Mongolia

To date, I think I can say with complete authenticity, that Mongolia has been the hardest country I have cycled in!  The country broke my camera, broke Tilly and at times came near to breaking me … I lost kit, I lost money and at times I came near to completely losing perspective but as is often the case, the experiences I got from such a travails have been all the sweeter for the tough times, at least in hindsight!

On reaching Zamin Uud I did the sort of mental gymnastics that would have got me a decent score in the Olympics and made for the train station to purchase a ticket for the evening train to Ulan Batar.  No hardship for me, I love the old Soviet trains with their bunks, their fake, burgundy leather apholstery, metal fittings and their fierce carriage attendants who patrol the aisles admonishing pesky cycle tourists who are a little over excited and therefore causing havoc with their exuberant dashing from window to window so as not to miss any of the views of the desert she was missing out on crossing, dispensing packages of folded bed linen and providing the all important complimentary tea bags to pair with the ever boiling, coal fired Samova at the end of the carriage.  Whats not to love?!  They feel so much part of a bygone age that its impossible for me not to see myself and my carriage companions as an ensemble cast for the old propaganda films.  Almost too excited to sleep, I eventually climb up into my bunk, and fall asleep listening to the slow rumble and the mournful whistle of the train as it crosses the start of the now dark Gobi Desert.

Im up before sunrise peering out into the quickly receding darkness, wanting to get my first glimpse of Mongolia ‘proper’.  The train is still crossing the steppe and sunrise shows just how vast a space that is.  Vast but not unpopulated and we pass a town with concrete, wood and ger housing structures, the gers being the Mongolian equivalent of the Central Asian yurt.  The orange and blue of the materials used for the housing is striking against the white of the ger canvas and agains the backdrop of the snow-covered hills between which we wind our way in a slow, sinuous motion. Winter is currently on its way out of Mongolia but is refusing to go without a fight.  As i found out as i cycled through Mongolia, the difference in temperatures between neighbouring valleys can be enormous, t-shirt in one and then every item of clothing in the next. The haze from a multitude of heating sources hangs visibly over the town and is a reminder of the high pollution levels that are to come in UB.  Ger communities in all places

My train companions took having a tourist in their midst in good humour and asked the usual round of questions alongside pointing out that their country (Mongolia/Russia) had lovely, kind people and that I was in good hands here/there! 

My time in UB is extremely short.  I wait for a couple of hours before i can collect Tilly but once done we make a swift exit from the city, past PowerPlant 3 and its enormous, belching chimney, and head for the hills, well steppe. 

This is my first stint of touring outside China in a long time and I feel excited and nervous.  I don’t speak the language, my camping skills are rusty, Im unfit and i more feel like a touring newbie than the well organised, savie traveller that I had pictured myself as … but as I go through the familiar motions of buying supplies with a disproportionate percentage of NVC to language, consulting the maps and leaving the city I start to feel more relaxed. 

This initial calm is quickly shattered when a young Mongolian man in the next village, drunk, runs over to me, grabs the handlebars of the bike and refuses to let go during what started as a brief ‘hello’ and looks like it might progress into an unpleasant altercation.   He wants my bike and I am not prepared to give it over.  Thankfully at that moment a Mongolian woman drives past, sizes up the situation, stops and demands that the young man let me go.  Despite being drunk he has already let go of the bike, evidently knowing he was in the wrong.  The woman motions to me with her head ‘go’ … and I do, at speed, whilst she gives the young man an earful about not upsetting tourists.  I had read various articles about Mongolia prior to starting the trip and had felt out of my depth as a result of what other were saying about the problems of solo female travel in Mongolia and this incident fanned those flames (more is to be said about the absolute need for self assurance in a different place). 

Unfortunately It was not to be the last incident as later that evening sex is physically indicated when I stay with 2 herder brothers in their home.  There was nothing malicious about the incident. It appeared to me that the brother in question has a very hazy view about Western women and their ‘availability’ which is coupled with a very different cultural outlook relating to sex and different means of expression.  Even in the morning, after making my ‘No’ position abundantly clear, which was initially accepted with no further issues, the brother attempted persuasion by means of communicating just how athletic and amazing Mongolian men were when it came to sex.  I leave rapidly at this point because there are a limited number of times and ways in which I can communicate ‘No’ without losing my temper.

A recent discussion with another woman about this has given me the opportunity to fully reflect on my Western, socialised views of sex and this incident and to appreciate just how unthreatening and non-abusive/power dominant it was.  For this young man it appeared that sex with me might be fun/was an opportunity not to miss (western woman)/sates physical urges.  I didn’t feel threatened or coerced (I think my age and recent experience and confidence helps me with this as well) once over the initial shock and anxiety, and that the initial feelings are more of a collision of socialised ‘norms’ rather than actual ‘in the moment’ issues.  As ever it more about how I react and deal with my internal self as well as the external situation.

These instances were just the first indicators of the differences in the Mongolian views of people in general as well as of women in particular which I encountered in the country.  Mongolia seemed to me to be a place of high pragmatism bordering on a flattening of the idea of ‘humanity’ and paradoxically of generosity and warmth.  The people I met either treated me like family and were beyond generous or appeared to view me as less useful (see almost invisible) than their canine companion and therefore only worthwhile in what could be gained from me.  The differentiation of these roles I played came about very quickly in interactions depending on circumstances and location.  Mongolia is an extremely harsh landscape to survive in and it is not surprising that a pragmatic, non emotional code is in place.  As a result of this however there is also a very strong stand of equality that runs through the pragmatism … being female doesn’t matter as much as it does in other cultures as my value is in ‘what I can give’ rather than the more social and potentially gendered concepts of ‘what I am’.

Interactions with different people continued to vacillate between these polarities as I crossed the country.  In Numrug I encountered an amazing woman, Gilthma, who invited to me stay in her utterly beautiful Ger with her mother.  We spent an incredible day pantomiming our way through conversations about England, about her animals and about her job in the local museum, taking time to show me around the exhibits there and encouraging me to fire a pistol which was evidently of importance and I think shot someone political (!) but there are certain limits to the intricacies that pantomimed language can do.  She was part of the local dramatic society and made all their local costumes so she took me to the hall they use and on stage we danced together and laughed and I watched one of the local teenagers rehearse his speech.  On our return to the Ger we celebrate because her cow has safely given birth to a calf.  Its a full day of happy communication, mutual joy at the interaction, traditional food and traditional activities. 

On either side of this day are theft and an utter lack of care for me as an individual.  I have my Primus petrol bottle and pump stolen off my bike whilst camping in a petrol station before staying with Gilthma and then following the stay and on yet another dreadful, mud filled, icy track both trailer panniers (unnoticed initially) detach themselves from my Extrawheel trailer, fall to the ground and are picked up by the only vehicle for the next 4 hours.  The car passes me as I realise the situation, evidently knowing they are mine but out here is a conceptually level playing field … they are (unfortunately) available, I lose.

I lose … water filter, bike parts, replacement brake pads, bike pump, first aid kit, dollars, wallet with bank card and a food pannier, recently restocked.  In this situation the first loss (the Primus bits) has precipitated the second through me getting caught up and frustrated and angry (see overly emotional) … and then not ensuring that the carrabina clips on the panniers are attached to the frame.

The intertwining of tough and fun times, ‘good’ and ‘bad’ is as complex and in flux as the changing weather.  The dynamic nature of cycle touring is always present but in Mongolia it became even more prominent in my mind and in how I was doing things.  Likewise the need to stabilise myself and level out my emotions became more important … however this is me talking in hindsight and was not a thing I effectively managed there!

Getting back into wild camping was a very different experience in Mongolia.  I very quickly stopped worrying about attempting to hide my tent since the local herders know their land and there was no way I could ‘out stealth’ them!  I would frequently look for a suitable spot, see no-one, start setting up the tent and out of nowhere a herder on a horse or motorbike would magically appear to see what I was doing and then once satisfied with the answers I was providing would disappear again!

The seasons and weather play a dominant role in Mongolia, extremely cold winters and hot summers, and since I was crossing in the Winter/Spring shoulder I was able to experience temperatures varying from -15℃ in one place to 10℃ in another (night and day). Likewise I was  using snow to melt for cooking etc in some places and then finding water from melting rivers and streams in others.  Food had to be carried for long distances as there was often nowhere I could stock up my supplies and so I became a bit of a food hoarder.  ’Just in case’ became a bit of a habit in Mongolia but then so did ‘I can’t do that I need to do something different’!!

After the loss of the panniers and the initial panic, shock, 2 minute tears (tears are pointless and a waste of energy when alone, useless unless communicating something to others!) and at least 3 ‘go back’, ’no go on’ changes of direction I decide to continue on … after all what is lost is lost right?! I pushed Tilly on for the next few hours, up and down sticky, muddy, icy tracks … manually removing clods of mud, grit, gravel and ice from her transmission and was utterly miserable.  The next truck that passes me stops and offers me a lift, which I gratefully jump at, Tilly is strapped on top of the wood plank cargo and we make it all of about 10km before the trucks wheels are stuck in the dreadful mud at the bottom of the next hill.  The driver, his wife and I dig the wheels out, jam wood under them and take a run at the incline.  We make it up the hill and continue for the next 40km before getting more heavily stuck, this time until the following day when our truck is pulled out by another.

The events of the previous days have left me feeling mentally exhausted so I opt to remain with the truck until it reaches the next stretch of asphalt and I make an agreement with the driver regarding this.  Fear of the next stretch of track being another bout of pushing and not riding its the main motivating factor as it will severely hamper my efforts enroute to the Russia/Mongolia border as in the back of my mind time is always ticking for the end of one visa and the start of the next. The hitch on the truck over the next 1/2 a day traverses some utterly beautiful plains, (sadly) improved tracks and drops me near Khygas Nuur.  The up side to missing out on cycling across these stunning spaces comes in the unexpected form of a Mongolian sing-along-session in the cab with the driver and his wife giving renditions of songs about camels and me joining in with hilariously dreadful but joyfully encouraged harmonies.  Interactions like these are great for reminding me what is important.

I cycle past the still frozen lake amazed that a sudden drop in temperature had managed to freeze the water into wave forms along the shore, then across desert areas complete with camels and stony outcrops. I meet friendly girls, families wanting selfies and the opportunity the ride on Tilly.  After a couple of nights in the large town of Ulaangom I follow the Northern Route and its quickly disappearing asphalt.  I am back on the mud tracks again but this time I am far from alone. 

It is quickly evident that my final few days in Mongolia are not just an important time from me but are also auspicious times for families to be moving from their Winter to their Summer positions in this area of the country.  In asphalted areas trucks have been manoeuvring people and possessions around for weeks but here they are just starting … and to my joy it is not just done by truck but by camel as well!  As I head up one pass I am met by wave after wave of animals making their way down.  Women and men moving their flocks and herds, children and gers.  On several occasions I am told that there are swollen rivers ahead but there is no choice for me but to continue.  Camels are tricky beasts, their nerves are not the most stable and I have to position myself and Tilly carefully so as not to spook, upset or halt their progress … as happened on one unfortunate occasion and resulted in an already stressed herder having to calm fractious camels whilst I backtracked and hid.

The river crossings were as unpleasant for me as they were amusing for the onlookers.  After the pass and several bumpy, muddy downhill sections I repeatedly had to take my socks and boots off, put my sandals on and wade across icy, snow melt river sections pushing Tilly as fast as was feasible before ripping the ice filled sandals off and dancing like a demon to restore feeling in the quickly numbed feet and toes.  The pain those icy torrents caused was far worse than the surfing ‘ice cream headaches’ cold water has given me in the past.  It truly took my breath and sense of humour away, at least temporarily.  Somehow, as when camping, at these times magical apparitions appeared on horses and motorbike, laughing at my dancing and cavorting, and no doubt exclaiming at the folly of ‘crazy women’ especially on bikes.  Then more than ever I wished I had a good command of the language simply so I could explain myself, my reasoning and convince them that I was not crazy but actually a ‘very smart, sensible woman’ (!!! no comments necessary!!!)

As I have already illustrated, I hope, with all the tough there is the flip side and not long after the crossing the rivers I find myself cycling slightly downhill across wide open Steppe complete with sheep, goats and a herder (Damba) on horseback who comes over to greet me, smiling broadly, and who then invites me to stay in their ger overnight.  His wife (Erde) comes over as we walk in that direction and then their son (Alaga).  They are also packed ready for moving and as they are using the smaller ger which they also use to the lambs, I put my tent up next to it, help them herd the sheep and goats back to the vicinity and settle in with them for the night’s conversation to be role played by a cast of 4.  Milk tea is served in bowls and my manners (learnt in the Stans) are corrected for Mongolian company.  Damba and Alaga head out of the get whilst Erde and I ‘chat’, returning 10 minutes later with a freshly killed sheep, which they skin and butcher with the most incredible efficiency on the floor of the ger.  Erde than cooks the offal and later that evening I am eating parts of a sheep that I would never have expected to ever eat.  After a while I head to the tent. The soft folds of the low hills close to the flat of the Steppe is the perfect place to keep out of the cold winds and keeps the flocks close which protects them from preditors … fear of wolves has been a favourite question and statement throughout Mongolia.  Its a dark and moonless night, the silhouette of the surrounding hills backdropped by a night sky it is easy to get lost in.  Moments looking at the stars bleed into each other and I eventually head into the tent and a dreamless sleep.

The evening is an amazing one for me. The sense of welcome into a world different from the one I am used to and the curiosity about mine was companionable and I gain some small knowledge about the aid programmes that the US has in place and which provide funds for struggling herders so the they can buy animals.  Damba has recently bought a camel.  It is easy for me to romanise this life but make no mistake it is a harsh and precarious one.

In the morning I wake, remembering the bike horn being activated in the night by a curious goat and the stampede of animals moving away from the bike and tent and then slowly settling back!  We herd the animals, feed the lambs and kids, Alaga is a wizard with the lasso and hooks then pairs them with their mothers and then we eat more mutton and drink more tea together.  I eventually leave after taking lots of photos of all of us, at their request.  Its a beautiful morning made all the more special by the activities together.

Over the next few days I continue through wide open spaces, past lakes, crossing sandy and grassy Steppe, desert areas and pushing for a day and a 1/2 across the forever dubbed Sea of Rocks before reaching the final pass before the Russian/Mongolian border.  The headwinds are awful, hamper progress considerably and mentally destroy me.  This last part of the journey across the country is the hardest for me.  The wind, sand, rocks and storms that I contend with are at a stressful counterpoint to my need to get to Russia because of the rapidly expiring Russian visa.  The physical challenges are made so much harder but the mental challenges which I create and which then hamper me in a closed destructive cycle.  At the time all I could feel was the frustration at pushing Tilly over endless rocks and that no matter how amazing this ancient ‘sea bed’ was I wanted to cycle and it was in my way!  Its a strange thing to be able to see this level of beauty and to then see the over layer of frustration and realise the interplay but to be caught up in the ‘moving’ and thus not able to do the mental processing necessary for on to get out of the way of the other!! 

I see a rainbow in the desert (The Little Prince) just before a distant storm. I set up camp out in the desert just before another storm reaches me.  I continue the following day.  I am out of water so push on as fast as I can.  In the afternoon I have to hide under a tarp by a river, boiling water (no filter or tablets remember!) as there is another storm.  These are all over quickly but furious in their energy.  The pass is uneventful in reality but filled with difficulty in my mind.  I am tired and everything feels like a battle ..

As my last challenge I realise that it is Easter Sunday the day after I push over the pass and into Tsaaganuur.  I simply have to get across the border because I don’t know if it will be shut for one or two days, being a holiday in lots of countries.  And so on reaching the town I do the only sensible thing … I pass through not talking to anyone and leave in the wrong direction with the clock ticking, my sense of direction scrambled and a total lack of sense.

Luckily I am stopped 10km outside the town by a herder who redirects me, takes me back to the town and then offered me a lift to the border, for a sensible price.  I gratefully accept and sit in his comfortable cob home, so different from the gers, and filled with Islamic art and culture.  This far west may still be politically Mongolia but is very Kazakh in its mood.  Tsaaganuur is the first town I see to have a blue domed, whitewashed mosque in its centre.  After drinking a lot of milk tea his friend arrives with the car, we load up and head for the border.  In conversation with the young herder I find out that he has just finished his university studies and speaks 5 languages including Arabic.  Im always amazed by others skills and shamed by my lack of linguistic prowess but this is the danger of coming from an island nation with a superiority complex (!).  Its a high speed, bumpy dash but we make it to the Mongolian passport control and I get through by 4pm … from here on Im going to be learning Russian!!!

Route

  • Train from Zamin Uud to Ulan Batar
  • Central Route then the Northern Route
      • A0301 to Lun, A0601 to Kharkhorin,
      • A0602 to Ikh-Tamir, A0603 to Numrug,
      • unnamed ‘road’ to Songul/Songino,
      • unnamed ‘road’ to Khyargas Nuur, Naranbulag and then Ulaangom,
      • A1702 to Turgen Sum,
      • A16 to Tsaganuur,
      • A0306 to Mongolia/Russia Border.

Info, ‘tips’ and miscellany

  • Dont cross the border out of Mongolia without exchanging your Mongolian TG!  You CANNOT exchange it anywhere outside the county.
  • Always have small notes – If you pay for food or accommodation or transport with a higher denomination note than needed the individual may not have money to change it and you may well lose your change!
  • Set terms for homestay etc before staying – or you may have demands made that are difficult to counter.
  • Take it as you find it!!! Many things have been written about Mongolia, everyones experience is vastly different so the only thing to do is be confident in your abilities, go with the flow and be flexible, adaptable and self assured.

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