Sunday, June 10, 2007

Warmup Complete; All Systems Go

Ulaan Baatar, June 10

It's a gray, cooler day here in Ulaan Baatar, the grayness coming only partly from the rain clouds which are hovering overhead. There have been strong winds howling for the past few days, and the atmosphere is full of dust, casting a deathly pallor over everything.

Since I last wrote, we have been out of town for a 4-day warmup ride, heading 80 km east and north to the lovely Terelj National Park for some camping and riding. It was an opportunity for us to test our legs and gear before starting the main part of our trip, and all systems passed with flying colours, leaving us more confident that 7 weeks of riding and camping will go more smoothly than we had anticipated. (This may, of course, be an example of hubris; bike trips in remote areas have ways of exposing a lack of preparation quickly and brutally.)

Before we left town, we poked around a bit, and realized we were crossing paths with a couple of events and trips of greater significance than our own cycling jaunt. In the parking lot of the Bayangol Hotel, we saw one of the casualties of the 2007 Peking-Paris classic car rally who hadn't left town with the other classic cars on June 2nd. It's a rally to mark the 100th anniversary of the original cross-Asia car rally, won by Prince Scipione Borghese and written about in a classic travel book, Peking to Paris, by Luigi Barzini, a journalist who accompanied Borghese and his faithful chauffeur Ettore on this epic two-month race. We felt that we were somehow crossing paths with history.

We also ran into two Icelandic brothers who are riding their motorcycles around the world; their website is mostly in Icelandic, but there are some English translations. They're taking 90 days to circle the northern hemisphere, although their plan to ride the Road of Bones across eastern Siberia to Magadan has had to be scratched because the Magadan-Anchorage flight they were counting on has ceased operations.

We also looked in on the opening day of the Asian Senior Amateur Boxing Championships, featuring Mongolian throat singing as part of the opening ceremonies (if you have never heard throat singing, it is one of the most unearthly, haunting sounds on earth). We watched a few of the opening bouts, sitting in the stands with the Uzbek team. We tried to go back today to watch the finals, but with a few Mongolian boxers making the finals, the tickets were all sold out.
On a more elevated plane, we visited the Gandan Monastery, reconstructed since the Stalinist anti-Buddhist purges. It was redolent of butter lamps and full of all the colour and atmosphere of a good Tibetan Buddhist monastery. It's so much more vibrant and colourful and full of exuberant painted detail than the Theravada Buddhist monasteries I have become accustomed to in Burma this past year.

Our ride to the Terelj was a lot harder than it looked on the map. It was only 80 km east and then north, but the first 30 km were through a hot and heavy headwind that dessicated our bodies and sapped our will to cycle. When we turned off the main road, it became a tailwind and we flew along, through a landscape out of a Marlboro Country ad: sweeping valleys of grassland,
punctuated by granite boulder outcrops. We turned off the main road and rode along a lovely gravel track up a narrow side valley, then returned to the pavement, crossed a small pass and forded the Terelj River to a camping spot next to a tourist ger complex. Its owner turned out to be a Dutchman who has turned into a Mongolian nomadic herder, raising cattle and making Edam cheese in the middle of Mongolia.

We spent two full days in the park, walking through larch forests, admiring wildflowers and birds, riding along broad valleys and camping beside fish-filled rivers. Serge caught a trout which we fried up and had for breakfast one morning. Audie had decided before the trip that she would break with 18 years of vegetarianism to eat fish if Serge caught any, and she stuck to her word, even admitting that the fish was very tasty. We look forward to Serge continuing to be the Compleat Angler during the rest of our trip. One evening, we exchanged rides on our bikes for rides on horses with the nomads camped nearby to us. The only downer of the camping was the incessant howling of dogs in the night; the Mongols seem to sleep through it, but we found ourselves awake and annoyed every night at 2 am.
Our ride back to UB was hellacious, as the winds had strengthened to gale force, and we were barely able to make 9 km/h along level ground. It was exhausting, dispiriting cycling, and it took us six and a half hours of solid cycling to make it the 80 km back to town. I just hope that the winds we will no doubt encounter out west are mostly tailwinds, or we may never make it back to UB in time for our flights home!!
I hope that this post finds everyone well, and I will post further news and views of Mongolia in a week or two. Until then, Carpe Diem (and Carpe Piscem!!)


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