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!!

Friday, July 20, 2007

Bakery Overdose in Tsetserleg

Friday July 20, Tsetserleg

We're here, in one of the few somewhat pleasant towns in Mongolia after a scenic and pleasant 7-day ride from Moron. We have rejoined the tourist trail, and are now passed by a few hundred jeeps every day, instead of a handful. Most are full of Mongolians on holiday, but a lot are full of Western tourists, who usually look uncomfortable, hot, bored, carsick or just asleep. It always makes us glad that we're travelling by bike and not by jeep. One byproduct of this is that there are much better-quality roads for us to bike on, and in two days' time we should reach the end of the tarmac road from Ulaan Baatar, to our great delight.

Day 21 July 14 59.9 km
A horrible day, full of rain, miscommunication, cold and navigational errors. It poured unceasingly on us from the moment we left town and got lost for the first time. It was too wet to pull out the maps, and I got us lost again looking for the road south. We were ecstatic to find a couple of restaurant gers on top of the high pass in the afternoon, and we spent a couple of hours drying out, warming up and drinking tea until the rain finally subsided.

Day 22 July 15 57.5 km
It stopped raining today, and we had great light and wonderful riding for most of the day, despite another massive climb. We had lots of forests for a bucolic lunch setting, and then had a lovely downhill (after a long wheel truing session for Serge, who had popped a couple of spokes) to the disappearing town of Shine Ider; it took us an hour and a half and two large passes to find the town, which was only 5 km away. We camped in a nice spot outside town, but were kept awake by the thunderous beat of the local karaoke joint, which started up at 11 pm and kept going for a few hours. Who would have expected it?

Day 23 July 16 68.7 km
Today was one of the scenic highlights of the trip, between Shine Ider and Jargalant. We rode through pretty tree-lined valleys to a broad, open pass where we lunched, admiring the views and the impromptu wrestling match that erupted among some passing Mongolians. The valley leading away from Jargalant was magical, and we camped in a private clump of larches beside a babbling brook. Life was indeed sweet this day.

Day 24 July 17 65.2 km
After a massive breakfast of polenta and Nutella, we climbed one more big pass, through idyllic forested valleys which made for a perfect dejeuner sur l'herbe, before descending to the wide-open spaces of Great White Lake. At first the lake was a bit of a disappointment, but its stark, open bleakness grew on us, and we decided to have a lazy morning the next day beside its fish-filled waters.

Day 25 July 18 56.4 km
Our morning off, spent playing guitar, fishing, reading, swimming and sleeping, was rewarded by a quick roll along the lakeshore, past the volcanic lava fields at the lake's end and along the flat valley to an unexpected canyon where we camped beneath endless stars. We were also offered our first taste of blowtorched marmot; we declined regretfully, mindful of the risk of bubonic plague.

Day 26 July 19 100.7 km
A huge day again, over a couple of passes on a good road as far as Ikh Tamir. We had planned to camp earlier, but there was no water in any of the rivers we passed, so we pressed on to a lovely campsite beneath bat-filled cliffs beside a crystalline stream. It could not have been a better day to be alive, and we were happy at the prospect of the Fairfield Cafe in Tsetserleg being only 27 km down the road.

Day 27 July 20 32.7 km
A short, sweet day along great, new road from Ikh Tamir to Tsetserleg (different from the previous Tsetserleg), over a very steep little pass where we met a Canadian motorcycle tourist who knew friends of mine and friends of Audie's. It really can be a very small world. We got to town just before the rain, settled into the Fairfield cafe for a massive feed, and tried to use Internet (very, very, very slow).

Peace and Tailwinds


Friday, July 13, 2007

Dorks in Moron

Friday, July 13, Moron

A quick post to let you, our faithful readers, know that we have arrived in the town of Moron (great name; they actually spell it with two umlauts, but they sometimes get lost in transliteration.)

We have had a surprisingly good ride from Ulaangom to Khatgal and on to Moron. It took us 10 days to get from Ulaangom to Moron, and despite our map-induced misgivings, most of it was beautiful: a short stretch of desert, lots of bird-rich grassland, a long and beautiful river valley and finally some higher-altitude plateau before reaching the supremely beautiful Lake Khovsgol, a huge and ancient lake sort of like a mini Lake Baikal. We spent 3 days in the town of Khatgal watching the Naadam festival (wrestling, horse racing and drinking), walking, trying to fish and curling up in front of the fireplace reading books while rain fell outside (shades of 16 College St!).

Today we knocked off 103 km, our longest day yet and only 1 of 3 times that I have ever done 100 km on dirt with a fully-loaded bike. This is a testament to how good the tracks are in general. On the Ulaangom-Khatgal leg, we had numerous days of 80 or 90 km and only 1 horrible day of 40 frustrating km through sand dunes. Our plan is to ride south for 4 days to the Great White Lake, then 5 or 6 days to Kharkhorin, the ancient Karakorum, capital of the Mongols before they moved to Beijing. We have to be back in UB in 15 days, so this part of the trip may be a bit rushed. On the other hand, the scenery promises to be excellent, and there will be actual pavement on the roads after Kharkhorin, to our infinite delight.

We continue to nourish ourselves well, with almost no instant noodles! Couscous, polenta, millet, barley, oatmeal and real pasta all figure in our diet, along with lots of bread and cheese and cookies. We're eating much better than on either of my Tibet trips, which is A Good Thing.

Here's a more detailed account of our ride, for those of you not satisfied with the Readers' Digest version.

Day 10 June 30 86.5 km
We rode out of Ulaangom, laden with as much water as we could carry for this waterless stretch, under spitting rain, heading out along a horribly rutted track across the flat desert basin of Uvs Nuur, the huge salt lake which captures most of the runoff of northwestern Mongolia. We battled headwinds, sand and washboarding for the first hour, but then the dirt got harder and smoother and we rolled along at a steady 14 km/h, hardly seeming to get anywhere on the vast plain, looking out at the blue expanse of Uvs Nuur on our left. Late in the day a crazy tailwind blew up and hurled us at speed for the last 20 km. We camped in a pretty but waterless spot after our best day yet on dirt roads.

Day 11 July 1 79.2 km
We continued to ride easily, making good time as far as the town of Zuungov. Amazingly, we got lost and couldn't find our way into the only town for miles around; lots of puzzled consulting of maps, compasses and GPS. We stocked up on water and snacks in town and then headed east, camping at an unexpected oasis around a series of artesian wells. It looked as though a government irrigation project to encourage farming, but little seemed to be sprouting, other than wild grass. We bathed in the spray of water and camped in the welcome shade of a line of poplars. The scenery had changed from desert to pretty, rolling grassland, and it was a pleasure to ride through.

Day 12 July 2 66 km
We had another pleasant morning of riding, and another navigational SNAFU trying to find the town of Baruuntaruun, getting lost in a maze of wheel tracks. It's hard to convey how hard it is to navigate without signs or roads; you have to know which set of wheel tracks to follow by instinct, since there are no other clues. We got confused again on the way out of town, but eventually found our way to a pretty river valley and camped there, illuminated by a pretty sunset.

Day 13 July 3 96.7 km
A great day, our longest yet, on great dirt tracks. We passed abandoned farming projects in the grasslands today; it seems that as soon as the Russians left, the Mongolians gave up on the whole cultivation idea and went back to their herds and dairy products. The grasslands were alive with ground squirrels, jerboas, crickets and millions of wildflowers, forming a colourful carpet under our tires. Threatening clouds never turned to rain, and near the end of the day we came over a small pass into the town of Tes and headed 10 km upstream on the Tes River to camp in another idyllic spot. No luck with fishing, but I'm sure there were fish to be caught.

Day 14 July 4 39.6 km
A day of completely miserable riding, with non-stop sand dunes and deep rain gullies making it almost impossible to pedal. We probably pushed our bikes twice as much as we actually rode, and ended up calling an early end to the day outside the next little town, Bayantes, and camped in a pretty riverside stand of larch and spruce. Only the campsite and our equally pleasant lunch spot redeemed the frustration of the road conditions.

Day 15 July 5 84.4 km
We felt today that we had ridden across the nearby Russian border and into Siberia. We moved upstream on the Tes River all day on greatly improved dirt tracks and were rewarded with lovely views of boreal forests, low rugged mountains and infinite, cloud-dappled skies. We camped close to a little stockade that looked like a mini-Gulag and had a long social visit from the local herders before falling asleep, tired but happy.

Day 16 July 6 66.5 km
We awoke to demoiselle cranes doing mating dances outside our tents. After this magical sight, we put in a good morning of riding, passing eagles, massive cinereous vultures, cranes and millions of assorted rodents, lit up by impressive sunlight through the scattered, soaring clouds. We had lunch in Tsetserleg, a small, neat village of wooden houses surrounded by neat wooden fences. We continued to gain altitude on the way out of town, and the views just got better, looking across the wide-open spaces of a rolling plateau. We dropped to a secluded campsite beside a small stream and were given a present of fresh milk by the lady who lived in the nearest ger. We lay in bed listening to rain pour down, glad that we weren't outside biking in it.

Day 17 July 7 93.9 km
We awoke to find that one of the milk lady's dogs had made off with one of Audie's sandals in the night, much to her chagrin. The rain caught up with us today on the road, pounding us for a violent hour with wind, hail and huge raindrops. This was followed by a plague of mosquitoes, flies and no-see-ums that made riding very unpleasant and had me riding wearing my bug net over my face, much to Audie's amusement. The town of Tsagaan Uul looked pretty, but had no water in its river, and we had difficulty finding any drinking water; apparently the entire town depends on a well some 10 km out of town, hardly an ideal situation for a town. We finally left the Tes River and the drainage of Uvs Nuur lake behind and swooped downhill towards the Delger Moron river.

Day 18 July 8 63.4 km
A tough but varied and interesting day that started with a hairy river crossing. Our map led us to believe that we were heading along a major road with a bridge, but we ended up on a tiny, unused track and had to ford a thigh-deep swift-flowing river instead, before pushing our bikes 12 km up a steep pass. We were tired and discouraged, but then we dropped into a lush valley and blundered into an unexpected local festival, featuring lots of local costumes, wrestling, food and horse racing featuring six-year-old jockeys galloping bareback for 25 km (makes the Kentucky Derby look easy!). We lingered and took lots of photos and revelled in the atmosphere of a medieval county fair; all that was missing was a Robin Hood-style archery contest. We were accompanied away from the fair by families returning home on horseback, and camped atop a rise that afforded wonderful evening views.

Day 19 July 9 95.6 km
Another day of big kilometre totals, and suddenly we found ourselves in Khatgal, the touristy town at the southern tip of ancient, immense, beautiful lake Khovsgol. Halfway through the day, we suddenly popped out onto a major road and made great time all the way to Khatgal. The scenery seemed to change to Siberian once again, and we revelled in the huge stands of larch forest that adorned the hills. The town was a wooden affair that reminded me of some of the older backstreets of Thunder Bay, and we settled in happily to Garage 24, a backpacker hangout with great pizza and musli, for three days of utter sloth, interrupted by walks, short bike rides and a visit to the more touristy, less interesting Naadam festival in town; we greatly preferred our little local festival of two days earlier.

Day 20 July 13 103.0 km
A long day of riding, pursued by ominous clouds that finally caught up to us and soaked us at the 75 km mark. Moron, the biggest town we've seen since UB, provided us with groceries, Internet and a place to sleep, all we've come to ask for in a Mongolian town.