Saturday, July 28, 2007

Diesel and Dust

July 28th, Ulaan Baatar:

We're here, in the sweltering heat and pollution of Ulaan Baatar, whiling away a sultry post-thunderstorm afternoon in an internet cafe, contemplating the successful (if slightly anticlimactic) end to our bicycling peregrinations around Mongolia. We arrived on July 26th, Audie's 36th birthday, and have immediately descended into the delightful twin vices of sloth and extreme gluttony. What better a time to update the blog, upload a few pictures and generally wrap up the story of the summer?

There's really not much to say about the last leg of the trip. The ride from Tsetserleg to Kharkhorin turned out to be a lot shorter (125 km), flatter and easier than we had expected. We started off on pavement and continued on newly-laid proper gravel road that hadn't had time to get washboarded. We zipped along and ended up camping in the 1300-year-old ruins of Khar Balgas, the Uighur capital in the 8th century. There's not that much to see, as it was constructed of mud brick, but we could still make out the city ramparts, a line of ruined Buddhist chortens, the central tower of the palace, a castle keep and the outlines of an irrigation system.

The Orkhon valley, in which we found ourselves at Khar Bulgas, has been an important centre of civilization for centuries. Precisely why is hard to say, as now it's just flat, brown, overgrazed and not that attractive, but I think that the Uighurs and their predecessors, the Kok Turks, probably irrigated the valley floor and grew a lot more food than the current Mongols, addicted to pastoralism, do. We pondered this as we rode 35 excruciatingly bumpy kilometres into another, more significant ancient capital, Kharkhorin, aka Karakorum, once the most important capital city in the world. Chinggis Khan (aka Genghis Khan) ordered the capital of his nascent empire moved there in 1220, but the move was only completed under his dipsomaniac successor Ogodei. For 25 years or so, Karakorum received trade, tribute and ambassadors from all over the world, including the Westerners John of Plano Carpini and William of Rubruck. By the time Marco Polo showed up in the Mongol empire in 1274, though, Khubilai Khan had moved the capital to Beijing, and Karakorum faded into total obscurity, aided by the Ming dynasty sacking the place to the ground. Almost nothing is left, other than a turtle rock that once marked the edge of the city. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the site was chosen for a huge Buddhist monastery which is the current attraction of the place. It was largely sacked by Stalinists in 1937, and there are no monks permanently in residence, so it was a bit underwhelming. Or maybe the fact that I was sick as a dog for the 24 hours we spent in Kharkhorin that made me find it not that impressive.

From Kharkhorin, the maps show a paved road to Ulaan Baatar, but this is a bit of a myth. We had 190 km of new, immaculately smooth pavement on which we sped along at great speed, enjoying life immensely. The scenery was rather non-descript: brown, overgrazed, pretty flat, almost semi-desert. The heat at the lower altitudes we were at (1000-1300 metres) was amazing as well, and we got covered in melted road tar; my thermometer showed 45 degrees in the sun, and 38 degrees in the shade, a far cry from the cool temperatures of the Altai.

No sooner had we gotten used to pavement than it came to an unfortunate end. The Mongolians are repaving the road, and have ripped up 150 consecutive kilometres, leaving the heavy traffic to find side tracks. The valleys along the road have been shredded and pulverized, coated in choking dust, and generally rendered into the most unpleasant stretch of road imaginable, especially in extreme heat. We spent a day and a half of hopeless, dusty misery in this, escaping only when we reached the city limits of UB.

The ride into UB was triumphant, although we came in through the stench of wool, leather and meat processors, and then through 15 km of industrial hellishness before reaching the oasis of the LG guesthouse. We repaired immediately to the Grand Khaan Irish pub to celebrate our 2300-km, 33-day journey, and to plan our next adventures. The Caucasus? The Balkans? The Carreterra Austral? Stay tuned!!


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