55 km time 4:30
11 393 km to date
beyond Dalanzadagad, Mongolia
Darkness is all around us as only the bouncing headlights illuminate the road ahead. Lights bounce over parallel tire tracks weaving through desert scrub. Occasionally a riverbed appears, causing the driver to suddenly brake, steer quickly through, seeking the least damaging route. He remains calm, navigating after the bobbing headlights, climbing the opposite riverbank, as the lights disappear into the sky while we clamber over the edge.
Diverging tracks break off the main route, stretching towards a distant slope, perhaps in the direction of our destination, but I don't know. My sense of direction was scrambled long ago as my head rattled against the roll bar and my tail bone met the bench with a crunch. The driver stays on course, avoiding the detour. Again the track splits, and this time we veer left. The old man in the passenger seat who has been navigating has fallen asleep, awakening a second before the split. He nods and points left, and falls asleep again.
The dashboard flickers, sparks and suddenly all is dark. The headlights that lit our way have been extinguished. We stop, all of us climbing out into the cold and leaning into the engine. It is completely black around us as desert cold chills us. We are stranded, it seems, so I arrange with Alex to pull out the tent and ready to spend the night. A dead engine with no lights. We haven't seen a single other vehicle on this road since leaving Seinsand. I just pulling out the sleeping bags, thinking about how poorly prepared these Mongolians are for an autumn night in the desert: no food, no water, no shelter. A lone headlight flickers in the distance, approaching. A man on a motorcycle and his wife emerge. Bundled, gloved, and goggled. She seems upset at the delay, while the driver inspects under the hood with the others.
The single beam of the motorcycle becomes our eyes, at a crawling pace now from before. A dim light barely illuminating the path until suddenly, out of the darkness, a village appears. It is not on our map, but the driver knows a mechanic in town. The mechanic, drowsy from sleep, examines the jeep and determines the cause of our shortage to a be a defective switch. He bypasses the switch and we have light, albeit permanently on.
The rest of the journey to Dalanzadagad goes off without a hitch. Fading in and out of sleep and trying to find a comfortable position to sit in the cramped jeep. Sunrise comes from behind just as the outskirts of a Soviet built city take shape in front of us. The driver is anxious to leave, an impression that he should not be in this part of the country. He hastily unloads our gear, parked beside a row of garages and out of sight. We pay him and he speeds off, stopping only to fill his tank.
It is September 30, nine days since we last rode, and 4000km in detour mileage. We are disoriented, but our maps tell us that 300 km south is where we were arrested nine days earlier.
We load the bikes and set out to look for food. We are fairly well stocked, having expected very little in useful or recognizable food in Mongolia. We stocked up in Beijing with rice, pasta, powdered milk and sugar. Seinsand also yielded a box of Korean made, "Choco Pie"- sort of a wagon wheel cookie, of which I ate several during our Gobi crossing last night. We find what seems to be a restaurant. The cook brings out the familiar deep fried meat dumpling, and it appears that there is nothing else on the menu.
It's a straight shot north, to Ulaanbaatar. We follow the only road aiming in that direction, bidding farewell to what little pavement we enjoyed in this desert town. I'm groggy from such a long idle time, but it feels good to be moving again, at our pace not at the mercy of Beijing train station attendants. Climbing gradually out of town, until the buildings disappear, our road aims to weave into some low mountains. Comparing our position to our maps, I am convinced we are headed in the wrong direction. Instead of heading north to UB, we seem to be on a north-westerly course. Seeing power lines to the east of us, we navigate off the road, which at this point has depleted to little more than tire tracks, and head towards line. The fact that we’re off-roading isn’t much more of an impediment to the “road” we were on. We pass through a herd of two-humped Dromedary camels, something I’ve been waiting to see since we saw the single humped Bactrian species in Turkmenistan.
As twilight settles, the path along the power lines appears to have a road, or at least another path, following along with it. It feels right. Yes, as alone and lost we are, surrounded by emptiness, this feels like the road to the finish line. Arbitrarily, we decide on a camping spot off the side of the road, and set up on the crispy brown grass. We only have a few days like this left. As excited as I am to see the finish, I definitely sense that empty feeling of reaching the end and not knowing what’s next. The thought of a double cheeseburger and onion rings at the local grill quickly douses the maudlin. It’s easy to think of better food as I stir tomorrow’s breakfast: rice pudding again.
106 km time 7:15
11 499 km to date
BRRRRRRRR! Last night was one of those nights in the tent where you only have your nose showing for air. All skin must be protected from the cold. What a change from just a few months ago! We had the presence of mind the night before to keep water in our pots so that we could easily boil it for breakfast in the morning. It’s a good thing, because it’s frozen solid. It would have been a miserable chore making breakfast without water.
Well there’s not much to report as far as changing scenery goes. Still, though, the vastness keeps us in awe. It’s humbling to keep on going for so long and to seemingly make so little progress against our surroundings. After packing camp, we stick to the power lines in a northerly direction, and that seems to do us just fine. Jeep tracks meander to the left and right, but for the most part seem to keep us on the same trajectory. It’s not easy biking. The road has no gravel or foundation; it’s just a path. The corduroy is pretty bad as a result. My bike, with mountain bike style handle bars, is easier to navigate than Alex’s. He slips behind me throughout the day. I suppose that, at the end of it, after nearly 12,000 kilometers of Alex having the upper hand by dropping me on the up hills, I’m about due to be the faster guy.
Our only human contact today is with a passing Mongolian army truck. Packed with freezing cold soldiers, they stop to check us out. The all wear the same funny looking hats—looks like they have beige canvas underwear wrapped around their heads. I wonder what they’re thinking. “Oh look, more velo-tourists. Ho-hum. What’s with the Gore-tex? You homos.” The commander freaks out when I pull out my camera, but relaxes when I use the old, “I’m a journalist”, dodge. They pose and smile.
When you ride in conditions like this, with so little sensory change to stimulate, you fall into a kind of trance. Eyes fixed about one bike length ahead, plotting a path of least resistance around the rounded stones that send your bike sideways, auguring in to the soft sand, there’s little time to gaze at the surroundings. Every so often, though, you find a nice, hard, smooth stretch of road, and are able to look up. I use these moments to check on the power lines. I figure that as long as we’re following them, we’ll get to UB. Power must be coming from UB, or going to it. They are our path home.
There’s another evil in this land, as far as bike touring goes. Our path is in a northerly direction. Wind, strong, relentless and unhindered, blasts us from the north. This is not helping our progress. Steady in the morning, and strengthening as the day passes, it’s enough to freeze my toes and keep my gloves on all day today. In the afternoon, riding speed has been reduced to a pathetic bob. Panniers bounce on the rack behind us as we bounce over the corduroy. The only escape from the roar in my ears is to turn the music up high. Alex is a speck behind me. I look around. A sick, lost feeling overcomes me. The power lines have disappeared. Where did they go? Where are we going?
Tsgt-Ovoo is our target town for the day. We don’t expect much, based on our experience in Dalanzadagad, but we’re hoping for at least a place to buy a snickers bar. No such luck. In fact, we’re fortunate to find water. It’s much smaller, but similar to DZ in appearance—a grouping of squalid shacks and pre-fab Soviet buildings, but the weird thing about Tsgt-Ovoo is that it appears to be populated entirely with children. The swarm us with excited squeals, arms raised in cheer. Finding food isn’t going to happen. Even if there was a store, we’re probably too late—dusk is falling. Feeling a bit uneasy about this place, we cut out of town right after filling up. A few clicks out of town, we set up camp.
Sunset and the starry sky are indescribable. I will miss this.
102 km time 6:30
11 601 km to date
not Huld, Mongolia
Man, making miles on these roads is tough! More tough, bumpy, soft gravelly roads and howling winds today, but we do have a few scenery changes. We always had a feeling that, as vast as Mongolia would be, finding food wouldn’t be a dire trip stopper. Where there are people, we thought, there would be water and food. And from what we could read, this country is spotted with nomadic families living in there ger dwellings. Indeed, we come upon one such structure today. An old woman, closely resembling Yoda, invites us in and serves us kumus, rock hard cheese and fatty meat hunks. She doesn’t say a word to us, only grins, as we pretend to enjoy it. We think we are alone with her and are surprised when her ailing husband rises from a bed and nods acknowledgement of our presence. Neither seems surprised at our arrival, though. It’s as though they see guys like us coming by for hard cheese, fatty meat chunks, and kumus every day.
The inside is sparse, decorated with some Buddhist scripts and a few candy wrappers. The lattice frame of the ger is visible from the inside. It makes me realize just how efficient these tents are to dismantle, move, and erect. They literally fold up and can be carried on the back of a camel. Easy to heat, with just one dung burning stove in the middle.
She fills our water bottles from milk jugs outside, wordlessly smiling as we pull away. And we wave goodbye, waiting until we’re out of sight to pull the uneaten fatty meat hunks out from under our cycling pants for discard.
104 km time 9:30
11 705 km to date
Long, long day. Last night, just as the sun is setting, the wind calms and the tent stops its billowing. We thank the wind gods, and hope that tomorrow will bring us a calm day. Not one minute later a gale force wind stirs up from the north and sends our tent, with us in it, up on one side. It lifts me up and I’m on top of Alex, both of us staring with fear in our eyes. “Holy shit! What’s next?” The wind dies a little, but I have wind dreams all night.
Today may well be remembered as the toughest biking day of the entire trip. Morning headwinds humble our progress, keeping our pace to a mere 10 kph. We’re low on food so we have to make it to Mandalgovi, but between the wind, the soft, sandy roads and the washboard, it’s pretty disheartening. Alex has disappeared behind me. There’s a shack on the side of the road that gives me shelter from the roaring in my ears. Alex appears a few minutes later, equally defeated.
Despite this rough going, both of us feel equal amounts of wonder at the emptiness of the land around us. The soft, rolling hills give way to visa after vista of more soft rolling hills covered with crispy brown grass. Between this incredible hugeness, the howling winds, and the blindingly starry night skies, our insignificance here is boldly underscored.
After filling up on lunch, it’s with a bit a fear that we set out on our bikes again. Mercifully, the wind has died a bit. My poor, tired bike is showing some signs of 12,000 kilometers on the road. The chain is sucking in the middle ring, reducing my gear range to about half. Hang in there.
The sun sets at 6:30, but Mandalgovi is still 20 kilometers away. It’s in sight on the horizon, but it looms forever in the distance, not getting any closer. On fumes, we make it to town, red LCD lights flickering behind our bikes. Not much traffic around, but chances are anyone out driving is plastered, so the lights give us at least a fighting chance. The glow from our flickering lights gives us an eerie first impression of this dusty place. Not a single street light works. It’s zero degrees Celsius. A public speaker blares the song, “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” in English, and I think it’s the Richie Havens version from Woodstock. We follow the music, having no idea, and little confidence, that we’ll be able to find food or a place to stay. Weird things have happened on this trip. Random, serendipitous events that could not have been planned, have, on several occasions, reared from the ether to plot our course for us. Cruising through town, lost, hungry and cold, as we walk past a Buddhist monk on the street, I utter, “Man, where the heck are we going to stay tonight?” Amazingly, the monk stops, smiles, unsurprised at our presence, and says in perfect English, “I know where you can stay. Come with me.”
Our unlikely benefactor rambles in quiet English as he leads down one street after another. We’re both listless from our long day, but perk up at the sight of the big, empty Soviet style hotel in the centre of town. It’s somehow comforting to be back in the land of crabby, Russian-influenced hotel managers. Bypassing the usual hassle, he checks us in and we’re even welcome to take our bikes to the room. With an assuring nod, our monk friend leaves us and says he’ll stop by in the morning.
The room is typically Soviet. Wind howls through what used to be a glass window. I stuff a pillow in the frame to keep the freezing air out. With no market or restaurant open, we cook the rest of our pasta over our stoves on the bathroom floor. I’m sure no one will notice the burn mark left by our stove. Maintenance has bigger fish to fry around here. A night in a bed, with real pillows, is a treat.
ride 19 km
11 724 km to date
jeep into desert for 150 km
Our train tickets out of UB are for October 7. Knowing what we know about Soviet bureaucracy, we’re assuming that they’re not flexible. The prospect of losing our place on the train prompts us to jump ahead by taking a jeep ride for 150 km into the desert today. This buys us at least a day of travel, and it means we’ll ride into UB tomorrow.
After negotiating for what seems like hours in the Mandalgovi market, a group of four young guys agree to drive us into the desert for $100. There’s no sign of the monk, and time is quickly passing. We have to bust out of town.
It’s a numbing, trance-inducing kind of day. An image sticks in my mind of Alex and I crammed in the front seat, desensitized to the actions of the three guys in the back with all our gear, but aware that they’re passing the vodka bottle around, and singing Mongolian ballads. They like when I do the “ruby ring” finger dip into the vodka and flick it in the air. I picked this up from our first Mongolian driver, Eggie, back in Seinsand. When they ask Alex and I to sing an “American ballad”, we’re at a loss. Oddly, ABBA lyrics are all that come to mind, but Alex refuses to join me in a round of, “Take a Chance on Me.” We settle on the Brady Bunch theme and our companions politely applaud.
They drop us off as the sun is falling somewhere in the middle of nowhere. Ahead, just about 130 kilometers to the north, is the end of our journey. We casually roll for an hour, soaking in the rich, orange autumn light and contemplating our last night of an incredible epic.
111 km time 5:30
11 835 km to date
WAHOOOOO! It’s cold. Really, really cold, but we don’t care! My thermometer reads -10 Celcius. Water and rice pudding is frozen solid in our pots. Excitedly, we warm our breakfast, eager to pack up and enjoy this last leg.
Out of our tents, there’s actually a layer of frost covering the land. Breathing deeply freezes my throat. It feels like winter now here in the Gobi desert, a fitting denouement to our summer expedition. Our first few minutes on the bikes today is a shivering ordeal—even the frozen tires seem to be having a hard time. My tired old bike is down to four working gears, but that’s enough to get us home.
Signs of urban life start to appear some fifty kilometers from Ulaan. A single rider on a motorbike catches us from behind, stops, offers us some vodka. When we decline he just nods, fires up the bike and rides on. Two more pairs of riders follow shortly thereafter, these ones riding double and with no time for vodka. They seem in a hurry, like commuters on their way to UB for the workday. Not having seen a dwelling in two days, I can only imagine where their suburban homes could be.
And there it is. An hour after passing the “Ulaanbaatar 40” sign, and shortly after passing what appears to have been a snack bar or a restaurant, just over the crest of a long climb: the Jewel of the Gobi, Ulaanbaatar. Silenced by the awesome sight before us, and without drinks to toast our victory, Alex and I break bread and raise it in homage. All of a sudden, I don’t want it to end. We stall, take a break, fiddle with the bikes. Thinking of ways to delay the end, we decide to toast (or at least, “bread”) every unique character we have met along the way. The list begins….
Kenan—Sinop, Turkey (with the American southern accent)
Anatoly and The Ukranian velotourists—Yalta, Ukraine
Slava (Oleg’s dream replacement)—Yalta, Ukraine
Jane and Denise—Takta, Russia (our admiring fans)
The Georgian hotel guests—Astrakhan , Russia
Sunday Emenke—Astrakhan, Russia (the guy that got us our Aeroflot tickets)
Yuri Fyodorov—Samarkand, Uzbekistan
Natasha—Issek-Kul, Kyrgyzstan (a special mention from me)
Haider Beg—Hunza, Pakistan
Fida and his family—Islamabad, Pakistan
The German sisters in Nepal
…heck, there’ll be time for this on the train. Let’s bag this town. Knowing we’ve probably left many, many incredible people off the list, we pack up one last time, saddle up and coast into the outskirts. The pavement feels good, and the timing of Alex’s last flat tire is perfect. He decides to ride the rim into our hotel.
We’re done. We’re here. Our hotel reservation is only one day late. Incredibly, they let us stay. For a Soviet hotel, it’s posh, if you don’t mind the peeling wallpaper. A thirty minute hot shower is heaven. What’s more, our stay includes our dinner in the hotel restaurant, which, as a bonus, is playing music videos. I’m mesmerized.
I sell my bike for sixty dollars on the street and call home with the money. When my mom answers I can tell by the sobbing that she has immediately bursts into tears. They’re tears of joy, and she shares my sense of victory, but someday, she says, I’ll understand what it’s like to be a parent and worry.