Across Mongolia on a Bike|
Wednesday, July 14, 2004
Dirt roads with no signage, fierce, possibly rabid dogs, sparsely populated countryside with few amenities, and freezing nights and baking hot days are just some of the obstacles one must negotiate when traveling across Mongolia. These conditions are particularly challenging when your chosen mode of transport is ... a bicycle!
|Photo: Grant Smith |
|A native and his donkey... |
It was late August when I left the comparatively civilized confines of Mongolia's capital city, Ulaan Baatar, destined for the city of Erenhot on the Chinese/ Mongolian border. The trip would comprise of roughly 750 km through the vast Mongolian prairies and the arid wastelands of the Gobi desert.
Prior to embarking on the journey I'd spent a few days taking in the sights of Ulaan Baatar (UB). Almost immediately one gains an appreciation of the enormous influence on the country's formation and character of its most revered ruler. You don't have to look far to find hotels and restaurants with Genghis Khan's name adorned upon them. Roughly 50% of The National Museum is dedicated to the life and accomplishments of one of history's most renown conquerers.
Sadly, alcoholism, especially amongst men, is an aspect of Mongolian society which is also clearly visible in the capital. Cheap vodka is readily available and a large number of the Mongolian men I met were clearly inebriated, even in the earlier stages of the day. Alcoholism, combined with high levels of unemployment, are likely contributors to the noticeably high levels of petty crime. I had my pockets picked on more than one occasion and in some instances, the perpetrators were so blazed as to still have their hands in my pockets while I'd obviously detected their intentions.
Once all preparations had been completed I was ready to venture into the wilderness. Included in the many belongings I'd somehow managed to stow in the limited carrying capacity of my bicycle was a wooden ax handle I'd purchase in UB. I'd read that the Nudelchin (nomads of the steppe) keep large fearsome dogs, which were sometimes rabid, to protect the herds of livestock from predators. It was too late for rabies inoculations and it was therefore imperative to carry an instrument to ward off any potential attacks. The ax handle was to prove invaluable for this purpose.
Within an hour of leaving my guest house in UB, 'The Genghis,' I found myself in the sweeping grassland steppe and under the infinite blue skies that people usually associate with Mongolia. As there are no permanent roads outside of the capital, there are no reliable road maps (although a highway stretching from UB to Erenhot is currently under construction at the time of writing). There are also no road signs or markers to direct you to your desired destination. My only means of navigation would be a compass and the single track railway line which runs from UB to Erenhot. Not wanting to attract attention from herdsmen's dogs, camp was usually situated far from any visible signs of inhabitation. Evening meals consisted of simple pasta or noodle dishes cooked on a small propane burner. Although day-time temperatures were often around the high 20ís Celsius, night time temperatures plumetted to around zero. Thus a good sleeping bag and warm clothes were essential for survival.
|Photo: Grant Smith |
|No end in sight... |
Camping out on the Mongolian prairies is truly a magical experience. Any worries or anxieties stemming from the realms of everyday living are quickly obliterated under the immensity of the night skies, ablaze with stars as far as the eye can see in every direction. Time seems to lose all meaning in the intense stillness of the sleeping Mongolian steppe.
A large proportion of the Mongolian population still live a traditional nomadic lifestyle as practiced before the days of Genghis Khan. The Nudelchins' livelihood is dependent upon the herds of livestock which graze upon the course and sparsely scattered vegetation of the steppe. Horses, sheep, camels and goats are common herds tended by the Nudelchin. The Nudelchins are big on meat and dairy products. Boiled mutton, usually in the form of Goulash, accompanied by an assortment of dried goat-milk cheese, all washed down with a generous-sized mug of tsai (milk-based tea with salt) appeared to be the staple diet. Vegetable lovers could well experience withdrawals if spending any considerable length of time in rural Mongolia!
The Nudelchins' dwelling is called a 'ger,' a circular tent made of felt with a smoke stack protruding from its center. These white domes are dotted throughout the prairies and easily visible, contrasting starkly from the green hues of the surrounding grasslands. The Nudelchin are a hospitable if not inquisitive lot. It was not uncommon to awaken to the sight of a herdsman's smiling face beaming at me through an opened tent flap. After a few incomprehensible exchanges of dialogue with a few hand gestures thrown in, the 'airag' (fermented mare's milk) was normally consumed to celebrate the occasion.
It wasn't uncommon to see herds of wild horses and camels grazing upon the steppe, which on occasion would come over to inspect the sight of a brightly clad, two-wheeled curiosity grunting his way across the fields. Marmots, eagles, vultures and in the evenings, kangaroo rats, were also commonly seen. Although existing in reasonable numbers, wolves were never encountered en route which was probably fortunate, although a little disappointing for me.
|Photo: Grant Smith |
|Getting a helping hand... |
The most demanding part of the trip was going through the heart of the Gobi Desert. In places the dirt trails all but vanished into deep sand pockets which were unassailable while mounted on a bicycle. The only option was to dismount and push. Under these conditions progress was considerably slower and, with the effects of the intense desert sun, far more exhausting. Fortunately, I met up with a Frenchman pursuing the same route as myself, also on a bicycle, prior to entering the Gobi. Having someone to air your frustrations to certainly made this part of the journey more bearable.
With a noticeable increase in road traffic it was apparent we were approaching Erenhot, the border crossing into China. Fifteen days and approximately 750 km of grueling, sometimes non-existent, dirt trails over steep mountains and desert with its extremes in temperature, had brought us to our destination. We'd done it!
Editor's Note: This story was first published in New Zealand Adventure magazine