worked in nearby Russia or Kazakhstan. The town's monument had a freshly-painted hammer and sickle on it, perhaps a sign of nostalgia for the communist era. We camped that night beside lovely Dolbo Nuur, a beautiful lake whose shores reminded me strangely of the Sinai, except for the plague of mosquitoes which darkened the sky every time the (tail-) wind lessened its ferocity. We had actually managed to cover a respectable distance, 60 km, over dirt roads.

We awoke to rain on our tents and snow on the surrounding mountains, and rode out on the final leg to Olgiy yesterday under threatening skies, past a monument to the massive battle fought between White Russian and Bolshevik/Mongolian forces in 1921 on the shores of the lake. The skies converted threat to actuality soon afterwards, and we rode through cold rain interspersed with snow until a late lunch, taken in the shelter of a rock outcrop. Others had lunched there before, as evidenced by the sea of sheep, goat, yak and horse bones littering the ground, adorned with smashed vodka bottles. Our stale biscuits topped with Cenovis and pickles did little to assuage our hunger, so we were lucky that most of the rest of the ride to Olgiy was downhill; we actually managed to get up to 30 km/h on the descent into town, dodging sand patches and potholes and boulders that threatened to take us down. We rode into town at 4:30, having done another respectable day of 53 km.

Olgiy looked thriving and modern from afar, but up close it proved to be more post-Soviet apocalytica: huge open spaces that become dumping grounds for trash; apartment blocks without a right angle anywhere in them, sagging to the point of collapse; sheds, shipping containers and old railway wagons housing tiny shops; broken men shambling around the streets in ancient suit jackets. Our hotel, the Duman, has a metre of broken chairs, discarded toilets and crates of beer bottles in its courtyard, and all afternoon we could hear more junk being tossed out the windows.

Luckily Olgiy also has several decent restaurants, well-stocked grocery shelves and a helpful tour operator, Blue Wolf. We have taken today off, and tomorrow we will leave the bikes and take a jeep deep into the heart of the Altai to see the mountains up close. We will have 4 days of horse-riding, and another couple of days on foot before returning here to resume cycling. I look forward to it, as we have always found on other trips that walking is the best way to get up close and personal with the mountains. After a week of treeless wilderness, we are promised trees, hot springs and wildlife, and I will see if I can actually control a horse. I look forward to getting a better feel for the Altai, a mountain range with such a romantic name.
After that, we will have to hope for tailwinds and a better daily average if we hope to make the 2000 km back to Ulaan Baatar entirely by bicycle. If not, we may have to do the unthinkable and take a truck along a long central section in order to make it to UB in time to catch our flights. I think we'll make it, but much depends on factors beyond our control: the roads and the weather. The roads broke the bikes of a Slovenian couple who were just in town before us and left in a truck; I hope we avoid the same fate.
Anyway, I hope everyone is well, and I look forward to filling you in on our Altai excursion in a week's time.
Peace and Tailwinds


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